Who is exploited?
So you want to know if you’re exploited…. < title screen>
You saw some of my videos on exploitation and know you’re wondering…. <start title> (am I exploited?) <end title>
Are teachers exploited? Are doctors exploited? Cops? Bank tellers? Insurance salesmen? car dealers?
My initial explanation of exploitation makes a lot of intuitive sense:
A small group of people own the productive forces of society: natural resources, factories, banks etc. they are the capitalists. Most everybody else has to work for them in one way or another. They are workers. All the work done by those workers creates the total social product. But the social product is owned by capitalists. The capitalist’s profit comes at the expense of workers. In other words, workers create more value than they are compensated for.
Here’s another way of seeing it: All large-scale societies produce a surplus product. All societies are divided between the people who create the social product and the people who own the social product. In feudalism, for instance, the feudal landlord owned the surplus product made by peasants. They called it a tax. In capitalism, capitalists own the surplus product- in the form of commodities- made by workers. They call it profit.
But in feudalism there weren’t just two classes- landlord and peasants. There were knights that ran around in armor protecting the feudal lands from other landlords. There was the catholic church which told people to obey the feudal order. And so on.
So too, in capitalism, there are other people besides capitalists and workers. Instead of knights running around on horses we have cops, and lawyers and judges whose job it is to protect the institution of private property. They don’t make any of the commodities that constitute the social product- but their work is essential in making sure that other people can.
There are other people who don’t seem to work for a capitalist at all- government employees, church employees, non-profit employees.
And there are other groups of folks that do work for a capitalist but don’t seem to produce anything…. cashiers, janitors,
And then there are whole industries that don’t produce anything at all: banks, insurance, stocks. These industries gross some of the biggest profits in the world, yet they don’t make any commodities at all!
So we are faced with the question: how do we classify all this work? Does it create value? Are those workers being exploited?
Let’s condense these questions into 1 fundamental question: Who creates surplus value?
To answer this question we will return to a distinction made in my video on commodities. Commodities embody three different types of value: labor value, exchange value and use value. Commodities have a labor value as a result of being made by a worker. They have an exchange value because they are sold in the market place. And they have a use value b/c they have a use for consumers. Commodities then are made by workers, sold by capitalist and used by consumers. Surplus value is the price of the commodity minus the amount paid to workers.
So cops- their work has a labor value because cops do work. Do they produce a use-value? That’s debatable. But their work can’t be sold on the market. Therefore their work has no exchange value. Thus we can say, cops don’t create surplus value.
What about other people employed by the government? Unlike cops, teachers and healthcare workers produce use values with their labor. But these values aren’t sold by a capitalist for profit so these workers don’t produce surplus value.
Instead of selling the use values produced by teachers and health care workers the government gives them away. And where does the money come from to pay for the labor of these workers? From taxes- taxes on profits and income. In other words, value created elsewhere in the economy.
What about service workers? Are services a commodity? Well a commodity doesn’t have to be embodied in a physical object to be a commodity. As long as it has a labor, use and exchange value it is a commodity. Tour guides produce commodities, prostitutes produce commodities. more examples?
What about financial services? banks? etc. These branches of industry don’t even create use values. Instead they merely transfer money from one place to another. That’s how they make a profit.
Banks for instance. Banks loan money to capitalists. Capitalists exploit their workers. They use some of this surplus product to pay back their loans/interest to banks. So banks are just siphoning off the value created elsewhere in the economy. Similarly, banks loan to workers. Workers create value at work and get paid for a portion of that value. They then have to hand over a portion of that value to landlords, banks and mortgage companies- all institutions that merely siphon off value created elsewhere.
So we can say that nobody who works in the financial service sector creates commodities. Nobody creates surplus value. Surplus value is merely being taken from elsewhere. The fact that these companies bring in such huge profits is a testament to how powerful and crucial the institutions of finance are in a capitalist economy. (topic for another time)
Many people that work for a capitalist enterprise don’t create exchange values. The guy who scrubs the toilets at GM- the product of his labor isn’t sold by GM. GM doesn’t make a profit by selling clean bathrooms. That doesn’t mean his work isn’t important. But it isn’t a source of surplus value. The toilet scrubber at GM is paid with a portion of the profits made by exploiting other workers at GM.
We could go on and on listing occupations. Try it yourself using these criteria. As you run into different types of workers throughout your day, ask yourself: do these people create use value and exchange value with their labor? Is this use value sold by a capitalist for profit? Academics usually call this distinction: productive and unproductive labor. If you produce SV for a capitalist you are engaging in “productive labor”. If not, it is “unproductive labor”.
But now that we’ve gotten better at explaining who creates SV we have a bigger question: Do you have to produce SV to be exploited?
Now, you probably see where i am going with this question. It brings up two problems:
1. If only productive laborers (only those who make SV for a capitalist) are being exploited, then it poses problems for political organizing. If we think that exploitation is bad and that capitalism should be replaced with something better, we need to have ideas that appeal to universal interests. Saying that all workers are exploited is much more compelling politically. It creates a common, universal basis for people acting together to change their conditions. But if we say that only productive workers are being exploited, we are relying on merely a specific subset of workers for political change. In fact, if we say that the wages of unproductive workers come out of the surplus value created by productive workers it almost sounds as if the two groups of antagonistic interests.
2. But we can’t just criticize a theory because we don’t like it’s political implications. The 2nd problem i see is this: that unproductive labor still seems, at an intuitive level, exploitative: That is, there is still an incentive for employers to get the most work out of janitors, bank clerks and teachers for the least money. We know, for instance, that the government is constantly seeking to cut funding for education at the same time that teachers are teaching larger class sizes with less resources. So if we see the same labor-saving processes at work, regardless of whether surplus value is being extracted, we are left wondering why it is important to talk about surplus value at all.
This 2nd problem, however, i think naturally points toward a solution…. All of our social labor is bound up in the production of surplus labor. If we aren’t producing surplus value directly for a capitalist we are aiding that process: moving credit, education workers, cleaning up, protecting private property, etc. Regardless of whether or not we directly produce surplus value, the wages of all workers are a direct cut out of the profit returning to capital. Because workers are a variable input (the price of their labor does not determine their output), there is always the possibility of getting more value out of them for the same or less money. Just because a worker doesn’t produce surplus value for a capitalist doesn’t mean they aren’t producing use values in an exploitative relationship. Capitalism as a whole seeks to make labor more productive through exploitation, regardless of whether this labor directly produces surplus value.