Under Marxist theory, workers are being exploited for their labor and not receiving the full value of their labor. Workers however have a choice in who they work for and how much they earn so how can it be called exploitation? If it because they starve if they do not work, is this not falsified by welfare states, as well as being irrelevant since from what I understand, you still are forced to work if you wish to eat in socialist society, only you have even less say in how much you work for as it is dictated by socially necessary labor time, which is not determined by an individual.

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    This was a good advertisement of socialism (by Marx). On practice "full value" is not determined.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 15:50
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    You have a choice of bosses, but only those bosses who successfully exploit their workers stay in business. I suppose you could always choose to work for companies which go bust because they pay their workers too much, but you'd have to pick them quite carefully. Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 19:22
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    Are the exploited workers necessarily exploited by their bosses rather than some system?
    – BCLC
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 13:03
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    At least in the USA, for the time I've been alive, job seekers, especially those who have just graduated, are at a major disadvantage compared to job providers. The supply of employees exceeds the demand (in some cases because of specialized skill requirements). As other comments/answers have noted, this appears to have been the case in Marxist times as well: there is no worker-employer equality.
    – user935
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 21:17
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    @Bob you seem to assume that having higher wages than your competitors automatically gives you a disadvantage. Actually, this could attract the best workers and have the opposite effect. Though obviously, you'd just have to exploit the workers a tiny bit less than the next guy.
    – IMil
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 1:47

9 Answers 9


Workers however have a choice in who they work for how much they earn so how can it be called exploitation?

This isn't good philosophy on my part (I'm not making reference to a formal Marxist response), but your question implies two things:

  1. Workers do in fact have a choice in who they work for
  2. Having a choice of employer means you can't be exploited

We could address your question in two ways then. The first would be to say that one cannot freely choose to work for a given employer. Employers are the ones with the power to hire and fire, and in the current labour market, employers are significantly empowered to refuse to employ you. This is evidenced in the huge game of recruitment processes that goes on to give employers the means to choose between pools of candidates rather than relying on any available hands.

The second would be to say that you may be able to choose between a number of possible options to work for, but all such options result in treating you (as the employee) unfairly, since employment by necessity wants to profit from the work you do at a rate above what it costs to pay you to do it. You don't have to work for any one person who is particularly unfair in their practices, but no matter who you do work for, they will always be driven to underpay you for work that's been well done.

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    There is a fundamental error in this answer. Even if there is not enough workers to fill vacancies (as there is sometimes in particular industries in given moments in time), a worker will only be employed if and only if the capitalism/employer makes a profit. Because the mere existence of profits indicates exploitation (according to Marx), exploitation exists always and everywhere that there are profits accrued to capital. It is irrespective of the status of the labour market.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 15:27
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    @luchonacho: This is rubbish. Amazon was run at a loss for many years as was Nokia because they hoped to eventually make a profit; and in fact they did. Secondly it doesn't take into account direct or indirect public subsidies. Walmart for instance is well known to pay below substinence rates because the expectation is that the public sector will pick up the burden. Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 21:23
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    @MoziburUllah Those are just exceptions that confirm the rule. Profits and solely profits is what drives a capitalist company. Even if in the short-run they run at a loss (e.g as amazon does in order to drive away competitors and become monopolist -- because US law only cares about uncompetitive behaviour when prices are high), in the long run they need to make profits. No selfish capitalist will sacrifice capital. So ultimately, profits does indicate exploitation.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 7:53
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    @luchonacho: Profits per se do not indicate exploitation and nor do they indicate a capitalist economy since they notionally help describe every economy - including socialist and communist economies; it's the way in which profits are made, the way that work is organised, the way that profits are distributed that describes exploitation in amongst many other indicators. Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 11:25
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    @luchonacho, I did make my caveat clear about not being precise in presenting a Marxist position; rather it was more to draw out where one could address the substance of the question. That said, I think what you're proposing works well with the second of the two lines I highlighted, and take your word for it that it goes through in Marxist theory even if the first does not. Mozibur, meanwhile, might be more sympathetic to the first, that the exploitation is primarily one of an imbalance of power rather than a systematic weakness inherent to capital which need not necessarily obtain.
    – Paul Ross
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 22:39

The headline Marxist answer is since all bosses - employers - exploit, the worker's only choice is which employer he will exploited by. There is no choice between exploitation and non-exploitation but only a choice of exploiter.

Marx offers more than one account of exploitation (Ausbeutung) but his central and distinctive account can be put as follows :

Exploitation - take 1

According to Marx, the wage-laborer's work can be divided into two parts: the work by which he produces commodities whose value is equivalent to the value of those goods required for his own subsistence, and the work by which he produces commodities whose value exceeds the value of these subsistence goods. The former Marx calls 'necessary wage-labor', the latter 'surplus wage-labor'. Marx invites us to conceive of the wage-laborer's working day as divided into two parts. During the first part the worker works for himself in the sense that he produces commodities whose value is equivalent to the wages he receives. During the remainder of the working day, the wage-laborer works for the capitalist in the sense that what he produces is appropriated by the capitalist and not returned to the worker in the form of wages. Since the product of surplus wage-labor is not returned to the worker, Marx calls surplus labor 'unpaid labor'. (Allen Buchanan, 'Exploitation, Alienation, and Injustice', Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Mar., 1979), pp. 121-139 : 123.)

Exploitation is located in the gap between the value of what the worker produces and is paid for and what the worker produces and is not paid for. In a simple example, say a worker is paid $100 a day. In that time the worker produces goods or commodities which the employer - the capitalist - sells for $250. The worker is 'unpaid' for $150 of what s/her produces. The capitalist calls it profit - a kind of entitlement due for risking his or her capital in the firm's business - and the Marxist calls it exploitation since the worker is being swizzed out of $150.

Exploitation - take 2

This isn't quite the full story, though. Marx talked of 'forced labour (Zwangsarbeit). For a full(er) account of exploitation we need to note, Marx would urge, that :

... wage-labor is forced labor. Because the capitalist controls the means of production, the wage-laborer is compelled by threat of unemployment and, ultimately, starvation, to enter the wage contract. Finally, though the worker receives wages in return for a portion of the commodities he produces, all the commodities he produces are controlled by the capitalist. (Buchanan, 123.)

Choice of employer is irrelevant to exploitation

Depending on the level of employment and the state of the market, a worker may have some choice - usually does - in who to work for. Marx's point is that whoever the worker works for, s/he will be exploited in a capitalist economy because all capitalists extract surplus wage-labor and the worker must work for some capitalist or other or face unemployment and starvation (or more likely nowadays the relative poverty of state hand-outs). Hence Marx's reference to 'forced labor'.

All this is only a skeletal account of Marx's complex narrative of exploitation. Moreover, I have simply given the kind of account a Marxist could give in reply to your question. My own views about Marx are nothing to the point.


K Marx, Wages, Price and Profit (1865, published 1898), V - XII.

K. Marx, Capital, 1867, I, Part 3, Ch. 9, §1 et passim.

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    It's worth noting that in Marx's time, and in much of the 20th century, many people in industrialised nations lived in towns dominated by a single industry and often a single company and so had very little choice of employer. Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 19:19
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    "take 1" seems to completely ignore capital share in production. It's a sleigh of hand by dividing it as "time" because (of course) there's no capital investment in time, unlike in (say) machinery. "take 2" is more realistic, well, under the assumption that return on investment on capital should be zero... which of course leads to the conclusion that workers must own the means of production putting the capitalists out of the loop. Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 19:22
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    ... which of course makes the workers capitalists, but Marx ignored that. Just about any freelance programmer could confirm that. Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 19:27
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    @Fizz. Thanks. I was of course only trying to give a tolerably clear account of what Marx held and how he would have responded to the OP. I'm not sure that if the workers owned the means of production, this would make them capitalists. If the extraction of unpaid labour is at the heart of capitalism, the workers can hardly 'unpay' or underpay themselves ? To whom would the surplus go, since they are the only class? Take this as an observation, please, not as a riposte. I take no side in the matter - at least as far as concerns answering the question.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 19:34
  • Note that take 2 only applies when there are more workers than jobs. If workers are scarce, a free market for employees would reduce the level of exploitation (but probably not eliminate it entirely, because then the capitalist has no incentive to hire anyone at all).
    – Barmar
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 12:12

If you want a modern interpretation, it's the reduction in labor share (in relation to capital share) in production/income that's the "exploitation" aspect. If you have less bargaining power (because your contribution matters less), then you're more easily exploited.

enter image description here


The stability of the labor share of income is a key foundation in macroeconomic models. We document, however, that the global labor share has significantly declined since the early 1980s, with the decline occurring within the large majority of countries and industries. We show that the decrease in the relative price of investment goods, often attributed to advances in information technology and the computer age, induced firms to shift away from labor and toward capital.

Although Marx didn't quite anticipate these technological trends, he did come to the same conclusion from a somewhat blaker premise:

Marx believed wages to be merely at a subsistence level of the workers and that at all times the supply of workers outnumbered the demand at the given wage level. [...] From Marx’s theory it follows that the labor share is falling over time. As wages remain at the subsistence level, output increases through increasing usage of capital per worker. Only if the workers would gain bargaining power, their wages could improve. If these would improve at the same rate as output per worker increases, this would lead at most to a constant share.

Marx is blamed (as your question does to some extent) for not anticipating the rise of the welfare state, althogh not even pensions were commonly accessible in his time, because the retirement age was usually too high compared to life expectancy back then (e.g. 70 vs 45 in Prussia in 1889 or 70 vs 50 in the UK in 1908).

Also Marx failed to anticipate the rise of the middle class, but whether that's a stable long-term trend... is another matter.

enter image description here

That's why the Economist declared a renaissance of Marx's ideas:

The chief reason for the continuing interest in Marx, however, is that his ideas are more relevant than they have been for decades. The post-war consensus that shifted power from capital to labour and produced a “great compression” in living standards is fading. Globalisation and the rise of a virtual economy are producing a version of capitalism that once more seems to be out of control. The backwards flow of power from labour to capital is finally beginning to produce a popular—and often populist—reaction. No wonder the most successful economics book of recent years, Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, echoes the title of Marx’s most important work and his preoccupation with inequality. [...]

Still, the rehabilitation ought not to go too far. Marx’s errors far outnumbered his insights. His insistence that capitalism drives workers’ living standards to subsistence level is absurd. The genius of capitalism is that it relentlessly reduces the price of regular consumer items: today’s workers have easy access to goods once considered the luxuries of monarchs. The World Bank calculates that the number of people in “extreme poverty” has declined from 1.85bn in 1990 to 767m in 2013, a figure that puts the regrettable stagnation of living standards for Western workers in perspective.

Marx’s greatest failure, however, was that he underestimated the power of reform—the ability of people to solve the evident problems of capitalism through rational discussion and compromise. He believed history was a chariot thundering to a predetermined end and that the best that the charioteers can do is hang on. Liberal reformers, including his near contemporary William Gladstone, have repeatedly proved him wrong. They have not only saved capitalism from itself by introducing far-reaching reforms but have done so through the power of persuasion. The “superstructure” has triumphed over the “base”, “parliamentary cretinism” over the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

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    Marx may not have anticipated these exact technological trends, but the Communist Manifesto pretty much covers it: The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalised, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labour, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level. Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 19:11
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    Well, at the time of Marx countries were industrial. Us is post-industrial, so, his predictions do not work.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 20:17
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    @rus9384: As a professor of mine once put it: "The thing Marx did not and could not foresee was the invention of the computer.", implying that without the rise of a "service industry" besides the productive industry - one which in parts is heavily reliant on "human capital" (read: individual skill and knowledge) - his theory would probably have become true.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 20:52
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    Wow, the first plot is one of the most misleading plots due to y-axis range choice I have seen so far. Also, see https://xkcd.com/2023/
    – koalo
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 8:52
  • Are you suggesting workers are not exploited when the labour share goes up?
    – luchonacho
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 15:21

Workers however have a choice in who they work for how much they earn so how can it be called exploitation?

Because the choice is meaningless.

Ironically, a good example of a meaningless choice are elections in the former communist countries. On paper, you had a choice of parties that you could pick from. On paper, they even had different policies and ideas. In practice, they would all form an electoral block and they would all subscribe to the basic principles of communism (a condition for being allowed to exist as a political party at all). So no matter what you voted for, you would end up with the same result. And anyone the primary communist party would get 99% of the votes so changing your vote, even convincing all your friends and neighbours, would not change anything.

The choice of employers is likewise meaningless if the exploitation of workers is not part of an individuals style of doing business, but of the system that they all belong to. Under Marxist theory, exploitation of workers is not the result of one evil boss, but of a system that rewards such behaviour. For example, a company that does not exploit its workers would be outcompeted by a company that does. We can actually see this happening in the real world, whenever a company is in trouble you are guaranteed to see discussions about reducing personnel costs. In the specific situation this is usually done by reducing the number of workers, but in the long run it is accomplished by paying as little wages as the labor market lets you get away with.

workers are being exploited for their labor and not receiving the full value of their labor.

From the above it follows that under the condition that employers can pressure workers to work for a salary that does not express the full value of their work, they will.

And according to Marxist theory, they can, because they hold the means of production. In the real world, unemployment appears to be the more immediate factor. At least in the countries I have seen up close, it is high unemployment that leads to lower salaries, reductions in workers rights, cuts into pensions and health care, etc.

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    The claim made about elections in communist countries being ineffective is baseless, and as it is presented, it erroneously implies this is never the case in capitalist countries. This is not a question about failed democracies.
    – Bigger
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 7:51
  • That is a different discussion. At least at a glance, elections that are always won by the same party with 90+ % seem meaningless.
    – Tom
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 15:19
  • @Tom: Despite political pretentions and common American labels, there has never been a communist country in Marx' sense (and it is questionable whether there CAN be such a thing since it is about an economic system with direct democracy that runs contrary to human psychology), so this argument is completely beside the point and indeed about failed democracies being common in self-called "socialist" or "communist" dictatorships.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 14:28
  • This is a political discussion besides the point.
    – Tom
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 14:53

enter image description here

(source here)

The origin of the problem is the ownership of the means of production by the capitalist (together with a legal system that recognises such ownership via property rights and means of enforcing those rights like police, judges, etc).

It does not matter that a worker can choose or not. Exploitation exists in monopsonistic, oligopsonistic, and competitive labour markets. It even exists in markets where there are not enough workers to fill a vacancy. All that matters is that the workers do not own the capital they use to produce. It is the capitalist who has the de jure and de facto right to distribute the value produced by workers. He will do so in a way that maximises his profits, paying the least of wages possible, sufficient to keep workers alive (in the Ricardo/Marx version), or willing to work for him (the market wage, in the mainstream economics' terminology).

Because the core of the problem is the ownership of the means of production by one group of people and not another, Marx suggested that the solution is the common ownership of those means of production. This way, no group could exploit each other.

  • Downvoters, please explain negative vote. If you don't like Marx, then don't read this topic.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 7:54

Welfare states did not exist in the same way in 1800s when Marx lived.

Many of the current welfare states became welfare states after decades of social democratic politics. For example 12 or 14 hour work days (or even longer) were common in his days. And horrible working conditions. People died like flies in factories. It took like 100 years of political struggle (or something) to reduce it to 8 hour work day and laws which made employer liable for workplace damage and such things.

  • This does not answer the question.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 7:56
  • @luchonacho it explains why premises of question is wrong. Answering a question with faulty premises is not a good idea. Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 7:58
  • The question is perfectly answerable. There are a few good answer already.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 8:01
  • @luchonacho It is answerable, but it spreads misconceptions in those faulty premises so it does more harm than good even if it is answered. Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 8:04
  • Eduard Bernstein, a commentator and critic on Marxism, argued that the workers' conditions were improving and rights would gradually were won through discourse. He stated this ran contrary to Karl Marx's predictions, and this thus proved that Marxism had flaws. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eduard_Bernstein) Commented Jan 27, 2019 at 1:05

It is clear to me that a definition of what is meant by "exploitation" is required to give a plausible answer.

My definition of exploitation is:

Being paid less than what I think my labor is currently worth.

With this definition, it is clear that "exploitation" has nothing to do with having a "choice of working boss." If my current boss is paying me less than what I think my labor is worth, I will feel exploited.

Also, not providing a safe and healthy working environment (to increase profits), would be another form of exploitation. Not providing rest breaks and sick time off, would be exploitation as well.

So, it should be clear that there are several forms of labor exploitation, independent of whether one has a choice of working boss - or not.

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    That is not the Marxist definition of exploitation. Marx's definition is objective, not subjective. Even if you think you are not being exploited, you are, as long as the firm is making profits not paid back to workers.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 7:55
  • @luchonacho But the determination of whether the firm is making profits, and whether those profits are not subsequently paid back to works, is itself inherently subjective, thus making Marx's definition subjective, not objective. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 14:51
  • There is nothing subjective about profits. Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 22:33

The central thesis of exploitation and lack of freedom to choose one's employer centers on the fact that working conditions were fundamentally unfair.

Marxism is a deeply controversial paradigm and will provoke all manner of strong reactions from people; never forget that Karl Marx advocated for armed revolution, this, thus makes him controversial. Killing people is a very strong stance.

Eduard Bernstein, a commentator and critic on Marxism, argued that the workers' conditions were improving and rights would be gradually won through discourse. He stated this ran contrary to Karl Marx's predictions, and this thus proved that traditional Marxism had flaws.

Modern critics; belonging to the soft-left; cite the advent of universal healthcare, shorter working hours, even the appearance of smart phones, etc.; and the like, as evidence that Bernstein's claims had at least some merit.

The counter-arguments from the hard-left was that the environmental situation is worsening, statistics were being manipulated to show improvement in the workers' conditions, militiary powers were becoming more deeply entrenched; etc.

The soft-left claim that workers do indeed have some control over their choice of employer and would gain even more control over time from the social democratic movement. The hard-left dispute the previous sentence, to varying degrees.



Because in Marxist theory, things like factories, machinery, infrastructure just grows out of the ground like trees or falls from the sky like rain. According to Marx, you, the worker, are exploited because the "capitalists" (the business owners) are paying you less than what they make from your labour. The problem with this is that it completely ignores that the "capitalists" are the ones who shell out the money for the material assets that the company needs to come into existence, and with that, they take a huge risk of loosing that money (The vast majority of businesses that are started end up failing). It also ignores the fact, that even if you have the money on hand, starting and running a company is a LOT of work in and of itself. The money that capitalists take as their cut, goes in part to fund the further existence and operation of the company, and in part as their own "salary": to recoup the money they invested and, when that's done, to turn a profit, as in, to actually get something out of the whole ordeal of coming up with the cash, taking a huge risk in investing it and doing the work needed to start and run the company. Marx ignores all of this.

  • I would really like to know the reason for the downvotes.
    – joecro
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 13:24
  • I don't down-vote, so it wasn't me, but I suspect the last sentence may have annoyed some people. The only reason I am reading it is because it somehow appears in the review queue for low quality answers. I will edit that last sentence out. You may roll that back if you want or continue editing. I recommend to strengthen your answer to add references to Marxist theory that justifies your position. For example, if you say "according to Marx", where in Marx's writings does he claim that. I am not saying you are wrong, just suggesting a way to strengthen your answer. Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 14:38
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    -1: It's also a hell of a lot of work to look after and educate those capitalists when they are children; to create a stable political system which allows them to prosper; to bail them out when they f*** up and to massage their egos with a whole cultural climate that tells them how wonderful they are. No-one is saying that organising and administering a modern day isn't heavy work - the question is the level of compensation they think they are worth compared to everybody else. Because they seem to think they are worth almost the entire earth. Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 21:37
  • the words "stable" and "prosper" is not what one would associate with marxism if one looks at history. government bailouts are a socialist thing and i don't see where do we have a "cultural climate that tells them how wonderful they are" or what that would ahve to do with the question. And for compensation: you are confusing CEO-s with business owners and shareholders (the capitalists). Even then, there are a lot fewer people able to run a company, than say, people who can do basic admin work. The work they do also provides more value so yes, the fair thing is pay them more.
    – joecro
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 10:31
  • now, i agree that the compensation of c-level management in the US is way higher than what would make sense, but if the business owners/share holders are willing to p*ss away that money, it's their decision. if they take it too far, they will go out of business. well,unless there's a government with socialist policies that will bail them out.
    – joecro
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 10:34

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