Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Exploitation: What Is It?

Most discussions of exploitation in economic and philosophical circles seem to treat it as a species of theft, or, even more diffusely, some sort of unfair distribution of the products of labor. I think this is--as an interpretation of Marx--simply wrong.

Labor is exploited when it is used for an end which is not its own, just as "natural resources" are exploited when they are turned from their own ends to serve human ends. In the case of labor, its own end is to produce some useful good or service. It is exploited when it is subordinated to capital's end--the production of surplus-value. Producing surplus-value presupposes the production of useful things, but entails more than this. Capital exploits labor not by stealing from it, or by keeping more than its fair share of the product, but by subordinating labor's end to its own.

Thus, I think most discussions of "market socialism"--including this one--ignore the specific role of the value form in Marx's critique of political economy. This is the same thing Marx castigated Proudhon for, and so it's no surprise that Proudhon pops up in this discussion. Without addressing the "mongrel" dualisms of use-value/value and concrete labor/abstract labor, any discussion of cooperative production remains on the terrain of capitalism, where it just looks like an inefficient way to accumulate investment capital.


juan said...

Hi Will

Defining exploitation to be a condition within which labor "is used for an end which is not its own.." empties the term of content which is specific to commodity and capital relations, makes what is historic ahistoric, i.e. an 'exploitation-in-general' that some might use in a 'way its always been' justifying fashion.

Will Roberts said...

I don't see how this is so. In other socio-economic systems, labor may have been dominated in one way or another, but that domination retained labor's own ends--the use-values it produced. There was an expropriation of the product of labor, but there was not exploitation. Only in capitalism is use-value subordinated to the production of surplus-value.

That is not to say that exploitation for value is the only form of exploitation that we could imagine, but exploitation for value is definitely historically specific.

juan said...

Right, "there was an expropriation of the product of labor, but there was not exploitation."

[ 'which is specific to commodity and capital relations']

My point was simply that your earlier statement was open to misinterpretation, one in which domination is taken as exploitation, which may seem a nitpick but not so when speaking to those who believe otherwise.