An impoverished discussion about exploitation

Last week, the London School of Economics (LSE) hosted a discussion with political philosophers Professor Hillel Steiner and Dr Nicholas Vrousalis about the concept of economic exploitation. While the event focused on abstract examples, the evening provided an excellent illustration of how patronising and over-simplified the discussion of exploitation has become.

The key point of contention between Steiner and Vrousalis was their differing perspective on what actually constitutes exploitation and how someone comes to be exploited. Vrousalis argued that the way in which people find themselves in a position that is open to exploitation is irrelevant. Whether it’s down to their own actions or the actions of others ‘it does not matter… either way it is despicable to take advantage of that’.

In contrast, Steiner argued that the factors that contributed to someone’s destitution, and thus their exploitation, should be taken into account. However, he defined exploitation broadly as any time ‘you get less than you would have got (in a mutual exchange) in a completely just world’. This hardly leaves much room for contributing factors, other than the overall rot of society itself.

Steiner and Vrousalis’s rather aloof musings point to some worrying trends in the current discussion about poverty and exploitation in Britain today.

The first is the vast expansion of what arrangements are considered exploitative. Nowhere is this clearer than in the supposed plight of the unpaid intern, with tear-drenched comment pieces bemoaning the fact that Britain’s middle-class graduates aren’t able to skip instantly into well-paid media jobs. Some more shrill commentators have thought nothing of declaring that working for free is akin to modern-day slavery.

Meanwhile, the handwringing of Western commentators over the treatment of lowly paid factory workers in poor countries only extends a patronising attitude to those who are genuinely exploited. Indeed, most efforts by bleeding heart, middle-class activists in the West to stand up to sweatshops and poor working conditions in Asian factories - for example, through practising ‘ethical consumption’ and boycotting shops who deny workers basic rights - make very little impact, serve only to make consumers feel better about themselves, and give no credit to the ability of the poor to stand up and fight for their own rights.

The idea that poor people can help themselves, independent of the state and well-meaning middle-class warriors, is lost on Steiner, Vrousalis and a host of commentators wading in on the state of economic exploitation today. Meanwhile, the fact the category of exploitation is now even being extended to middle-class coffee-fetchers shows how skewed the current discussion has become.

Charlie Pearson is a spiked intern.

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