Episode 45: Argumentation and Exploitation – Interview with Ben Burgis (Part 1)

Brendan and Andrew interview Ben Burgis, a philosophy instructor and popular leftist podcast host––about rational argument and logic, and about his theory of capitalist exploitation and its relation to Marx’s. In Part 1 of the interview, they begin by discussing Ben’s 2019 book, Give Them an Argument: Logic for the Left. Ben explains what the book is about and why he wrote it. He and the co-hosts then discuss the negative attitude toward rational argument that is prevalent in the “online left” subculture, as well as why they consider it important to defend reason, argument, and logic. The discussion then turns to Ben’s essay, “Marx’s Theory of Exploitation”––the co-hosts “give him an argument” and he responds. At issue is whether Ben’s theory of exploitation was Marx’s theory as well. In particular, did Marx agree that workers are the only people who have a right to the products they produce? (In Part 2, which will air in the near future, the exploitation debate turns to G. A. Cohen’s attempt to prove, by means of a “plain argument,” that workers are exploited––Andrew thinks the argument is just plain bad, while Ben endorses it––and to evaluations of the “plain argument” and Marx’s theory in its original form.)

In the discussion of property rights, the participants refer to Marx’s Capital (vol. 1, chap. 24) and
part 1 of his Critique of the Gotha Program.

The episode’s current-event segment focuses on a recent article (and a slightly revised version being promoted by Monthly Review) in which Vincente Navarro tries to rescue the discredited claim that Trumpism is a working-class revolt against neoliberalism and suggests that Trumpism remains a threat because Democrats refuse to embrace economic populism.

Radio Free Humanity is a podcast covering news, politics and philosophy from a Marxist-Humanist perspective. It is co-hosted by Brendan Cooney and Andrew Kliman. We intend to release new episodes every two weeks. Radio Free Humanity is sponsored by MHI, but the views expressed by the co-hosts and guests of Radio Free Humanity are their own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and positions of MHI.

We welcome and encourage listeners’ comments, posted on this episode’s page.

Please visit MHI’s online print publication, With Sober Senses, for further news, commentary, and analysis.

Click here for more episodes.

June 11, 2021


  1. Respectfully, I must suggest you’re all misreading Marx on exploitation. The term ‘exploitation’ is *never* so much as uttered until Chapter 9 of Capital Vol I, where Marx refers to the formula for surplus value (AKA rate of surplus value), and the formula for exploitation (AKA rate of exploitation). Note these are not the same formula or rates. Although they seemingly measure the same thing, they do it with different elements. E.g., the formula for surplus value measures the difference between variable capital and value produced, and most people mistakenly think that’s the theory of exploitation (like Burgis and the hosts). Marx explicitly say it’s not – not only in that chapter but also throughout the 61-63 notebooks. Instead, exploitation refers to *time*, which is what’s captured in the ‘rate of exploitation’ formula. It’s the distinction between necessary and unnecessary labor time. Hence all work done past the point of necessity (be it 1 hour or 8) is exploitative. The formula for surplus value does not tell us how much time is spent producing capital/being exploited, it only tells us the percentage difference between value and surplus value. One could have a rate of surplus value extraction of 1000%, with a 1 hour shift, or a 10 hour one. But the 10 hour shift is presumably the more exploitative one Hence Marx believes value analysis is a poor formula for measuring exploitation. Note too that capital, not capitalist are what exploits here, since unnecessary labor is done in the service of capital (in all its manifestations).

    But everyone seems to have missed this. Cohen, Burgis, Kliman, Lenin, Harvey, etc etc etc. But it’s all right there in Marx, just read closely.

    • Hi Chris,

      I agree that, according to Marx’s primary definition of the rate of exploitation, it is a ratio between amounts of labor-time (surplus labor / necessary labor). And I agree that the rate of exploitation, as well as the rate of surplus-value, are measures of the relative degree of exploitation, not the absolute amount (as Marx points out in note 7 of chap. 9).

      (I also agree that the term exploitation doesn’t appear until chap. 9 of vol. 1 of Capital, but that’s neither here nor there, since the origin of profit isn’t explained until the latter half of chap. 7. In the Penguin ed., the concept “degree of exploitation” is introduced just 19 pages after the origin of profit is first explained.)

      But I DON’T agree that I am “misreading Marx on exploitation.” The rate of surplus value and the rate of exploitation don’t just “seemingly” measure the same thing. They actually measure the same thing. Here’s some evidence:

      1. In chap. 9 (p. 326 of Penguin ed.), Marx writes, “the rate of surplus-value, s/v = surplus labour / necessary labour.”

      2. He then says that “both ratios, s/v and surplus labour / necessary labour, express the same thing in different ways.”

      3. On same page, he writes, “The rate of surplus-value is therefore an exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power by capital, or of the worker by the capitalist.” (Note that this sentence contradicts your claim that “capital, not capitalist are what exploits here.”)

      4. In note 7 on the same page, he repeats, “the rate of surplus-value is an exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power.”

      5. At the start of chap. 18, Marx provides three formulas, two of which are s/v and Surplus labour / Necessary labour. The formulas are joined by equals signs.

      6. He says that they are “mutually replaceable formulae,” and he refers to all three as “rigorously definite and correct.”

      Also, although you’re right that “The formula for surplus value does not tell us how much time is spent producing capital/being exploited, … One could have a rate of surplus value extraction of 1000%, with a 1 hour shift, or a 10 hour one,” this doesn’t mean that “value analysis is a poor formula for measuring exploitation,” much less that “Marx believes value analysis is a poor formula for measuring exploitation” (a claim for which you provide no evidence). The issue is simply that relative measures (rates, etc.) tell us nothing about absolute amounts. This has nothing at all to do with value analysis vs. labor-time analysis. After all, one could also have surplus labour / necessary labour = 1000% with a 1 hour shift, or a 10 hour one. Neither s/v nor surplus labour / necessary labour tell us how much surplus labor is performed (and neither of them tell us how much surplus-value is created).

      I do think it’s important to keep the relation between value and labor-time magnitudes front and center. (E.g., when discussing the magnitude of surplus-value (profit) or the rate of surplus-value, it’s important to make crystal clear that the sole source of surplus-value is extraction of surplus labor.) I think I did so in the podcast ep., when I summarized Marx’s theory of exploitation:

      “Marx’s argument about exploitation is valid. On the basis of a few premises, especially that living labor is the sole source of new value added and that capitalists pay for workers’ labor-power, not their actual labor, Marx’s argument as to why workers are exploited goes through very easily. Given his premises, he proves his conclusion. The amount of new value created by––and only by––the workers’ living labor is greater than the amount of value they receive by selling their labor-power; the capitalists appropriate the remainder of the new value, without paying them any equivalent. Hence the workers are exploited. In other words, they contribute more value to production than they receive in return.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.