Episode 46: Argumentation and Exploitation – Interview with Ben Burgis (Part 2)

Brendan and Andrew welcome back Ben Burgis––a philosophy instructor, popular leftist podcast host, and author of Give Them an Argument: Logic for the Left––in this concluding part of their two-episode interview. They continue to “give him an argument” about his essay, “Marx’s Theory of Exploitation,” and especially about his endorsement of the “plain argument” for exploitation put forward by G. A. Cohen, a so-called analytical Marxist. Andrew explains why he thinks the “plain argument” is just plain bad, while Ben defends it. They then evaluate the “plain argument” and Marx’s theory in its original form. A key point of contention throughout the segment involves Cohen’s premise that “the labourer is the only person who creates the product.” Ben keeps insisting that Andrew is merely objecting to the premise. Andrew keeps insisting that he accepts Cohen’s premises, but that Cohen was unable to show that they imply that workers are exploited.

Plus current-events segment on “the Left” serving the right: The co-hosts discuss Nathan J. Robinson’s Current Affairs article on Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi. Why are they serving the right? And for how long have they been doing so?

Radio Free Humanity is a podcast covering news, politics and philosophy from a Marxist-Humanist perspective. It is co-hosted by Brendan Cooney and Andrew Kliman. We intend to release new episodes every two weeks. Radio Free Humanity is sponsored by MHI, but the views expressed by the co-hosts and guests of Radio Free Humanity are their own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and positions of MHI.

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June 25, 2021

5 Comments

  1. I have a normative objection to the exploitation argument Ben accepts. In a nutshell: even if workers had a right to the product of their labor there would still be exploitation.

    It seems that Ben and Andrew agree that exploitation consists at least partially in some difference between what is contributed and what is received. How the contribution is measured (products/value/effort) and the remuneration is measured (products/value)
    seems to be a point of contention. Let us take Ben’s accepted measure of this difference which is in terms of products. Assume that workers have a “right” to the products that they produce, whatever that entails. This would eliminate exploitation in one sense: there would no longer be a difference between the products a worker produces and what they have a “right” to.

    A difference would still remain. Assume worker A in factory A and worker B in factory B put in the same amount of effort. If factory B is more productive than factory A there would be a difference between is contributed and what is received between worker A and B. Worker A would still be exploited in this sense: the same amount of effort would correspond to the “right” to a different amount of products.

    We do have to make a decision about what ought to correspond, it’s a normative one and as Andrew points out in the podcast and Ben points out elsewhere cannot be derived only from what is. In Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx clearly falls on the side of making the effort (actual labor-time) of the worker correspond with the effort is takes to create their remuneration. You can have a normative assumption that products one creates should correspond with products one has a “right” to, but I don’t see how that’s Marxist.

  2. Respectfully, I must suggest you’re all misreading Marx on exploitation. The term ‘exploitation’ is *never* so much as uttered until Chapter 9 of Capital Vol I, where Marx refers to the formula for surplus value (AKA rate of surplus value), and the formula for exploitation (AKA rate of exploitation). Note these are not the same formula or rates. Although they seemingly measure the same thing, they do it with different elements. E.g., the formula for surplus value measures the difference between variable capital and value produced, and most people mistakenly think that’s the theory of exploitation (like Burgis and the hosts). Marx explicitly say it’s not – not only in that chapter but also throughout the 61-63 notebooks. Instead, exploitation refers to *time*, which is what’s captured in the ‘rate of exploitation’ formula. It’s the distinction between necessary and unnecessary labor time. Hence all work done past the point of necessity (be it 1 hour or 8) is exploitative. The formula for surplus value does not tell us how much time is spent producing capital/being exploited, it only tells us the percentage difference between value and surplus value. One could have a rate of surplus value extraction of 1000%, with a 1 hour shift, or a 10 hour one. But the 10 hour shift is presumably the more exploitative one Hence Marx believes value analysis is a poor formula for measuring exploitation. Note too that capital, not capitalist are what exploits here, since unnecessary labor is done in the service of capital (in all its manifestations). But everyone seems to have missed this. Cohen, Burgis, Kliman, Lenin, Harvey, etc etc etc. But it’s all right there in Marx, just read closely.

  3. Hi Chris,

    I agree that, according to Marx’s primary definition of the rate of exploitation, it is a ratio between amounts of labor-time (surplus labor / necessary labor). And I agree that the rate of exploitation, as well as the rate of surplus-value, are measures of the relative degree of exploitation, not the absolute amount (as Marx points out in note 7 of chap. 9).

    (I also agree that the term exploitation doesn’t appear until chap. 9 of vol. 1 of Capital, but that’s neither here nor there, since the origin of profit isn’t explained until the latter half of chap. 7. In the Penguin ed., the concept “degree of exploitation” is introduced just 19 pages after the origin of profit is first explained.)

    But I DON’T agree that I am “misreading Marx on exploitation.” The rate of surplus value and the rate of exploitation don’t just “seemingly” measure the same thing. They actually measure the same thing. Here’s some evidence:

    1. In chap. 9 (p. 326 of Penguin ed.), Marx writes, “the rate of surplus-value, s/v = surplus labour / necessary labour.”

    2. He then says that “both ratios, s/v and surplus labour / necessary labour, express the same thing in different ways.”

    3. On same page, he writes, “The rate of surplus-value is therefore an exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power by capital, or of the worker by the capitalist.” (Note that this sentence contradicts your claim that “capital, not capitalist are what exploits here.”)

    4. In note 7 on the same page, he repeats, “the rate of surplus-value is an exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power.”

    5. At the start of chap. 18, Marx provides three formulas, two of which are s/v and Surplus labour / Necessary labour. The formulas are joined by equals signs.

    6. He says that they are “mutually replaceable formulae,” and he refers to all three as “rigorously definite and correct.”

    Also, although you’re right that “The formula for surplus value does not tell us how much time is spent producing capital/being exploited, … One could have a rate of surplus value extraction of 1000%, with a 1 hour shift, or a 10 hour one,” this doesn’t mean that “value analysis is a poor formula for measuring exploitation,” much less that “Marx believes value analysis is a poor formula for measuring exploitation” (a claim for which you provide no evidence). The issue is simply that relative measures (rates, etc.) tell us nothing about absolute amounts. This has nothing at all to do with value analysis vs. labor-time analysis. After all, one could also have surplus labour / necessary labour = 1000% with a 1 hour shift, or a 10 hour one. Neither s/v nor surplus labour / necessary labour tell us how much surplus labor is performed (and neither of them tell us how much surplus-value is created).

    I do think it’s important to keep the relation between value and labor-time magnitudes front and center. (E.g., when discussing the magnitude of surplus-value (profit) or the rate of surplus-value, it’s important to make crystal clear that the sole source of surplus-value is extraction of surplus labor.) I think I did so in the podcast ep., when I summarized Marx’s theory of exploitation:

    “Marx’s argument about exploitation is valid. On the basis of a few premises, especially that living labor is the sole source of new value added and that capitalists pay for workers’ labor-power, not their actual labor, Marx’s argument as to why workers are exploited goes through very easily. Given his premises, he proves his conclusion. The amount of new value created by––and only by––the workers’ living labor is greater than the amount of value they receive by selling their labor-power; the capitalists appropriate the remainder of the new value, without paying them any equivalent. Hence the workers are exploited. In other words, they contribute more value to production than they receive in return.”

  4. There’s a lot here Andrew, which frankly I’m somewhat reluctant to get into on the comments section of a podcast episode. Oh well

    Chapter 7 Part II of capital deals with the laws of commodity exchange (introduced at the end of Chapter 6) and explains how (surplus) value is created in production in a just way, that is, a way that comports to the laws of commodity exchange. It has nothing directly to do with exploitation. As Marx says in the Grundrisse section on method, he develops his categories from the most abstract to the more concrete, in a way that shows how the most determinate abstract category (value) regulates or governs the concrete. Hence, if a category is not being discussed at an early stage of capital, it’s simple not present a theoretical explanation of concrete phenomenon, so Chapter 7 isn’t about exploitation, it’s about concertizing the origin of (surplus) value, the most abstract category, in a way that doesn’t violate the laws of commodity exchange.

    It’s not until Chapter 9 that exploitation is mentioned, and if we accept Marx at his word regarding his method, then we must accept that this isn’t really ‘neither here nor there’, but theoretically paramount, and what’s going on in Chapter 7 Part II is not a theory of exploitation. It’s necessary for understanding exploitation, but not sufficient.

    When Marx writes “the rate of surplus-value is therefore an exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power by capital, or the worker by the capitalist” he’s still noting a qualitative distinction between the two. That surplus value production and unnecessary labor time occur in the same moment, doesn’t mean they are the same thing. One deals with a force (value), the other a social arrangement.

    Note 7 does not say what you suggest it says. He clearly states that “although the rate of surplus value is an exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power, IT IS IN NO SENSE AN EXPRESSION FOR THE ABSOLUTE MAGNITUDE OF EXPLOITATION”. Then he goes on to make the point I made, which is we don’t actually now how many hours of the day this or that member of the working class is spending in the service of capital and/or capitalists. This is done again in Vol 34 of the collected works:
    “Surplus value/variable capital and SURPLUS LABOUR/NECESSARY LABOUR or unpaid labour/paid labour are all the original, conceptual expressions of the same relation” (Marx and Engels 1989, 78). And “NECESSARY LABOUR+SURPLUS LABOUR=the total working day. Assuming that NECESSARY LABOUR=8, and SURPLUS LABOUR=4, the ratio=4/8=1/2. Or 50% is the rate of exploitation of labour (Marx and Engels 1989, 78).
    And Marx subsequently affirms my point:
    “The two ratios: necessary labour/total working day and surplus labour/total working day yield surplus labour/necessary labour and only with this ratio do we have the real rate of exploitation” (Marx and Engels 1989, 79)
    Marx goes on to argue that the rate of surplus value is a poor measure for exploitation, hence these are different formulas, tracking different things/events:
    “Thus if the variable capital of £8 is reproduced by £8, and if in addition the surplus labour has objectified itself in £4, the value of the product=8v+4s,= £12. The values £8 and £4, in which necessary and surplus labour have respectively objectified, can then be expressed as proportional parts of the total product of £12.

    Firstly, this derived ratio [S/V] suffers from the same disadvantage as the derived formula we considered earlier. It does not directly express the rate of exploitation. Secondly, because the finished product always expresses labour time of a specific magnitude, all relations emerging from variations in the working day, in absolute surplus labour, disappear in this form” (Marx and Engels 1989, 80) [emphasis mine].

    Again, please note, the exploitative element deals with *time* not *value*. It simply doesn’t matter that the formulas work in a simpatico nature – exploitation still deals with time, not variable versus surplus value. Marx drives home that he’s theorizing about two different things, even if the appearance is the same (i.e., someone working x hours) on pages 324-325. Just skim them again and you’ll see this. Moreover, the temporal element of Chapter 9 dealing with exploitation – not value – is itself necessary for the subsequent chapter on the working day.

    Now you’re of course right that Marx in Chapter 9 says ‘by capital or the capitalist’. But as the theory develops more and more, and becomes more concrete, exploitation becomes more about capital and less about capitalists, and Marx even says throughout the 61-63 notebooks, exploitation can occur in the absence of capitalists. Why? Because it’s not about one class extracting value from another (the rate of surplus value), it’s about an entire group of people working past the point of necessity (rate of exploitation) to appease an alien abstraction (capital as self-valorizing value) – as Marx practically screams in every sentence that deals with the trinity formula in Vol III – and this can happen in the absence of capitalists, as you rightfully and astutely point out to WSDE proponents! Marx himself even says WSDEs are exploitative I believe both in his inaugural address to the workingmen’s association – or he at least gives them a thumbs down since they don’t stop *unnecessary labor time* [doesn’t say anything about value]. Please excuse the caps lock words, but I’m quoting directly from the 61-63 notebooks. Marx acknowledges that “EVEN IF A LABOURER OWNS HIS MEANS OF PRODUCTION, EVEN WITHOUT EMPLOYING ANY OTHER LABOURER, IT IS CONSIDERED AS CAPITAL and the part of his labour realized by him over and above the common WAGE appears to be PROFIT yielded by his capital. He himself is divided up into DIFFERENT economic categories” (Marx and Engels, Collected Works: Volume 33 1989, 340). In such instances the worker “pays himself his wages” and “exploits himself”, because he “pays himself in SURPLUS VALUE” which is “the tribute labour owes to capital” – not capitalists (Marx and Engels, Collected Works: Volume 34 1989, 142). Since workers can exploit themselves by paying tribute to capital, without the capitalist class actually existing, Marx noted that “it emerges in very striking fashion here that the capitalist as such is only a function of capital” (Marx and Engels, Collected Works: Volume 34 1989, 142-143). Hence, ultimately capital is what drives us to work beyond necessity, and that’s what exploits. And as I know you well know Professor Kliman, Marx argues in Chapter 23, after reviewing the production and reproduction process, that “In reality, the worker belongs to capital before he has sold himself to the capitalist. His economic bondage is at once mediated through, and concealed by, the periodic renewal of the act by which he sells himself, his change of masters, and the oscillations in the market-price of his labour” (723-24). This is a further point in his theoretical development where the concretization of his theory reveals that capital and not capitalists exploit.

    Marx even closes capital III arguing that (i’m paraphrasing without looking at the text) ‘real freedom begins where work by necessity ends’ – hence capital is non-freedom, since it requires working beyond necessity. This is why a normative term like exploitation is used alongside a more scientific formula, i.e., the rate of surplus value.

    If we accept that only value creators are exploited, than honestly some obscenely higher number of the working class is simply not exploited (e.g., every single wal mart employee). That’s dubious. Even Marx says in the 61-63 notebooks that can’t be right, and so they are exploited, because *they engage in unnecessary labor*, unnecessary because it’s just for capital.

    I’ve gone into detail defending this view, and providing ample citations that cross from the 61-63 notebooks and all three volumes in my thesis which I sent you. Which I’m kinda too lazy to reproduce here. I’m definitely too lazy to track down quotes to defend the claim that capital and not capitalists are the real exploiters, but I’ve offered some evidence above.

    I believe your argument as you’ve pasted it is quite wrong.

    “Marx’s argument as to why workers are exploited goes through very easily. Given his premises, he proves his conclusion. The amount of new value created by––and only by––the workers’ living labor is greater than the amount of value they receive by selling their labor-power; the capitalists appropriate the remainder of the new value, without paying them any equivalent. Hence the workers are exploited.”

    Marx EXPLICITLY denies this in Chapter 7 Part II. He says this is by no means an injustice, it’s just good fortune for the capitalist. Why? Because the capitalist doesn’t owe the worker an equivalent, re-read Chapter 6 when he develops the laws of commodity exchange. The capitalist pays an equivalent for labor power, and gets surplus value from its use. That’s fine. Just like I can pay an equivalent for this bottle of wine, and sell it for more later, or buy what’s supposed to be a table, but instead use it as a play fortress with kids. You’ve completely missed Marx’s point in Chapter 6 and & Part II in your argument. This is why you need to focus on Marx’s method, category development, and separation of exploitation from strict value production.

    But I will end with this quote from my thesis, so we can remain largely in agreement, even when we disagree!

    ‘If exploitation was simply a theory about value discrepancy then Marx would presumably spend more time arguing about the proper proportion of value to be distributed. We have seen above that he identified the degree of exploitation in the formulation s/v, whereby it was determined that some temporal duration of work was done past the point needed to reproduce society. Given that exploitation was about a temporal duration and not a value discrepancy, it makes sense that Marx focused in on shortening the working day – and not increasing worker’s benefits – as the key struggle in the fight for a new social form of economic existence. Marx’s goal was to destroy the law of value, not acquiesce to it (Kliman, The Failure of Capitalist Production 2012, 181-208). “To clamour for equal or even equitable retribution on the basis of the wages system is the same as to clamour for freedom on the basis of the slavery system. What you think just or equitable is out of the question. The question is: What is necessary and unavoidable with a given system of production?” (Marx, Wage-Labour and Capital & Value, Price and Profit 2006, 39-40).’

    Stay healthy and well fellas!

  5. Chris,
     
    You say so many things that I disagree with that I don’t have time now to discuss them all. I’ll concentrate on what I think are the most straightforward errors, and on misinterpretations of what I’ve said.
     
    You say,

    Note 7 does not say what you suggest it says. He clearly states that “although the rate of surplus value is an exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power, IT IS IN NO SENSE AN EXPRESSION FOR THE ABSOLUTE MAGNITUDE OF EXPLOITATION.” Then he goes on to make the point I made, which is we don’t actually now how many hours of the day this or that member of the working class is spending in the service of capital and/or capitalists.”

    The only thing that I suggested note 7 (in chap. 9 of Capital, vol. 1) says is that “the rate of surplus-value is an exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power”–which it certainly does. You’re ignoring the point I made about relative vs. absolute measures, and therefore continuing to misinterpret Marx’s references to the difference:

    The issue is simply that relative measures (rates, etc.) tell us nothing about absolute amounts. This has nothing at all to do with value analysis vs. labor-time analysis. After all, one could also have surplus labour / necessary labour = 1000% with a 1 hour shift, or a 10 hour one. Neither s/v nor surplus labour / necessary labour tell us how much surplus labor is performed (and neither of them tell us how much surplus-value is created).

    Note 7 is about the difference between a relative measure and an absolute measure–in this case, between the relative “degree of exploitation” and the “absolute magnitude of exploitation.” It has NOTHING whatsoever to do with value analysis vs. labor-time analysis. Indeed, what Marx points out here is that, given two cases in which the rate of exploitation in terms of labor-time (ratios of surplus labor to necessary labor) are the same, there can be a difference in the absolute magnitudes of exploitation in terms of labor-time (6 hrs of surplus labor vs. 5 hrs of surplus labor). If the note were about value analysis vs. labor-time analysis, Marx would have contrasted a value measure and a labor-time measure, and he would have made them the same kind of measure (either relative or absolute), to have a proper contrast. He doesn’t do that!!
     
    You write,

    This is done again in Vol 34 of the collected works:

    “Surplus value/variable capital and SURPLUS LABOUR/NECESSARY LABOUR or unpaid labour/paid labour are all the original, conceptual expressions of the same relation” (Marx and Engels 1989, 78). And “NECESSARY LABOUR+SURPLUS LABOUR=the total working day. Assuming that NECESSARY LABOUR=8, and SURPLUS LABOUR=4, the ratio=4/8=1/2. Or 50% is the rate of exploitation of labour (Marx and Engels 1989, 78).

    And Marx subsequently affirms my point:

    “The two ratios: necessary labour/total working day and surplus labour/total working day yield surplus labour/necessary labour and only with this ratio do we have the real rate of exploitation” (Marx and Engels 1989, 79)

    Marx goes on to argue that the rate of surplus value is a poor measure for exploitation, hence these are different formulas, tracking different things/events:

    “Thus if the variable capital of £8 is reproduced by £8, and if in addition the surplus labour has objectified itself in £4, the value of the product=8v+4s,= £12. The values £8 and £4, in which necessary and surplus labour have respectively objectified, can then be expressed as proportional parts of the total product of £12.

    Firstly, this derived ratio [S/V] suffers from the same disadvantage as the derived formula we considered earlier. It does not directly express the rate of exploitation. Secondly, because the finished product always expresses labour time of a specific magnitude, all relations emerging from variations in the working day, in absolute surplus labour, disappear in this form” (Marx and Engels 1989, 80) [emphasis mine].

    You have again completely missed the point of Marx’s argument here. It has NOTHING whatsoever to do with ratios of values vs. ratios of amounts of labor. It has NOTHING whatsoever with the rate of surplus value supposedly being “a poor measure for exploitation .”
     
    The passage in MECW vol. 34 is about the same thing that chap. 18 of vol. 1 of Capital is about: measuring the relative degree of exploitation as a ratio of the surplus (value, labor, product) to what workers receive vs. measuring the relative degree of exploitation as a ratio of the surplus to the total (value, labor, product). Marx says that the former method of measurement is right, while the latter is “derivative” and, more importantly, that the latter “shows us the false semblance of a relation of association” (vol. 1, Penguin, p. 668, p. 670) in which workers and capitalists collaborate and share in the total proceeds in proportion to their contributions.
     
    Look again at the passage in MECW 34. What I’m saying is staring you in the face. Marx endorses both “surplus value / variable capital” and “SURPLUS LABOUR / NECESSARY LABOUR,” although one is a ratio of values and the other a ratio of amounts of labor. And he criticizes “surplus labour / total working day” even though it is a ratio of amounts of labor!
     
    Thus, when he writes,

    “The two ratios: necessary labour / total working day and surplus labour / total working day yield surplus labour / necessary labour and only with this ratio do we have the real rate of exploitation”

    he is not “affirming [your] point,” not at all. None of the 3 ratios here is in terms of value. All 3 are in terms of amounts of labor. So Marx’s statement has nothing to do with ratios of values vs. ratios of amounts of labor. He’s saying that (a) the first two ratios of amounts of labor–which are found in analyses that lack “conceptual rigour” (p. 78)–can be used to recover the third ratio of amounts of labor, and that (b) the third one is right–“the real rate of exploitation”––because it doesn’t represent the surplus as a share of the total and therefore doesn’t suggest a false semblance of a relation of association. This has NOTHING whatsoever to do with your notion that “surplus value / variable capital” is somehow not the real rate of exploitation.
     
    Let me also note that that your bracketed insertion in the following is just wrong:

    “Firstly, this derived ratio [S/V] suffers from the same disadvantage as the derived formula we considered earlier. It does not directly express the rate of exploitation.”

    Marx is NOT saying that “surplus value / variable capital” fails to directly express the rate of exploitation. He’s saying that shares of the total value of the product fail to directly express the rate of exploitation. The sentence that immediately precedes this one is

    The values £8 and £4, in which necessary and surplus labour have respectively been objectified, can then be expressed as proportional parts of the TOTAL PRODUCT of £12. [my caps]

    In other words, £4/£12 = 33.3% does not directly express the rate of exploitation; £4/£8 = 50% (i.e., “surplus value / variable capital”) does directly express the rate of exploitation.
     
     
    You write,

    If we accept that only value creators are exploited, than honestly some obscenely higher number of the working class is simply not exploited (e.g., every single wal mart employee).

    Who has suggested that only “value creators” are exploited? Certainly not Marx (see chap. 6 of Capital. vol. 2), and certainly not I.
     
     
    You write,

    I believe your argument as you’ve pasted it is quite wrong.

    “Marx’s argument as to why workers are exploited goes through very easily. Given his premises, he proves his conclusion. The amount of new value created by––and only by––the workers’ living labor is greater than the amount of value they receive by selling their labor-power; the capitalists appropriate the remainder of the new value, without paying them any equivalent. Hence the workers are exploited.”

    Marx EXPLICITLY denies this in Chapter 7 Part II. He says this is by no means an injustice, it’s just good fortune for the capitalist. Why? Because the capitalist doesn’t owe the worker an equivalent ….

    You’re completely misrepresenting the argument here, as well as much else that I argued during the interview with Burgis–when (mostly in part 1) I challenged his claim that Marx said that capitalist exploitation was unjust, that workers have an exclusive right to the value of the product, etc. Just like Burgis, but from the flip side, you’re confusing and conflating two different concepts, exploitation and injustice. The argument you’ve quoted says that workers are exploited by capital(ists); it does not say or imply that this is unjust, and it does not say or imply that capitalists owe workers an equivalent for the part of the new value that they don’t receive an equivalent for. So although Marx explicitly denies what I am NOT saying or implying, he affirms, and argues carefully for, what I am actually saying and implying.
     
    The whole problem that you have here, and that Burgis and others have here, is an inability to see how a relation can be exploitative if it isn’t unjust. I tried to explain this during part 1 of the interview, and I think that Burgis may have begun to understand by the end of that exchange–even though, later in the interview, he went back to assuming that a charge of exploitation needs to be supported by premises that say that such-and-such is unjust and that workers have a right to the whole value of the product.

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