What is Net-Exploitation?

The term “net-exploitation” refers to the manner in which high-wage workers benefit through exchange with low wage workers.

At minimum, net-exploitation happens when a given wage exceeds the value of labor, i.e., when the wage derived from a given hour’s worth of labor can purchase on the market more than the socially average product of an hour’s labor.

To illustrate this, I want to offer first a hypothetical anecdote and then a further construction.

Earlier this week, I went into H&M, a popular urban retail clothing store in the heart of empire, and purchased a plain t-shirt for around $6 and a pair of plain shoes for around $24. If my wage is about $10 an hour, and if everything was being paid at its full value (what I purchased, and the labor from which I drew a wage), I would expect the t-shirt and shoes to embody three hours of labor.  From spinning the threads, to drawing together the shirt and shoes, shipping them to the US, displaying them at the retail outlet, the few seconds the cashier spent interacting with me, and the managing aspects of all of this. That might be the case. But if so, I am not exploited because the wages from three hours of my labor can purchase three hours of labor on the market. I’m breaking even. If there is exploitation happening in this system, it is not occurring directly at my expense. A more likely scenario is that the t-shirt and shoes represent more than three hours of labor, part of which is conducted by Third World workers under slave-like conditions for near subsistence wages. If, for example, the t-shirt and shoes embody four hours of labor, then I am a net-exploiter because my wages enable me to get more labor on the market for less than I expend myself.

Let’s look at it another way.

Let’s say I get paid ten dollars an hour and a Third World worker gets paid five dollars. After an hour of us each working (assuming no other intervention of exploitation), the product of both of our labor is valued at $15, or stated abstractly as $7.50 an hour. When I work three hours in this situation, I receive $30 in wages or the equivalent of four hours of abstract labor. However, for the Third World worker to purchase a set of commodities whose value is also four hours of abstract labor, they would need to work six hours.  In essence, an unequal exchange is occurring through pricing. Whereas commodities other than labor are bought and sold on the open market at an average or abstract rate, labor itself is valued differently, allowing the better paid worker, myself in this situation, to benefit at the expense of a hypothetical Third World worker.

Obviously the world is more complex than this. Not everyone is either a First World or Third World worker, and various exploiting classes exist which skim surplus value. As well, this fairly straightforward model does not presuppose an underlying logic, function, or manner of maintenance of this unequal exchange. These are topics which have been covered elsewhere not only by myself but by a wide variety of authors.

My hope in making the above demonstration is to illustrate clearly and in the most succinct and accessible terms what is meant by net-exploitation. Understanding that First World workers are themselves net-exploiters is not only relevant but fundamental for understanding the central dynamics shaping the world. For those who desire revolutionary change, firmly acknowledging the existence of net-exploitation via imperialism is a basic question of determining which classes and social forces can be lined up for revolution and which can only oppose and obstruct it.

- Nikolai Brown