Tag Archives: exploitation

Wolff in Sheep’s Clothing

by Anne Archist, who apologises for the terrible pun in the title.

Lately I’ve been following Professor Richard D. Wolff’s “online classes” on Marxian economics (I’d recommend that people who follow The Great Unrest should skip over the “intensive introduction” course, because the applied course basically covers the same things anyway, and unless you’ve never encountered Marxist thought before, you’ll probably find he moves slowly a lot of the time even in the latter course).

He’s an interesting figure, and probably one of a handful of Marxists in history to have been educated at Harvard, Stanford and Yale (although he says his teachers, with the exception of one Marxist, never had any interest in or knowledge of Marx’s ideas, and that he essentially studied Marx in his own time). Wolff makes several points that set him apart from standard ‘Marxist’ academics – some of which are more significant or original than others – which I’ll summarise and address here; please do look into his work if you’re interested in hearing his own words or taking the ideas further. A side note: apparently his interpretation of Marx comes via Reading Capital – a book which is only partially available in English, though Wolff is fluent in French, so may have read the original – and many of the following ideas may therefore have come from Althusser or his students, for all I know.

Labour-Centric Analysis

The major point of departure that separates Wolff from a lot of other Marxist theorists or Marxian-influenced economists is that he conceives of class in terms of relations to surplus-labour rather than relations to the means of production. Rather than building up an analysis which includes concepts like the social relations to the means of production, or the labour theory of value, he uses an arguably simpler conceptualisation: “‘productive’ labour is required to live but it also produces a surplus; in our society many people carry out ‘productive’ labour but do not distribute the surplus themselves, allowing those who do distribute it to appropriate a portion of it for themselves without carrying out any labour”.

When I first heard this I thought it was just a strange and idiosyncratic way of explaining classical Marxist economic theory (particularly the critique of ‘bourgeois economics’ in Capital). After thinking about it some more and seeing how the analysis was applied, I realised that it actually has some major conceptual differences (even if they can be shown only to be differences of emphasis or explaining the same thing in different terms, which I’m not sure of). For instance, Marx’s theory of exploitation is generally taken to rest on the labour theory of value, whereas Wolff’s version of exploitation doesn’t even seem to require asking the question of what causes things to have the value they do; this question was a concern for bourgeois economics but shouldn’t necessarily be one for someone criticising capitalism (remember: Capital was Marx’s critique of already-existing economics, not a critique of capitalism).

Another example: the concept of economic democracy is quite widespread among socialists (to the point that Peter Tatchell, who nowadays tends to steer clear of socialistic language, issued a call for economic democracy), but the link between it and the labour-theory-of-value construction of Marxist theory has often been tenuous or indirect; the steps from demands about the distribution of property to demands about economic decision-making processes have rarely been well articulated. Wolff’s presentation of Marx’s argument makes this immediate and obvious – economic democracy is equivalent to the demand that the surplus should be distributed by those who produce it, an issue directly addressed by Wolff’s notion of class.

Exploitation and Surplus Production

According to Wolff, exploitation is merely what happens when one person labours so as to produce a surplus – that is, produces more than the labourer needs to sustain themselves – enough, in fact, to sustain other people too – and someone else appropriates and distributes that surplus rather than the worker distributing it themselves. Exploitation, then, is not about someone receiving more than they have contributed, as Roemer would have it (Roemer has offered different definitions of exploitation, but at least one of them amounts to “consuming more than you produce”). This is important because it heads off a serious problem with Roemer-style definitions, which is that they identify children, disabled people, pensioners and others who do not work as exploiters; on the contrary, Wolff identifies them neither as exploiters nor as exploited.

On Wolff’s view of things, these people are allocated (and consume) a portion of the surplus, but the important factor is not that they are consuming it but that someone else is allocating it. This seems to fit with a relatively superficial and intuitive exploration of human emotional and moral reaction – namely, we begrudge people who take things (that we have not offered) from us and give them to others, even if we believe that the others receiving them should have them. An example: If you were planning on buying someone a book as a present and someone else stole some of your money, bought the book with it, and then gave it to the person, you would be justifiably upset and morally offended by the thief’s behaviour, even though the endgame is the same.

Another advantage of this way of looking at things is that it illustrates an important continuity between capitalists and government officials which is often assumed by Marxists but rarely explained; both take part in the appropriation and distribution of surplus they have not themselves produced. Capitalists appropriate surplus in the form of profit (in fact, capitalists can appropriate surplus without making any profit, since  on Wolff’s view surplus must also be used to pay for ‘unproductive’ labour such as that performed by security guards), and the government (at all levels) makes decisions about taxation and spending which represent a further form of appropriated surplus. The state retains a unique position within the economy, however, in that it is capable of extracting surplus from more than just workers within capitalist relations – as well as ‘productive’ employed workers, it also claims taxes from capitalists, self-employed workers, ‘unproductive’ employed workers, etc.

The Feudal Home

Following on from the above points, Wolff also identifies husbands in the traditional family structure as exploiters within the home (whether or not they are exploited outside the home). Production takes place within the home as well as outside it (for instance, the wife transforms raw food into cooked food), and the wife produces a surplus for the husband (she cooks dinner for both of them, not just herself).  Specifically, he argues that the class structure within the traditional family household is essentially a feudal one, for two reasons.

Firstly,  the wife is not owned by the husband like a slave, does not contract her labour for pay like a capitalist worker, and does not distribute the surplus herself as in the communist and ancient modes. Wolff seems to function on the assumption that there are only five modes of production, so if you eliminate four then whatever you are analysing must be the fifth. Secondly, the marriage ceremony is apparently itself derived from a feudal ceremony in which the serf and the lord pledged to ‘love, honour and obey’ one another (I haven’t been able to verify this, and would be interested to see a source and read more).

Now, personally I’m not entirely convinced by this. That one ceremony grew out of another is an interesting and potentially informative historical fact, but it certainly doesn’t establish that both ceremonies establish the same ‘surplus relations’ (if you’re not convinced by that, consider the fact that Wolff has to refer specifically to “traditional” marriage because other modes of production exist within married households – therefore the exact same ceremony can be used to set up multiple different class structures). As for the other reason Wolff gives, it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that there can only be the five modes of production that Marx discusses, and even if you do so, you could eliminate feudalism first on the basis that the woman is not ‘tied to the house’, or something similar, and therefore conclude by elimination that it was another mode of production.

The Revolution on the Home Front

I don’t have a concrete suggestion at the moment for what kind of class structure we should consider traditional families to have, but it seems to me that it may be more enlightening to identify it as a patriarchal mode distinct from the others, as some socialist-feminists such as Delphy have done. At any rate we can conclude that the family unit, though it operates in a society we consider to be ‘capitalist’, actually traditionally operates according to another economic model (and very rarely, if ever, operates according to the capitalist one – modern exceptions generally operate on the communist or ‘ancient’ modes). What is of great historical importance regarding this analysis, as far as Wolff is concerned, is not necessarily what the mode of production within the family should be called, but rather that it has changed and is continuing to change.

The ‘traditional’ marriage or family was much more common two centuries ago (though other forms existed even then), but the USA (and many countries) has seen a solid and consistent decline in the number of people living under this kind of arrangement for the last half-century. Some of this has been in the form of rising demands for sharing the burden of housework within marriages, but it has also taken the form of rising numbers of ‘single-person families’, groups of friends sharing houses (and the housework), etc.

In addition to this change, the labour force and the person-hours at the command of the market has swelled with increasing numbers of women who traditionally would not have worked, or would have worked less, or would have been self-employed, etc – this has taken place over a longer period, of course, and is perhaps more of a varied and complex picture, but it is a real change nonetheless. Wolff argues that these changes are important historical shifts – a class revolution, according to Marxian analysis – that have passed the left by, and that the political fallout of this is that the (religious) right have seized on them and used the negative aspects (like increasing levels of social alienation and isolation, or women’s low pay and harassment at work) to push their own agendas.

Immediate Alternatives

What should the left be doing? Wolff is less precise on this point, as are so many academics. His strong point is analysing what has happened and what is happening, not what should happen next. Nevertheless he has some comments on this topic, which tend to contradict or bypass much accepted Marxist doctrine; rather than dealing with demands on the state and suchlike, he harkens back to early socialist and classical Marxist ideas.

The first suggestion is that the left should aim to make explicit to people the class shift that has taken place within the home, and that Marxist theory can understand both what was going on before and what happened to get to where we are now (and perhaps why it happened); this, he argues, would put us in a much stronger position to argue to working women that they should oppose exploitation (in the Wolffian sense) on the job as well as in the home. This would raise class consciousness and have a kind of detoxifying effect concerning people’s fears around Marxist theory and concepts like class struggle or revolution.

Wolff’s other major suggestion is that the left should take a more sustained and pro-active interest in cooperatives (and presumably communes). Rather than seeing a society which has an essentially monolithic capitalist culture and structure, he sees a world in which many class relations co-exist, intertwine, intermingle and contradict either other (such as the working-class husband who is an exploiter at home despite being exploited on the job); therefore he places less of an emphasis on ‘overthrowing’ or ‘abolishing’ capitalism in the sense that is common in the Marxist left today. This also links back to some criticisms he makes of Marxist figureheads such as Lenin and Trotsky with regard to their Marxian economic analysis, which he considers to have been poor at best due to their failure to properly change relations to the surplus (he considers the USSR to have been a kind of state capitalism because the state extracted and distributed surplus in basically the same way as private capitalists do).

A specific consequence of this is that he considers it a high priority to relate to forms of producing (at home and at work, presumably) which avoid the extraction and distribution of the surplus by another party or a minority of producers. His proposals are vague at best, and shouldn’t be taken as a solid political programme, but he seems to suggest that socialists and the labour movement should get behind cooperative enterprises partially for obvious reasons that this would be free of exploitation and show that it is possible to produce without capitalist arrangements and so forth.

An interesting elaboration on his thoughts on cooperatives involves an argument that attributes at least a portion of capitalist hegemony to the extraction of the surplus; specifically, if private companies can extract a surplus from their labourers and accumulate vast amounts of wealth in this way, they gain more control over the media, political campaigns, lobbying, etc. If, on the other hand, workers enter into cooperative enterprises and deny capitalists this surplus, that surplus stays within the working class, both diminishing the wealth available to the capitalists to carry out a programme of class struggle against workers and increasing the wealth available to the workers to carry out a programme of class struggle against capitalists.

Conclusion

In short, Wolff has some original ideas, an interesting spin on old ideas and some interesting analysis gained by applying old methods to current and historical events. I’d recommend that people interested in Marxist class analysis, whether or not you are a Marxist yourself, take a look at him and his interpretation of Marx. It’s certainly made me re-think my understanding of Marxian economics and given me a useful new tool to my belt of Marxian interpretations, analyses and concepts.

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Workfare: doesn’t work, not fair.

by Anne Archist

So, the workfare debate has remained in the headlines since my last post on it… That’s interesting, as I didn’t think there would be quite this much public anger over the proposals – if anything, I thought most people would just ejaculate DailyMailisms in the direction of anyone who dared to question a system of transitory, mandatory, unpaid labour. The government has been in a right flap over the campaign against workfare, resorting to a whole host of amusing tactics, with some degree of cooperation from third parties. I’ll give a run-down of some of the controversy with relevant links, and then move onto the question of the government’s real misdirection tactics.

A comedy of ostriches

First there was the hilarious claim by Chris Grayling that the SWP had “hacked” his email account. Apparently he told the Daily Mail that “‘Somebody used my email address to lodge a formal complaint with Tesco. This campaign has got fake activity”. He also told the BBC: “Let me give you an example, my own e-mail address was hacked by this organisation and used to lodge a complaint with Tesco, so I don’t accept the scale of the campaign is very large “. This was given short shrift, and he toned it down to the bizarre and vague assertion that his account had been “used in the campaign”.

After that nonsense, there was the question of Datasift research into the debate. Newsnight’s article on workfare suggested that the research had measured the hashtag #welfaretowork; if this is in fact the case, they are obviously idiots because most people are using #workfare. Datasift claim they included #workfare in their research, but I have my doubts as to how true this is. Perhaps this will be clarified in some way, but at present they seem to have deleted some or all of the tweets where they claimed they had included #workfare – several can be seen on google cached versions of pages but not on the actual twitter streams themselves. I have no idea why this might be so.

So where do we stand?

So far, so typical. Apparently nobody’s talking about it, those that are don’t understand it, those that do aren’t bothered by it, and those campaigning against it are – without exception – trots (which, I take it, are alien creatures something like this). This is the sort of masterful Machiavellianism we have come to expect from subtle statesmen like Chris Grayling. The outcome of all of this is that after companies threatening to pull out, protests and so on, the government have amended the rules so that people will no longer be sanctioned if they pull out of the work experience.

The spin on this change is that it’s all ok now because everyone taking part in the scheme is doing so voluntarily. The unspoken implication here is that it’s therefore none of anyone else’s business. I think this is a deliberate tactic of misdirection (combined with prioritising the demands of corporations over those of citizens/workers/consumers).

 The real problems

The government’s workfare schemes have serious and systematic problems that cannot be put right by ensuring that the schemes are voluntary. Participants are likely not to be in a position to make an informed and uncoerced decision about whether it’s worth working for free, due to a combination of government propaganda, poor ‘economic literacy’ among the general population and Jobcentre lies (they have been known to tell people schemes are compulsory when they’re voluntary, etc).

Even if all the participants take part entirely voluntarily, this still poses a problem for the rest of us, since it puts downward pressure on the terms and conditions of everyone else – if firms can acquire free labour based on the hope of future work, they are less likely to take on more staff, raise the wages of those they already have, etc. Labour-market competition will drive down wages in the private sector, which will probably then increase the public/private divide, leading to more conflict and hostility towards public sector pay and conditions, thus indirectly eroding them via increasing public support for the government doing so.

More harm than good?

This question of less staff being taken on brings us on to the next problem, which is that the scheme may actually make unemployment worse. The data released so far suggests that participants are on JSA longer on average than non-participants, and that dreaded beast “common sense” suggests that workers will create less jobs if free labour is available than they would otherwise. The notion that workfare would alleviate unemployment is based on the idea that a noticeable chunk of unemployment in this country is caused by a lack of basic employment experienced at an unskilled level. This seems simply unrealistic - I find it hard to envisage a situation in which employers are throwing their hands up in despair because they refuse to employ people who haven’t sat behind a checkout.

Are loads of huge corporations sitting around twiddling their thumbs saying “Oh golly, we’d love to employ someone to fill this role in the company, but none of them has shelf-stacking experience, so I guess we’ll just have to wait however long it takes until someone comes up who has”?  I find that very hard to believe. If they’re not, then the work experience itself isn’t really going to help. It merely means that a company that would otherwise employ someone with no experience will be employing somebody with some experience. And this assessment makes sense – how does providing more people with experience create jobs?

Recall that there are less jobs available than there are people looking for work. Part of this is because our economy assumes a natural rate of unemployment, of which possibly more in a future post. But nevertheless this means that even if everybody who was looking for work had exactly the skills, contacts, experience, etc they needed to find a job, there would still not be enough to go around. The fact that more skills are available in the economy doesn’t cause employers to want to employ more people; even a highly skilled labour force doesn’t mean full employment, and there is a massive difference between genuine work skills and generalised unskilled work experience.

On that note, it’s important to understand the difference between slating the work experience scheme and being against training for the unemployed in general. Work experience and skills training are different things; the work experience programme is about putting mostly unskilled young workers into unskilled roles for a short period of time in the hope that this will, in the words of the right wing, “get them out of bed in the morning”. I’m not saying this won’t help anybody – I can see how a voluntary agreement to try to do some work every week over a period of time might help someone suffering from depression and so on. But I can’t see it having a positive effect overall because it fails to impart real shortage skills; being a graphic designer, a computer programmer, an electrician or a doctor is not comparable to having spent ages in Poundland making items go ‘beep’ and cleaning up on aisle 5 in Tesco.

The conservative motto

Finally – and I think this has been somewhat understated by the campaigners against workfare due to their focus on the fact that taxpayers are subsidising private firms, etc – there should be a principled opposition to unpaid labour of this kind. The public debate about workfare represents an opportunity to forge an alliance around the issue of unpaid work; it would certainly include claimants and interns – it may also include workers in relation to unpaid overtime and even housewives and feminists of the Wages for Housework persuasion, etc.

In relation to workfare and interns, we should be arguing the point that if  you run a for-profit company and you have someone work for you, the fact that you are ‘providing them with experience’ is not an excuse for not paying them; all work ‘provides people with experience’, but we still pay unless the person doing it is young or has a history of unemployment. This is straightforward exploitation of people’s vulnerability in the labour market. Providing someone with genuine training, as I have said, is not the same as throwing them into an unskilled job for a few weeks.

People don’t necessarily have to be paid to learn useful new skills that employers are demanding and finding a shortage of, but they should certainly be paid to work. There may of course be exceptions in very specific circumstances like genuine volunteering via charitable or political organisations, but if you are creating value that will be appropriated for profit, I see no reason why you shouldn’t receive a wage for doing so. The very least the government could do if they’re not willing to introduce the minimum wage on the programme (although there have been suggestions that it legally applies), or even the apprentice rate for the minimum wage, is make the employers pay the JSA and any expenses directly to the claimant rather than subsidising big business with free labour at the taxpayer’s expense.

There is already an ongoing struggle to get the minimum wage actively applied to interns, but so far there has been little success. Given that companies in some industries habitually rely on several unpaid interns at a time in order to function properly, this is often not the philanthropic provision of training on the job to some lucky apprentice, it is the use of those desperate to break into an industry as free labour to grease the cogs. In fact, apprentices are actually paid, although less than other workers. Socialists often struggle with the incentive structure of capitalism and take a stand on the basis of justice. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I can see a case from an economic and politically pragmatic point of view for perhaps conceding that the apprentice rate should apply to interns and jobseekers on work placements, rather than the full minimum wage.

Political misdirection

If people continue to be distracted by the question of whether schemes are compulsory or semi-compulsory or presented as compulsory or whatever, though, they will miss the important questions about remuneration and the wider efficacy of the programme. Personally I don’t think there would be such a big problem with making a scheme compulsory if it was paid, whereas a voluntary but unpaid scheme still raises my hackles. And that’s precisely the point – the government are trying to divert us from the real issues here by purposefully misconstruing the public outcry and leading us down a dead-end path for the sake of preserving corporate subsidies and holding down working class wages and conditions.

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Marx doesn’t have all the answers

by Anne Archist

There is a tendency on the left towards reductive theories and models; this is most pronounced in Marxism, versions of which often place massive emphasis on the development of technology, or imbue one form of oppression with strategic and ontological primacy, etc. Other ideas that can be strictly or broadly said to be on the ‘left’ are guilty of this on occasion too, to varying ideas – some anarchists are highly materialist, some feminists think that the lot of women in life can be understood from the standpoint of one particular factor such as the belief that women are made vulnerable by their potential for pregnancy, or whatever it may be. In this post I’ll talk specifically about Marxism, although much of it is applicable to other movements and theories to some extent.

This kind of analysis leaves much to be desired, however, as it lacks the subtle nuances and detailed models that have been developed often within liberal discourse. Materialist analysis should not be based on totally superseding the pre-existing explanations we have available, but on correcting, refining and supplementing them as appropriate. Obviously large sections of liberal theory are ‘ideological’ in the Marxist sense – they are flawed ways of understanding the world perpetuated because they serve certain interests and perhaps contain some ‘partial truth’ or ‘mirror’ something real.

But this approach of throwing the baby out with the bathwater is a totally unjustifiable approach that it itself ideological – it begins with the true proposition that liberal theory is flawed, and promotes the myth that Marxism is holistic and ‘scientific’ and so can explain everything. It is important to note that this approach is not that taken by Marx himself or people like Althusser, Cohen or Gramsci. For these theorists, the method was to adjust and expand prior ideas about the world; Marx began with classical economics and produced his own take on it while later writers aimed to expand the scope of Marx’s methods, refine his claims to render them consistent, etc.

There are often things to be learnt from non-materialist analysis and disciplines other than history or economics. It is interesting to note, for instance, how few Marxists seem to take social psychology seriously, despite the fact that it has provided a great deal of insight into the (re)production of racism in society, military discipline and other forms of proletarian obedience, etc. Another example is the distaste of some Marxists towards philosophy (and particularly logic) as if philosophers expected to be able to explain the whole world from the comfort of their armchair; I have heard people seriously express the notion that logic is bourgeois and is the philosophical antithesis of materialism, an idea which is totally wrong-headed to say the least.

If we want to understand the world in order to change it, we will need to keep our minds open about different disciplines, theories, models and propositions. The world cannot be changed by someone who understands only economics and has no concept of history outside of this. The world cannot be changed by someone who understands only history and has no notion of the complexities involved in ‘democracy’ as a concept and a goal. Any revolutionary or even reformist ‘progressive’ movement must be polymathic if it is to achieve its goals; we have to be able, for instance, to look at the social-psychological, philosophical, historical, economic, political and practical aspects of a question like how to achieve industrial democracy.

If we’re blind to the dangers and flaws of our strategies then we will screw up all over again, just as many movements have in the past. The failure of the USSR or Cuba cannot be put down solely to grand historical factors like the Cold War, however vital these are to understanding the context in which they existed and the pressures that shaped them. They took the shapes they did partly also as a result of decisions that were made by individuals and groups – decisions that may have been influenced by individuals personalities, incorrect theories or predictions, one-off historical events, logical fallacies, and conformity or fear.

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