Frames of Exploitation
Final essay for Theories of Exploitation – Taught by Naeem Inayatullah at Ithaca College – December 2020
Theory constructs models which work to represent and explain history (the material world) in a way understandable by human beings. Because we cannot gather data about or perceive the entire material world, its structures, and its processes, we are forced to come up with shorthand ways of representing it and its issues. Different ideological models serve to explain how processes matter politically. Exploitation and capitalism are processes so overwhelmingly pervasive today that, in a sense, they might as well be as complicated as history itself. I want to look at how different theorists understand exploitation under capitalism to work and try to understand where I stand in relation to them.
In this essay I want to look at elements present in much of our conversation about what exploitation is: multiplicity and materiality of exploitation under capitalism. First, I want to ask who must necessarily be exploited for capitalism to function. Marx has frequently been called a class reductionist, a label I do not fully argue with. This means that different forms of oppression were packed into class for him, something that many have criticized. Others have opted for a broader definition of exploitation under capitalism which might also include identities such as gender and race. I want to take a look at how these categories factor into capitalism, and what that means politically.
I also want to take a look at how exploitation itself is understood to function. There are multiple different ways of thinking of exploitation, most predominantly materialist and idealist frameworks. These models employ foundational orientational metaphors which shape the way we think about these conflicts. In the labor theory of value, conflict is shown using a materialist imagery which conceives of exploitation as theft. In the idealist (Master/Slave) sense, exploitation is composed of tension elaborated between Master and Slave, with liberation or a death-spiral providing a resolution to this tension.
I want to directly address questions about why any of this matters. A frequent complaint with theory is that it does not solve any problems; that it is a waste of time and energy and does not contribute to any form of action towards solving any of the problems it claims to address. This criticism is often levied by activists who feel a certain urgency in addressing problems they feel, passionately, must be taken care of now. However, as Freire says in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, action without reflection (what he himself terms activism) can very easily replicate the problems they claim to want to address (Freire 88). We must understand the world if we want to shape it, and it is in this space that theory aims to provide consciousness of the world for our participation in it.
Determining the structure and form of exploitation has very real consequences for movements aiming towards liberation. The shape of these structures determines how such liberation could take place, what it would change, and who it might leave behind. The role of the theorist remains a mix of descriptivist and prescriptivist, and they must focus on devising models which most effectively represent the world and those who reside within it as much as devise models that would be most useful for the goals of liberation. The stakes are high, and so we must not fool ourselves with convenient appearances.
Theorists like Marx argue that historical development is propelled by tension between conflicting class interests. Others have argued that the conflicts driving history exist between broader sets of groups and interests in society, and still others have said that exploitation arises from a more fundamental ideal dynamic between oppressor and oppressed. In looking at these different concepts of oppression, I want to narrow down how I understand exploitation to work based on my study of the different frameworks and ideas in the field. Let us take a look at how some different theorists have tried to look at these conflicts.
1) How many forms of exploitation are there under capitalism?
Different theorists have tried to think about the nature of various forms of exploitation under capitalism. Do they exist as separate bodies or as different aspects of class? Scholars like Iris Marion Young view oppression as constituted through several different modes, based on race, sex, and class, but also heterosexism and age. The exploitation Young talks about is distinctly material, talking about economic and political oppression which prevents the oppressed from accessing what they need to survive and to thrive. This lens, by Young’s own admission, does not exactly seek to evaluate the origins or structure of this oppression, rather she seeks simply to avoid the collapsing of these different identities into a single category. In doing so, Young only describes a surface level of how exploitation during capitalism works rather than developing a theory of what capitalism is. If we want to work on addressing the problems of capitalism, we must try and understand what is behind exploitation and what causes it. Otherwise, we are simply developing typologies for what oppression looks like.
Other theorists have tried to link different forms of exploitation together through their interaction with capitalism, without necessarily negating their discreteness. Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancıoğlu seek to introduce notions of capitalism outside of the Eurocentric class-oriented frame through which capitalism is often understood. In so doing, they seek to include slavery, unfree labor, imperialism and colonialism as a part of what constitutes exploitation under capitalism, as they feel these were necessary for capitalism’s functioning: “[T]he very spatial externalisation of unfree labour from Europe has been central to the myth that capitalism is categorically a system based on the exploitation of ‘free’ wage-labour” (Anievas and Nişancioğlu 72). They feel there is no separation between the logic of capitalism, what is logically constitutive of it, and its manifestation, the history of capitalism. Therefore, the exploitation peripheral to capitalism is and was a part of capitalism, and thus core to it.
However, if we want to move towards any form of analysis that allows us to profoundly understand both capitalism’s influence on the world and how we might move past it, simply looking at appearances will not work. We need some degree of separation between the logic, the models that allow us to explain the worlds’ processes and their interaction with each other, and their manifestation in the world. Without a cohesive understanding of what is necessary to capitalism, we wouldn't know where to start when trying to address it. We might look at something that isn't constitutive of it, and try to address that, rather than address what is core to the economic system. I feel that Anievas and Nişancioğlu are right to see exploitation as something affecting people around the world as a result of capitalism, but I do not agree that the unfree labor and slavery are necessary to the logic of capitalism. Race and gender exploitation might not be included as part of the logic of capitalism, and if they aren't, addressing capitalism would not necessarily address racism of sexism. Exploitation through these identities could end up being local manifestations of the profit logic of capitalism. If we are to understand capitalism for what it is, we need to reduce it down to a core logic and look at how that logic maps on to different points of history.
2) Which forms of exploitation are logically necessary for capitalism to function, then?
Unlike the idea that all forms of oppression under capitalism exist as part of its logic, other scholars see manifestation of this logic occurring in varied ways depending on the environmental circumstances they occur in. Ellen Meiksins Wood seeks to understand what forms of exploitation are necessary for capitalism to function, rather than just which forms of exploitation exist under capitalism. She looks at how capitalism vs previous systems have used factors like race and gender within their logic. While Wood strongly believes that capitalism is deeply exploitative, she is not so sure that exploitation of race and gender groups occurs as part of the logic of this exploitation. She finds that while capitalism might use gender oppression (within the household and the community) already present within previous socio-economic systems for profit, the push under capitalism ideologically means that:
So previous political, juridical, and social differences between people begin to erode, “and even to dilute identities like gender or race, as capital strives to absorb people into the labour market and to reduce them to interchange- able units of labour abstracted from any specific identity” (Wood 5 – 6). This is what affords women with increased involvement in economic, and subsequently political, spheres. Capitalism often uses categories like race and gender as part of its profit logic, but at the core, the reduction of people into abstract labor means that capitalism works more to include rather than to exclude people from labor forces (Wood 5 – 6).
And yet, Wood notices a contradiction. Despite capitalism’s supposed indifferences to categories like race and gender (which compared to previous economic systems, does not concretize these) capitalism brought slavery and colonialism along with its expansion. She explains that this is in fact exactly because of the inclusive and universalist logic of capitalism. Because capitalism works to include all within its circuits, these people accrued political and economic rights which were detrimental to the profit motive of capitalism. Because cheap labor was so convenient to find in the expanding borders of capitalism, it was necessary to “exclud[e] slaves from the human race, making them non-persons standing outside the normal universe of freedom and equality” in order to accommodate slavery, which was so economically profitable, yet in conflict with the core equalizing logic within capitalism (Wood 7). Wood sees this process as not necessary to the logic of capitalism, saying that capitalism could function without race and gender exploitation, even though it has made use of them (Wood 8).
The fact that capitalism aims to treat all individuals as capable of participating in capitalism (both as workers and as owners) means that it creates the potential for inclusion of socially and historically marginalized people in non- racialized or gender-ized ways. While everyone is exploited under the logic of capitalism, its logic might actually serve to benefit people exploited by white supremacy or patriarchy. This means, much to the anxiety of Anievas and Nişancioğlu, different groups, even those created through the logic of capitalism, might stand to benefit from their inclusion. A unified struggle encompassing class, race, and gender might not be as cut and dry as they would hope. Addressing capitalism on its own might not include a struggle towards race or gender liberation. Likewise, addressing class exploitation might not include addressing race or gender exploitation. If capitalism is not a common element in all of these forms of exploitation, it could hypothetically function without racism or sexism; they are not integral to the logic of capitalism. Wood explains that what is necessary to the logic of capitalism is class oppression, without which, there would not be the production of surplus value. She, then, rejects the idea that race and gender are necessary to the logic of capitalism, while stating that class is fundamentally and uniquely constitutive of capitalism’s exploitation.
Wood’s analysis is stronger than that of Anievas and Nişancioğlu because it gets to the core of what exploitation is necessary under capitalism, and thus what capitalism can or cannot exist without. Yet in looking at her ideas, I do not feel I understand what is at the core of exploitation. Wood understands exploitation to be evidenced by a material "theft" of value. This comes from Marx's labor theory of value. How does exploitation under this material notion of exploitation work, then?
3) Materialist imagery of exploitation
There is a contradiction built into Marx's labor theory of value. Because he uses two different notions of labor: one defined by labor power necessary to produce a commodity, and the other by what is socially necessary to produce a commodity for sale. This means that:
Wood, like Anievas and Nişancioğlu, relies on the materialist imagery of the labor theory of value. 'Exploitation is clear, and it is embodied by the materially evident theft of value by the capitalist from the worker.' This evokes the imagery of theft, meant both to convince us in a passively ethical way that this theft is wrong, and to provide us with clear, material, evidence of theft. Capitalism produces goods with starting capital from the capitalist and labor from working individuals. The capitalist puts in a given amount of starting capital, and workers transform this capital into commodities, which are then sold for a return on this capital. The labor theory of value becomes necessary at this point to demonstrate that returns on commodity production are not received proportionally to the amount of labor put into the crafting of commodities. Marx uses this to show that despite liberalism's commitment to free contracts, exploitation can still occur within these supposedly mutually beneficial agreements. Yet, the labor theory of value doesn't fully agree with how to define value, having to rely on two different definitions, one based on the labor necessary to produce a commodity, and the other based on the socially expected amount of labor. I see my analysis here as weak, but many, much smarter, academics have articled these thoughts better than I have.
Marx skirts around the problem, opting to use the first definition in one moment, and the second in another moment. I am not incredibly well versed in the labor theory of value and will not delve into the minutiae of the problem in this paper. Suffice it to say, that there are some unresolved tensions in Marx's work, and that these tensions have gone along with every student of Marx for the past century and a half.
The labor theory of value is very convenient. It allows us to provide a clear space in which exploitation occurs, the so-called "hidden abode" of production. I must admit that I really like the labor theory of value as a concept. It feels very comforting to me to be able to locate and point out exploitation with a concrete thing that is being expropriated. Until recently, this ability to "localize" meant that the theory was central to how I understood class oppression. Now my understanding is starting to shift. This convenience is why Ellen Wood as well as Anievas and Nişancioğlu built their conceptions of exploitation on the Labor theory of value, without ever mentioning it.
If the contract between a capitalist and a worker is what determines value, then the capitalist pays wages to the worker in return for their labor, and with such an agreement, the worker is able to reproduce their labor, while the capitalist can sell surplus. On the surface level (I think Smith and other liberal theorists would be thrilled to hear this) this is fair, right? And yet people aren't free. But how can we localize this lack of freedom in society?
4) Conclusion: Exploitation and freedom under capitalism
I want to look at the different understandings of exploitation under capitalism, and try to position myself within them. I do not see Anievas and Nişancioğlu as providing a useful way of looking at capitalism, as it collapses logic and history specifically with the aim to provide a political backing for a unified liberation movement. In doing so, they fail to fully understand (or in a sense, appreciate) what capitalism is and has how it has changed social relations (for better and for worse). Wood is willing to look at the logic of capitalism as separate but behind the historical manifestations of capitalism. In this logic, we see that the main engine of commodity production is class differentiation, with class distinctions defining the logic of capitalism. Both Wood as well as Anievas and Nişancioğlu rely on notions of exploitation based on Marx's labor theory of value. This fundamentally materialistic way of understanding oppression is very convenient for any movements and scholars who want to directly identify evidence of exploitation, but I do not feel it is sufficient to truly understand what the nature of exploitation is. A contract between worker and capitalist does not need to be dominating (as Darcy explains), but there is a necessary exploitation behind this work agreement. I feel an idealist conception of exploitation works far more effectively to understand how capitalism alienates people from their environment.
Hegel and Marx understand humanity to conduct labor through the mixing of their labor with the natural world. At a fundamental level, this labor allows us to produce food, it allows us to construct shelter, and furthermore it allows us to create art. This labor is understood by Marx and Hegel as core to how we fulfill ourselves as human beings, and therefore when we are deprived from the ability to labor in response to our needs, we become alienated from our world and ourselves.
Capitalism creates agreements which theoretically could provide us with what we need to survive in exchange for our labor. It is in the realization of this logic in history, however, that capitalism becomes unable to provide for our basic needs, forcing us into hunger and desperation. Yet, capitalism does exist in other instances and provide us with what we need to survive, and possibly more. Capitalism's logic is therefore exploitative not because it must take and expropriate from us, but because it presents itself as the only way to thrive and forces us to work within its alienating logic. We are no longer able to use our labor as we wish, forced (if without wealth) to work a job which, while it could pay decently, doesn't allow us to use our own labor in a way that would fulfill us.
We could then think about exploitation as an ideal dynamic, one based on Hegel's notion of Master and Slave. In this dynamic, the Master imposes their will on the Slave, and so the Master's will is actualized through the Slave's labor. Where the worker cannot fulfill their humanity with work to respond to their own needs, the capitalist does not receive recognize their own interaction with the world. They cannot either interact with the world as full human beings, because their only way to do so is through their slaves. In this framework, we would be able to understand capitalism as causing serious damage not just to the worker, but also to the capitalist, a genuinely toxic dynamic.
If capitalism is both a mode of production and an ideal dynamic (one in which exploitation happens), is there any way to separate the two, and have the "fruits" of capitalism without the exploitation? If capitalism is a purely material dynamic, one in which goods can be produced solely through exploitation, then no. But if capitalism exists as an ideal dynamic, perhaps we can take the production mechanism of capitalism and separate it from the ideal dynamic of exploitation. We could democratize the production of goods under capitalism, and perhaps create a system in which all have access to command over the environment and what we produce with it, and in so doing work towards the restoration of humanity – the ability to think and shape the world – for everyone. This is somewhat similar to what Naeem Inayatullah has elaborated in Two to Tango (2017). Under capitalism today, wealth ends up being a proxy for command, the ability to shape the environment through the labor of the working class. Because the working class cannot shape the world with their labor under capitalism and must content themselves with doing it under the direction of a capitalist, they fail to gain full humanity, becoming objects of their exploiters rather than free subjects in their own development.
– Anievas, A., & Nisancioglu, K. Why europe? Anti-eurocentric theory, history, and the rise of capitalism. Spectrum: Journal of Global Studies. https://www.academia.edu/30649225/Why_Europe_Anti_Eurocentric_Theory_History_and_the_Rise_of_Capitalism
– D’Arcy, Steve. An exploited, dominated, and oppressed class? (2014, November 24) The Public Autonomy Project. https://publicautonomy.org/2014/11/24/exploitation-domination-oppression/
– Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (2000) 30th anniversary ed, Continuum.
– Inayatullah, Naeem. Talk: Two to Tango: The seductions of capitalism. (2017) https://www.academia.edu/32300167/Two_to_Tango_the_seductions_of_capitalism
– Inayatullah, Naeem. Exploring the Concept “Exploitation” by Examining Various Approaches to Value (1988).
– Wood, Ellen. Capitalism and Human Emancipation. (1988). New Left Review, 167, 1.
– Young, Iris Marion. Five Faces of Oppression. (1988) The Philosophical Forum, 19(4), 270–290.