Exploitation: Towards a Positive Critical Theory of Corporate Responsibility

The question remains, is it possible to provide a positive theory of corporate responsibility on the basis of the critique directed at shallow notions of corporate responsibility? And, is it appropriate to ask for a positive theory considering that the diagnosis of the systemic problems in political economy calls for more radical change? The founding father of critical theory, Theodor W. Adorno, is famous for saying that it is a bourgeois prejudice to demand positive alternatives to critique (Jones et al. 2005, 110). Hence, the structure of the global capitalist system must be dismantled first before any viable alternatives can be fully considered. This is, of course, a fairly radical view, and I think it is problematic for a number of reasons. It does block the road of inquiry to finding alternatives to systemic problems, of which corporations, especially the bigmultinationals, are a part. But more troubling is that normativity tends to be considered with suspicion in much of CMS and critical business studies. This makes it difficult to clarify, beyond the obvious, what makes, for instance, exploitation morally wrong. The critics all agree that exploitation is massive and permeates the entire capitalist system, and that it is an obvious wrong. But are all aspects of “taking advantage” of another to be considered exploitation, or are there clear criteria of when exploitation is wrong and not just circumstantial?

In this section, I will assess understandings of exploitation suggested in the literature of mainly analytical Marxism, to clarify what makes exploitation wrong. Moreover, what can be derived from such clarification to inform a theory of corporate responsibility (besides the obvious critique already mentioned)? Even though it might be possible to reach a fair understanding of exploitation, it is not a given that it can be of any use to a theory of corporate responsibility.

First, the standard definition of exploitation is that “A exploits B when A takes unfair advantage of B” (Snyder 2010, 188). However, the classical Marxist definition is not so general as it situates exploitation of the worker in the context of capitalist production. Here, according to the labour value theory, the worker is the source of value creation, which in the Marxist account, is called surplus value, or profits. The worker is exploited because he or she is not getting a wage that is equivalent to the value of the work in return for the work done. Hence, the worker is working part time for free, which is a theft of the worker’s labour (Cohen 1995, 197). Now, if the worker could simply choose to leave this job to pursue another one that paid the equivalent of the work contributed to the production, there would be less of a problem. At least, to Marx, the fact that there is no other job to get makes it a forced choice to work and be exploited; the worker did not voluntarily enter the contract. Capitalism also manages to keep unemployment sufficiently high to sustain a reserve army of unemployed so that wages are kept at a minimum and the threat of being fired is daunting (Kymlicka 2002, 177-178). Hence, the Marxist account of exploitation makes wage labour wrong, and it is therefore impossible to defend the capitalist private firm as it relies on hiring workers. Subsequently, this spills over to why it is a non-starter, in the Marxist account, to take the notion of corporate responsibility seriously. However, it has been argued that the concept of exploitation should not be seen only in the rather limited context of the Marxist labour theory of value (Zwolinski & Wertheimer 2017). Exploitation also has meaning in the non-labour contexts of everyday life (Wolff 1999, 110). And, the labour value theory has difficulty in accounting for why the value of products is often independent of work as, for instance, the value of land shows.

In the broader understanding of exploitation, the distinction between micro-level transactional and macro-level structural exploitation can be made (ibid.). When a firm is relying on exploiting workers in the supply chain, this can be an example of transactional exploitation because the

Debunking Corporate Responsibility 137 firm is the direct cause. However, if one considers the supply chain to be an aspect of the global capitalist system, the exploitation can be seen as structural. As consumers, we are all unwillingly, and often even more unknowingly, part of global value chains that are exploitative in nature (Young 2006). The problem shows that the background conditions of exploitation have significance, which points to the difference between exploitation with regard to fairness in distribution or access to the means of production in capitalism. The structural version of exploitation considers access to control over and ownership of the means of production. Hence, even if workers are paid the fair equivalent of the work they put into the production, they might still suffer from a lack of access to the means of production.

Moreover, exploitation can be seen as wrong because it infringes upon norms of justice, equality, fairness, or respect for the person. Various moral theories could, in principle, explain the wrong-making property of exploitation (Wolff 1999, 112). The obvious candidate is Kantian duty ethics’ formulation of the Categorical Imperative, which would say that to exploit people is to treat them as a means to an end and not as an end in themselves (ibid.). However, other possibilities are open, although less intuitive. For instance, Rawlsian social justice theory would predict that if an exchange of work and wages resulted in not being of benefit to the worse-off, it would be exploitative.

Now, to return to the context of corporate responsibility, what can be derived from this sketch of exploitation theory? First, as mentioned, if accepting that wage labour is inherently exploitative by definition, it will debunk corporate responsibility because firms rely on wage labour. With regard to workers then, the more relevant question, if accepting that wage labour is not inherently exploitative, is what terms of labour are acceptable and explicitly non-exploitative? Given that the background conditions of society are not excessively unfair, responsible corporations should pay a wage that makes a decent standard of living possible. And, they should comply with basic labour rights and human rights as well. However, as Jonathan Wolff points out, it might not be so simple to escape exploitation because Marx’s insight into the essence of capitalism as mutual exploitation tells us about the degrading aspect of being forced to trade on those terms (ibid. 119-120).

So, to unpack the content of corporate responsibility designed to avoid or minimize the exploitation of workers, the salient and much-debated case of the sweatshop is discussed in the next chapter on responsibility in the supply chain.


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