What is Exploitation? Thinking about Anarchism

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Exploitation is an easy enough concept to grasp. It is essentially, when someone does not receive the full returns to their labour. That is when they do not receive the full benefit from their activities.So, for example, in feudalism one prevalent form of exploitation was what is called corvée labour. Under this system the serf would work their land and would live off the returns from that. But they would also have to work a corvée; they would have to work the land of the local lord. They would not see any return from this labour. Here we can see the exploitation clearly; The serfs do not receive the full return from their labour. Instead the lord received this return and it was this return that supported the lord economically.

Under slavery again exploitation is clear. Here the return to the slaves labour amounted to whatever their owner decided to give them, the rest went to the owner. And again it was this return that supported the slave-owner economically.

Today under wage-labour again, if we look closely, exploitation is clear to see. The worker receives only the wage, the rest of the return from their labour goes to their bosses.

Now you might say 'Here, hang on a minute, what return from the worker's labour does the boss take?' Well where do you think the bosses' profit comes from? It doesn't simply appear out of the sky. It doesn't simply magically appear in the boss's bank account. It comes from the money that they make from the workers' labour.

Let's think about this a bit. Imagine a company, a chain of massage parlours, with no capital costs, called 'Paula's Parlours'. Paula owns these massage parlours but she doesn't do any massaging, instead she lives off the profit that these parlours make. Where does this profit come from? The profit is equal to the total revenue made from all the massages that happen minus the total cost of all these massages. And what is the cost? It is the wages that Paula has to pay to all the massage therapists that she must employ.

But people are paying for the massage, they are paying for the service provided by the worker, they are paying for the worker's labour. So if the workers received the full return from their labour they would receive the total revenue of all the massages. But they don't because some of the returns from their labour go to their boss Paula, and it is these returns that support Paula economically.

Of course this is a simplified example; there is no firm with zero capital costs and today firms are rarely owned by one person, but can be owned by thousands of shareholders. So I use this example purely for illustrative purposes.

Today, just as in every other class based society, exploitation exists. In fact exploitation is the basis of capitalist society. Think of it, I have just described the essential relationship that defines modern society. Here we have production for profit, with production being controlled by those who own the means of production (the massage parlours), while the vast majority of society (the wage-workers and those they support), despite creating all the wealth that the capitalists live off, have to get by on a wage equal to only a fraction of what the wealth they produce.

Everyday we are being robbed by the bosses as they steal the returns from our labour. Every penny of profit is stolen. And don't forget it. When you watch the news and hear of Shell's or Microsoft's or Tesco's profits going up or down this quarter, remember these profits are stolen.

What is being described is social larceny. And it's time for us to stand up and end it. It time for us to stand up and take back what's rightfully ours; the wealth that we the workers produce, which is, of course, the wealth of the world. In the words of James Connolly: 'Our Demands Most Modest Are: We Only Want the Earth!'


This article is from Workers Solidarity No96, March April 2007

Download the PDF of Workers Solidarity 96

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