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Exploitation occurs when someone or something (a material resource, an opportunity, etc.) is used or taken advantage of. Social scientists are chiefly concerned with the exploitation of people and classes, who are considered exploited if they are required, by force or by circumstances, to contribute more to some process than they receive in return. Crucially important to Marxian thought, the concept of exploitation is also employed in neoclassical economics and related sociological work. Yet the concept is controversial; many sociologists eschew it entirely.
Karl Marx held that working people in all class-divided societies are exploited because they are compelled to perform surplus labor – labor for which they receive no equivalent. He argued that this occurs because they lack access to land and other means of production, and must therefore work for others. Marx’s definition of class, and his theories of class interests and antagonisms, are rooted in this idea, and he argued that a society’s other economic and political relationships are based upon and correspond to its specific system of surplus-labor extraction.
He also argued that surplus labor is the exclusive source of profit under capitalism. Although capitalists seemingly pay for labor, Marx held that they actually purchase labor-power – workers’ capacity to work. The wage contract therefore does not determine the actual amount of labor that workers perform. Profit arises because they are made to work longer than the period during which their labor adds an amount of new value that ”replaces” their wages.
Critics have persistently claimed that Marx’s demonstration of this proposition has been proven internally inconsistent, so that his argument must be rejected. In response to these claims, the ”Fundamental Marxian Theorem” was put forward. It supposedly proved that surplus labor is the exclusive source of profit without relying on Marx’s allegedly inconsistent value concepts. However, a new school of Marx-interpretation calls this theorem into question while also claiming to refute the proofs of inconsistency. It maintains that the inconsistencies are not features of Marx’s original value theory, but are created by misinterpretation.
Unequal exchange theory begins from the observation that the prices of less developed countries’ exports tend to be low relative to the amounts of labor used in their production, while the prices of developed countries’ exports tend to be relatively high. Proponents of the theory thus regard international trade as a process of unequal exchange of labor. Many also regard it as exploitative, but Emmanuel (1972), who pioneered unequal exchange theory, did not.
In contrast to Marx’s theory, neoclassical economics implies that exploitation of capitalists by workers (through, for instance, the formation of unions) is as likely as the exploitation of workers by capitalists. All people who provide productive inputs are considered exploited if they are paid less, or exploiters if they are paid more, than what neoclassical theory regards as the input’s contribution to production. Serensen (2000) seeks to make the neoclassical concept of exploitation the basis for sociological class analysis. He defines exploiting classes as groups that can exact payments for their inputs which exceed the minimum amounts needed to make the inputs available.
- Emmanuel, A. (1972) Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade. Monthly Review Press, New York.
- Serensen, A. B. (2000) Toward a sounder basis for class analysis. American Journal of Sociology 105 (6): 1523-58.