Swans Commentary » swans.com July 18, 2005  



Imperial Revolutions
The Iraq War, the Reserve Army of the Unemployed,
and its British Historical Parallel


by Michael Brooks






(Swans - July 18, 2005)   The introduction in 1981 of Microsoft's first commercial operating system, MS-DOS®, is a convenient point in time with which to demark the current period of rapid technological change. The design in 1967 of the first computer network, ARPANET, might also be considered for this designation. (1) Irrespective of its starting point, however, the so-called Digital Revolution has not only ushered in the era of the computer, but also wrought a fundamental restructuring of the basic modes of production. Much like the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the true legacies of the Digital Revolution have been those of falling wages, persistent unemployment, and social turmoil.

As both dominant imperial powers and centers of radical technological change, Great Britain and the United States occupied historically similar positions in their respective hegemonic roles. For this reason, each will be the analytical focus for their particular imperial epochs in this article. It is important to note, however, that by no means did either England or the United States achieve imperialistic exclusivity; each was merely the body from which the tentacles of unfettered capitalism spread outward. The current war on Iraqi citizens is merely the latest chapter in the sordid history of the imperial corporatocracy known as America.


Technological Parallels between Historical Empires

Both the Industrial and Digital Revolutions were technological epochs, periods of time violently disturbed by the arrival of radical technology. Yet the advent of technological innovation was trumpeted and packaged as a boon to workers in both historical periods. Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman, recently expounded on technology's purported benefits:

In terms of things that people do at home, we are at the beginning of a revolution in terms of people being in control, control of when they want to watch a TV show that the digital video recorder is now getting people addicted to this idea that it's up to them to decide when they want to do it. People are getting addicted to the idea that, in terms of their music, they can organize their collection and have different play lists that they can have a portable device that they take with them that lets them play that music. (2)

Of course, people must be employed in order to enjoy the benefits of a mass-market, consumerist Microsoft lifestyle. Mr. Gates did not address the issue of the chronically impoverished, whose income excludes them from his dreamy platitudes.

Parallels exist between the respective developments of the steam engine and MS-DOS; each, for example, was introduced with little contemporary fanfare. The future applications of each mode-transforming mechanism, of course, were not readily apparent to most observers in early years. In addition, neither James Watt nor Bill Gates could claim true "inventor" status, since both merely improved existing structures.

The use of Watt's steam engine in such future applications as Samuel Crompton's 400-spindle spinning mule was a technological breakthrough, as one machine could produce more than the output of hundreds of workers. However, the depressing effect on labor demand created by such innovations brought about unanticipated consequences: chronic unemployment, increased poverty, and a widening of the gap between elites and the working class top this list.

In a similar fashion, the arrival of MS-DOS; helped fuel a tremendous rise in productivity (read: displaced workers) over the past two decades. Computers have created exponential productivity gains in such fields as industrial production, financial analysis, payroll processing, data mining, and design automation, while unemployment forces workers into poverty.

Even so stout a defender of political economy as Adam Smith acknowledged (albeit, in an arcane fashion) the negative effects of technological innovation upon the lot of the working class:

In consequence of better machinery, of greater dexterity, and of a more proper division and distribution of work, all of which are the natural effects of improvement, a much smaller quantity of labor becomes requisite for executing any particular piece of work. (3)


Redundant Labor: Imperial Asset

Both the Industrial and the Digital Revolutions exacerbated one of the most appalling structural realities of capitalism: the essential surplus underclass of the impoverished, or what Marx termed the "industrial reserve army." (4) This excess population is a fundamental component of free enterprise, acting both as a counterweight to the inflationary forces of employed workers and as a ready supply of labor for boom cycles; in Marx's prescient eyes:

The industrial reserve army, during periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down on the active army of workers; during the periods of over-production and feverish activity, it puts a curb on their pretensions. (5)

However, rapid gains in productivity, while adding to the profits of industrialists, also relegate more humans to the category of superfluous worker.

The reserve surplus army is measured by most national governments as an unemployment rate, or the ratio of unemployed to the employed. Conveniently, however, such calculations generally factor out potential workers who no longer seek jobs. In the United States, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) developed the category of "not in the labor force" to describe such people. (6) While some of these potential workers are retired or physically incapacitated, many more have simply given up hope of obtaining gainful employment in the workforce. In 2003, BLS estimated that there were nearly five million such chronically unemployed Americans. (7) In addition, over two million American heads of household are paid by rates at or below the federal minimum wage. (8)

The Digital Revolution, and its ability to globally link corporations, has intensified the process of shifting work to the lowest-cost provider. In the patois of modern business, the euphemism "outsourcing" describes this process. With a few mouse clicks, a profit-minded executive can locate production sites whose potential for surplus labor far exceeds that in the company's current location. Corporations with manufacturing facilities in multiple locations can make instantaneous production decisions, and this remote decision making affects the economic livelihood of many millions of workers. Marx and Engels clearly foresaw the rise of what today is termed globalization:

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. (9)

"Settling everywhere" also includes the process of seeking new labor markets to exploit. In the case of Iraq, it involves the de facto seizure by the United States of underground wealth that will slow the rate of decline in American global dominance.


Working Women in Revolutionary Times

The employment of women workers rose during both the Industrial and Digital Revolutions, signaling not just the rise in feminist ascendancy but the usurpation of female labor by a capitalist system ravenous for low-cost workers. In each revolution, the entry of women into a previously male-dominated workforce ultimately benefited only one class: the capital-possessing industrial oligarchy.

The process of replacing higher-paid, skilled workers by lower-paid, unskilled or semi-skilled workers accelerated during the Industrial Revolution. Marx summarized this phenomenon in the following manner:

That mighty substitute for labor and for workers, the machine, was immediately transformed into a means for increasing the number of wage-laborers by enrolling, under the direct sway of capital, every member of the worker's family, without distinction of age or sex. (10)

In the period from 1971 to 2003, the percentage of women in the US workforce grew by 114.85%, from approximately 30 million to slightly more than 64 million female workers. This was during a time when the total female population of the United States grew by only 54.47%; thus, the employment rate of women grew over twice as fast as the population growth rate for this period. (11)

Conversely, the percentage of men in the workforce from 1971 to 2003 grew by 48.48% in this period, from just under 50 million to slightly more than 73 million male workers. This occurred during a time when the total male population of the United States grew by 61.41%; thus, the rate of growth of the male population significantly exceeded that of the growth in male employment for this period. (12)

Even more revealing are statistics on persons -- as defined by the US Department of Labor -- "not in the work force." In the period 1971-2003, this category grew by only 10.43% for women (from approximately 42 to 46 million), while growing an astounding 104.89% for men (from just under 14 million to over 28 million). (13) The imperial oligarchy, in a deft maneuver worthy of the great Oz, championed the emergence of the liberated working woman while simultaneously veiling the declining financial fortunes of the working class in general. Of course, wages for women remain well below those of men, thus preserving sex-based class divisiveness.


Compensation Transformation

The change in average wages for workers is, arguably, one of the most accurate indicators of relative class prosperity, since the exchange of labor for wages (i.e., subsistence) is the principal reason that workers even accept employment. An examination of workers' wages for both the Industrial Revolution and the Digital Revolution is thus warranted.

Charles Feinstein, in his recent work on real wages and standards of living during and after the Industrial Revolution, argued that the Industrial Revolution did not bring economic gain to the working class:

[W]age earners' real incomes were broadly stagnant for 50 years until the early 1830s, despite the fact that in many parts of the country they were starting from a very low level...more substantial gains were not achieved until the 1860s. (14)

Feinstein determined that, during a 70-year period when Great Britain's gross domestic product grew some 250%, (15) the working class might have received a total income gain of ten to fifteen percent, or a tiny fraction of one percent per annum. (16)

The US Census Bureau dutifully tracks a wide variety of information about the nation; each March, it publishes a table entitled "Share of Aggregate Income Received by Each Fifth and Top 5 Percent of Households." Surely, with so many millions of women entering the US workforce during the Digital Revolution, the financial picture for American households must have shown a marked improvement, since many households now featured multiple wage-earners.

This, however, has not been the case, as the share of aggregate income for the bottom 80% of US households has steadily declined in the past decades. In 1967, this demographic received 56.3% of aggregate income, while garnering only 49.8% of aggregate income in 2001. Each of the four lower "fifths" saw a cumulative decline in household incomes for this period, although the 61st to 80th percentiles only declined from 24.2% to 23.0%. (17)

The share of US aggregate income received by the highest 20% of American households saw a significant rise during the Digital Revolution. This demographic saw a cumulative increase in the percentage share of aggregate income from 43.8% (1967) to 50.1% (2001), amounting to a 14.83% inflation-adjusted improvement. Not surprisingly, this class is that most associated with capital ownership, which most frequently takes the form of retirement accounts today.

Lest, however, the American petit bourgeoisie break collective arms patting each others' backs in exultation, an examination of the ultra-wealthy is in order. In 1967 the top 5% of all households gobbled a 17.5% share of the proverbial pie; the oligarchic feast rose to a staggering 22.4% of aggregate income in 2001. (18) This amounts to a 28% inflation-adjusted improvement for the nation's wealthiest households during the Digital Revolution. Despite the purported "democraticizing" (19) capabilities inherent in a Microsoft world, the Digital Revolution's effects on the working class have been a widening of the income gap between classes.

Finally, the tax cuts enacted by the Bush administration have provided the American aristocracy with an additional petit four. While middle class American families received a few $500 checks under the scheme, the wealthiest 1% of taxpayers will see their collective wallets expand by nearly one trillion dollars before 2010.


Empires and Imperial Forces

The building of an empire requires a number of key ingredients. Would-be imperialists must, of course, possess the will to act as regional, hemispheric, or worldwide hegemons. Capital is also a necessary precursor; sufficient quantities of capital must be available -- through willing financiers, or through early territorial conquests -- to acquire the necessary armaments and resources for empire maintenance. However, perhaps most crucial to the creation of an empire is a work force available to fill imperial roles, as well as to take the jobs of those who serve the empire. A reserve industrial army, then, is a vital component for the preservation and expansion of empires.

It is no surprise, then, that the Industrial Revolution coincided with England's rise as the preeminent world power in the nineteenth century. Superfluous workers could be readily summoned to imperial labor needs; Adam Smith described the synergism between capitalism and imperialism in the following passage:

In time of war, when forty or fifty thousand sailors are forced from the merchant service to that of the king, the demand for sailors necessarily rises with their scarcity... (20)

With six percent unemployment and nearly four million unemployed workers at the end of 2002 (21) -- excluding, of course, those aforementioned individuals who had given up looking for work -- the United States was in a perfect position to shift the imperial vehicle into high gear. The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was merely a military tune-up for the colonial trophy: Iraq and her many trillions of dollars worth of oil and natural gas reserves. (22) The invasion of Iraq would require significant military and logistic labor for conquest to be achieved, and American unemployed workers, as an industrial reserve army, were an essential piece of the invasion equation.

The imperial desires of the Bush Administration's self-monikered "Vulcans" -- Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Rice -- are not a new phenomenon. As lackeys of a corporatist oligarchy, American leaders simply perform as trained political chimps in time-honored fashion. The drive for capital accumulation is not human nature, but it is branded onto the psyche of every actor in the capitalist drama; by definition, capitalist structures must perpetually expand, or face systemic implosion. John Hobson's words succinctly describe, in prophetic form, the choices made by American leaders in the illusory emerging "democracy" of the Digital Revolution:

A people limited in number and energy and in the land they occupy have the choice of improving to the utmost the political and economic management of their own land, confining themselves to such accessions of territory as are justified by the most economical disposition of a growing population; or they may proceed, like the slovenly farmer, to spread their power and energy over the whole earth, tempted by the speculative value or the quick profits of some new market, or else by mere greed of territorial acquisition, and ignoring the political and economic wastes and risks involved by this imperial career. (23)

Thus Bush, with his professed goal of "spreading freedom and democracy" (24) around the globe, is merely the latest in a long line of emperors sitting precariously atop the Leviathan of capitalist accumulation in its incessant -- though doomed -- drive to confiscate, dominate, and privatize the world's limited resources.

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Notes & Bibliography

1.  Leiner 2004.  (back)

2.  Gates 2004.  (back)

3.  Smith 1904 (1776), p. 328.  (back)

4.  Marx 1990 (1867), p. 781.  (back)

5.  Ibid., 792.  (back)

6.  US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2004.  (back)

7.  US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2004.  (back)

8.  US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2004.  (back)

9.  Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick 2004 (1848).  (back)

10.  Marx, p. 517.  (back)

11.  US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2004.  (back)

12.  Ibid.  (back)

13.  Ibid.  (back)

14.  Feinstein 1998, p. 649.  (back)

15.  Clark 2004.  (back)

16.  Feinstein 1998, p. 650.  (back)

17.  US Census Bureau 2004.  (back)

18.  Ibid.  (back)

19.  Gates 2004.  (back)

20.  Smith 1904 (1776), 159.  (back)

21.  US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2004.  (back)

22.  US Department of Energy - Energy Information Administration 2004.  (back)

23.  Hobson 2004 (1904).  (back)

24.  Bush 2003.  (back)


(All URLs valid as of July 7, 2005)

Bush, George W. Speech in Washington, D.C. October 1, 2003.

Clark, Gregory. "The Secret History of the Industrial Revolution." Working paper. Electronic copy at:

Feinstein, Charles H. "Pessimism Perpetuated: Real Wages and the Standard of Living in Britain during and after the Industrial Revolution." The Journal of Economic History, 58:3. (Sep., 1998), 625-658.

Gates, Bill. Remarks by Bill Gates, Chairman and Chief Software Architect, Microsoft Corporation at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign February 24, 2004. Electronic copy at:

Hobsbawn, Eric J. "The British Standard of Living, 1790-1850."

Hobson, John. Imperialism (1902). The Modern History Sourcebook. Electronic copy at:

Leiner, Barry M. et al. "A Brief History of the Internet." The Internet Society. Electronic copy at:

Marx, Karl. Das Kapital, Vol. I. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friderich. The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848). Electronic copy at:

Rosenzweig, Roy. "Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers: Writing the History of the Internet." The American Historical Review, 103:5 (Dec., 1998), 1530-1552.

Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations (1776). Based on the fifth edition as edited and annotated by Edward Cannan, 1904. New York: Bantam Dell, 2003.

Thompson, Edward P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1963.

US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employment status of the civilian noninstitutionalized population, 1940 to date." Electronic copy at:

US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employment status of the civilian noninstitutionalized population 16 years and over by sex, 1971 to date." Electronic copy at:

US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Persons not in the labor force by desire and availability for work, age, and sex." Electronic copy at:

US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Wage and salary workers paid at or below the prevailing federal minimum wage by selected characteristics." Electronic copy at:

US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "How the Government Measures Unemployment." Electronic copy at:

US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Unemployed persons by marital status, race, Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, age, and sex." Electronic copy at:

US Census Bureau. "Share of Aggregate Income Received by Each Fifth and Top 5 Percent of Households (All Races): 1967 to 2001." Electronic copy at:

US Department of Energy - Energy Information Administration. Iraq: Country Analysis Brief (March, 2004). Electronic copy at:

Woods, Alan. "The World after the War in Iraq." Electronic copy at:


Internal Resources

Patterns which Connect on Swans

Iraq on Swans


About the Author

Michael Brooks is a writer and historian currently residing in Toledo, Ohio. He is a graduate student at the University of Toledo, and his work has been published in local, regional, and international periodicals. He is currently at work on several academic projects and two books.



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Published July 18, 2005