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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A Global History of Unemployment: Surplus Populations in the World Economy, 1949-2010

  • Author(s): Benanav, Aaron Seth
  • Advisor(s): Brenner, Robert
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the rise in what I call, in an approximate sense, "global unemployment," since the 1950s. The category of unemployment is difficult to apply precisely at the global level, since in most countries either there is no unemployment insurance, or that insurance covers only a small portion of the unemployed. As a result, the unemployed must work even though they are unable to find regular work. Some of these unemployed individuals end up underemployed in the formal sector of the economy. Globally, many more find their way into the informal sector. I develop a category of "surplus population," drawn from 19th century political economy, to describe the diverse situations of these unemployed and marginally employed individuals. I also offer a dynamic theory of how people come to find themselves in those situations--due to processes leading, on the one hand, to an oversupply of labor and, on the other hand, to an under-demand for labor. And I estimate the size of the global surplus population, at present.

The dissertation then goes on to provide an historical account of the rise of surplus populations worldwide, mainly in the period since World War II. My argument is that the rise of surplus populations was largely the result of three processes that unfolded globally: (1) a massive, demographically driven increase in the world's working population; (2) a global "Green Revolution," which significantly reduced the price of food but also resulted in a worldwide wave of agricultural exit, making for the further rise in the population needing jobs; and (3) a global wave of deindustrialization, which unfolded not only in the high-income countries, but also across the low-income world. The result was a huge increase in the global supply of labor relative to a weakening demand for labor, and this brought into being a gigantic population of unemployed people--whether in open or hidden forms. I try to buttress this account by reference to the exception that proves the rule: the unique developmental path of East Asia, where a combination of a more slowly growing labor supply and a larger demand for labor reduced the scale of the surplus-population problem, as compared to other developing regions.

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