Exploitation: Étienne Balibar

It is as if these moments and dispositifs did not exist, or their result would be automatic. Of course this is not the case, but the theory does not see it (except negatively inasmuch as the period of “individual” consumption necessary for the reproduction of the labor-force cannot be used for labor, or is “useless” for the capitalist, therefore must be reduced to a minimum) which is important nevertheless.15

Why this invisibility? Because an axiomatic distinction between productive and unproductive labor is featured among the axioms of the theory, which comes from Adam (Smith), and in fact erases Eve, or ejects her own life from consideration as falling under the category of “unproductive labor” — a “labor” or a service without which, however, no consumption and no reproduction of the labor force would have taken place in the anthropological structures of bourgeois society, and others (insofar as there would have been no cooking, no sewing, no pregnancy, no child rearing, no consolation of the exhausted and humiliated worker, etc.: not really “minor” conditions for the mode of production).

This is the point of stress I was talking about: because for the consistency of Marx’s demonstration in Capital it is necessary to assert a distinction between productive and unproductive labor, while at the same time, this distinction is incoherent from the perspective of the general notion of exploitation that is implicit in his comparisons and articulations of diverse modes of production. So, again, different “solutions” are possible, and they have been partially tried, of course. One of them is to jettison Marxism or declare it irrelevant, because Marx had expelled the exploitation of women from his vision of politics and history — a rather harsh punishment indeed. But perhaps this is paying too dear a price if it leads to abandoning an analytic instrument which, after all, has something to say about capitalism that no other discourse really explains, to my knowledge, and which also will concern women.

Another possibility that enjoyed a good reputation among Marxist anthropologists some decades ago, in the wake of remarks by Althusser and Claude Meillassoux in particular: to develop a theory of the “social formation” as an articulation of modes of production, which would also be an articulation of different modes of historicity, whereby every form of “economic” domination (including the capitalist one) also presupposes a form of “domestic” domination which reproduces it.16 This is also, of course, a way of reopening the syntactic question of “what” or “who” exploits whom or what, not only on the side of the objects but also on the side of the subjects (including the disturbing question whether exploited subjects can be also exploiters, even if on behalf of others). And it changes our anthropological image of a “system.” But perhaps it does not go far enough to analyze alienation, which includes dominations in the plural.

My guess — not really more than a guess — is that we should question the axiom itself, namely the distinction of productive and unproductive labor (which is obviously, profoundly linked to Marx’s articulation of philosophical anthropology and politics, since it does not only concern a distinction of “social spheres” in which social activities are displayed, but the intrinsic affinity of the worker and the revolutionary, or the agent of poièsis and the bearer of praxis).17

To articulate modes of production, of which one is a mode of producing the producer through the operations or uses of consumption, is of course a way to broaden and differentiate the very notion of “labor,” as was already the case with the destruction and “productivity” of nature in my first example. Feminists tended to express this differentiation in the form of a vindication: “we are productive too,” if not more productive, since we “reproduce.” I understand that kind of counter-interpellation very well. Maybe the reverse operation, which is speculatively thinkable, is worth attempting as well, namely reflecting on the “un-productivity” of social labor, without which there is no productivity or “reproductivity” in general.

This seems to evoke Bataille, for whom expenditure is essentially unproductive, neither for “use” nor for “exchange value,” but it is also compatible with much that is written today on the notion of “care,” although — compared to Marx’s articulation of the political, the economic, and the anthropological — the first seems very metaphysical, and the second often very psychological.18 Suffice it to have located as precisely as possible the theoretical point of stress and the bifurcations that it makes possible from within the Marxist problematic itself.

15. It is reduced to a minimum as long as consumption itself does not become an important source of profit through the development of mass consumption: the capitalist imperative is then to have workers (or rather: certain workers, concentrated in the “affluent regions” of the world) consuming as much as possible in as little time as possible. Together with the introduction of “indirect wage,” consisting of welfare benefits, this leads to a profound transformation of the “social relation of production” itself.

16. Claude Meillassoux, Maidens, Meal and Money: Capitalism and the Domestic Community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

17. It is on this point, we remember, that Hannah Arendt, not usually considered either a feminist or a Marxist, but an avid reader of Rosa Luxemburg and influenced in her critique of Marxism by the rejection of a “violent” notion of labor, advocated a return to the classical, Aristotelian, disjunctions of production and action.

18. It could be argued that this is precisely the dilemma that Michael Hardt has avoided through his concept of “affective labor,” elaborated in cooperation with Antonio Negri. See Michael Hardt, “Affective Labor,” boundary 2, 26:2 (1999), 89-100, which takes distances from Spivak’s notion of “affectively necessary labor”.

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