CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 – Introduction

1The concept of exploitation has been the subject of innumerable studies, which, moreover, have come from almost all social sciences, notably economics, political science, sociology, history or anthropology, all of them having developed different conceptual frameworks. The concept has been central in the writings of Marx, with its meanings particularly shaped by Marxian theories and debates, which therefore now constitute canonical references for further explorations of the concept.

2Yet a less investigated issue is the relationship of the concept of exploitation with that of ‘inferiorisation’, i.e. the beliefs, norms and behaviour that induce an individual or a group of individuals to place another individual or group of individuals in an inferior position. Indeed, ordinary language and thinking may associate the persona of the ‘exploited’ to that of an ‘inferior’. With a primary focus on the assessment of concepts and an epistemological approach, the article argues that the analysis of the links between the two concepts leads to a theoretical puzzle: the concept of exploitation seems to imply that of inferiorisation, and, at the empirical level, across history exploitation has been massively grounded on the inferiorisation of individuals, but simultaneously, the theoretical definition of the capitalist exploitation of a human being contradicts – is incompatible with – that of his inferiorisation.

3More precisely, and in particular in the Marxian perspective, the relationship of exploitation requires the existence of a contract between the exploiter and the exploited. The concept of exploitation in capitalist settings requires ‘some equality’, some identical attributes, between the exploiter and the exploited under the common characteristic of being human (i.e. belonging to mankind) because it requires a contractual relationship: e.g., one cannot contract with an animal, a thing, or a god. In contrast, the process of inferiorisation is an essentialisation by an individual (or a group) of attributes that an individual (or a group) receives at birth: inferiorisation relies on the locking by an individual of another individual (and actually any living entity) in a specific ontology, i.e. that of ‘inferiors’, who can be defined as living entities that can be ignored and which is exactly the opposite of a relationship. This relationship (of exploitation) on the one hand, and this process (of inferiorisation) on the other, should therefore not be compatible. Capitalist exploitation when it relies on inferiorisation therefore generates an aporia.

4Yet at the empirical level and since the existence of capitalism, capitalist exploitation has included the ontological inferiorisation of very large numbers of individuals, and in particular in its ‘periphery’ (in developing countries) ‒ and also in its centre (through the concept of ‘immigrant’, which appeared with the industrial revolution in the 19th century [Blanchard et al., 2016]).

5Though studies of exploitation in peripheral capitalism usually do not notice it, the article thus shows that this relationship of exploitation when associated with a process of inferiorisation constitutes a puzzling theoretical oxymoron. This argument is examined both in a conceptual and empirical perspective.

6The article is structured as follows. Firstly, it reviews the definitional issues related to the two concepts of exploitation and inferiorisation. Secondly, it analyses a series of stylised empirical facts regarding exploitation in ‘peripheral capitalism’, notably those related to the concept of hierarchy. Thirdly, it examines the paradoxes of the concept of exploitation when it is also a representation, and in particular associated with norms of inferiorisation. Finally, it shows that the nexus exploitation-cum-inferiorisation highlights the links between the concept of exploitation and that of alienation.

2 – As a preamble, brief definitional issues

2.1 – The concept of exploitation

7The concept of exploitation has been the subject of heated debates regarding its nature and definition. While a discussion of definitions goes beyond the scope of the article, a brief mention of some definitional elements of the concept may highlight the argument.

8Exploitation has been viewed as just a brute fact, whatever its meanings, but it is also a concept. As underscored by Hodgson [1980, p. 258], neoclassical approaches consider that the owner of a factor of production is exploited if she receives less than the marginal product of that factor, while Marxian approaches consider that exploitation occurs when workers create more value than they receive in the form of wages, the coercion exerted by capitalists over the labour process enabling this expropriation of surplus value. In a Marxian perspective, it is the transfer of the economic surplus from workers to capitalists. Equally, among the four concepts of exploitation highlighted by Fleurbaey [2014], that of unequal exchange and of using persons as a means are particularly relevant for the analysis of the concept’s link with that of inferiorisation. Unequal exchange of labour is also viewed as a key feature of exploitation in the capitalist economy [Yoshihara, 2017].

9Analyses of exploitation have been deepened via the prism of ethical theories. For example, it has been argued that to exploit others is to take unfair advantage of them. The capitalist class exploits the proletariat: one party exploits another when it gets unfair and undeserved benefits from its transactions or relationships [Wertheimer and Zwolinski, 2013].

10An important point here is that the notions of freedom and contract constitute key intrinsic dimensions of the concept of capitalist exploitation – even if at the empirical level forced labour coexists with and may even be viewed as a matrix of ‘free’ contractual labour [Moulier-Boutang, 1998]. In the latter, ‘nobody forces the worker to sell his labour power to the capitalist; labour power is traded on a competitive market (at least in the ideal form)’. Capitalism is based ‘upon voluntary trade, with de jure personal freedom’ and freedom to contract [Roemer, 2017] – though other studies of exploitation focus on the reduction of the material welfare of the exploited [Wright, 2000], on the instrumentalisation of the latter’ vulnerability [Vrousalis, 2013], or on Marx’s recurrent use of the terms of ‘domination’, ‘subsumption’ and ‘subordination’ of labour by capital, which in fact reflects worker unfreedom [Vrousalis, 2017].

11These intrinsic dimensions of contract and freedom in capitalist exploitation are similarly highlighted in other studies. Heinrich [2004-2012, p. 14 and 96] explains these dimensions with great clarity, and is therefore worth quoting in detail: regardless of the level of wages or quality of working conditions, exploitation means that the dominated class produces its own subsistence and also that of the ruling class – slaves vs. slave owners, serfs vs. landlords in non-capitalist societies, and in capitalism, the propertied class vs. the proletariat, i.e. wage labourers. Thus, in non-capitalist societies, ‘exploitation rests upon a relationship of personal domination and dependency’. In contrast, ‘under capitalist relations, wage labourers enter into a contract with a capitalist. Wage labourers are formally free (there is no external force that compels them to sign a contract, and contracts, once signed, can be annulled later) and are formally equal to capitalists’. ‘Domination and exploitation in capitalism are realised precisely by means of the formal freedom and equality between partners’ [Heinrich, 2004-2012, p. 14]. Indeed, rather than divisions by birth as in aristocratic societies, it is the possession of capital that grounds divisions in capitalist societies [Sindzingre and Tricou, 2012]. In contrast with slaves or serfs, the sellers of their labour-power are proprietors of it and legally free individuals - but also ‘free’ of property of means of production [Heinrich, 2004-2012, p. 91].

2.2 – The concept of inferiorisation

12Inferiorisation may be defined as a placing an individual in an inferior position because he-she exhibits a specific attribute that he-she gets by birth (e.g., a physical attribute, being born in a given descent group, among others), i.e. an attribute that this individual has not the capacity or freedom to ‘detach’. The action of the inferioriser constitutes an ontology of the inferiorised, it allocates him an essence, via a mechanism where a part generates the whole. The criterion of ontology is crucial: otherwise inferiorisation is simply viewing someone as being in a lower rank within a hierarchy. Hence a key point is that inferiorisation is not exploitation in the capitalist sense that involves a ‘free seller’ proletarian.

13Most often, this action places the inferiorised individuals outside of the category of human beings, of mankind – and this category may be restricted to a limited number of individuals, e.g., the ‘citizens’, specific lineages, castes, etc.

14Precapitalist modes of exploitation have included different modes of inferiorisation. In a harsh mode of exploitation such as slavery, inferiorisation may have been mainly a ranking (e.g. slaves in Athens, who could become free men, and vice versa; slaves of Russia until the 18th century, driven by poverty). It may also be an ontological qualification by birth (as the helot in Sparta, ontologically an ‘enemy of the state’ and not fully belonging to mankind [Cliff, 2009]; or as the Romani in Moldavia-Wallachia until the abolition of their slavery in the mid-19th century [Marushiakova and Popov, 2009]). Significantly, in the West, serfdom may have been viewed as a conversion of slavery. Interestingly, though only the criterion of the possession of capital should explain rankings in capitalist societies, capitalist modes of exploitation have also included a variety of modes of inferiorisation (e.g., being born in certain categories of families, Jewish, Romani, etc, having a ‘darker’ skin, among many others) [1].

15The concept of exploitation has a close relationship with the concept of domination, though the two concepts cannot be viewed a synonymous. Similarly, the concept of inferiorisation cannot be viewed as superimposable on that of domination: for example, it is a common empirical fact in history that individuals who are dominated may ‘inferiorise’ the individuals who dominate them (in contexts of conquest, they can be scorned as ‘barbarians’; equally, even if they are in the position of being dominated, women can have contempt for men, among many examples).

2.3 – The context of the question: ‘peripheral capitalism’

16The concept of ‘peripheral capitalism’ is associated with the general movement of colonisation operated by Western countries from the 15th century onwards and its aftermath. The fact that colonial conquest has been exploitative remains debated. For example, Hopkins [1973] has analysed the ‘small open economy’ model that colonisation put in place, which is based on the export of commodities in exchange for manufactures. Blattman et al. [2004] have shown the vulnerability of ‘periphery’ economies as early as the 19th century (see also the debates on textile industry in 19th century’s India, Roy [2010]). For some studies, however, a colonial empire such as the French one gained little from its colonial territories [Marseille, 1984; Huillery, 2008]. Equally, forms and consequences of colonial exploitation also varied from one region to another (Frankema and Buelens [2013] on the differences between colonial exploitation in Congo and Indonesia; Acemoglu and Robinson [2001; 2002] on the ‘colonial origins’ of development and the ‘reversal of fortune’ of certain countries from 1500 onwards depending on the institutional arrangements established by colonial powers).

17This ‘peripheral capitalism’ has undoubtedly been of an exploitive nature, however, and in a more visible way after social struggles of the working class in the 20th century have secured some basic rights and resulted at a global scale in the outsourcing of the exploitation put in place in the ‘centre’ [2] and the coexistence of various forms of exploitation [Van der Linden, 2008]. For example, colonial exploitation and its global legacies have been analysed via the prism of dependency theories and those of the deterioration of terms of trade between the centre and periphery (the theses of Raul Prebisch and Hans Singer elaborated in the 1950s [Prebisch, 1950; Singer, 1950]), neo-Marxist perspectives, theories of unequal exchange [Emmanuel, 1972], or of comprador bourgeoisies, among others. Significantly, after the decline of conceptual frameworks backed by communism from 1989 onwards, these theories, and with them the concept of exploitation of the ‘periphery’, have been marginalised by theories inspired by the concept of ‘globalisation’ (openness of trade in goods and people): for example, in a critical perspective, theories of global production networks focusing on the exploitation by multinational firms, or theories of global inequality [Milanovic, 2005], or, in contrast, in mainstream economics, theories of comparative advantage and lower productivity of labour in developing countries (Baldwin [2012] on the dismissal of national industrial policies as beneficial for developing countries’ growth). These mainstream theories of globalisation view trade openness as an ‘engine of growth’ that is beneficial for the global consumer, international migration (legal or not) and outsourcing as harnessing wages differentials and hence economically optimal; they ignore the dimensions of unequal exchange, uneven distribution of value added and the exploitation of cheaper labour by multinational firms. These conceptual changes were reinforced by the analysis of the new forms of capitalism that are driven by financialisation (Dumenil and Levy [2011] on the ‘international managerial class’).

3 – Exploitation in ‘peripheral capitalism’-cum-representations of inferiorisation: conceptual aporias

18The conditions under which an individual who is inferiorised may be ‘exploited’ in the context of peripheral capitalism are examined here. It is firstly argued that representations of other individuals that inferiorise them are not an exclusive feature of capitalist Western societies. Secondly, it is argued that in a theoretical perspective the concept of exploitation is not compatible with that of inferiorisation.

3.1 – Membership and hierarchies as ‘core’ institutions of societies

19Capitalist exploitation of the ‘periphery’s’ people has been shaped by the fact that the ‘exploited’ also include their own internal hierarchies.

20All societies display groups which divide members and non-members, and the inside and the outside. Sometimes non-members are even considered as non-human, and can therefore be eliminated without any more guilt than an animal or a thing. Membership is a ‘core’ institution of societies, which is consubstantial with beliefs that separate ‘we’ from ‘them’ (non-members to which internal rules constitutive of the group do not apply), and beyond, humans and non-humans [Sindzingre, 2017] [3]. For evolutionary economics, group cooperation (and altruism) is a better strategy regarding survival. In psychology, an individual welfare may be created by the fact of being in a group. In a sociological perspective, groups provide social security and social welfare in the absence of a third party (the state) that provides it. Equally, all societies exhibit some degree of exclusion, rejection of difference, of the ‘other’. Group membership relies on the concepts of identity or similarity. ‘Traditional’ societies have been analysed as proofs of the existence of altruistic behaviour: yet the latter manifests itself only inside the group [Heinrich et al., 2004; Bowles and Polania-Reyes, 2012; Fehr and Williams, 2013]. According to Tönnies’ and Weber’s classical distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, in non-capitalist ‘collectivist’ societies, the individual is a ‘property’ of the caste, the lineage, the religion.

21The concept of membership cannot be dissociated from that of hierarchy, which operates outside of a group (all groups place other groups in hierarchies) and inside the group, via statuses (e.g., men-women, elders-younger). Hierarchies are norms (representations) that order, or classify, not only individuals within a given group but other groups as well. All societies rank some categories as inferiors, within and outside groups. These rankings are parts of coherent sets of representations of the world (Weltanschauung) (e.g., the caste system in India): these hierarchies are always embedded in ontological representations (e.g., submission to God, Sahlins [2016]). Inferiorising representations are thus core elements of the formation of societies. These non-capitalist societies are typically based on heteronomy. The nomos is enacted by unobservable entities that are outside the human order (god, ancestors, etc), which fix dominant beliefs that are by definition irrefutable and incontestable, and which prescribe associated rules of behaviour (and deliver future gains if these rules are complied with); simultaneously these compulsory beliefs build the group as they create links (shared knowledge) among group members (religio). In contrast, after the Renaissance, modern European societies tried to build societies with the goal of autonomy – a free and autonomous individual.

22In non-capitalist societies – e.g. ‘traditional’ or aristocratic societies – hierarchies are based on status, prestige, honour, and as opposed to market societies, they are sometimes coined as ‘order societies’ (which must not be confused with slave societies, e.g. as Ancient Greece mentioned by Marx). A prime criterion of ordering is kinship, and significantly it is a non-modifiable (by any individual desire or decision) criterion of hierarchy, discrimination, and exclusion. A question is as to whether these hierarchical relationships in non-capitalist (‘traditional’, feudal) societies are relationships of exploitation in the capitalist sense. Features of exploitation are present in these societies, e.g., the individual worker receiving less than the value he-she produced through his-her labour. The existence of exploitation may be debated, however, for example when there is no wealth accumulation. It is a group that ‘exploits’ another group, but these groups are constituted by birth and kinship, age and gender, and without the volition of the agents; it is not individuals that are the terms of this relationship of ‘exploitation’, which do not correspond to the concept of capitalist exploitation, where the sellers of labour must be legally free people with this freedom differentiating capitalist from other types of exploitation (e.g. serfdom, slavery). Indeed, the drivers of such ‘traditional’ exploitation are social norms (as in serfdom and slavery) but provided by the core institutions and norms organising the reproduction of the society, in particular kinship – rather than exploitation, these societies may exhibit ‘inequality without exploitation’, i.e. inequality in exchanges between groups, but without the exploitation of a group by another one [Godelier, 1969].

23These non-capitalist societies contrast with modern capitalist societies, where hierarchies are based on capital, money and convertible assets. Capitalist exploitation theoretically implies a world of individuals: the capitalist exploits individuals, and the class is the subsumption of these individuals, i.e. a group that is constituted by common interests. Thus, the existence of a ‘third party’ – e.g. a state, a nation (as in France with the decisions taken at the Revolution regarding the citizens as all equals) is here crucial for attenuating ‘traditional’ memberships in creating a higher-level membership and affiliation. Indeed, the erosion of ‘core’ membership institutions is unlikely to be achieved by these institutions themselves, as they are typically self-reinforcing.

24In expanding to the ‘periphery’ capitalist relationships have been articulated with these local hierarchies (a classical example is the contrast of the ‘assimilationist’ mode of the French colonisation with the British indirect rule that implemented a mode of production, e.g., plantations, which employed wage workers but relied on local chiefs for discipline). In peripheral capitalism, exploitation is thus de-doubled: the multinational firms (or previously the colonisers) vis-à-vis the periphery’s workforce, and people of the ‘periphery’ vis-à-vis other people of this ‘periphery’ – which in ‘rank societies’ have been, e.g., individuals situated outside the group or belonging to groups represented as inferior (examples are the forced labour of lower castes and other dominated groups, ‘house slaves’, isolated individuals, etc, or in Sub-Saharan Africa the shaping of slave trade by local hierarchies, e.g., coastal societies selling to the Westerners individuals from the hinterland (Polanyi (1966] on the slave trade in Dahomey) [4].

3.2 – Exploiting entities represented as inferiors in a capitalist regime?

25As mentioned above, capitalist exploitation implies ‘some’ equality, ‘some’ common membership, stemming from the ‘contractual relationship’ between the exploiter and the exploited [Heinrich, 2004-2012], even if the ‘voluntary’ aspect is a purely heuristic device that is erased by the ex ante inequality in capital ownership prevailing in the empirical world. Indeed, capitalism relies on a representation of mobility, on the expectation of a possible reversal of places. The ruined capitalist can become a worker; the worker can accumulate and become a capitalist. This contrasts with ‘orders’ societies in peripheral capitalism: in contrast with capitalist exploitation that involves ‘free’ sellers of their labour-force belonging to the same humanness as the buyer, in slavery, ‘orders’-based, and peripheral capitalism modes of exploitation that include inferiorisation, the exploited may be represented as not fully being a member of the same humankind and in a limbo of not-full-humanness or even full ‘otherness’, most often associated with contempt. Even in the slavery and serfdom modes of exploitation representing individuals as property, certain types of slave (e.g., captured at war) belonged to the same human species (and when they shared the same religion, religious hierarchies and sanctions could equally apply to both statuses, landlord and serf). Similarly, in ‘traditional’ societies, sanctions made by religious entities (gods, etc) applied homogenously to all group members as soon as they were group members and sharing common beliefs. Capitalist exploitation requires ‘humans’: hence, paradoxically, for exploitation of inferiorised people to be achieved, these inferiorised ‘sub-humans’ must be humans. The sole concept of capitalist exploitation therefore has difficulty in explaining the empirical coalescence of exploitation and inferiorisation, and the resilience of norms of inferiorisation within the capitalist regime.

26Norms of inferiorisation are universal, as are hierarchies – be they traditional-feudal hierarchies ‘by birth’ or ‘capitalist’ hierarchies [Sindzingre and Tricou, 2012; Sindzingre, 2012] because they are the representations in which these hierarchies are embedded. They are found in capitalist, ‘periphery’ capitalist and non-capitalist societies (e.g. in some Sub-Saharan African societies, as in Mauritania, some individuals may be viewed as ‘darker’ than oneself and thus be an object of contempt; in South America, ‘whiter’ urban people may view native people as ‘non-humans’, etc.).

27Norms of inferiorisation use attributes that are irreversible, non-detachable from the individual: they delineate an ontology. Accumulation of capital does not change these partitions and hierarchies (non-human, inferior): e.g., in some developing countries, a man inferiorised because he is born in a lower caste remains a member of this caste (blacksmiths in Sub-Saharan Africa, dalit in India, etc.). These attributes stem from non-modifiable events such as birth, and individuals have no freedom vis-à-vis them.

28Such norms select an attribute that can neither be removed nor changed (birth, physical feature, etc.), and ex ante subsume the whole individual within this attribute – in a ‘totalising metonymy’ – and then these norms rank these attributes within a hierarchy: some individuals can thus be locked in lower positions and be viewed as ‘less’ or ‘not’ human. These inferiorised groups are defined as individuals sharing some common visible feature. The substratum is a percept (e.g., different skin colour, etc.) and in the absence of any salience, the percept can be invented (e.g., ‘hook-nosed Jews’). Other groups may attribute to inferiorised individuals some common invisible feature via some common visible feature such as a common language, territory or religion (i.e. from these commonalities to common behavioural traits, as has been the case for Jews in Europe across centuries). The attribution of such features generates the right to dominate or exclude.

29In the exploitation of the inferiorised, inferiorisation norms easily allows for dehumanisation. The inferiorised cannot be an equal – a human being – and dehumanisation makes punishment and killing only a matter of technical procedure (Hochschild [1998] on the Belgian colonisation in Congo, among the vast literature on the dehumanisation inherent in mass violence): dehumanisation is a key element of inferiorisation. At the same time, whatever the depth of inferiorisation-dehumanisation, some attributes of humankind can be selected as they can be used for exploitation, e.g., physical strength or gender: the very fact of exploitation reassigns fragments of humanity to the inferiorised. In ‘peripheral capitalism’, though sharing some features with slavery, such inferiorisation is not a regime of slavery because this inferiorisation can exist together with wage labour and a capitalist mode of production (e.g., as was the case in colonial plantations, mines and the building of railways).

30Peripheral capitalist exploitation thus shows that it is possible to have a relationship of exploitation vis-à-vis individuals, though exploiters simultaneously view them as non-members of humankind, which by definition excludes them from any contractual relationship and therefore any relationship of capitalist exploitation (but not slavery of feudal exploitation) [5]. Wage workers in the peripheries have been exploited by capitalism and at the same time represented as non-humans. Indeed, colonisation was justified by bringing ‘civilisation’ to the ‘natives’, be it in Latin America, Africa, or elsewhere.

31The concept of capitalist exploitation when it involves inferiorising representations therefore inherently displays an aporia and raises the question as to whether it is possible to have a relationship of exploitation with someone or something that is perceived as non-human, or semi-human (non-identical). If so, where to put the boundaries that delimit the state of ‘being human’? Can one exploit animals (monkeys, donkeys), or inanimate things? Can one say that some animals exploit other animals? (e.g. social species that exhibit hierarchies, dominant individuals and division of labour, such as great apes). Yet one has the intuition that these activities cannot fall under the concept of exploitation, as the associated concepts of contract, labour or value creation are absent. Similarly, does the extermination, including via forced labour, of people viewed as non-humans fully fall under the concept of exploitation? Considering ‘traditional’ social rules in ‘orders’ societies furthers these questions: does the Indian high caste member have the full awareness that he exploits the lower caste dalit in the context of beliefs that these ‘deserve’ their terrible working conditions due to the latter’s ‘impurity’? The question is the same for the elder that benefit from the free work of his lineage women or younger members (this debate was raised by the French Marxist anthropologists in the 1970s, exploring as to whether kinship and statuses-based societies displayed relationships of exploitation).

32An historical example of a solution to this aporia has been the necessity to convert to Christianity the ‘natives’ discovered with the expansion of capitalism beyond the Western world. In the then prevailing theocratic context, this conversion was viewed as necessary in order to give these ‘natives’ access to humanity, which in fact could subsequently give them access to the status of being exploited within capitalist relationships [6] (typically in plantations or mines). This was a pivotal element of the so-called ‘Valladolid debate’ (1550), which opposed Bartolomeo de Las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda and focused on the question as to whether American Indians that worked in plantations for the Spaniards were free human beings as were colonisers despite their customs (e.g., human sacrifices): if yes, they should be brought to the state of Christians and hence full mankind (Las Casas) – which would actually fully integrate them in modern relationships of exploitation; if in contrast their customs were viewed as ‘crimes against nature’, they could be fought and exterminated (Sepulveda) [Fonken, 2003] (interestingly and symmetrically, in these pre-capitalist contexts, in order to be killed, animals had to be previously ritually placed out of humankind, as shown by trials in the Middle ages that involved animals said to have committed an offence [Noel, 2017]).

3.3 – Capitalist exploitation in ‘peripheries’ and inferiorisation: conceptual compatibilities?

33Markets and capitalism have been historically concomitant with the rise in individualism: in the world of pure markets, individuals are identical agents – and in the capitalist world, the possession of capital or their productivity constitute the elements of differentiation [Sindzingre and Tricou, 2012]. The regimes of exploitation that have been associated with markets and capitalism have thus assumed that the exploited are individuals, and therefore human beings who share some identity with all other economic agents of the capitalist society – even if they are the destitute and despised poor described by Charles Dickens or Jack London, even if payment of poverty-wages may be analysed as ‘insulting’ [Dobos, 2018].

34This link according to which capitalist exploitation requires human beings acting as individuals appeared when feudal-theocratic regime gave way to the premises of capitalism at the Renaissance in Europe. The mankind of people in newly discovered and colonised territories was questioned, and Catholic thinkers urged that before (in order to) being put to work, i.e. entering in the regime of capitalist exploitation, these people needed to get full access to the category of humans, i.e. the same as their masters – and later, for the liberal democracies of the 19th century industrial revolution, even equals, slavery being abolished in 1848. The regime of exploitation based on inferiorisation, e.g. characteristic of slavery, with the emergence of inequalities based on the possession of capital had become unnecessary.

35A paradox is that capitalism here has been an emancipatory force from slavery-feudal forms of exploitation grounded on ex ante inferiorisation by birth. Simultaneously, however, with the expansion of capitalism outside Europe from the Renaissance onwards, the visible attributes of the people originating from this ‘periphery’ (the colonised, the immigrant) have generated representations (beliefs) within the societies of the ‘centre’ that have enabled their rejection back to non-mankind via a variety of cognitive mechanisms (‘taste’ for discrimination, etc.). A contingent attribute such as the lack of capital of an individual (the ‘proletarian’) (contingent as mobility is a key mechanism both of market and capitalist regimes) is here transformed into non-contingent, ontological, attributes (e.g., being ‘lazy’, ‘stupid’, etc), which place the holder of this attribute in the category of non-mankind and had characterised non-capitalist regimes of exploitation, and typically slavery [7]. In other words, the expansion of capitalism towards its ‘periphery’ (what was later coined the ‘developing world’) has simultaneously conveyed a universalist ontology of human beings as all equals (all able to ‘voluntarily’ enter into a labour contract relationship) and an ontology where some visible attributes assigned those holding them in non-mankind and hence justifying the maintenance of the slavery regime of exploitation.

36This paradox therefore raises the question as to whether in capitalist contexts it is exploitation according to the meaning it has within the capitalist regime, which occurs when the exploited ‘entities’ are viewed by the exploiters as not only unequals but even not belonging to mankind (Untermenschen): in a capitalist regime, including the ‘peripheral’ one, can an individual (a human being) exploit an entity who (which?) is not considered as equally human? If at least a modality of equality is attached to the definition of exploitation, this is not possible; but if one can ‘exploit’ a thing (or an animal), this is possible.

37This paradox also implies mental representations, and moreover norms, i.e. representations with a deontic content. Capitalism assumes that social mobility is possible and hence assumes a representation of others where there is ‘some’ identity between the exploiter and the exploited. In the ‘periphery’ form of capitalism, the ‘inferiorisation’ of others relies on a representation where for the exploiter, the exploited have a status of ‘non–human’. A capitalist exploitation-cum-inferiorisation that is based on a status, i.e. an antithesis of mobility, can be contrasted with a capitalist exploitation that assumes social mobility (differentiation being achieved by the ownership of capital or means of production). Capitalist exploitation in its ‘periphery’ involves the representation of the worker in statuses created by birth. It is thus an ‘embedded’ exploitation: the exploitive economic relationship is embedded in representations, more precisely deontic representations that convey an inferiorisation that justify exploitation. It can thus be viewed as a ‘meta-exploitation’.

38Capitalist exploitation in developing countries, and including the individuals originating from them, associates with the concept of exploitation representations of inferiorisation that are conceptually antagonistic with the dimensions of ‘emancipation’ and contract (even an unequal one) that defines capitalist exploitation. The type of capitalist exploitation that includes inferiorisation of the exploited refers to an emancipation of previous modes of exploitation (slavery, serfdom) that is in fact the entry to an original, specific, regime of exploitation: i.e. a capitalist mode of exploitation that is sequentially articulated to non-capitalist modes according to a cascade of hierarchies. Societies of this ‘periphery’, non-Western developing countries indeed exhibit their own social hierarchies, which reinforce the general inferiorisation of the colonised by colonisers, with some groups being more ‘inferiorisable’ than others (lower castes, foreigners from poorer developing countries [8]) and can even include slavery in the Marxian meaning. ‘Peripheral’ capitalism thus implies a double exploitation: from the ‘centre’ to the ‘periphery’, where the individual is exploited as a worker and with these developing countries ‘proletarians’ being ‘embedded’ in local hierarchies created by birth.

39The point is that this doubling of exploitation in capitalist periphery is associated with norms of inferiorisation that may be viewed as a contradictio in adjecto. The concept of hierarchy suggests here a solution: the specific regime of capitalist exploitation-cum-inferiorisation in fact intrinsically includes a relationship of domination – as the act of inferiorising an individual implies both the concept of hierarchy and that of domination. This specific regime thus suggests a reconsideration of the usual contract-based definition of the concept of exploitation, i.e., though the two concepts are epistemologically distinct, to conceive it as an original form that is intrinsically both an exploitation and a domination.

4 – Economic relationships of exploitation confronted with norms of inferiorisation as particularly stable types of beliefs

40Exploitation embedded in inferiorisation occurs in ‘central’ capitalism, in peripheral capitalism, e.g. as in colonial times, and in ‘traditional’ societies via their hierarchies. The background of the concept of exploitation for Marx is modernity. The capitalist exploiter is a free individual and collective behaviour is conceptualised as a class, not a group. As inferiorisation involves subjective representations, Marx did not consider that these issues were relevant in his analysis of exploitation, besides his conceptualisation of ideology. The fixation and dissemination of identical beliefs was for Marx an example of alienation, and not an anthropological process. In non-capitalist societies, where markets do not prevail in the organisation of exchanges as well as in ontology, there were feudal and slavery forms of exploitation. Exploitation in traditional societies was a form of these. These partitions, however, are unsatisfactory: ‘traditional’ forms endure until today (e.g., the Indian caste system), and function smoothly in globalised capitalism, including the ‘centre’. Putting these societies in the category of ‘feudalism’, or slave systems, or ‘precapitalism’ (or ‘remnants’ of ‘precapitalism’) is inaccurate.

41Inferiorisation is a set of beliefs or mental representations. Hence the concept of exploitation-cum-inferiorisation may be enlightened by an analysis of that of beliefs, notably false beliefs – what Marx called an ideology, i.e. ideas that legitimate and perpetuate ‘objective’ exploitation, or an alienation, i.e. the dispossession for the worker of his-her work and exact understanding of his-her conditions.

42Indeed, for exploitation to last and be consolidated, some beliefs (representations) of the exploiting but also of the exploited are necessary, as otherwise the exploited ones would revolt (and indeed they do, and pure coercion has historically prevailed in many regimes). The reinforcing of exploitation by beliefs that are subservient to exploitation may be viewed as a smoothing and transaction costs reducing device. In the first centuries of capitalism, beliefs such as those in a social upward mobility associated with the wage system (in contrast with birth-based hierarchies and churches playing on temporal horizons and promising happiness in the future of non-capitalist systems) have been efficient beliefs. Low education levels may have supported these alienating representations – and schools have indeed disseminated a knowledge that could ground the possibility of emancipation.

43In ‘orders’ societies, beliefs are difficult to revise. There are many cognitive devices that make it so that an ‘order of things’ lasts (Dumont [1980] on the Indian world, as being organised by the opposition of purity and impurity and maintained via the periodical reversal of the low-caste status in rituals). In such societies, ‘meta-beliefs’, i.e. beliefs that can question beliefs, do not come from membership institutions and norms themselves, but from the outside [Sindzingre, 2012]. Here capitalism and the associated market for ideas have been tools of emancipation: in allowing for competition and hence the questioning of beliefs [Bowles and Gintis, 1998], capitalism has fostered the erosion of hierarchies created by non-modifiable traits such as birth and physical attributes, and hence the possibility of equality. ‘Traditional’ exploitation imposed by status societies in the periphery has appeared to the inferiorised individuals to be worse than capitalist exploitation, and their members may have strived to enter the capitalist world of factories and wage labour. Thus, in the feudal, serfdom-based, pre-capitalist societies of the late Middle Ages, the development of markets has been viewed as an emancipation [Fontaine, 2014], though capitalist exploitation has been associated with this transformation [Marciano, 2014], e.g., poor workers of the periphery struggling to sell their blood on a market, or to put their children on labour markets [Basu, 1998], or women struggling to work in sweatshops in Asia, as the ‘traditional’ rules and hierarchies determined by birth offer no possibility for escape and capitalist exploitation represents a degree of freedom.

44Yet while capitalism has been an emancipatory force, it has also continued to alienate and to allow for the persistence of beliefs of inferiorisation regarding large categories of human beings, be they the ‘exploiting’ or the ‘exploited’.

45Norms that are common to the exploiting and the exploited may be unnecessary in colonial (or multinationals’) exploitation, where the exploiter sees the exploited as inferiors, while these common norms may exist in regimes of exploitation within groups in periphery societies. Here the exploited is exploited by someone of the same group, e.g. via hierarchies by birth (e.g. caste systems). This exploitation is typically maintained by shared beliefs. Group membership is a particularly favourable vehicle for false beliefs and alienation as it mobilises emotions related to individual identity and puts forward common possessions that define the group and with the group being defined as possessing this common property (‘our’ group, ‘our’ gods, ‘our’ ancestors). This commonality is believed by group members to be associated with norms, which by definition cannot be questioned as these norms are consubstantial to the group (both its causes and effects). Here a new information (e.g., ‘rational’, ‘scientific’) not only does not revise an existing belief, but may be reinterpreted and reinforce it because these norms in essence define the existence of the group. Besides beliefs related to group membership and identity, religious beliefs are also examples of such shared beliefs that rank and discriminate, as they typically legitimate the ‘order of things’. They are particularly prone to propagation and stable as the causalities they use rely on unobservable terms (e.g., gods, etc) and are therefore non-falsifiable in Popperian terms, and as the rewards they promise, being innumerable, are not sensitive to material incentives [Atran and Ginges, 2012].

46These sets of false, alienating beliefs have not disappeared with the expansion of capitalism, in the periphery or in the centre. Inferiorisation norms are not remnants of the past, of slavery or feudalism, and have prospered within capitalist regimes. Rankings and status assignment are widespread in capitalist societies despite the fact that they are inefficient and the fact that profitability and competitiveness are more rational criteria of discrimination, e.g. hiring according to productivity in being indifferent (‘blind’) to the fact that the individual is a woman, has a certain skin, etc. Indeed, discrimination across individuals according to visible features such as skin colour, age, gender, etc, rationally should not last in capitalist regimes; it is not rational in terms of resource allocation and it also diminishes the welfare of the discriminating group [Becker, 1957]. These explanations of such persistence (individual ‘taste’ for discrimination, statistical discrimination), however, are simplistic (and circular). Similarly, concepts such as ‘hybridisation’ are superficial and do not explain the representations of individuals, social rules, and their persistence.

47Indeed, some representations display a better capacity for collective dissemination to other individuals and persistence than others, and become ‘traditions’, customs and intergenerationally transmitted norms. Discriminative norms (usually anchored in beliefs an individual has on his membership of groups and the latter’ superiority) are typical examples, and they last both for the exploiter vis-à-vis the exploited and across the exploited within their own societies. Usual (behavioural, evolutionary) economic explanations use concepts such as incentives, reward, punishment or multiple equilibria in order to explain the stabilisation of particular norms. However, such concepts do not explain the particular content of norms and their infinite variety in time and space. Also, they do not explain the stabilisation of ‘inefficient’ norms that organise the unequal sharing of the surplus over millennia [Bowles, 2006]. Anthropological and cognitive psychology explanations are more useful, as they demonstrate that some representations and norms disseminate and stabilise in individuals’ minds more than others due to their ‘relevance’ in given contexts [Sperber, 1994] – and not due to their ‘truth’ [Boyer, 1994; 2001]. Their nature of ‘memes’ can also foster such dissemination and stabilisation [Dawkins, 1976]. Similarly, economic theories of endogenous social interactions show the influence on individuals of the choices and characteristics of others and the subsequent feedback loops from the past choices of some individuals to current social contexts and hence future choices of others [Durlauf and Young, 2001], which also induce the persistence of some representations (e.g., in ‘group affiliations’ or ‘neighbourhood’ trapping processes, Durlauf [2002; 2003]).

48These mechanisms underlying the persistence of inferiorising representations explain the coalescence in peripheral capitalism of a relationship of exploitation instituting some equality (some common humankind) and representations of inferiorisation. Such mechanisms are therefore an element of understanding and solving the aporia of the ex ante non-compatibility in capitalist regimes of the concept of exploitation and that of inferiorisation.

5 – Conclusion

49This article has analysed the concept of exploitation under a dimension that has been under-investigated in the literature, i.e. the links between this concept and that of inferiorisation (of other individuals), taking ‘peripheral capitalism’ (referring today to developing countries and their population) as a background. Indeed, the inferiorisation of individuals who are caught within relationships of capitalist exploitation is a recurrent empirical observation since the birth of capitalism.

50The article has shown that despite this empirical and apparently commonsensical recurrence, at the theoretical level the analysis of the links between the two concepts highlights a puzzle, i.e. that the theoretical definition of the concept of capitalist exploitation appears to be incompatible with that of inferiorisation, and in particular in the context of ‘periphery’ that involves cascades of hierarchies and norms of inferiorisation. The capitalist contract-based unequal exchange requires individuals who share a common humankind, which is antagonistic toward the inferiorisation that has prevailed in the process of expansion of capitalism towards its periphery, where the people of this periphery have been subsumed within the category of non-humans.

51The article has also shown that two mechanisms explain the persistence of the coalescence of the two concepts in the empirical world. Firstly, inferiorisation is an expression of a particular type of hierarchy, i.e. a hierarchy that relies on domination – and therefore the analysis of a capitalist exploitation that includes inferiorisation leads to a more consubstantial inclusion of the concept of domination into that of exploitation. Secondly, norms of inferiorisation – partitions of humans into ‘we’ and ‘them’ that stem from the universal organisation of societies into memberships – are particularly stable categories of beliefs, which explains their resilience across regimes of exploitation.


  • [1]
  • [2]
    As shown by the exploitation in textile industry in Bangladesh, made public with the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2012; or in the computer industry in China.
  • [3]
    In the Guayaki society, the name that members give to themselves is ‘the humans’ [Clastres, 1972].
  • [4]
    It can be noted that in colonial (post-slavery) times in Africa the people of lower status given to colonisers (for wage labour, or for missionaries) enjoyed an upward mobility due to this insertion in the capitalist world (e.g., via a Western higher education), and some later became members of parliaments in the colonising country, political activists, or rulers after independence…
  • [5]
    As shown by the ‘human zoos’ exhibiting people from colonies in the same way as animals in European capitals in the 19th century, which lasted until the WWII [Bancel et al., 2002].
  • [6]
    And, later, enabled workers to create movements of emancipation…
  • [7]
    E.g., insults against people from these peripheries may use in the same sentence ‘monkey’ and ‘slave’, see Alain Rey, “La danse des mots”, Radio-France-Internationale, 22 December 2016.
  • [8]
    As shown by the recurrent expressions of contempt in Sub-Saharan Africa against other African foreigners from poorer countries, e.g. in South Africa or RD Congo [Fourchard and Segatti, 2015]; or against Africans in China or India.

The concept of exploitation has been the subject of innumerable studies. A less investigated issue, however, is the relationship of this concept with that of ‘inferiorisation’, i.e. the beliefs and norms that induce an individual to place another individual in an inferior position. The article argues that the analysis of the links between the two concepts leads to a theoretical puzzle: the concept of exploitation seems to imply that of inferiorisation, but simultaneously, the theoretical definition of the capitalist exploitation of a human being is incompatible with that of his inferiorisation.
JEL: B40, B52, Z1


  • exploitation
  • inferiorisation
  • social norms
  • capitalism
  • developing countries


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Alice Nicole Sindzingre
School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, Department of Economics. A first version of this paper has been presented at the Workshop “Theories of Exploitation”, Nanterre, ANR Phicentrav-Sophiapol-EconomiX, 19-20 January 2017. The author particularly thanks Fabrice Tricou for his encouragements to investigate these issues and very stimulating discussions.
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