#42 On objective exploitation

Dear Jamie,

I’d already read the Atlantic article of Between the World and Me, and read it again after your suggestion. To be honest I found it baleful and conspiratorial. The end kind of saves it with a Christian-like “we’re all struggling but some more than others”. Though rather than a cosmic evil or an entropic universe his struggle is against a white conspiracy beyond the knowledge and intention of most of those involved. One of the issues with subjective experiences as we’re discussing them is that they can be annihilated when in contact with an opposing one.  At the time I also read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s response, a more optimistic reading of America despite her subjective plight being obviously more violent and horrible than Coates’.

Two topics have been rolling around in my head since reading your letter. Can subjective experience add up to an objective indictment? And what is the role of exploitation in history?

To the first question I think the answer is no. Subjective experiences may indicate an objective flaw of the regime, but are not true simply because a lot of people believe it. That’s only true if one believes regimes should have the job of giving no-one things to complain about because in that case criticisms are failures. The main issue is that people are so fallible that they can be wrong about what they dislike or what makes them happy. Especially about what makes them happy. When the Tyrant cries “They don’t know what they need” he’s probably right, but the tradgedy is that he’s probably even more wrong about what they need.

I had the dangerous thought the other day that the more objectively better the lives of “those at the bottom”, the more wrong they are about their plight. I don’t think this is true per se, but it seems to be close nugget of truth in there somewhere. Is it a consequence of the definition of objectively better? It’s certainly true that we consider people more wrong about their own plight the better off they are within a society (middle-class students, highly skilled labourers, baby boomers). So if that comparison is possible it must be possible when comparing our “bottom” to cross sections of other societies, which is the same thing as objectively comparing standards of living. That’s the logic anyway, thoughts?

When the left drops “exploitation” many times when talking about power I get a similar reaction to when the right keeps dropping the word “theft”. Most of the time they’re mirages that result from limiting one’s scope in time and space. When I hand over taxes each year, if the only things I considered were me and “the man”, then I’d protest it as pure theft while ignoring the second, third order benefits I accumulate trough infrastructure and protection because I’m incapable of getting past the immediate moral problem of “stealing”. Analogously the left is incapable of getting past the immediate moral problem of “exploitation”, which is clear when you only see workers getting paid less than business owners, but a slight relaxation shows second and third order effects bringing economic benefits to all.

This comparison seems more than an analogy, in one the elite are stealing what you own, in the other they are stealing what you’re entitled to. There are cases of real exploitation and they are naturally morally repugnant to most people as cases of genuine theft. These are rare but tend to be obvious. Theft at one level can be civic cooperation at another, exploitation at one level can be specialisation of labour at another. The danger is not accounting for all scales. The irony is that’s impossible to.


Also published on Medium.