Exploitation: Étienne Balibar


As a consequence of the discussions and after-thoughts which occurred to me during the conference at Brown University, I want to add three remarks, which will serve only to remind us of the necessity of a more complete development.

First, what I have been trying to illustrate is indeed a relational conception of “concepts.” This is not incompatible with the idea that concepts require “proper names” that serve to attach (provisionally) an effort of definition and a movement of problematization (therefore different, if not divergent temporalities and intentionalities). A distinction of concepts and terms, as proposed by Adi Ophir, seems to me very useful here, provided we agree to incorporate into its elaboration, not only the articulation of a performance of concepts and the circulation of terms, but also an articulation of their respective multiplicities. To elicit a “single concept” for definition or investigation (as proposed by the Lexicon in its charter, and as we all agree to do it, following the “rules of the game”) is always to make a strategic choice in the field of theory, for which the multiplicity of terms offered by the historical “uses” or “language games,” is the only possible experimental terrain. It is not, therefore, to identify an “idea” or “essence” with an ontological foundation — unless we move towards an “ontology of relations” in the epistemological field as well.

Second, in the current essay (very imperfect, I am aware), the underlying network of notions (each susceptible to become selected as a concept for definition and problematization), which was suggested by the reading of Marx (rather: by successive readings of Marx), can be presented as a crossing of two axes which intersect in a “point of condensation” marked by the name “surplus-value” (more precisely: the doublet “surplus-value”/”surplus-labor,” which already indicates a complexity, an internal “dialectic” of terms). One axis joins the question of “domination” to the question of “alienation” — which is a great antithesis of Modern political philosophy (since Hobbes and Rousseau). The other axis joins the notions of “exploitation” to that of “accumulation” (or capital), which arises from the critique of political economy. The indicative topography is therefore something like this:

Domination * surplus-labor/value * Alienation
Accumulation (capital)

Third, the antithesis of domination and alienation (which crystallized in the philosophical tradition with Hobbes and Rousseau, passing to Hegel and Marx himself, but also Simmel, Weber, and Lukacs, etc.) represents an opposition of two modes of subjection: one centered on “persons” and the other centered on “things” or reified actions and agencies. It is an extremely general one, which can be retrieved in many different domains of politics, anthropology, and culture. It also has affinities with other antitheses around which the discourses of political philosophy become organized: I am thinking in particular of the recent (but in fact already classical) discussion of “justice as redistribution” and “justice as recognition,” famously illustrated by the Honneth-Fraser debate.19

On the other hand, the antithesis of “exploitation” and “accumulation,” whose genealogy I have partially reconstructed through the indication of the shift in “semantic” content and “pragmatic” orientation, and which took place in the transition from the Saint-Simonian to the Marxian discourse, is a very specific one, linked to the critique of political economy (which is itself, of course, at the same time a political and an epistemological critique). As I was retrieving the “points of stress” that affect the Marxian construction of surplus-value as an expression of the exploitation of labor for the sake of accumulation (with the help of various debates where the “unthought” of Marx’s axioms became perceptible), I became more aware of the fact that what is at stake is the sheer possibility of offering a political theory (even a political theory for the emancipation of all forms of “domination” and “alienation”) on the basis of the analysis of the exploitation of labor, which is what Marx selected as foundation for his critique. This is a strategic choice, which determines the way in which the concepts are defined.

If one asks whether this is the only possible choice (or even the best in every circumstance), the answer is clearly: No. One could also relate this situation to the fact that, in Althusser’s terms, Marxism is a “finite theory.”20 However, the “limits” of that theory are not given in advance. They vary (shrink or expand) with the possibilities of making labor (with its correlatives) a political concept. Neither are its possibilities of application, which depend on changes in the historical realities themselves. One must be aware that a Marxist problematic of “exploitation” is not the only possible one, and that it is an open problematic, an instrument of problematization. Hence the importance of such thought experiments as carried on in this essay, which attempt a reconstruction that is also a variation.


Etienne Balibar has been teaching at the Universities of Algiers, Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne), Leiden, Nanterre (Paris 10), Birkbeck College (London) and the Centro Franco-Argentino de Altos Estudios de la Universidad de Buenos-Aires (Argentina). He is currently Anniversary Chair of Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University (London) and Visiting Professor at Columbia University, New-York. He is also the acting chair of Association Jan Hus France.


Published on May 15, 2013

19. Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth, Redistribution or Recognition: A Political-Philosophical Exchange. (London: Verso, 2003).

20. Louis Althusser, “Le marxisme aujourd’hui,” in Solitude de Machiavel et autres texts (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1998), 292–310; translated. as “Marxism Today” in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists (London: Verso, 1990).

« Previous //