Labour-surplus extraction, value, and struggles beyond the wage

Levi’s ‘We are all Workers’ billboard, somewhere in the US, 2022

By Alessandra Mezzadri, SOAS

HM Conference Plenary, Sunday November 13th, 2022

First, I would like to thank the HM conference organisers - Demet Dinler in particular- for arranging this panel. Thanks to my fellow panellists for sharing this platform with me - I find their work hugely inspiring. I was asked to organise my intervention here along three questions, which I diligently have.

*Question 1: What are the philosophical and political concepts from the Marxist tradition, from traditions in dialogue with Marxism as well as from real life social struggles, which inspire your own theoretical/empirical research projects?

As a feminist political economist of labour relations across the global economy, of all the Marxian – rather than Marxist? – concepts, I have always, undoubtedly, been mostly inspired by that of ‘exploitation’. I realise I am testing my luck here, given its centrality to all Marxian analysis, as it unfolds particularly in Capital Volume One. Exploitation, for Marx, was central to the process of value generation. As stressed by the Feminist economist Diane Elson (1979), it was the basis of Marx’s labour theory of value and what distanced it from other theories of value in classical political economy, whose objective was to derive a theory on the formation of natural prices. Marx’ message was rather simple: the value of all things under capitalism is created through the sweat of human labour, extracted, and paid at a lower rate to the value it creates. In Elson’s words, in effect, Marx developed a ‘value theory of labour’.

Notably, exploitation is at once a philosophical, operational, and political concept. Its philosophical nature is revealed in the revolutionary way in which it literally turns political economy upside down, so that – paraphrasing from recent words by Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor on COVID-19 – its ‘bottom is brought to the surface and exposed to the light’. The revolutionary discovery that all value is made of labouring – of exploitation – was undoubtedly revealed by the pandemic. One image captured this more than anything for me: a 2020 drawing by Indian drawer Hasif Khan, called Social Distance. It shows what all was made of as the world had to stop – a river of labour leaving the cogs of the system.


Social Distance, Hasif Khan, 2020, Ananda Vikatan Magazine, Chennai, India
Social Distance, Hasif Khan, 2020, Ananda Vikatan Magazine, Chennai, India

Exploitation’s operational nature is instead in the provision of a method for researching the world of commodities and what makes them, focusing on unpacking the mysteries of the ‘hidden abode of production’. This has turned into a concrete agenda in labour process theory and in labour regime analysis – pioneered by Marxist scholars like Harry Braverman and Michael Burawoy - which have contributed to revealing the workings of the hidden abode or production in different settings. Obviously, setting exploitation as one of the key engines of capitalist history has huge political connotations, as it sets the basis for both revolutionary and redistributive politics centred on The Worker and their key contributions to making our world.

Yet, whose sweat are we talking about, and how is this sweat extracted? This seems a rather important question, given that its answer has philosophical, operational, and political ramifications. Now, for a long time, in much of the Marxist – rather than Marxian? - tradition, the answer to this question has been incredibly narrow, despite the centrality of exploitation as the key guiding concept in Marx’s critique of political economy. It has heavily focused on the realm of commodity production and the perimeters of what has been understood as the capitalist space of work. On the one hand, this is partially due to the fact that Marx’s critique of political economy was addressed to the classics, who themselves proposed a framework biased towards the world of capitalist commodity production (and trade, in fact, considering its centrality in both Adam Smith’s and David Ricardo’s analyses). On the other hand, this was also due to the historical contingent nature of the type of capitalist abode of production that Marx himself studied, particularly in Capital Volume One; one inhabited primarily – albeit admittedly not only - by white male European workers. These are some of the reasons why Marx, as highlighted by Sebastian Rioux, effectively relies on an autonomous and self-reproducing sphere of production in which he somehow maintains what David McNally has called the ‘myth of the male worker self-birth’.

Notably, this observation of the sudden arrival of The Worker in the hidden abode of production, as if self-made, has been the basis of feminist critiques to Marxist ‘productivism’, and the starting point for feminist theories centred around the concept of social reproduction. The question ‘who made the worker’? is indeed at the basis of social reproduction analyses including Social Reproduction Theory (SRT), as explained at numerous HM conferences before this by Tithi Bhattacharya, Sue Ferguson, or Sara Farris, among others.

Well, I argue that this question has key implications for how we should look at exploitation. In fact, when this question was posed in the 1970s and 1980s by Early Social Reproduction (ESRA) Theorists like Maria Rosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, Silvia Federici, Leopoldina Fortunati, Alisa del Re, Antonella Picchio, Maria Mies and Rohini Hensman – across Europe, the US and India – it was a provocation against narrow definitions of the capitalist hidden abode of production, which invisibilised the exploitation of many across the history of capitalism. During the same period, black feminist analyses of slavery and indenture – by authors like Angela Davis, or Rhoda Reddock, among others – also challenged understandings of exploitation that squarely placed it in (European) factories. All these analyses open wide the perimeters of exploitation, and the spaces where we should analyse it, both historically and today. These spaces are not only factories, but also kitchens and bedrooms where women are locked in to regenerate the workforce; plantations where slave and indenture labour was worked to death and women denied or allowed domesticity only for colonial ends; or the liminal spaces where those supposedly excluded from capitalist designs are condemned to what Orlando Patterson calls ‘social death’. Recent images of migrants locked in rescue boats along European coasts come to mind as characterisations of such realms of exception.

We can define all these as spaces of wagelessness. Exploitation, as the main principle of organisation of capitalist life, is at work also in these wageless settings. This is because, following Marx’s own insight on what produces value in capitalism, and as lucidly remarked by Jairus Banaji (2003; 2010), it is the extraction of labour surplus that defines capitalism, not the presence or absence of wage-labour. The latter merely represent one form of pricing of labour, hardly its value, a point developed both by Antonella Picchio, and Silvia Federici, who in the expression Patriarchy of the Wage retheorises the wage as an indicator of inequality and power relations structuring labouring experiences. If capital is defined based on the dominance of labour-surplus extraction, wage-labour stops being the only form in which exploitation may manifest. And in fact, historically, across the majority world - also labelled as the developing, postcolonial world, or the Global South - exploitation has mainly manifested as (an apparently) wageless relation, as already for women worldwide, at the very least until the rise of feminised employment and the marketisation and financialisation of reproductive services that opened the neoliberal ‘crisis of care’ in the 1980s, as explained by Nancy Folbre, Isabella Bakker, and Nancy Fraser, among others.

In fact, today, complex combinations of unpaid, waged, disguised waged-labour or self-employment along an ever reorganizing productive/reproductive continuum are formally subsumed into commodity circuits worldwide, all performing labouring functions and hence representing varied and multiple ‘classes of labour’ – to use Henry Bernstein’s enlightening analytical categorisation. I would argue that it is exactly from these messy and chaotic labour experiences and struggles that we can learnt the extraordinary concrete complexity of exploitation and re-affirm its broader philosophical meaning as the core principle of organization of capitalist life everywhere – and fight the flattening of the concept into dry and banal conflations with waged labour.

I learnt the most about exploitation, its relation to social reproduction, wagelessness and social oppression running along other marketized and non-marketized circuits in the alleys of peri-urban and rural India, whilst studying what I defined as The Sweatshop Regime. This work builds on my previous economic analysis of regional socio-economic inequalities in Southern Europe and my personal experience of growing up exposed to Italian uneven and combined development, still based on vastly informalised labour and commodity markets. The experience of workers within The Sweatshop Regime cannot be captured through analyses merely based of waged labour. First, whilst millions sweat in factories and workshops – over 12 million according to the last official statistics of India’s ministry of Textile - tens of millions more sweat in informal workshops, family units and homes, based on a rough ratio 1:3. A large share of the latter would not appear as classic wage-work; yet they perform its functions. Unless we want to argue that across globalised circuits only those who land in factories can be defined as exploited (a clear theoretical and concrete absurdity) we need to ditch exclusionary – elitist in fact – understandings of exploitation. Secondly, the analysis of the scaffolding of globalised production systems like The Sweatshop Regime shows the mechanisms of what I called the social reproduction of value; namely how (unpaid) reproductive activities and realms shape exploitation rates. This means that exploitation can only be understood as a productive and reproductive experience. The factory, as argued by Silvia Federici – ‘feminising’ the insights of Mario Tronti - is always a Social Factory. This approach to exploitation helps us revisiting several key debates in Marxian analysis, a point that leads me to the second question.

*In what ways does this work revisit classical debates and contribute to new ones within and beyond Marxism?

The take on exploitation and value I propose revisits several classic debates within Marxism. I can mention a few. First, the debate on exchange versus use value. It should be clear enough that through the understanding of exploitation and labour surplus extraction I propose, rigid distinctions between exchange/use applied to the labour relation collapse entirely. In fact, I would argue that the reified version of this distinction, which Marx instead developed also to reject liberal understandings of capitalism (that would evolve to theorise value as merely based on ‘utility’), has been deployed as a stick against ESRA for far too long, considering its static nature and embeddedness in what effectively seems a neoclassical economics sectoral framework. These are strong claims; hence I shall explain.

The Marxist tradition insisting on the non-productive/non-value generating nature of social reproductive activities and realms explain their position based on what they perceive to be Marx’s distinction between exchange and use value. Social reproductive activities, they argue, produce use-value, and not exchange value, the latter only being produced in commodity production. Hence, reproductive activities are not value-producing. In the 1980s, the early critique to Marxist Feminist arguments on the productive nature of domestic and care labour by the Marxist labour process theorist Paul Smith came along these lines. Now: Smith’s argument, I argue, is inaccurate on two grounds. First it is tautological: reproductive work produces use-values in a framework where only exchange value is granted the role of value-producer, hence it is not value-producing. Second, it is based on an understanding of use-value and exchange value as if they were two discrete units of analysis. But these is not what they are. They are, quoting from EP Thompson, two qualifiers – or potentia – of the same relation – labour - which is not a ‘thing’ as in classical and neoclassical economics’ characterisations. As exchange and use value are inseparable – an observation also at the basis of Leopoldina Fortunati’s The Arcane of Reproduction, who noted how they are embodied in every individual (as the indivisible labour/labour-power in each of us) – it follows that attempts to separate the networks or activities (i.e. production/reproduction) which generate one or the other are a meaningless exercise. Finally, one could also question the methodological consistency of applying the distinction use/exchange value to labour/labour-power – that is to the ‘most precious commodity’ of all, and measure of value of all others.

Dynamic concrete geographical, anthropological, and sociological analyses of labour relations show in fact the interpenetration of production and reproduction in shaping exploitation. Elsewhere I dedicated some attention to the mechanisms through which this interpenetration takes place across The Sweatshop Regime - namely, through the industrial infrastructure of workers’ daily life; through the externalisation of reproductive costs by employers based on migration and mobility; and via processes of formal subsumption of home-based work.

Opening wide the boundaries of exploitation also revisits a second classic debate within Marxism, that is the one concerned with the revolutionary subjectivity. This is no longer only the industrial proletariat – historically predominantly male, white and placed within a factory. In fact, by shattering the rigid perimeters of ‘productivist’ exploitation more narrowly defined, we find that the revolutionary subject can be found, literally, everywhere; in the factory, but also in the field, the farm, the home, the street, the warehouse, and it is in all these spaces that, in fact, we have found them, across the long and violent history of capitalism. It is where we still find them, not only fighting for better working conditions in industrial areas, but also fighting for land redistribution, against apartheid regimes, against expropriation of indigenous and ancestral land, against what Tania Li and Pujo Semedi have recently called as ‘corporate occupation’, against evictions from slums, for self-determination income, for wages for housework and carework in a post-pandemic world, for the protection of nature and the ecology of our planet, and so on. By unbounding exploitation, we don’t lose the revolutionary subject; we multiple them, we gain ground, we take all of it, and we finally find and build our common history of struggle.

Finally, and related to the above, an ‘unbound’ take on exploitation helps us recognise and amplify not only class struggles, which as I already argued can take place in multiple contexts and manifold guises. It also helps us to de-invisibilise what Nandini Gooptu and Barbara Harriss-White in a seminal Socialist Register 2001 paper called struggles over class, and move towards a more inclusive politics of working class solidarity, a point also stressed more recently by Supriya RoyChowdhury. As I mention struggles, let me move to the third question I was asked to address in this plenary. This is:

*How can these concepts and ideas be used to mobilise a broader alliance of progressive and revolutionary politics against capitalist, colonial, racist alliances?

It is my view that only by revolutionising the theoretical tools at our disposal we can be well-equipped to fight capitalism, as a mode of production that has always been colonial, racial, and hetero-patriarchal, and put us to work in different ways. The representatives of capital know this all too well –I provokingly opened this piece with another picture, featuring the We Are All Workers! marketing campaign by global textile giant Levi’s. By adopting an unbound understanding of exploitation, based on what I called a ‘value theory of inclusion’ under capitalist oppression, we can recognise each other’s contributions to labouring and value-making, articulate our struggles and amplify each other’s’ voices.

There is a second wonderful image I have in mind when trying to communicate the necessity to recognise all people as labourers. It is La Costurera, a 1931 painting by Amelia Peláez, a Cuban artist. It epitomises the power of seeing oneself as a labourer, as by stitching, the woman in the picture makes not only the commodity but also herself. Recognising us as labourers and value-makers makes us so.


La Costurera
La Costurera, painting by Amelia Peláez, 1931, MACBA Bueno Aires, Argentina

In practice, people across many parts of the world are already showing us the way, as they articulate productive and reproductive struggles and demands in domains shaped by capitalist, colonial and neo-colonial racist alliances. Chinese electronics workers mobilising across Foxconn dormitories teach us that in today’s Global Factories ‘the productive’ and ‘the reproductive’ spheres are equally put to work for capital, and that paraphrasing from the Chinese labour sociologist Pun Ngai the labour regime is always also ‘dormitory’; hence productive and reproductive demands are equally working class demands opposing exploitation. Informalised working classes at the bottom of India’s Sweatshop Regime, whose exploitation is interlocked across commodity, reproductive, and credit markets and realms show us the continuities and complementarities between wage-centred and income-centred struggles under the conditions of what the late Kalyan Sanyal called postcolonial capitalism. The rising literature on LGBTQ+ workers teach us about the fictitious line of separation between struggles of redistribution and struggles of recognition; an issue recently explored by Duc Hien Nguyen, Ellie Gore, Emmanuel David, among others. Plantation and mine workers, from India to South Africa, teach us that class oppression is always casteist and racist. In the Munnar tea belt, Kerala, we learn from Jayaseelan Rai how Dalit women tea workers waged strikes denouncing their exploitation as well as the racist, casteist capital-union alliances that enabled it. Slum-dwellers from Mumbai to Durban teach us that housing campaigns are not merely right-based demands to alleviate dispossession in what the late - and hugely inspiring - Mike Davis called the Planet of Slums. They are first a foremost working-class struggles over space and against new enclosures, a labour-centred understanding which, as noted by Ananya Roy, turns the urban poor from victim to subject of history. Black Lives Matter struggles teach us about how to fight the contemporary afterlives of slavery (in Saidiya Hartman’s words), often linked to what Angela Davis and Ruthie Gilmore call the prison industrial complex, still regenerating armies of unfree (black) labour. NiUnaMenos movements in Argentina and everywhere teach us that self-determination incomes are a form of informalised working-class demand and that, as argued by Veronica Gago and Luci Caballero, the strike can become a feminist strike; for everyone, overflowing from factories onto the streets and homes. Again, from Argentina and the same authors, engaged in a Feminist Reading of Debt, we learn the intricate connections between precarious labour, debt, gendered and racialised violence – that is, how once again we need to understand exploitation as a complex social process exceeding the employment experience in which it manifests.

All these lessons from concrete past and contemporary struggles call for the need to reject narrow interpretations of exploitation as a mere industrial labour category. By refusing to enclave exploitation into the asphyxiating walls of industrial commodity production alone, we discover an entire world where we can fight united across many fronts, at once. Theory is a weapon. It is a method to understand and analyse the world and a political demand, all at once. Let’s scale up our concepts to represent us all, the fault lines falsely separating our oppression/s under capitalism finally unbounding.