Exploitation: Étienne Balibar

Artist / Title
Nicolas Samori / Il vizio della Croce

Étienne Balibar : Exploitation

When I proposed “exploitation” as a contribution for this conference, I thought I would vindicate the political character of Marxism in the framework of an Encyclopedia of “political concepts” in the making, since everybody knows that this is one of Marxism’s central notions and that it characterizes Marxism’s way of overcoming separations between disciplinary fields and idioms.1 Hence, the concept of exploitation underpins our conviction that Marxism is an important reference for Critical Theory. For political theorists, exploitation appears as an “economic” concept, or is at least fraught with economicism. It is much less easily incorporated in debates on “justice” than inequality or discrimination. For economists, even if they are not “orthodox” or mainstream, it is a political and ideological concept, which relies more on partisan choices and humanist assumptions than verifiable hypotheses.

But isn’t it precisely this kind of non-dialectical alternative that Marxism wanted to overcome? This is also, however, what constitutes its fragility in today’s conversations, insofar as the technical support for a theory of capitalist exploitation—namely the concept of surplus-value (in German, Mehrwert) that Marx coined in his “Critique of Political Economy” — seems to rely on a prerequisite which is either too speculative, or too narrow to account for contemporary manifestations of social domination and alienation in our societies, namely what falls under the labor-theory of value.

It is in part to address this difficulty from a broader point of view (which, for want of a better etiquette, I will call anthropological) that I had thought of offering a more complex title, namely “exploitation and domination.” I was nicely rebuked by the organizers of this conference, who told me that the rule was to discuss only one concept at a time. I bowed before the discipline, but in fact I disagree, because I am firmly convinced (as in fact they are themselves) that concepts only work in correlations, whose displacements and condensations make it possible to insert them in different problematics, and this is in fact what we want to investigate in our Encyclopedia. So I maintain my doublet as an implicit indication of where I want to go, and even I seize the occasion to make it more complex: my objective will be to discuss the unstable correlation of exploitation, domination, and alienation.

I believe that the Marxist problematic of exploitation has been oscillating between tendencies to essentially read it as domination, and tendencies to read it as alienation. And I submit that it is inasmuch as we reopen the question of their overlapping and their interdependencies that we may reach a better understanding of what Marx contributes and what he leaves open for a critical articulation of the economic and the political in the present. I will try to do it in two steps, limiting myself to very schematic and provisory indications indeed.

My first point begins with etymologies and uses. Allow me to recall two famous jokes. One is a Soviet joke, alluding to quasi-official mantras at the time of “really existing socialism.” It goes like this: “What is capitalism?” asks a student or a child. The father or the teacher answers: “It’s the exploitation of man by man.” And what’s communism, then? Answer: it’s the opposite!” Note that no woman is there, or if there is, she is subsumed under the name “man.” I will return to this. The second joke is a “Bushism” that my compatriots heard with some surprise when George W. Bush was President of the United States(but perhaps they were too quick to laugh). “The French really don’t understand economic matters,” Dubya explained; “they don’t even have the word entrepreneur.” But maybe “entrepreneur” became a different word when migrating from French to American English?2 Terms such as “exploiter” or “expropriator” might also lead to surprises.

So let’s turn to etymology. I believe that Marx’s notion of exploitation comes immediately from the opposition between les exploitants and les exploités that the Saint-Simonians made use of, and which they applied to individuals—but especially to classes—and associated with a notion of antagonism.3 Note that, in French as in English, you can say “the dominants” and the “dominated,” changing an adjective into a noun in certain contexts, but not really “the alienants” and the “alienated.”

All this seems to locate a problematic of exploitation on the “political” side, a Master-Slave relationship or Herrschafts– und Knechtschaftsverhältnis as Marx would write in Hegelian language, which is not “impersonal” like commodity fetishism. This was the reason why the Saint-Simonians argued that exploitation essentially characterized pre-bourgeois societies and would wither away in the industrial society. Marx precisely objected to that, and he “reversed” the use of the opposition, to show that in capitalism the degree of exploitation is in fact increasing, leading to a historical climax, and not decreasing. But exploitant in French (especially in agriculture, where as a name it practically means a farmer) has a very wide use extending to any situation where you can say that you materially, economically, or morally draw on a resource for your own benefit. So you can “exploit” someone (or someone’s labor, skill, qualities, but also defects and weaknesses: vulnerability, poverty, naiveté, etc., of which you take advantage strategically), but you can also “exploit” a generic material resource (e.g. the fertility of the earth, or the ocean full of fish, or a rich mine, etc.) from which you extract a product through labor or appropriation.

The Saint-Simonians were industrialists who thought that the trend of modern history was to shift from “the exploitation of men” to the “exploitation of nature,” also called in a later jargon “the administration of things.” And although Marxism later resumed this formula to define “socialism,” it began with a more symmetric view, where capitalism exploits persons and things at the same time. Hence a famous passage in Volume One of Capital, which says that “capitalist production only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth: the soil (die Erde) and the worker.”4

1. This paper was presented at Brown University, Cogut Center for the Humanities, on November 15, 2013 as part of the Political Concepts Conference.

2. Its intellectual history is a fascinating chapter, particularly investigated by Hélène Vérin, Entrepreneurs, entreprises. Histoire d’une idée (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1982).

3. Exposition de la Doctrine Saint-Simonienne (par Saint-Amand Bazard et Olinde Rodrigues) (Paris: Marcel Rivière, 1924).

4. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One (London: Penguin, 1990), 638.

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