PALERMO 20TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL
What is exploitation?
Michael Hardt and Kathi Weeks
Alf Gunvald Nilsen
International legal instruments are supposed to provide clarity and precision regarding key concepts, yet they are frequently silent or unhelpful when it comes to many of the concepts that are central to our everyday lives. Exploitation is one such idea. It is a term frequently invoked but rarely defined, apart from, that is, in the UN’s Palermo Protocol.
In defining ‘human trafficking’, article three of the protocol states that trafficking comprises:
Actions, i.e. “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons”;
Means/methods, i.e. “the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person”;
Ends, i.e. “exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude, or the removal of organs.”
This definition may initially seem straight-forward, but in practice it leads to much contention and confusion. For example, the expression “prostitution of others” or “other forms of sexual exploitation” are used by many state parties to continue to criminalise all sex work. But the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) has long warned of “the dangers of conflating trafficking with sex work”, which many organisations and states do on the assumption that sex work is inherently exploitative. This conflation leads to the criminalisation of sex work, often in the name of the Palermo Protocol, and in turn provides justification for all kinds of arbitrary and tyrannous ‘raids’ and related enforcement measures. Despite being justified in humanitarian terms, these anti-trafficking interventions routinely deny dignity, rights, and freedom of work to people who engage in voluntary sex work. This especially true for migrant sex workers.
What do we mean by exploitation?
One of the main problems here is a lack of precision regarding what we mean by exploitation, and how and on what terms this category is actually being applied. One way of achieving greater clarity is by breaking down our understanding of exploitation into the following categories: (1) classical capitalist structural exploitation; (2) other Marxian variants; (3) carceral exploitation; (4) authority exploitation; (5) dominance exploitation; and (6) corporeal exploitation. All these forms share features in common, but if we aren’t clear what we are talking about it becomes easier for governments and other actors to manipulate the definition of exploitation to serve their own ends.
For both Marx and his more recent interpreters exploitation is not so much an individual condition as a collective and systemic status.
The classical distinction, outlined by Marx, was simple: while the working class would be better off as a whole by withdrawing consent to labour, it cannot in reality do so in a society based on capitalist production. This is a system of structural exploitation within which workers struggle to find the dignity of decent work. This structural exploitation is deepened when a large number of workers are systemically disorganised and pauperised by the state and market forces.
Other Marxian variants can be grouped together under ‘capital theory exploitation’. Under capitalism owners and managers exercise their concentrated market power to shape basic decisions on what is to be produced, how, how much, for how long, and at whose/what cost. This necessarily has serious implications for workers and their ability to work in dignity. For both Marx and his more recent interpreters exploitation is not so much an individual condition as a collective and systemic status.
This can be contrasted with carceral exploitation, which occurs when the supplier of labour power is held captive at a site where production occurs. Very often such a situation arises in institutions such as jails, psychiatric care institutions, sites of preventive detention, and camps. Not for nothing did the Italian philosopher Grigio Agamben rue the fact that the camp is the “space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule”. But this is only a partial illustration; the growth of home-based work and special economic zones marks the extension of the state of exception into ever further domains. Here exploitation arises from the immediate and direct application of coercive power in combination with systems of physical constraint.
Domination and authority exploitation both relate to the exercise of institutional power and legitimacy. For Marx, workers are coerced, on the pain of starvation, to sell their labour power to the employer at a disadvantage. It does not necessarily follow, however, that all exploitation involves day to day labour. There are other situations of dominance/subservience which relate to status asymmetries which routinely result in coercion and exploitation. Priests can abuse their disciples and congregation. Police and other agents of the state routinely leverage their authority to extract resources from the people they are supposed to be serving and protecting. Power conferred by higher authorities can be easily abused, but in some cases exploitation can also arise from the manipulation of personal and informal relationships.
Sadly, each of these varieties of exploitation occurs on a daily basis. Central to them all is the relation between the agent of exploitation and those denied their core human rights in the process. Does this mean that the way ahead lies in turning away from the glacial pace of governance reform towards more radical demands for addressing structural but unjustifiable states of social inequality?’ Surely, the twentieth anniversary of the Palermo Protocol calls us urgently towards the latter. For as Marx said in 1855: ‘The classical saint of Christianity mortified his body for the salvation of the souls of the masses; the modern, educated saint mortifies the bodies of the masses for the salvation of his own soul’.