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Karl Marx was right: Workers are systematically exploited under capitalism

Even among Marx-friendly economists, the labor theory of value has fallen out of favor. But its technical validity is less important than the core message: workers are exploited because the value they create is undemocratically taken by capitalists.

by Ben Burgis  

Part 5 - Cohen’s Analysis of Working-Class Unfreedom

To be clear, neither Marx nor Cohen thought that workers should receive the entire product of their labor. Marx argued that this would be both impractical and wrong for a variety of reasons. For one, what about upkeep of old factory equipment? Or about building new factories? What about “common needs” like schools and hospitals or the consumption needs of those unable to work?

What makes the surrender of some of the value produced by workers or the value of the commodities they produce exploitation is that it’s surrendered not in some democratic process in which the beneficiaries have to make a convincing case but that it’s taken as a result of the power one class has over another.

The real question, then, is whether the part of the value controlled by the capitalist is voluntarily surrendered by the worker. In fact, Cohen argues that the LTV being true would do nothing to strengthen the charge of exploitation. To see why not, assume a simply “marginalist” account of value whereby value is produced by the desire of consumers. Does that somehow give consumers a right to the things they desire? Of course not. The real issue is who produces the goods and services themselves, and whether the arrangements by which those products come under the control of separate capitalists are ones the workers accept of their own free will.

Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick argued that someone can only be “coerced” to do something if their property rights aren’t respected, but Cohen argues in a brilliant 1983 paper that this gets things backward, and not just because libertarian theories of property rights are deeply implausible. We can and should establish that something is coercive before we ask whether anything could justify that coercion. A serial killer, for example, is forced to stay removed from society — and that’s a good thing.

Nor does it do any good to say that the worker with no realistic ability to start a business of his own has at least some other choices besides going to work for a capitalist — that he can “go on the dole, or beg, or simply make no provision for himself and trust to fortune.” You might as well say a bank teller forced with a gun to her head to give up the code to the safe isn’t really forced because she had the option of wrestling away the gun or giving her life for the bank. When we say that someone was forced to do something, Cohen points out, we don’t generally mean they had literally no other choices — just that they had no acceptable choices.

Cohen thinks the best argument against the claim that workers are forced to submit to the rule of capitalists, and hence forced to give up the part of the product of their labor that isn’t under their control, is the simple fact of upward mobility. Some workers, even some who start in very desperate positions, are eventually able to claw their way up to a higher position in the class structure — for example, by starting small businesses of their own.

But Cohen argues a crucial point: it’s structurally impossible for everyone in a complex modern economy to own their own little business. Either the labor force will collectively control the means of production or they’ll be dominated by capitalists who can then extract their surplus labor — the labor that goes not toward meeting their own needs but toward the remainder of a firm’s revenues, which, whether kept by the capitalists or reinvested, is outside of the workers’ control.

Capitalism requires a substantial hired labor force,” Cohen writes, “which would cease to exist if more than a few workers rose.” This means that even though there are a few lifeboats, the working class is collectively trapped aboard the wage-labor ship.

He introduces an analogy:

Ten people are placed in a room, the only exit from which is a huge and heavy locked door. At various distances from each lies a single heavy key. Whoever picks up this key — and each is physically able, with varying degrees of effort, to do so — and takes it to the door will find, after considerable self-application, a way to open the door and leave the room. But if he does so he alone will be able to leave it. Photoelectric devices installed by a jailer ensure that it will open only just enough to permit one exit. Then it will close, and no one inside the room will be able to open it again.

There is a sense in which any of those prisoners can escape. But there’s also a clear sense in which they’re collectively unfree. A prisoner in Cohen’s hypothetical room, like a worker under capitalism, might be able to make their individual escape, but they can’t escape with their fellow prisoners.

The only way for workers to be free to all escape together, Cohen says, is for them to achieve a “deeper kind of freedom” — freedom from class society.

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