The Meaning of Exploitation
Reports often appear in newspapers of companies formed to “exploit” lands, mines, oilfields and so forth. What does this signify ? When the word “exploit” or “exploitation” is used in this or similar ways, what is really meant ?
To exploit is to make use of, but the directors of a company formed to “ exploit ” certain oilbearing territories do not propose merely to use the land in question, nor do the shareholders of the company intend to take any part in the actual work of oil getting. In fact the mass of the shareholders will probably never even see the land from which the oil comes.
Further, the company is not formed for the pleasure of providing oil to a needy world, nor for the vindictiveness of polluting the sea and the air. It has only one purpose—to provide dividends for the holders of shares in the company. It is only because the particular oil wells appear to hold out the promise of being fruitful in this direction that they figure at all in the prospectus of the company. From the same point of view it is immaterial whether the oil be good or bad, Russian, Dutch, or American. The claims of patriotism, religion and humanity take second place before the claims of the purse.
The question that presents itself, then, is why should oil wells be instrumental in producing dividends as well as oil? This brings us to the question of the source of dividends. A glance at the published returns of companies carries the matter a little further. They show us that dividends come out of profits, past or present. But whence come profits ?
As soon as the company is formed work goes rapidly ahead to get the production of oil under way, because until oil is sold no funds flow to the company, apart from loans and what the shareholders provide. When oil is sold over a definite period the difference between all the expenses of getting it and the money produced by its sale represents profit; but we still need to know from whence this profit comes—how it is possible for the production and sale of oil to be the means of also producing profit. The answer is a simple one.
In order to get oil produced, workers as well as oil wells are required. If the workers were to receive in return for their labour the equivalent in value of the oil produced, there would be nothing left for the shareholders of the company—there would be no profit from which to draw dividends. It follows, therefore, that the employees of the company cannot receive a value equivalent to the oil produced.
How are the wages of the company’s workpeople arrived at? Experience tells us. They are paid on the average what it costs them to live and bring up families, regardless of the result in the form of oil due to the application of their energies in the company’s service. This wage may differ according to place and type of worker, but it still remains what it costs the worker to live. For instance, at a meeting of Courtauld’s recently it was complained that Japanese competition was seriously affecting the firm on account of Japanese labourers being able to live on smaller wages than their employees.
Whatever the wage of the worker, however, it is far below the value of what he produces, and it is owing to this fact that the investors and directors of the company expect it to prosper and anticipate dividends. It is out of the surplus labour of the oil worker, the labour above the value of his means of existence, that the profit and the dividends of the shareholders will come. An illustration will make the matter plain. If one man can lie in the sun while two others work to provide him and themselves with the food and so forth they need, then the first man is living on the surplus labour of the other two. This, on, a larger scale, is the position of the oil company. It is neither the land nor the oil that is exploited, but the worker. It is he in reality who is made use of by the company.
Exploitation, then, is squeezing from the worker surplus labour. Other things remaining the same, the more surplus labour squeezed from the worker the greater is the exploitation, regardless of the level of wages paid, and the more successful is the company in providing dividends for its shareholders.
It is, therefore, plain that exploitation is the root of all accumulations of wealth by private individuals. At one time it was the exploitation of chattel slaves, at another the exploitation of serfs. In modern times it is the exploitation of wage workers, or, more truly, wage slaves.
With this end in view the earth has been covered with manufacturing centres, and the bulk of its population reduced to beasts of burden, but without the security of livelihood of the latter.
Exploitation has brought into existence the glittering civilisations that have expressed the agony as much as the achievement of man across the centuries. The process will continue until the workers awake to the fact that it is they who produce and distribute the wealth of the world, and that they have no need to carry parasites on their backs to do so. The day the workers arrive at this knowledge exploitation will cease.
(Socialist Standard, May 1933)