The Sociology of Exploitation. Chapter One: Possibilities, by Comandante Pablo Contreras (Pablo González Casanova), excerpt. Part I.
The Sociology of Exploitation (1969), by Comandante Pablo Contreras
Mexico, April 2006. Prologue available here.
Henri Denis, one decade ago, defined political economy as "an investigation which, through abstractions, studies the profound nature of economic systems, and the essential laws of development."
On the contrary, he thought that "economic sociology is a systematic comparative study of concrete facts that relate to the life of humans." It was rare, at that time, for a Marxist to attach scientific importance to sociology.
Denis's case was rather exceptional. Most considered sociology to be a mere bourgeois ideology, or stressed the schematic character of sociological techniques and the "grave consequences" that the use of statistical laws could bring.
This was the case even among such open and fine thinkers as Gramsci, who, alongside the usefulness of "philology" for the precision of particular facts, recognized the "practical usefulness of identifying certain laws of more general tendency, which correspond in politics to the laws of statistics and of large numbers". But he considered sociology to be the philosophy of non-philosophers.
Today, not only has the term been accepted, but many of its characteristic techniques are increasingly used in scientific circles. Peculiarly, the use of these techniques has been coupled, in the socialist countries themselves, with a problematic often similar to that of empiricist sociology, while the classical problems of Marxism continue to be the object of a study employing the techniques, also classical, of philology, history, and politics for a “systematic analysis” of particular facts.
In any case, the possibility of there being a "sociology of exploitation" is today less likely to be viewed with skepticism by sociologists in socialist countries than by those Marxists more careful to maintain the technical traditions of the school, and the original problems of Marxism.
On the opposite terrain, that of empiricist sociology, reservations about the possibility of a sociology of exploitation would be exactly the opposite of the above. If for most orthodox Marxists what is unscientific is sociology, for most empiricists what is unscientific is the notion of exploitation.
The doubts of empiricist sociologists, as it is easy to suppose, would revolve around the assumption that the category of exploitation is intimately linked to value judgments, to moral concepts, which in their view take us out of the positive world and the empirical terrain, characteristic of science.
Marx's words, to the effect that he had not considered capitalists and owners as persons, but as "personifications of economic categories", and that he "could not hold the individual responsible for the existence of relations of which he is socially the creature, even if subjectively he considers himself above them" proved, as was to be expected, insufficient to put an end to positivist skepticism, in its various manifestations.
It is true that the classical authors left evidence of their interest in field techniques and in mathematical and statistical studies. Suffice it to recall The Situation of the Working Class in England, by the young Engels, the mathematical formalization of Capital, or the abundant use of available statistics made by Lenin in The Development of Capitalism in Russia.
Regardless, both for reasons of ideological struggle against positivism and naturalistic empiricism, as well as for Marxism's own forms of intellectual and ideological work, the techniques of field research and statistical analysis took a secondary place to historical, philological, and dialectical abstraction techniques. Subsequently, they were not developed for the analysis of the classical problems of Marxism - for the study of classes, exploitation, political crises.
The most significant works in the field corresponded to militant research; those of professors and academics followed the traditional methods of history and philology, and with respect to quantitative analysis it was oriented above all to the problems of socialist planning.
The problem of the possibility of a sociology of exploitation thus arises on two fronts. However, if the best way to demonstrate to traditional and academic Marxists the usefulness of the study lies in the validity and congruence of the theoretical model presented to them, in the case of empiricist and neoliberal sociologists it seems necessary first of all to invalidate the objections that lead them to reject the very idea of a rigorous scientific study of exploitation.
Thus, before posing the problem of a sociology of exploitation, it may be appropriate to analyze other analogous concepts, which are used by empiricist sociology and neoliberal economics, and which are directly related to values. Certainly the skepticism of the empiricists will not end with pure reasoning; but perhaps showing in their own language some of the most significant inconsistencies they incur may contribute to their considering the theoretical framework of a sociology of exploitation as a set of relatively viable hypotheses. Their disciples will undoubtedly be more sensitive to the reasoning.
Inequality, Dissymmetry, Development
In the best liberal and empiricist scientific tradition, the concepts of inequality, dissymmetry and development are handled with technical language and sophisticated methods.
The study of these concepts is not only useful to highlight their links to a value system, it is also useful to note the differences that these values have with respect to those characteristic features of the concept of exploitation. If the first objective can once again show empiricist sociologists that all scientific investigation of man is linked to values, including that which they practice, the second can justify the specific study of the phenomenon of exploitation, insofar as it has distinct characteristics.
The measurement of inequality is inconceivable without historical background not only of the market society but of the French Revolution and the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Ideas of necessary inequality reject the measurement of inequality: Aristotle's slave as "non-human being"; Spencer's "exceptional individuals as a force of history"; Nietzsche's "necessary supermen" are not a particularly vigorous stimulus for analyzing as well as measuring social inequalities; quite the contrary. And if they are sometimes measured, the metric seeks automatic support in biological variables.
When inequalities are measured as a purely social phenomenon, they are inextricably linked to the value of equality, to the rejection of social inequality as a consequence of "sin," to the "denunciation of extreme inequalities" by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, and to the idea that the "social fact" can and must change in a sense: of greater equality or less inequality, through certain procedures such as Condorcet's "equal education for all"; Marshall's "community of goods"; the Elizabethan paternalism of the "poor laws", Mill's "growth of the middle classes".
The measurement of inequality is not a purely scientific and value-free phenomenon; sometimes it takes on obviously ideological forms that appear in the Pareto coefficient and in different types of analytical graphs; but even when the formulas that most faithfully express inequality are used, such as the Gini index or the Schutz coefficient, at the base of their application lies "the central dogma of a new political and social order" to which Tocqueville referred, speaking of the capitalist society of his time. And this dogma will subsist in the midst of the inequalities of capitalist society. Irrationalism, fascism and racial or colonial prejudice will not succeed in doing away with it as a value, nor with the empiricist analysis of inequalities.
II. The measurement of asymmetries alludes immediately to symmetrical frequency curves, in particular to those called "normal" or close to normal in which the mean value is predominant. The concept of asymmetry thus implies a notion of inequality, especially if we consider that most of the curves of social phenomena are "rightward", thus indicating the predominance in the population of the lowest values: income, wages, etc.
But asymmetries also allude to a type of relationship, which is a feature of nominal scales. By symmetry we mean in nonparametric statistics (and in logic) that the relation that exists between a phenomenon x and another y implies a relation between y and x for all x and all y. In other words, it implies the notion of equality in the sense that if y belongs to the same "class" as x it is said that x belongs to the same class as y. Symmetric: x = y ∴ y = x 8. In any case the term encloses the idea of relation and when this relation is asymmetric it means that the relation existing between x and y is "greater than" or "better than" the relation existing between y and x, -property of ordinal scales.
Also in logic and algebra, symmetry and asymmetry refer to dyad relations in that "a symmetric relation is a relation such that if one individual has that relation with another individual, then the second individual must have that same relation with the first... On the other hand, an asymmetric relation is one in which if an individual has a relation with another individual, then the second individual cannot have that same relation with the first... ".
Thus if a R b implies b R a the relation is symmetric and if a R b excludes b R a the relation is asymmetric.
This concept of relation is more rigorous in that it is not limited to the classification of isolated individuals in the same category or in higher or lower categories (corresponding to the nominal or ordinal scales used by the most common empiricist sociology), but in that it "indicates possible pairs a, b such that given two sets A and B, a subset R of AxB, that is a set R of pairs (a,b), a ∈ A, b ∈ B, is called relation of A to B. It is written a R b if the pair (a,b) belongs to R, i.e. if (a,b) ∈ R".
Symmetric or asymmetric relations are thus true relations of sets of pairs.
Often when dissymmetric relations are highlighted, they are said to be irreversible, or irreversibility is mentioned as a further feature of the phenomenon. Now, in a functional sense, a relation of the type y = f (x) is said to be irreversible if the inverse function x = f (y) does not exist. The function is only reversible in a causal sense if it can be interpreted by taking x as cause and y as effect or vice versa. If only x is cause and y is only effect the function is causally irreversible.
In this field it is necessary to distinguish the symmetry that reflects an interaction or "co-causality" from the symmetry that is a mere mathematical manipulation that can predict x by y, notwithstanding that in the historical or social reality x is the cause or the factor that determines y.
The estimation or prediction of x by y, however, is the cause or the factor that determines y in the historical or social reality. The estimation or prediction of x by y assumes a perfectly legitimate symbolic or mathematical symmetry, but it does not correspond to a causal analysis in which x -the dependent variable of the estimation- is a dependent variable in causal terms.
In any case, in the social sciences, both asymmetric -or dissymmetric- and irreversible relationships point to a notion of power or political "influence", to a "dominant factor" in which one element of the proposition has a greater or better relationship with the other, or in which what one element x can do to another element y, the latter cannot do to the former; or in other words, that what y does under compulsion of x, x cannot possibly do under compulsion of y.
It is evident that all these propositions and measurements of human behavior allude to a value –freedom–, perhaps more important than that of equality in order to understand not only the social foundation of statistical and sociological analysis, its social, ideological and structural bases, but also some scientific limitations of empiricist research, related to individualism and to market society itself.
It is difficult to say to what extent the actual dogma to which Tocqueville was addressing when he studied the birth of capitalist society was not equality but freedom.
What can be said is that among the most representative philosophers and researchers of classical bourgeois thought, it is not egalitarianism but liberalism that is the most significant characteristic, and the most deeply rooted current of values.
From freedom of conscience to the theory of laissez-faire, with its more specific manifestations ranging from freedom of thought, freedom of expression, political freedom, to the theoretical formulations of the human person, associated with "market freedom", "free competition", "freedom of the individual entrepreneur", "freedom of the individual worker", the idea of formal freedom and the value it implies dominate the thinking of the philosophers and researchers of the nascent capitalist society.
That they postulate that natural laws correspond to their scale of moral values, does not prevent them from making value judgments, destined to do away with the dogmatic limitations to freedom of conscience, or with those that the pre-capitalist state imposed on the entrepreneur and the citizen, or with those that the estates and guilds imposed on men.
Moreover, the idea of freedom is at the basis of the vast majority of liberal struggles against the increase of functions of the capitalist state, against the growth of workers' associations and monopolies, all of them asymmetrical and irreversible relations, object of struggle and analysis.
And the analysis is influenced by the very configuration of freedom as an individual value, the struggle to give rights to the individual independently of the group to which she belongs, which make the individual, separated from the group, the unit of data prevailing until today in empiricist sociology, and society, an aggregate of individuals, which brings with it a host of problems in the measurement and analysis of phenomena, and in the attempt to explain the so-called "collective measures".
Now, it is evident that asymmetry, as a property of ordinal scales or as a function, is different from inequality as a distribution or dispersion, and that it is also different insofar as the former points to an internal, direct relationship and the latter does not.
Dissymmetry and irreversibility point to the relations of the citizen with the State, of one citizen with others, of one businessman with another, of the worker and his employer; or to relations between aggregates of citizens, businessmen, workers, or between States, conceived as aggregates of the former. On this point it may be worthwhile to dwell.
In classical liberalism, the problem of the freedom of nations does not arise.
It is rather the German school, opposed to liberalism, which corresponds to the currents of economic nationalism, the one dealing with the subject. In liberalism the "freedom of exchange between nations" is postulated as a function of individual freedom, or referring to individual profit of the entrepreneur and the worker.
While in the Greek tradition freedom meant freedom of the City-State against its enemies -against their domination or attack- and, the possibility of the City-State to realize itself, through the unhindered participation of its citizens in public life, in classical liberalism all notion of freedom is associated with the isolated or aggregated individual.
The idea that free exchange among nations will affect the freedom of poor and backward nations does not even arise among the liberals of the time who lived in Latin America and other underdeveloped regions. It was not until the end of the 19th century and especially in the 20th century that critical liberalism and its heirs, particularly Hobson in England and later Perroux in France, or Hirschman in the United States, raised the problem of dissymmetrical relations between nations.
In any case, both in terms of the phenomenon in question and its analytical characteristics, inequality and asymmetry are quite different.
Inequality is linked to the idea of wealth, consumerism and participation, which are analyzed in individuals -or nations- as attributes or variables, in their distributions and correlations.
Asymmetry is linked to the idea of power and domination; it is analyzed indirectly as pre-dominance or dependence, as monopolization of the economy, power, culture of one nation by another; or directly as economic, political and psychological influence that humans or nations with power, wealth and prestige exert on those who lack them or have them to a lesser degree. In this last form of analysis we study the acts, or sequences and confluences of acts, in which asymmetry and irreversibility appear, with analysis of experimental or para-experimental groups.
Thus the need to consider the "dyads" of individuals or nations becomes urgent, and the difference between inequality and asymmetry is more evident, because while the former measures the characteristics presented by isolated individuals or groups, the latter implies the recording and measuring of the concrete relationship between two (or more) individuals or groups. But if the two concepts are different, they are similar in that both point to values, they imply values, which in the background have all the structures of dissymmetry and inequality.
III. The concept of economic development - in any of its liberal and empiricist definitions - is intimately linked to the idea of a movement in "a desired direction", of a continuous change "towards something better". And this is also the characteristic of an older concept, that of Progress, which although it has antecedents from Lucian -as technical progress-, or from St. Augustine, as progress in human industry, allowing the cumulative improvement of "house and clothing", it finds its true origin in the Enlightenment and in capitalist society.
The cyclical notion of history that characterized Greek thought – we all lived before and also after Troy – is well-known, and denies the notion of progress; or, what about the lack of "hope" of the barbarian peoples referred to by St. Paul, who consider that life holds for them only what it has always held for them: and that there is nothing else – and that it is not progress? Or the hope in salvation, in the afterlife of Christianity, which is not earthly progress; or the Jewish notions of the "New Jerusalem" and the Kingdom of G-d on Earth, which imply the notion of struggle and apocalypse, of "destruction of order", and are more closely related to the concept of revolution, than to that of a continuous and peaceful movement or change towards something better, characteristic of the concept of Progress.
The idea of Progress in capitalist society is different from the historical vision of the Greeks (cyclical), from the Hebraic or Christian (revolutionary and apocalyptic); or from the medieval Christian, eschatological and ultra-terrestrial.
The idea of Progress within liberalism refers, on the contrary, to a cumulative, inevitable improvement, which "only a catastrophe can prevent" (Condorcet); "which is a perpetual going-beyond and, which at the same time, is a perpetual conservation" - as Croce says referring to German romanticism -, and which corresponds to a stage of human history, which begins with the birth of the bourgeois world and is directed towards greater wealth and greater equality.
The idea of Progress in the Modern Age corresponds to "the ascending line of scientific and technological development" (Mannheim), which is extrapolated to the rest of society, and to economic, political and cultural values.
The application to social phenomena of the equation of the type Y = a + bX, in which X is the independent variable, Y the value of the trend of the dependent variable; a and b the constants that do not change once their mathematical values are determined, is inconceivable without the substratum of the moral values of progress.
The same is true in the dynamic analysis of the measures of inequality, from the mean deviation to the Gini index, which, when applied to the subset of metropolitan countries, show a growing progress in distribution, from which it is inferred, in ways lacking any mathematical rigor, that the distributive process will be similar in the universal set.
Finally, the measurement of mobility and mobilization by means of the most diverse indexes and scales constitutes the mathematical expression of an idea that assumes the combination of values such as freedom, equality and progress, considered as characteristic phenomena of the individual who progresses, participates, becomes equal and freer.
Undoubtedly, the concept of development highlights a phenomenon different from the concept of dissymmetry and inequality, by framing them in a semi-dynamic time, in which constants do not change once their values are determined; in which it is postulated that b is greater than zero, in which it is thought that inequalities tend to diminish and dissymmetries to disappear. All these analyses contain in their basis the extraordinary scientific and technological development that occurs in some regions of the world during the capitalist period; but both the valid analyses and the illegitimate extrapolations are based on moral and political values.
The limitation in the validity of the analysis is perceived when the equation fails to adjust a more complex reality, when the universe –social or historical– is stratified and other curves appear, when one notices that generalizations about progress, equality, expanding freedom, are based on biased or predisposed samples, not representative of the universe to which they refer, and that neither the probabilistic precautions used for this type of inference, nor even the minimum precaution of replication techniques, are taken.
But even supposing that all the precautions advised by the development of the social sciences were taken, the most rigorous and "sophisticated" study of any "hypothesis of generalization" on the distributions, asymmetries, and linear tendencies of social phenomena presupposes the historical and gnoseological existence of the values of equality, freedom and progress and is always the technical and mathematical expression of these values.
What is more, social empiricism is not less scientific because it is related to moral values, or because it emphasizes the measurement of mathematical values, or because the measurement of values is precisely an expression or manipulation, with mathematical symbols, of the moral values it postulates, but because it covers a superficial area of discomfort, in the face of a reality –the social system– that is accepted as totally given, that is not postulated as historical, but only as susceptible to improvement, to changes aimed at attenuating, diminishing and even putting an end to the inequalities and dissymmetries that characterize it, always maintaining the social system as a natural system, without moral alternative or historical contextualization.
The lack of scientific rigor in empiricism comes from renouncing the study of its values and, paradoxically, consists in affirming that the social system is natural and that the values that deny the system are not natural.
Empiricism is thus less scientific and more ideological the more it renounces the scientific study of its own values, the more it relegates them to an extra-scientific order, assuming them only in part, only insofar as its analyses do not directly affect the system itself. As we have seen, it does not stop using values; it uses and analyzes them, but with limits, and its rationalization or ideology does not consist in the fact that it uses them, but rather that it does not analyze them fully, as historical and social phenomena, as qualitative or quantitative categories and symbols, inserted in a social system also susceptible to a scientific analysis, where it is natural that the system is historical, that is, where it is natural that the system generates values and forces that reject it as a system and as a metaphysical or meta-historical, or meta-empirical entity.
This superficial character of empiricism consists in not going deeper into things; in considering the system as "constant", in stopping before masters and property.
This superficiality provokes a scientific and moral frustration, which leads it to resolve by refusing to assume that moral values are the historical, a natural backdrop of social sciences, and by refusing to register the scientific reality of the system as the backdrop of morality and politics.
Thus, empiricism, however scientific and technical its language may be, stops at the edge of historical reality and the interpretation of the quotidian, does not resolve the social assumptions of its own moral values, analyzes the reality of inequalities – of lack of freedom, of injustices, in partial ways, that are sustained only in some moments, with scientific fads that wear off and refute themselves, in a formidable display of intellectual frivolity, until, in times of crisis, many of its proponents reject rationalism and libertarian and egalitarian values, to openly embrace injustice and fascist-technocratic ideology. This is the moment of maximum moral renunciation of empiricism and at the same time, maximal scientific resignation.
In any case, with the concepts of inequality, asymmetry, progress, the field of sociology has been conducted in a scientific environment, inconceivable without the "dogmas" of developing equality and freedom.
From this point of view, it is thus evident that one cannot deny the possibility of a sociology of exploitation under the assumption that it would automatically fall within the orbit of values, unworthy of positive science.
The problem then that remains to be sketched out consists in specifying in what way a sociology of exploitation can contribute something distinct and specific to the knowledge of social reality that justifies the research effort.