What is wrong with exploitation?



I will first define Marx’s theory of exploitation (§1) and expound briefly that it emerges from capital mentality, viz., personification of capital and commoditisation of labour power (§2). I will argue that Marx’s remarks on exploitation is not value-laden and carries no moral connotation, i.e., he did not criticise exploitation for its injustice, as the moral principles on which such a judgement is based does not transcend the edifice of capitalism and therefore cannot be judged by a communist principle of justice but merely by ‘bourgeois morality’ (§3). Instead, I will argue, by exemplifying Marx’s view on the notion of freedom (§4), his criticism of exploitation hinges on it being an impediment to human’s freedom, i.e, an impediment to one’s self-objectification (hence self-realisation) and assertion of true individuality (§5,6,7).


1. The notion of exploitation, according to Marx, has a specific content: the definition of which is contingent on the amount of labour one gives in relation to how much he consumes. ‘A person is exploited, if he performs more labour than is necessary to produce the goods that he consumes’[1]. Here Marx assumes the homogeneity of labour by expressing it in terms of working hour (validity of which[2] will not be discussed in this essay). Thus, exploitation can also be elaborated as ‘working more hours than needed to produce the goods that one consumes’[3]. Marx attributes the emergence of exploitation to the qualitative change in the form of commerce[4], i.e., from barter to the use of money as a medium of exchange, which gave rise to the subjugation of ‘use-value’ by ‘exchange-value’ as the determinant of productive activity[5]. In a pre-capitalist society men work and trade for direct consumption, in pursuit of satisfaction. In the course of the evolvement of capitalism, men, through the advancement of commerce, realise the existence of capital and thus shift from pursuing for use-value to exchange-value of goods[6]. G. A. Cohen calls this thought of using exchange-value to increase one’s stock of exchange-value through trading use-value-carrying goods as commodities capital mentality[7]. It was from this personification of capital (and therefore the practice of thrift and stocking up) that a class society emanated and thus the emergence of the dichotomy between the capitalist and proletariat:—

‘Now animals are not only hunted but raised. Vegetables are planted, not just gather. The superior posture towards nature generates a surplus above what is required to sustain those who produce, and this enables the formation of a class which does not work on nature…and which exacts from the producers the maximum it can.’[8]

2. Since the emergence of capital mentality, people have shifted from pursuing satisfaction (use-value) to purchasing power (exchange-value). This qualitative change in the psychology of production and intercourse creates the breeding ground for exploitation as it produces a two-fold phenomenon: the disparity in the appropriation of capital and the means of production which leads to the inequality in bargaining power between the two social groups, whence it followed from this inequality that labour power becomes a commodity. As the capitalist-proletariat social relations of production established, the providers of labour-power, i.e., the proletariats, are effectively compelled by ‘economic circumstances’ to sell their labour[9] [10] to owners of means of production, i.e., the capitalists, due to the proletariats’ inability to obtain their means of life by themselves alone[11]. They are compelled in the sense that what faced them is a Hobson’s choice of entering the labour contract ‘on pain of starvation and death’[12].

3. Marx’s exemplification that the proletariat being subordinated to the capitalist might appear to be an appealing premise with which the belief that Marx condemns exploitation for its injustice is justified. It, however, cannot be the case as it has been pointed out by Brenkert that ‘it is mistaken to hold that capitalism can be evaluated by a communist principle of justice’[13], for Marx takes a historical materialist perspective on the evolution of social structures and considers the edifice of capitalism, as well as its phenomena (include exploitation) as a necessary stage in the development of communism[14]. It is therefore meaningless to suggest exploitation is unjust as the communist principle of justice is not realizable in a capitalist society, being an antecedent event in the development of history:—

‘The realisation of this distributive principle of justice presupposes material abundance which results, on the one hand, from a high level of development of productive forces and, on the other hand, from a transformation of the nature and conditions of work and the attending change in the attitude toward work.’[15]

4. So far I have expounded that Marx’s criticism of exploitation does not, and cannot hinge on its injustice. I will now move on to show that the wrongfulness of exploitation relies on it being an impediment to freedom. It should be noted, nonetheless, that Marx does not define the notion of freedom as political, individual and negative; his conception of freedom is social, collective and positive[16]. For Marx freedom does not only require the lack of physical or political impediments, but also psychological and structural ones as well[17].

Marx’s view on freedom does not confine itself to the classical negative definition; it is an ideal form of life that people ought to live[18], free from hindrances that impede one from realising her totality of desires and capacities. To Marx freedom is self-realisation, which requires one, through development of her desires and capacities, to objectify herself in her productive activities, creations (or products), and interrelation with other people[19]. It is by this ‘self-objectification’ in one’s deeds and products that she understands herself, and, from this self-understanding (or ‘self-realisation’[20]) she attains freedom, through the ‘assertion of true individuality’[21]:—

‘This ‘true individuality’ is man at height of his powers and needs, thoroughly and intensely cooperating with his fellows, and appropriating all of nature. Free activity is activity that fulfils such powers, and freedom, therefore, is the condition of man whose human powers are thus fulfilled; it passes beyond the absence of restraint to the active unfolding of all his potentialities.’[22]

As shown above, Marx’s notion of freedom is twofold: it involves (i) self-realisation, which is achieved by ‘self-objectification’ through desires and capacities[23], and; (ii) assertion of true individuality, which is the ultimate fulfilment of powers in terms of cooperation with fellow men and appropriation of nature[24].

5. For Marx the wrongfulness of exploitation in a capitalist society hinges on the unfreedom that it brings about, as an obstacle to one’s pursuit of self-realisation and as impediment to the assertion of true individuality.

6. Exploitation hampers self-realisation, for it turns all the elements in the production process, including labour, into commodities, as ‘objects of purchase and sales’[25]. The proletariats are compelled to sell their labour power to the capitalists, who own the means of production. As the proletariats’ labour-powers are commodified and fully utilised by the capitalists with division of labour—for the sake of capital accumulation and personification, the proletariat’s ‘own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him’[26]. Self-objectification, and therefore self-realisation, cannot be achieved under the prevalence of exploitation, for instead of objectifying his individuality through his desires and capacities, the proletariat, in the course of production, is compelled to reduce himself to a mere tool (alienation) for survival. He can no longer objectify his ‘individuality, its specific character…and know [his] personality to be objective, visible to the sensesand hence a power beyond all doubt[27]:—

‘Let us review the various factors as seen in our supposition: My work would be a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life. Presupposing private property, my work is an alienation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life’[28]

7. Exploitation also thwarts the ultimate fulfilment of human powers, i.e., as impediment to the assertion of true individuality, for the same reason—alienation. It is because, for Marx, having the positive ability to self-realisation is a necessary condition for asserting one’s true individuality. Under the subjugation of exploitation, the proletariats cannot realise their true selves by self-objectification; instead they lapse into ‘fetishism of commodities’ in which men conceive the ‘social characteristic’ of labour as an objective character of the products[29]. This ‘fetishism of commodities’, which stems from the commoditisation of labour power, creates the illusionary idea of ‘value’:—  ‘Value, therefore, does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic.’[30] Instead of realising themselves through self-objectification in life-manifested production, the proletariats, whose labour power was transmuted into exchange value, work, in pursuit of ‘formal freedom’, for wages, which will allow them to ‘purchase from a fairly restricted selection of goods’[31]. Having the need of subsistence and the desire of widening their scope of choices—hence ‘formal freedom’, the proletariats are thus ‘enslaved’ by exploitation in two ways: on the one hand they are restricted to a scope of choices whatever their wages can buy them (‘He can save or hoard a little. Or else he can squander his money on drink. But even so he acts as a free agent; he must pay his own way…He learns to control himself, in contrast to the slave, who needs a master’[32]), on the other hand, the illusionary idea of formal freedom, which creates a false semblance of self-determination and independence, drives the proletariats to work harder which cements the edifice of capitalism and exploitation.


Marx believes that the wrongfulness of exploitation hinges on it being a source of unfreedom, not its injustice. His remarks on exploitation is not value-laden and carries no moral connotation, for neither the edifice of capitalism nor its phenomenon (including exploitation), being both antecedent events and a necessity in history, is meaningful, if possible, to be evaluated by an ex-post communist principle of justice. Having exemplified Marx’s view on freedom, I have shown that exploitation is wrong for being both an impediment to one’s self-objectification (hence self-realisation) and assertion of true individuality. Exploitation hampers self-realisation by commoditising labour power and hinders free manifestation of life. It also impedes one’s assertion of true individuality through the concept of ‘formal freedom’, which on the one hand compels oneself to be living within a limited scope of choices and, on the other hand, cements the edifice of capitalism and exploitation by goading the proletariats to work harder with the false semblance of self-determination and independence.

[1] Jon Elster, An Introduction To Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 79-80

[2] See: Jon Elster, Making Sense Of Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 204

[3] Op. cit., 167

[4] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1. (London: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1990), 152-3

[5] G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 297-300

[6] Loc. cit.

[7] Loc. cit.

[8] Cohen, Defence, 24.

[9] G.A. Cohen, “The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom”, in Analytical Marxism, ed. John Roemer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 237-259.

[10] Elster, Introduction To Karl Marx, 82.

[11] Cohen, Defence, 73.

[12] Op. cit., 83.

[13] George G Brenkert, Marx’s Ethics Of Freedom (London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1983), chap. 5.

[14] Loc. cit.

[15] Ziyad I. Husami, “Marx On Distributive Justice”, Philosophy & Public Affairs 8, no. 1 (1978): 46, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2264878

[16] Brenkert, Marx’s Ethics Of Freedom, 88.

[17] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “German Ideology”, in: Marx/Engels Collected Works (MECW) Vol. 5, ed. R. Dixon, et al. (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 479, available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch04b.htm

[18] Brenkert, Marx’s Ethics Of Freedom, 160.

[19] Op. cit., 88, 91

[20] Karl Marx, Grundrisse (London: Penguin Books, 1973), 464.

[21] Bertell Ollman, Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 115-6.

[22] Loc. cit.

[23] Elster, Making Sense Of Marx, 205.

[24] Marx and Engels, “German Ideology”, 225, available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch03abs.htm

[25] Cohen, Defence, 301.

[26] Marx and Engels, “German Ideology”, 47-8, available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm

[27] Karl Marx, “Comments on James Mill” (1844), available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/james-mill/

[28] Loc. cit.

[29] Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 167.

[30] Loc. cit.

[31] Op. cit., 1033

[32] Loc. cit.



Brenkert, George G. Marx’s Ethics Of Freedom. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1983.

Cohen, G. A. Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Cohen, G. A. “The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom.” In Analytical Marxism, edited by John Roemer, 237-259. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Elster, Jon. Making sense of Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Elster, Jon. An introduction to Karl Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Husami, Ziyad. I. “Marx on Distributive Justice.” Philosophy & Public Affairs8(1) (1978): 27–64, accessed 8th April 2016 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2264878

Marx, Karl. Comments on James Mill. Accessed 8th April 2016 https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/james-mill/

Marx, Karl. Grundrisse. London: Penguin Books, 1973.

Marx, Karl. Capital, Vol. 1. London: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1990.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich “German Ideology”, in: Marx/Engels Collected Works (MECW) Vol. 5, edited by R. Dixon, et al., New York: International Publishers, 1975
(Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/)

Ollman, Bertell. Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

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