2020s >> 2021 >> no-1398-february-2021

Unequal exchange: who benefits?

We continue our examination of theories which claim the workers in the advanced capitalist countries share in the exploitation of those in ‘The Third World’.

In Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) Lenin suggested that some workers in the advanced countries, comprising a ‘labour aristocracy’, were bribed out of the ‘enormous superprofits’ made in the ‘colonies and semi-colonies’. While this claim is questionable at many levels he did at least acknowledge such superprofits were ‘obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their ‘own’ country’, meaning workers there continued to be exploited in the Marxian sense.

Not so in the case of modern ‘Third Worldist’ exponents of the Labour Aristocracy thesis, like Zac Cope. Cope surpasses even Lenin in putting his own spin on this Leninist version of bourgeois trickle-down economics. In his view, workers in the advanced countries generally are not exploited at all:

‘It is commonly supposed by socialists that if a person earns a wage she must, ipso facto, be exploited. However, if one worker is able to purchase the product of ten hours of another worker’s labour through one hour of her own, then that worker is benefiting materially from the exploitation of the other worker. In other words, where the labour content of the worker’s consumption is in excess of the amount of labour (value) she supplies, she partakes in the exploitation of her fellow worker’ (Divided World Divided Class: Global Political Economy and the Stratification of Labour Under Capitalism, 2012, p.173).

If this worker is not exploited then presumably Cope will agree that her capitalist employer is not making a profit by employing her. Which raises the question: why is she being employed?

According to Cope, producing surplus value is ‘increasingly the sole preserve of superexploited Third World labour’ (p.176). In short, almost all workers in the Global North are ‘unproductive’ meaning they are financed out of, rather than produce, surplus value.

True, most workers involved in manufacturing now reside in the Global South. However, productive labour is not limited to producing physical goods – a point Marx made in criticising Adam Smith’s overly ‘physicalist’ approach to the labour theory of value. Many services have been commodified under capitalism and the workers providing them must be considered productive of new value too.

More importantly, Cope departs radically from Marx in assuming that just because a worker is unproductive they cannot be deemed to be exploited. While unproductive labour may not in itself produce surplus value it is still nevertheless absolutely indispensable to the extraction of surplus value. A commodity’s value is only realised insofar as it can be sold but the labour involved in selling it is technically unproductive as it adds no new value.

Referring to clerks employed by a merchant capitalist, Marx observes:

‘The unpaid labour of these clerks, while it does not create surplus-value, enables him to appropriate surplus-value, which, in effect, amounts to the same thing with respect to his capital. It is, therefore, a source of profit for him. Otherwise commerce could never be conducted on a large scale, capitalistically’ (Capital Volume 3, Ch.17).

Saying unproductive workers are not part of the exploited working class is like saying the battalion signallers back in the army’s HQ do not belong to the army because they don’t do any actual fighting.

Unequal exchange
Let us now consider the claim that workers in the rich countries allegedly partake in the exploitation of workers in poor countries via a global ‘transfer of value’. This is said to involve various mechanisms – some hidden, some explicit.

These include, ‘transfer pricing’ or ‘trade misinvoicing’ practised within transnational corporations as a means of tax evasion; income flows in the form of repatriated profits, interest on loans, and property rents; ‘seigniorage’ and the profits made from circulating banknotes abroad and, finally, profits made from the buying and selling of financial assets abroad.

However, none of these examples in themselves seem to hold any obvious benefits for the workers in the rich countries. They all seem to work exclusively to the advantage of the capitalist owners of the businesses concerned. As Marx noted with reference to the repatriated profits made from foreign trade: ‘The favoured country recovers more labour in exchange for less labour, although this difference, this excess is pocketed, as in any exchange between labour and capital, by a certain class’ (Capital, Volume 3, Ch. 14).

But what about the mechanism alluded to by Cope – namely, ‘unequal exchange’?

This concept was developed by Arghiri Emmanuel, whose major work, Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade was published in 1972. Emmanuel saw unequal exchange as being embedded in various processes that were subjected to a tendency for profit rates to equalise under competitive capitalism.

To briefly explain. Just as the prices of particular commodities do not necessarily coincide with their values, so the profits a particular business makes do not necessarily coincide with the surplus value generated by its workforce. According to Marx, it is only at the economy-wide level (these days the global economy) that ‘the sum of all profits in all spheres of production must equal the sum of the surplus values, and the sum of the prices of production of the total social product equal to the sum of its value’ (Capital Volume 3, Ch. 12).

Since living labour is the sole source of profit – the money form of surplus value – a business with a high ‘organic composition of capital’ (‘capital intensive’) will tend to have a lower rate of profit than one using labour-intensive technology. Indeed, the falling rate of profit accompanying industrialisation of the advanced countries is often cited as a reason, historically, for the imperialist expansion of those countries into parts of the world where an abundant supply of cheap labour was said to make for higher profits to offset the falling profit rate at home.

However, under competitive capitalism these different profit rates will tend to equalise through the interactions of supply and demand for the goods in question. In so doing, commodities produced in labour-intensive industries (or parts of the world) would sell at prices below their values while, for capital-intensive industries, the opposite would be true. In terms of international trade this translates into a redistribution of surplus value from the Global South to the Global North.

This is one example of ‘unequal exchange’ but Emmanuel’s argument goes further: even if the ‘organic composition of capital’ was identical across the world, there could still be a transfer of surplus value from the Global South to the Global North. Why?

The reason lies with the sharp differences in wage rates between them which get to be reflected in the prices of goods exchanged in international trade. High-priced goods from the North are exchanged for low-priced goods from the South (whose capitalists then try to compensate for this by further cutting wages – super-exploitation). In this way some of the surplus value generated in the South is redistributed to the North, depriving the former of the ‘means of accumulation and growth’.

In a world in which capital is mobile but labour is mostly not – think of ‘Fortress Europe’ – the normal competitive process by which wages, the price of labour power, tend to gravitate towards value is effectively blocked by national borders which means other contingent factors can become more prominent in determining wage rates.

Sharing out surplus value
‘Surplus value’ is the key signifier of exploitation under capitalism. The rate of exploitation – s/v or the ratio of the surplus product to the overall wages bill – can be stepped up in several ways: (1) increasing ‘absolute surplus value’ by lengthening the working day; (2) increasing ‘relative surplus value’ by raising productivity (for instance through mechanisation) and (3) by pushing wages more or less permanently below the value of labour power – ‘super-exploitation’.

Marx did not rule out (3) but saw it as being less significant, historically than (1) and (2) in the genesis of capitalism.

While all three modes of increased surplus value extraction can operate concurrently, for modern proponents of the labour aristocracy thesis, super-exploitation (of the Global South) is easily the most dominant mode. However, even if this was the case, it does not follow that super-exploitation is confined to the Global South only; it is arguably to be found in the Global North too, notably in the guise of the low-wage ‘gig economy’.

Moreover, it is one thing to argue that super-exploitation in the Global South aids the redistribution of surplus value to the Global North; it is quite another to argue that workers in the latter benefit from this redistribution and not just the capitalists who in Marx’s words ‘pocket the difference’ arising from unequal exchange.

From a Marxian standpoint (which Cope professes to espouse), exploitation can be inferred from the fact that the working class as a whole produces more value than it receives in the form of wages and salaries. However, value itself is based on the concept of ‘abstract labour’, not concrete labour, and this distinction is absolutely crucial.

A commodity’s value is the ‘socially necessary labour time’ that goes into producing it, from start to finish, which is only revealed in a very approximate sort of way through market prices. It is an industry-wide – meaning global – average. Thus, attempting to isolate one section of the working class (the Global North) from another (the Global South) in order to calculate their relative contributions to the production of value – even if this was feasible – is methodologically suspect since what is then being measured is no longer, strictly speaking, ‘value’. Value is a social construct that only acquires resonance from the standpoint of the economy as a whole.

The point is that you cannot empirically measure a commodity’s ‘value’. It can only be theoretically inferred or guessed at. It is a constantly fluctuating potentiality that can change even after a commodity has been produced precisely because it is a notional average. So focusing exclusively on the labour contributions of workers in the South vis-à-vis the North strips it of that quality of being a notional average.

According to the labour theory of value it is not so much individual capitalists that exploit their own workforce but rather the capitalist class as a whole that exploits the working class as whole. This is because production today is a completely interconnected and globalised process. The fruits of this collective exploitation – surplus value – are, so to speak, pooled and redistributed to different capitals in proportion to their magnitudes as an average rate of profit.

Cope notes:

‘Firstly, of necessity, this essay utilizes statistical data that measure the results of transactions in marketplaces, not value-generation in production processes. GDP, or value-added, figures are obtained by subtracting the cost price of a firm, nation or region’s inputs from the proceeds of the sale of its outputs. This equation of value with price ensures that the process of production itself, and the surplus value arising from it, is rendered invisible and value appears to be generated largely through the circulation of money’ (p.157-8).

But the ‘equation of value with price’ is precisely what Marx himself ruled out, arguing that ‘The possibility, therefore, of quantitative incongruity between price and magnitude of value, or the deviation of the former from the latter, is inherent in the price-form itself’ (Capital volume 1, Ch. 3). It is only in their totality that values and prices equate.

Ironically, the very kind of statistical data Cope is forced to rely upon – ‘of necessity’ – refutes his claim that workers in the Global North constitute a non-exploited class. Thus, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, US factory workers in 2012 produced on average $73.45 per hour in output whilst the average hourly wage was only $23.32 (bit.ly/3hW62iX).

So approximately two thirds of the added value these workers contributed, they did not receive payment for. Indeed, since the 1970s, while productivity of American workers generally has grown by 69.3 per cent, wages have grown by only 11.6 percent (bit.ly/2LyJAzY).

Very clearly, then, not only are these workers exploited but the rate at which they are exploited has been steadily increasing.

Next month we conclude our series refuting the view that workers in ‘Global North’ share in the exploitation of those in the ‘Global South’.

Leave a Reply