The reserve army of rural labor

Friedrich Engels introduced the idea of the “reserve army” of labor in his The Condition of the Working Class in England, an impassioned combination of journalism and political polemic produced in 1845. As he watched the ebb and flow of business cycles in early days of British industrialization, he realized that the number of workers employed by profit-seeking capitalists would also have peaks and valleys:

From this it is clear that English manufacture must have, at all times save the brief periods of highest prosperity, an unemployed reserve army of workers, in order to be able to produce the masses of goods required by the market in the liveliest months.

Workers are on “reserve” because they are not required all the time, only some of the time. Ultimately, the reserve army of the unemployed functioned to keep labor costs down and thereby maintain capitalists’ profits. Engels and Marx elaborated on the idea in The Communist Manifesto of 1848, in which their description of workers as an “army” emphasizes how unfree they are:

Masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organised like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself.

I thought of this idea of the reserve army of labor after reading Dexter Roberts’ new book, The Myth of Chinese Capitalism. Somewhat in the spirit of Engels’ book, it’s a journalistic expose of the conditions under which China’s working class labors, and a polemic about what keeps them in those conditions. (Full disclosure: along with a number of other China-watcher types, I am thanked in the acknowledgments for the book.)

The focus is on rural migrant workers, in particular a family from Guizhou whose experiences Roberts tracks across multiple provinces and several years. The point is not so much that migrants labor in sweatshops, although their employers do not come off too well, but that they are systematically denied opportunities to better themselves. He argues that China’s rural migrants constitute a deliberately maintained underclass whose “marginal status was necessary to buttress fast economic growth and lift living standards for those new middle-class urbanites.”

Roberts puts most of the blame for this not on capitalists but on institutions and systems maintained by the government, in particular the much-maligned household registration, or hukou. His reporting vividly brings to life the daily indignities created by the hukou system, and how it warps and limits the life choices of migrants. Other issues include the government’s repression of independent labor unions and its continued controls over the use of rural farmland. In combination, these systems limit migrant workers’ bargaining power with employers and keep them part of an unfree reserve army of labor.

While very much a work of contemporary reporting, his book also makes a few ventures into history. These are necessary because the hukou and related policies did not originate with China’s turn to market economics in the late 1970s, but date instead to the high socialism of the 1950s. The push for Soviet-style industrialization, he argues, also required the deliberate maintenance of a rural underclass in order “to ensure cheap raw materials for industry and food for elite urbanites.” Those same socialist practices were simply repurposed in later decades to serve a different kind of industrialization drive, one led by private investors and export manufacturing. Looking at the full history of the Chinese government’s treatment of its rural citizens, he concludes:

In an irony little discussed then or even now, the biggest beneficiaries of Mao’s peasant revolution would be the cities and the people who live there—not the countryside. The rural masses post-1949 would become second-class citizens, their primary purpose in the new system to support the cities.

The coercion of rural labor is indeed a theme that runs through much of the history of Maoist China. The reserve army of rural labor was in many cases literally an army: in the 1960s and 1970s, rural residents were organized into militias that could, if needed, rise up and confront any foreign invaders. These could number in the hundreds of thousands of people in a single province. But militia members were not just drilling on the weekends to prepare for possible invasion: they were also deployed as forced labor to “wage shock attacks and rush construction of key projects,” as Covell Meyskens describes in his indispensable book Mao’s Third Front (previously discussed here).

The Third Front drive to build industry and infrastructure across inland China in fact relied mostly on rural workers, who did not have to be paid as much as higher-status urban workers. Meyskens estimates that while 3.9 million urban workers participated in the construction of Third Front projects between 1964 and 1980, another 11.1 million workers came from rural areas. It is rather striking that Mao’s drive to industrialize on the cheap also required a reserve army of rural labor to keep costs down and accommodate surges in activity, just like 19th-century British manufacturers.

Given all this history, I started to wonder why Roberts chose as his title The Myth Of Chinese Capitalism, since capitalism is generally acknowledged to be pretty good at the exploitation of labor. The myth that is more effectively exploded by his book is the myth of Chinese socialism, which no longer appears as much of an equalizing force.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for the reference. I taught economics to Chinese undergrads in Hangzhou for seven years, and when we were discussing artificial restrictions on supply and demand, I used the hukou as a prime example. Want to keep urban wages higher, and farm prices lower? Hukou does a marvelous job. The “reserve army” is very useful, as long as they don’t overwhelm the growth plans.


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