Rethinking Class and Social Inequality Essay Example

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Rethinking Class and Social Inequality

Karl Marx introduced the concept of reserve army of labour in his book Das Kapital. He described this concept as a capitalist tool essential to keep in check wage levels. The reserve army of labour or RAL is, thus, that part of the labour force that is not presently employed, but may find employment in the future depending on the needs of the capitalist society. RAL is the “relative surplus population” that is kept to the sideline, but is ready to be drawn at any time when the services of its members are needed, such as during displacement due to mechanisation, economic downturns and relocation of production of active members of the labour force. In this way, the supply of labour always exceeds the demand keeping wages at manageable levels (Basu 2012). It is, therefore, in the interest of capitalist societies to maintain and sustain such reserve armies of labour.

In the Australian context, unemployment, together with underemployment and precarious employment, reached high levels in the 1990s. These were generated primarily by employment strategies of casualisation in which full-time and permanent employees were replaced by part-time and casual ones as part of cost-saving mechanisms (Watson 2002). Research has shown that unemployment in itself significantly impacts the health – especially mental health — of unemployed Australians (Harris et al 1999). Considering that the surplus population constituting Australia’s reserve army of labour is essential to the capitalist nature of its economy, it, thus, becomes a responsibility of the governments and society to ensure that unemployment does not significantly affect the health of the reserve labour force. Towards this end, what can the Australian government and society do?


Basu, D 2012, The Reserve Army of Labour in the Postwar U.S. Economy: Some Stock and Flow Estimates. Working Paper 0-03, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts,

Harris, E, Harris, M, Lee, P and Davies, G 1999, Taking Action to Address the Health Impact of Unemployment: Experiences from South-western Sydney. Health Promotion Journal of Australia 9(2), pp. 115-120.

Watson, I 2002, Wage Inequality and Underemployment, The Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 88-107.