Exploitation: The Foundation of Capitalism
When people complain that they are being 'exploited' at work, they usually mean that they are being treated unfairly or being ripped off.
For instance, Burger King used to make workers clock off when it wasn't busy, though they had to stay at work. One young worker made less than the price of a burger in an 8 hour shift. Pizza Hut offered a young Spanish woman a job - but the first 2 weeks would be without pay, to "help" her improve her English! Some places make staff work unpaid overtime. Nike pays Chinese workers just 16 cents an hour for a back-breaking 70 hour week while its president Phil Knight is worth $6 billion. People hear about things like this and they say "That's exploitative - it's taking the piss."
But if we want to understand what makes capitalism tick, we need to go further than this simple idea of unfairness - it naturally implies that there can be a fair wage, a job where we aren't exploited. Is that true?
Karl Marx said no. He was the first to analyse how the capitalist system works in depth, and how exploitation was central to it. That was what made him different from many anti-capitalist thinkers who have followed him. Simple theories of exploitation say capitalism can be made fair by making the worst capitalists behave. The Marxist theory of exploitation means that society can be made fair only by overthrowing the capitalists and getting rid of their system.
So how does the Marxist theory work?
Capitalists invest money in factories, materials and hiring workers to produce goods for sale. When goods are sold they make a profit. The capitalists' money, repeatedly invested in production and recouped in the form of profits, is called capital. It grows constantly by going through this cycle.
Marx set out to discover where this expansion of capital came from. To do this he looked at the basic unit of all things produced - the commodity.
Capitalism is a system where almost everything we produce and use - from a Big Mac to a pair of Nike trainers - take the form of commodities. Commodities are produced to be bought and sold before they are used.
Every commodity has two essential aspects to it. On the one hand, it must be useful - it must satisfy a need. Here its physical qualities are what is important. Does it taste good, look good, sound good, keep you warm, keep you clean?
This is what Marx calls its "use value". It is a necessary element of a commodity, since without it the final buyer, the consumer, won't need it and won't buy it.
But having a use value is not sufficient to make something into a commodity. For this it must possess another kind of value - one which can be compared with all the many and varied kinds of commodities. Only in this way can it be exchanged, through the medium of money, with other goods on the market. This value which enables us to compare is what Marx calls "exchange value". It is what lies behind the commodity's price.