On Inevitable Exploitation

Being exploited is unavoidable unless we try something radically new


Man with hot drink, face down on a laptop

Exploitation has been a persistent issue throughout human history, leaving a lasting impact on societies. It raises the question: Is exploitation an inherent part of civilisation? As we’ve progressed over time, has only the focus of exploitation changed?

When we consider the origins of widespread exploitation like slavery or wage labor, we may wonder with exasperation if there was a time before it existed. Throughout history, societies have oppressed certain individuals or groups to benefit others, although the methods and targets have varied.

In today’s society, exploitation operates differently. Instead of relying on force and punishment, modern systems like capitalism use incentives. Capitalists and landowners hold the rewards, enticing people to work for personal gain. This system allows for some social mobility, education, and self-improvement.

Capitalism, despite its flaws, offers opportunities for change because people are becoming more educated and aware. This opens up the possibility of collectively managing our affairs, reducing the control exerted by the capitalist class. Socialism challenges existing power structures by emphasising social ownership and democratic control of resources. However the question remains: Who would hold the rewards, and therefore the power, in a socialist society?

The short answer is: we don’t know yet, but some ideas exist. Socialism is often seen as an alternative to capitalism, but it doesn’t necessarily represent a final solution. It is more like a transformative change aiming to create a fairer society. The outcome of such transformations is uncertain, with different visions and interpretations of socialism. So far, state socialism has been the only observed outcome of successful socialist change. However, it is mostly viewed very unfavourably in the West, as it has resulted in situations where all the rewards and means of punishment end up benefiting a group of corrupt political elites. Therefore, we should consider alternative approaches to state socialism.

Various alternative models have been proposed to transform society while addressing concerns of authoritarianism and power concentration. Examples include libertarian socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, and decentralised or non-hierarchical systems that prioritise individual autonomy and participation. Perhaps within these models lies the end of mass exploitation as we know it.

Exploitation, in some form, has persisted throughout human history. However, as civilisation has evolved, the dynamics of exploitation have shifted from traditional slavery to subtler control mechanisms like capitalism. Nevertheless, the potential for change remains, especially with movements like socialism that challenge existing power structures. It’s important to understand that socialism is not a fixed end state, but rather a stepping stone towards greater justice and equality. By exploring alternative approaches to state socialism, we can enrich the discussion and pave the way for new possibilities in shaping our collective future.

This post was written while attending Marxism Festival 2023 in London, organised by the Socialist Workers Party.