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Social Philosophy

Two Marxist Objections to Exploitation

Paul Warren

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ABSTRACT: I argue that we can find in Marx two objections to exploitation: (i) an entitlement objection according to which it is wrongful because of the unjust distribution of benefits and burdens it generates; and (ii) an expressivist objection according to which it is objectionable because of the kind of social relation it is. The expressivist objection is predicated on a communitarian strand in Marx's thought, whereas the entitlement objection is grounded in a more liberal account of the wrongfulness of capitalist exploitation. I conclude by connecting my analysis to the current debate between proponents and critics of market socialism. While market socialism could be a vehicle for realizing the values associated with the entitlement objection, this is not true for the expressivist objection. Furthermore, because the entitlement objection does not depend on a thick conception of the human good, it is in accord with the liberal ideal of political neutrality whereas the expressivist objection is not.

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In what follows I argue that we can find in Marx's work two objections to exploitation and that distinguishing these objections helps clarify current issues facing socialist political philosophy. The first is an entitlement objection according to which exploitation is wrongful because of the unjust distribution of benefits and burdens it generates. The second is an expressivist objection according to which exploitation is wrongful because of the kind of social relation it is, viz., one in which agents view the needs, vulnerabilities, and capacities of others primarily as a means to their own private gain. (1) The expressivist objection suggests a normatively thicker, communitarian strand in Marx's thought, whereas the entitlement objection relies on a thinner, more liberal normative account. I conclude by connecting my analysis to the current debate between proponents and critics of market socialism. While market socialism could be a vehicle for realizing the values associated with the entitlement objection, this is unlikely the case for the expressivist objection. Furthermore, because the entitlement objection does not depend on a thick conception of the human good it fits with the emphasis on political neutrality that is central to liberal thought.

Let me provide some context for my account by briefly describing the place of exploitation in Marx's theory of history, the connection between the normative and explanatory roles of exploitation, and the relevance of Marx's theory of exploitation for contemporary social philosophy. For Marx exploitation is a concept of historical generality, applying not only to capitalism, but to feudal and ancient modes of production. Exploitation exists when a group of agents controls society's principal means of production and in virtue of that control is able to extract surplus labor from subordinate producers. This transhistorical conception of exploitation as the extraction of surplus labor through control over the means of production is evident in the following passages in Capital, Volume I:

"Capital did not invent surplus-labour. Wherever a part of society possesses the monopoly of the means of production, the labourer, free or not free, must add to the working-time necessary for his own maintenance an extra working-time in order to produce the means of subsistence for the owners of the means of production, whether this proprietor be the Athenian kalos kagathos, Etruscan theocrat, civis Romanus, Norman baron, American slave-owner, Wallachian Boyard, modern landlord or capitalist." (2)

The essential difference between the various economic forms of society, between, for instance, a society based on slave-labour, and one based in wage-labour, lies only in the mode in which this surplus labour is in each case extracted from the actual producer, the labourer. (3)

In these passages Marx treats exploitation as a matter of appropriation of surplus labor from direct producers, acknowledges that such appropriation is transhistorical in scope, and locates the source of exploitation in the exercise of a monopoly over the means of production. This conception of exploitation is used by Marx not only in explanations of the dynamics of specific modes of production such as capitalism, but in explanations of the developments that lead to transitions from one mode of production to the next. For Marx the exploited working class in capitalism is the collective agent that brings about the revolutionary transition to socialism--a society without class exploitation.

In addition to its explanatory role, exploitation is also a normative concept in Marxist theory. To describe a relationship, economic exchange, or institutional practice, as exploitative, is to morally criticize it. Marx's very choice of the word "exploitation" to describe basic social and economic institutions is intentional and indicates that he accords the appropriation of surplus-labour with normative significance. Marx did not have to describe the process through which the capitalist gains profits as exploitative: he could have called it capitalist appropriation, capitalist gain, or simply the process of capitalist accumulation, without also adding that it was exploitative. But exploitation is an apt expression because for Marx such accumulation arises not through the use of material resources only, nor through the accumulator's own industry, but through the use of labor power of others. More specifically, capitalist's gains are in his view causally tied to workers' losses, where such losses involve impoverishment, deprivation, and harm to the worker. Furthermore, the other descriptive language that Marx uses in his characterizations of wage-labor exchanges and worker exploitation suggest that he understood those exchanges and that exploitation normatively. He uses terms such as robbery, theft, and embezzlement in his descriptions of the wage-labor exchange between workers and capitalists in Capital, Vol. I. (4)

It is vital to recognize that Marx's normative account is not freestanding, but is embedded within his social and historical theory of capitalism and that exploitation is not episodic or contingent, but rooted in existing economic and political arrangements. Without the supposition that exploitation has normative content, Marx's social and historical account would not have the same structure or significance. The term "exploitation" would not be warranted and the social relations involved would have to be characterized in terms of a struggle between two groups, one attempting to gain from the other and the other trying to resist. The working class has a privileged role in Marx's theory as the agent of historical change and the bearer of new and fundamentally different social relations than those existing within capitalism. It is difficult to see how the working class should have such a role in Marx's theory if its status as "exploited" lacked all normative significance. Conversely, Marx would maintain that a moral-philosophical critique not anchored in a proper understanding the dynamics of historical change and the contours of the social structure, would lack practical import. Thus, the normative and explanatory aspects of Marx's conception of exploitation are mutually supportive given the objectives of his theory of history.

Today many aspects of Marx's positive theory seem unsustainable. The theory of exploitation's exclusive focus on workers' exploitation is excessively narrow in light of other salient forms of oppression and injustice. It also appears to be misguided because the working class has failed in its role as the revolutionary agent of socialism. But even if Marx's theory cannot sustain the kind of grand ambitions he had for it, it is still useful as an ingredient of contemporary social philosophy. A more modest version of Marx's theory of exploitation in which the normative aspects are more fully developed and in which the explanatory pretensions of the concept of exploitation are somewhat deflated, is the sort of theory that socialists philosophers should focus on. A normative theory of exploitation grounded in a positive social theory remains a desirable goal and would be a corrective to the currently dominate liberal theories of justice that largely ignore exploitation.

As noted earlier, in his descriptions of the relationship between workers and the owners of the means of production in Capital, Vol. I, Marx frequently refers to that relation as involving theft, robbery, and embezzlement, thus connecting exploitation with the notions injustice and rightful entitlement. A person is robbed or has something stolen or embezzled only if that person has some rightful claim to the object in question. For Marx, the entitlement in question is not is legally defined; workers are not legally entitled to the fruits of their labors. Thus, the argument must appeal to moral considerations. Further evidence for attributing the entitlement conception to Marx is provided by his repeated depictions of the exchange between worker and capitalist as one in which there is unpaid labor, appropriation of surplus product and surplus labor, and where equal is not returned for equal. For example, in the section on "The Process of Capital Accumulation" in Capital, Vol. I, Marx distinguishes between the formation of "original capital" and an "additional capital" formed on the basis of exploited, unpaid labor:

The original capital was formed by the advance of 10, 000. How did the owner become possessed of it? "By his own labour and that of his forefathers," answer unanimously the spokesmen of Political Economy. And, in fact, their supposition appears the only one consonant with the laws of the production of commodities. But it is quite different with regard to the additional capital of 2,000. How that originated we know perfectly well. There is not one single atom of its value that does not owe its existence to unpaid labour. The means of production, with which the additional labour power is incorporated, as well as the necessaries with which the labourers are sustained, are nothing but component parts of the surplus-product, of the tribute annually exacted from the working class by the capitalist class. Though the latter with a portion of that tribute purchases the additional labour-power even at its full price, so that equivalent is exchanged for equivalent, yet the transaction is for all that only the old dodge of every conqueror who buys commodities from the conquered with the money he has robbed them of. (5)

The idea that labor is unpaid or uncompensated implies the violation of a right to be paid or compensated. That there is such a right is also evident in Marx's critical discussion of the so-called labor fund which he says is based upon the dogma that "the labourer has no right to interfere in the division of social wealth into the means of enjoyment for the non-labourer and the means of production." (6) Marx plainly intends to reject the dogma on which the labor fund rests and hence to assert that workers have the right to interfere in the division of social wealth. He refers to "surplus-product" as being "embezzled, because abstracted without return of an equivalent, from the English labourer" (7) and in a footnote, approvingly cites John Stuart Mill's complaint that the product of labor is distributed inversely to the amount of labor put forth. Mill's point is that this state of affairs is reverse of what it should be: those working hardest should receive a greater share of the surplus product than non-toilers. (8)

A second point is that the notion that exploitation is wrongful because it violates workers' rights is susceptible to different interpretations. The passage from Mill suggests a utilitarian defense of the idea that workers are entitled to wages proportional to their labor contribution. G.A. Cohen has argued that Marx's concept of exploitation rests on something like a libertarian notion of self-ownership. (9) John Roemer has argued that exploitation is unjust if it rests on an original capital that was unjustly acquired. (10) Jeffrey Reiman and Nancy Holmstrom have grounded the charge of exploitation on that claim that surplus labor is forced from workers in capitalism. (11) In previous work I have argued that liberal egalitarian premises can be used in explaining the wrongfulness of capitalist exploitation. (12) My aim here is not to evaluate these different approaches to the connection between Marxist exploitation and justice. Rather, I want to stress that they all fall squarely within the conceptual framework of liberal or even libertarian theories of justice. They don't require a specific Marxist conception of the good life as a philosophical presupposition.

The expressivist objection to exploitation focuses not on the notion of rightful entitlement, but rather on the social relations exploitation involves. Exploitation is objectionable not because of the distributive outcomes it generates or is based upon, but because it involves social relations in which agents view the needs of others as levers manipulated for their own private advantage. Each agent views his or her own capacities as powers to be used to take advantage of others, rather than as powers either to be developed for their own sake or as powers to be used for the common good. That there is such a normative ideal in Marx and that it is at the basis of his objection to exploitation can be supported by considering his discussion of utilitarianism as a theory of "mutual exploitation" in which all human relations are merged into the relation of utility where the utility relation is understood to mean that "I derive benefit for myself by doing harm to someone else (exploitation de l'homme par l'homme)". (13) Marx goes on to say of the bourgeois consciousness, of which he believes utilitarianism a theoretical reflection, that for it "...only one relation is valid on its own account--the relation of exploitation; all other relations have validity for him only insofar as he can include them under this one relation, and even where he encounters relations which cannot be directly subordinated to the relation of exploitation, he does at least subordinate them to it in his imagination." (14) The objection here is to the quality of social relations involved in capitalist exploitation, rather than the fact that such exploitation generates unjustified inequalities. Even if such unjust inequalities were eliminated, Marx would still object to the quality of market social relations because they would continue to be predicated on a kind of self-seeking egoism contrary to the requirement of a true community. This is clear from his objection to "mutual exploitation." (15)

The distinction between expressive and entitlement objections to exploitation for which I have argued is not only important for Marx interpretation, but has relevance for current debates about market and non-market forms of socialism. There are different versions of the institutional arrangements of market socialism, but the animating idea behind them all seems to be the assumption that centrally planned economies are both impractical and undesirable and therefore that the best vehicle for socialist aspiration in the contemporary world is a market economy conjoined with various socialist principles--in particular social or cooperative ownership of the means of production. The idea is to use the incentive and informational properties of markets, but to place such markets within a socialist structure. Such a system would eliminate capitalist exploitation of the traditional sort because it would largely abolish private ownership of the means of production. Perhaps new forms of socialist exploitation would arise, either because some workers' cooperatives would exploit other such cooperatives or in virtue of the continued existence of a labor market where more talented individuals would exploit less talented. However, it is clear that market socialism would not abolish all market relations and hence would not achieve the communitarian social relations at the basis of the expressivist objection to exploitation. Competition would still exist, individuals would compete in the labor market, and they would be guided by market incentives. Tax policy could be employed to reduce the inequalities that such markets would generate, but this would not eliminate the market ethos, and it is this ethos itself that seems subject to the expressivist critique. The expressivist objection would support an argument against market socialism on the grounds that the continued reliance on the market would violate the communitarian ideal that it expresses. Simply eliminating private ownership of the means of production and hence capitalist exploitation would not by itself guarantee the achievement of the values of community and the form of social relations envisioned in the expressivist ideal. On the other hand, to realize this more communitarian vision of social relations it would seem necessary to violate the requirement of the ideal of political neutrality that is at the heart of liberal theories of justice. The entitlement conception, however, relies on no such idealized social relations and hence does not violate political neutrality. This last point needs to be recognized by liberals, who believe Marxist normative theory relies on a perfectionist account of the good and hence runs afoul of liberal strictures regarding political neutrality. But it also needs to be recognized by Marxists who believe that their deepest normative commitments require that they reject the ideal of liberal political neutrality. While this is true of the value commitments supporting the expressivist objection, it is not true of those supporting the entitlement objection.

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(1) I borrow the term "expressivism" from Charles Taylor who uses it to refer to the movement against Enlightenment thought that objected to the view of man as a "...subject of egoistic desires, for which nature and society provided merely the means to fulfillment." Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1979), p. 1.

(2) Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I (International Publishers: New York, 1967), p. 226

(3) Capital, Vol. I, p. 209

(4) This is not to say that Marx had a worked out account of its normative content. Indeed, he says that his critique of capitalism is not normative in character and that it is a mistake to base radical politics on moral critique. The point is that normative content is implicit in his concept of exploitation.

(5) Capital, Vol. I, pp. 545-6.

(6) Capital, Vol. I, p. 572.

(7) Capital, Vol. I, p. 573.

(8) Capital, Vol. I, p. 572. That there is some such principle of entitlement at the basis of Marx's concept of exploitation is also suggested by the contribution principle he puts forth in the Critique of the Gotha Programme.

(9) G.A. Cohen, "Marxism and Contemporary Political Philosophy, or: Why Nozick Exercises Some Marxists More than He Does Any Egalitarian Liberals," Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 16 (1990), 363-87.

(10) John Roemer, "Should Marxists Be Interested in Exploitation?" Philosophy and Public Affairs, 11 (1985), 30-65.

(11) Nancy Holmstrom, "Exploitation," Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 7 (1977), pp. 353-69; Jeffrey Reiman, "Exploitation, Force, and the Moral Assessment of Capitalism: Thoughts on Roemer and Cohen," Philosophy and Public Affairs, 16 (1987), pp. 3-41.

(12) Paul Warren, "Should Marxists Be Liberal Egalitarians?," The Journal of Political Philosophy, 5 (1997), pp. 47-68.

(13) Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, (International Publishers: United States, 1947) p. 110. Whether Marx's interpretation of utilitarianism is fair is not the issue here.

(14) The German Ideology, p. 111.

(15) Space constraints prevent me from more fully explicating Marx's expressivist objection to exploitation. It can be found in Marx's "On the Jewish Question", "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts" and in the Needs Principle that he advances in the Critique of the Gotha Programm.

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