Conscientiously minded people – those who come to this blog looking for inspiration in “Saving the World” – are often concerned about exploitation. It’s a popular word nowadays when talking about the ills of the world. If only people didn’t engage in exploitation, we are given to understand, life would be much better for people.
Exploitation is a word that gets used a lot, but I often feel that it’s not used well, and often causes more confusion and harm than good.
There are two types of exploitation I want to talk about: the average, vanilla exploitation and child exploitation. The latter I’ve gone into in my next post.
So what is exploitation? I know a lot of articles start off with a definition. In this case, however, the definition of exploitation is one of the major issues that this article will go into.
People use the word “exploitation” to mean someone is taking something from someone else, and that someone else is getting the worse end of the deal. So far so good.
But there is another layer of meaning to the word which comes in its negative connotation. To be exact, it’s a word that’s associated with an uncommon level of vitriol and blame. To say someone is exploiting someone else is almost invariably to make a negative judgement about them.
What is exploitation? Google defines “to exploit” as:
[To] make full use of and derive benefit from.
So to exploit is, in short, to use. Do you know what else means “to use”? To employ. So being employed literally means you’re being exploited.
The difference between the two terms is in the positive and negative connotations. But actually I think the meaning, the mentality that gives rise to them is the same. If you’re being employed, you’re being exploited, and if you’re being exploited, you’re being employed.
I say the mentality that gives rise to people being used – gainfully employed or viciously exploited – is the same. It’s a mentality of seeing people as other than you. Instead of working with them to a common end, you use them to get your end. Instead of them being one with you, they are a tool.
The system of capitalism – which just means the system where money and exchange is the driving force behind social interactions, rather than sharing – is inseparable from exploitation.
In the system and culture of capitalism, the idea goes, “I won’t give to you unless you make it worth it for me.” Having something to give is seen as an opportunity to make someone give you something in return. (It’s called a profession or a business, in fact).
The other person, then, is reduced to a way of you getting what you want.
You can play the game without believing in it. You can earn money because you have to while wishing you could give your gift for free, while knowing that society would support you unconditionally. So you don’t have to reduce another person into nothing more than a way of getting what you want in your head. But in practise, you’ve got to work in that way.
So when you have a project – a business – to create, you can’t just share freely with the people who work with you in the project. If you have employees, you have to give them an incentive to work. You use them, they use you, each for their own individual ends. That’s the cost of plugging into the money system.
Now there are a lot of different ways of doing a business, and you can do it kindly. You can only “pretend” that you are playing the money game, while seeing the people you work with as inseparable parts of your One being. You can do your best to make their life as good as possible with you. You can definitely do this.
But at the end of the day, a business owner has to reduce costs and increase profits. They have to pay a worker as little as they can, while earning as much as they can. It’s the same thing you do when you go to the supermarket, and try to get the best deal for your money as possible.
What’s more, an entrepreneur isn’t obligated to do anything else. There’s no obligation to give the worker more money than the market price for his or her work (determined, just as with supermarket products, through demand and supply). It’s not his place to take responsibility for the prosperity of his workers, just as it’s not your place to take responsibility for your supermarket staying in business.
You can, of course. If you really like your supermarket, you could be willing to pay a little more to make sure they stay in business. If you really like your workers, you might want to give them a little extra.
But you could also send that money to the third world to save the lives of starving people.
I think both of these things are good. In fact, I think the culture of sharing based on acts like this is the only thing that can eventually save the world.
Our current system of capitalism is inherently flawed, because whatever way you attempt to do it, in the end you are still saying, “I will only give if I receive”. Another way of saying this is, “If you can’t give to me, I don’t care about you.” Only in a capitalist society can there be the possibility of people sleeping on the streets.
And it’s a culture that lets people sleep on the streets because they are of no use, that exploits.
It’s not the exploitation in itself, but the culture and system of capitalism, which is the issue.
Let me explain with a final example.
If a worker is paid too little to live well, it’s all well and fine to say that their employer should pay them more. However, that worker is providing a service. He’s doing exchange within the framework of capitalism, where we use our ability to give as a means of creating a reason for another to give in return.
For this reason we should consider any pay above the market price of their work – determined by demand and supply – as a donation.
Donations are great, but they are not obligatory. Most people don’t rage against society for not giving donations.
Some people do. Some people see that a lack of free giving is a violence against our humanity.
But if the exploiter is at fault, how at fault is everyone else who doesn’t contribute to making that poor worker’s life better?
Inaction is action, so every single person on Earth who could share and make that poor worker’s life better is at fault.
More than any one person, our culture is at fault. The way we live is at fault. And it all starts from the moment when we refuse to give unconditionally to our fellow human being.
Forget about low pay or whatever for a moment. The world wouldn’t get that much better from a rise in pay. So long as there is money, there will be rich and poor. So long as people don’t see it as common sense that no-one should be entitled to more than anyone else, there will be vast differences in how much different people have.
Sharing is the answer. It is the only answer.
Addendum 04/10/2011: As I’m writing the sequel to this post it occurs to me that one thing might not be clear in this article. That is: that the bosses of “exploited” (poverty-stricken) workers do have a responsibility for them. It is the same responsibility that everyone has for the people who they can help save from unnecessary suffering. I tried to emphasise in this article that it isn’t more, or at least not much more than that. There’s no built in obligation in the monetary system to help people you trade with; and employment is a trade.
An employer can, however, be more effective in helping his or her workers, mainly because of proximity. When we’re separated by distance with the people we’re trying to help, it’s hard to do things right because we lack information and it’s often easy to be insensitive. There might be inefficiencies in sending aid, e.g. when special people need to be employed to carry out charity work and corruption comes in. An employer, e.g. someone with extra resources to donate, could be effective in helping poverty in their own area with those resources. I also like Fair Trade schemes, which effectively pass the donation opportunity onto the buyer of a product – the donation is taken out of the higher price of the product – but let the worker’s employers or those close to them take care of the charity work.
Given those provisos, let us return for one final emphasis on the main point: employers who have poverty-stricken workers are under no more obligation to provide charity than *we* are.
I’d like to think of that as an opportunity for all of us to wake up and give more charity. I especially emphasise charity in whatever form (time, money, action, resources) that is most effective, as it’s possible to pay some money to any random charity organisation which may be mired in corruption and just use that to feel vindicated in going back to sleep.
Rather than suggesting we should *blame* both the employers and everyone who can help but doesn’t, I’d like to offer this as a call to action for everyone who can help. We can do this. The problem is there but so is the solution.