Exploitation: Étienne Balibar

The two implications are linked: they concern the articulation of exploitation and over-exploitation, and the distinction (or non-distinction) of the political conditions and the economic modalities of exploitation. Exploitation and over-exploitation are distinct notions, abstractly speaking, and this distinction really matters because, as Marx is never tired of explaining, exploitation in capitalism is not the result of an injustice, in the sense of violating legal and moral norms; it is not a fraud or an arbitrary violence. The violence is already involved in the “normal” exploitation wherein workers are paid wages that correspond to the value of their labor force. It is the result of a “fair” contract.

However, as every reader of Capital knows well, the distinction of exploitation and overexploitation is difficult to inscribe in the pragmatic organization and history of labor, because every method for the production of surplus value, which means a specific modality of extracting surplus labor beyond “necessary labor,” either leads to overwork and overexploitation (Marx particularly refers to the endless prolongation of the working day) or always already introduces forms of overexploitation inside the organization of the productive forces. This latter point can be seen, for example, in the combined intensification and increased productivity that characterizes all phases of the industrial revolution (there are amazing anticipations of Taylorism when Marx describes the “factory system” in Volume One of Capital). This means very concretely (and tragically) that the physical, moral, and psychic integrity of the human workforce is continuously threatened by the conditions of its capitalist use (without which it is not even a workforce).

I propose to express this situation by saying that what characterizes capitalism is a normalization of overexploitation. The reverse side of this is a class struggle that tends to impose limits, establishing, as it were, “normal conditions of exploitation,” which for that reason, are deprived of any technical or economic objective criterion, but merely express an unstable relationship of forces between the tendency towards over-exploitation and the counter-tendency or resistance which reduces it. The same idea could be expressed in terms of violence, extreme violence, and anti-violence.7

It is important to understand the anthropological meaning of the historical perspective on the succession of modes of production here. We do not have criteria to compare the degrees of violence linked to exploitation in different historical periods or societies in an absolute manner, but we have the possibility to demonstrate that there is no such thing as a law of irreversible progress: there is no spontaneous economic development which would result in a progressive civilization or humanization of exploitation in history, except and inasmuch as a collective capacity of resistance is built, and is favored by external conditions. Suffice it to look at the contemporary examples of forced labor during the construction of the World Cup stadiums in Qatar, or the suicides of overworked technicians in French and Chinese electronic factories, to illustrate this remark.8

This leads me to a second consideration. A crucial aspect of Marx’s Darstellung of capitalism in his work relies on comparisons between the capital-wage labor relation and the corresponding relations among “immediate producers” and “owners of the means of production” in other modes, particularly slavery (ancient or modern), and feudalism (based on the imposition of “corvée” on peasants or valets). The immediate aim of these comparisons is to single out the permanence of a distinction between “necessary labor” and “surplus labor” in every form of exploitation, with or without a transformation of labor into a commodity.

A further aim is to highlight aspects of capitalist exploitation (and overexploitation), which are either akin to a perpetuation of feudalism, or to a reproduction of slavery in a new form. And as a consequence they help us to understand which aspects of capitalism are better analyzed in terms of domination, and which in terms of alienation, since feudalism or bondage is the archetypical form of a process of exploitation whose condition is the institution of an anthropological hierarchy. Slavery (especially chattel slavery), on the other hand, is the extreme form of alienation, in which the person not only harbors a capacity that becomes reified as a labor force; more radically, the labor force becomes a thing, juridically and fantastically.

But, as Emmanuel Terray explained in a remarkable essay on “Exploitation et domination dans la pensée de Marx,” this comparison is also the key to understanding the articulation of the “economic” and the “political” aspects in the analysis of modes of exploitation and their transformations.9 Terray’s discussion is based on the famous passage in Volume Three of Capital, where Marx asserted that

The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus labor is pumped out of the direct producers, determines the relation of rulers and ruled, as it grows immediately out of production itself and reacts upon it as a determining element . . . It is always the direct relation of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers, which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden foundation of the entire social construction, and with it of the political form of the relations between sovereignty and dependence.10

7. See my Wellek Library Lectures from 1996, now published in French with other essays as Violence et Civilité (Paris: Editions Galilée, 2010). (The English version is forthcoming with Columbia University Press, 2015).

8. See the following articles http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/25/revealed-qatars-world-cup-slaves; http://gigaom.com/2012/07/05/former-france-telecom-ceo-indicted-over-35-suicides/; http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/05/woman-nearly-died-making-ipad; see also Christophe Dejours and Florence Bègue, Suicides au travail, (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2009).

9. The essay is now reproduced in his book Combats avec Méduse (Paris: Galilée, 2011), 149-167.

10. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume III, Chapter 47: “The Genesis of the Capitalist Ground-Rent” (London: Penguin, 1990). §2: The Labour-Rent. Here is the corresponding German: “Die spezifische ökonomische Form, in der unbezahlte Mehrarbeit aus den unmittelbaren Produzenten ausgepumpt wird, bestimmt das Herrschafts- und Knechtschaftsverhältnis, wie es unmittelbar aus der Produktion selbst hervorwächst und seinerseits bestimmend auf sie zurückwirkt … Es ist jedesmal das unmittelbare Verhältnis der Eigentümer der Produktionsbedingungen zu den unmittelbaren Produzenten … worin wir das innerste Geheimnis, die verborgne Grundlage der ganzen gesellschaftlichen Konstruktion und daher auch der politischen Form des Souveränitäts- und Abhängigkeitsverhältnisses … finden.”

« Previous // Next »