[OPE-L:1039] Re: Modes of production and exploitation

Gilbert Skillman (gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu)
Sun, 11 Feb 1996 09:07:00 -0800

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Duncan writes:

> The discussion of different modes of exploitation raises some very
> important points. In this case I think Marx's conceptual vocabulary is
> actually quite precise and unambiguous. The important thing is to
> distinguish the relation through which surplus labor is exploited from
> the form the surplus labor takes. If a Roman usurer collects interest
> from a spendthrift heir, the form the surplus value takes is interest,
> and thus is part of the primitive circuit of capital that underlies
> usury. But the ultimate source of the surplus value is the exploited
> labor of the serfs working the latifundium which is the wealth of the estate.

I might agree with this assessment, but we should note what it leaves
out: usury extended to small producers, and later, proto-industrial
merchant's capital. Even if not the "ultimate source of the surplus
value" in their respective eras, they were quite powerful means of
appropriating surplus value, capable of extracting the entire surplus
product above subsistence, as Marx makes clear.

> I think John Roemer's intervention in this area, whatever other merits it
> may have, is actually more confusing than enlightening. Roemer adopts a
> different definition of exploitation from Marx, one based on individuals
> rather than classes, and rooted in neoclassical general equilibrium
> theory. I have written at some length on this in a review in Foley,
> Duncan, 1989, Roemer on Marx on exploitation, Economics and
> Politics, 1:2, (July) 187-199, so I won't repeat myself here.

I agree that Roemer should not be read as having supplanted Marx, or
a Marxian theory of exploitation. But it remains the case that
Roemer disproves by counter-example Marx's value-theoretic
conclusions in Volume I, Ch. 5, despite the static caused by his
methodology and individualistic definition of exploitation, and
corroborates Marx's historical account of capitalist exploitation via
usury and proto-industrial capital. For a defense of Roemer on these
modest grounds, which addresses in part the arguments in Duncan's
Economics and Politics article, see my article in Economics and
Philosophy 11(2), October 1995, 309-331.

>Some of
> capitalist surplus value undoubtedly actually represents other forms of
> exploitation that the wage-labor relation (for example, exploitation of
> consumers through interest, or in the form of residential rents), but it
> is possible in principle to sort this out, and the great bulk of the
> surplus value of industrial capitalist societies clearly arises from wage
> labor.

Agreed. But the reason this is so, I think, has nothing to do with
Marx's value-theoretic account in Volume I, Part 2, and everything to
do with what I term his historical-strategic account. This reading
is spelled out in my E&P article and further developed in an upcoming
Science & Society article.