Surplus Population and Marxist Class Theory

By David Nielson

Published in Razón y Revolución n°19, 2009


One of the key strengths of Marxist class theory is its grounding in the prevailing mode of production’s core exploitation relation. However, the tendency to equate exploitation directly with class that is linked with a residual attachment to particular elements of the class simplification thesis of the Communist Manifesto has undermined the capacity of Marxist class theory to explain the changing empirical forms of the class structure (Neilson, 2007). To explain its contemporary complexity, and in particular to provide a class analysis of the surplus population, existing versions of Marxist class theory need to be modified.

In particular, the exploitation core of a mode of production needs to be distinguished from its class effects. This categorical clarification and re-specification of the relation between exploitation and class enables Marxist class theory to identify patterns of social difference and heterogeneity, while remaining grounded in the class explanatory power of Marxist political economy. In turn, this modification opens up a way to move beyond the present tendency to derive directly from the central form of the labour-capital exploitation relation all positions across the proletariat and the terms of the class struggle.  Furthermore, Marxist class theory can be freed up to analyze more usefully the specific situation of the surplus population with all its implications for recasting socialist goals and strategy for the 21st century.

This paper is divided into the following sections. First, it critiques present versions of Marxist class theory as theoretical points of departure.  Second, it provides an introductory overview of class theory applied to the surplus population.  Third, it outlines a class analysis of the surplus population in the contemporary capitalist world.  In a brief conclusion, Laclau’s concepts of social antagonism and heterogeneity are linked to a rethinking of the socialist project in the light of this account of the surplus population.

Theoretical Points of Departure

The challenge of Marxist class theory is to explain the complexity of the contemporary class structure and in particular the growing surplus population. This project requires casting aside the limiting effects of the theoretical and political baggage associated with the Marxist interpretation of the class simplification prognosis of the Communist Manifesto. Neo-Marxist writers have usefully challenged the orthodox Marxist version of class simplification in their on-going project to account for class complexity, but in more subtle ways they too remain residually constrained by some of the Communist Manifesto’s baggage.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels predict a correspondence between the outcomes of the dynamic of the central production relation of capitalism and the empirical form of the class structure. Marx argues that the dynamic of capitalist accumulation will eventually generate, but not until some undefined prognostic end-point, a correspondence between the essential production relation and the class structure. Problems in Marxist class theory stem partly from Marx’s own political and ideological attachment to the prognosis of the Communist Manifesto, despite its variance with his mature analysis.  Moreover, problems have occurred because Marx did not develop his class theory and thus never theorized the exact nature of the relationship between the essential production relation and an empirical rendering of class groupings.

The orthodox Marxist perspective treats the empirical social formation as a direct expression of the essential capital-labour class relation. The exploitation relation is generally understood in class terms as typically between wage-dependent factory workers, or the fully-fledged proletariat (i.e. working class), and their employer, the capitalist owner of the means of production. The empirical social formation is constructed to reflect this essential exploitation relation in ways that resonate with the class simplification thesis. In particular, all effort is made to think labour as a homogeneous immense majority. First, within the mainstream labour movement, homogeneity has been enforced by suppressing other differences such as gender and ethnicity. Second, while maintaining a sense of the proletariat as the working class, a slippage occurs that makes the proletariat equivalent to wage earners. The ‘embarrassment’ of the ‘middle class’ is explained away by simply equating the proletariat with wage earners. Similarly, the unemployed are typically conflated to be wage workers temporarily out of position. Third, the simplification argument is often been upheld counterfactually, that is, by dismissing the history of the present which is contrasted with the final future determination of the economic ‘in the last instance’.

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