What is Exploitation?
The term “exploitation” conjures up images of workers toiling in sweatshops from sunup to sundown for pennies an hour. While this arrangement is a feature of capitalism, and was certainly very common when Marx was writing, his concept of exploitation is broader. For Marx, exploitation is not merely some horrific anomaly that crops up in capitalism from time to time. Rather, it forms the basis of the capitalist system .
In order to proceed, we must first give ourselves a basic definition of what exploitation is. For the purposes of this essay, exploitation will be defined as the forced expropriation of the unpaid labor of workers .
Certainly, this process is not unique to capitalism. It has been a feature of all societies in which the working class does not rule. In slavery, exploitation occurs on the surface, in a very obvious way. The slave owner provides just enough to keep the slave in good enough condition to work, all the while forcefully appropriating the fruits of the slave’s labor .
Similarly, feudal serfs work on a plot of land that belongs to the lord. They work for part of the time creating their means of subsistence, while the bulk of their time is spent providing for the lord. They receive nothing in return for the labor expended during this period . In this case, too, exploitation is obvious.
Capitalism creates a society in which exploitation is hidden in the wages system. Except in cases of fraud, the capitalist buys the labor power of the worker for a given amount of time. In return, the worker receives a sum of money known as a wage. It appears on the surface that an equal exchange has taken place. However, as Marx is so fond of pointing out, the way things appear is not always the way things are .
As we have established, the capitalist purchases, in addition to machinery and raw materials, labor power. Labor power is defined as increments of time in which the worker creates commodities for the capitalist, during which the capitalist has near-total control of the worker’s physical and mental faculties. It is, wrote Marx in the first volume of Capital, “The aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities, capabilities which [they] set in motion whenever [they] produce a use-value of any kind” . In other words, labor power is the capacity to work, to create value, which the worker is forced to sell to the capitalist by virtue of not owning means of production.
Labor power differs from labor, which is the actual process of value creation itself. Like the buyer of any other commodity, the capitalist claims the right to consume the commodity upon purchase. The consumption of labor power consists of controlling the worker during the labor process and ownership of the products created during the labor process . The distinction between labor power and labor is key to understanding Marx’s analysis of capitalism.
This arrangement has led to a profoundly unequal society. Over the past three decades, the wealth created by workers has increased, while their wages remain stagnant. Instead, a huge portion of the wealth created by workers has flowed into the pockets of capitalists, who already have an inordinate amount of money .
We have seen that capitalists purchase labor power from workers and that a wage is therefore the price of labor power. How is this price determined? Marx wrote in Wage Labor and Capital that the cost of labor power is “the cost required for the maintenance of the laborer and for [their]…training as a laborer” . In other words, the price of labor power is determined by the cost of food, clothing, housing and education at a level that is just high enough to keep the worker in the employ of the capitalist. This standard is determined by the outcome of struggles between the workers and the capitalists. The price must also account for the cost of propagating the next generation of workers.
These factors are completely independent of the actual value produced by the worker during the labor process. The worker is paid a wage that is less than the value produced during this process.
To take a simple example, let’s assume that the worker is able to produce in four hours one hundred dollars worth of value. This is also the amount that the capitalist paid the worker for their labor power. This is what Marx called necessary labor because it is the amount of labor required to replace the wages paid by the capitalist. Further, if the worker did not work for a capitalist, it would be necessary for them to work four hours to maintain their standard of living.
However, the worker does not stop laboring after four hours. They are forced by the capitalist to work for a longer amount of time, usually eight hours. The value created in the time after the worker has already replaced the wages paid by the capitalist is called surplus value .
When this surplus product is sold, the capitalist pockets the proceeds, and the worker gets nothing. This is the secret source of all profits. This is exploitation, and it rests at the very core of the capitalist system.
Understanding this helps us more fully comprehend society. One example of this is the aforementioned inequality. Often, this inequality is treated as separate from the rest of the economy. On the one hand you have the wealthy, and on the other you have the vast majority of the poor. In popular narratives, the two never meet. Exploitation proves that this is a lie. This phenomenon shows that the wealthy are only wealthy because they extract value from workers. In other words, it is not simply that they are rich and we are poor. Rather, they are rich because we are poor.
This is not all that exploitation shows us. The reason that the length of the working day is a prominent issue in the global labor movement is because a longer working day means a larger chunk of time during which the worker is producing more than they need to survive. Business leaders continually argue against shorter working days, on the grounds that it will cut into their profits .
Exploitation is also the reason that business owners push for austerity-attempts to cut wages, benefits, and social services. Capitalists are well aware that the wages paid to workers negatively correlates to profits. This is the very foundation of exploitation. Cuts to social services decrease the living standards of workers, which drives down the level of wages needed to sustain them. This is, as I said above, a key factor in determining the rate of exploitation in a given society. Austerity tips the balance of power away from workers and towards capitalists. It is pursued as a political aim precisely because exploitation is at the core of capitalism .
It is often thought that austerity and long hours are pushed either for no reason or because capitalists are nasty people on a personal level. Marxism shows us that this is not the case. It takes seemingly random instances of austerity and finds the root cause of it. That is, of course, exploitation. Suddenly, complex and apparently chaotic political and economic maneuvers begin to make sense. Marxism helps us understand society and, in so doing, allows us to change it.
The capitalists understand that exploitation is the root of their wealth. The only reason they are rich is because workers are poor. It is not because they work harder than everyone else, it is because they steal from everyone else. Capitalism is fundamentally a system that works against the interests of the laboring classes. It cannot be reformed, it must be abolished. Understanding this is the first step on the path towards socialism. Since the proletariat is the class exploited by capital, they are the class with the most powerful interest in struggling against capital.
Through his political-economic analysis Marx in collaboration with Frederick Engels, identified the fundamental component of capitalist production (namely the commodity) and the principal human relationship and class struggle that forms the basis of commodity relations in capitalist society, namely the struggle between the class of productive wage laborers (the proletariat) and the employing capitalist class (the bourgeoisie). As Mao observed, “[b]eginning with the commodity, the simplest element of capitalism, [Marx] made a thorough study of the economic structure of capitalist society. Millions of people saw and handled commodities every day but were so used to them they took no notice. Marx alone studied commodities scientifically” . From this study, Marx “went on to reveal the relations among people hidden behind commodities” .
Marx set out these studies in his classic works Capital and Wages, Price and Profit. There we find his identification of the proletariat who must sell their labor power at less than its actual value to the bourgeoisie in order to survive, and the bourgeoisie who in turn sells the commodities produced by the proletariat on the market at their actual value and pockets the surplus as profits to become immensely wealthy .
This inherently exploitative relationship leaves the proletariat producing everything that sustains society while owning little to nothing, whereas the bourgeois produces nothing yet owns the entire productive system and means of production, including productive land, factories, transportation infrastructure, machinery, communication systems, etc.
Marx therefore recognized that the proletariat is the only class whose interests are in diametrical opposition to the bourgeoisie’s, and is therefore the only class with nothing to lose and everything to gain by overthrowing the capitalist class and system. In the Communist Manifesto he and Engels therefore metaphorically characterized the proletariat as the only class with “nothing to lose but its chains”  and consequently the only genuinely revolutionary class existing under capitalism.
- Karl Marx, “The Class Struggle in France 1848 to 1850,” Marx and Engels Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1973), Vol. 1, p. 282.
- Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Moscow: Progress Publishers, emphasis in original), pp. 43-44.
- Mao Tse-tung, “On Practice: On the Relationship Between Knowledge and Practice, Between Knowing and Doing,” July 1937.
- Karl Marx, “Preface and Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” (Peking: Foreign Language Press), p. 3.
- V.I. Lenin, “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism,” March 1913.
- Mao Tse-tung, “Talk at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,” May 1942.
- V.I. Lenin, “‘Left-wing’ childishness and the Petty Bourgeois Mentality,” May 5, 1918.
- V.I. Lenin, “‘Left-wing’ Communism – An Infantile Disorder,” April/May 1920.
- V.I. Lenin, “‘Left-wing’ Communism – An Infantile Disorder,” April/May 1920.
- Joseph Stalin, “The Foundations of Leninism,” April 1924, note 48.
- Joseph Stalin, “Concerning the Question of the Proletariat and the Peasantry,” January 27, 1975.
- Mao Tse-Tung, “Criticize Han Chauvinism,” March 16, 1953.
- V.I. Lenin, “Collected Works,” Volume 4, p. 280.
- V.I. Lenin, “Collected Works,” Volume 4, p. 282.