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In the social sciences, the term exploitation is generally used to refer to economic relations of production or exchange in which a dominant social class or group benefits by using the labor or resources of a subordinate social class or group. The term has been used in analyses of social class, of colonialism and imperialism, and of racial and ethnic relations within nation-states.

In Capital , (1967 1867) Karl Marx defined exploitation as characterizing relations of production in which nonproducers control the access of direct producers to essential means of production (e.g., land, tools, or raw materials), thus allowing the systematic appropriation of a surplus of goods from direct producers by nonproducers. For Marx, exploitation is a feature of all class societies, and it can be measured by the difference between necessary labor (that performed to produce the laborers’ own subsistence or its equivalent value) and surplus labor (that which produces the surplus appropriated by the nonproducers). Necessary labor is not defined as a minimum subsistence level required for survival. Rather, the ratio between necessary and surplus labor, as well as the form of surplus appropriation, depends on the historically developed relations of production. The appropriation of surplus constitutes the basis for renewed exploitation because it reinforces the control of the exploiters and the dependence of the exploited.

Although Marxists have analyzed exploitation in a variety of class societies (e.g., slavery, feudalism), the concept is most fully developed in the analysis of capitalist relations of production. In capitalist societies, relations of production take on the appearance of relations of exchange. Labor power thus becomes a market commodity. Unlike other commodities, however, it has the ability to produce more value than is embodied in it. This is the surplus value appropriated by the capitalists.

The literature on colonialism and imperialism uses the concept of exploitation to define the relationships between the imperial nations (the core) and the colonized regions (the periphery). The spread of capitalist relations of production from the core to the periphery required the separation of farmers and artisans in the periphery from direct access to the means of production, thereby creating a class of laborers who must sell their labor power to survive. In Unequal Development (1976) Samir Amin coined the term “superexploitation” to describe how the low wages of the periphery have allowed transnational capitalists to extract a larger surplus than is possible in the core nations. A similar conception is contained in the works of Andre Gunder Frank (e.g., Lumpenbourgeoisie, Lumpendevelopment 1972), who saw colonial class structures as permitting “ultra-exploitation.”

The role of racial or ethnic discrimination in imperialism has been explicitly addressed by several authors. Marx came to view anti-Irish sentiment as a major obstacle to working-class solidarity in England. In an 1870 letter he wrote:

The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nations and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker ( Selected Correspondence 1975).

W. E. B. Du Bois embraced a Marxist analysis of imperialism in The World and Africa (1947), in which he argued that the British system of colonialism, which he saw as even more murderous than slavery, was based on the exploitation of native labor in their colonized homelands. Eric Williams also addressed exploitation in Capitalism and Slavery (1944), arguing that many of the largest fortunes of English capitalists had their origins in the exploitation of African slave labor in the American colonies.

In The Political Economy of Race and Class in South Africa (1979), Bernard Magubane shows how underdevelopment and racial inequalities developed together in South Africa. The ideology of racism was born out of the socioeconomic relations of capitalist imperialism, and it resulted in the ordering of exploitative relations of production along racial lines. “The essence of modern capitalism is the ruthless transfer of wealth from the colonized to the colonizer, from black to white, from worker to capitalist” (Magubane 1979, p. 4).

In “Internal Colonialism and Ghetto Revolt” (1969), Robert Blauner compares the situation of African Americans in the United States to that of colonized peoples. In this formulation, racism is fundamental to maintaining a higher rate of exploitation for black labor than for white labor. Internal colonialism is facilitated not only by ideologies of racism, but by historical and continuing structures (such as de jure and de facto segregation) that favor white workers over nonwhites. A similar approach is taken by Mario Barrera in Race and Class in the Southwest (1979), in which he analyzes structures of inequality affecting people of Mexican origin in the southwestern United States.

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