Exploited, Excluded, and Expelled: How relevant is Marx’s theory of exploitation for understanding inequalities in the modern world?

My very first university essay as an undergraduate student at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge in 2018. This was submitted as part of the taught Sociology paper, and was awarded the mark of a first.

Exploitation is a necessary, but not a sufficient, framework for understanding modern wealth and income inequalities. The explanatory potency of Marx’s theory is contingent on its assimilation in a broader conceptual apparatus which includes the concepts of ‘expulsion’, ‘exclusion’, and ‘exploitation’. While some contemporary wealth and income inequalities arise from the exploitation of wage labour, others arise from the exclusion, expulsion, and/or exploitation of those who are not wage labourers. I come to this conclusion through asking two questions. Firstly, how relevant is Marx’s theory of exploitation for understanding the processes which put wage labourers in a position of wealth (and income) inequity to considerably wealthier (and higher-income) individuals? Secondly, how relevant is Marx’s theory of exploitation for understanding the processes which put non-wage earners (e.g., the unemployed) in a position of wealth (and income) inequity to considerably wealthier (and higher-income) individuals? My answers lead to a synthesis of the theories of exclusion (Murphy, 1985), expulsion (Sassen, 2014), and exploitation (Marx, 1976), lending Marx’s theory of exploitation only contingent relevance for understanding inequalities in the modern world.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — the exploitation, exclusion, and expulsion of the people of Jerusalem and forcible containment in Babylon in the sixth century BCE.

I begin with offering definitional transparency on three points. First, Marx’s theory of exploitation contends that the surplus value which is generated by the surplus labour beyond that which is socially necessary for the subsistence of the worker allows the capitalist to accumulate wealth at the worker’s expense, such that surplus value strengthens ‘that very power whose slave it is’ (Marx, 1902: 40) during the unpaid part of the worker’s day (Marx, 1976). Though the now widely-rejected labour theory of value on which the theory of exploitation seems to be premised is sometimes thought to undermine the theory of exploitation (Arnold, 1990), the contention that ‘value created by workers is appropriated by capitalists’ (Zwolinski & Wertheimer, 2017) is what my analysis pivots on, and on which the theory of exploitation seems in reality to be based (Cohen, 1979). Secondly, I limit inequalities in the modern world to the disparities in income and wealth existing in the US and Europe in the twenty-first century. To maintain analytical focus, the causes of inequality I analyse centre on those individuals and groups towards the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, rather than those at the top. Thirdly, I define ‘understanding’ as explaining—that is, elucidating the causal mechanisms between exploitation/expulsion/exclusion and wealth/income inequality.

Firstly, then, how relevant is Marx’s theory of exploitation for understanding the processes which put wage labourers in a position of wealth inequity to considerably wealthier individuals? The theory is only contingently relevant, as it is only when utilising Murphy’s concept of exclusion that wealth and income inequality with regard to wage labour can be fully understood, or explained.

Marx’s theory, nevertheless, has a modicum of independent relevance by virtue of its predictions of the state of wage labour under the capitalist mode of production. Due to Capital’s being ‘reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society’ (McLellan, 2004: 513), the exploitation of workers through the appropriation by the capitalist class—that is, the proprietors of the means of production—has these consequences: first, the prolonging of the working-day; second, mechanisation. As Marx predicted, the fact that capitalism reduces useful labour to ‘abstract labour’, or ‘labour of a uniform quality’, means that the increased speed of producing a commodity due to mechanisation leads to no increase in wages for the worker, since, though the use value has increased due to mechanisation, there is no concomitant increase in hourly wages for the worker. Marx’s theory of exploitation seems to function in explaining contemporary wealth and income inequality, therefore, on three counts. Firstly, the working day is indeed prolonged for a substantial proportion of high-skilled individuals in 16 western European countries, facing ‘extreme hours’ of 50+ hours a week (Burger, 2015a). Secondly, the reintroduction of Marxian dynamics of exploitation is superficially evident in the correlation between the increase in ‘income disparities’ between the Second World War and the twenty-first century (Scheidel, 2017: 415), the increase in mechanisation and ‘automation’ in the workplace (Cassey, 1999: 18), and increase in extreme working hours in both US and western Europe (Burger, 2015a), and real wage stagnation (Mishel et al., 2015). Marx’s prediction of mechanisation, wage stagnation, and inequality going together was a correct one. Thirdly, the most striking Marxian dynamic at play is evident in the increase in productivity between 1973 and 2013 of 74.4% versus the hourly compensation of only 9.2% for wage-earners (Mishel et al., 2015), which is compatible with Marx’s contention that surplus value generated by the expenditure of labour power in terms of units of labour-time is appropriated by the employers of wage-labour, thus preventing workers from benefiting from the increase in productivity which their surplus labour enables. Inequality seems to be partly driven by the exploitation of wage labour.

However, the theory of exploitation is ultimately limited by its failure to explain the inequities suffered by wage labourers who are ‘excluded’ from certain sectors of the political economy. Whereas Marx envisioned exploitation as a cause of inequality geared to the profiteering of the capitalist, what Murphy (1985: 233) sees as the Weberian conception of ‘Stände’ or status groups as the engines of inter-group tensions can contribute to the explaining of inequalities based on gender and race, which are not included in Marx’s original formulation of exploitation (McLellan, 2004: 377). Through the wielding of ‘power’ in a ‘downward direction’ via ‘subordination’ of so-called ‘inferior’ groups (Murphy, 1985: 234), certain Stände within majority ethnic groups are able to ensure that poverty levels are highest amongst, say, minority ethnic groups (Banard & Turner, 2011). The ‘exploitation’ of certain wage-earners is thus better conceptualised as ‘exclusion’ of certain groups from high-wage jobs than the ‘exploitation’ of the proletariat as a collective. The benefit of employing Murphy’s conception of exclusion is that it allows the explanation of inequalities between wealthier members of society and certain excluded ‘minority groups and women’ to be rooted in the power dynamics, from patriarchy to implicit racial discrimination, which enable such exclusions. A further instance of exclusionary dynamics is in the evidence of racial discrimination in recruitment processes (Wood et al., 2009), which drives inequality by means of exclusion of certain ethnic groups from parts of the wage economy. Overall, then, the exclusion of certain groups from higher wage-earning jobs may occasionally be a better explanation of certain types of wealth inequality than the concept of exploitation. Nevertheless, the concept of exclusion is also designed to facilitate an explanation of inequalities between wage-workers and non-wage earners who are ‘excluded from even wage labour’ (Murphy, 1985: 233), and it is to these more diverse applications of the concept of exclusion that we now turn.

Turning to the second part of my analysis, how relevant is Marx’s theory of exploitation for understanding the processes which put non-wage earners in a position of wealth inequity to considerably wealthier individuals? On balance, wealth and income inequalities bearing down on non-wage earners are better conceptualised as being caused by expulsions and exclusions, rather than exploitation. The concept of exploitation was designed to consider the exploitation of wage-labour, which is a purpose not fit for a full analysis of the causes of wealth and income inequality today.

Firstly, then, Marx’s theory of exploitation is not theoretically capable of explaining wealth inequalities arising from unemployment. This is because the theory discusses the unequal effects of the appropriation of surplus value by the employers of wage-labour (who are the owners means of production), and not the forcible removal of certain groups of individuals from parts of the political economy in the US and Western Europe. It cannot grapple with income and wealth inequalities arising from unemployment (a form of exclusion), poverty (a form of expulsion) and imprisonment (a form of exclusion and expulsion—but potentially exploitation too).

Unemployment, to begin, refers to ‘the working class who are laid off’ and thus excluded from wage labour, which particularly affects ‘minority groups and women’ (Murphy, 1985: 233). The reason exploitation is an inappropriate model of targeted discrimination and exclusion of certain members of certain groups is that exploitation ‘in the Marxian sense’ in fact can lead to ‘prosperity’ relative to the effects of unemployment (ibid.: 233). This irony renders the Marxian conclusion that exploitation, by definition, entails the ‘misery’ of the working class (McLellan, 2004: 520) absurd in relation to the clearly severe effects of exclusion from the work force through complex dynamics of power relations between different status groups. The fact that unemployment is significantly lower amongst those with higher skills and qualifications (Begum, 2004) is explained by Weber’s emphasis on the skills, credentials, and qualifications of individuals as central determinants of their market position and thus of their place on the social ladder (Giddens, 2017: 485). This strengthens Murphy’s (1985: 236) concept of ‘exclusionary closure’ as it demonstrates the role of ‘school credential requirements’ in allowing well-educated groups to form professional monopolies, to the expense of ‘dental assistant and legal secretaries’ whom they profit from. The exclusion of less ‘educated’ members of society seems, therefore, to be better characterised as a dynamic of exclusion rather than of the exploitation of wage-labour. But the strongest argument against the Marxian emphasis on exploitation alone comes from yet another source.

Poverty is another arena in which exploitation per se does not take place, but what Saskia Sassen terms ‘expulsions’ certainly does (Sassen, 2014: 46). Expulsions are forcible removals of individuals ‘from professional livelihood, from living space, even from the very biosphere that makes life possible’. Expulsions represent the ‘dynamics that expel people from the economy and from society’ (Sassen, 2014: 76-77, exemplified in the ‘shrinking economies of southern Europe’ such as Greece, burdened with debt and IMF-/ECB-imposed austerity programmes, forcing people to resort to ‘emigration’ to avoid being caught up in ‘increasing unemployment’ (Sassen, 2014: 46), suicides (Sassen, 2014: 54), homelessness (Sassen, 2014: 54), and severe material deprivation (Sassen, 2014: 51). The ‘lifetime’ or ‘long-term’ homelessness and unemployment (Sassen, 2014: 222, 54) is distinct from the concept of a Marxian ‘reserve army’ (McLellan, 2004: 519) ready for future exploitation, since the expulsions are semi-permanent and not designed around an institution of Marxian exploitation. Sassen’s contentions do not apply to normal wage labour, which is, by definition, not what unemployment and homelessness constitute, but the contention that expulsions—ant not exploitation—lead to inequalities outside the labour force seems to be well-evidenced.

Finally, however, the chief merit of integrating exploitation into a wider conceptual apparatus including exclusionary and expulsive causes of inequality is that these causes of inequality can reinforce one another when combined. I now turn to a group which straddles the boundary between wage- and non-wage earners. ‘[L]ong-term’ incarceration (Sassen, 2014: 214) of some of the 8% of US prisoners in private facilities seems to represent a form of expulsion of certain groups—particular young, African-American men—from society and the economy, as the incentive to continually expand the ‘correctional system’ through adding new prisoners and keeping them there arises from the proliferation of for-profit prisons. Moreover, in many of these facilities, sentenced prisoners must work for between 12 and 40 cents per hour, representing a form of exclusion of these prisoners from higher wage-earning forms. But as their labour is used for a range of valuable products such as metals, furniture and textiles, this may count as exploitation, since the wages seem to be less than the overall value generated by the labourer in ‘manufacturing and service jobs’ (Sassen, 2014: 74). The interplay of exploitation, exclusion, and expulsion may therefore be the key to entrenching inequalities that prevent prisoners from rising up the socio-economic ladder—a possibility not yet entertained by social scientists. This, however, is speculation, requiring further analysis in the future, and the central upshot of my analysis is that exploitation alone is insufficient to explain inequalities of wealth and income arising from the exploitation, exclusion, and expulsion of non-wage earners and wage earners alike.

In conclusion, wage earners and non-wage earners are not merely exploited, but can also be excluded and expelled from certain sections of economy and society, leading to little growth in income and wealth amongst these groups (Mishel et al., 2015) in contrast to high growth in the assets of upper quartiles of wealth (Piketty, 2014). The effect of exploitation, combined with forms of expulsion and exclusion, seems to contribute, at least in part, to widening within-country inequality (Milanovic, 2009; Sassen, 2014: 31), since the wages of those discriminated against are suppressed or non-existent. In conclusion, then, inequality ought to be explained with reference to (at least) exclusion and exploitation of wage labourers, and exclusion and expulsion of non-wage earners. Occasionally, these categories intersect (as perhaps is the case in long-term incarceration in private prison facilities in the US), suggesting that exploitation, exclusion and expulsion are compatible—not contradictory—explanations of inequalities in the modern world.


Selected references

Aizer, A. (2010). The gender wage gap and domestic violence. American Economic Review, 100(4), pp. 1847-1859.

Burger, A. S. (2015a). Extreme working hours have radically increased in many western European countries since the start of the 1990s. London School of Economics. Retrieved from: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/extreme-working-hours-have-radically-increased-in-many-western-european-countries-since-the-start-of-the-1990s/

Burger, A. S. (2015b). Extreme working hours in Western Europe and North America: A new aspect of polarization. LEQS, 92(2015). Retrieved from: http://www.lse.ac.uk/europeanInstitute/LEQS%20Discussion%20Paper%20Series/LEQSPaper92.pdf

Cassey (1999). The changing contexts of work, pp. 15-28. In Boud, D., & Garrick, J. (eds.). Understanding learning at work. Psychology Press.

Marx, K. (1976 [1867]). Capital: critique of political economy, Vol. 1. Middlesex, England: Penguin.

Marx, K. (1902 [1847]). Wage labour and capital. New York: New York Labour News Company.

McLellan, D. (Ed.). (2000). Karl Marx: Selected writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mishel, L., Gould, E., & Bivens, J. (2015). Wage stagnation in nine charts (January 6). Economic Policy Institute.

Murphy, R. (1985). Exploitation or exclusion? Sociology, 19(2), pp. 225-243.

Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century. Harvard University Press.

Sassen, S. (2014). Expulsions: Brutality and complexity in the global economy. London,England: The Belknap press of Harvard University Press.


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