Exploitation in contemporary society

[This is the second of three posts on the Great British Class Survey. To access the others, go to the introduction here.]

If an analysis of exploitation is reintroduced to the picture, we are left with something more what Erik Olin Wright finds in his book Classes (the full text can be read here). Wright suggests that there is a ‘clear majority’ of working-class people in the subjects of his study (Sweden and the US). By ‘working class’ he means people whose essential relation to capital is that they are exploited by a sizeable elite (constituting around a quarter of society). This ‘exploitation’ isn’t what perhaps the most obvious meaning might take it to be, but a simple Marxist calculation, which I’ll quickly explain.

In chapter 9 of Capital, vol. 1, Marx writes an acute, and incidentally very funny, rebuttal of a classical explanation of how much work the worker does to provide profit for a mill owner. The economist Nassau W. Senior suggested that if an owner spends £80K on a mill and machinery and £20K on raw materials and wages, of which £15K are wages (so, that’s a a total investment of £100K) and sells the results for £115K, then it seems that the worker is only devoting one hour (that is, two 23rds or ten 115ths) of their 11.5 hours of daily work to the production of profit for the owner. In other words, 10.5 hours are spent generating money to pay for the £100K of the owner’s costs, and one further hour is spent producing the £15K of profit. That seems OK, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately it’s a wonky calculation. On this basis, if the worker does only 4 hours of work, then rather than producing something that can be sold for something, the mill owner would actually lose money: the worker wouldn’t even have reproduced the cost of the raw materials yet. Clearly that’s false: the worker will have produced less, but will still have produced something, and that something can be sold. So the only logical conclusion is that the worker is generating profit with every minute of work. Raw materials are converted into commodities every minute, and in every minute the cost of labour and raw materials that is outlayed by the owner is converted into something that can be sold for a profit. The rate of the profit increases the more hours the worker does. So the calculation of exploitation is extremely simple: you just have to work out the ratio of profit to the labour costs. Since in Senior’s example the labour costs £15K and the profits are £15K, the rate of exploitation is 100%. The workers work 5.75 hours in the day to produce their own wages and 5.75 hours in the day to produce the owner’s profit. That is exploitation. The rate of it is varied by workplace disputes and the drive to work shorter hours for more pay, but even if the rate of exploitation is 1%, that is value that is being taken away from the worker by the owner, who is ultimately, no matter how hard the worker pushes, the one who retains control of what are classically called ‘the means of production’.

Class has to be understood in terms of exploitation for the simple reason that, as I have already observed, what matters is material reality, the individual’s ability to sustain a comfortable, healthy, even pleasurable existence. Having cultural or social pleasures does mitigate other sufferings – this is why community and shared cultural interests like football are often so strong among the economically abject – but rather than aiding in the struggle to reduce exploitation and increase fairness, it actually aids in exploitation by making the system seem bearable. The more that capitalism grows, the more scraps the master can throw from his table. But if we focus, as the Great British Class Survey encourages us to do, on the differentiation between the dogs by the table, we sideline the question of actually doing something to change this relation between the classes. Instead of focusing attention on modern forms of exploitation, studies like this, which stress social and cultural capital, end up giving too much weight to a person’s character and interests than their position in society. The implication of it is in fact pretty insulting. ‘Yes, you live in a tiny flat with rising damp and a knackered boiler and have soles flapping off your shoes. But you count solicitors and professors among your friends and you listen to the Afternoon Play on Radio 4 so you’re much posher than someone like me, rattling lonesomely around my 5-bedroomed Mayfair townhouse, with Jessie J piped through the integrated hi-fi in every room my only companion. How I envy you the glorious richness of your social and cultural life!’

Far from shrinking as a proportion of society, it’s clear that the percentage of the working class, or the proletariat, is actually growing. The old forms of exploitation still exist, but new forms are being developed as the privatization of shared social space continues at full tilt. Consider just hospitals and universities. The professional classes of surgeons and academics who service these industries increasingly find themselves subject to new forms of economic exploitation. Here it is not the case, as it was with the historic shift from artisanal to industrial production, that the surgeons and academics were producing things like tables and trousers that once generated profits entirely for them and subsequently generated profits for the capitalist. No, today’s surgeons and academics increasingly find that the things they do in their jobs – the routine surgery, the academic ‘impacts’ (see here for my analysis of this) – are siphoned off as items of sale for private business. The relation even of the ‘established middle classes’ in the Great British Class Survey paradigm to capital is, therefore, increasingly one of exploitation. I don’t mean that we should weep, particularly, for people earning £40K or more, but I do think that it is foolish to be blind to the way that the proletarianization of the population is growing, not shrinking, and I also think that we should be alert to the dangers of swallowing the quietistic assurances of studies like this.

[Next: Demonization of anti-capitalist cultural forms]

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