This site is supported by Nobility Studios.
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0

Economic Exploitation and the Division of Labor

9 posts in this topic

Posted (edited)

I have some loose thoughts on the topic given in the title of this thread, and am hoping to get a discussion going that might clarify and expand my thoughts/hunches.

I don't have a strong stance on the relationship between economic exploitation (hereafter, "exploitation") and the division of labor. I'm very much ambivalent, and only have a faint sense that there's some important connection between the two. To be clear, I don't intend "exploitation" to be taken in the Marxian sense of the term. Where I use "exploitation", I have in mind the at minimum morally problematic use of someone (by another) as a means to some end(s), made possible by the used person's vulnerabilities. (Any suggestions on how to change this definition so that it better captures the spirit of the word "exploitation" are welcome; what I've offered is just a starting point for the discussion, to get the ball rolling, so to speak.)

I'll now attempt to spell out the source of my ambivalence. Libertarians and "Chicago School" types (among others) make the plausible claim that it never (or rarely) makes sense to say that legal employment relations in Western liberal democracies are exploitative, for two main reasons: such relations are voluntary and mutually beneficial. I take this to be the fundamental problem for all theories of exploitation that apply to the legal-political context just specified. I don't think that any such theory can be credible without answering to this problem. Let me fill in the details of this difficulty.

The view that we'd all be worse off in the absence of the social cooperation characteristic of Western liberal democracies (broadly construed), of which divided labor is a part, is fairly uncontroversial. Not everyone believes this, especially some of those working in the anarchist tradition. But I'm yet to be convinced by arguments against the relative goodness of this kind of social cooperation, mainly because they rely on a privileging of a certain conception of autonomy (usually defined such that it requires freedom from wage labor) that strikes me as unbalanced (in relation to more convincing construals of "the good"). So for the time being I'll take it for granted that the social cooperation that I have in mind makes us all better off than we'd otherwise be. It follows from this assumption that even those with "bad" jobs are, in gaining access to the goods of social cooperation through their jobs, better off than they'd be if the system of social cooperation that they engage in didn't exist. And, of course, their employment is, on the face of things, "voluntary", since, in a strict sense, it was open to them to not take their jobs and remain unemployed (and it remains open to them to quit and exit the labor force permanently). Benefiting someone in this way hardly seems to qualify as exploitation. Thus concludes my sketch of the libertarian rejoinder to complaints about exploitation.

I'm not satisfied with this counter that libertarians offer. But I also don't find my response to it successful, either. In attempting to show where the libertarian goes wrong, my instinct is to first suggest that the relevant counterfactual comparison with the actual world, to determine whether any given employment relation is exploitative, isn't with a world in which the larger social cooperation scheme that employment relations are embedded in doesn't exist. It might be that we should compare how any particular employment relation is in the actual world with how it would be in a world in which the division of labor was such that the burdens associated with the worst jobs didn't fall entirely to specific people, while others are entirely free from such work (at least in an employment context), as is the case in the actual world. Why might this be a more apt counterfactual comparison for current purposes? Consider that each of us is forced into the world, and given a particular genetic and social endowment not of our choosing, which plays a substantial role in shaping our life prospects. Beyond this, brute luck has, at minimum, a non-trivial role in the determination of life outcomes. Suppose that someone, let's call him Bob, is unfortunate enough to be dealt a substandard initial endowment and is then afflicted with the effects of bad brute luck. These inauspicious circumstances leave Bob with only the most unsavory options for unskilled employment. We might say that his "back is against the wall", since his only (legal) options are taking some bad job or suffering the worse fate of unemployment. Should Bob take on some job, I have the sense that that would be an instance of exploitation. For it's only because he has been involuntarily plagued by bad circumstances thrust upon him that he's willing to take on the job at all. And in accepting this job, he and others like him are relieving the professional class of the burdens of, e.g., cleaning toilets and floors, receiving experimental medical treatments so that medicine might advance, and so on. That is to say, it is only because there are people like Bob that the professional class can enjoy work that isn't almost entirely degrading, unpleasant, and thankless. So Bob and his ilk have vulnerabilities in virtue of which they can be and are used by others as means for those others' gains. (Does it matter that these vulnerabilities are impositions? To some uncertain extent, I think so -- but as we'll see, this view has some troubles.)

What's wrong with the counterargument that I've just presented? For one thing, it is absurd to suggest that the involuntary limiting of one's employment prospects entails that one is always the victim of exploitation when one takes on a job. Is a business man who wants a $100k salaried job exploited because bad luck has it that he can only find that job in Chicago when he wants to have it in New York? Of course not. Are all workers being exploited unless they enjoy the labor market of a perfectly competitive economy? I doubt it. Moreover, where does the blame lie for exploitation of the sort that I've claimed affects Bob? All kinds of people benefit from not having to do the sort of work that Bob does because people like Bob handle it. But surely they aren't all responsible for labor being divided in the way that it is. For that reason it would be strange to suggest that all those benefiting from the plight of people with bad jobs are exploiting such people. Perhaps there is something wrong about their complicity in this system. But it doesn't seem right to say that they're all exploiters.

Thoughts on this are welcome. I promise I won't remove this post :) .

Edited by PeculiarPhilosopher
3 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

I'm inclined to say that all work is exploitation. So the libertarian rejoinder certainly cuts no ice with me.

Work is exploitation because the relation between employed and employer is asymmetrical. The cards are stacked in favor of the employer, especially with the sharp decline of unions and collective bargaining that in the mid-20th century greatly empowered the middle class. Since Reagan fired the air traffic controllers in 1981, a signal event that ushered in a new era, unions have been ebbing, and we are in a process of heading back toward a Gilded Age, late 19th century conception of capital and labor. This is at the root of the growing inequality of income and prospects that politicians are only now beginning to notice, not because they care about these subjects, but rather because they are sniffing out a political issue that they themselves can exploit. It seems exploitation is at the root of capitalist democracy.

This is a really big topic because it touches on politics and well as the nature of democracy, and also the future of capitalism (bleak, in my view) so I'll give my thoughts in bite-sized posts.

It's fine to say that one voluntarily takes on work, and, not being an actual slave, is free to exit the labor force at any time. But this is a joke. The vast majority of us, while technically "free" to enter or exit the labor force, are in fact constrained to the point where we have no freedom at all. In the modern world, especially with the rise of outsourcing and globalization, one leaves one's job at one's peril. Since the 2008 crash, a very large number of people who involuntarily exited the labor force have never been able to find their way back in again.

To me, non-exploitative work is work I undertake voluntarily, but not in the sense of voluntarily entering a relation with my employer as indicated by libertarians. To me, voluntary work is work I really want to do. How many of us can say we do work, that we really want to do? And this is true whether the job is cleaning toilets or running a corporation.

On the eve of the Civil War, the great dispute was not (yet) between capital and labor. It was between "free labor" and "servile labor," the latter being slavery. In April 1860 Lincoln gave a noteworthy speech in New Haven, Conn., (actually a helluva speech; a barnburner in which he even took a pointed jab a religion) that prefigured a lot of modern debate: he touched on the right to organize and to strike, the relation between labor and capital, and other things more relevant today than they were even then. He said, "I like the system which lets a man quit when he wants to, and wish it might prevail everywhere." So of course he was extolling "free labor" over "servile labor," but the point is that back in 1860, a man who was free to quit his job could be pretty sure that he would find another one pretty quickly, because the country was rapidly expanding and there was always work that needed to be done. There was more work than hands to do it. There was a frontier. Not so today (FDR noted the closing of the frontier and the foreclosing of work options in the depths of the Depression). Today our jobs are outsourced to Bangalore and if you exercise your right to "quit" you might find the way blocked to ever working again. You might even find yourself living on the street.

This is a pretty sketchy post but all I have time for now, so, more later. I would like to touch on the fact that I think capitalism has no future, and is bound to die. I believe it will have to give way to something I would call, were I inclined to construct yet another "ism," "sustainablism." Under sustainablism, work promises to be very different, and perhaps more just and human-centered, more voluntary in the sense that I use the word, and not in the sense that libertarians use it.

3 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Firstly, on David's point about exit: the right of exit from contracts or employment is typically paired with voice, or the right to dispute or discuss employment conditions or norms. However, in practice - as you say - these rights are precarious and their exercise by disadvantaged people is often implied to or actually does result in dismissal, such that the rights are essentially meaningless. Therefore, these rights require other guarantors, such as an amount of capital (economic or otherwise) that insulates people from the risk of dismissal. (For example, this could be some indispensable or highly-valued skill or a Basic Income, say.)

On exploitation, I read PP's argument - perhaps wrongly - as pointing indirectly to Rawls's concern with the morally arbitrary distribution of natural abilities, talents and even dispositions. On this view, it is not fair that I was born lazy while you were born a hard worker, or that I was born without a skill with numbers while you were, and so on. It makes no difference whether these gifts are provided for at birth or are acquired because people also do not deserve to be born into particular circumstances; they just are. The reliance on this observation in the argument at hand is that the libertarian insists that I am not exploited because I only have minor talents and have to work for someone who is particularly skilled; after all, life just turned out that way and neither of us asked for it to be so. However, as David says, we can reject this situation by refusing to be satisfied with it: instead, we will implement some approach to distributive justice that corrects for chance as best we can, such as through Rawls's difference principle. After all, if my rights of voice and exit are restricted by morally arbitrary factors and the inevitability of scarcity in economies then I am exploited, whether anyone wished for it or not. It is the undeserved benefits and disbenefits involved that we call exploitation.

A response available to the libertarian is that a society involving this kind of exploitation is better - even for the exploited - than alternatives. Staying with Rawls, the obvious is example is that the (second part of the) difference principle permits inequalities so long as they provide the greatest benefit to the most disadvantaged members of society. The libertarian can claim that people who are less well off and have precarious employment rights are still better off than being unemployed and that state intervention to address imbalances would reduce the overall economic output of a society, resulting in everyone being worse off. This is partly an empirical question, obviously, but also a moral one; after all, we can insist that a more equitable society is better than a less equal one with greater prosperity. For the anti-libertarian, then, we can claim that people are exploited relative to the extent to which society diverges from the most equitable one possible.

2 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Great posts, davidm and Hugo. I'm writing this on a school library computer, the enter button of which won't allow me to start new paragraphs (though it can do everything else, somehow). I should probably write this post at home, but I have a lot of time until my next class . . . so I'm going to write it now. I want to raise some points to problematize the proposals so far advanced. I'll start with davidm's post. You begin by writing that you're "inclined" to the view that all work is exploitative. Noting that you are merely inclined to this view, and thus might not actually defend it (as indicated by later sentences in your post), I want to nevertheless state that I don't think it is right. This importantly turns on how we define work; but supposing that a person who builds a log cabin for his own benefit does work in the building process, it doesn't seem right to suggest that he is being exploited. A further issue, which is highly context-sensitive, is that the kind of exploitation that I have in mind, if it exists, would be able to serve as a basis for an independent argument against the moral permissibility of certain economic relations (it is not yet clear what those economic relations are; obviously I have the sense that they are in some way related to the division of labor, but I'm not confident in suggesting that this sense of mine tracks the truth). If all work is exploitation, then that exploitation could not fulfill the role just specified, because too broadly applicable. Moving on, I think you're right to bring attention to asymmetries in bargaining power between employers and workers. There's a developing theory in my school's philosophy department that makes use of the concept of bargaining power to elucidate much of what's at issue; I wish I could say more but the relevant work is yet to be published. Suffice it to say that I think bargaining power is a useful locus of analysis here. Next, you're rightly skeptical of libertarian notions of voluntariness, as am I, which I tried to express at one point in the OP: "And, of course, their employment is, on the face of things, 'voluntary', since, in a strict sense . . . ." However, I'm not sure how far this can get us. As I mentioned in the OP, it doesn't seem right to say that someone offered a nice, well-paying job, whose employment options are seriously limited (he can either take that job or remain unemployed), will be a victim of exploitation if he takes that job on. Now, this probably doesn't matter much for your argument, since it appears that you are more concerned with the threat to voluntariness posed by a certain (negative) orientation to one's work, than you are with the threat to voluntariness issuing from the unpleasantness of unemployment and a lack of relevantly varied job prospects. Work is exploitative just in case one doesn't really want to do it (I'm unsure if you were intending to stipulate a necessary condition, a sufficient condition, or both). But that doesn't seem right, either. Exploitation of the kind at issue at least seems to consist in a certain sort of interpersonal relationship. One might, for instance, really love what one does; but if it turns out that one is being paid far less than other employees who are doing the same work that one is, surely it makes sense to say that one is being exploited. Let me now turn to Hugo's post. The tentative argument I propounded is similar to but importantly distinct from what I like to call Rawls' "anti-desert" argument. The trouble with Rawls' argument is that it is susceptible to one's objecting that unequal rewards might be justified on the basis that all persons are entitled to their natural assets and whatever they happen to come into ownership of (assuming certain libertarian moral constraints are not violated), regardless of whether or not they deserve their endowments and the effects of their good luck. My argument recasts the burdens of our lives in terms of force or imposition (no one consents to their endowments or life-luck, after all), such as to give the libertarian reason to think of disadvantage as a moral problem (does this manage to separate the well off from entitlement claims on their benefits, though? Hmm. Depends on how compensatory burdens shake out). But this strategy seems to fail in getting me what I'm looking for, because, as per the OP, not all instances of bad luck affecting employment prospects seem to render subsequent employment exploitative. Perhaps "voice and exit" could come in more fully to make sense of exploitation of the relevant kind. I should also indicate that, playing to the libertarian, efforts to use Rawls' argument to elucidate exploitation can be flipped, in a way. The libertarian could say that talented individuals are exploited when their superior talents, to which such individuals are legitimately entitled, are used coercively by the state to benefit others. This argument would have to be countered, or else it'll be a thorn in the side of any theory of exploitation that leans heavily on Rawls' difference principle. As an aside, it's interesting to note that one of Rawls' arguments for the claim that his two principles of justice would be chosen in the original position is susceptible to a similar sort of move. Rawls argues, against the claim that average utilitarianism with a guaranteed minimum for the worst-off representative individual would be chosen in the o.p., that his two principles of justice would be chosen from the o.p. because if a society failed (to strive) to make the worst off as well off as possible, it would lead to the political disenfranchisement of the worst off. But it's potentially no less true that a society overly concerned with the worst off might embitter the best off, thereby disenfranchising them.

1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Thanks for the response, Mr. P, I am sorry that your school puter won't let you start new paragraphs. :wtf:

I haven't time now to deal with all the issues you raise, so for now just want to focus on this:

This importantly turns on how we define work; but supposing that a person who builds a log cabin for his own benefit does work in the building process, it doesn't seem right to suggest that he is being exploited.

This turns on self-employment, which may be quite a different thing. Or maybe not. Lots of people are actually forced into self-employment because they cannot find a job, and their self-employment is much less remunerative than having a job working for someone else. But we can pursue that further, later. For now I just wanted to repeat the joke I told in chat. :heh:

There's an online comic strip -- wish I could remember the name; Null turned me on to it -- in which a guy is complaining to his barber about his boss. The boss is a tyrant, he's never satisfied, he's totally incompetent and he never bathes. a real nightmare.

"My god, man!" the barber exclaims. "Why don't you quit?"

"I'm self-employed."

:heh: :heh:

More later. :)

1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

OK, it's Wondermark, but can't find the strip alluded to above -- it's somewhere in the archives!

Anyway, we'll never solve philosophical problems, but we can all enjoy Wondermark. :)

1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Nice work! :thumb:

1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!


Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.


Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0