Rick Wolff

The Critique of Exploitation

(July 2002)

When human beings work, their minds and bodies collaborate to transform nature into goods and services desired by their communities. They conceptualize the ends and means of work, and they perform all manner of mechanical tasks to realize production. Human beings also and unavoidably bring into their work activity all the other facets of their lives and personalities. Thus, for example, labor engages workers’ aesthetic commitments as they adorn and decorate their labor process, the work environment, the products, and so on. Sometimes workers do this at the behest of employers, sometimes independently, and sometimes against employers’ wishes. Workers also “invest” laboring activity with their hopes for their individual, their family’s and their community’s futures. Thus, the pace, intensity, quality, and efficiency of work is shaped by workers’ attitudes and feelings about an immense range of topics of concern to them. Having long recognized this, employers try to harness workers’ investment of diverse attitudes and feelings in their work to serve employers’ goals. Industrial psychology and sociology emerged to formalize and broaden – in scientific “fields” – the intimate, mutually effective relationship between work activity and all the other aspects of individual and community life.
Work activity not only reflects the complexities of worker’s individual and community life, the reverse holds as well. The qualities of each individual worker’s physical, emotional, and social lives depend significantly on his/her work activity. The psychodynamics of the household, the politics of the community, the health of the individual – and much more – are profoundly influenced by the workers’ laboring activity. It follows then that how communities organize the work activity of their laboring members will have much to do in shaping the functioning and the development of those communities and every individual within them. To put the point more bluntly, a loving community will be the more difficult to create or sustain to the degree that loving relationships do not characterize work activity. Where conflict, injustice, inequality, and resentment attend the workplace and labor, the spillover effects on personal, family, and community life will likely be significant.

I. One of Marx’s central contributions to modern thought was his distinctive definition of a central aspect of the capitalist organization of work: exploitation. His definition of exploitation did not refer to the level – higher or lower – of wages. Nor did Marx’s notion of exploitation concern how wealth, income, and power were distributed among workers, managers, and owners of capitalist enterprises. Finally, Marx’s concept of exploitation also did not include working conditions such as the physical environment, supervision, provision of amenities, allowance for medical leave, and related aspects of the context of labor activity. Instead Marx focused his analysis on one quite narrow phenomenon, one particular aspect of that capitalist organization of production that was achieving hegemony in Europe across the nineteenth century. This aspect was the surplus generated in the course of production.[1]
Marx’s basic argument was both simple and direct, the fruit of critically interrogating all the previously published efforts to discern and analyze a surplus.[2] In the capitalism of Marx’s time, those who directed and controlled productive enterprises – the capitalists – deployed a quantity of value (the “capital” that they either owned themselves or otherwise acquired or borrowed from others) to buy two sorts of commodities. The first, “means of production”, comprised the raw materials, tools, buildings and equipment that were considered “inputs” to production. They were the goods in, on, and with which laborers would work. These inputs were themselves the products of labor done previously in other capitalist enterprises. They had specific values as outputs embodying such earlier labor. The value of those outputs shaped what other capitalists had to pay to acquire them later as inputs. For example, the chair-producing capitalist had to buy glue as an input; that latter was itself the output of a glue-producing capitalist; and the glue’s value as one capitalist’s output shaped its cost to another capitalist for whom it was an input.
The second commodity that capitalists had to purchase was what Marx called “labor power” – literally the capacity of humans to apply minds and bodies to production. This labor power had to be purchased from those who “owned” it. Absent slavery, the individual laborer owned his/her labor power and was thus the person from whom the capitalist would have to buy it. The deal struck between worker and capitalist was thus the purchase/sale of labor power. As with any other exchange of commodities, buyer and seller had to agree on a price: the quantity of value paid to the worker for the labor power sold to the capitalist. As with all commodity exchanges, the circumstances of buyer and seller – their context of all their alternatives, options, and opportunities – shaped what price might be agreed. The deal between worker and capitalist also entailed that the output belonged immediately and totally to the capitalist.
Marx enjoyed the irony of the stressing the following simplicity: the capitalist employer would only deploy a quantity of value – i.e., capital – on these two commodities (inputs and labor power) if their combination in production yielded outputs whose value exceeded the original quantity of value deployed. In that way, the capitalist could follow the production process by selling the output for more value than the amount needed to commence production. This “self-expansion” of value was the point and purpose for the capitalists; indeed it was Marx’s very definition of capital and hence of the capitalist as “the personification” of capital.
Marx explained this self-expansion likewise quite simply. Any capitalist production process entailed the addition of two values. First, there was the value of the inputs (raw materials, tools, etc.) used up in production and thereby passed on to the outputs of that production. Secondly, there was the value added by the laborers’ work. The surplus arose only in so far as the value added by the laborers exceeded the value paid to them in exchange for their labor power. Such workers were exploited because and in so far as they produced more value by their work than they obtained for selling their labor power, i.e., for doing that work.
The surplus was not some magical excess in any physical sense: no output greater than input as is argued in some other economic theories.[3] As Marx reasoned it, the capitalists acquired a surplus when they disposed of the total value of the output produced by their laborers (realized by the capitalists in money when they sold that output). The capitalists spent one portion of that total value to replace the inputs used up in production (so they could continue the production process). They spent a second portion as wages to pay for the labor power purchased from their workers. Finally, they retained the remaining portion of the total value as their own. This latter portion was the surplus – the fruit of capitalist exploitation - to which Marx devoted his analyses. The surplus was thus the difference between the value added by the workers in production and the portion of that value that capitalists returned to them as wages. The surplus reflected a social relationship between the workers and the capitalists, not some physical phenomenon of production.[4]
Finally, Marx asked and answered the question: What do the capitalists do with the surplus they appropriate from production? They distribute that surplus, partly to themselves and partly to others. The distribution to others is necessary because the capitalists’ ability to appropriate the surplus from the workers has all sorts of conditions that must be secured. For example, the workers must be supervised to avoid their distraction from productive activity at the workplace. Similarly, someone needs to educate and train workers. A state apparatus is needed to design and enforce laws preventing workers from reneging on their labor obligations. To secure these and many other conditions, capitalists distribute portions of the surplus to individuals charged with performing supervision, training, police and judicial functions, and so on. In short, the capitalist organization of the surplus assigns to some workers – Marx called them “productive laborers” - the role of producing the surplus and to others – Marx called them “unproductive laborers” - the role of securing the conditions of existence of capitalist surplus production. Mediating the relation of these two different kinds of workers, the capitalists at the command center of this class structure appropriate the surplus from the productive laborers and distribute portions of it to the unproductive laborers. Thereby the capitalist class structure is reproduced over time and with it the commanding, privileged position of the capitalists.[5]

II. Exploitation is experienced by productive laborers. Only part of the value added in and by their labor is “returned” to them in the form of wages. The laborers spend wages to purchase means of consumption, the products of other workers within other capitalist enterprises. Such means of consumption thus reward productive laborers for what they have produced. Herein lies a certain community: a division of labor among productive laborers producing different commodities that reward them, as a community, for their work efforts. However, this community of reward or return in the market entails getting less than what these productive workers added by their labor; it is an unequal community relationship. The productive workers have given more (in production) than they have gotten (in wages). Herein lies an inequality. Something has been taken from productive workers. Exploitation requires them to give something – the surplus - for nothing.
An earlier tradition of critical social thought glimpsed part of this in theorizing a certain alienation as a way to characterize modern social life.[6] Here we build upon but also go considerably further in that tradition. Both individually and collectively, productive laborers objectify their creative powers in their products; the latter are objective self-extensions. The portion of those products exchanged with other productive laborers serves as means of such self-extension and hence quite literally as means for the sustenance and growth of their selves. However, the surplus portion of their products is not such a means for them, individually or collectively. Productive workers are cut off from their surplus output, from that part of themselves embodied in the surplus.
Exploitation delivers the productive laborers’ surplus to other people for the realization of their other selves. These others have their experience of exploitation. They obtain a surplus without the return of any output to the exploited. In this sense, exploitation sunders collectivity or community within production. Exploitation introduces a particular kind of opposition, conflict, tension, and potential explosiveness into production with spillover effects on the entire society.
From a moral or ethical standpoint that places a high value on community and solidarity, exploitation is unjust and repugnant. The same judgment flows from valuing self-identifications that acknowledge and celebrate their individuality as equally and mutually interdependent with all other individuals, with their community. Exploitation violates that equality and mutuality. Especially in societies that explicitly endorse communitarian ethical standpoints – often articulated in terms of the moral imperative of democracy – exploitation stands as a contradiction that provokes conflicting social responses.

III. What exploited productive workers lose qua surplus confronts them, their exploiters, and everyone else in society with a problem that has become a topic demanding and receiving widespread attention in many places over the last several centuries. Sometimes the problem is brought to consciousness by the productive workers themselves. It may arise from their sense of loss and victimization, from their envy of those disposing of the surplus they produced, from moral outrage at a social injustice, and so on. Consciousness of exploitation from the vantage point of the exploited can take endless forms ranging from short-lived political slogans and popular songs to systematic analytics such as Marx’s. Alternatively, exploitation may become an object of conscious thought when exploiters glimpse it as posing a potential threat to their social positions. In the exploiters’ consciousness, the surplus will likely be conceptualized rather differently from the ways in which critics of exploitation think about it. Those who conscientiously defend exploitation have formulated notions of its origins in and conformity to God’s plan for the world, as the reflection of unequal capacities among human beings, as necessary for the progress of civilization, and so on. The kinds of consciousness that endorse exploitation also display forms that vary with the cultural specificities of the societies in which they arise.
There is no necessity that the actuality of exploitation is recognized consciously by anyone in the societies where it exists. Like many other realities of those societies, they may not become objects of conscious thought. Given the endlessly shifting concerns of human communities coupled with the natural and cultural limits of their attention, knowledge, and means of interrogating their realities, some portions of those realities are always invisible. Reality always exceeds what is known of it. The gap between reality and knowledge shifts as both sides interact and constantly change one another, but a gap is always there. Thus, exploitation’s existence and changes may or may not become objects of a society’s knowledge.
Indeed, sometimes the reaction of a society to an aspect of its reality is to cultivate a blindness to it. Then it is not merely a matter of some general failing to cognize an aspect of society. Rather, one part of a society mobilizes a campaign to attack and destroy modes of thought that affirm the existence of that aspect. Typically a more or less thoroughgoing demonization of those modes unfolds. Their supporters confront accusations of ulterior and/or socially pernicious motives in persisting to affirm as reality what is not. The affirmation of non-existence, a kind of blindness, is affirmed as the singular truth to be upheld by all good citizens and especially by all properly educated people. In the latter’s view, of course, it is not they who are blind, but rather quite the contrary. Blindness to “the” evidence is a charge they hurl at their enemies who cannot let go of a spurious reality whose nonexistence has been “proved”. Reality, like beauty, is shaped largely in and by the eyes of the beholders, and beholders often disagree.
Surplus and exploitation offer us a perfect example. By and large, those who see and analyze these realities strive to change and/or eliminate them. They are among the critics and opponents of capitalism viewed as an exploitative organization of the surplus, an exploitative class structure. The dominant response of capitalism’s defenders over the last century and a half has not been to offer conceptualizations of the surplus that justify it. Rather, the response has been overwhelmingly to assert its non-existence. The proponents and opponents of the existence of the surplus accuse each other of blindness. Each side accounts for the other’s blindness as motivated in large part by their social agendas. The proponents of the surplus seek to end exploitation and view the supporters of capitalism as blind to the surplus and exploitation in the conscious or unconscious desire to legitimate the capitalist status quo. In turn, those for whom the surplus is an unreal fantasy attribute to the supporters of the surplus a willful, unreasonable disregard of the truth. What drives their blindness to the absence of the surplus is an equally unreasonable hostility to capitalist society.
This article is written from the standpoint that contemporary reality contains both the surplus and exploitation and also a socially prevalent blindness to them both. The critique of exploitation, then, entails the critique of both intertwined phenomena: exploitation and its conceptual occlusion. However, before turning to the critique, a brief history of the conceptual blindness to exploitation is in order.
IV. The transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe brought concepts of the surplus to consciousness and even into the formal analytical constructions of what came to be called the discipline of political economy (later, economics). The physiocrats’ notion of the produit net was clearly a surplus concept. Smith and Ricardo, among other “classical” political economists, articulated various surplus concepts. Many of them were studied and criticized in Marx’s Theories of Surplus Value (1963, 1968, 1971); he went on to develop the most widespread and socially consequential concept of the surplus to date. Alongside the prodigious and continuing production of surplus concepts, alternative theorizations conceived of economies differently as devoid of any surplus. Economies were rather sites of exclusively quid-pro-quo interactions, exchanges, and interdependencies among desiring consumers, workers, and enterprises.[7]
The “neoclassical” economics that was born in the 1870s and accomplished a nearly total hegemony across the last century repressed the concept of a surplus in production. Even among socialists, where various concepts of a surplus remained, those concepts were ever less central to their social theories. Most socialists’ “class analyses” defined class decreasingly in the manner of Marx – as a matter of the production, appropriation, and distribution of a surplus. Instead, class, for them, referred to the social distributions of wealth and power: the haves versus the not-haves, rulers versus ruled, and so on. Class analyses in terms of surplus shrank in importance even among socialists, while the concept of surplus disappeared for nearly everyone else.
Thus, the social situation over the last century combined capitalist exploitation with prevailing conceptions of economics – and especially of capitalist economies - that either denied it existed, in the mainstream, or devoted ever less attention to it, among the minority of capitalism’s critics. For parallel examples, one might consider the social coexistence of institutionalized, endemic racism, sexism, neocolonialism, and incest with firmly held beliefs that these phenomena were either absent or so rare as to be of little interest. Where the victims of these social conditions broke through the denials of their existence and importance, often via struggles lasting decades or centuries, changes in the socially prevailing consciousness followed. We seek the same for the social condition of exploitation in production, the producing of a surplus by one group of people (the productive workers) that is delivered to/appropriated by another group that produces nothing.
V. Production, as a complex activity combining diverse personalities, tools, technologies, and raw materials is always fraught with contradictions and conflicts. Human communities have long sought to ameliorate these conflicts in the interests of better interrelationships among the producers, between them and non-producing members of society, higher qualities and quantities of output, and so on. The exploitative organization of the surplus adds another layer of contradictions and conflicts inserted into the production system. Eliminating exploitation would remove that layer. That would improve production much as would removing, say, environmental pollutants, racism, sexism, and so on. Parallel logics apply. However, if the surplus and exploitation go unseen, no such parallel logic is applied and no conscious social movement for non-exploitative organizations of production can arise.
To declaim against an exploitative system of production such as capitalism implies the possibility of and the preference for a nonexploitative alternative. Communist has been the name most Marxists have attached to that alternative. They have defined it as a system of production in which the surplus produced by the productive workers is not delivered to a different group of people, i.e. capitalists. Instead, it is appropriated by the collective of productive workers themselves and likewise distributed by the collective to secure the reproduction of this organization of production, this communist class structure.
Marxist and other research continues to show that communist modes of organizing production have existed across human history and in virtually all countries.[8]
The communist alternative is real and workable.[9] Its strengths and weaknesses could be compared to those of alternative – and especially exploitative – modes of organizing the production and distribution of the surplus. Public debates about and comparative experimentations with exploitative and communist class structures inside societies could make such alternative organization(s) of the surplus matters of informed choice and deliberate change. However, if the very existence of the surplus is denied, debate and choice are foreclosed. Once again, the parallel examples of denying the very possibilities, let alone examining the strengths and weaknesses, of alternative organizations of households, families, sexual relationships, religious communities, and so on suggest themselves. The denial/repression of the concepts of surplus and hence of alternative class structures of surplus production, appropriation, and distribution supports the denial of choice among those structures in and for any society.
The denial of the possibility of non-exploitative class structures such as the communist is closely intertwined with the denial that exploitation or indeed the surplus itself exists; the denials are twin aspects of the same general standpoint. The social organization of production – usually viewed as dictated by nature (human and otherwise) and technology – is thereby moved out of the range of general discussion and debate and moved out of the circle of social relationships deemed appropriate for democratic decision-making. It becomes a mere specialists’ topic whose details are fit only for economists and technicians to master. In so far as “improving” production arises as a goal, their surplus/class-blind consciousness virtually assures that exploitation never arises as a problem and that communist class structures never arise as part of a solution.
The loss and alienation suffered by exploited laborers is an evil inherent in exploitation. The different alienation of the exploiters from the productive process and from the surplus producers, albeit better offset by income and wealth, is likewise an evil. Both evils undermine the community and solidarity that might otherwise bind the producers and appropriators of the surplus. The denial that surplus and exploitation exist constricts both the range of choices and democratic decision making in relation to which
class structures will leave their heavy impact on a society’s life. The alienations and the constriction are not only unnecessary. They are morally unacceptable from the standpoint of a morality that places high value on democracy, community, and solidarity generally and on their presence within production especially.
VI. Beyond these moral and ethical grounds for opposing exploitation, there are also similar grounds based on exploitation’s many social effects.[10] Some of these are obvious, such as the differentiation of skills, aptitudes, and attitudes consequent upon dividing the exploited from the exploiters. Countless commentators have examined this phenomenon from many disciplines and perspectives. Here we would only add that contemporary capitalist enterprises typically display a highly developed managerial apparatus inserted between the exploited and the exploiters. Hired by the exploiters – who use a portion of the surpluses they appropriate to pay for managerial salaries and budgets – the managers’ function is to provide the context for and to supervise the productive workers so as to maximize the surplus and to secure the reproduction of the enterprise’s exploitative class structure.[11] By separating the productive workers from management, each develops different, one-sided skills, aptitudes, and attitudes. Because managers are hired to extract surplus from workers, they often find themselves in direct opposition. Thus their different skills, aptitudes and attitudes become likewise oppositional, conflicted, or hostile. Sometimes these differences undermine production or even halt it in strikes, job actions, sabotage, or in the infinite dimensions of “low worker morale.” Sometimes, the conflicts generated from exploitation become displaced onto other social sites. Then politics and culture, for example, bristle with tensions, antagonisms, and conflicts that are blocked from surfacing in production – possibly because the exploitation there and its effects are invisible to workers and capitalists alike.
The point here is not that exploitation is the essential cause of economic, political or cultural antagonisms and conflicts. They have many causes. The point is that an exploitative class structure is one of the causes. Moreover, it is a cause that an afflicted society can eliminate. However, to do so, that society has to acknowledge the existence of surplus and exploitation, to break the hegemonic taboo against concepts of surplus, exploitation, and the class analyses focused upon them. To refuse that break is to forfeit an important part of understanding and solving basic social problems. Exploitation contributes to major social problems. Solutions that leave exploitation in tact thereby undermine themselves.

[1] Marx’s writings are, of course, filled with discussions of wage levels, wealth and power disparities, and working conditions. He shared his contemporaries’ interests in and often their outrages at these dimensions of social injustice. However, Marx was also critical of his contemporaries’ efforts to overcome that injustice. In his mind, one severe limitation of those efforts was a failure to appreciate capitalism’s distinctive organization of the surpluses generated in production. Marx therefore focused his writings to persuade readers that such surpluses exist; that capitalism organizes them in a very particular, unjust way (an “exploitative” way); and that exploitation’s horrific social consequences include underpinning the social injustices that concerned his fellow social critics but had so far stymied them.
[2] The three volumes of his Theories of Surplus Value (1963, 1968, 1971) provide ample evidence of the scope and intensity of this preparatory work in the development of his own distinct and different concept of surplus.
[3] Marx criticized Ricardo (and the latter’s famous “corn model”) for conceiving the surplus as some physical quantity, some output that was larger than the inputs used for its production. Marx rather kept to the notion that what goes in is what comes out, a kind of economic version of the physical law of the conservation of mass and energy. In short, Marx’s notion of surplus had to do with how the value added by laborers was divided between them and the capitalists.
[4] The first nine chapters of Marx’s Capital, Vol. 1, present the details of this explanation in full. A brief summary may be found in Wolff and Resnick (1987, 142-162). Marx’s argument clearly implies that if the workers collectively employed themselves within enterprises, they – and not some separate group of capitalists - would then dispose of any difference between the value they added in production and the portion returned to them as individual workers’ remuneration. In short, capitalists could disappear as a social category if their former employees took the capitalists’ place in the organization of the surplus. This is what Marx meant by a communist as opposed to a capitalist class structure of production (Resnick and Wolff 2002).
[5] Marx’s Capital, Vol.s 2 and 3 presents a systematic analysis of how, why, and to whom capitalists distribute the surpluses they appropriate from their productive employees. For a summary, see Resnick and Wolff (1987, especially Chapters 3-5).
[6] For an excellent example of this literature, see Pappenheim (1959).
[7] Where Marx surveyed existing surplus conceptualizations – and especially those of the classical political economists - as a friendly critic seeking to improve upon them, the neoclassical economics that began in 1870 and achieved ideological hegemony in the last half century has been devoted to expunging surplus conceptions. Thus Helen Boss (1990) surveys the last few centuries as the slow but steady progress of economic thought out of the mistaken realm of the surplus (that “still seduce[s] the uninitiated”) into the “more accurate” and “clearer” realm of economic interdependence in which no surplus exists (p. 3).
[8] See the discussion and bibliography in Resnick and Wolff (2002, Part 1).
[9] The debates over and experiments with concretizing communism furnish many different varieties and forms. Actual communist class structures have had specific problems and contradictions, found corresponding solutions, and generated a complex, rich history that includes contestations with exploitative class structures. Communist production systems have lasted for longer and shorter time periods. See Ibid., for a more detailed discussion and bibliography.
[10] Especially in Capital, Vol. 1 but also elsewhere, Marx focused on the ways in which capitalist exploitation contributed to such phenomena as economic crises (business cycles), automation, poverty, labor intensification, lengthening of the working day, and so forth.
[11] For the details of this argument, see Resnick and Wolff (1987, chapter 4). The context that managers provide includes purchasing appropriate productive inputs, securing the timely sale of outputs at maximum prices, keeping the necessary records, technical innovation, capital accumulation, and so on. All of these are conditions of existence of the surplus and of exploitation.

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