Posts Tagged ‘exploitation’


From the very beginning, one of the central claims on behalf of capitalism has been that it leads to increases in productivity—and, as a result, an increase in the wealth of nations. The idea is that, the more national wealth increases (the more commodities are produced per person hour worked), the higher living standards of ordinary people will be (i.e., real wages will increase).* We find that story in pretty much every text of mainstream economics, from Adam Smith to Deirdre McCloskey.

That’s why Karl Marx spent so much time (hundreds of pages, in fact) discussing productivity (along with machinery, mechanization, technical change, and so forth) in his critique of political economy. So, John Cassidy gets it wrong.

Marx (not to mention other nineteenth-century critics of capitalism) never denied that there was a connection between increases in productivity and a rise in workers’ wages. That would be silly, both theoretically and empirically. All he ever did was deny there’s an automatic or necessary relationship between them—and, perhaps more important, that increases in real wages didn’t mean workers weren’t being increasingly exploited.



The first point (one even Cassidy, in a way, concedes) is easy to show: for a time (until 1973 or so, in the United States), workers’ real wages increased at roughly the same rate as productivity. Then (from 1973 onward), productivity continued to grow but workers’ wages stagnated.

One key question, for the pre-1973 period, is why productivity and workers’ real wages increased in tandem. Cassidy assumes that wages grew because of the increases in productivity. Nothing could be further from the truth. The explanation for the increases in productivity (having to do with the growth of manufacturing, capitalist competition, the role of U.S. corporations in the world economy, and so on) is separate from the change in wages (based on fast economic growth, unionization, a shortage of labor power, and so on). There’s simply no automatic relationship between increases in productivity and increases in real wages, which has been confirmed by their divergence after 1973.

The second point is, in my view, even more important. It’s possible for workers’ wages to increase (at or even above the rate of growth of productivity) and for capitalist exploitation to also be rising.

Let me explain. In Marxian theory, the rate of exploitation (s/v) is the ratio of surplus-value (s) to the value of labor power (v). The value of labor power is, in turn, equal to the exchange-value per unit use-value (e), or price, of the commodities in the wage bundle (q), or the real wage. So, we have v = e*q and, in terms of rates of change, Δv/v = Δe/e + Δq/q. Mathematically, exploitation can increase (Marx referred to it as relative surplus-value) if the value of labor power is decreasing (Δv/v is negative) even if real wages are going up (Δq/q is positive) as along as the change in the price of wage commodities is negative (Δe/e) and its absolute value is greater than the change in real wages (|Δe/e| > |Δq/q|).

For example, in terms of numbers: if real wages increase by 10 percent (workers are buying more things) but the prices of the items in the wage bundle (food, clothing, shelter) decrease by 20 percent, then the value of labor power (what capitalists have to pay to get access to the commodity labor power) will decrease by 10 percent. Voilà! Higher real wages can be (and, throughout much of the history of U.S. capitalism, have been) accompanied by rising exploitation.

And that’s precisely one of the effects of increasing productivity: it lowers the exchange-value per unit use-value of wage commodities.** Less labor is embodied in each unit of bread, shirts, and housing. The fact that workers are able to purchase more of those commodities (say, at the same rate as productivity is increasing) doesn’t mean exploitation is not also increasing.

That’s even more the case when real wages are stagnant (Δq/q is equal to zero). Then, the decline in the price of wage goods (again,  decreasing by 20 percent) is translated directly into an increase in exploitation (via a 20 percent decrease in v).

But what if rate of growth of domestic productivity begins to decline (as it did after 1973, and even more so in recent years)? Then, the domestic contribution to the decline in the price of wage commodities would fall (say, to 10 percent). But, at the same time, if jobs are offshored and cheaper wage goods are imported from abroad (think Walmart), that also leads to a decline in the price of wage goods (say, by another 10 percent). So, even with declining domestic productivity growth, the combination of domestic production and imported goods can lead to a decline in the price of wage goods (for a total, as before, of 20 percent) that, with constant real wages, decreases the value of labor power (by 20 percent) and increases the rate of exploitation.

So, while Cassidy and many others are worried about a slowdown in productivity growth (linking it to workers’ wages and living standards), workers know that increases in productivity don’t automatically lead to increases in real wages. And even if real wages do rise, it’s still likely they’ll be more exploited than before.

Their employers, not they, will be ones to benefit.


*It is merely presumed that the standard of living of those at the top, the capitalists and other members of the 1 percent, would be just fine.

**Another, separate issue is why productivity itself might increase. The Marxian argument is that, during the course of competing over “super-profits,” that is distributions of the surplus-value among and between capitalist enterprises, capitalists will engage in technical change, which in turn leads to increases in productivity and a decline in the value of the commodities they produce. An interesting question, then, is why productivity in the United States and other advanced countries has slowed down. One reason may be a decline in competitive pressures among enterprises that produce goods and services.


U.S. Olympic rower Megan Kalmoe doesn’t want to talk about water quality anymore. As she explained on her blog, journalists are ruining the 2016 Olympic games by being “fixated on shit in the water.”

We are American, and we are going to Rio to represent you in this potentially flawed and imperfect setting that you are trying so desperately to get the public to love to hate.  We are going to compete for medals to bring them home to you, and for you so that the US has a good shot at winning the medal tally again in Rio.  We go to Rio and face incredible odds, some of us, for you so that you will be proud of us, and proud of supporting Team USA. We are supposed to be a Team–all of us–and those of you covering our stories, and those of you resting comfortably in your intellectual armchairs are supposed to have our backs. All of us owe something to our nation for getting us this far, or for believing in us, and competing under our shared colors is our way of expressing our gratitude to you.  So tell me again why you want to talk about poop? . . .

I will row through shit for you, America.

Kalmoe and her fellow participants are, by her own admission, experts on only one thing: their performance.

Unfortunately, what she doesn’t take into account is the real shit in the water: the financing of the International Olympic Committee. That’s what makes it difficult for both viewers like me and athletes like her.

As the Washington Post explains, Olympic executives cash in on a “Movement” (as in “the Olympic Movement”) that keeps athletes poor. It’s just like any other modern capitalist corporation: the athletes do most of the work (in the water and on the fields) and receive little by way of compensation (especially the ones who are not stars in major, televised sports), while the national and international board members and executives walk away with much of the surplus the athletes produce.

At the very top of “the Movement” sits the International Olympic Committee, a nonprofit run by a “volunteer” president who gets an annual “allowance” of $251,000 and lives rent-free in a five-star hotel and spa in Switzerland.

At the very bottom of “the Movement” — beneath the IOC members who travel first-class and get paid thousands of dollars just to attend the Olympics, beneath the executives who make hundreds of thousands to organize the Games, beneath the international sports federations, the national sport federations and the national Olympic committees and all of their employees — are the actual athletes whose moments of triumph and pain will flicker on television screens around the globe starting Friday. . .

But by the time that flood of cash flows through the Movement and reaches the athletes, barely a trickle remains, often a few thousand dollars at most. For members of Team USA — many of whom live meagerly off the largesse of friends and family, charity, and public assistance — the biggest tangible reward they’ll receive for making it to Rio will be two suitcases full of free Nike and Ralph Lauren clothing they are required to wear at all team events.

In the words of its charter, the Olympic Movement is devoted “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society.” To an increasingly vocal and active group of current and former Olympic athletes in the United States, however, the Movement is a vast, global bureaucracy that treats athletes like replaceable cogs, restricting their income without fear of reprisal from a workforce unable, or unwilling, to unionize.

“The athletes are the very bottom of a trickle-down system, and there’s just not much left for us,” said Cyrus Hostetler, 29, a Team USA javelin thrower and two-time Olympian who said the most he’s ever made in one year in his career, after expenses, is about $3,000. “They take care of themselves first, and us last.”

That means Kalmoe and her fellow athletes will be forced to row through lots of shit, competing to take home a medal, while those who run the International Olympic Committee will stay dry and clean, guaranteed to take home a large share of the surplus.


Back in 2013 (and in a series of other posts), I have argued that neoliberalism (including so-called “left neoliberalism,” as espoused by Hillary Clinton and her new runnning-mate Tim Kaine) is not a unified period or stage of capitalism but, rather, a project to remake the world. Therefore, what we’re living through now is

a neoliberal order in crisis that simply cannot be grasped or contained by mainstream political and economic thought, which has only ever involved an incomplete and always-contested attempt to remake the world, and which represents the contradictory fusion of economic and non-economic processes and events.

As I see it, neoliberalism is both a set of ideas that can be traced back through the history of capitalism and a particular project to transform the world (on behalf of corporate bosses) that coalesced in the 1970s.

So, David Harvey [ht: ja], in a recent interview, unnecessarily separates the ideas from the project.

Since the publication of A Brief History of Neoliberalism in 2005 a lot of ink has been spilled on the concept. There seem to be two main camps: scholars who are most interested in the intellectual history of neoliberalism and people whose concern lies with “actually existing neoliberalism.” Where do you fit?

There’s a tendency in the social sciences, which I tend to resist, to seek a single-bullet theory of something. So there’s a wing of people who say that, well, neoliberalism is an ideology and so they write an idealist history of it.

A version of this is Foucault’s governmentality argument that sees neoliberalizing tendencies already present in the eighteenth century. But if you just treat neoliberalism as an idea or a set of limited practices of governmentality, you will find plenty of precursors.

What’s missing here is the way in which the capitalist class orchestrated its efforts during the 1970s and early 1980s. I think it would be fair to say that at that time — in the English-speaking world anyway — the corporate capitalist class became pretty unified.

The fact is, neoliberalism is both: it’s a set of ideas and a political project. Neoliberal ideas about self-governing individuals and a self-organizing economic system have been articulated since the beginning of capitalism. They present a discourse about individuals and an economic system that, according to neoclassical economists and others, needs to be understood and obeyed. We do need to understand that intellectual history because, while such ideas are not always predominant or hegemonic, they exist such that they can be mobilized in particular periods. And that’s exactly what neoliberalism as a political project did, and not for the first time, in the mid-1970s.

It’s not one or another but both, as they coalesced in a particular conjuncture, that we need to understand. Harvey is, I think, missing that connection.

But, in my view, Harvey is correct when, toward the end of the interview, he is asked about the distinction between neoliberalism and capitalism.

Do you think we talk too much about neoliberalism and too little about capitalism? When is it appropriate to use one or the other term, and what are the risks involved in conflating them?

Many liberals say that neoliberalism has gone too far in terms of income inequality, that all this privatization has gone too far, that there are a lot of common goods that we have to take care of, such as the environment.

There are also a variety of ways of talking about capitalism, such as the sharing economy, which turns out to be highly capitalized and highly exploitative.

There’s the notion of ethical capitalism, which turns out to simply be about being reasonably honest instead of stealing. So there is the possibility in some people’s minds of some sort of reform of the neoliberal order into some other form of capitalism.

I think it’s possible that you can make a better capitalism than that which currently exists. But not by much.

The fundamental problems are actually so deep right now that there is no way that we are going to go anywhere without a very strong anticapitalist movement. So I would want to put things in anticapitalist terms rather than putting them in anti-neoliberal terms.

And I think the danger is, when I listen to people talking about anti-neoliberalism, that there is no sense that capitalism is itself, in whatever form, a problem.

The fact is, capitalism has been governed by many different (incomplete and contested) projects over the past three centuries or so. Sometimes, it has been more private and oriented around free markets (as it has been with neoliberalism); at other times, more public or state oriented and focused on regulated markets (as it was under the Depression-era New Deals and during the immediate postwar period).

However, in both cases, the goal has been to extract surplus-value from workers, within and across countries. While criticisms of neoliberalism tend to emphasize the problems created by individualism and free markets, they forget about or overlook the problems—at both the micro and macro levels—associated with class exploitation.

Once we direct our focus to those problems, concerning the conditions and consequences of appropriating and distributing the surplus, the issue is not what kind of better capitalism we can put in place, but what alternatives to capitalism can be imagined and created.


Joan Robinson famously quipped, “the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”

In the United States right now, workers with a college degree, with an unemployment rate of only 2.8 percent, are forced to endure the misery of being exploited by capitalists; while workers with a high-school diploma or less, with an unemployment rate between 5.4 and 8 percent, have it even worse: many of them confront the misery of not being exploited at all.

That’s because, as a new report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce [ht: ja] makes clear, of the 11.6 million jobs created in the United States after the Great Recession, 8.4 million (72 percent) went to those with at least a bachelor’s degree. Those with associate’s degrees or some college education got 3.1 million (27 percent) of the jobs. The remainder, 80,000 jobs (less than 1 percent), were left for workers with a high-school diploma or less.


Now, it’s true, Americans with only high-school diplomas represent a shrinking share of the workforce. This year, for the first time, college grads made up a larger slice of the labor market than those without higher education, by 36 percent to 34 percent, respectively. Including workers with an Associate’s degree or some college, workers with postsecondary education now make up 65 percent of total employment.

But the divided nature of the current recovery for American workers among themselves is even more stark.

Workers with a graduate degree (Master’s degree or higher) experienced no decline in jobs in the recession and maintained a stable employment growth throughout the recovery. Workers with a Bachelor’s degree struggled until the second half of 2011, but have since seen fast job growth, and in fact have exceeded the gains of graduate degree holders. . .Workers with a graduate degree have gained 3.8 million jobs since January 2010. Over the same period, workers with a Bachelor’s degree have gained 4.6 million jobs.

Workers with some college or an Associate’s degree have experienced a lot of volatility since 2007. They rode the recession to its depths, losing 1.8 million jobs. Those workers have now ridden the recovery back up; the economy recovered all those jobs by mid-2012. Over the next three and a half years, this group of workers experienced decent job growth, with a net gain of 1.3 million jobs since the beginning of the recession. Overall, this group of workers has added 3.1 million jobs since January 2010.

The workers who have suffered the most are those with a high school diploma or less. They lost the most jobs in the recession and have seen almost no growth in the job market during the recovery. They remain 5.5 million jobs short of their pre-recession employment level. Further, the current economic trends fail to provide any sign that those lost jobs will be returning in the near future.


The growing gap in the job situations of college haves and have-nots is certainly part of a long-term trend, based on structural changes in the U.S. economy beginning especially in the 1980s. But their diverging trajectories since the crash of 2007-08 have only exacerbated the previous trends. That’s due in part to the precipitous decline in the construction and manufacturing sectors of the economy (which have still not recovered) and the fact that workers with college degrees or at least some postsecondary education have taken most of the new jobs at all skill levels: high, middle, and low. For workers with a high school diploma or less, low-skill jobs have been just about the only jobs available—and, even in those occupations, they’ve been forced to compete with workers with higher levels of education.

Here’s the problem: while would-be workers may be able to exercise some choice in obtaining more education (and thus jump over the gap between college haves and have-nots), they still don’t have any say in determining either the quality or quantity of jobs. Those decisions are still in the hands of the small group of employers at the top.

That means all workers—with or without college degrees—are forced to endure a choice between the misery of being exploited by capitalists or the misery of not being exploited at all. And that’s no choice at all.


Special mention

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We all know that economic inequality has reached grotesque, even obscene, levels around the world. And the gap between a tiny group at the top and everyone else continues to grow.

But is inequality a human rights concern?

As Ignacio Saiz and Gaby Oré Aguilar [ht: ms] explain, the ongoing debates about inequality

have rarely made reference to human rights. In turn, the human rights community has paid very little attention to economic inequality. While inequality on grounds such as gender, race and disability have long been core human rights concerns, gross inequalities in economic status remain largely unchallenged by human rights law and advocacy.

The question then is, is it possible or even desirable to make inequality a central concern of the global human-rights movement?


The problem is that human rights have mostly been articulated in terms of individual rights—such as in the “right to life, liberty, and security of person” (as in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights). And inequality raises a very different set of questions, not about individual rights but about economic and social relations, about the relationshop between smaller and larger groups of people within society. Ultimately, growing inequality challenges the idea of “just deserts” and raises the prospect that one small group on top is “ripping off” everyone else, who are forced to have the freedom to continue to work for their benefit.

That’s what Samuel Moyn is getting at when he argues that “even perfectly realized human rights are compatible with radical inequality.”

The assertion of human rights in the 1940s began as one version of the update to the entitlements of citizenship on whose desirability and necessity almost everyone agreed after depression and war. Franklin Roosevelt issued his famous call for a “second bill of rights” that included socioeconomic protections in his State of the Union address the year before his death. But in promising “freedom from want” and envisioning it “everywhere in the world,” Roosevelt in fact understated the actually egalitarian aspirations that every version of welfarism proclaimed. These went far beyond a low bar against indigence so as to guarantee a more equal society than before (or since). His highest promise, in his speech, was not a floor of protection for the masses but the end of “special privilege for the few”—a ceiling on inequality.

But the harmony of ideals between the campaign against abjection and the demand for equality succeeded only nationally, and in mostly North Atlantic states, and then only partially. Whatever success occurred on both fronts thus came with sharp limitations—and especially the geographical modesty that the human rights idiom has since successfully transcended. It is, indeed, as if globalization of the norms of basic protection were a kind of reward for the relinquishment of the imperative of local equality.

Even the decolonization of the world, though unforeseen at the time of the Universal Declaration that accommodated itself to the empires of the day, hardly changed this relationship, since the new states themselves adopted the national welfarist resolve. The burning question was what would happen after, especially in the face of the inability of the global south to transplant national welfarism and the wealth gap that endures to this day between two sorts of countries: rich and poor.

The fact is, while the gap between countries has decreased somewhat (at least in terms of national income per capita), the gap within countries (especially within the North) has been growing—and the human-rights movement has mostly been “a helpless bystander of market fundamentalism.”

Philip Alston offers a very different view:

the human rights community needs to address directly the extent to which extreme inequality undermines human rights. One starting point is to clearly recognize that there are limits to the degree of inequality that can be reconciled with notions of equality, dignity and commitments to human rights for everyone. Governments should formally commit to policies explicitly designed to eliminate extreme inequality. Economic and social rights must become an integral part of human rights programs. A concerted campaign to ensure that every state has a social protection floor in place would signal a transformation in this regard. That concept—initially elaborated by the International Labour Organization, subsequently endorsed by the UN and now even by the World Bank—draws upon the experience of a range of countries around the world that have successfully tackled poverty in terms of programs with universal coverage, formulated in terms of human rights and of domestic legal entitlements.

But, in all honesty, the challenge facing the human-rights movement is to pick up where Alston stops. He leaves us with the idea of a “social protection floor,” which is pretty much where we were at when Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented his “second bill of rights” in 1944.

The real obstacle is to make sense of the conditions and consequences of the social “ripping-off” that serves as the basis of the extreme and growing levels of inequality we are witnessing today. The human-rights community has succeeded in making it obvious that we need to eradicate traditional forms of slavery as a violation of fundamental human rights.

As I see it, the human-rights movement now needs to take a step forward and confront the modern problem of class exploitation based on the continued existence of wage-slavery.


We all know that the Millennials, notwithstanding their constant battering in the media, are generation screwed.

The members of Generation Y know it, too, which is why they see themselves not as middle-class, but as working-class [ht: ja].

The number of millennials – who are also known as Generation Y and number about 80 million in the US – describing themselves as middle class has fallen in almost every survey conducted every other year, dropping from 45.6% in 2002 to a record low of 34.8% in 2014. In that year, 8% of millennials considered themselves to be lower class and less than 1% considered themselves to be upper class.

The large downshift in class identity among young adults may have helped explain the surprisingly strong performance in Democratic primaries of the insurgent presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who has promised to scrap college tuition fees and raise minimum wages.

And, as members of the working-class, they’re beginning to challenge their employers over exploitation [ht: ja]. That’s especially true when Millennials are forced to have the freedom to take unpaid internships.

The usual excuse is that, whether on political campaigns or in media outlets, interns are gaining experience, contacts, and references. However,

not everyone believes “experience” or connections are enough of a payout for weeks and months of labour. Over the past five years, former interns at Condé Nast, Harper’s Bazaar, Gawker Media, NBC Universal and Fox Searchlight have filed lawsuits against their employers, accusing them of exploitation.

Clearly, within contemporary capitalism, Millennials are getting screwed—and, as workers, they’re beginning to fight back.