The misuse of 'exploitation'

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Sat Nov 12 07:23:12 MST 1994

On Sat, 12 Nov 1994, Pete Bratsis wrote:

> Justin, I apologize if my last message was a bit too antagonistic.
> While I agree that we can find quotes within Marx that are not uniform
> in his use of the term 'exploitation', there is a reception history of
> Marx and a more or less consistent use of key concepts such as 'class',
> 'exploitation', etc.  I do not see how the quotes you give, however,
> support the case that Marx thinks that slaves and serfs where exploited.
> It does show that he thinks that there is surpluss production produced
> in feudal as well as capitalist societies, that labour as a commodity
> is unique in that you cannot seperated labour power form the person who
> 'ownes' it etc.  But, in your quote the term exploitation is absent.

Actually he doesn't use it all that much even in talking about wage labor.

> If Marx's theory of exploitation is equally aplicable
> to feudal as well as capitalit society - show me where Marx computes
> the rate of exploitation of serfs?  Is it possible to determine the
> rate of exploitation for anyone but producive labour under capitalism?

It's not because, although he says that the measure of labor is properly
is its time in all societies, it's only in commodity societies that this
is made "objective" and general because of markets. So the rate of
exploitation in serf societies and slave societies is local and variably
determined by local con\ditions. Anyway, he was not offering a political
economy of ancient slavery or serfdom but of capitalism. For an account of
the PE of serfdom, see, e.g., G.E.M. de St. Croix's The Class Struggle in
the Ancient World (a very great book). I don't know who's done work on the
PE of feudalism--maybe Robert Brenner. He has a new book I haven't read.
Well, there is Perry Anderson. In any event the inability to compute a
general rate of exploitation does not mean that it does not occur.

> I maintain that exploitation is a technical term (in its dominant
> use in the reception history of Marx) and refers only to the
> capitalist form of appropiating surpluss production.
> I do not care if you want to use the term 'exploitation' in a way not
> consistent with the way I understand its Marxist meaning to be.  But,
> say so and identify what you mean by it so we can avoid misunderstanding.
Well, we disagree about its Marxist meaning. I have explained precisely
what I mean and why I use the term, so you have no grounds for complaint.

> Furthermore, your debate with Tom is not a true debate.  Tom
> is relying on an expressive totality

I reject this Lukacsian terminology.

 and trying to show that the essence
> of modern society is the class antagonism of the prol. & capital which is
> expressed and present in every instance of modern soc. (including the
> family, gender relations, etc.).

I do not deny that class affects gender, etc. I do deny that modern
society has a unique essence. I think, though, that capitalist society is
usefully characterized in broadly Marxian terms (among others), as, among
other things, capitalist.

 You take the same basic position by
> arguing that the same logic of this prol. - cap. relation is present in
> every instance of society (at least when it comes to gender).  As such,
> even in your version, both accounts posit a SINGLE essence to modern
> societyin your version there is not a class as well gendered kinds
> of domination since the logic of the domination of gender is the SAME as
> the logic of class domination.

This I deny. Gender domination or subordination or whatever you want to
call it has aspects which are similar to capitalist domination or whatever
you want to call it, but, as I have said, it has its own logic and
dynamics which must be understood in its particularity and its relation to
capitalism. We have no good account of these relations.

  This is why I suggested going beyond
> Marxism in trying to understand the specifics of gendered domination.

So, we agree.

> Class reductionism is not avoided by means of recoqnizing the importance of
> things like gender and race - it also means granting them a logic that is
> particular and that is 'beyond' the logic of class domination.
Definitely. But as I have said, women being exploited does not constitute
them as a class.

--Justin Schwartz


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