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Palinurus: Engaging Political Philosophy

Daniel DeCaro: What is Capitalist Exploitation?

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The author makes a critical analysis of John Roemer’s property-relations conception of exploitation that sheds light on the current discussion concerning the nature of Marxist justice.

In recent years, interest in Marxist political philosophy has experienced a significant resurgence, particularly at the hands of contemporary Marxist theorists known as analytical Marxists [1]. Keeping pace with this movement in the latest edition of Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction, political philosopher Will Kymlicka presents the core conceptions of analytical Marxism in a chapter devoted solely to the discussion of contemporary Marxist theory [2]. Of unique concern among the concepts covered in Kymlicka’s book is that of Marxian justice – a topic that to this point is shrouded in hot debate, for whether Karl Marx intended in his conception of communism to make a concession to an underlying, albeit unmentioned, principle of justice remains to be finalized.


Current contentions lie mostly between two factions of Marxist theorists, namely

traditional Marxists and analytical Marxists. Among the deepest concerns held in contention by these two schools of thought is what role capitalist exploitation should play in revised formulations of Marxist political theory [3]. The philosophy of political theorist and analytical Marxist, John Roemer, highlights the debate on exploitation, which is being conducted currently; hence, Roemer’s own conception of just what Marxist exploitation truly entails is of great importance at this time. In his work “Second Thoughts on Property Relations and Exploitation (1989),” Roemer presents what has come to be a well-scrutinized, substantially  controversial definition of exploitation. As such, making a critical analysis of Roemer’s property-relations conception of exploitation will certainly prove enlightening to the current discussion on the nature of Marxist justice.


In response to criticisms of his 1982 [4] conception of the property-relations definition of exploitation, Roemer presented the following amended version of his property-relations (PR) definition of exploitation in the (1989) article entitled “Second Thoughts on Property Relations and Exploitation”:


In a situation where neither S nor S’ enjoy or suffer consumption externalities by virtue of the consumption or behavior of the other, that S is exploited and S’ is exploiting if and only if [emphasis added]:


A) the members of S would gain, and the members of S’ would lose, by virtue of a redistribution of alienable assets so that each owned his per capita share, or the PR definition (clauses [1] and [2]):


1) S would be better off if it withdrew with its per capita share of productive, alienable assets.


2) S’ would be worse off if it withdrew with its per capita share of productive,    alienable assets; and


B) S’ gains by virtue of the labor of S [5].


Hence, at A above, Roemer’s PR definition of exploitation works in such a way that exploitation is revealed by appealing to a hypothetical state under which an equal distribution of alienable assets is realized; Roemer refers to this state as the redistribution condition [6]. In the hypothetical redistribution condition, if one party (S) is found to gain, in terms of the quantity of alienable assets received, then

that particular party is said to have been exploited under its initial economic

circumstances, while on the other hand, if the other party (S’) is found to be worse off, in terms of alienable assets received, then that party is said to be exploiting S. What is more, criterion B [7] above solidifies the exploitative relations of S’ to S by signifying that S’ does, in fact, gain as a direct result of the labor of S. By comparison, neither S nor S’ would be found to have been either exploited against or exploiting if both were found to enjoy (or suffer) the same consequences by virtue of the redistribution instance: For example, if after the redistribution condition has been applied, both S and S’ suffer a 20% reduction of their initial accrued alienable assets and each end up with a 50% share of alienable assets (i.e. S = 50% and S’ = 50%), then neither party is essentially better or worse off due to the new distribution instance. Therefore, neither S nor S’ was exploiting or exploited under the conditions of the original asset distribution.


What one has, then, at A above is a thought-tool that one may view (for ease of further discussion) analogously to a teeter-totter, for if at one end, one has a party (S’), who is enjoying an unequal share of alienable assets before the redistribution condition is applied, then that same party will outweigh its counterpart (S), who has a lesser share of alienable assets. However, once the assets are redistributed and the teeter-totter is equalized, then one sees that the change that transpired amounts to a loss of surplus shares for S’ and a gaining (reimbursement) of previously denied shares for S; hence, in the initial circumstances instance, S’ had been exploiting S according to the PR definition of exploitation. The teeter-totter analogy works similarly in the case of clauses one and two of line A above; however, in both cases, one must analyze the distributive circumstances of S and S’ from a game theory perspective, in which a party is exploited if it benefits from withdrawing from its current economic circumstances (i.e. ceases to participate in the current S and S’ economic coalition). In such an instance, S and S’ entertain a relational association, wherein the surplus gains of one party (S’) result in direct deficits for the other party (S). Hence, if S withdraws from the game, then S is no longer parasitized by S’; subsequently, S is able to gain from the withdrawal those alienable assets previously monopolized by S’. What remains constant throughout each element of Roemer’s PR definition of exploitation is that exploitation involves an unequal initial distribution of alienable assets. In this sense, Roemer’s conception of exploitation is necessarily hinged on a principle of distributive justice, rather than an unequal exchange (UE) of wages rendered for labor expended – the preferred principle of traditional/orthodox Marxists.


Objections to Roemer’s property-relations definition of exploitation


Since Roemer presented this version of the property-relations (PR) definition of

exploitation in 1989, his conception of capitalist exploitation has witnessed critique primarily from two perspectives, namely (1) a perspective that disagrees with the whole of Roemer’s approach on the grounds that it is fundamentally a-Marxist and (2) a perspective that disagrees only with particular elements of Roemer’s approach. Therefore, for the sake of ease in evaluation, the remaining discussion proceeds referring to the former as the a-Marxist critique and the latter as the particular-principles critique. Consider first the criticisms from the a-Marxist critique.


The a-Marxist critique


The a-Marxist critique bifurcates into two closely related criticisms of Roemer’s PR

definition. The first of these is that Marx never intended his theory to include a concession to a principle of justice in the first place, while the second is that Roemer has strayed so far from traditional conceptions of Marxism that he can no longer even be considered a Marxist theorist. The first of these objections – that Marx paid no heed to a principle of justice in his condemnation of capitalist exploitation – remains deeply entrenched in debate, and it is for this reason, or rather, for the reason of ending this entrenchment that the topic is once again mentioned here. Presently, each contending side of this debate is engaging in what has proven to be a largely futile hermeneutic struggle to prove that Marx did, irrefutably, appeal or, conversely, not appeal to a principle of justice, for with each interpretation of Marx’s writings a different verdict is rendered. Sean Sayers’s account of this particular dispute illustrates the contention well:


On the one hand, the social theory [Marxism] is portrayed as a value free sociology which, when applied to morality, results in pure relativism. Marx’s social theory is reduced to a form of ‘anti-moralism’ or moral skepticism, which has the effect of rejecting all values as mere ‘ideological illusions.’ On the other hand, Marx’s socialism is interpreted as an ethical outlook which whatever Marx may have said to the contrary, condemns capitalism on the basis of a set of absolute moral principles of justice, self-realization, or whatever, quite distinct and separate from any social theory [9].


As is illustrated above, one branch of Marxists contends that Marx openly expressed his opposition to appealing to a principle of justice, while its counterpart avers that though Marx never directly admitted doing so, the overall verbiage of his writings evince that Marx did, in fact, petition some principle of justice. Frankly, when one considers the arguments from each side of the debate, one finds that both make quite a convincing case in support of their particular perspectives.


For example, Sayers argues that analytical Marxists such as John Roemer gravely

misinterpret Marx’s approach, and are therefore not truly Marxist theorists:


Marxism is primarily a form of social theory. It looks upon morality as a social and historical phenomenon, as a form of ideology. It sees different moralities as the products of different social and historical circumstances, and tries to understand them in these terms…. Marx thus portrays different moral outlooks as the products and reflections of specific historical conditions, and as the expressions of the needs, desires, interests and aspirations of the members of specific social groups and classes. In short, Marxism does not involve a moral approach to history; but rather a historical approach to morality. It cannot and does not appeal to universal moral principles or values [10].


In contrast, Marxist theorists such as Norman Geras acknowledge that Marx never appealed to a principle of justice explicitly, rather, his writings convey a message that is implicitly grounded in a conception of justice. Geras explains this as follows:


But if Marx, so to speak, takes back his assertion of an equivalence on this matter, does he also clearly take back his denial that there is any injustice involved? Does he say, in fact, and in defiance of his own strictures of other socialists, that the real and exploitative content of the wage relation is unjust or is in violation of anyone’s rights? In so many words he does not, but in effect – this case continues – he does. For he often talks of the capitalist’s appropriation of surplus-value in terms of ‘robbery’, ‘theft’ and the like, which is tantamount to saying that the capitalist has not right to appropriate it and that his doing so is, therefore, indeed wrongful or unjust [11].


Clearly, the arguments from both sides are not without merit; but this need not stymie Roemer’s approach. Grant for a moment that traditional Marxist theorists are correct in their assertion that Marx’s original conception excluded appeals to a principle of justice. In such a case, traditional theorists would not be mistaken in their assumption of such an exclusion; however, granting this does not necessarily mean that Marxism does not require a principle of justice to prove viable within the context of the needs of contemporary society. Kymlicka has addressed this particular possibility, stating that because (1) few analytic Marxists believe in the inevitability of the traditionally purported proletarian revolution, and because (2) most citizens living in capitalistic societies have continued to enjoy an increasingly improved standard of living, “arguments must be given why a socialist society would be more desirable – more free, just, or democratic – than the sort of welfare state capitalism we see today” [12]. In this sense, it would be an inducement to all Marxist theorists to begin thinking about theories of justice that appeal to such expectations, and this is indeed what Roemer and other theorists, such as Richard Arneson, Erik Olin Wright, and Jeffery Reiman, have done. What is more, it does not seem convincing to consider Roemer a false Marxist simply because his approach deviates from orthodox conceptions, but before such an argument may be fully pursued, the ways in which Roemer’s PR definition of exploitation ventures from the norm must first be determined.


As previously mentioned, the a-Marxist critique purports a second criticism of Roemer’s PR definition, namely that Roemer’s conception of capitalist exploitation strays so far from traditional Marxist standards that Roemer can no longer be considered a Marxist theorist. Kymlicka takes up this objection saying that “the broader theory of justice in which exploitation is situated [in Roemer’s approach] has become progressively closer to Rawlsian theory of justice,” and that “In its new forms, Marxist exploitation theory [such as Roemer’s] seems to apply liberal-egalitarian principles, rather than compete with them” [13]. Kymlicka’s objection stems from the fact that Roemer’s redistribution condition, wherein participants (i.e. S and S’) are given an equitable assignment of alienable assets, is similar to Rawls’s own principles of equality, namely Rawls’s difference principle [14]. In addition, Roemer has been charged with relying too heavily on abstract systems of thought to demonstrate the efficacy of his PR definition of exploitation, as opposed to sticking firmly to judgments based on historical precedence, which is the practice preferred by most traditional/orthodox Marxists [15]. Often, those opponents of Roemer who maintain this particular objection point to Roemer’s reliance on hypothetical examples and (once again) to his championing of a system of justice [16].


However, each of these objections ultimately amounts to a dissatisfaction with Roemer’s overall tact in approaching Marxist goals, as opposed to substantial critiques demonstrating that Roemer’s PR definition does indeed fall beyond the domain of Marxist theory entirely. To the contrary, the analytical approach championed by Roemer remains quite sympathetic to traditional Marxist pursuits in two important ways. Philp explains these commonalities briefly:


First, analytical Marxism concerns itself with issues of traditional interest to Marxist social scientists. As is apparent in the work of Roemer and Wright…exploitation and inequality remain central to the analysis of capitalism. Secondly, the policy prescriptions advanced by analytical Marxists entail rejection of capitalism, rejection of the differential ownership of productive assets, and acceptance that some form of socialism provides a preferable alternative to existing order [17].


Clearly, the type of Marxism purported by Roemer wrestles with the same concerns as those of Marx and traditional Marxists theorists. Roemer simply chooses a different approach in addressing these common concerns. Moreover, it does not seem clear that Roemer’s deviation from orthodox Marxist standards is a fault; rather, it seems more likely that Roemer’s fresh approach to traditional Marxist topics, such as exploitation, will serve as an impetus to further Marxist discussion, which is something even Roemer’s opponents stand to benefit from. Finally, Roemer remains adamantly supportive of Karl Marx’s hope that society will one day elevate itself to such a height (communism) that it will “inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” [18]. Roemer merely approaches this day from a different direction.


The particular-principles critique


In the particular-principles critique, specific elements of Roemer’s PR definition of

exploitation (see pages 1-3) are criticized. Foremost among Roemer’s critics is Jeffrey Reiman, a more traditional Marxist theorist, whose major contention with Roemer is that capitalist exploitation arises from an unequal exchange of wages for workers’ labor (i.e. the surplus labor argument), instead of from an unfair initial distribution of alienable assets, as Roemer avers. Reiman also criticizes Roemer’s belief that force is not a necessary condition of capitalist exploitation. Beyond this, Reiman critiques Roemer’s approach from a practical perspective, asserting that Roemer’s conception that every person is entitled to an equal share of alienable

assets is impractical. Still others – Erik Wright, Christie Drew, and Will Kymlicka – criticize the scope of Roemer’s approach, asserting that Roemer’s focus is too narrow, because it neglects such important real-world factors of exploitation as race, class, and gender.


However, before evaluating Reiman’s criticisms of Roemer, consider the following

comparison of the two theorists’ conceptions of capitalist exploitation. On the one hand, there is Roemer’s property-relations (PR) definition of exploitation, and on the other hand, there is Reiman’s unequal-exchange (UE) definition of exploitation:


Roemer’s PR definition versus Reiman’s UE definition of exploitation*


Roemer’s PR Definition


1) The injustice in exploitation is ultimately a

distributive injustice; it is the manifestation

of an unjust distribution of assets.


2) Force is not essential to exploitation; it can

occur where people have acceptable

alternatives from which to choose.


3) Exploitation need not occur in production; it

can occur in exchange, say between people

who trade – as equivalents – products that

required different amounts of labor-time.


Reiman’s UE Definition


1) The injustice in exploitation is ultimately a social

injustice; it is constituted by an unjust social

relation, namely, the subjugation of producers by



2) Force is essential to exploitation of the Marxian

sort (there may be other forms of exploitation

that can occur without force).


3) Exploitation (of the Marxian variety) occurs only

in production, and as something built into the

ongoing production system rather than as an

occasional aberration.


At clause one of Reiman’s UE definition of exploitation it is evident that Reiman distinguishes capitalist exploitation as a social injustice, rather than a distributive injustice (compare to Roemer, clause 1). According to Reiman, people are entitled to “equal and maximum power over their own destinies, and equal and minimum power over others’ destinies”; this is Reiman’s ideal of equal sovereignty principle. In Reiman’s view, workers are entitled, by virtue of the ideal of equal sovereignty, to receive a financial (wage) reimbursement that is proportionate to the amount

of labor they expended (in terms of time spent); however, in many cases, this equal

wage-labor exchange does not take place. Instead, workers are paid a share of the total profits produced by the products of their labor, and the workers’ employer (i.e. capitalists) gleans another share of the worker-produced profits off, as well. According to Reiman, this is the primary source of capitalist exploitation: The employer reaps some of the benefits of the workers’ labor time and, thereby, violates the ideal of equal sovereignty by enjoying more than equal and minimum control over his/her workers’ destinies (in this case, each worker’s ability to provide for him-/herself financially). This is not to say that Reiman disagrees with Roemer’s conception entirely; instead, Reiman holds that Roemer’s form of exploitation, which is hinged on an unfair initial distribution of alienable assets, is compatible with Marxism, “as long as the distribution of property is held to be unjust because it causes a violation of the ideal of equal sovereignty” [19]. Hence, Reiman opposes Roemer’s appeal to distributive justice on the grounds that Roemer focuses excessively on assets, assigning the just distribution of alienable assets the tantamount position of concern, when according to Reiman, distributive justice should take second seat to productive (labor-wage) concerns [20].


In summary, Reiman’s first objection to Roemer’s PR definition of exploitation is that it focuses primarily on inequalities in alienable assets, when this particular concern should have been secondary to an interest in productive inequalities – unequal exchange of wages for workers’ labor. The question is which theorist is correct? According to Roemer, the PR definition of exploitation is superior to Reiman’s UE conception since unequal labor exchange is “a rather abstract idea (because socially embodied labor time is an abstract idea) whose moral associations come from the property relations that bring about the phenomenon [i.e. exploitation]” [21]. Here, Roemer claims that the notion of unequal labor-wage exchange is too subjective to base judgments of justice/injustice upon, but the property relations, which wage associations are (at least in part) derived from, Roemer contends are objective enough to serve as indicators of exploitative transactions. Moreover, Roemer argues that “the notion of ‘unpaid labor’ is undefined,” and he continues, adding that “identifying some labor as unpaid often requires a prior diagnosis of exploitation, and so Reiman’s use of it in a definition of exploitation is circular” [22].


Conversely, Reiman points out that Roemer’s conception of exploitation suffers from two faults. First, Reiman argues that by focusing primarily on inequalities in accrued assets, Roemer overlooks an important human aspect of exploitation, namely that not only do workers suffer a loss of property-based assets, but they experience anguish over the loss of their creative energies:


[by] restricting exploitation to the system of production, we emphasize that, in exploitation of theMarxian variety, the producer’s labor – his very body-in-action – is systematically subject to the power ofthe non-producer, and thus we focus on a distinctive and ongoing human social relation [23].


Reiman includes reference to the worker’s “very body-in-action,” signifying that it is not merely a worker’s property assets that are exploited, but his/her creative energies as well. Hence, Reiman’s focus remains mainly set on the human costs of capitalist exploitation, as opposed to the property-related costs. Secondly, Reiman maintains that not all unequal distributions of alienable assets are necessarily unfair or unjust:


And if they [people in the general sense] voluntarily agree to exchange unequal amounts of labor because one has greater productive assets that he justly owns (say, because he has accumulated them by painful sacrifices and savings that others could have undertaken but didn’t), there is still nothing morally wrong and thus still nothing that can bear the weight [of the charge of exploitation] [24].


Elsewhere, Reiman comments that Roemer’s PR definition of exploitation arrives at charges of exploitation in instances that seem counterintuitive [25], because the unequal initial distribution of assets was secured through justifiable means [26].


Rather than address each of Roemer and Reiman’s arguments individually, it seems more efficient to consider them collectively. On the one hand, there is Roemer, who objects to an UE definition of exploitation on the grounds that such a conception is (1) too abstract to apply to real-world problems effectively and (2) likely to be better served if paid more attention to unequal asset distribution, while on the other hand, there is Reiman, who objects to a PR definition of exploitation on the basis that it (1) overlooks certain human/personal aspects of exploitation and (2) holds all unequal asset distributions to be unfair, when this is not necessarily the case. So how does one confront these objections constructively – in such a way that is both progressive and meaningful to the project of defining capitalist exploitation? Setting these theorists own, specific interests, it seems reasonable to acknowledge that both contentions are compatible and, therefore, capable of offering something useful to the common goal – to devise a theory that is sympathetic to the Marxist realization of communism. In this regard, each theorist’s conceptions may be examined in terms of what each can or cannot

offer to the vocation of Marxist theory.


Roemer’s PR conception offers Marxism the capacity to judge the fairness of market transactions from the broad, (perhaps more) subjective standpoint of material assets, but at the same time arguably is weakened by a rigidity that in some cases overlooks the human component of capitalist exploitation, namely that people remain the ultimate suffers of exploitation, whereas the unequal distribution of people’s alienable assets is just one component of people’s suffering. Hence, it seems beneficial for Roemer to include a stronger emphasis on the human (social) relations of exploitation, while Reiman, whose UE conception has been accused of abstraction, could benefit from a more objective standpoint, one which combines both the notions of unequal labor-time exchange and unequal distribution of alienable assets. Moreover, it seems advantageous for both Roemer and Reiman to reevaluate just what it is that fundamentally makes exploitation wrong/unacceptable, for at times, it is not clear what each theorist’s basis for the injustice of capitalist exploitation actually is [27]. For instance, in the case of Roemer’s PR definition of exploitation, when a given worker (S) has a lesser and unequal share of alienable assets than and because of his/her employer (S’), what is it that ultimately makes this unequal distribution unacceptable? One would expect Reiman to answer that the injustice lies in the fact that the employer (S’) violated the ideal of equal sovereignty by preventing his/her worker (S) from receiving a fair (i.e. equal) share of alienable assets, but even this, the ideal of equal sovereignty, is presented without prior justification. Thus, readers are once again left questioning (if readers are, in fact, interested to know what the bases of Roemer and Reiman’s conceptions truly are) Roemer and Reiman’s intuitions. Regardless of the underlying premisses of Roemer and Reiman’s conceptions of exploitation, both would likely benefit from acknowledging, more explicitly, where the basis of their intuitions lie. For if this came to be the case, Marxist theorists

would certainly be able to pinpoint their reasons for devising certain formulations of capitalist exploitation more effectively. And what is more, during times of heightened disagreement, such precision would likely stimulate more fruitful discussions of just what it is that is most important to understanding and describing Marxist exploitation.


So what is most important to understanding and describing Marxist exploitation?

According to Reiman, it is force (refer to clause two of Roemer and Reiman’s conceptions respectively: above, page 7). Consequently, it is on the basis that Roemer excludes the element of force in his PR definition of exploitation that Reiman brings up his second objection to the PR definition of exploitation. Roemer feel that force is both (1) not a sufficient condition for the causality of exploitation and (2) not a necessary condition for the causality of exploitation: “not sufficient, because the kind of forcing that property relations induces is not exploitative unless the original distribution of property was unfair: not necessary, because economic actors can be exploited even when they have viable alternatives to the exploitative relationship” [28]. Incidentally, Reiman agrees with Roemer in that force in not a sufficient condition for exploitation; however, Reiman opposes Roemer’s assertion that force is not a necessary condition for exploitation [29].


Reiman offers the following three reasons for necessarily including force in any Marxist conception of exploitation. First, Reiman notes that “force is a distinctive feature of all three modes of production that Marx calls exploitative – classical slavery, feudal serfdom, and capitalist wage-labor" [30]. Secondly, Reiman avers that by excluding force from one’s conception of exploitation, one reduces the capacity for Marxist theory to pinpoint instances of exploitation within real-life market and labor exchanges, while also making it (i.e. Marxist exploitation) indistinguishable from other forms [31] of exploitation – effectively weakening character of Marx’s stance against capitalist exploitation [32]. Reiman’s general-sense distinction of exploitation is meant to elucidate the difference between a prosaic interpretation of the term, which pertains equally to capitalist-proletarian exchanges and to “what sexist males do to their girlfriends,” and a technical version (i.e. Marxian exploitation), which deals only with “what capitalists do to

proletarians” [33]. Thirdly, by examining the following description of the nature of capitalistic force, one can begin to see Reiman’s third objection to Roemer’s exclusion of force as a necessary condition for capitalist exploitation:


Since workers in capitalism do not own means of production, they can be forced in a different way. Because access to means of production is access to the means of producing a living at all, those who own means of production have enormous leverage over those who do not. Those who do not must work for those who do in order to make a living (that is, to go on living at all. [….] Thus, the wage-worker ‘is compelled to sell himself of his own free will’ (C, I, 766).


Here is the novelty of capitalism. Overt violence is needed only to protect private ownership. Once that is secure, no more violence is needed to force the worker to work for the capitalist on the latter’s terms. The very structure of property ownership itself supplies the force by putting the worker in a position in which he has no real choice but to sell himself of his own free will [34].


In the passage above, Reiman’s usage of the term force is notably ambiguous. However, if one reexamines the excerpt, taking special note of Reiman’s terminology – i.e. the usage and placement of leverage, compelled, overt violence, and has no real choice, as within the context of his argument – one will realize that Reiman’s conceptualization of the nature of capitalistic force is more telling than it first appears. Notice that the initial usage of “overt violence” by capitalists to secure private ownership of the means of production is treated in a manner that is quite distinct from “putting the worker in a position in which he has no real choice” and is “compelled to sell himself” (lines 8-9 and 5 respectively), which Reiman uses to describe the nature of contemporary capitalist force. Hence, Reiman’s (1987) conception of force is more akin to a type of unfair “leverage” exercised by capitalists, in order to benefit from worker’s labor. What this means for Reiman is that Roemer’s stance against force as a necessary condition may now be refuted under the perception (Reiman’s perception) that workers never really “have viable alternatives to the exploitative relationship” of capitalism, as Roemer contends.


What then is the weighing of force in Marxist theory? According to Kymlicka, force as described by Reiman is, at most, of secondary importance to a concern for unequal access to resources [35]. However, Kymlicka interprets Reiman’s conception of force in a stricter sense than it seems Reiman intended. Kymlicka views Reiman’s “force” in the sense which is more akin to “overt violence,” but interpreting Reiman’s conception of force as such fails to underscore the intricacies of the leverage that it appears Reiman was trying to convey. Morever,

if one takes a stance which is sympathetic to the proverbial “exploited worker,” one would reasonably find that though the worker could potentially choose more viable, non-exploitative working conditions, this does not mean that he/she would have also realized that these alternatives existed. In this sense, it is worthwhile to take caution that (in deciding whether Reiman’s “undue leverage” conception is forceful enough to compel workers to enter into exploitative situations) one does not mistakenly assume that just because one – a removed bystander – is capable of conceiving viable, non-exploitative alternatives for the “exploited worker” to pursue, this does not mean that the worker (or even oneself) would realize/acknowledge these alternatives from the standpoint of his/her (i.e. the worker’s) actual predicament. Hence, it is only necessary that the worker thinks that he/she is limited in economic/productive choice for such a worker to feel forced and thus be adversely effected. Therefore, for these reasons, and despite the noted difficulty of pinpointing exactly what “force” truly entails, it remains beneficial for Marxists theorists such as Roemer to acknowledge force – if only in the sense of undue leverage – as an important factor of capitalistic exploitation. Perhaps in doing so, the ambiguities of the concept will eventually be eliminated.


As a final critique of Roemer’s property-relations (PR) definition of exploitation, Reiman criticizes Roemer’s belief that “everyone is entitled to an equal share in productive assets,” saying that it is not “a very plausible belief, since it means that everyone’s rightful share is being continually revised as the population changes, and that anyone who wants to can reduce other people’s rightful shares by the simple expedient of having babies” [36]. At first glance, Reiman’s accusation seems to be fair enough, for it could likely prove to be impractical to entitle all people with an equal share of the means of production and, consequently, alienable assets; however, Roemer’s intention in presenting his PR conception does not seem to entail a purpose beyond offering an effective tool with which to determine whether present economic conditions are de facto exploitative. Hence, this particular objection is better left to discussions in which the means of achieving such a state of equity are of central concern, which is not the case here.


Nevertheless, other theorists raise criticisms against Roemer’s PR definition. For

instance, Christie Drew, Will Kymlicka, and Erik Wright purport that the scope of Roemer’s conception is too narrow because it neglects such important social issues as those associated with motivation and choice, race, class, and gender [37]. These objectors collectively assert that Roemer’s PR formulation of exploitation focuses on the economic factors (e.g. the distribution of alienable assets) of capitalist exploitation excessively, and thereby fails to adequately acknowledge the human implications of exploitation. Judging by the conclusions reached earlier (pages 9-10) in the discussion of Reiman’s “human-relations” critique of Roemer’s PR approach, it again seems apparent that Roemer’s audience would appreciate his increased acknowledgment of the human (personal) losses suffered by exploited workers, in future formulations of

the PR conception of exploitation.


Certainly, the criticisms discussed here – in this critique of John Roemer’s PR

formulation of capitalist exploitation – do not represent the whole gamut of those raised by Roemer’s critics. However, the topics that have been addressed demonstrate that Roemer’s property-relations conception has much to offer to the current debate on Marxist theories of justice, as well as much to gain from further scrutiny. Finally, rather than finalize all matters of this debate, this particular essay has sought to add to the common project of revising Marxist theory to complement contemporary social expectations, as it seems such political philosophers

as Roemer, Reiman, Kymlicka, and others are presently involved.




1. Kymlicka, Will. “Marxism.” Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002: 166-207.


2. Ibid, 166-207.


3. Ibid, 177.


4. Refer to John Roemer’s “Second Thoughts on Property Relations and Exploitation,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 15 (1989): 257-66, in order to review these criticisms in greater detail.


5. Roemer, John. “Second Thoughts on Property Relations and Exploitation.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 15 (1989): 257-66.


6. Ibid, 262.


7. Previously, B read S’ would be worse off if S withdrew from society with its own assets, but this wording left it unclear as to which party was the suppressor (exploiter) and which was the suppressed (exploited). Thus, Roemer altered the clause accordingly (Ibid, 262).


8. Futile, simply because neither side of the dispute has convinced the other of the truth of their particular interpretive stance. Instead, each side remains deeply rooted in their particular position, yielding the hermeneutic debate frivolous to pursue further.


9. Sayers, Sean. “Analytical Marxism and Morality. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 15 (1989): 81-104.


10. Ibid, 87-9.


11. Geras, Norman. “The Controversy About Marx and Justice.” Marxist Theory. Ed. A. Callinincos. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989: 166-207.


12. Kymlicka, op. cit., 168.


13. Ibid, 185.


14. The difference principle allows that inequalities are acceptable only as long as they benefit the least well off of the members of a given society: John Rawls, A Theory of Justice. London: Oxford University Press, 1971: 302-3.


15. Philp, Bruce. “Inequality, Exploitation and Socialism: Perspectives from Analytical Marxism.” Review of Political Economy 9 (3) (1996): 335-50.


16. See John Roemer, “What is Exploitation? Reply to Jeffery Reiman,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 18 (1989): 90-7; this particular article contains a number of hypothetical examples commonly criticized as being too abstract.


17. Ibid, 349.


18. Qtd. in Kymlicka, op. cit., 172.


19. Ibid, 301.


20. Ibid, 301.


21. Roemer, op. cit., 92.


22. Ibid, 92.


23. Reiman, op. cit., 303.


24. Ibid, 305.


25. Specifically, Reiman criticizes the third (i.e. the Andrea and Bob) example used by Roemer in “What is Exploitation? Reply to Jeffrey” (Id.).


26. Reiman, Jeffrey. “Why Worry About How Exploitation is Defined? Reply to John Roemer.” Social Theory & Practice 16 (1) (1990): 101-13.


27. For example, Roemer is criticized by Reiman as making unsupported assumptions on the basis of unmentioned intuitions when he (i.e. Roemer) uses examples to illustrate a point (Reiman, op. cit., 323), while Roemer reacts

similarly to some of Reiman’s own conceptions – e.g. Reiman’s definition of unpaid labor (Roemer, op. cit., 91).


28. Roemer, op. cit., 261.


29. Reiman, op. cit., 299.


30. Ibid, 302.


31. Reiman makes a distinction between exploitation in the general sense and exploitation in the Marxist sense: “The distinction between a general sense of exploitation and a specific Marxian sense allows us to retain the notion that

force is a necessary condition of Marxian exploitation, while granting that some examples of unforced exchanges are exploitative in the more general sense”. Reiman, Ibid, 323.


32. Reiman, Ibid, 304; op. cit., 104.


33. Ibid, 323.


34. Ibid, 308-9.


35. Kymlicka, op. cit., 180.


36. Reiman, op. cit., 104.


37. Drew, Christie. “John Roemer’s Economic Philosophy and the Perils of Formalism.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 15 (1989): 267-79; Kymlicka, op. cit., 182-87; Philp, op. cit., 343.


* The information provided here has been adapted (formatted) from Jeffrey Reiman, “An Alternative to ‘Distributive’ Marxism: Further Thoughts on Roemer, Cohen and Exploitation,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 15 (1989): 299-331.



Originally published in Agora, (4:2) 2003.