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Thursday, December 18, 2014


The subject of today's disquisition is relative exploitation.  This is not the taking advantage of your cousin, as you might imagine.  The term was invented by Marxists trying to make sense of something that Marx got wrong.  Recall that when Marx wrote in the early and middle nineteenth century, he believed that he was looking at two complementary developments in the evolution of capitalism that would, in their interaction, eventually lead to a socialist revolution.   

The first development was the progressive merger of many small capitals into larger and larger firms.  Competition, Marx was convinced, would lead large capitalist firms to drive smaller capitalist firms to the wall.  Although the story of the last century is complex, Marx's intuition was essentially correct.  We live now in a world dominated by enormous multi-national corporations whose accumulations of capital dwarf even that of small nations.

Marx was also convinced that the displacement of traditional crafts first by the gathering of craftsmen into manufactories and then by the substitution of machinery for hand-crafting ["manu-facturing"] would progressively reduce the working class to a mass of easily substitutable semi-skilled workers who could with relatively little difficulty be shifted from one line of machine-tending to another as the forces of competition and supply and demand dictated.  There is no doubt that this process was under way when Marx was writing, and as Harry Braverman documents in a classic study, Labor and Monopoly Capital, the process continued well into the twentieth century.

However, the evolution of the working class has proceeded in a manner not anticipated by Marx.  What we find now in the capitalist world is stable, entrenched hierarchies of wage-and-salary earning workers whose work experiences, compensation, and life chances are so varied that nothing remotely resembling working-class solidarity has been able to develop and grow.  From a purely formal perspective, both the men and women who work on the loading-dock or the assembly line and the middle managers in suits who occupy the corner offices are wage-earning employees who do not owe their positions to ownership or control of the means of production, and who must sell their labor to live.

The labor force of a modern capitalist nation is segmented in a number of ways, by gender, by race, by age, and by educational credentials, none of which, not even the last of these, is directly related to their ability to do their jobs.  This segmentation of the work force is used by capital to intensify and solidify exploitation.   Examples abound:  the systematic paying of lower wages to women in comparable jobs;  the collaboration in the nineteenth and early twentieth century between white workers and employers to exclude black workers from industrial jobs, which gave the white workers protection from competition by black workers and enabled employers to pay those white workers lower wages;  the elaborately hierarchical system of education credentials that effectively excludes large segments of the working class from access to less physical wearing and better paying jobs.  And, perhaps most important of all, advances in transportation, shipping, and the scheduling of supplies for production that makes possible systematic outsourcing of jobs to any area of the world in which wages are low.

All of this raises a question that could not easily or naturally be posed within the theoretical confines of Marx's analysis of capitalism, viz, Does it make sense to speak of some well-paid employees in a corporate hierarchy as being both exploited by the owners of capital and also exploiters of those below them in the wage hierarchy?  In short, can we make sense of the notion of relative exploitation?

One way to think of relative exploitation is as an extension of Marx's claim that a variety of social or economic fragments -- land-owners, financiers, middlemen, bankers -- receive transfers of the surplus-labor extracted from the workers in the production process and realized as surplus-value in the market.  If profit is the monetary manifestation of this surplus value, and if some portion of that profit ends up in the pockets of persons who are not themselves owners of capital, then perhaps some of the high wages paid to corporate executives [not to speak of university professors] should be understood not as the cost of reproducing their labor-power but as a share of the surplus value extracted from less well-paid workers.

Does this mean that those in the middle or upper reaches of the wage hierarchy are not exploited, but are only exploiters, like the capitalists?  No, some modern Marxian analysts argue.  There is a structure of relative exploitation, more complex than Marx imagined, within which some individuals are only exploited [low wage workers], some individuals are both exploited and exploiters [high wage workers whose wages are secured and protected by the segmentation of the labor force,] and some individuals are exploiters only [owners of capital or those whom effectively control capital and use that control to direct some portion of the profits into their pockets.]

A classic analysis of this idea of relative exploitation, by my old friends and UMass colleagues Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis, can be found in their 1977 article "The Marxian Theory of Value and Heterogeneous Labour: A Critique and Reformulation", Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 1(2), pp. 173-192.  [A warning.  The math is somewhat formidable for us novices.]
I shall try to find time to go into this in my course next semester.


Chris said...

This argument falls under the view that exploitation is somehow theft, and theft is wrong, correct?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

do you mean "falls" as in "fails," or "falls" as in "is classified as"?

Chris said...

The latter. The view that exploitation is theft from the producer, and in this case also some kind of underclass.

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.

David Auerbach said...

This is related to the notion of Uneven Development (Neil Smith? is that the name?).

Jerry Fresia said...

Your phrase, "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-killed workers who are exploited, have a tough time making ends meet, and who are clueless about any of this.

Chris said...

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.

Jerry Fresia said...

Thanks Chris. Yet the question of responsibility remains. Is the exploited semi-skilled worker who merely shows up for work each day, often risking his or her life in the process, and who is inserted into a segmented labor force and who makes no decisions but is directed daily, responsible for the exploitation below to the degree that he or she can be labled an "exploiter?"

Chris said...

I think I need to read the paper Wolff cites, the whole concept of relative exploitation seems oddly dubious, since exploitation is a class relationship around who owns the means of production....

Mark Silverman said...

Except, Chris, that at least for some Marxian traditions, ownership of means of production is incidental to, or at least less important than, the question of who produces and who appropriates the surplus.