Well, I seem to have achieved lift-off in this blog. Which is to say, when one person posts a comment raising a question, another answers it before I have a chance. Now I can just sit back and take credit for the whole shebang.
In response to my post on relative exploitation, Jerry Fresia and Chris had the following colloquy:
Chris: I'm just trying to make sense of the argument, because I've had a hunch for a few years that theories of exploitation that see exploitation as a form of thievery are going to run into trouble.
Jerry: Your phrase [i.e., mine, not Chris's], "some individuals are both exploited and exploiters," seems troublesome to me, in many cases, given that the concept "exploiters" suggest an active, if not, conscious role. Might "passive exploitation" or "passive beneficiary of exploitation" (depending on the circumstances) be more appropriate than "relative exploitation?" I'm thinking of white semi-skilled workers who are exploited, have a tough time making ends meet, and who are clueless about any of this.
Chris: Jerry, exploitation cannot involve a conscious role, under Marx's terms, since the majority of capitalists are not conscious of the fact that surplus value comes from production, and unnecessary labor time. As Marx shows, they think their surplus value comes from thrift, selling dear, and overall cunning, they are often overlooking the fact that it comes from the working class.
It being a slow Friday as we approach the weekend before Christmas, I thought I might weigh in. The question Chris and Jerry raise calls for a rather complex response [and what is the point of being an eighty year old professional philosopher if you give simple answers to questions?]
The term "exploitation" as employed by Marx is deliberately and complicatedly ironic, as is everything he says about capitalism. Recall that Marx, on the biographical evidence available to us as well as on the evidence of his writings, was someone who prized strength in men [and weakness in women, but never mind that for the moment]. Like Nietzsche, he viewed moral condemnations as the feeble responses of the weak to world-historical evils. [Remember that Nietzsche compared Christ on the cross to bait wriggling on a hook to catch gullible souls.] Marx is not, in the modern sense, a moralist. He does not pronounce on what is good and what is evil. Instead, as a strong man would, he simply states how things are. And of course, he argues that the laws of motion of capitalist society are moving capitalism inexorably toward its overthrow and replacement by socialism. This, he says, will happen not because weak-kneed moralizers pronounce capitalism to be immoral, but because capital will be driven by the forces of competition to centralize, to over-produce, and in an attempt to improve productivity, will bring together workers in factories in precisely the way that will facilitate their becoming -- as later students of Marx would put it -- a class for itself as well as in itself.
The morality of each age, Marx declares, like its religion, philosophy, art, and politics, is a reflection of the underlying structure of social relations of production. Bourgeois morality is no exception [John Rawls to the contrary notwithstanding.] Now, by the fundamental tenets of bourgeois morality, the Prime Directive or Categorical Imperative of the market [choose your poison] is Give equals for equals. And that is precisely, on average, what capitalists do. They pay the fair market value for their inputs, and sell their outputs at the fair market value. [To be sure, some of them cheat, but Marx quite properly sets them to one side when he is propounding his economic theory, for all that he details the skullduggery of factory owners in the great chapter ten of Capital.] The full value of the day's labor-power purchased by the factory owner from the worker is the cost of its reproduction, which is to say the labor value of the food, clothing, and other necessaries that the worker must consume in order to be ready to do another day's work. And that is exactly what the factory owner pays [or so Marx assumes, for purposes of analysis, in the early chapters of Volume One.] How then can the capitalist exit from each cycle of production and distribution with a profit?
The technical term for extracting more value from a factor input than is contained within it is "exploitation." Where then, Marx asks [ironically, as though he did not already know the answer], can the capitalist find an input into production whose consumption in the production process actually bestows more value on the output than is contained in the input? Well, Marx says, in one of the great passages of classical [or neo-classical for that matter] Political Economy, "Moneybags must be so lucky" as to find such a commodity, and find it he does in labor-power.
Technically, therefore, the capitalist exploits labor-power, DESPITE THE FACT THAT HE PAYS FULL VALUE FOR IT AND THEREFORE SATISFIES THE CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE OF BOURGEOIS MORALITY.
This exploitation is not a consequence of any moral failing on the part of the capitalist. Indeed, he could not do otherwise and still survive in the cutthroat competitive environment of the capitalist marketplace. He is not reprehensible, by bourgeois moral standards. Quite to the contrary, he is to be praised and honored for his fair dealing, as indeed he is by the universities that award him honorary degrees, the churches that make him a vestryman, the art museums that woo his patronage, and the governments that bestow upon him their Medals of Freedom or even offer him high positions in the halls of power. To say otherwise is to trouble deaf heaven with our bootless cries.
Does this mean that Marx did not in fact care about the deep, institutional evil of exploitation? OF COURSE NOT!!! Only someone would suppose that who had what my old friend, Herbert Marcuse, would have called a one-dimensional mind. If you are truly incapable of appreciating the deep, bitter irony of Marx's discourse, then at least compare him to an Old Testament prophet, not to a gutless, weak-kneed moralizer who can think of nothing more devastating to do when confronted the evil of the world than utter the philosophical equivalent of tsk tsk.
If indeed the structure of the working class has evolved in such a fashion as to exhibit relative exploitation, recognizing this important fact has nothing at all to do with handing out moral demerits. Rather, the recognition of the fact, if indeed it is a fact, is a pre-condition to formulating a new strategy for transformation that acknowledges the obstacles to the forging of class solidarity.