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Debating point

The Misery of Exploitation?

“The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.” – Joan Robinson

4 Responses so far.

  1. Phil says:

    No matter who is in charge, no matter what system of governance or regulation is in place, we will always be paying homage to a master. I have no illusion of some utopia in which there is no (mental) illness, poverty, where each vote counts equally and everyone has what pleases them most. It’s fanciful but utterly unrealistic. I know that what I do is sell myself to the capitalist system, but in doing so, I get in return dividends far beyond money. I get security, I get stability and I get some measure of freedom. In that, I can travel, spend time with those I choose and do what I please. It may not be a perfect system, but I reap enough benefits to accept and support the system.

    I’m always reminded of what Churchill said in Parliament in 1947: Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

  2. Adam says:

    The problem I have with this quote is that it objectifies the ‘exploited’ instead of defining them as a potentially active part of a natural process. A sense of violation is offered by her wordplay–dependant upon negative connotations inherent to ‘exploited’ and ‘misery’ juxtaposed alongside ‘capitalist.’ The ethics of the situation are obscured by the initial ideals one must hold to follow along with her words.

    This quote is shallow in assuming a certain definition of humanity/ethics that must be taken for granted if one is to make any sense of it…a sense of short term misery as wrong but long term gains in the end justifying a necessary evil. She is saying that the ends justify the means in general while avoiding the specifics of the words she chose to employ (we have to accept a vague generality to be in agreement or in disagreement with her)…the quote means nothing in and of itself and could only serve as a conclusion to a given set of ideas that would represent nothing other than status quo (a justification for a natural order we can debate piecemeal as good or bad).

    Simple ideas that seem to have a sublime air and tremendous gravity at the same time…there’s going to be opportunity in the future but we must go through certain pains in order to achieve it; right now the ’exploited’ are slaves but their ’capitalist’ masters will in turn allow them to exploit their own fundamental riches and society as a whole will progress. It’s a quote of the present alluding to a deep ethical ether that it does well in obscuring. The sense of complexity that this quote seems to put forward is illusory–but that’s why it seems to encapsulate so much.

  3. Steve says:

    This quote doesn’t speak much to me. “The misery of not being exploited by all.” This can mean several things, but to me, it labels this process of exploitation in a manner which coincides both with a functionalist stance of exploitation, as well as a skeptic’s view of the “Marxian/Lenin Proletarian Revolution.” By this I mean that her quote speaks an air of pessimism towards such a revolution; a revolution which brings utopia where human beings are no longer exploited is impossible for her. Furthermore, this quote seems to be at odds with the old Marxian definition of exploitation – having of course to do with the production of surplus value. But at the heart of it, I find this quote to be provocative in small doses, if at all. Unless were debating with a sociology professor who is entirely dedicated to the Frankfurt School, or students who have just discovered Marx, Engels and the New Left Movement of the 1960’s, then this point seems moot.

  4. gcandy says:

    I really appreciate the diverse replies to this quote. To me Phil takes exception with the notion that exploitation is unique to a particular system of production (capitalism) and that opposing it would necessarily bring the ‘better life.’ Adam disagrees with the way in which Robinson offers up ‘exploitation’ as an assumed moral negative upon which she predicates her sleight-of-hand argument that the ends justify the means (in this case capitalism). Steve notes that she sets up the choice of ‘exploitation’ or ‘misery’, thereby dismissing the idea that there is a place in the world for a system where exploitation does not exist.

    Of course, critically engaging with such loaded quotes is important to being able to negotiate the vagueness of political philosophy. However, it is also these sorts of short but powerful quotables that drive political campaigns for the better or worse…

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