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The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Reserve Army of Labor

by Emiliano Vera

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…” – Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

In 1972, thousands of auto workers at the GM factory in Lordstown, Ohio went on strike against a speed-up caused by the introduction of new automation technology on the production line in what was called the “factory of the future.” Less than a year later, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion on demand in all 50 states. Since then, the automation of industry and services, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution, has created an economy where workers are less and less necessary to the productive process of capitalism. While often discussed as if they represent two completely separate political poles, the subsequent dismantling of the rights of both workers and the unborn — or rather, the working class at every age from conception to old age — has its material roots in this de-humanized economy and the inability of our current political system to provide for humanity’s basic needs.

Economics and Population

The link between economic systems and population patterns — in humanized language, between the way we produce the things we need and the people that produce and are supported by those things — has been recognized by economists since at least the time of Adam Smith. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith notes how countries with rapidly growing, industrializing economies, like that of England in the late 1700s, similarly had rapid rates of population growth. On the contrary, countries like India, which were declining economically (directly because of the deindustrialization imposed by the English during their colonial occupation of the subcontinent), experienced consistent population loss through famine and reduced birth rates. He attributes the high rates of infanticide in China to its stagnant agricultural economy that had fully reached its natural limits and could accommodate no more population growth.

This last case, applied to the people of Ireland, was what classical liberal economist Robert Malthus thought would be the fate of all developed economies, growing to the natural limit defined by the amount of population supported by its arable land, after which population would only be regulated by the increasing misery of the poor killing off the weakest and driving down birthrates — what he called “positive checks” on population growth. His outlook was pessimistic and blamed the poor for their own suffering, arguing against charity and for “moral” behavior.

However, Malthus was apparently unable to recognize the economic revolution that was taking place before his very eyes at the turn of the 19th century in England — the rapid transition from a subsistence agricultural economy to an industrial capitalist economy where the new law was unlimited growth. As Marx would criticize him 60 years later, “every special historic mode of production has its own special laws of population, historically valid within its limits.” Capitalist growth meant for the first time since the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years before, the economic laws that regulated the limits of population were completely changed.

The Capitalist Law of Population

The new laws of the capitalist economy meant that now, population would be regulated by the demands of capital, not feudal agriculture. And capital demanded massive factories filled by tens of thousands of workers, crammed into crowded slums in London and Manchester for maximum efficiency. Contrary to Malthus’ expectations, in the two centuries since he wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population, as the capitalist mode of production spread across the world and replaced or destroyed agricultural and hunter-gatherer economies, the human population has increased from 1 billion to nearly 8 billion while at the same time producing enough food and necessary goods to provide for all of them (the poverty caused by failures of capitalist distribution is another aspect of the story that we will see later).

But the fundamental law of capitalism is the accumulation of capital, a demand which is completely unbound from the material capacities of human individuals, societies, or the environment. The competition between capitalists to dominate each branch of industry pressures them to constantly develop more efficient machines to undersell their competitors, allowing them to produce more goods with less labor. Capitalism’s need for massive factories with tens of thousands of workers under one roof shifts instead to automated factories worked by machines.

What happens to the former factory workers? They are thrown into what Marx terms the “reserve army of labor”:

The labouring population therefore produces, along with the accumulation of capital produced by it, the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous, is turned into a relative surplus population; and it does this to an always increasing extent.

However, for most of capitalist history this “superfluous” population has also been “a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production. It forms a disposable industrial reserve army…a mass of human material always ready for exploitation.” While creating poverty and misery for the workers unfortunate enough to be thrown into unemployment, the excess population has nevertheless remained useful to the capitalist class (i.e., the group of people who own capital). Not only does it function as a bargaining chip for employers to threaten unruly workers with destitution if they demand too much, but it also ensures a ready source of labor when a new industry pops up that might need it.

But what if the reserve army of labor stops being useful to the accumulation of capital? Or if it starts to cost more than it's worth?