Examining Exploitation: One Mutualist Perspective

Marxian theorists such as John Roemer have argued that the primary importance of a theory of exploitation confronting the problem of unequal exchange is its ability to give prominence to what ought to be regarded as the more fundamental and important, underlying concerns.[i] To the extent that an exploitation theory functions in practice to create an “unnecessary detour” from these other concerns, argues Roemer, “there is no logically compelling reason to be interested in exploitation theory.” The criticism here is that the question of exploitation is needlessly abstract and technical, that—unlike the question of, for instance, domination as within capitalism—sorting out exploitation requires an incredibly “difficult calculation” and distracts unnecessarily. In so arguing, Roemer points to the problem with labor and/or cost theories of value—related historically and theoretically to ideas about exploitation—from a methodological perspective. Indeed conceptually, appeals to a classical labor theory of economic value can confuse the very issues that such a theory should hope to elucidate, failing to distinguish between what we might want to think about as “laws of tendency” within different economies, and relationships that are more fixed and ineludible.

We may therefore think about a labor theory of value in at least a few ways, all of which have relevance for our discussion of a working theory of exploitation: In the first place, a labor theory might simply suggest (as George Stigler has contended that Ricardo’s work did) that “quantities of labor . . . are the dominant determinants” of value (stress added). Another theory might make the tie between labor contribution and value stronger in regarding labor as more than just the dominant or strongest pull on value, assessing it instead as a kind of automatic or necessary governor of value. A third labor theory might do something still more, asserting that the quantity of labor added endows a product, in an inherent, genuine way, with some actual and immutable value—one that it should, i.e., with reference to some notion of justice, fetch the equivalent of, regardless of other economic factors or considerations. Something like this third version of the labor theory is typically the same as or quite similar to the superficial caricature pummeled by opponents who haven’t dared to confront labor theories on their own terms; such opponents create a flimsy and shallow dichotomy between the “objective” theories of value and the “subjective” one inaugurated by the marginalist “revolution” in economics. Depending on how the relationship between labor invested and economic value is understood, an exploitation theory can take on a number of shapes. There is thus a manifest logical and causal relationship between these ideas, important for Anarchists insofar as understanding it can enhance our arguments about monopolism, deprivation and penury. While it is probably unnecessary to dispense with the project of a thoroughgoing exploitation theory altogether, a renewed emphasis on foundational or structural bases of the abuse of workers generally is certainly well-counseled, and one that mutualist and free market oriented Anarchists should be committed to.

As Anarchists, we can and should attempt to unravel exploitation within the context presented by both capitalist domination of the means of production and the relationship between the disutility of labor and economic value. We should, like Proudhon view these aspects of the social and the economic in their capacities as distinct phenomena and then as interrelated phenomena, to develop a sharper picture of the whole; playing the concepts off of one another throws their differences and their similarities into sharper relief. The debates between Marx and Proudhon, carried out over a period of years through letters and essays, offer important insights concerning the priorities of an Anarchist economics versus those of Marx’s apostles. To begin with the abolition of exploitation and economic domination is, for Anarchists, precisely backward, failing to properly account for the source of the economic problem, authority. Paul McLaughlin concludes that, based on this primary opposition (to the state), “domination . . . takes priority over exploitation” within Anarchism.[ii] While perhaps an oversimplification, McLaughlin’s characterization is true enough given that even Tucker, in his opposition to rent, interest, and profit, would never have advocated that contracts involving them should be prohibited. So, if economic domination is, as Proudhon contended, the result of the centralization and concentration of power and property, then those are the true starting point in solving the social problem. For early Anarchists, exploitation required active enforcement, and so was not necessarily a component part of all economies that embraced trade/exchange. As J.K. Ingalls wrote, “If [the interest that we are investigating is] economic, it is necessarily variable and undulating, and yet inexpungable. If exploitive, it is Archic and involves interference and physical enforcement” (stress added). The determination of whether a rent stream was natural and “inexpungable” or exploitative and usurious returns us to the criticism of exploitation theory offered above, that it requires us to engage in what is, practically speaking, an impossible mathematical calculation. But the labor theory, exploitation theory, and general economic views of the Anarchists was and is at once more nuanced and simpler than such a criticism acknowledges. It is more nuanced in that is closely appreciated the connection between political and economic justice, arguing that treating the individual with proper respect for her sovereignty was just as vital as—and the natural guarantee of—ensuring that capitalist domination from an economic perspective did not continue.

American Anarchists contended, as Proudhon did, that the distinction was an origin of mistake and fallacy, and thus were not so troubled by the apparently impossible calculation inherent in exploitation theory; it would be unnecessary, as a matter of practice, to even so much as attempt to determine whether a given exchange was “unequal” mathematically insofar as the proper conditions for economic and social justice, understood together, had been met. The individualist Anarchism of, e.g., Benjamin Tucker, then, was indeed both an amalgam of a number of different ideas inherited and developed from Proudhon, Warren, Stirner and Ingalls, etc. and a unified and undivided whole. The Anarchist idea of exploitation, in large part due to its commitment to individual sovereignty, therefore seems to incorporate a marginal utility (or “subjective”) theory of value alongside a labor theory of value, eschewing today’s popular divide and the contention that the two are mutually exclusive. Only the free individual is equipped to make a proper judgment about what she regards as an “equal exchange,” so the best program for achieving such exchanges (if indeed that is the goal) is one that leaves open the widest possible range of motion for each individual. An exploitation theory doesn’t require an acceptance of a classical labor theory of value at all—at least not per se. Even if domination must precede exploitation in terms of importance for Anarchists, then, it bears repeating that the uniqueness of the Anarchist formulation (as against the Marxian one) is that it is impossible to ever really draw the two asunder. Exploitation and domination are related and codependent just as capital and the state are. In his book on Anarchism, David Miller pondered the relevant “chicken and egg question” connected with the relationship between “the grande bourgeoisie” and the state, a question that can be asked similarly of coercive domination and economic exploitation. In the final analysis, it matters little if at all whether the capitalist ruling class commands the state, or the state aids and sustains the economic elite; the practical reality and results are the same.

Neither do Anarchists need to rely on the quasi-religious, clichéd moralism of the current orthodoxy, which makes Anarchism a mere gloss for a faith- and duty-based utopian collectivism. As Sidney Parker observed, we must be careful to distinguish between class struggle as a reality for the individual, and class struggle as a feeble theory or abstraction. “It is as natural,” says Parker, “for a wage-earner to defend his interest as it is for a wage-payer to defend his,” with the question of the morality of exploitation as a distraction if anything is one. We needn’t resort to the argument that individual sovereignty means a right  (whatever that might mean) not to be exploited—but rather only that it shows the path for individuals (both alone and in association with one another) to vigorously defend their own interests against capitalist conquest. As Allen W. Wood argues, a conception of exploitation doesn’t need to rely on moral baggage, observing that “Callicles and Nietzsche think of as just and admirable precisely the kinds of exploitation most people think are unjust and wrong.”[iii] Even if exploitation is morally neutral, Anarchists like John Henry Mackay have gone as far as making “economic independence” synonymous with “the abolition of the exploitation of man by man,” exploitation being “made impossible by the freedom of labor.”[iv]

Returning for a moment to how we might best reach a result of equal exchanges, however we regard “equal,” Proudhon’s mutualistic system hoped to make every worker a capitalist and every capitalist a worker—to fuse the two roles by bringing the productive, the sources of real value, into contact with the land and resources necessary for industrial activity. Contract, embodying equal exchange and the organization of free individuals, was regarded as the opposite of government in principle.[v] In such a mutualist economy, barter could be a method through which each party, subjectively, as it were, might sufficiently adjudge for herself that an exchange at hand was equal.[vi] Here, Proudhon’s methodology of synthesis is evident, an approach also pronounced in his rejection of the artificial distinction between capital and product.[vii] A system of free contracts, hinged on principles of reciprocal relationships, was to check what Proudhon labeled “the Right of Increase claimed by the Proprietor,” also called “the right of robbery.” Like Laurance Labadie much later, Proudhon regarded such a right as tantamount to “a per capita tax.”[viii] With opposition to the right of increase phrased in the language of robbery and taxation, we can see that the “anarcho-capitalists” of today, if consistent, may not end up very far indeed from the Proudhons and Tuckers in their ideas about exploitation.

Anarchists must continue to put a strain on the notion of exploitation, to test it, to explain it, experimenting and reviewing. The best Anarchism is the one that holds nothing above the strictest scrutiny, not the labor theory, not equal exchange, not the opposition to ususy; it is a standpoint or inclination rather than a fixed system. Challenges to exploitation are thus challenges to the rigid relationships that now dominate economies, even including those of Marxism, always searching for new ways to free the individual from the system “called slavery, usury, or the tribute levied upon the conquered by the conqueror, and the whole large family of taxes, duties, regalion rights, labor service, tithes, farm-rents, leases, etc., etc.—in a word, property.”[ix] As Warren understood so well, we cannot, in our quest to escape exploitation, submerge the individual either conceptually or practically. If exploitation is to wilt and deteriorate, if no exchange is to take place but those that each individual regards as free and fair, then the most vigorous competition must obtain. This, and not “a large blob of protoplasmic homogeneity that lacks all individuality,”[x] is to be the touchstone.


[i] Studies in Marxism and Social Theory, John Roemer, ed.

[ii] Anarchism & Authority, Paul McLaughlin.

[iii] Karl Marx, Allen W. Wood.

[iv] The Anarchists, John Henry Mackay.

[v] “The idea of contract excludes that of government. . . .What characterizes the contract is the agreement for equal exchange; and it is by virtue of this agreement that liberty and well-being increase; while by the establishment of authority, both of these necessarily diminish. This will be evident if we reflect that contract is the act wherby two or several individuals agree to organize among themselves, for a definite purpose and time, that industrial power which we have called exchange; and in consequence have obligated themselves to each other, and reciprocally guaranteed a certain amount of services, products, advantages, duties, etc., which they are in a position to obtain and give to each other; recognizing that they are otherwise perfectly independent, whether for consumption or production.”

[vi] James J. Martin notes that even as stringent an advocate of the Cost Principle as Josiah Warren saw nothing “particularly invidious” about barter, granted that neither party’s need be so overriding as to allow one to exploit the other.

[vii] “Proudhon scoffed at the distinction between capital and product. He maintained that capital and product are not different kinds of wealth, but simply alternate conditions or functions of the same wealth; that all wealth undergoes an incessant transformation from capital into product and from product back into capital, the process repeating itself interminably; that capital and product are purely social terms; that what is product to one man immediately becomes capital to another, and vice versa; that if there were but one person in the world, all wealth would be to him at once capital and product . . . .” – Benjamin R. Tucker

[viii] Labadie said, “Interest is nothing more than a tax and like all taxes is prohibitory in nature.”

[ix] What is Property?, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

[x] On Competition, Laurance Labadie.

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