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Invisible Exploitation

How Capital Extracts Value Beyond Wage Labor

The Marxist analysis of work under capitalism has long been associated with a preoccupation with wage labor: waged workers as wage-slaves, industrial workers as the revolutionary proletariat, and factory workers as the vanguard. The labor theory of value has been widely seen as applying to the wage form of work and no other. But Marx’s own writings describe other forms of labor under capitalism, and Marxist theorists have long pushed to expand our understanding of exploitation beyond the classic waged relations of production.

Capitalists have always used more than the wage form alone to extract surplus product from workers. However, this century is particularly distinguished by its growing reliance on alternate methods of extracting surplus. It’s time for Marxists to rethink our preoccupation with the wage and develop a theory encompassing a common ground of exploitation across a wide variety of extractive relations under capitalism. A recognition of that shared exploitation may prove key if the exploited “class-in-itself” is to become a “class-for-itself,” able to unite and act in solidarity. 

Marx himself analyzed two major modes of capitalist exploitation of workers outside the wage form: “so-called primitive accumulation” and reproductive labor. Already in 1913, Rosa Luxemburg proposed in The Accumulation of Capital that primitive accumulation (better translated as “original” accumulation) was not a one-time event somewhere in the past, but instead an ongoing process under capitalism. Capitalist growth, she argued, required continual expansion into “non-capitalist” spheres: “accumulation is more than an internal relationship between the branches of the capitalist economy; it is primarily a relationship between capital and a non-capitalist environment.”1 It is worth noting here that discussions of original accumulation tend to focus on the material objects of appropriation, such as seized oil fields or privatized water, minerals, or land. But much or even most original accumulation—sometimes also called, accumulation by dispossession or accumulation by theft—appropriates both raw materials and labor simultaneously. When infrastructure such as railroads, produced goods such as ships, tools, buildings, cleared and improved fields and lands, crops, mined metals, and so on are plundered, the labor used to modify and maintain those resources is also seized.


Another form of capitalist labor expropriation, slavery, can likewise be understood as a form of original accumulation, a direct theft of human labor power. The case for capitalism’s foundational need for slavery was made at least as early as 1944 by Eric Williams, although at the time he assumed that slavery was a labor form of the past.2 However, from reports of workers padlocked into factories, a global traffic in women for coerced sex work, confiscated passports of domestic servants, and children held to work on cacao plantations, it is clear that unfree labor is not a pre-capitalist relic, but continues to thrive.

In addition to original accumulation, Marx studied the role of reproductive labor in capitalism: the unpaid work needed to reproduce labor power by creating and raising children, and by feeding, clothing, sheltering, and caring for adult workers. However, orthodox Marxism has tended to draw a sharp line between productive and reproductive labor, suggesting that the latter is necessary to capitalism’s function and expansion, but it does not in economic terms generate surplus value for capital. Beginning in the 1970s, Marxist feminists and movements like the Wages for Housework campaign countered this consensus by arguing that women’s domestic work was unpaid but nevertheless commodity-producing work; indeed, it created and sustained the most important commodity of all—labor-power. Women’s “reproductive” work was actually foundational to capitalist exploitation, and very much a productive activity. Yet “women’s work” was and remains largely invisible as labor, instead defined as a naturally occurring “labor of love,” allocated to the private rather than economic sphere. As Maria Mies famously pointed out in Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, under capitalism, with the creation of the category of “housewife,” “women’s labor is considered a natural resource, freely available like air and water.”3

In her influential 1988 book If Women Counted, Marilyn Waring brought a feminist critique of conventional economic measurements to a broader audience, arguing that from carrying water to caring for the elderly, the worth of women’s work was unaccounted for in money-based metrics of wages, profits, and productivity. Waring’s work inspired the introduction of new statistical methods, on a national and international scale, that sought to assess the hours and imputed market value of domestic labor, caregiving, and other feminized forms of unpaid work performed by wives, daughters, and mothers. However, in her sophisticated introduction to the second edition of her book (entitled Counting for Nothing in some later editions), Waring notes a double edge to these attempts at an economic account of women’s unpaid work. While arguing for the theoretical and practical importance of recognizing the scope and volume of unpaid labor in the economy, she also makes clear the dangers of attaching narrowly numerical values to women’s work, which has strong qualitative, ethical, and affective dimensions: “what is the cost of ‘visibility’ in a patently pathological value system?” she asks. “Do we want all of life to be commodified in an economic model?”4 Waring stops short of wondering whether a recognition of shared capitalist exploitation could provide a common political and strategic ground between house-working women and other exploited parts of the population.

While work on the capitalist exploitation of women’s unwaged labor has flourished in recent decades, versions of this critique can be found much earlier, for instance in an article by the American Marxist Mary Inman entitled “The Role of the Housewife in Social Production,” published in 1940. She presciently observed that “the labor of a woman, who cooks for her husband, who is making tires in the Firestone plant in Southgate, California, is essentially as much a part of the production of automobile tires as the cooks and waitresses in the cafes where Firestone workers eat.… [T]heir labor is as inseparably knit into those tires as is the labor of their husbands.”5

This cursory survey shows that throughout the last century, various currents in Marxism have focused on the role of unpaid labor in the creation of capitalist profits, through original accumulation, slavery, and housework-as-labor. Yet for much of that time, most Marxists still placed waged work at the center of their analysis of capitalist exploitation, to the exclusion of other forms of labor. Some even welcomed the expansion of waged relationships into economies where unwaged labor predominated as marking the arrival of “real” capitalism—itself seen as a disruptive but necessary stage in the progress toward socialism.

In the current era of neoliberal globalization, however, original accumulation, slavery, and housework, far from being replaced or superseded by wage labor, have instead continued and even expanded. And now we also see that even more forms of non-waged and sometimes even extra-monetary capitalist exploitation have been created. It could perhaps be argued that more exploitation takes place through these various mechanisms than in the conventional realm of wages and salaries.

While the theories discussed above have made great advances, Marxism as a whole has still yet to fully reckon with its preoccupation with the wage. What follows is an attempt to enumerate just some of the many pathways of capitalist surplus extraction, not only beyond the wage form, but also beyond original accumulation, slavery, and housework, and an argument that these other forms of exploitation are intrinsic and essential to capitalism.

We might for convenience’s sake divide capitalist forms of exploitation beyond the wage into several categories. First, wage work itself is being reorganized so that more of what is demanded of a worker is claimed not to be “work” at all, and is therefore not waged; workers are paid for less and less of their necessary labor time. For instance, precarious waged workers are increasingly expected to log unpaid “on-call” time: Starbucks employees must remain available for constantly changing shift assignments, which daily appear and disappear on their schedules. Similarly, restaurant employees must do prep work before clocking in or clean up after clocking out, home care nurses take home paperwork to finish at night, and white-collar workers check their email in the evenings, on weekends, and on vacation. Although these workers are waged, much of their work is not.

Other familiar forms of labor exploitation that are entirely outside the formal wage model are also expanding. Long recognized in the global South, various kinds of piece work and contract labor have a growing presence in the North as well. These include entirely unpaid or nominally paid labor, such as internships or prison labor, and workers labeled “independent contractors” if their jobs are menial or “freelancers” and “consultants” if they are slightly higher up the economic scale, from adjunct professors and Uber drivers, to TaskRabbit workers and day laborers, to self-employed copy editors and dog walkers.

While “original accumulation” remains an academic term, the phenomenon itself is widely recognized as a form of capitalist profiteering, despite its lack of a wage form. The seizure of natural resources, for example, has never ceased, as in the eminent domain exercised by pipeline construction companies in the United States, or the encroachment on indigenous lands for mineral extraction and other uses, part of a broader privatization of the commons. But original accumulation has also taken on new forms, such as civil asset forfeiture in the United States, which totaled over $5 billion in 2014, according to the Washington Post, and which is set for a revival under Trump’s Department of Justice.6 Subsidies, tax benefits, and bailouts for large corporations and financial firms, which clearly provide significant and ongoing profits, could also well be categorized as primitive accumulation, an upward redistribution of public money to the capitalist class, without even a gesture to the wider public in return. The age of “too big to fail” has made it entirely clear that these transfers of value are not just occasional windfalls, but are inherent to the very structure of contemporary capital accumulation.

The dizzying and ever-expanding suite of financial and monetary instruments used to drain cash from households are further forms of exploitation. Predatory housing lending and ballooning debts to credit card corporations and student loan companies point to the increasing prevalence of this mode of extraction. For many workers, “financialization” is no abstraction, but instead a daily reality, a ready means of appropriating value by paying with one hand, and taking back that pay with the other, through mounting debt, interest, and fees.

Just as the exploitative forms of primitive accumulation and piece work are common to the global North and South alike, financialization as a form of bleeding workers prevails across the globe. International debt—including its attendant interest payments, budget rules, and monetary restrictions—is one obvious means of using finance to extract value from workers in the global South. Less discussed today, but still important, is the global system of unequal exchange, first named in the early 1960s by the economist Arghiri Emmanuel.7 The subject of much theorization and debate, unequal exchange might be summed up as a phenomenon in which international trade conditions and foreign exchange relations tend to value (or undervalue) labor in a way that transfers profits to capitalists in the North. Any tourist in the global South who has noticed the lopsided value of the U.S. dollar or the euro vis-à-vis the currencies of former colonies and neo-colonies has experienced unequal exchange firsthand.

Still other forms of exploited labor appear less obviously as work, or even as mechanisms of exploitation. Housework has already been mentioned, but feminist economists, along with scholars studying peasant societies, have expanded the discussion of housework to include all kinds of subsistence work that support and subsidize capitalism.

The socially necessary wage, in Marx’s conception, was the amount required for workers to survive and reproduce themselves under prevailing social conditions. The unpaid labor of women and other subsistence workers, by producing essential use values at no cost to capital, serves to lower that necessary wage. When women cook meals for free, or raise children at home rather than send them to day care, or care for ill household members—all as unpaid “labors of love” —they provide direct economic subsidies to the socially necessary wage. If workers had to pay for those services, their wages would need to be far higher. Similarly, if women or other household members grow food in kitchen gardens or fields, or repair houses and make their own clothes, as they often do in the global South, this subsidy, combined with variations in living standards and labor conditions, enables even lower wages, and therefore higher profits. To use Maria Mies’s formulation, this unseen labor represents the submerged bulk of an iceberg, of which formal waged work forms only the tip.

Another form of unwaged exploitation is often called “shadow work”— something we all engage in and often loathe, yet usually do not think of as work, or even a means of exploitation. Coined by the philosopher Ivan Illich, shadow work encompasses unpaid labor created by capitalist enterprises, yet which in itself is entirely unproductive, with no purpose other than to service profit-making enterprises, for free—casting a kind of “shadow” outside the economy. Examples include activities novel enough to still draw our attention and frustration, such as slogging through endless automated phone trees to argue with health insurance companies, or installing endless updates to computer systems. Older forms of shadow work that we now take for granted include time spent paying bills, or checking bank accounts.8

In short, the capitalist exploitation of labor outside and beyond the wage form has been well documented for many years. Yet many Marxists continue to focus on the wage as the singular embodiment of capitalist exploitation. An expanded Marxist understanding of capitalist exploitation is long overdue. This is not merely an academic question, but a problem with profound implications for anticapitalist movements and organizations around the world.

Centuries ago, to become a waged worker was to suffer a steep decline in status, a condition that workers fought against as they clung to self-provisioning and self-organized, subsistence-based work. As original accumulation proceeded, the means of both subsistence and production were privatized, and access to those means of production was denied to all but the capitalists. At this point, wage work slowly rose to a status of relative privilege among the working classes, and “access to the wage” became access to more power than was available to other workers.9 When a worker was waged, he (for it was usually a “he”) and his work were at least acknowledged, and the terms of engagement with bosses could be perceived, delineated, and contested.9

Meanwhile, workers who labored under other, non-waged terms were reclassified as “economically backward,” and sometimes were defined as not-even-working. For familiar historical examples, think here of tenant farmers framed as a kind of feudal holdover, or the bourgeois creation of the housewife. Even when their low position in the capitalist hierarchy was acknowledged, unwaged workers came to be seen as “marginalized” or at best as “oppressed,” rather than as exploited. In fact, far from being peripheral to capitalism, the labor of unwaged workers is central to both the production and maintenance of capitalist profits.

This preoccupation with waged labor, and the associated perception that modern economics could not explain the supposedly vestigial and non-economic oppression of women or sharecroppers, may partly explain why many communities began to see a politics of identity, rather than economic solidarity, as their best path to public visibility and progress. Access to the wage foregrounds some workers while obscuring the laboring reality of others, fracturing the potential for unity across the multiple working classes. The wage has been used to divide us.

Every day shows us the advancing and expanding grip of capitalism, as it invades and commodifies ever more areas of personal life and experience. Yet at the same time, the number of conventionally waged workers is shrinking, with the rise of temporary contracts, piece work, informal jobs, and other precarious forms of employment. An insistence on wage work as the hallmark of labor under capitalism cannot make sense of this scenario; it must be clear now that the sphere of capitalism has far surpassed the sphere of waged work.

The orthodox Marxist vision has long been that workers would meet and unite in an industrial workplace, with the experience of shared exploitation in a shared productive endeavor fostering solidarity and class consciousness. Capitalists have always had other plans. And with the neoliberal assault on unions, labor protections, and the welfare state, new capitalist strategies have emerged to further expand the existing realm of unwaged work. For the working classes—waged and unwaged alike—to recognize their shared condition, the assumption that wages represent the totality of capitalist labor relations must be rejected. Workers of all kinds must focus on the underlying reality of the extraction of their surplus labor, whether shrouded by wages, piece work rates, unpaid shifts spent waiting to be called in, usurious interest payments, subsistence labor, or unpaid care work. The constantly proliferating variety of novel labor forms has proven an effective distraction from the task of building unity. It is the task of intellectuals to help reveal the hidden connections among seemingly disparate modes of exploitation. Additionally, we are well equipped to draw on the long and rich history of workers’ struggles under the many different work regimes of capitalism and to find and create new models and possibilities, both for resistance and for the creation of independent, worker-based economies.

As capitalism retreats from the wage form in the twenty-first century, it is time to widen our understanding of capitalist exploitation to include both centuries-old forms of extraction and those now being invented or newly deployed: the status of independent contractor, intern, or consultant; the shadow work of ever-lengthening commutes; and parasitic financial mechanisms. It is time to connect the dots among these many methods of surplus appropriation, and begin to build an intellectual foundation for a resurgent and unified working-class movement, before it is too late.


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