Our values are seriously skewed by our economic activity. Our economic activity affects us deeply. Karl Marx argued forcefully for this claim, and he was right.
If you spend much of your life making automobiles, wouldn’t it be natural for you, for example, to vote for politicians who value what is good for the auto industry? If you spend much of your life caring for the ill, wouldn’t it be natural for you to have strong opinions about issues concerning health care? If you spend much of your life logging trees, wouldn’t it be natural for you to be very concerned about the health of the logging industry?
Much more controversially, Marx argued that a worker who has a job is “exploited.” Though I’ve read books on economic theories, I am not an economist. In other words, I’m simply not an expert about this—and it is an important issue about which serious economists disagree.
However, when I talk with people in an ordinary, everyday context, I find general agreement that workers are exploited. (This is especially true when people don’t realize they are agreeing with Marx!)
Suppose you have a job. Your wages reflect the value you add value to a product or service. Everyone agrees about that.
Here’s the question: do your wages equal the amount of value you produce? If they do, then you are not exploited. If they don’t, then you are exploited.
John Locke argued that the value of a product or service is created by the worker who works on it or by all the workers who work on it. (Let’s pretend there’s just one worker for the sake of simplicity; the argument can easily be extended to more than one worker.) If Locke is right, then it is just or fair if you, the worker, are rewarded in proportion to the value you add, and it is unjust or unfair if you are not.
Marx argues that, in a free market economy, wage workers like you must be exploited. That’s not because you boss is evil and doesn’t want to pay you fairly. It’s because, if a company’s workers were not exploited, the company must fail because there would be no profit. Profit is created for a company by the surplus value provided by its wage workers; in other words, it’s created by the value that they add to a product or service and are not paid for adding.
IF Marx is correct, all workers are exploited. All wage earners are underpaid. This isn’t the fault of some particular capitalist or even of some particular class such as business owners; it’s the result of the nature of the whole market economy.
If you are a wage earner, since your activity while on the job affects your values, how would you feel about being exploited, systematically under-rewarded for your laboring activity?
Well, if you have ever recognized yourself as being in that situation, you certainly weren’t happy about it. You may have felt trapped. You needed the job to pay your bills, but you were exploited while on the job. This can produce resentment, bitterness, and even anger. It doesn’t foster peace of mind.
Have you a way out? Well, you could quit your job and get another one. Unfortunately, if Marx is right that the exploitation of wage-workers is endemic to a market economy, you’d still be exploited at your new job.
Even if Marx is right, you may ask, “So what?” After all, you may still have a decent house, plenty of food and water, educational opportunities for you and your family, political freedom, sufficient leisure time, freedom to travel, and so on. “Yes,” you might think, “I’m exploited, but the benefits are still so good that it’s worth it.”
With respect to having a job, though, there’s more to think about. Even assuming that Marx is correct about systematic exploitation, being exploited is not the worst part of having a job. I discuss what is in my next post.