Exploitation: A Common Sense Approach

[A panel presentation given today, Friday November 6th, 2009 at the 7th international Rethinking Marxism conference, held at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst]
What do we mean by exploitation? I think that exploitation means that people do not get what they ought to get from their socially valuable labor. Most would probably agree, but we still don’t know what it means. Further, I think it means that someone who works longer, more intensely, or under more onerous conditions, should get more of the social product. If they do not then they are being exploited. But why do we choose this definition and what is its consequence?
While everyone here would reject remuneration for the contribution of productive assets that one happens to own, as in, just because Steve Jobs or Bill Gates put more assets into baking the economic pie than you or I so therefore they should receive more pie eating privileges, there are still those who support the right to the "fruits of one’s own labor" even if not the fruits of one’s own productive property.
The rationale is that "if your labor contributes more to the economic pie, making it bigger and better, then it is only right that you should get more. In this view, it is claimed that not only are you not exploiting any others if you receive equivalent to the value you, by your labor, produce, but others would be exploiting you by paying you less than the value of your personal contribution. Yet, this is the same logic for payment according to the contribution of one’s personal productive assets and should be rejected for the same reasons. Why do I say it is the same? Because productive assets can be acquired through brute force, luck, or inheritance – none of which deserve fair reward. Similarly, the genetic lottery, where, for example, one’s longer arms or better stamina allow them to pick more apples in a single hour, is also determined by the luck of inheritance and deserves no material reward.
Likewise, access to training and to working in more productive environs and industries is often a matter of luck, or power, rather than personal effort or sacrifice, and therefore merits no special reward. Thus, in defense of rewarding the contribution of one’s own labor it is sometimes argued that, although genetics and talent may not deserve reward, they do require training, and here is how it is explained that a doctor’s sacrifice, during all the years of extra education, merits his salary. However, longer training does not necessarily mean greater personal sacrifice for the doctor. The cost of training includes the time and energy of trainers, teachers, or professors, as well as costs for books, building schools, labs, and other resources. Costs born by society surely do not qualify the doctor for extra reward. What is relevant are the sacrifices made during her training. The personal sacrifice the doctor makes during training is the discomfort of time spent in school as a student. If we compare this sacrifice with, say, the sacrifice of someone who leaves the educational system earlier to work as a coal miner or in an embroidery factory, then we can ask, "Who is making the greater sacrifice, the medical student enjoying and learning at university, or the workers in the factory or mine?" And if we agree that sacrifice should be the criteria for remuneration, then doesn’t the time, and onerousness, and intensity of work in a mine or factory outweigh the time and sacrifice spent as a student? At a university like this remunerating equitably the janitors or secretaries who sweep the floors, answer the phones, and wipe the chalk boards would, I suspect, after examining conditions of duration and intensity of work, probably mean that they deserve to get more than the professors.
And, in any event, the professors should not get more than janitors due to the value of their product, or their knowledge, or their greater bargaining power. It seems to me that unless we recognize that janitors who make greater personal sacrifices than professors, when each is performing their appointed duties, deserve greater compensation, not less, we are being classist and making excuses for what is objectively exploitation.
In other words, differences in the value of the contribution of peoples’ labor, i.e., differences in output, are often due to differences in genetic make-up and talent, luck in happening to work with good equipment or in an industry making something very valuable, or differences in efforts expended. Of all these reasons why some people’s labor produces more valuable products or services than others the only one that requires greater compensation on moral grounds is differences in effort, or personal sacrifice. Moreover, the only factor we personally have any control over, and therefore the only one it makes sense to reward in order to motivate people to produce as much as they can is effort. Not only is rewarding effort, by which I mean the personal sacrifice made in the onerousness, duration, or intensity of participating in socially valuable labor, the only fair system of remuneration it is also the most effective incentive to improve performance.
For example, one could work longer hours, or under more unpleasant or unhealthy conditions, or in more dangerous circumstances, or in high risk situations and as a result earn more. One could undergo training that is less satisfying than the training of others, or less pleasant than the time others spend working. But what is meant by "socially valuable labor?" It means that even if someone works very hard they should not get paid for digging holes in their back yard for the sake of digging holes, or for doing work that is not desired due to poor quality, or simply no demand. It is a much bigger matter, but in a participatory economy, where the remunerative norm I am proposing makes sense, of course the economy must elicit valuable outputs, apportion equipment, resources, and labor where its utilization will meet needs, etc., but this is accomplished while equitably remunerating, rather than in ways that produce gross inequalities.
I believe the alternative to exploitation is payment for onerousness, duration, and intensity of work. I favor this because it is fair and morally right. But also, if we cease to remunerate for the effort and sacrifice of socially valued labor then no one will want to do work under hard, dangerous, or unhealthy conditions and the economy will not be able to allocate its assets in accord with levels of need and desire.
So now, when I say exploitation means that "someone doesn’t get what they ought to" and that they should be remunerated for the number of hours they do socially valued work as well as for the bad or dangerous conditions and for their intensity, I suspect that everyone here would likely agree.
However, we might wonder, how does this differs from a Marxist approach? Well, if Marxists hold that exploitation occurs whenever someone receives income who actually did no work, and whenever someone who works more hours is paid less than they should as someone who works more hours, then we are very close — as I add only that one should be remunerated not just for the duration ones labor, but also for the intensity of ones effort and the unpleasantness of ones working condition.
I don’t happen to believe the price of everything is, or should be, measured in hours of embodied labor because labor time is only one part of the social cost of producing different goods and services and we need a pricing system that signals potential users how much it truly costs society to produce and consume different things — but that is another matter.
In any case, if we pay in proportion to hours expended in socially valued labor, or in hours modulated by intensity and onerousness, then, for example, the people who take care of the golf course where he plays are suddenly being paid more than Tiger Woods because they are working longer hours than it takes Tiger to win the tournament — and work under worse conditions and probably more intensely, as well. However, it could be conceded that, if Tiger’s hours are more intense than the average groundkeeper’s hours, if he spends the same number of hours laboring then he should get paid more, and if a little less then more or less the same, and if a lot less then he should get remunerated less. But, regardless, Tiger doesn’t earn a hundred or a thousand or five thousand times as much. And the same holds for people doing surgery, say, or art, or developing new knowledge, and so on.
However, besides paying people fairly, society must figure out how to allocate both labor and resources to different uses. One way to solve this problem is to designate a central planning authority (with or without the help of a market) to determine how to distribute labor and resources in order to maximize the value of output. This of course, gives them too much power and others too little, over outcomes, and pretty much guarantees a bias in the direction of their interests as compared to the interests of others.
The participatory economic approach, though it would take us off topic to explore it, puts economic planning in the hands of self-managed workers’ and consumers’ councils themselves and helps them coordinate their activities through a system of participatory planning. Workers with jobs that don’t privilege some over others, called balanced job complexes, come to an agreement on their inputs and outputs in a way that also generates estimates of the full ecological and social costs of producing and consuming different goods and services, and also provides incentives to meet needs and develop potentials. The plan reached is one that shares the burdens and benefits of economic activity in a fair and efficient way and generates outcomes consistent with classlessness, self-management, autonomy, solidarity/mutual-aid, and diversity.
But, for purposes of this discussion, the critical observation is that this participatory economic approach eliminates exploitation in that each worker receives a fair share of the social product proportionate to the duration of his or her socially valued labor, its intensity, and the onerousness of the conditions it imposes on them.

Note: Thanks go to Robin Hanel and Michael Albert for their input on this presentation.

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