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Understanding exploitation

This obituary for Erik Olin Wright makes me regret not paying more attention to his thoughts and writing. There was something of his that I read back in the early 80’s that provided some insights about union strategy at the time, that at short notice I do not recall. This says more, not good, about me rather than the quality of Wright’s work.

There are two reasons. First, as the obituary emphasizes, Wright focused on the primacy of class in understanding what’s happening in society. More of that please.

Second, that meant he focused on exploitation. The obituary elaborates a little on that.

Anyone who has followed this blog knows that I believe that the quality of understanding of what exploitation actually is very poor in the Australian left, especially in the union movement. I have said before that younger union activists have a stronger and more confident grasp of discrimination than they do of exploitation. This leads to serious strategic problems, including in the nature of demands that workers are encouraged to make on employers and governments. (For example see here, and here.)

It is quite common to hear or read exploitation discussed as the underpayment of wages relative to statutory minimums. The conclusion reached or suggested is that workers who are paid according to or better than the prescribed minimum are not exploited.

Of course, this is a nonsense that far too often is studiously and deliberately avoided. Among other things it leaves begging the possibility, and reality, of workers on relatively high wages, say above the average or the median, might be exploited at higher rate than workers on a relatively lower wage.

Yes, it is possible to work out, to some degree of precision, what the rate of exploitation is. It’s not just a conceptual thing, as valid as it is in that form.

If all workers are exploited, can there ever be fairness in a wages system within a capitalist society. Of course, that all depends on what moral or ethical value you attach to exploitation. Is it good, or is it bad? Or something else.

I don’t know whether Erik Olin Wright, as a marxist thinker for the 21st century, tackled these sort of questions.

I also don’t know from the obituary whether his focus on “exploitation” included the interactions and mutual dependencies between capitalism’s exploitation of the big majority human beings and of the natural environment.

Yet more learning to get stuck into in 2019.

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