Which workers do you think of when you hear the word “exploitation”? The list will include contracted-out workers for some of the biggest brand names — Nike, Primark, Apple — domestic servants, immigrant farm hands, workers who toil hour upon hour for a pittance in pay. They live under constant threats, they work in dangerous conditions, and many are forced to live like indentured slaves.
The bosses who employ these super-exploited workers can make a lot of money very quickly. But making a profit from production does not rely on such extreme conditions. The owners of fully unionised workplaces with decent levels of pay and an eight hour working day still make profits — and very large ones!
How? And are those “normal” profits free of exploitation? Are they are a fair reward for “capital”, or “entrepreneurship”, or “risk-taking”?
Karl Marx argued that the relationship between workers and the people who own the means of production — workplaces and the tools and machines used in them — is always based on an unequal exchange. Exploitation is not just something that happens to exceptionally badly-off workers, but the basic relation between those two big social classes as a whole.
Labour in capitalist society has a twofold character. Firstly, it is a “concrete” or particular activity creating particular goods or services (use-values). Building a house or assembling a computer are both labour, but no amount of bricklaying will produce a computer, and you can’t build a house out of microchips.
Secondly, labour has an abstract character. It is the using-up of a certain amount of society’s pool of labour-power (capacity to work).
Houses and computers are equated in exchange — say, five hundred computers “equal” one house — because in the market they count as embodiments of different quantities of abstract labour, that is, of labour measured as the number of hours of social labour-time required to produce them, on average. That makes it possible to measure them on a common standard despite the fact that their use-values, and the “concrete” labours embodied in them, are incommensurable.
We talk, and often think, as if our wages pay for what we produce, or for our labour. In fact they pay for our labour-power. Workers own our labour-power and can sell it.
What we produce is not our property, to be sold by us to the capitalist, but the capitalist’s property from the start.
We cannot sell our labour to the capitalist because before the capitalist buys our labour-power our labour does not exist, and is not even possible (because we, the workers, do not have the means of production). Our labour is not what we sell, but the process of the capitalist “consuming” the labour-power he has bought from us.
Our labour-power is bought and sold like other commodities, at a rate broadly governed by the quantity of abstract social labour embodied in reproducing labour-power, i.e. in producing the equivalent of a “living wage” which enables the labour-power to be available again next week or next month.
In return for that limited pittance — which may be smaller or larger, paid in full or short-changed — the capitalist gets a commodity, labour-power, which has the unique property of being the basic creative force of society and embodying the social capacity to produce not only pittances but also ever more varied and ever more lavish wealth.
The inequality in the exchange arises from the social fact of labour-power being a commodity, in a commodity-dominated society, not from the fluctuations in the price at which that commodity is sold.
Marx wrote that to indict capitalism solely on the basis of low wages would be “as if, among slaves who have at last got behind the secret of slavery and broken out in rebellion, a slave still in thrall to obsolete notions were to inscribe on the programme of the rebellion: slavery must be abolished because the feeding of the slaves in the system of slavery cannot exceed a certain low minimum”.
Or again, that a rise in wages “as a consequence of the accumulation of capital only means, in fact, that the length and weight of the golden chain the wage-worker has already forged for himself, allow of a relaxation of the tension of it”.
Only a temporary and only a partial relaxation, too, because built-in to the relation of exploitation between classes is a drive by capital always to maximise profits by maximising the “surplus” which is measured by the difference between labour done (or “value added” by labour) and the labour-equivalent paid for labour-power, or wages.
Capitalism is mass exploitation. All the wealth of the capitalist class and of their state comes from that surplus labour. We, the working class, created the massive wealth now concentrated in the hands of a tiny band of thieves and exploiters.
Ending this or that pocket of low wages is important. But the exploitation of one whole social class by another can be achieved only by replacing production based on wage-labour by production through the free cooperation of equals.
• Further reading: Karl Marx, Wage Labour and Capital.