Notes on Marx’s “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation”

If someone were to ask me what my favourite bit of Marx’s Capital is, I’d tell them Chapter 25, on “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation.” Not that anybody has ever asked me; but I suspect I wouldn’t be alone in selecting this pinnacle performance, the beginning of the climatic unfurling of Volume One. For here those “laws of motion” that Marx had been trying to lay bare throughout Capital, really do motor before the reader’s very eyes, in all their disturbing fluidity. Hitherto, Marx had been attempting to piece together the intricate “inner mechanisms” of capitalist society. By Chapter 25, he’s ready to analyse these inner mechanisms as a giant well-oiled whirring machine.

And he’s mesmerised by the prodigious power of this machine, by capital accumulating, bursting through every historical and geographical restriction, conquering the entire world of social wealth. Yet, at the same time, he’s appalled by the ruthless force it unleashes, by the horrors the machine inflicts upon its cogs. Meanwhile, its normal functioning soon takes on a spiralling dynamic all its own, operating beyond the control of any single capitalist master. After a while, the enviable freedom of the capitalist gets transformed into a die-hard necessity, into an infamous historical mission: “Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake.”

The drive to accumulate capital dramatically pits capitalist against capitalist, capitalist against worker, worker against worker. Accumulation fuels competition, and competition, Marx says, “subordinates every individual capitalist to the immanent laws of capitalist production, as external, coercive laws.” Thus, as capitalists strive to accumulate, as their actions become mere functions of capital, they inevitably clash with other capitalists seeking to do likewise. What erupts is a fratricidal war; different fractions of capital jostle one other, struggle to corner markets, to control and monopolise markets, to control and monopolise labour; a zero-sum accumulation mania transpires and conspires. Accumulation is the centrifugal impetus of “capital in general.” But competition hastens a splintering of capital, just as it hastens a splintering of labour, compounding each side into many “aliquot parts.” Thus, as capital accumulates, the formation and intensification of class structure manifests itself as a paradoxical obliteration of class structure.

Before long, the hullabaloo of accumulation is “supplemented” by concentration and centralisation, by big capitalist fishes gobbling up little fishes and sharks chomping on big fishes. Marx says this enhances the scale of operations, accelerates the overall effects of accumulation, but in uneven ways, for capitalists and workers alike. Trouble and strife brood. For, on the one hand, competition and the obligatory development of a credit system become powerful levers of centralisation—of the formation of joint stock companies, trusts and conglomerates, mergers and acquisitions—and of expanded accumulation; on the other hand, though, the “organic composition of capital”—the ratio of dead to living labour, of machines to workers, of constant to variable capital—gradually starts to creep upwards, diminishing the relative demand for labour.

Before long, too, the system breeds a new species: Marx labels them “a new financial aristocracy, a new variety of parasites in the shape of promoters, speculators and nominal directors, a whole system of swindling and cheating by means of corporation promotion, stock issuance, and stock speculation.” Could Marx be talking about us? By God yes. Nowadays, we know these people by name, by sleazy reputation; we know, too, that within the overall accumulation process this new financial aristocracy has a stake very different to that of productive capital’s.

The former plays a extremely limited, if any, enabling role for valorisation: stock exchanges are now billion dollar markets for speculating on already existing stocks and shares. Little activity here actually raises money for new productive investment. Businesses generate money by selling stock and shares, relinquishing part of the company to shareholders; but little of the accruing booty gets recycled into future investment. Invariably, it’s doled out as dividends, and/or creamed off through inflated CEO salaries.

One of the reasons I like to affirm Chapter 25 isn’t only because it explains the working conditions of the world’s peoples today; it also explains the conditions of our whole existence. Marx’s general law of capitalist accumulation is nothing less than the lever upon which all our lives now pivot. Its frame of reference needs to be opened out, out onto the broader canvas of life, especially planetary urban life. The mighty machine has made us cogs everywhere. It’s here where I’d like to develop Marx’s law, “a law of tendency,” as he calls it, which expels people from dwelling space as well as from the workplace. As such, this law isn’t just a condition of earning a living; it’s a condition of earning a life.

Marx knew in the 1860s that “the absolute” general law of capitalist accumulation could be “modified in its workings by many circumstances.” But in every case, he says, it “followed that in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be their payment high or low, must grow worse.” In our present-day “neoliberal” context, the economy flourishes through sub-employed and over-employed workers, through contingent and gig economy workers, through zero contract hours workers: from Uber to Deliveroo, Handy to Hermes, Amazon to Adjunct Professors, work is evermore casualised and irregular; and worker benefits seem to diminish by day. Toilers here assume that category Marx reckons the general law of capitalist accumulation progressively produces: “a relative surplus population”—or, alternatively, “an industrial reserve army of labour.”

“Every worker,” Marx believes, “belongs to this relative surplus population during the time when they are only partially or wholly employed.” Marx, it’s worth pointing out, sees all work under capitalism as precarious; always has been, always will be. It’s a precariousness dependent on a consistently fickle capitalist business cycle, on short-term soars and long haul dips. Wage levels, he says, get regulated by the relative surplus population, by its expansion and contraction. Wages “aren’t determined by the variations of the absolute numbers of the working population,” Marx insists, “but by the varying proportions in which the working class is divided into an active army and reserve army, by the increase or diminution in the relative amount of surplus population, by the extent to which it is alternately absorbed and set free.”

Sometimes wages might even rise should demand for labour rise. At these moments, wages can conceivably keep increasing so long as they don’t impinge upon the overall expansion of capital. Something resembling this actually occurred during the boom of the 1950s and 1960s, when real workers’ wages did in fact rise. Still, the more typical rule, Marx thinks, is that “the mechanism of capitalist production takes care that the absolute increase of capital isn’t accompanied by a corresponding rise in the general demand for labour.” “Capital,” he says, does something more innovative instead, something more dialectical: it “acts on both sides at once”:

If its accumulation on the one hand increases the demand for labour, it increases on the other the supply of workers by ‘setting them free’, while at the same time the pressure of the unemployed compels those who are employed to furnish more labour, and therefore makes the supply of labour to a certain extent independent of the supply of workers. The movement of the law of supply and demand for labour on this basis completes the despotism of capital.

And under this despotism, real wages have effectively stagnated, almost nowhere keeping pace with cost of living hikes. One of the U.S.’s top capitalist mouthpieces, The Harvard Business Review (October 24th 2017), admits that hourly inflation-adjusted wages for the typical American worker have, since the early 1970s, hardly risen, edging upwards a mere 0.2% per year. Throughout this period, remember, the overall economy has been growing. Thus American workers haven’t participated in any of the growth, nor benefited from gains in their own productivity. The reason why is classic Marx Volume One: new technology has put downward pressure on less-skilled workers’ wages; and workers displaced from work send disciplinary messages to those still active in work: work harder or else!

Whether in times of prosperity or decline, the industrial reserve army produces much the same effect: “it weighs down the active army of workers; during periods of over-production and feverish activity, it puts a curb on their pretensions.” The relative surplus population is “the background against which the law of the demand and supply of labour does its work. It confines the field of action of this law to the limits absolutely convenient to capital’s drive to exploit and dominate workers.”

If we dig a little deeper into Chapter 25, we can see how Marx identifies three types of relative surplus population: stagnant, floating, and latent. Alas, we haven’t got to dig too deeply, nor have too much imagination, to see how Marx’s types remain our types. The stagnant form, for a start, is “part of the active labour army,” he says, “but with extremely irregular employment. Hence it offers capital an inexhaustible reservoir of disposable labour-power.” It’s characterised “by a maximum of working time and a minimum of wages.” The downsized blue-collar worker might be filed under this category, since stagnant surplus populations, Marx says, are “recruited from workers in large-scale industry who have become redundant, and especially from decaying branches of industry where handicraft is giving way to manufacture, and manufacture to machinery.”

This stagnant workforce consists of time-served men repulsed from blue-collar employment and drawn into irregular jobs like security and custodial work, janitors, cabbies and deliverymen. Older generation blue-collar workers, who once worked the mines, the auto plants and steel mills, now find themselves literally stagnant. They’re no longer able (or willing) to do low-grade work, yet are too young to retire. So instead they slouch into the ranks of a non-participating labour-force. Men who once set rivets together now sit alone, able to recite daytime TV schedules by heart. Utter stagnation lingers everywhere in rust-belt Europe and America, where empty union halls look out over the rubble of what used to be the company plant.

The dialectic of the floating relative surplus population is similarly one of repulsion and attraction, but its charge is much more volatile. Participants here encounter working conditions wholly unstable and uncertain. The only thing that’s regular is the irregularity of their work. These men and women represent a huge pool of under-employed and sub-employed workers—part-time, on-call, self-employed or zero hours contractors—whose resumé is marked by a floating in and out of jobs. Despite the job-hopping, few new skills are ever learned. Steadily, its fluctuating force assumes a predictably deadening life-form.

Many workers are absorbed into the “personnel services industry,” where the hiring and firing is managed by employment agencies like Manpower, Inc., who recruit temporary workers across America and the world. (Manpower has offices in fifty countries, and places 1.6 million “in assignments with more than 250,000 businesses worldwide annually…providing our customers with productive workers and our employees with work.”) The growth of this personnel services industry means evermore despotic control of an anarchic labour-market. Supply and demand for labour tightly track the expansions and contractions of capital; yet always its motioning seeks to trim monies laid out on variable capital.

As at May 2017, the U.S.’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) said nearly 6 million workers are “contingent”—i.e. “persons who do not expect their jobs to last or who report that their jobs are temporary.” Moreover, there are a further 10.6 million people working as “independent contractors,” together with another 2.6 million on-call. And this doesn’t include 1.4 million temporary help workers nor the 933,000 employed by contract firms like Manpower. Which suggests that true numbers for contingent America tot up to somewhere in the region of 20 million people. No coincidence, too, that the nation’s two largest employers are contingent kings Walmart and McDonald’s.[1]

Techie giants like Google, often seen as egalitarian employers with idyllic workplaces, are likewise massively reliant on temporary and contracted labour. In fact, “a shadow workforce of temps” now outnumber Google’s full-time employees. As at March 2019, Google uses 121,000 temp and contracted workers, compared with a full-time workforce of 102,000. Google temps are employed by outside agencies and, in the U.S., make less money than Google full-timers. They have different benefits packages and no paid vacation. Last April, hundreds of Google employees signed a letter protesting the company’s “two-tier system,” as well as the dismissal of 80 percent of a 43-person artificial intelligence team of contingent workers. OnContracting, a temp employment agency for the high-tech industry, says that companies like Google save $100,000 a year on average per American job by using a temporary contractor instead of a full-time employee.[2]

Women swell the ranks of this floating contingent workforce. In the U.S., women are three times as likely to hold regular and irregular part-time work as men. These women make up about a fifth of the overall female workforce, earning, on average, 20 percent less than equivalent women employed full-time and 20 percent less that their male counterpart part-timers. Minority groups fare worse than their Anglo peers, and minority women worst of all. On the whole, African-American women tend to be twice as likely to be lower paid temps and much less likely to be self-employed; Hispanics, meanwhile, have a larger share of low-wage “on-call” work.

Capitalism has a handy knack of constantly inventing and reinventing its reserve army of labour. Often it does so miraculously, tapping into assorted branches of society and sectors of industry where labour has been lying latent. Thus, alongside the stagnant and floating forms, Marx acknowledges another category of flexible labour, the “latent” category, a sort of reserve reserve army of labourers. “As soon as capitalist production takes possession of agriculture,” he says, “and in proportion to the extent to which it does so, the demand for a rural working population falls absolutely.” “Part of the agricultural population,” says Marx, “is therefore constantly on the point of passing over into an urban population or manufacturing proletariat. There is a constant flow from this source of the relative surplus population. But the constant movement towards towns presupposes, in the countryside itself, a constant latent surplus population.”

The movement of peoples from rural to urban areas, from agriculture to an urban-based factory system, continued apace during the twentieth-century. As at 2006, its flow tipped the global demographic balance: the majority of the world’s inhabitants, some 3.3 billion people, live in urban agglomerations, not rural areas. Some of that generation’s latent surplus populations, i.e. people formerly displaced from agriculture and reabsorbed into urban factories, have since fallen into the ranks of floating and stagnant relative surplus populations. Yet by 2030, 60% of the world’s population is projected to be urban; an additional 590,000 square miles of the planet will be urbanised, a land surface more than twice the size of Texas, spelling an additional 1.47 billion urban dwellers; many of whom will bolster the ranks of a latent reserve army. They’ll offer sustained nourishment for expanded capitalist accumulation everywhere.

A big chunk of this latent surplus population lurks in China. Shanghai is the planet’s fastest growing metropolis, expanding a massive 15 percent each year since 1992, boosted by $120 billion of foreign direct investment. Half the world’s cranes are reputed to be working in Shanghai’s Pudong district. Rice paddies have been filled with modern skyscrapers and vast factories. Outlying farmlands now host the world’s fastest train links and the tallest hotel. Four thousand buildings with twenty or more stories have gone up, ensuring Shanghai has twice the number of buildings as New York. With 171 cities of more than one million inhabitants, China over the past decade has commandeered nearly half the world’s cement supplies, and will doubtless monopolise the world’s supply and demand for latent surplus labour populations.

Of course, after 1989, with the tumbling of the Berlin Wall, another reservoir of latent labour flooded the capitalist marketplace. A freshly- proletarianised workforce initiated a primitive accumulation of capital, transforming former Eastern European state employees into freelance wage-labourers, set free to pit their wits on the flexible European labour market. The Eastern bloc’s headlong embrace of Western-style neoliberalism prised open a whole new array of market niches, together with a jamboree latent labour reserve—both at home, in some newly-formed nation-states, and in the European Economic Area (EEA). Almost overnight an ideology of dictatorial personality morphed into an ideological dictatorship of the free market, with its attendant rights of consumerist man.

Out of the ashes of communism rose the Phoenix of cheap labour. Western manufacturers, halving labour costs, beat a hasty path eastwards; while a lot of latent labour, almost as hastily, trekked westwards. Stimulated by the European Union’s freedom of labour movement (2004), they’ve found low-grade jobs in powerhouses like Britain, Germany and France. Pay is better than before, yet a lot less than homegrown workers’. British businesses have prospered enormously from this influx of Eastern European labour, especially Polish. Enterprises have been able to valorise a cheap labour they’d not had since the 1950s, when Afro-Caribbean Windrush immigrants arrived. The British agricultural sector has been a big gainer. Prior to 2004, crops like asparagus, cherries, raspberries and strawberries were suffering long-term decline. Remuneration in these sectors was meagre; the work backbreaking. Few locals were turned on. Yet since 2004, rather than invest in expensive new berry-picking technology, growers have exploited Eastern European labour reserves, latent labour-power, which has rekindled agricultural capital accumulation and boosted productivity.

When Marx formulated his General Law of Capitalist Accumulation, cities were sites for manufacturing valorisation. It was in urban factories where commodities got produced and surplus value created. The factory system—“Modern Industry,” Marx called it—was the mainstay of capital accumulation, and workers were attracted and repelled from this urban employment. Later in Chapter 25, however, Marx notes how the general law operates outside the factory gates as well—vividly exemplified, he says, in “‘improvements’ of towns which accompany the increase in wealth, such as the demolition of badly built districts, the erection of palaces to house banks, warehouses, etc., the widening of streets for business traffic, for luxury carriages, for the introduction of tramways, [which] obviously drive the poor away into even worse and more crowded corners.”

It’s not a bad description of what still happens in big cities today. Marx’s point here is “that the greater the centralisation of the means of production, the greater is the corresponding concentration of workers within a given space; and therefore the more quickly capitalist accumulation takes place, the more miserable the housing situation of the working class.” Landlords squeeze workers, ripping them off at home, as tenants, just as industrialists rip them off at work, as wage-labourers. Rents are high precisely because pay is low. Vulnerable workers equate to vulnerable tenants; both feel the force of “property and its rights,” Marx says.

“Everyone knows,” he adds, “that the dearness of houses stands in inverse ratio to their quality, and that these mines of misery are exploited by house speculators with more profit and less cost than the mines of Potosi were ever exploited. The antagonistic character of capitalist accumulation, and thus of capitalist property-relations in general, is here so evident.” Marx’s adopted hometown of London, one of world’s richest cities, had the most squalid, overcrowded habitations, “absolutely unfit for human beings,” he says. Marx knew this because he and his family lived in many of these hovels. “Rents have become so heavy,” he cites one government health inspector saying, “that few labouring men can afford more than one room.” 1865 or 2019?

And yet, in another sense, a lot has changed since Marx’s day. Back then, his focus was on production in the industrial city; a century and a half on, the city itself has become the form of industrialisation. In the 1860s, cities were places where commodities got produced; nowadays, cities are themselves commodities, centres of gravity for the General Law of Capitalist Accumulation and for the expansive power of capital. Now, urban space itself is both the subject and object of valorisation, the means of production as well as the product this means of production creates. In manufacturing, Marx said new technology would prompt a change in the “organic composition of capital.” “The growth in the mass of means of production,” he argued, “as compared with the mass of labour-power that vivifies them, is reflected in its value-composition by the increase of the constant constituent of capital at the expense of its variable constituent.”

So, too, now, is the organic composition of capital in cities rising. Quite literally rising. Constant capital is displacing variable capital: capital circulates into the construction of new fixed capital assets, new items of the built environment, such as office blocks and shopping malls, Hudson Yards and Coal Drops Yard, upscale housing and elite cultural amenities—high-yield activities for the expanded reproduction of capital rather than low-yield necessities for the simple reproduction of labour-power. This is the sense in which workers have now been set free from life, not just from work: they’re displaced from dwelling space as they’re rendered superfluous from the workplace.

The progress of urban accumulation lessens the relative magnitude of the variable part of capital, even if, as in industry, it can’t lessen it entirely. Capital, after all, needs its minion service workforce of busboys and valet parkers, of waiters and barmen, of cleaners and security guards, of nannies and cooks, of superintendents and doormen. But a push-pull effect has taken hold, a dialectic of attraction and dispossession, a sucking into the city of a relative surplus population together with a spitting out, a banishment from the centre. Poor old-time stagnant populations, as well as floating and latent reserve armies, now embrace one another out on the periphery somewhere, where rents are lower and life cheaper.

This system produces planetary geography as a commodity, as a pure financial asset, using and abusing people and places as strategies to accumulate capital. The process embroils everybody, no matter where; even when it doesn’t embroil, even when it abandons people and places, it embroils. Cities, like the factories of Marx’s era, become vortexes for sucking in everything the planet offers: its capital and power, its culture and people—its dispensable labour-power. It’s this sucking in of people and goods, of capital and information that fuels the urban accumulation machine, that makes it so dynamic as well as so destabilising. For it’s a system that secretes a residue, chewing people up when needed, spitting them out when they’re not.

Residues are something more than relative surplus populations and probably include a fair number of lumpenproletariat. They’re minorities who are far and away a global majority. They’re people who feel the periphery inside them, who identify with the periphery, even if sometimes they’re located in the core. Residues are workers without regularity, workers without any real stake in the future of work. Residues are refugees rejected and rebuked, profiled and patrolled no matter where they wander. Residues are displacees whose land has been grabbed, who’ve been displaced from housing, thrown out of housing, whose living space teeters on the geographic and economic edge. Residues are disenfranchised and decommissioned people everywhere who feel isolation strike them deep within. Residues come from the city as well as the countryside and congregate in a space that’s often somewhere in-between, neither traditional city nor traditional countryside. We might call this somewhere in-between the global banlieue. (Remember, the French word banlieue comes from lieu, meaning “place,” and bannir, “to banish”; hence “place of banishment.”)

A lot of these residues know that now work is contingent life itself is contingent. And with little security, there’s little to lose, and, moreover, little to gain from playing by capitalism’s rules. So what’s the point? There is no point. Some residues play by different rules, beat a different drum. Others listen to reactionary demagogues and swing right, embrace populist ravings against the machine. Many others voice muffled hopes from the left. All somehow know the capitalist game is rigged, that those in power are liars and cheats. Still more residues know that a career of hustling and hawking, of wheeling and dealing, of petty criminality, of opioids and outlawing, become coping mechanisms from the outside to a life that offers no discernible future on the inside.

One of the problems Marxists face—and I think Marx knew it might one day become a big problem—is that many residues have lost their class address. How can they regain it, find the right door bell to ring on together? How can workers who have no Party, no regular workplace or arena for collective bargaining—in fact who have no real public arena at all—how can they find one another? Perhaps the more vital question is how can the twenty-first century “dangerous classes” become really dangerous? How can they endanger the capitalist system rather than just endanger themselves?…

[Next time I want to talk about this, about the Marx’s “dangerous classes.”]


[1] Walmart’s low-wage workers are so poor that they receive around $6.2 billion in federal assistance, principally in the shape of food stamps. The billionaire Walton business thus gets a huge public handout for its low-balling employment practices. In a recent study, conducted by the Organization United for Respect (OUR), 55 percent of Walmart part-timers admitted they didn’t have enough money to meet basic needs.

[2] See “Google’s Shadow Workforce: Temps Who Out Number Full-Time Employees,” The New York Times, May 28, 2019

This entry was posted in All. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Notes on Marx’s “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation”

  1. Jonathan Morris says:

    Really enjoyed this article – I wonder what you are working on these days?

    all the best



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s