Theoretical Analysis: Marxist Exploitation Theory

By Emily Kreider ‘ 20, a Communication and Media Studies major with minors in English and Creative Writing.

The following work was created for CMS 250: Intermediate Communication and Media Theory

Brief Description: This piece examines the incompleteness of Karl Marx’s theory of exploitation, seeing as his writing does not take into consideration racial inequalities or workplace discrimination. Racism must be recognized as a detrimental problem within the structure of American business for there to be accuracy in discerning power imbalances within the workplace. 

Marxian exploitation theory is one which seeks to explain how people are mistreated within the production process and how workplace inequalities come to exist (Dymski, 1997). “Exploitation is one of the most central concepts of Marxism, figuring in its theory of history, political economy of capitalism, class-focused conception of politics, and normative perspective” (Warren, 2015, p. 286). Ultimately, the goal of the theory is to not only point out the injustices which are taking place, but to also offer possible solutions for societal change. This theory is closely tied to Marx’s idea of base and superstructure while also working in conversation with other political economic theories. In short, it claims that the differences in social hierarchies impact the economic status of businesses. 

Many theorists have offered their own remarks on the concept, some working in agreement with Marx, and some criticizing him. One such scholar is Gary Dymski, who points out the theory’s flaws in his article, “Racial Inequality and Capitalist Exploitation.” The reading has several key components, first identifying the concepts which make up Marxian exploitation theory before explaining what Dymski refers to as “stylized facts” (1997, p. 338) about racial inequality. These facts serve as the primary methods of analyzing exploitation, the most important being production-relations theory and rational-choice theory (Dymski, 1997). Dymski points out, however, that neither of these truly get to the underlying problems of Marx’s theory: its problematic disregard of racial difference. He claims that Marxist exploitation theory is flawed because it does not consider racial differences or recognize workplace racial discrimination. It is only William Darity, an American researcher and economist, who comes closest to recognizing the incompleteness of Marx’s theory, by articulating that the imbalanced equilibrium of power leads to the domination of minorities and the exploitation of racially diverse workers as a whole. The economic influence of such a phenomenon can only be considered by recognizing racism as a detrimental problem within the work industry. 

The production-relations approach to exploitation looks at the construction of social affinities through the lens of production and how the process of exchange influences relationships (Dymski, 1997). This approach immediately fails as its exclusion of minority individuals in the work force renders it incomplete. It even fails to consider that a large part of social relations take place outside of the location of labor (Dymski, 1997). The topic of social relations cannot be holistically constructed without taking into account discrimination within the work place and beyond. According to Dymski (1997), discrimination can be broken into the following three categories: price, application, and performance. Price discrimination recognizes that there is a higher probability of minority workers being paid less than their white counterparts (Dymski, 1997). Application discrimination says that minority workers are less likely to be hired because of previous prejudices on their work ethic ability (Dymski, 1997). Lastly, performance distribution explains that once hired, minority workers are more likely than white workers to be fired or suspected of slacking on the job (Dymski, 1997).

The work done in production-relations does not even begin to consider that there are several types of discrimination. It makes the assumption that work place relations occur specifically between white workers and white bosses. Resultingly, the theory is hardly applicable to contemporary society, seeing as its ideas are outdated and misrepresentative of the racial diversity of the working class then, today, and forever. It works only when the production economy is  wholly whitewashed, something that has never existed. Dymski points out the lack of racial representation when he states: “The disappearance of this segment of the exploited labor force, albeit into prisons, the informal economy, and the armed services, puts it out of the explanatory reach” (Dymski, 1997, p. 339). There have always been minorities within the work force, even if in the past they were not considered to be as vital or significant as other white laborers. To eliminate them from any discussion of social relations erases them from the history of the work force entirely, and casts aside the economic implications of the relationship between diverse workers and white bosses. 

Neo-Marxist theorists further divided racial difference from economic exploitation by constructing the rational-choice theory of exploitation. John Roemer, a key Neo-Marxist theorist, claimed that discrimination within the work force was not possible because all people have “racially neutral preferences” (Dymski, 1997, p. 340). “A minority community is simply a location whose residents have disproportionately small asset endowments; racial dynamics are not among the fundamental forces exploiting inner-city residents” (Dymski, 1997, p. 340). Roemer claims that racism is a “false consciousness” (Dymski, 1997, p. 340), and that once assets have been distributed equally among all communities any previously existing inequalities will no longer persist. 

The problem with this, aside from the false claim that racism does not exist, is that Roemer does not recognize that there are a multitude of possible “assets,” not just those that are materialistically conceivable. For example, other potential economic assets like degrees in professional fields and prerequisites taken for job preparation  make some people more likely to be hired than others. And, as with most things, the individuals with more money are the only ones who can afford such beneficial assets. As previously stated, the several types of discriminations dictate that minority workers are not only less likely to be hired, but once in positions of employment they will likely receive less payment than their white coworkers and have a larger chance of being fired (Dymski, 1997). Despite this information, Roemer asserts that any asset inequalities that exist are not a result of racial prejudices, and racism will disappear with the eventual redistribution of assets (Dymski, 1997). 

However, not all assets are physically tangible. Some assets are dependent upon the opportunities granted to workers by those in dominant positions who are susceptible to making judgements based on prejudice and discrimination. Minority workers need degrees and job preparation to get good jobs, but they often don’t have the money to afford such assets, particularly when they have been kept in systemic under-employment and under-compensation. For example, school segregation was declared unconstitutional by the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 (London, Ahlqvist, Gonzalez, Glanton, and Thompson, 2014). Despite this, the discrimination that existed during that time persists today, operating under different guises, and continuing to impact the success of racially diverse individuals (London et al., 2003). “African American and Latino students, and students from low socioeconomic statuses are often concentrated into remedial or low-achieving classes…this form of segregation limits their opportunity for learning and advancement” (London et al., 2003, p. 131). White workers are getting a head start because they have the finances needed to pursue higher education while minority workers are left behind. Claiming that racism does not exist and does not affect the economic structure of the labor force is an inefficient and racist method of examining the underlying problem of work force inequalities, since most, if not all, inequalities are born out of racial separation and bigotry. 

The theorist who finally brings race into the conversation of exploitation is William Darity, whose Marx-Sraffa model recognizes the imbalanced equilibrium between white and minority workers (Dymski, 1997). He recognizes that segregation, and the separation of racially diverse populations into inner city areas, greatly inhibits their ability to be granted assets and successful work positions (Dymski, 1997). “A defining aspect of racial inequality is not only unequal racial wealth, but racial housing and labor-market segregation. Because it amplifies the effects of racial domination, segregation may contribute independently to the magnitude of exploitation” (Darity, 1997, p. 343). The geographic location of minority workers only reinforces their exploitation, because a large demand for jobs means that individuals will do anything once they’ve found work (Darity, 1997). Segregation of minorities into smaller areas results in impoverished communities and means that there is a large amount of people looking for work in locations that do not have enough jobs or opportunities to go around.

Today the ghetto features a population, the underclass, whose primary predicament is joblessness reinforced by growing social isolation…These concentration effects, reflected, for example, in the residents’ self-limiting social dispositions, are created by inadequate access to jobs and job networks [and] the lack of involvement in quality schools. (Wilson, 1991, p. 641)

Racially diverse groups are so desperate for jobs that white people in positions of authority are enabled to commit the discriminations previously discussed. Minority workers are exploited because they are more likely to accept lower wages, especially when finding a job  at all is difficult. White employers can take advantage of the vulnerability of their minority workers to treat them unfairly and with less value than their white coworkers. 

Marx’s idea of base and superstructure identies the two different sides of production which influence and impact one another. The base is made up of the workers and owners, and identifies the amount of effort they are putting in. The superstructure represents the products of their labors, like culture, religion, politics, and society. When examining the unequal relationship between workers and their bosses, Marx only recognizes the “agents’ utility maximizing behavior” (Dymski, 1997, p. 336), which is broken into three parts: selling labor to others, buying the labor of other individuals, and working for the self (Dymski, 1997). This is a very general understanding, however, of the relationship between workers and employers, as it does not mention the impact of racial inequality and discrimination. Indeed, all three of these identified behaviors are hugely impacted by racial dynamics. 

Though several methods of analyzing exploitation have been attempted, like the production-relations theory and the rational choice theory, they have failed to recognize that micro and macro prejudices in the work place impact the overall economics of the production industry. Marx’s exploitation theory, therefore, provides a useful jumping off point for discussing work place inequalities as long as it is expanded to include racial biases to accurately represent the reality of the production and exchange industry. 


Dymski, G. A. (1997). Racial Inequality and Capitalist Exploitation. In K. Neilson, K. & R. Ware (Eds)., Exploitation(335-347). New Jersey: Humanities Press. 

London, B., Ahlqvist, Sheana., Gonzalez, Angel., Glanton, K. V., Thompson, GA. (2014). The social and educational consequences of identity-based rejection. Social Issues and Policy, 8(1), 131-166.

Warren, P. (2015). In Defense of the Marxian Theory of Exploitation: Thoughts on Roemer, Cohen, and Others. Social Theory and Practice, 41(2), 286-308. 

Wilson, J.W. (1991). Another look at The Truly Disadvantaged. Political Science Quarterly, 106, 639-453.

Emily Kreider would like to thank Dr. Alicia Kozma and her fellow communications majors for always encouraging her to explore, debate, and deconstruct societal inequalities in the hopes of building a better and more inclusive American culture. Outside of the classroom Emily participates in dance club, Sho’Troupe, drama draft, and musical theatre, and works as a peer tutor in the Writing Center.

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