Exploitation: Étienne Balibar

This leads me to a first consideration: any rigorous use of the category “exploitation” should be subjected to a syntactic and semantic question that is a logical preliminary: who or what exploits whom or what? There is ambiguity both on the side of the subject and on the side of the object. On the side of the subject, the issue may seem relatively innocuous, at least from a Marxist point of view, since we have become accustomed to thinking that, essentially, it is a system or a structure called capitalism or “capital” that causes exploitation and the benefits that arise from it, for the sake of its accumulation, Capitalism’s “agents” – the capitalists – are mere instruments, even when they enjoy privileges linked to their function. I will return to this.

The issue of the object is far more sensitive and complicated. Our political uses of the language of exploitation impose the idea that it is human beings or persons that are exploited, insofar as they must serve others or work for others, or for a system that dominates them. But the Marxist critique explains that what is in fact exploited is the labor force that the workers or the proletarians possess within themselves, and which they must sell to capital. Hence it is in fact a thing that their person “harbors” or contains. But this formulation is too naturalistic or mechanistic: more properly, for Marxism, what is exploited is a part of the workers – a living capacity – that, for the sake of this exploitation, becomes reifed or transformed into a “thing” — both in the sense that it is legally owned, sold and bought, and in the sense that it is technically shaped, controlled and manipulated. Here we see the understanding of exploitation as essentially a form of domination, projected into the field of economic relations, shifting towards a more specific and more profound understanding as a process of alienation. This is exploitation as an inversion of personal relations into relations among things, as Marx notoriously explained in the chapter on the fetishism of commodities.

But this beautiful demonstration also leads to problems, which become very apparent today. It is an essential part of Marx’s demonstration in Capital to explain that the only “source” of surplus-value, Mehrwert, is surplus-labor, Mehrarbeit, which is to say, surplus-value only arises through the alienation and domination of human productive activity. There can be no other source because “value” itself is the expression of an expenditure of labor that is socially necessary. This explains why, however eloquent it sounds, the phrase on the destruction of the “two sources of wealth,” human labor force and the earth, remains isolated. It is a moral judgment on the effects of capitalism, but it is not integrated into the axioms of the theory.

However, this formula sounds prophetic today because we discover that the destruction of the environment is at the same time intrinsic to the mode of production and a major threat to the life of humans themselves (and needless to say, their productive capacity as well). We are thus tempted to broaden the notion of exploitation in order to incorporate an exploitation of nature as well as an exploitation of the human labor force within its range.

But here we face a dilemma. For this to have a Marxist sense, it is necessary that the phenomenon of the exploitation of nature, or the natural “things,” is also an intrinsic part of the creation and accumulation of capital, i.e. of the production and valorization of value. Nature has to be “productive,” even if it is not the only productive force, as in the old “Physiocratic” theory. This makes no sense within the theory of Marx’s Capital, since these natural things are used, appropriated, and ultimately destroyed by labor, but they are not themselves “living” labor. So we must either drop the notion of exploitation or drop the notion of value, unless we find a way to transform the concept of “labor” and “labor force” itself, in order to incorporate in its definition something like a reciprocity of natural and human actions (which would no longer be a ”humanist” concept of labor): a “third way” as it were which is the most difficult, but also in my eyes the most promising. This is what, in the excellent formulation of David Harvey, I would call a point of stress of Marxist theory, or Marxist axiomatics.5

In the same spirit, let me now examine a second question. According to Marx, exploitation indeed has a history. In fact, it means nothing outside of its history: the emergence, development, and transformation of its forms, arising from their internal and external contradictions. Already the famous phrase at the beginning of the Communist Manifesto (which has a direct Saint-Simonian ancestry) expresses this intrinsic historicity, in that it identifies every past and present “history” with the “history of class struggles,” and is then followed by an enumeration of the typical figures of a relationship between exploiters and exploited, which are each time depending on a new mode of production.

As I mentioned earlier, this served to reverse the “progressive” vision of the history of human emancipation shared by the Saint-Simonians and other Enlightenment philosophers and replace it with a different concept of progress, whereby – as Marx also wrote in a contemporary text – l’histoire avance par le mauvais côté.6 As we know, this came to be developed later in the form of a complete problematic of the modes of production, which are also, each time, modes of exploitation in a new form, or even in a new sense. I am not interested in discussing the details of the modes of production now, however important this may be for the social sciences, nor in criticizing the scholastic aspect of the typology of modes of production in historical Marxism, which, we should not forget, has never been independent of its political uses. But I am interested in highlighting two conceptual implications and, once again, a point of stress.

5. David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Volume 2 (London: Verso, 2013), 173, 188, etc.

6. He wrote it in French: Karl Marx, Misère de la philosophie (Paris: A. Frank, 1847).

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