Sociology Index


In Marxian analysis, reserve army of labour is that segment of the labour force which is held in reserve, to be called into the work force when need arises. If there were no reserve army of labour it might be difficult for new businesses to open or for temporary or emergency projects to be undertaken in the economy.

During the economic boom of the 1960-70's women reserve army of labour entered the work force in large numbers and there is fear that they will be the first fired during recession.

This reserve army of labour of course needs to be doing something during the period it is held in reserve, so it may be on welfare or working in the household. According to Karl Marx, "Relative surplus-population is the pivot upon which the law of demand and supply of labour works."

The term Reserve Army of Labor has been useful for understanding women's relationship to the work force. Women reserve army of labour were pulled into the workforce during World War II and then pushed out when the men returned.

Without reserve army of labour, labour shortage would create upward pressure on wages and increase union power. Reserve army of labour refers basically to the unemployed in capitalism and capitalist society.

Reserve army of labour is synonymous with "industrial reserve army of labour" or "relative surplus population", except that the unemployed can be defined as those actually looking for work and that the relative surplus population also includes people unable to work.

The use of the word "army" in "Reserve army of labour" refers to the workers being conscripted and regimented in the workplace in a hierarchy, under the command or authority of the owners of capital. Women, young people and the elderly may all be thought of as reserve army of labour since they have traditionally stayed out of the labour force. 

The "Reserve Army of Labor" and the "Natural Rate of Unemployment": Can Marx, Kalecki,... Pollin Review of Radical Political Economics.1998; 30: 1-13

Power, Marilyn "From Home Production to Wage Labor: Women as a Reserve Army of Labor", Review of Radical Political Economics 15, 1 (1983)

Irene Bruegal, "Women as a Reserve Army of Labour: A Note on Recent British Experience", Feminist Review, no. 3, 1979, pp. 12-33.

Disabled people, the reserve army of labour and welfare reform
Chris Grover a; Linda Piggott, Lancaster University, UK
Disability & Society, Volume 20, Issue 7 December 2005 , pages 705 - 717
Abstract: Taking a regulation approach theoretical framework it engages with the debate about whether disabled people can be considered to be part of the reserve army of labour. Rejecting previous broad-brush approaches that seem to suggest that all disabled people are part of the reserve army of labour, it argues that the policy changes have been aimed at reconstructing non-employed disabled people as an important part of the reserve army of labour in a period when labour markets are becoming tighter.

Disposable workers: today's reserve army of labor
Monthly Review , April, 2004 by Fred Magdoff, Harry Magdoff
But if a surplus labouring population is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis, this surplus-population becomes, conversely, the lever of capitalistic accumulation, nay, a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production. It forms a disposable industrial reserve army of labour, that belongs to capital quite as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost. Karl Marx, Capital.