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Karl Marx was right: Workers are systematically exploited under capitalism

Even among Marx-friendly economists, the labor theory of value has fallen out of favor. But its technical validity is less important than the core message: workers are exploited because the value they create is undemocratically taken by capitalists.

by Ben Burgis  

Part 4 - OK, but Are Workers Really Exploited?

Pro-capitalist economists like to talk about “land, labor, and capital” as independent factors that all contribute to production and say that therefore the disconnect between the part of a firm’s revenues that goes into workers’ wages and the part that isn’t under their control is unobjectionable — after all, workers only supply one of the three factors. But if capital means the share of society’s resources (above and beyond what’s present in unaltered nature) used in production, that’s just the fruit of previous labor. It hardly rebuts the charge that workers don’t control the products of their labor.

Of course, capitalists sometimes do managerial labor themselves, but that doesn’t mean that “manager” and “capitalist” aren’t distinct roles. In a small enough business, the owner might even sweep the place up herself at closing time. But that doesn’t make the role of a capitalist the same as the role of janitor.

Fine, a defender of capitalism could argue, but aren’t capitalists still making an important contribution by hiring the managers that oversee the production process?

While some managerial labor wouldn’t be necessary if workers controlled the means of production and their incentives were different, some would be. But any managers who are performing useful tasks could be hired by a workers’ committee as easily as by a capitalist. As Cohen puts it elsewhere, what’s socially necessary is “what is delegated” — not the capitalist who happens to be empowered by existing social structures to do the delegating.

When it comes to land, the equivocation is even more obvious. Does ownership of land contribute somehow to production? Only in the sense that the owner permits it to take place. (If that counts, in an absolute monarchy where the king has to grant individual approval to every productive act in his kingdom, he, too, is usefully contributing!)

The land itself makes a valuable contribution, but how does that refute the Marxist charge that it’s exploitative for workers not to control the output of their labor? As radical scholar David Schweickart argues in his book After Capitalism, unless the idea is that some of the crops produced by the combination of land and agricultural labor are going to burned as a “sacrifice to the God of Land,” the land’s contribution seems rather irrelevant to questions of distribution.

In the same vein, G. A. Cohen argues that it doesn’t matter for the charge of exploitation whether autoworkers are directly producing value or simply producing cars which have value (and transporting the cars, and selling them). If anything, not routing Marxist analyses of exploitation through nineteenth-century assumptions about equilibrium prices simplifies the issue and sharpens Marx’s original analogy between feudalism and capitalism. As with feudal peasants, workers are deprived of control over the product — and hence whatever price it fetches if the person who does control it sells it.

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