Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Ellerman's Labor Theory of Property and the Injustice of Capitalist Exploitation

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Ellerman's Labor Theory of Property and the Injustice of Capitalist Exploitation

Article excerpt

Abstract The traditional Marxian arguments for the injustice of capitalist exploitation generally focus on the ownership patterns of productive property. Exploitation is thus viewed either as the result of illegitimate private ownership or as the result of the unequal distribution of productive assets. This paper seeks to contribute a different perspective on the injustice of exploitation. It argues that exploitation violates principles of appropriative and contractual justice, rather than distributive justice. To make this case, the paper shows how Ellerman's labor theory of property might be combined with Resnick and Wolff's Marxian theory of exploitation and enriched by Nussbaum's interpretation of Aristotelian moral theory to challenge the justice of the wage-for-labor-time exchange, without making reference to the existence or distribution of private property.

Keywords: Ellerman, labor theory of property, exploitation, justice, Marxism, Aristotle

INTRODUCTION

Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!" they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, "Abolition of the wages system!"

(Karl Marx, "Wages, Price and Profit")

What is wrong with capitalist exploitation? Many Marxists believe that exploitation is unjust, but the basis for this normative judgment is often left unspecified or opaque. This opacity is especially troublesome now that the collapse of centrally planned, state socialism has called into question the political project of Marxism. Norman Geras claims that one reason Marxists have left their normative commitments undertheorized is that Marx's own thinking about exploitation did not... adequately confront and reflect upon its own ethical premises," thereby contributing to the same problem in subsequent Marxist literature (Geras 1992: 61). Cohen (1995) offers another explanation for the failure of Marxists to specify their normative commitments adequately. Some of Marx's writing contributes to the belief that only the inevitability of technological progress, and the productivity and material abundance it promises, will resolve the broad issues of social justice (Cohen 1995: 7-12, 116-143). Cohen urges Marxists to reject this tenuous faith, now discredited by the environmental crisis and the failures of state socialism, and calls for Marxists to engage in explicit normative theorizing. In this paper I seek to respond to Cohen's call, although my conclusion about the reason that capitalist exploitation is unjust is not one that Cohen himself considers. Unlike Marxists such as Cohen et al. (1980) who are engaged by the search for the foundations underpinning a normative condemnation of capitalist exploitation, I believe that exploitation violates principles of appropriative and contractual justice, rather than distributive justice. To make this case, I will show how David Ellerman's labor theory of property might be combined with Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff's theory of exploitation and enriched by Martha Nussbaum's interpretation of Aristotelian moral theory to support a novel explanation of the injustice of capitalist exploitation.

The traditional Marxian explanations for the injustice of exploitation invariably concentrate on the ownership patterns of the means of production. Exploitation is either the result of illegitimate private ownership itself (Husami 1980), or of the uneven--and hence unjust--distribution of privately owned means of production (Roemer 1994). David Ellerman's rendition of the labor theory of property asks us to cast our moral gaze in a different direction, to focus on the agent of appropriation in the firm. Ellerman's theory of justice leads to a rejection of the capitalist form of private property, rather than to a rejection of private property altogether. [1] I believe his theory of justice is consistent with a position that can be teased out of Marx's writings but that is not usually considered by contemporary Marxist theorists. …

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