What Is Exploitation?

The term “exploitation” typically conjures up images of horrendous working conditions, perhaps sweatshops in China or India, or the child labour used by Western clothes manufacturers. We think of people working long hours for little pay in terrible conditions ruthlessly bullied by unscrupulous bosses or gangmasters.

Such “exploitation” is presented to us as exceptional – and contrasted with the “normality” of working life for most people, particularly in countries such as Britain.

Karl Marx had a different understanding of exploitation. Rather than seeing it as exceptional, he argued that exploitation is fundamental to capitalism.

For Marx, exploitation was not just about the level of wages received, or working conditions, but was the very process whereby capitalism creates profit out of the work we do.

In order to understand what Marx meant by exploitation we need to start with his explanation of where profits ultimately come from – the “labour theory of value”. Continue reading