Exploitation: Étienne Balibar

As Terray explains, the apparent thesis is that what distinguished capitalism from previous modes of production is the fact that they always needed an external political (and ideological) constraint to impose the domination of the exploiters on the exploited, an element which capitalism does not need (or only in a secondary manner, to control class struggles after the event), inasmuch as it relies on the alienation of the labor force, which is not political, but economic.

But a more profound or virtual thesis is that capitalism interiorizes the political conditions to the economic process itself: its “material” basis, the collective labor force with a “value” corresponding to necessary labor, is never a physical or natural element, but a social and cultural factor determined by class struggles, in a conflictual manner. To which we may add, in the spirit of the “workerist” analysis (from Italian operaismo), that the political State has roots in the “plan of capital” in the factories, or is less and less discernible from the modalities of “governance” of the class struggle within production itself.11 Domination and alienation are thus once again dialectically combined.

However there is something which, strangely, is missing from Terray’s discussion when he comes to the issue of the historical reproduction of the Labor force, again signaling what—after David Harvey—I call here a point of stress. This is the function of domestic labor, or in other terms, the articulation of exploitation with sexual difference, whose symptom is the double meaning of the name “reproduction” in our anthropological language, as indicated in particular with great clarity by Alys Eve Weinbaum.12 Of course this symptomatic omission is largely the result of Marx’s blindness to this question in his analysis of exploitation, which is the object of Terray’s commentary. But let’s see schematically how it affects the axiomatics of Marx’s discourse in significant developments.

I will refer first to the Communist Manifesto. As I recalled, the enumeration of modes of exploitation and class struggles which form the entrance gate of its philosophy of history directly echoes similar typologies of exploitants et exploités in the Saint-Simonian doctrine. However the Saint-Simonians (and more generally the romantic “utopian” socialists) always included the émancipation de la femme in the same vindication as the émancipation du prolétaire, which should have led Marx to include a patriarchic structure of domination and a domestic form of exploitation (both the exploitation of services and the exploitation of sexual and reproductive capacities) in his typology. But, in spite of later developments in the Manifesto on the fact that the bourgeoisie has perpetuated the enslavement of women and transformed marriage into a form of legal prostitution, Marx dropped this form of exploitation from his canonic series.13

It is not difficult to understand why: this is because patriarchy and domestic exploitation have a historicity and temporality that completely differ from the class structures described by Marx, one that cannot become inscribed in a successive order, whether linear or not, where they would feature as prior to something and posterior to some other thing, or as “dialectical” conditions for the emergence of certain political-economic forms of production, while resulting from the decomposition of others. So, if the domestic forms of exploitation had been kept in Marx’s scheme, his teleological philosophy of history or his alternative notion of progress would have been destroyed ab initio.

From there we can pass to the even more enigmatic symptom of the missing articulation in Capital. To put it simply, Marx’s definition of capitalist exploitation in terms of the conversion of surplus labor into surplus value (which in turn can become accumulated, provided it is “realized” in the circulation of commodities, making it possible to subject present or living labor to the rule of past or dead or accumulated labor), relies on the idea that, on average, capitalists pay wages which correspond to the “value of the labor force.”14

Most commentators focus on the question of the expression of living labor as value and surplus value. This expression depends on the length, intensity, and productivity of labor that is “socially necessary,” and therefore already involves serious problems of calculation, if it is to be understood in quantitative terms — which the very notion of “value” seems to impose. Others are concerned with the fact that, in Marx’s presentation, which relies on the idea of the “double character of labor,” every productive activity has a double function: on the one hand to “preserve” the value of the means of production, including the machinery, on the other, to produce a new value which includes both the value of the labor force and the surplus value. But nobody discusses the idea that “value of the labor force” and “value of the means of reproduction” are equivalent, if not identical, notions and necessarily express the same magnitude. This is of course an idea that comes from classical political economy. But there is more than that: to understand such an equivalence, we must suppose that the actual process of consumption (i.e. usage) where means of reproduction such as food, housing, education, love and care, birthing and nursing, etc. are “incorporated” into the capacities of a worker. This incorporation is theoretically (and therefore also politically) neutralized as an activity, an experience, a use of time and a kind of social cooperation.

11. See Mario Tronti, Operai E Capitale (Torino: G. Einaudi, 1966), “Il piano del capitale”, 60-85. Passages from Tronti’s major work translated into English are available on the web: https://operaismoinenglish.wordpress.com/category/mario-tronti/page/2/. An important critique of Tronti’s views is included in Bruno Trentin, La Cité Du Travail: La Gauche Et La Crise Du Fordisme (Nantes: Institut d’études avancées de Nantes, 2012).

12. Alys Eve Weinbaum, Wayward reproductions: Genealogies of Race and Nation in Transatlantic Modern Thought (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). She was preceded in particular by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her seminal article “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value,” Diacritics, Marx after Derrida, 15:4 (1985), 73-93. Spivak also asks the question of the relationship between “domination” and “exploitation.” See also the recent work by Silvia Federici, in particular Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004).

13. As we know, the idea of marriage as legal prostitution ultimately comes from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women from 1792.

14. Or, even more exactly, the “social capital,” das Gesamtkapital, continuously acquires the social labor force for its value, which is the value of all means of reproduction consumed by the labor force.

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