Equality : Collaboration

3.3. Exploitation as a Qualification of Unequal Social Relations

What does it mean, then, to argue that a certain society is founded upon inequality? Here we believe one has to resort to additional concepts, in order to qualify the specific kind of scandalous relations of interdependence that are at stake. Young proposes a tentative taxonomy of five such relations—exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence—which she places under the “family names” oppression, subordination, and domination.26

The following discussion will focus on the concept of exploitation, going beyond the relatively brief discussion offered by Young. Much like our discussion of structural inequality, we wish to suggest a distinction between two paradigms of exploitation, each of which relies on a different interpretation of the principle of equality. Once again, at the center of our attempt to define exploitation is the effort to provide a more accurate formulation of the “scandalous root” it involves. We should be clear that exploitation serves here as but an example for qualifying one particular category of unequal social relations, and that we by no means think it can account for every kind of inequality. We do believe, however, that the move presented here with respect to exploitation can also be applied to other forms of inequality.

We would like to begin with the classic Marxist definition of exploitation as the appropriation of the fruits of the labor of others against their will, in a manner that necessarily involves some form of coercion. According to the standard Marxist narrative, in capitalist society this coercive dimension is masked by two main claims. First, the claim that the labor contract between employers and employees expresses the will of two parties who are equal before the law to freely enter into these relations. Second, the claim that the share of the capitalists in the product does not constitute a violent appropriation, but represents the relative share they legitimately deserve, based on their relative contribution to the production process (which means, primarily, the fact that they supply the means of production and assume the risk of investing their capital).

Marxists counter the second claim with the labor theory of value along with the idea of surplus value: The value of a commodity is determined by the amount of labor necessary for its production, and the difference between the value of the labor time (qua commodity) and the value of the commodity that labor produces is the surplus value, which is the profit the capitalist appropriates.27 With respect to the first claim, Marxists argue that the unequal distribution of ownership of means of production generates a structural inequality, which implies that the contract in question is not one between two independent, free parties. If workers believe the labor contract does express their free will, they are merely expressing false consciousness.

The labor theory of value, however, does not appear to withstand the critique according to which it fails to sufficiently account for the place of non-labor factors, and for the translation of value into price. This implies, in turn, that the concept of exploitation cannot rely on this theory. The idea of false consciousness has also been subject to critique in light of its repressive potential, ascribing to the theorist the position of knowing better than the workers what is good for them, thereby negating their political agency as subjects who might become aware of their condition and demand its transformation. As a result of such critiques, several thinkers have attempted to develop a concept of exploitation that relies solely on the unequal ownership of means of production.

Aage Sørensen, for example, suggests that the unequal ownership of means of production allows those owners (capitalists) to sell commodities for more than what would have been their ideal price under conditions of perfect competition. He goes on to define exploitation as “structural locations that provide rights to rent-producing assets.”28 While this definition has the advantage of pointing to the structural nature of exploitation, it might apply just as well to, for instance, those people who receive transfer funds (e.g. unemployment), or to workers who enjoy structural benefits that result from collective bargaining positions.

26. We fully agree with Young that such a taxonomy of unequal social relations might very well remain open-ended. For example, we tend to think that the category of dispossession is not covered by the other forms of oppression listed by Young. See, for example, David Harvey, “Accumulation by Dispossession,” in The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

27. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1 (New York: Penguin, 1981).

28. Aage Sørensen, “Toward a Sounder Basis for Class Analysis,” American Journal of Sociology 105 (2000): 1523-1558, 1525.

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