Equality : Collaboration
John Roemer takes a different approach: Group A is said to be exploited by group B if, had society were so organized that the ownership of means of production were egalitarian, group A would have benefitted whereas B would have gained less.29 Part of the problem with this definition is that it relates only to the initial distribution of means of production (roughly equivalent to Marx’s “primitive accumulation”), failing to highlight the ongoing nature of exploitative social-economic relations. Gerald Cohen seems to offer a better definition, which consists of the following conditions: (1) Workers are the ones who produce valuable goods; (2) capitalists accumulate a portion of that value; (3) workers receive in return less value than what they produced.30
One significant advantage of this definition is that it has no recourse to some ideal, hypothetical state of affairs (Sørensen’s ideal competition, or Roemer’s ideal distribution of means of production). Instead, it “directly” characterizes the nature of the structural inequality in question. Nevertheless, condition (1) still relies on the problematic labor theory of value.
This problem is overcome by Erik Olin Wright’s definition: (1) The material well-being of group B occurs at the expense of the well-being of group A; (2) this inverse relation depends upon the exclusion of group A from access to certain resources; (3) this exclusion enables group B to appropriate the labor effort of group A, thereby gaining a material advantage.31 According to this elegant definition, the scandalous element of the relations between A and B is not B’s appropriation of the “invisible object” of surplus value generated by A’s labor, but the inverse codependence of well-being between them. Nevertheless, condition (3), which relates this inverse codependence to the labor power of the exploited, still presupposes the problematic labor theory of value.
We would thus like to suggest the following correction to Wright’s definition: (1) The material well-being of group B occurs at the expense of the well-being of group A; (2) this inverse relation depends upon the exclusion of group A from access to certain resources; (3) the labor performed by group A is necessary for the process of production.
The advantage we see in this definition is that it has no recourse to the labor theory of value, hence also to the theory of surplus value. All it presupposes is that the cycle of production requires working hands (group A). More importantly, it avoids yet another problematic idea, which we have not pointed out so far, and which stands at the basis of most definitions of exploitation in the Marxist tradition. This is the idea according to which what makes the capitalists’ accumulation of the labor power of workers morally outrageous is the Lockean view of possessive individualism, namely the normative idea that everything a person manufactures is the sole ownership of that person, and hence its accumulation by others implies robbing that person of what belongs to them by right.
According to our interpretation, however, the scandal of exploitation is not (solely) a matter of depriving someone from what rightly belongs to them, namely of group B taking away what properly belongs to group A, but has to do with the fact that the greater (often also increasing) well-being of B depends on the lesser (often decreasing) well-being of A.
If we now “zoom out” to the wider concept of inequality, we believe this definition of exploitation helps shed light on the claim put forward by Anderson, Young and others that the object of the principle of equality, the focal point of the egalitarian view, is not the individuals or groups that make up society but rather the system of relations between them. A systematic concept of inequality emphasizes not the offsetting of differences resulting from being born into a lower class, nor from the violation of the Lockean principle of ownership over the fruits of one’s labor; nor does it ask whether the basic social structure treats all participants as equals. Instead it focuses on the inegalitarian nature of the interdependence between different kinds of participants.
29. John Roemer, A General Theory of Exploitation and Class (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).↩
30. Gerald A. Cohen, Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).↩
31. Erik Olin Wright, “The Shadow of Exploitation in Weber’s Class Analysis,” American Sociological Review 67 (2000): 832–857, 845.↩