The misuse of 'exploitation'

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Sat Nov 12 09:13:38 MST 1994

On Sat, 12 Nov 1994, Lulu of the Lotus-Eaters wrote:

> Peter Bratsis responds to Justin Schwartz:
>    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.
> That was one of the things I found quite odd about Schwartz' quotes
> also.  In attempting to find where the old man says slaves are
> "exploited", he adduced quotes not saying anything about
> exploitation as such.  That said, I think I *do* remember some
> passages in _Theories of Surplus Value_ where Marx makes this sort
> of claim.  But Bratsis is certainly right that it's not entirely
> consistent in Marx.
> Either way, however, my original point about (female) housework not
> being exploitation in a Marxist sense is unaffected.  Insofar as
> there is a possible sense in which serfs/slaves are exploited, it is
> still only insofar as they are productive of commodities.  So, for
> example, the American antebellum slave who picks cotton which her
> owner resells may do a calculation of the number of labor-hours
> required for her sustinence inputs, versus those incorporated in the
> sale-price of the cotton.  Although not paid in cash, a similar
> rate-of-exploitation is calculable as for the wage-laborer picking
> crops "down north".  However, the "house slave" still doesn't enter
> into the exploitation relation (which of course doesn't suggest
> she's not *oppressed*).  Nothing is resold in the house slave's
> work, but merely directly consumed by the purchaser of the
> labor-power (purchased, in this case, on a lifetime basis).
> The essential point in defining exploitation is NOT the form of pay
> of the worker (i.e. wages vs. directly consumed items), but rather
> the production of commodities in the labor-process.  (Women's)
> housework is not categorically excluded from this category of
> exploitation, insofar as things like clothing, food are sometimes
> produced (non-waged) for resale, but neither is the "second shift"
> phenomenon tantamount to exploitation.  In general, when housework
> produces nothing resold, (Marxist) exploitation is just not a
> relevant category.

Lulu, we can quibble about Marx scholarship--as a Marx scholar I'm happy
to do this--but I actually do not think the real issue here is what Marx
said or meant. The question is whether the notion of exploitation is an
applicable one outside commodity contexts. It's an issue about what _we_
should mean. We may agree that workers are exploited by
capitalists--although this is in fact the hard case to show, as Marx
himself acknowledged. The further question is whether other groups are
placed in situations sufficiently relevantly analogous to charcterize
these, usefully, as exploitation, bearing in mind the sort of work that
the term does in Marx's theory of capitalism.

Here it seems clear to me that serfs and slaves are so placed, although
they are not capitalistically exploited: their masters and lords want
surplus product from them, not surplus value. It's not hard to state a
general definbition of exploitation which covers all three cases. I have
argued, moreover, that women are also so placed with regard to men, though
here what men get is neither surplus product nor value but direct surplus

You and Paul have been insisting on a stipulative definition. Well of
course you can define terms as you like, but so can I. Or maybe you have
been insisting on a scholarly point about how to read Marx. We can debate
about that. But shouldn't we be asking what we should be saying now? and I
have not heard any arguments that my extended sense of exploitation,
whether or not it is Marx's (though I think it is) is invalid. You just
say, it's not capitalistic. I agree.

So, substantive objections?



More information about the Marxism mailing list