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Is capitalism associated with different forms of exploitation?

by Tony Burns on January 22, 2019
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In his book Theory As History, Jairus Banaji makes the claim that we should not reduce a particular mode of production to one specific form of exploitation, such as the capitalist mode to wage labour. ‘Relations of production are simply not reducible to forms of exploitation, both because modes of production embrace a wider range of relationships than those in their immediate process of production and because the deployment of labour, the organisation and control of the labour-process, “correlates” with historical relations of production in complex ways’ (Banaji 2010, 41). Instead, Banaji introduces the notion of commercial or merchant capitalism from at least the thirteenth-century onward, based on the availability of finance and functioning institutions of long-distance trade, i.e. a ‘capitalism that invested widely in a range of economic sectors beyond commerce in its narrower definition’ (Banaji 2018). What this, however, overlooks is the centrality of wage labour in the capitalist mode of production and Marx’s insistence on exploitation taking place in the ‘hidden abode of production’.

Distinguishing between a capitalist social formation and a capitalist mode of production, my aim in this post is to provide a way of retaining a focus on the centrality of wage labour within capitalism, without overlooking the possibility of several forms of exploitation co-existing at the same time.

In my view it is not correct that for Marx capitalism might be associated with more than one form of exploitation, or with different mechanisms for extracting the surplus product. This is not accurate. Here we need to distinguish between capitalism as a mode of production and capitalism as a social formation, i.e. a capitalist society containing more than one mode of production.

In a capitalist social formation there may be more than one mode of production present. However, one of these, the capitalist mode, is dominant. In a pre-capitalist social formation, the capitalist mode of production might be present, but is not dominant.

Marx discusses the capitalist mode of production in Capital, Volume 1. He associates this with production of commodities by wage-labour for a market. Here the surplus product is extracted or siphoned off from the direct producer by the wages and profits system. Marx states that it is only the direct producer who adds value and is the source of surplus value. This is the one and only form of exploitation that Marx associates with the capitalist mode of production. In other modes of production the mechanism of surplus extraction takes a different form, e.g. in the feudal mode of production it takes the direct form of labour-service.

I have looked again at the well-known passages from Capital,Volume III, where Marx discusses this issue and append them below:

If we consider ground-rent in its simplest form, as labour rent, where the direct producer devotes one part of the week, with tools that belong to him either legally or in practice (plough, draught animals etc.), to land that is in practice his own, and works the other days of the week for the landlord on his estate without reward, then the situation here is still completely clear: rent and surplus are identical. Rent and not profit is the form in which the unpaid surplus labour is expressed. The extent to which the worker (a ‘self-sustaining serf’) can obtain a surplus over what we would call wages in the capitalist mode of production depends, on other things being equal, on the proportion in which his working time is divided between labour-time for himself and statute-labour for the landlord. This surplus over and above the necessary means of subsistence, the nucleus of what appears as profit in the capitalist mode of production, is thus entirely determined by the level of ground-rent, which here not only is, but actually appears as, directly unpaid surplus labour . . .

The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of domination and servitude, as this grows directly out of production itself and reacts back on it in turn as a determinant. On this is based the entire configuration of the economic community arising from the actual relations of production, and hence also its specific political form . . .

Here rent is the original form of surplus-value and coincides with it. But it needs no further analysis here that surplus-value coincides with the unpaid labour of others, since this still exists in its visible, palpable form, the labour of the direct producer for himself being still separate both in time and space from his work for the landlord, with the latter appearing directly in the brutal form of forced labour for a third party.

Marx makes it clear here that the capitalist mode of production and the feudal mode of production do have certain things in common, which is not surprising as they are both associated with the idea of a class-divided society. For example, they both involve surplus labour and the extraction, siphoning off or pumping out of a surplus product from the direct producer, who is either a proletarian/wage-worker or a peasant. However, there are also significant differences between them, because the mechanism of extraction of this surplus product relies on the wage-system in the one case, whereas in the other it does not. Marx does not argue that the capitalist mode of production itself contains different mechanisms of surplus extraction, or different forms of exploitation.

On the other hand, if we are talking about a capitalist social formation, or a capitalist society which contains other modes of production in addition to the dominant capitalist mode, then it would be correct to say that more than one form of exploitation is present. Strictly speaking, therefore, to say that for Marx capitalism might be associated with more than one form of exploitation would only be correct if by ‘capitalism’ we mean a capitalist social formation, i.e. a ‘capitalist society.’ It would not be correct if by ‘capitalism’ is meant the capitalist mode of production.

This post was first published on Trade Unions and Global Restructuring


Tony Burns
Dr. Tony Burns is Associate Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, UK.
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