By Greg Godels

March 16 , 2021


Etymologies tell us that the word “exploitation” was first used in a morally, politically, and socially neutral way. In its original French and English, it described the productive use of beasts of burden, inanimate objects, and other resources, but not humans. Humans exploited, but they exploited things, living and material.

But in the nineteenth century, with the rise of industrialization and the widespread development of chattel slavery, the term “exploitation” took on new meaning. Writers began to use it in a negative way to describe the severe conditions of factory workers and the inhuman treatment of slaves.

Perhaps it was the regard of humans as non-humans (inhumane treatment) while engaged in productive activity that caused many to apply “exploitation” to what were then contemporary social relations. In any case, the word was exported into the moral, political, and social realm.

Where taking advantage of draught animals, machines, or natural resources bore no special moral, political, or social import, taking advantage of humans by other humans commonly conjures negative moral, political, and social judgement.

In England, with industrially organized manufactory growing in importance and the employment of men, women, and children in miserable conditions, the word “exploitation” came into general use by workers and their advocates to condemn the industrial system. Early death, disease, infirmity, poverty, and inequality were seen as the result of brutal exploitation brought on by the rise of capitalism.

As David McNally (Against the Market) ably describes, critics, Chartists, and early socialists pointed to exploitation as the source of the social ills of the day.

It was against this backdrop that Marx and Engels sought to take the intuitions of social critics like Charles Dickens, Charles Hall, or Robert Owen and advance them from an expression of moral sentiment to a statement of scientific truth. They took on the task of giving “exploitation” a firm, rational, and objective foundation, just as they hoped to advance socialism from utopian to scientific. Indeed, much of the Marxist program was to bring clarity and precision to the ideas surfaced by the vague, unsettled opposition to the brutal industrial system. In more modern terms, they sought a rational reconstruction of popular, but inexact and emotional terms like “socialism,” “working class,” and “exploitation.”

Marx and Engels, in their most developed thinking, placed the idea of exploitation at the center of their work. Exploitation is the key social relation that explains how those who create value through labor are separated from the rewards of that labor. Exploitation exposes how a tiny minority can accumulate and retain the wealth created by others without stealing it or directly coercing it.

The migration of exploitation from a relation between people and things to an established, seemingly consensual relation between people and other people entails a conceptual leap: the idea of human labor as itself a commodity. And for labor to become a commodity, Marx and Engels recognized that there must, in fact, be a difference between labor power, which can be exchanged in the market, and the actual, unique, variable labor that people expend day to day for themselves or others.

Thus, the exploitation nexus is a vital, definitive foundation of the capitalist system. Marx’s formal exposition of the rate of exploitation in Volume I of Capital recognizes that importance. That the rate of exploitation is formally identical with the rate of surplus value in the Marxist system underscores that vitality.

For most of the next century, resistance to capitalism drew more and more on Marx’s theoretical legacy. And the idea of exploitation became a cornerstone of that legacy, an idea that married a worker’s ready, intuitive grasp of the injustice of capitalism with revolutionary theory.

By the end of the nineteenth century and throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, Marxism dominated the workers’ movement, with “ending the exploitation of ‘man’ by ‘man’” the defining slogan of the era (later Marxists, like Victor Perlo, enriched that understanding by linking national, racial, and gender differences to “super-exploitation”).

While the Marxist movement, specifically the World Communist Movement (WCM), continued to pay routine homage to the idea of exploitation, it receded in tactical and strategic importance.

The era of monopoly capitalism– with the dominance of finance capital, a burgeoning middle stratum, a growing international division of labor, a rising service sector, immaterial commodification, and an increasingly complex and separated labor process– made the exploitation nexus appear increasingly murky and indefinite. In addition, the concurrent rise of imperialism shifted the emphasis from exploitation in the industrial workplace to the domination of one advanced capitalist country over another: imperial exploitation. The exploiters of workers were hidden behind a curtain of joint stock ownership and the exploited were more distant from the commodity that they produced. Consequently, the essential link between labor exploitation and inequality became increasingly opaque.

In the twentieth century, Marxists became more and more attentive to capitalist crisis and the attendant death, destruction, unemployment, and impoverishment. War and capitalist economic crisis, especially the Great Depression, radically destabilized the capitalist world, strengthened the left, while prompting an even more radical capitalist response: fascism. Perhaps, it was understandable that these developments overshadowed attention to the day-to-day exploitation of workers under capitalism.

Moreover, the social democratic response to capitalist crisis further distanced the workers’ movement from the commonplace of exploitation. Social Democrats sought to ameliorate the symptoms generated by exploitation– inequality and impoverishment– through reforms and modest income and wealth redistribution. Opting to manage capitalism rather than overthrowing it, they neglected the fundamental relation of exploitation. Instead, they used the Keynesian toolbox to smooth the disruptions of the capitalist system and soften the sting of exploitation. Sadly, some Communist and Workers Parties chose the same road.

Among the so-called Western Marxists– a self-styled collection of largely academic theoreticians– the Marxist idea of exploitation was supposedly put to death by the writing of John Roemer, one of its leading lights. Roemer insisted, contra Marx, that a rigorous foundation for exploitation can only be found by assuming the posture of “methodological individualism” and can best be revealed through rational choice theory. Intimidated by Roemer’s facility with the logical calculus of rational choice, “Marxists” surrendered the battleground to Roemer and his colleagues.

Roemer concludes that, given a minimalist, thin conception of exploitation, other commodities besides labor power could be said to be exploited, a conclusion of little more than marginal academic interest– a peripheral curiosity.

In addition, Roemer demonstrates that inequality of initial assets will generate Roemer-exploitation, a kind of exploitation that results in unequal outcomes for those who labor more than those others who have greater assets, assuming that agents act out of self-interest. In essence, Roemer constructs a model that begins with inequality and results in further inequality favoring those on the privileged side of initial conditions: those who are richer on the Roemer model, get richer over time. And richer at the expense of those with less initial resources– interesting, but both practically and theoretically barren.

Roemer makes much of Roemer-exploitation and purports to show that our interest in exploitation, when conceived as inequalities generated from inequalities, entails certain anomalies that render exploitation theory incoherent.

But that is not Marx’s understanding of exploitation. Marx gives historical reasons for the conditions that allow labor exploitation to emerge, not as theory, but as fact. Roemer’s analysis is an interesting academic parlor game, clever, but of no relevance to the specific task that Marx sets: exposing the social relations and their historical conditions that enable exploitation of labor in the era of systemic and dominant capitalist social relations. Because Roemer begins with a presumption of the primacy of individuals in human affairs, he does not and cannot understand exploitation as a fundamentally social phenomenon grounded in social structures; he mistakes the question of how a socio-economic formation can generate a pervasive, systematic, and sustainable practice of exploitation (Marx’s problem) with how exploitation can be generated between individuals (Roemer’s problem). Despite the insistence of Western Marxists, Roemer does not slay Marx’s dragon.

Of course, there is another way to understand exploitation based, not on a narrow, academic perspective, but on actual paradigmatic cases: my uncle, who raised me, worked twenty-seven years in coal mines. On his work statement of September 30, 1936, he was credited with digging over 60 tons of coal, paid at the rate of 68 cents a ton (see below).

A union coal miner at the time paid for the tools and supplies that he used in the mine which were deducted from his earnings. In essence, the owners– the coal operator– provided miners access to the coal face (tipple, elevator, coal cars, etc.) while the miners supplied the labor power.

Miners functioned then, except for the negotiated United Mine Workers contractual conditions of work and compensation, as independent contractors (Tellingly, this “independent contractor” model appears to be the capitalist class’s preferred status for workers’ futures in the twenty-first century). They were “allowed” in a mine and were paid a portion of the value of the product that they delivered to the operator. In this case, the miner earned slightly more than 68 cents, before deductions, for the use of his labor power in producing a ton of coal, while that same ton of coal delivered to the marketplace sold for about 8 dollars in 1936.

Coal miners understand this glaring gap between what their labor power– a commodity– costs the operator and what the product of their labor garners when appropriated and sold by the operator. Inevitably, workers grasp that they must fight for a greater share (trade unionism) or, in the case of the most visionary workers, overturn this bizarre arrangement (revolution).

For Marx and his contemporaries, the striking disparity between what the producer receives for his or her efforts and what his or her product sells for in the marketplace cries out for explanation. How does such a seemingly irrational exchange exist? How does it become conventional and universal? Why do the producers of wealth accept it? Under what conditions will the producers rebel against this conventionally accepted practice– exploitation– and establish a new social order?

Why is Exploitation Important?

Today, the exploitation relation is often obscured. The product of the worker is often something non-material, a service or information, for example, and difficult to measure. Often, it is not clear how a non-material product is commodified, how it is exchanged, and what market value it acquires.

Workers, especially in the formerly high-wage, advanced capitalist states are distant or obscured from their relation to commodity production because of an international division of labor. Their job titles are “professionalized” to mask their status as exploited workers. In short, their sense of being exploited is far removed from that of a miner at the coalface.

Nonetheless, most workers are exploited by their employers.

Primary labor exploitation takes place within the process of production, creating, as a consequence, inequality in the distribution of income and wealth. Social democrats and other reformists commendably advocate the redistribution of wealth, arguing against the growth of inequality or for the reduction of it, but not for the elimination of its source under capitalism, exploitation in its entirety. They stand for regulatory or redistributive policies such as taxation or moral suasion, while leaving the engine of inequality, capitalist exploitation, untouched.

The principle locus of exploitation continues to be the place where wealth is created, the workplace, whether it be a factory, a shop, an office, or at home. Wherever there is the selling of labor power (employment), there is exploitation. Where the object of work is commodity production, exploitation is direct.

Where the object of work is aiding commodity production, its distribution, or otherwise of use to sustain commodity production, it is indirect.

The question of exploitation is the issue dividing the reformist from the revolutionary left. The reformist left has nowhere abated the existence or forward march of inequality in the context of capitalist social relations. It remains, as prominent social democrats like Thomas Piketty affirm, the greatest challenge to the future. They cannot and will not meet this challenge without eliminating the exploitation of humans by other humans.

Only a revolutionary breach with capitalism and the construction of socialism will achieve that end.