Degrowth, depopulation, and the “absolute surplus population”

Carl Weber, Pastoral landscape, Public Domain

Justin Aukema
April 2023


In 1972 a group of OECD scientists and business leaders with the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, a dire warning that stated in no uncertain terms that “exponential” population and industrial growth were depleting the planet’s natural resources (1972: 25). Without rapid and dramatic changes, they argued, the earth would reach a crisis tipping point sometime before 2100. In their minds therefore the only solution was obvious: “deliberate constraints on growth” including “reducing the birth rate” (1972: 158, 167). In short, they said, it was a “world of nongrowth” (1972: 170). 

Fast forward half a century and we find that little has changed. Not only has the business community embraced degrowth but so too have most environmentalists and even much of the Left. The language of “feedback loops,” “carrying capacity,” and “overshoot” first popularized by OECD technocrats has now become the mainstream discourse. The idea that the capitalist economy is characterized by “exponential growth” is accepted as common sense among young ecosocialists. And mainstream environmental campaigners calmly repeat the mantra that there are “too many of us.”

Meanwhile, although many Marxists have now become sympathetic to degrowth environmentalism, the subject of population remains an elephant in the room for them. Lacking a cognizant theory of the precise relationship between population and capitalism, most Marxists have either simply chosen to remain silent or have fallen back on the Malthusian assumption that a rising population means fewer resources and worse standards of living. The result has been that not only has the idea of depopulation among the degrowth Left gone essentially unchallenged, but also the tacit formation of Left-ruling class consensus on the issue.

This is highly unfortunate however since it has led to the complete sidelinning and further misunderstanding of Marx’s own explanation of how demographics function under capitalism. Namely, as I argue in this essay, and contrary to popular assumption, Marx recognized that neither capitalism nor population size constantly and exponentially expanded but rather that they went through cyclical periods of expansion, crisis, and contraction. Marx’s theories on this subject however have often been misinterpreted and only partially understood because they have not properly been grasped in relation to their larger context, in Capital V3 especially, of the rising organic composition of capital and the falling rate of profit.

Therefore in the following I first briefly summarize Marx’s initial writings on the subject, before investigating how early 20th century Marxists were adamantly opposed to capitalist population control measures. On the flip side of this, I show how Malthusian arguments linking resource scarcity to “overpopulation” became the accepted dogma of the ruling class and later international organizations including the UN. Next, drawing mainly from Capital Volume 3, as well as his border corpus, I argue that Marx hints at an even more varied relationship between capital and population than is commonly recognized. Namely, by linking a “relative surplus population” to a growing capital, Marx also hinted at the existence or possibility of what I call an “absolute surplus population” in the case of a contracting capitalism. If this interpretation is correct, then the recent embrace or implicit acceptance of depopulation in many Left and media circles serves a more insidious function than simply, as its adherents claim, trying to save the planet. Namely, that is the ideological task of acclimating the working class to a small-scale capitalism which not only benefits them less but also is predicated on their reduced size. Far from presenting a radical challenge to capitalism or ushering in more social equality, I suggest, contemporary degrowth discourse actually functions to the benefit of a capitalist system in progressive decline. 


Marx vs. Malthus in the 20th century

Let’s begin by reviewing Marx’s basic explanation of the relationship between population and capitalism. Marx refuted Malthus and his followers who claimed that population size was regulated by “natural” factors such as resource availability. Instead, Marx argued that population was a variable factor in the social process of capital accumulation. In particular, it correlated to the organic composition of capital (OCC). Put simply, smaller capitals are more labor intensive meaning they often, but not always, require more workers to extract surplus value. Larger capitals on the other hand increasingly become more capital intensive. As the production process is increasingly mechanized and productivity increases, fewer workers are required. This means that capital is constantly producing a “relative surplus population” of un- or under-employed workers. Note that this does not mean an absolute surplus population; rather it simply means there is a trend under capitalism for the actual number of workers to exceed the demand for labor. Marx termed the redundant portion of the labor force the industrial reserve army (IRA). The IRA is beneficial for capital since it can respond to fluctuations such as when capital expands into new fields and thus demands more labor. It also puts downward pressure on employed workers’ wages thus allowing capitalists to extract more surplus labor (Marx 1982: 781-794).

This is simply a rough overview. More can be said on the relationship between population and capitalism but I will save this for later. For the time being, simply remember that the growing immiseration of the working population is not because of changes in its absolute size nor because of diminishing natural resources. Instead, it is due to the anarchic nature of capitalist production itself which can only process labor productivity gains as an over-supply of workers rather than as an abundance of free time. This is the main reason why most later Marxists rejected the Malthusian notion of “natural” population limits and resource depletion. 

One of the earliest and most articulate refutations of Malthusian social theory in the 20th century came from Lenin. In a 1913 essay titled “The Working Class and Neo-Malthusianism,” Lenin argued against “reactionary” bourgeois social planning strategies. Bourgeois psychology was essentially fatalistic, he explained, seeing world history as a competitive struggle for increasingly scarce resources amidst the background of growing populations. The bourgeois mind thus tricked itself into thinking that fewer people would mean more abundance for all. But this view totally ignored the issue of class struggle and thus was totally alien to the “class-conscious worker.” Accordingly, Lenin explicitly refuted “the false idea that by curtailing the size of his family a worker can better his status even in the condition of capitalism” (ctd. in Brackett 1968). Crucially, he saw the growing size and strength of the working class not as a negative thing, as the bourgeois mind did, but as a positive thing for the class struggle. “The working class is not perishing, it is growing, becoming stronger, gaining courage, consolidating itself, educating itself and becoming steeled in battle,” he forcefully exclaimed.  

Lenin’s emphasis of the differences between bourgeois and Marxian thought on the population was highly prescient. Just a decade later, the League of Nations and prominent eugenicist activist and American birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger met with a group of international elites in Geneva in 1927 for the World Population Conference (WPC). The conference announcement began by stating: 

"The earth, and every geographical division of it, is strictly limited in size and in ability to support human populations. But these populations keep on growing; and in doing so they are creating social, economic and political situations which threaten to alter profoundly our present civilization, and perhaps ultimately to wreck it" (1927: 5).

For the conference organizers therefore social and economic problems such as poverty and resource depletion were caused by population pressures rather than class divisions under capitalism. And accordingly their solutions, too, were entirely lacking in class solutions or remedies. Instead, another prominent eugenics proponent and Planned Parenthood founder Henry Pratt Fairchild advocated the solution of an “optimum population” for various regions of the world (1927: 72).

The first WPC led to the foundation of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP). The IUSSP set up member organizations in twenty-one different countries and actively held successive conferences until the end of WWII (IUSSP 1985: 8). Its German branch was led by Eugen Fischer, a notorious Nazi eugenics supporter whose work influenced Hitler to believe in the “superiority” of the Aryan race. After the war, the IUSSP assisted the United Nations in organizing its first World Population Conference in 1954. 

The 1954 Conference which involved Soviet Russian participation was slightly more optimistic, finding that resources should support growing populations. It highlighted the distinctions between developed and developing countries and noted problems of resource distribution rather than simply diminishing availability (WPC 1954). But the second, 1965 Conference re-adopted the idea that rapid population growth in developing countries was exacerbating poverty there and that “family planning" measures including the “reduction of excessive fertility” were needed (WPC 1965: 3). Though previous conferences had reached similar conclusions, 1965 conference organizers sought to break ties with the past by portraying their arguments as more “scientific” than their predecessors. They thus lauded the fact that “Marx and Malthus were scarcely mentioned” (WPC 1965: 2).

But this was not entirely the case. The 1965 Conference in fact kicked off a debate in the Soviet Union which ultimately divided Marxist thinking on the population issue. The traditional Marxist stance was anti-Malthusian, seeing economic and social problems caused by class divisions under capitalism rather than population pressures. But some Soviet bloc writers such as Boris Urlanis questioned whether this could be fully applied to developing countries which had not yet achieved socialism and where the development of the productive forces lagged far behind population growth. They thus also began to advocate for family planning mechanisms in developing countries. At the same time, this was refuted by other Soviet writers including Peter Podyachikh who argued that family planning absent the abolition of class divisions was at best an ephemera and at worst explicitly damaging for the working class. They therefore asserted that Soviet assistance to poorer countries’ development would intrinsically resolve the issue. Ultimately the latter view won out in terms of official Soviet policy (Brackett 1968). However, the revisionist interpretation of population growth causing planetary and poverty pressures caught hold in some Marxist circles.

The UN World Population Conference later convened three times until 1994, and the issue was revisited at a special session of the General Assembly in 1999. The basic UN policy by this time shifted to focus on improved reproductive rights of women in developing countries on the one hand and reduced consumption measures in wealthy countries on the other. Underlying this focus was a new concern for environmental pressures which emerged from the 1970s and were illustrated in the 1972 Limits to Growth. Although mainstream discourse on the issue of population therefore shifted to recognize unequal development and socio-economic factors, it failed to identify their origins in capitalist class-based competition, and instead maintained the century-long focus on “family planning” (See WPPA 1974).

Does capitalism create an “absolute surplus population”?

Let’s now return to look in more detail at Marx’s theory of population. In Capital Vol. 1, Marx outlined the idea of the “relative surplus population.” This does not mean absolute population growth. Rather, it means that more workers are expelled from the process as production is increasingly mechanized. We also saw that this is related to the rising organic composition of capital (OCC), which is the ratio of capital spent on constant capital (C) versus variable capital (v). But Marx did not explain the full significance of this until Capital Vol. 3 and his theory of the falling rate of profit (FROP). 

Marx noted that, because of the rising OCC, there is a long run tendency for the rate of profit to fall under capitalist production. The size of accumulated capital (C) grows in proportion to the amount of workers (v) and thus accordingly the amount of surplus value that can be extracted. In other words, there is successively less value created as capitals grow bigger. This is expressed as a rate of profit, or (s)/(C), which must consistently fall over time. 

The FROP is the biggest contradiction of the capitalist system. Ideally, rising productivity should lead to more free time for workers. But since capitalism produces only for profit and not for social need, it tries to utilize productivity only for increased surplus value extraction while the remaining, unusable portion manifests itself as a relative surplus population. The result of this is overproduction and crisis. Even though more commodities can now be produced, no one can purchase them because the mass of workers have become too impoverished to actually do so. Even though there is real demand for the products, since no one can purchase them, from the capitalist side it appears as a lack of (effective) demand. 

How can this situation be rectified? In Volume 3, Marx explains that it is through the destruction of capital itself. “The true barrier to capitalist production,” he says, “is capital itself” (358). But the “balance will be restored by capital’s lying idle or even by its destruction, to a greater or lesser extent” (362). The destruction of capital temporarily resolves the crisis of overproduction and capital accumulation since it allows the process of accumulation to continue afresh. “And so we go round the whole circle again,” writes Marx (364). Moreover, capitalists can try to manage the FROP and keep it within “acceptable” limits, i.e. limits which remain profitable to them. This can be done especially by limiting production and consumption. This is not earth-shattering news. Businesses routinely try to predict future demand and to limit production accordingly. Similarly, capitalists could purposely inhibit the development of the productive forces. This is obvious from the formula (s)/(C) introduced above. In other words, the capitalist tries to reduce the expansion of (C) for instance by not expanding production, or by not investing in bigger or better machines, etc. “The law of increased productivity of labour is not unconditionally valid,” Marx explains (371). Capitalists will not introduce new technology if it is not profitable to do so. “Production comes to a standstill not at the point where needs are satisfied, but rather where the production and realization of profit impose this” (367). It is therefore for this reason that Marx says that capitalism eventually acts as a fetter on the true further development of the productive forces and has “outlived its epoch” (371).

But how does this relate to population size? It is important to recall that Marx prefaces the above discussion of the FROP under the subheading of “surplus capital alongside surplus population” (359). This itself should be enough to raise some eyebrows. Although Marx does not state it explicitly there is strong reason to suggest that he acknowledges the possibility of a shrinking capitalism, therefore, requiring fewer people. The main evidence for this is as follows. 

  1. Marx notes that population size is subordinate to and contingent on the demands of capital rather than “natural” factors like resource availability. Moreover he notes in V3 that capitalism can overproduce precisely what people lack and still experience this as a lack of demand owing to the mismatch between profit and needs. In other words, it is not that there is ever too little of goods etc; rather capitalism has the ability to provide for everyone it simply doesn’t. And moreover it would rather destroy this in the name of profit than fulfill people's real needs. 

  1. Capitalism undergoes periodic self-destruction to preserve its own value in a crisis of overproduction and to restore desired rates of profit. This is important since capital consists both of constant and variable parts. Consider Marx’s own example from V3 of the falling rate of profit. 

(I)   4c + 2v + 2s; C = 6, p’ = 33⅓ per cent
(II)   15c + 3v + 3s; C = 18, p’ = 16⅔ per cent

So, here we have a typical situation of the rising OCC. 4 constant capital grows to 15, 2 variable capital rises to 3, and the surplus portion at a rate of 100% rises accordingly to v. In I, 2/6 gives a ROP of 33.3% while in II, even though both c and v have risen, c has done so more, so that the ROP is only 16.75%. But now imagine that this scenario is reversed, so that we move back from II to I precisely in order to restore the earlier rate of profit. C has been devalued or destroyed toward this end, while the corresponding v, must also shrink proportionately.

  1. Finally, there is evidence in V1 and V3 hinting at an absolute surplus population, too, and not just a relative one. Remember that in V1, Marx already explained how population is contingent on capital and its fluctuations. Remember also that the absolute mass of capital has a tendency to grow. This would thus hypothetically hold true for population as well, therefore, as seen in the two formulas, I and II, above, as long as it does so in a smaller proportion to c. However, in V3, Marx postulates the existence of a “absolute overproduction” where “no further additional capital could be employed for the purpose of capitalist production” and thus where the expanded C + C (i.e. additional capital or commodities containing a surplus part) “will not produce any more profit, or even will produce less profit, than the capital C did before its increase by C. At this point, capital’s destruction is imminent, with one portion, the surplus part, lying “completely or partially idle” (360). Moreover, it is like a game of capitalist hot potato, with each trying to dump the worthless stock/currency on less perceptive, smaller competitors who will shoulder the loss. But what happens to the workers or IRA in this scenario? Well, it is the same as explained in (2). The implication is that a portion of them, too, is rendered not only relatively but also absolutely superfluous. 

The negative implications of this for capitalism are easy to imagine from the perspective of real demand. Populations have definite needs in the forms of essential commodities. Even growing capital will always leave a portion of these needs unfulfilled. But shrinking capital must by its nature leave an even bigger portion of such needs unmet. If there is such a thing as “absolute surplus population” above and beyond the “relative” surplus portion, then this must ultimately be reconciled with the declining productive capacity of capitalism. In other words, its existence is unbearable for capital producing at a higher rate of profit since it will demand higher rates of production which can never be met since they are unprofitable.

From the above (1), (2), and (3), therefore, we can hypothesize that it is periodically expedient for capitalism to demand either population growth or contraction. Furthermore, the existence of a relative surplus population does not equate to absolute population growth and, indeed, depending on the OCC and the demands of capital, may even require a smaller population overall.

Degrowth, Malthus’ inheritors

Next, let’s return to the discussion of Marx and Malthus in the 20th century. In the early 1900s, Marxists and bourgeois commentators clashed over the “population” issue. To review, Lenin and others argued that population control was neither a key objective of, nor a means to achieve, socialism. In contrast, many elites and academics maintained the Malthusian view that more people meant fewer resources and more poverty. This latter view was given a boost when early 20th century “radicals” like Margaret Sanger implicitly accepted it as the premise for the modern birth control and family planning of welfare states. Furthermore, this became the accepted dogma of international organizations including the UN as observed in their World Population conferences continuing into the 1990s. And there was even a split in Marxist-Soviet thinking over the issue leading to the view that population control in non-socialist, developing states may be acceptable.

Now we must fully carry this discussion into the latter half of the 20th century and to the present. Put very simply, neo-Malthusian notions of resource scarcity were inherited mostly with little critical analysis by modern environmentalist movements in Western nations. Examples of this are too numerous to fully detail here, but Garrett Hardin’s the “Tragedy of the Commons,” Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), and The Limits to Growth (1972) were all notable early examples. As Lisa Hammelbo Søyland has documented, in much environmentalist literature, “unsustainable population growth is referred to as a driver of social and environmental issues without much further explanation: the scarcity/overpopulation narrative seems to be held as an inevitable, immutable truth (2021: 120). And, Søland explains, “the specter of neo-Malthusianism lingers within parts of degrowth and post-development” movements as well (113). For instance, former World Bank economist and pioneer of sustainable development and the steady-state economy, Herman Daly, advocated in 1991 for states to issue “birth licenses” mandating one-child only and to punish “excessive” childbearing (Søland 121). And arguing from a feminist-degrowth perspective, Joan Martinez-Alier and Eduard Masjuan advocated for population degrowth in 2004 (Markantonatou 2016: 36). In fact, the list could go on. Many big names associated with the current environmental and degrowth movements including David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg have advocated, hinted, or suggested in some way or another that the earth simply can’t “sustain” “too many” people. Even Jason Hickel, author of the popular Less is More, gave a nod to Herman Daly and Limits to Growth co-author Donella Meadows.

And now we get to the heart of the issue. Why have Malthusian notions of “overpopulation” not only remained persistent but even caught hold among many Left and Marxian circles? The reason is none other than the falling rate of profit outlined in the last section. Many scholars have documented that throughout the postwar there was a nearly global tendency for the rate of profit to fall. The crisis of capital became acute in the mid-1960s, leading to a shift in ruling-class policy from a period of “high growth” to one of neoliberal austerity and stagnation. As I have been at pains to emphasize, growth itself is not essential for capital accumulation since the devaluing of capital or wages can raise the rate of profit. Moreover, actually not investing in productivity or fixed capital can rectify the organic composition of capital to “acceptable” levels of profit for the capitalist class. 

At the same time, neoliberal austerity is highly unpopular with average working people. No one likes to see their living standards decline before their very eyes. It is intuitively repulsive even without a detailed understanding of complex facts and figures since it affects people’s daily lives. The ruling class argument that we should learn to be happy with less – owning less, earning less, living less – just doesn’t have a lot of appeal. So the powers that be needed some kind of mechanism to give their new economic paradigm some flair. And that’s where the threat of climate change and degrowth enter the picture. Normally, a dairy farmer wouldn't be inclined to abandon his livelihood any more than the average American midwesterner would choose to stop eating cheese or drinking milk. But if every media personality, politician, celebrity, and academic on earth claims that we need to stop cow farts and eat bugs to prevent planetary annihilation, well, attitudes just might change. And the same goes for a whole host of other things that people used to love and take for granted but which a downsized capitalism now no longer permits: home ownership, marriage, kids, you name it. 

This, therefore, is the function of degrowth ideology. If every epoch receives the ideology best suited to its mode of production, and if this mode is currently capital contraction, then degrowth is none other than capital’s own ideological valorization and self-justification.

What’s more, as we saw in the last section, if in times of growth capital creates a relative surplus population, when capital shrinks it may even make an absolute surplus population. That means that having “too many” of “us,” now becomes an inconvenient liability. After all, with declining manufacturing and value creation drying up, excess demand only puts unwanted pressures on the system. But again, remember, this isn’t because of some “natural” earthly “carrying capacity.” No, it’s because capital is purposely limiting itself. There is enough to sustain us, and more; it’s simply that capitalism won’t permit that to happen since it’s no longer profitable.

Depopulation: “not all bad news”?

To evidence the above even more clearly, we must turn no further than the recent flood of mass-media, pro-depopulation propaganda. What’s more, we should note that this intensified against the background of the devastation wrought by states’ covid policies on working class populations. Writing in the Washington Post, for instance, science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson wrote that depopulation “could actually bring some good” since it would “mean fewer demands on the biosphere” and even create “full employment.” The false equivalency between “full employment” and depopulation is now a commonly used trope in the media even though, as we have seen, from the Marxian perspective of shrinking capital, and my argument of an “absolute surplus population,” it is completely untenable and illogical. The following year in the New York Times, staff writer Spencer Bokat-Lindell echoed refrains of “female empowerment” and fighting climate change to argue that depopulation “may bring welcome changes.” Shortly thereafter, Chinese sociologist Wang Feng sang the virtues of depopulation, with heavy Malthusian overtones, saying that it was part of a “natural, inevitable process” and a “happy story of greater longevity and freedom,” “rapid increases in income, employment, and education.” Furthermore, she stated that depopulation would lead to “greater productivity and prosperity,” women’s empowerment, a “reduced ecological footprint” and less competition “for finite resources.” 

In its depopulation crusade, the media especially highlighted the case of Japan. Japan famously has a falling birthrate and a rapidly aging population. Births there fell to a record low in 2022, dipping below 800,000 for the year while deaths were at a record high. The fertility rate is also a low 1.3. That same year it was announced that the government’s efforts to revitalize local communities had largely failed and that more than half of all municipalities in Japan were classified as depopulated. Nevertheless, this did not stop mainstream commentators from portraying depopulation as a net positive. “Japan is losing people,” noted the Japan Times, referring to a record number of deaths that year. But, the headline continued rhetorically, “is it all bad?” In fact, the paper had already answered its own question in an earlier article partly titled “depopulation isn’t all bad news.” The article highlighted a small town in Saitama where some business entrepreneurs had swooped in to scoop up low-cost abandoned homes and turn them into valuable business assets. The Japan Times cited one resort CEO as saying: “We don’t have to be pessimistic about the population drain, [...] “we just need to re-format ideas and priorities as we downsize to accommodate the new reality.” The statement perfectly encapsulates the true essence of degrowth capitalism which is aimed at making the small profitable…for a select remaining few. 

Similar praise followed with the highly publicized accounts of a middle-school girl in a remote island town in Kawaga Prefecture who graduated as the only student in her entire school. Writing in the Financial Times, Leo Lewis, who apparently conducted zero interviews with the girl in question, Akiko Imanaka, had the audacity to claim that she could benefit from “the extraordinary empowerment of scarcity,” insinuating that with a smaller population the labor market “will have millions of positions to go around.” 

The claims made in many of these articles are too ridiculous to warrant serious criticism. I simply include them to illustrate a recent trend of how small-scale, downsized capitalism is attempting to make depopulation seem beautiful and beneficial. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out, for instance, that a smaller population most certainly does not mean that there will be “millions” of available jobs for the taking. If population size is a function of capital accumulation, as Marx says, then a smaller capitalism simply means there will be less jobs and fewer people, independent of the relative surplus portion.


This article investigated the connections between degrowth ideology and depopulation. In addition, I clarified Marx’s writings on the relationship between capitalism and population in general, before positing that Marx also left open the possibility for an absolute portion of the population being rendered redundant. This would occur largely through mechanization, or, in more complex terms, the rising organic composition of capital and the falling rate of profit. Furthermore, as I showed, Malthusian assumptions of a “natural” relationship between population growth and resource scarcity live on in the environmental and degrowth movements where the notion that growing populations are “unsustainable” or are a leading cause of “man-made” climate change, for instance, is often implicitly assumed. Yet as I also demonstrated, the broader ideological function of this is to acclimate the working class to the new economic paradigm and mode of accumulation: a small-scale capitalism based and more exploitation on the one hand and less of everything that really matters on the other.

Popular Posts