[OPE-L:7569] RE: Formalism and "exploitation"

From: Gil Skillman (gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu)
Date: Thu Aug 29 2002 - 18:41:23 EDT

Hey, Gary.  You write--

>Hmmm. I can't decide whether  (i) Gil's question is so big that I need to
>spend a few months thinking about it,

[either that, or so deep, subtle and richly nuanced....]

>or (ii) it's not a problem at all, so I
>can toss off a short answer that'll clear things up right away. I'm gonna 
>off the short answer and mull over the bigger issues at my leisure, as the
>discussion unfolds further.
>I think, Gil, that you're manufacturing a problem that doesn't exist. I've 
>no beef with formalism per se, as I guess everyone on this list knows.  But
>the question of how unequal class relations can emerge and persist doesn't
>seem to me to be the sort of issue than can usefully be explored via formal
>models. I'd look to history and perhaps political science for the answer to
>this question. Gil alludes to "formally equal relations of exchange," but why
>take that as a starting point?  I'll wager that the "relations of exchange"
>that ultimately produced the constellation of institutions we call capitalism
>were decidedly coercive and unequal.

Then they weren't relations of *exchange*, at least in the sense that Marx 
understands this term when he poses the problem of surplus value (and thus 
capitalist exploitation) in Part 2 of K. I.  As he argues at the end of Ch. 
6, market exchange is the "exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property 
and Bentham.  Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity...are 
determined only by their own free will.  They contract as free persons, who 
are equal before the law."   Correspondingly (and I think legitimately), 
Marx understands the conditions "that ultimately produced the constellation 
of institutions we call capitalism"--which he discusses under the rubric of 
"primitive accumulation"--*not* to be based on relations of exchange, but 
rather of naked *extra-economic* coercion, as was involved in the enclosure 
movement in Great Britain.

Which brings me to the significance of "formally equal relations of 
exchange."  Other historical forms of coercion, be they on the basis of 
class, gender, race, or whatever, are/were grounded *explicitly* in the 
direct threat of personal violence (state-sanctioned or otherwise)--e.g. 
the role of lynching in U.S. race relations, the role of rape in 
conditioning gender relations, the role of the state in supporting the 
institution of slavery.

Against these scenarios of direct coercion, the particular form labelled 
"capitalist exploitation" appears to proceed on a radically different 
basis.  You're a serf and you refuse to provide surplus labor to the feudal 
lord?  You get killed and your family is driven out of their home.  You're 
a slave in the antebellum US South and you run away from the 
plantation?  You're hunted down by dogs, with the aid of the state, and 
tortured and/or killed as an example to the others.

Not so with wage workers:  they enter into employment relations with any 
given capitalist voluntarily, on a formally equal basis as fellow 
exchangers of commodities.  They can thus refuse to work for any given 
capitalist, and that capitalist has no legal right to threaten personal 
violence in retaliation; indeed, workers thus threatened can, at least in 
principle (and Marx insists on the presumption that this principle obtains 
in his analysis) call on the state to *defend* them against these 
threats.  And yet class  relations characterized by (*some* form of) 
coercion, domination, and subordination persist.  Viewed in this light, the 
key question that a theory of capitalist exploitation (or the set of 
phenomena covered by this term) must answer is:  how so?  How do formally 
equal relations of exchange, characterized precisely by the *absence* of 
direct threats of personal violence, translate nonetheless into this very 
unequal social outcome?

Now, as to whether this question can fruitfully, or even coherently, be 
addressed via the use of formal models.  I realize you have no intrinsic 
problem with formalism; that's not the issue.  To anticipate a little, I 
also would agree that the *emergence* of unequal class relations is 
essentially a historical rather than a logical matter.  But the question of 
how persistently unequal class relations might be consistent with the 
operation of individually voluntary exchange relationships based on the 
formal equality of commodity owners is a matter of social logic, and thus 
one to which formal analysis *might* be legitimately applied.

But why might it be *useful*, or perhaps in some ways even *necessary* to 
do so?  I think the exchange with Fred concerning the relevance of the 
Sraffian framework illustrates the answer to this question.  Social systems 
are very complex, multidimensional things, and so the complete range of 
implications of a historically given set of social conditions is at best 
not easily gleaned through just verbal analysis.  [Try arriving at the 
truth contained in the Frobenius-Perron theorems as applied to input-output 
analysis without using formal argument, for example.]  Formal analysis 
provides at least a potential framework for addressing such 
questions.  Moreover, there are some issues concerning the systemic logic 
of capitalist exploitation that I couldn't *imagine* being settled without 
reference to an appropriately specified formal model.  But let that be the 
subject of another post.


>   The outcome was a system that
>perpetuates a particular hierarchical and exploitative class structure.
>Where's the mystery here? Or do I misunderstand the question?
> >===== Original Message From Gil Skillman <gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu> =====
> >Gary--Well, we're more or less on the same page here.  I also have an issue
> >with the value-laden connotations of the term "exploitation," for example.
> >But putting aside problems with the term itself, it seems to me that some
> >degree of formalism (beyond what can be gotten from history and
> >contemporary anecdotes) is desirable for other than accounting purposes,
> >i.e., to make clear how relations of *class*--and thus the indignities and
> >coercion that come with them--are distinct from similarly hierarchical,
> >coercive and demeaning relations of gender, race, etc.  Put another way, it
> >seems absolutely central to ask how essentially unequal class relations
> >might persistently emerge from formally equal relations of exchange.  To
> >answer that sort of question analytically, wouldn't you need some fairly
> >tight notion of (a) what is meant by essential inequality in this context,
> >and (b) what economic conditions might give rise to such substantive
> >inequality?   Gil
> >
> >>In response to Gil:
> >>
> >>Good question.  Let me begin by saying that I don't much care for the term
> >>"exploitation," not because I don't think it is real and pervasive, but
> >>because I don't see how we can talk about it without coming across like
> >>ideologues to economists who are not Marxists. More to the point, as I
> >>suggested in my post, I think the term is too value-loaded to be useful in
> >>scientific discourse. (Please, don't anyone ask me to define scientific:
> >>too big a question.)
> >>
> >>Marx's definition is quite serviceable. You want to conduct an econometric
> >>analysis of the circumstances that influence the degree of "exploitation"
> >>in a
> >>particular political economy? Marx's accounting system seems like a
> >>reasonable
> >>starting point. But if workers' living standards (their real wages) don't
> >>decline monotonically with the ratio of labor values s/v you'll probably
> >>some explaining to do to the typical non-Marxist referee. And remember,
> >>you're
> >>not explaining anything other than the degree to which various factors
> >>influence a particular ratio, s/v. Calling that ratio the "rate of
> >>exploitation" doesn't constitute an insight about how the world works: all
> >>does is put an ideological spin on the (possibly quite interesting)
> >>results. Garegnani identifies exploitation (more or less) with 
> situations in
> >>which workers don't get to keep all of the output they produce. In other
> >>contexts this might be a useful definition. But in the end, both of these
> >>definitions (and Roemer's as well) are too formal to capture what is really
> >>involved in exploitative production arrangements: one social class is
> >>dependent upon another for access to the means of production, and hence is
> >>subject to a vast spectrum of coercive, alienating and demeaning
> >>To get the picture one needs the history of class conflict, the anecdotal
> >>accounts of workplace indignities, the Blue Books, etc.  But what you
> >>certainly DON'T need are Marx's labor-value accounting (or Sraffa prices,
> >>that matter).
> >>
> >>Regards,
> >>
> >>Gary
> >>
> >>
> >>
> >>
> >>
> >> >===== Original Message From Gil Skillman <gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu>
> >> >Gary, you write, among other things,
> >> >
> >> >
> >> >>What insights are these, that cannot be derivable from Sraffa's model?
> >> >>workers are exploited? Nope: I've got two eyes, and I read the papers
> >> >>(Walmart, anyone?); I know workers are exploited and I don't need Marx's
> >> >>labor
> >> >>value analysis to see that.  Sure, you can define exploitation as Marx
> >> >>from which it follows that you can't measure it without his value
> >>categories;
> >> >>but definitions are ultimately arbitrary, and there are other ways to
> >> define
> >> >>exploitation.
> >> >
> >> >I'm curious as to how you'd propose defining exploitation without
> >> >to embodied labor time; is it anything like Roemer's proposed
> >> >generalization of Marx's notion, e.g.?
> >> >
> >> >Gil
> >> >
> >> >
> >> >
> >> >
> >> >
> >> >
> >> >
> >> >
> >> >>Anyway, in the end, using such a value-loaded word as
> >> >>"exploitation" to describe a social process cannot help but be
> >> ideological.
> >>I
> >> >>don't doubt that there are contexts in which some interesting empirical
> >> >>regularities can be exposed by looking at economic processes through the
> >>lens
> >> >>of Marx's vlaue categories.  But I don't see that these categories are
> >> >>necessary to provide an understanding of the most fundamental
> >> >>processes--those
> >> >>relating to the determination of distribution, choice of technique, 
> pace
> >> >>accumulation, etc. For these sorts of issues, Sraffa's framework is
> >>superior,
> >> >>for all the reasons Steedman mentions.
> >> >>
> >> >>All the best,
> >> >>
> >> >>Gary

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