- Exploitation: From Practice to Theory ed. by Monique Deveaux and Vida Panitch
Exploitation is a concept that escapes easy definition. As Ruth Sample writes in her contribution to Exploitation: From Practice to Theory, "There seems to be no clear, publicly recognized principle, that allows us to determine which interactions are exploitative and which are not" (222). As someone who researches in the field of human trafficking, this is a problem I recognize. Exploitation is at the nub of the international definition of human trafficking. The United Nation's anti-trafficking Palermo Protocol outlines trafficking as the deceptive or coercive movement of people (especially women and children) for "the purpose of exploitation" in realms including "the prostitution of others, servitude, labour or removal of organs" (UN 2000). But scratch below these words and a multitude of questions emerges: Where does a line fall between legitimate and illegitimate forms of labor? Is it possible to consent to work that is ostensibly exploitative? Is exploitation of labor always morally wrong? With the emphasis on sex trafficking in the Protocol, are women always more vulnerable than men to exploitation? Such quandaries are not limited to trafficking studies. For bioethicists—especially feminist ones—similar problems arise when thinking about what constitutes exploitation, and adjudging its harmfulness, in contexts like commercial surrogacy, pharmaceutical pricing, intimate work, organ selling for transplants and so on. Exploitation: From Practice to Theory offers readers a way to think themselves through these conundrums by proposing a methodology that goes beyond abstract theorizing to building theory from analysis of cases deemed to be exploitative in the real world. As such, the book provides a mental lifeline to those of us struggling with this slippery concept. Importantly, it also provides ideas about the political and collective efforts necessary to challenge exploitation, once we know it.
The book includes twelve chapters, organized in three sections, each of which is driven by this "practice to theory approach." In their introduction to the book, Monique Deveaux and Vida Panitch explain their rationale for advocating this methodology for understanding exploitation. They are motivated by a desire to move beyond the intellectual impasse that exists between the two predominant existing accounts of exploitation. On the one hand, from the liberal tradition, exploitation is understood as arising from unfair transactions between individuals, in scenarios where a buyer of labor or service has [End Page 167] an advantage, enabling them to impose poor terms and conditions on a seller. On the other hand, from the Marxist tradition, exploitation is seen to be systemic, embedded in societal structures that determine people's choices, making discussion of individual transactions in exploitative situations null and void. Sensing that the problem of exploitation usually involves more of an interaction between unjust systemic conditions and individuals' navigation of those conditions, Deveaux and Panitch argue for theorizing exploitation—what it is and where the harm in it resides—from lived experiences of contexts commonly believed to be exploitative. There is some danger of circular reasoning here, in the sense that a context is already assumed to be exploitative before it is analyzed for its exploitative nature. Yet, the book as a whole avoids this by the inclusion of some cases which are ultimately found to be morally problematic but not necessarily exploitative—such as the beauty industry (Widdows, ch. 9) and familial relationships (Hussain, ch. 3)—showing that the method can also help pinpoint reasons not to frame an issue as exploitation.
Despite the overt aim of not taking sides in the exploitation debates, the first section (and the tenor of the book as a whole), does sway toward structuralist accounts of exploitation. Section 1's title—"Structural Injustice: Labour, Race and Market"—makes no secret of this. The four essays collected here deal with the ways in which the intersecting realities of historical structural inequalities rooted in class, race, and gender create societies that are, as Charles Mills puts it in chapter 4, a "complex matrix of interlocking and overlapping systems of domination and exploitation" (9). Applying this analysis to women working in...