For an overwhelming majority of us exploitation is a notion that doesn’t require any explanation. Most of us are in a continuous process of either exploiting or being exploited for the duration of our lives. Some of us exploit natural resources and the environment by doing anything careless from cutting down forests to littering the local pavement with candy wrappers. Others feel exploited when their neighbors disturb the calm and quiet of the night by holding offensive conversation in a loud volume or playing God awful music for the benefit of the entire neighborhood. Then there are some of us who feel emotionally exploited by those who are closer to us and veer from one dilemma of the heart to the other. Then there is the constant stream of populist sentiments and base emotions through media that equally assaults and exploits our sensibilities, aesthetics and decency.
But the context we most associate exploitation with is big business and capitalism. It can be on a global level where in the past Western colonial powers plundered natural resources of their respective colonies for their own material benefit only to have multinationals take their place in post colonial times. It can also be observed in an isolated factory where cheap labor is exploited into working more and more hours on pitiful reimbursements for more and more productivity. This is the gist of the Marxist brand of exploitation.
In general, Marx saw the exploitation of the working class by the upper class as a central part of capitalism. He took great pains to distinguish between labor and labor power. Generally when we speak of labor we are simply referring to people who manually are involved in the production of a product. Labor, in this context, is synonymous with manpower. Marx defines labor as the activity that the person, or laborer, undertakes. In other words, the series of routine tasks that a laborer goes through is defined as labor.
On the other hand, labor power is the laborer’s ability to labor. In not so many words, it is the person’s ability to carry on with the delegated series of tasks he is to perform. The person is able to carry heavy loads for eight hours and this ability would be his labor power. As seen in the example, labor power is measured in working hours where he can consistently carry on with his labor. The laborer is paid according to the time he has put in where he applied his labor power. In capitalism, Marx sees labor power as a commodity that can be bought and sold.
He went on to observe three structural characteristics that informed exploitation:
- The ownership of the means of production lets say a factory, by a small minority of the society: the capitalists (the big, fat Sarmayadar). In all simplicity the tag capitalist befits the owner for in the shape of a factory he is in possession of crude capital that is further divided into land, machinery, raw material and consequently people to work in the factories.
- The vulnerability of workers, who without ownership of any significant asset, are unable to provide for such basic necessities as food and shelter and consequently have to sell their labor power to the capitalists for a bare minimum wage that would allow to cover his immediate needs at best. The underprivileged man has to do something in order to survive on this Earth and in face of limited opportunities he has to look for work as a waged laborer with someone who owns means of production.
- The government completes the characterization of exploitation by enforcing its strength to ensure and protect the unequal distribution of power and property in society. Marxist view of exploitation smacks a bit of naivety with inclusion of a regulatory body in the composition. It may well have been for offsetting the negative and exploitative bent of nature but remains an ideal that is realized in varying limited capacities.
By agreeing to provide their labor power in return for hourly wages the worker enters into a contract with the capitalist. Anything that the worker will produce under the contracted hours would be the possession of the capitalist. Which looks fair considering the capitalist provides the means for the worker to produce the product and gets paid for it. But Marxism as we learnt earlier teaches us to sympathize with the working man, so Marx argues that the wage of the worker should reflect the market price of the product. Marx already posited how labor power is taken as a commodity by the employers. Therefore, when measuring wages of labor reflecting the market price of the finished product it should be considered that there are two separate markets, one for the finished product and one for the commodified labor and prices/wages for both are dependent on the respective markets.
The industrial revolution introduced a lot of new fascinating inventions that radically transformed the production process. Introduction of more mechanized tools replaced the demand for skilled laborers on account of mass production and efficiency. But the machines wouldn’t have operated by themselves and there were still a lot of chores that could have been done by anyone. The capitalists saw a demand for unskilled labor that was plentiful and could work for long hours on low wages. An elementary display of supply and demand projected an overwhelmingly high supply of unskilled laborers that far exceeded the demands of skilled laborers. Reasonably the price of labor was low. So it wasn’t entirely the capitalist’s fault that wages for labor were low. Wherein the fault lay was in the capitalists making the laborer work more hours, reminding them of the worker’s disposability in presence of thousands of other unemployed workers who would happily do their labor that would result in more productivity. And more productivity translated in more profits. The laborer would still be getting his bare minimum wage, but more hours would mean a bit more of that minimum wage that would allow him to stretch his legs a bit, be it at the cost of forsaking his health and well being.
The gain in benefit is disproportionate if the capitalist profit is seen in relation to the extra hours worked by the worker. Profit for the capitalist is calculated by the difference between value of product made by the worker and the wage he is paid for doing so. So in summary more productivity translates into profit for the capitalist, more hours translate into more bread for the laborer and all of this translates as a basic illustration of exploitation for the keen Marxist disciple.