Exploitation Research Paper

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In Keywords (1976), his foundational book on historical semantics, Raymond Williams includes discussion of the word exploitation because it illustrates the general problem of how important historical and social processes occur within language. On the one hand, exploitation is a key word in the English language because it is tightly bound up with the problems to which it refers; and on the other, it is an exemplar of what Williams calls “transfer”—that is, how new kinds of relationships and new ways of seeing relationships appear in languages, in this case by transferring a word from one semantic usage or historical context to another.

There are three broad senses in which exploitation is currently deployed. The first is as a modern form of industrial or commercial land use (or mineral extraction) derived probably from its Latin root meaning an “arrangement” or “explanation.” This particular use came into English in the nineteenth century, often in regard to the commercial exploitation of the colonies, building upon the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century meanings of exploit as “successful progress” or “taking advantage.” The meaning of exploitation as making use of resource opportunities for social advancement—the exploration of oil resources in Nigeria, for example—remains commonplace.

A second meaning is a generic sense of unjustness or oppression, referring to a potentially wide range of social relations across time and space (e.g., exploitation of men by women, workers by capitalists, slaves by slave owners, low castes by high castes, serfs by feudal overlords). The range of opinion as to what constitutes exploitation is substantial, ranging from the instrumental treatment of humans (Buchanan 1985)—a Kantian view—to coerced activity (Moore 1973) to psychological harm (Hill 1994). The analytical content is of less concern than its moral standing and the moral force of the reasoning (i.e., whether and how the state should prohibit exploitative transactions or refuse to enforce such agreements).

The third meaning, which is the focus of this entry, is explicitly analytical in the sense that it purports to provide a theoretical and conceptual ground on which the claim— A exploits B when A takes unfair advantage of B—can be assessed. In Old French, the feudal meaning of the word exploitation—a seizure of products from the land for which a tenant had failed to pay homage—provides a foretaste of its modern use in the mid-nineteenth century, as its reference is increasing the industrial capitalist system. In philosophical terms, one can say that social science seeks to understand the truth conditions under which such a claim can be made of a particular social setting. It is in this sense a term of social critique—exploitation refers to people, not resources—and it is very much rooted in classical political economy. Whether drawing from Adam Smith, David Ricardo, or Karl Marx, exploitation is inseparable from class structure and the operations of class-based power. Each of this trio has a moral core to his argument, but the forms of measurement differ radically among them. Although exploitation can also be accommodated within neoclassical economics or Weberian social theory, it is within the Marxist tradition that the analysis and theorization has received its fullest elaboration.

The notion of an unjust benefit from the labor of others that emerged by physiocratic thinking was formalized by Smith and Ricardo in the distinction between productive and unproductive labor and the question of the shares in the distribution of wealth. Neither Smith nor Ricardo was especially concerned with the moral class atlas of income distribution unless it concerned the landlord class. Conversely, the English anticapitalist and socialist writers of the 1830s (e.g., Thomas Hodgskin, Robert Owen) formulated the first Ricardo-inspired theory of exploitation that turned on the appropriation of wealth by the owners of capital and employers as an unjust deduction from the product of labor. In France, the Saint-Simonians and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon came to similar conclusions through an analysis of property ownership. Few of these public intellectuals agreed on the justness of the rewards due to property (rent, interest, profit), but they held in common the idea that, contra Simonde de Sismondi, exploitation was less a regrettable accident than central to the operations of the modern economic system.

From these tentative beginnings, the theorization of exploitation matured in the work of Marx and the notion of surplus appropriation and the labor theory of value. Marx’s account identifies a fundamental contradiction at the heart of capitalism—a contradiction between two great classes (workers and owners of capital) that is fundamentally an exploitative relation shaped by the appropriation of surplus. Unlike feudalism, in which surplus appropriation is transparent (in the forms of taxes and levies made by landowners and lords backed by the power of the Church and Crown), surplus value is obscured in the capitalist labor process. Marx argued that labor is the only source of value, and value is the embodiment of a quantum of socially necessary labor. It is the difference between the sale of a worker’s labor power and the amount of labor necessary to reproduce it that is the source of surplus value. The means by which capital extracts this surplus value under capitalism—through the working day, labor intensification, enhancing labor productivity—coupled to the changing relations between variable and constant capital determine, in Marx’s view, the extent, degree, and forms of exploitation. In the first volume of Capital Marx identifies the origins of surplus value in the organization of production (the so-called “social relations of production”). In volume 2 Marx explains how exploitation affects the circulation of capital, and in volume 3 he traces the division of the total product of exploitation among its beneficiaries and the contradiction so created. In Marxist theory, two kinds of material interests—interests securing material welfare and interests enhancing economic power—are linked through exploitation (exploiters simultaneously obtain greater economic welfare and greater economic power by retaining control over the social allocation of surplus through investments). Members of a class, in short, hold a common set of interests and therefore have common interests with respect to the process of exploitation.

In the wake of Marx’s work, the central debates over exploitation has turned on (1) whether the labor theory of value is a necessary condition for any truth claim about exploitation, (2) whether exploitation can be made congruent with complex forms of class differentiation associated with modern industrial society, and (3) whether there are non-Marxist accounts of exploitation. In neoclassical economics, for example, exploitation is a type of market failure due to the existence of monopoly or monopsony. In more developed versions of this organizational view, exploitation can be rooted in extramarket forces, for example free riding or asymmetric information (the socalled “principal agent problem”). There is a heterodox side to conventional marginalist approaches to economics—most readily seen in the work of Joan Robinson (1933) and the Cambridge school—in which exploitation is understood as wage payments less than the marginal product of labor (see also Brewer 1987).

More structural accounts of exploitation from a liberal vantage point are found in the ideas of Henry George (2006) and John Maynard Keynes (1936), for whom landowners or rentier classes (nonworking owners of financial wealth) produce not exploitation in the Marxist sense, but exploitation as waste and inefficiency due to “special interests.”

In the Marxist tradition there has been in general an abandonment of the labor theory of value—away from the view of Jon Elster that “workers are exploited if they work longer hours than the number of hours employed in the goods they consume” (Elster 1986, p. 121)—toward John Roemer’s notion that a group is exploited if it has “some conditionally feasible alternative under which its members would be better off” (Roemer 1986, p. 136). Perhaps the central figure in developing these arguments is Erik Olin Wright (1985, 1989), who developed a theory to account for the contradictory class location of the “middle classes”—that they are simultaneously exploiters and exploited. Building on the work of Roemer, Wright distinguishes four types of assets, the unequal control or ownership of which constitute four distinct forms of exploitation: labor power assets (feudal exploitation), capital assets (capitalist exploitation), organization assets (statist exploitation), and skill assets (socialist exploitation). While pure modes of production can be identified with single forms of exploitation, “actually existing capitalism” all consist of all four, opening up the possibility of the simultaneous operation of exploiter/exploitee relations (for example, managers are capitalistically exploited but organizational exploiters).

A long line of Marx-inspired theorizing has, of course, attempted to grasp exploitative relations between countries. This is the heart of theories of imperialism (Lenin 1916) as the coercive extraction of surplus through colonial states (Fanon 1967), through unequal exchange (Arrighi and Pearce 1972), or through the imperial operation of transnational banks and multilateral development institutions (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund). The so-called “antiglobalization movement” (focusing especially on institutions such as the World Trade Organization) and “sweatshop movements” (focusing on transnational firms such as Nike) are contemporary exemplars of a politics of exploitation linking advanced capitalist state and transnational companies with the poverty and immiseration of the global south against a backdrop of neoliberalism and free trade (Harvey 2005; Starr 2005).


  1. Arrighi, Giovanni. 1972. Unequal Exchange. Trans. Brian Pearce. London: Monthly Review Press.
  2. Brewer, John. 1987. Exploitation in the New Marxism of Collective Action. Sociological Review 35: 84–96.
  3. Buchanan, Allen. 1985. Ethics, Efficiency, and the Market. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld.
  4. Elster, Jon, ed. 1986. Karl Marx: A Reader. London: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Fanon, Frantz. 1967. The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin.
  6. George, Henry. 2006. Progress and Poverty. London: Casimo.
  7. Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. London: Clarendon.
  8. Hill, John L. 1994. Exploitation. Cornell Law Review 79: 631–699.
  9. Keynes, John Maynard. 1936. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. London: Macmillan and Co.
  10. Lenin, Vladimir. 1916. Imperialism. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
  11. Marx, Karl. [1867–1894] 1992. Vols. 1–3. London: Penguin.
  12. Moore, Barrington. 1973. Reflections on the Causes of Human Misery. Boston: Beacon Press.
  13. Robinson, Joan. 1933. The Economics of Imperfect Competition. London: Macmillan.
  14. Roemer, John. 1986. An Historical Materialist Alternative to In Foundations of Social Choice Theory, ed. Jon Elster and Aanund Hylland, 133–164. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  15. Starr, A. 2005. Global Revolt. London: Zed Books.
  16. Williams, Raymond. 1976. Keywords. New York: Oxford University Press.
  17. Wright, Erik Olin. 1985. Classes. London: Verso.
  18. Wright, Erik Olin, et al. 1989. The Debate on Classes. London: Verso.

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