A Glossary of Terms for Understanding Women’s Exploitation

by Comrade Stella

This glossary was specifically developed as an accompaniment to Comrade Stella’s theoretical contributions, The Super-Exploitation of Women and Developing a Revolutionary Mass Line (Part I) and Women and Super-Exploitation:  An Illustration Through Basic Marxist Economics, which have been put forward to stimulate discussion within and overcome the undertheorization of women’s liberation in our organization and take us towards a correct revolutionary mass line for women’s liberation. However, clearly this glossary has general use beyond the question of women’s liberation.

-R.I. Editorial Note

Base: Economic structure of society equated with the mode of production.

Mode of production: The totality of the forces and the relations of production. The mode of production is the economic base of society “which determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual (ideological) processes of life” (Marx). Marx stated that … “history exists as a succession of modes of production” from primitive communism to feudalism, to capitalism, and through class struggle, finally to communism.

Forces of production: Consist of all of the elements necessary to generate wealth in society; under the capitalist mode of production, the forces of production are what are necessary to produce profits (or surplus value):

a. Labour Power: the working class who must sell their labour power to survive

b. Means of Production: capital assets, machinery, tools, factories, land, etc.

Relations of production: Relations of production are “the way people are formally and informally associated within the economic sphere of production, including as social classes” (Wikipedia). Under capitalism the relations of production refers to the relationship between the bourgeoisie who own the means of production and the workers who must sell their labour power.

Marx defined two forms of the social relations of production:

  1. Relations of exploitation: a) slavery, b) servitude, and c) capitalist relationships; this is a very important point! Exploitation is a relationship! Where workers are exploited, the bourgeoisie prosper!
  2. Relations of reciprocal collaboration: relationships developing under socialism and realized under the communist mode of production characterized by the lack of domination and exploitation.

Social production: refers to production of commodities by labour power, which is social production in that it requires the working class sell their labour and produce commodities for the capitalists to get rich. Social production is very different from the type of individual reproductive labour that happens in individual homes and for free in the community.

Commodities: socially produced for the purpose of exchange for other commodities or for money, and as such have an ‘exchange value’; as opposed to goods, which are produced for personal consumption and have only use value.

Exchange value: represents the economic value of a commodity realized through trade, either for other commodities or for money (price). Exchange value (or price) includes the total cost of production of the commodity plus an added surplus; it is through the exchange of commodities that capitalists gain the surplus value as profits. Exchange value can also take the form of building more capital to produce more commodities – therefor exchange of commodities on the market expands future capital and hence capitalism’s drive to ever expand markets and exchange (sell) more and more commodities.

Abstract labour power: the sum total of previous social labour power contained within a commodity for exchange.

Exploitation: The difference between the amount of wealth created by the labour of the working class and the amount returned to them in the form of wages. All workers are exploited to some degree, some far more than others (see super-exploitation). Capitalism divides people into classes, and exploitation results from the unequal social relations of exploitation between the bourgeoisie and the working class. The more workers are exploited, the more profits for the capitalists!

Variable capital: the cost of paying workers, i.e. wages. What is a ‘fair wage’ or a ‘living wage’ under capitalism? The whole idea that capitalists can live off of the sweat and blood of the working class is injustice.

Constant capital: the physical things needed for workers to produce commodities, including capital assets, land, raw materials, machines, tools, etc.

Surplus value: an additional sum of money added to the exchange value so that the capitalists earn profits. I.e. if it costs $2.00 of materials and $0.50 in wages to build a cell phone in a factory, and the factory owner gets $10 for each phone from the phone company, then the owner of that factory has a $7.50 surplus on each phone, which is more than the total cost of both the materials and the wages paid to the worker!

Use value: the non-economic value of goods; use-value refers to the aspect of goods that are useful for people, as opposed to profitable for capitalists. Goods that are produced for personal consumption and have no exchange value within the capitalist market only have use-value for people and no economic value for capitalism.

Interpersonal relations and production of use values: Interpersonal relations are intra-class relationships, usually between family or community members, where only use values are produced.

Super-exploitation: The concept of super-exploitation is a useful one to clarify that not all workers are exploited at the same rate. The super-exploitation of women occurs because women are exploited as workers within production, and in addition experience concealed exploitation in that we produce necessary goods and services for free (use-values). Super-exploitation isn’t just a rate of exploitation over and above the usual rate; super-exploitation occurs because a sizeable portion of women’s labour is not considered by capitalism to have any value at all (use-values), is not compensated in the form of wages, and is therefore concealed and not recognized as exploitation despite the fact that capitalism could not function without it.

Both national oppression and patriarchy work within capitalism to force groups of people into working for low wages or in slave-like conditions. As the Program Demand Groupi describes it: “exploitation takes the form of oppression of whole countries and the super-exploitation of colonial and female labor in an internationalization of a shadow economy comprised of cheap labor, slave labor, and “free” labor.

Superstructure: The state (politics), the institutions that determine the structure of our society (organization), and popular social consciousness (ideology). The superstructure is “the social organization evolving directly out of production and commerce, which in all ages forms the basis of the state and of the rest of the idealistic superstructure” (Marx & Engels); “The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life processes in general” (Marx).

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