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Thursday, December 29, 2016


The regular commentator who goes by the internet handle TheDudeDiogenes writes:  “I have been wrestling with the concept of exploitation/surplus labor for a while now; my issue is, if the Labor Theory of Value is false (as you hold, and I think so do I, though perhaps based on misunderstanding), then what, precisely, does exploitation consist in? How can surplus labor be extracted from the laborer if the LTV is false?”

When I replied by referring to a paper in which I answer the question mathematically, he said, “I am neither good at nor fond of maths (though I value highly those who do understand them), and my intellectual interests are often more "big picture", but if you could write a post for a humanities semi-expert but mathematical novice, I would surely appreciate it!”

This request was seconded by two other readers, which in my rather parochial world constitutes a tsunami of demand, so I shall make an attempt.  There are two ways in which I can respond.  The first way, which is most natural to me, is to render my mathematical treatment of this question in plain English, leaving the formal proofs for the cognoscenti.  This way has the great virtue of preserving one of Marx’s deepest insights, the mystified character of capitalist relations of production, which in my judgment is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of modern social theory.  The second way is to justify the use of the concept of exploitation to characterize capitalism without referring either to Marx or to the Labor theory of Value.  This way has the virtue of circumventing the sectarian squabbles that have absorbed so much of the energy and time of those who proclaim themselves Marxists – no labor/labor power distinction, no tendency of the rate of profit to fall, no negative labor values with positive prices [pace Ian Steedman], and all rest.  [I say this, of course, as one who wrote an entire book offering my take on these urgent issues.]

After some reflection [not aided by a morning walk – rain today], I have decided to adopt the second course first.  If, when I have finished, anyone has the stomach for more Marx shtick, I will attempt the first.  With that said, let me begin.

We human beings live by collectively and thoughtfully transforming nature so as to make it provide the food, clothing, shelter, and other things that we need to survive and flourish.  We also provide services to one another that are either needed for survival or are simply desired – medical services, entertainment services, banking services, communication services, accounting services, and so forth.  Over the millennia, we humans acquire skills and knowledge which we pass on to those who come after us, along with the physical objects we have created by our labor – tools, buildings, raw materials, and the rest.  These skills and this knowledge and these objects vastly increase our collective ability to carry out the process of transforming nature to meet our needs and desires.  I have deliberately cast this description in the most general fashion in order to make clear that it is true of every single human society that has ever existed or ever will exist. 

There is much to be said about this process of transforming nature, which I shall call “production,” but the single most important fact about it is that it is an irreducibly collective activity.  There is nothing, and I mean literally nothing, that is the product of a single individual alone.  The Theory of Relativity was not Einstein’s product alone, for it built on millennia of work by predecessors, including, let us not forget, those long forgotten men and women who invented the business of counting, one two three … Even when I make a fire in the forest by striking together two pieces of flint to get a spark, I am relying on the discovery and refinement of fire-making techniques first discovered at least two hundred thousand years ago on the African savanna.

Although human production is collective, a survey of human history reveals that everywhere [yes, even among the San of the Kalahari Desert], the products of that activity are not available equally and collectively to those whose action has produced them.  Instead, in one way or another, a small group of men and women take for themselves the lion’s share of what has been produced, excluding others from its enjoyment by physical force, by law, by the state, by religion, and by the force of established tradition.  Indeed, a little probing reveals that this exclusion is the principal rationale for the creation of systems of law, of religion, and of the state itself.  [This is one of Marx’s most profound discoveries, if I may break into my exposition for a moment to mention “he who must not be named.”]

In stages of European economic development previous to the present era, those occupying the commanding heights of society used the force of law, custom, religion, the army, and the state to seize and maintain control of the arable land, the forests, the seas, and the mines, which in that earlier time were the principal physical resources required for the collective activity of production.  Controlling these resources, they were able to compel those actually doing the farming, animal husbandry, mining, logging, and so forth to yield up a considerable portion of what they produce as the price of being able to get at those physical resources and thus to live.  However, to a considerable extent, those doing the work retained control of the knowledge and skills needed for production, passing them on from generation to generation through such social arrangements as apprenticeships.

The farming land was arable only because it had been transformed from virgin forest by a great deal of hard work, felling trees, removing tree stumps, tilling the land, endlessly weeding it and preserving it for cultivation.  But although an acre of arable land was the collective product of generations of collective labor, it was claimed as exclusive property by a handful of men and women, none of whom, in most cases, had done any of that labor.

This claim, successfully enforced, was the first act of expropriation.  By one of those linguistic transmutations whose irony would be amusing if it were not so filled with historical bitterness, “expropriation” has now come to mean the taking by the state for public use of privately owned property, whereas of course its proper use in economic theory is the taking by private individuals of property, collectively produced, that should by rights be publicly owned.  The economists and Jurisprudes, those High Priests of capitalism, are nothing if not humorists.

Beginning in the late Middle Ages [we are still talking about Europe, of course], a long, slow process began of depriving the great majority of productive men and women of even those elements of production over which they still retained some control – the traditional right to farm someone else’s land, the right to collect fallen tree limbs in the forest for firewood, and so forth.  Huge numbers of men and women were driven from the land they had traditionally farmed to make way for sheep, whose wool was more profitable to those who owned the land.  Flooding into the cities, these men and women became an utterly propertyless “proletariat,” available to be hired by entrepreneurs eager to turn a profit through the production of goods for sale in the market.  At first these workers brought with them their traditional skills, as weavers, spinners, and the rest, but the invention of machinery robbed them even of these skills, leaving them with nothing to sell but their ability to work.  Over time, the skills died out, no longer being passed from the old to the young.  This was the second act of expropriation

The food, clothing, shelter, and other necessaries and desiderata of life were still collectively produced, as they always had been and always will be.  But it had come to seem as though the legal owners of the means of production were also the actual producers, graciously and generously allowing the propertyless workers to work in the factories and the offices, on the farms, and in the mines for a pittance that was, by a combination of bad mathematics and high economic theory, declared to be, of all things, their marginal product.  This was the third act of expropriation.

And so we come to the present day, when those who take are declared makers, and those who make are declared takers.

What is to be done?  The answer leaps off the page.  Expropriate the expropriators

Well, that is a good start.


s. wallerstein said...

Thank you. That's a very clear explanation.

Jerry Fresia said...

Is it your point that the 3 phases of "expropriation" allows one, justly, the use of the concept of exploitation?
(Again nicely written, BTW. The piece just flows.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Not quite. A separate piece would be needed to motivate the use of the word "exploitation" but that would require me to make direct reference to Marx's version of the Labor theory of Value and, at least by implication, to some math. Happy to do it if anyone wants me to.

Jerry Fresia said...

I, for one, would find it interesting - or more to the point, important. My hunch is that you may gone through this on the blog before, or on So if it makes more sense, please direct those of us interested in this, to that explanation. You have linked capitalism with the exploitation of labor many times; now I'm wondering if I have missed something.