[OPE-L] exploitation and consumption

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Sat Jun 09 2007 - 12:21:24 EDT

Hi Jerry,

There are plenty examples of employees who get other employees to do work
for them, within or outside the workplace, on a contractual basis or
informally. This could range from an academic who employs the labour of a
research assistant, to managers using employees, to the employment of
slaves, sex workers and children. It might have a gendered or racial
dimension as well. Whether or not this should be viewed as "exploitation"
will obviously depend on the circumstances of the case, but all I am arguing
here is that exploitation in these cases is at least possible, and that this
possibility should not be ignored, if we are to talk seriously about
exploitation. I do not know what quasi-rents you have in mind. Marx refers
several times to competition among workers, and obviously this competition
can involve exploitation.

I take the fact that capitalists exploit each other to be wellknown, except
that it may not be called such, unless a bourgeois norm or law is explicitly
infringed (lack of an equal opportunity of access to the market, illegal or
grey trading practices, extortional prices). In other words, capitalist
exploitation of capitalists tends to come under the rubric of unfair or
illegal trading practices, and is not economically theorised because it is
viewed as an abberation from normal market functioning or as an immoral

The substantive argument I have, is simply that if Marxists think that the
only kind of exploitation there is, is extraction of surplus value from
workers by capitalists at the point of production, they are simply wrong. In
Das Kapital, Marx cites plenty examples of capitalists ripping off each
other, but they are rather peripheral to his concerns, insofar as he aims to
explain the real basis on which all further exploitation occurs. To put it
crudely, in order for the looting to occur, there has to be loot being
produced in the first place, and the production of the loot in the first
instance already involves exploitation, according to Marx.

Frederick Engels  himself paid some theoretical attention to the sphere of
consumption, for example in his discussion of the "Housing Question". He
claims for example:

"The distribution of this surplus value, produced by the working class and
taken from it without payment, among the non-working classes proceeds amid
extremely edifying squabblings and mutual swindling. In so far as this
distribution takes place by means of buying and selling, one of its chief
methods is the cheating of the buyer by the seller, and in retail trade,
particularly in the big towns, this has become an absolute condition of
existence for the sellers. When, however, the worker is cheated by his
grocer or his baker, either in regard to the price or the quality of the
commodity, this does not happen to him in his specific capacity as a worker.
On the contrary, as soon as a certain average level of cheating has become
the social rule in any place, it must in the long run be leveled out by a
corresponding increase in wages. The worker appears before the small
shopkeeper as a buyer, that is, as the owner of money or credit, and hence
not at all in his capacity as a worker, that is, as a seller of labour
power. The cheating may hit him, and the poorer class as a whole, harder
than it hits the richer social classes, but it is not an evil which hits him
exclusively or is peculiar to his class."

Engels assumes here that labour power sells at its value (See the paragraph
preceding this quote in his text). Kautsky wrote intriguingly in his
influential pamphlet "The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx" that:

"From the indications that have been furnished, it is plain that capital is
no fixed, but a very elastic magnitude, which is capable of considerable
expansions and contractions; it constitutes only a portion of the social
wealth; by advances from other portions of the same, it can increase the
consumption fund of the capitalist class and also of the working class,
whilst these funds can be diminished by levying taxes thereon."

However he does not elaborate (he did write quite a bit on taxes in various
contexts). In fact, this cautious Kautsky quote is directly extrapolated
from Marx's comment on consumption in Cap. 3 Chapter 10.

The majority of social democrats were not Marxists, but there are many
instances where they challenged unfair trading practices and rising consumer
prices. And they still do.

Nikolai Bukharin in his "Economic theory of the leisure class" devotes
special attention to "The point of view of production and the point of view
of consumption" and he has short shrift with it:

"Without consumption there is no production; no one doubts this; needs are
always the motive for any economic activity. On the other hand, production
also has a very decisive influence on consumption. Marx explains this
influence as making itself felt in three ways: first, in that production
creates the material for consumption; second, in that it determines the mode
of the latter, i.e., its qualitative character; third, in that it creates
new needs."

That is the kind of thing Lebowitz is concerned with.

My claim is that Marxists very frequently mix up the analysis of what
*regulates* market-trade according to Marx, with the actual process of
market trade, which does not presuppose equal exchange at all. They are so
concerned with proving exploitation at the point of production, that they do
not see the wood for the trees. Orthodox Marxism frequently denies that
exploitation can occur in distribution or consumption, because they feel
that admitting this, would distract from what they see as the root of the
problem, namely exploitation at the point of production. But as soon as
wages rise far beyond a physiological minimum, this idea simply does not
make much sense, since other forms of exploitation clearly come into play,
if they didn't already. As I explained in my refutation of Grossman, in
modern capitalist societies the total mass of fixed assets (the largest
component of Marx's constant capital) existing outside the sphere of
production is now larger in value than total productive fixed assets, a fact
which importantly influences the accumulation process. And I am not even
talking about the stock of financial assets. Now of course you can ignore
all that, but then you ignore the larger part of all economic transactions
in an economy, and the fact that you can exploit even without producing
anything at all. And to me, that stance is simply not credible.

The Marxist theorists focus on equilibrium and what the significance of it
is, but the real theoretical problem concerns the dimensions and modalities
of economic exchange/property relations, and the conditions for human
cooperation (there exists to my knowledge not a single profound and
systematic theoretical-scientific treatise by a Marxist explicitly analysing
"human co-operation" as such). Small wonder then that Marxists don't get
anywhere much politically. Socialism or communism isn't simply a conclusion
from exploitation at the point of production, even if Chris Harman says so.
It encompasses critiques and alternatives with respect to all aspects of
human life. Even just this simple insight already makes the difference
between a socialist party of 3000 members or so and a socialist party of
50,000 members.


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