The words are paired in meaning. A material resource is simply part of the natural world, or part of an indigenous economy, until it is organized and expatriated for exploitation. Human labor, or indeed any of the intangibles that comprise "human resources", are simply part of our lived reality and personhood until they are organized and externalized for exploitation. Resources must be alienated before they can be exploited. Alienation, and its resistance, must perforce involve forms of violence. The inherent value of a resource is fundamental, but it is hidden and unmeasurable; the use-value can be measured, but only in and by the process of exploitation. The foregoing suffices to illustrate that it is relatively easy to think about resources, and to aspire to rescue them from the grips of the word pair: to "humanize" them, and to "take their side". It is Marxism 101.
Now we turn to exploitation, and find it is much harder to think about. No one wants to take the side of the exploiter, or even worse, admit that one is already the exploiter or complicit with the exploiter. But we find that we need to understand and redeem the concept. Rather than content ourselves with the comforting idea that exploitation “ought not” happen, we must confront it and transform it; it is lodged too deeply in human nature, and arguably in nature itself, to simply wither away. Post-colonial thinkers decry the violence of exploitation, but then struggle to define the proper exercise of power in a self-governing state. Deep ecologists castigate industrial resource extraction, but openly admire the raw and straightforward manner in which natural systems (and idealized indigenous cultures) make use of all available inputs.
An exploitative act is conceived and initiated by a superior power, outside the lived reality of the "resource". It serves external intentions and objectives. It is effected without dialogue, and through the efficient means of some degree of violence. The fraught phrase "necessary violence" is enlisted ex post facto. A beast of prey is not troubled by any of this, and is described as "exploiting" its ecological niche with little or none of the moral judgement that falls on human takings. Traditional cultures hedged some of the alienating aspects of exploitation with ritual. But in the main, the fundamental acts of 'taking' and 'using' seem to be irreducibly conjoined, and consistently valorized, throughout history.
A full apologetics of exploitation might continue with a discussion of the impracticality of a material economy without 'taking and using'; followed by a meditation on the conceit that things or people ‘want’ to be used, that being used confers meaning on them.The terms and measure of that meaning would, of course, be set by the the power doing the 'taking and using'… but this indignity and a host of others could be designated as the inevitable costs of cooperating with superior powers. And finally, the old chestnut: work is better than indigence, and a choice between two evils is still a choice. All of these arguments contain half-truths, but they are accommodative, not interrogative, of the phenomenon of exploitation.
If we could take the side of the resource, what would it want? Presumably, it would want to join in the productive activity on its own terms, entirely outside of the scope of the word ‘exploitation’. It would want participation in the intentions and objectives; consultation and consent to the efficient means; participation in the measures of meaning of the act; and participation in the benefits or outcomes. Clearly this is a rare occurrence. It is difficult for us to discuss exploitation, because we believe there could, (and even more difficult, should) be a kind of steady-state economy, without growth or stagnation, based on equitable and fully consensual participation in the processes of production. The periodic failures of our attempts at this ideal economy, due to internal fissures as much as external pressures, cause a kind of debilitating collective heartbreak. Among examples in recent times, the 1979-83 revolution in Grenada comes vividly to mind.
Thus we find that economies based on resource exploitation continue. From the point of view of a certain pragmatism, a great number of people are caught up in these economies and no longer have the opportunity (should I say luxury?) of a Marxist revolutionary alternative. Workers in Hong Kong, last bastion of the original corporatist laissez faire of the British Empire, hardly noticed the handover to China, a nominally communist state now run as a single capitalist corporation. And so, while holding on to some small hope for an alternative from the perspective of pure justice, I find it more socially useful to attempt the redemption the exploitation dynamic, despite the ethical hazards.
Exploitation is a phenomenon of the power gradients that are endemic to human society, or indeed to any natural system. (Higher-energy levels in the gradient have the capability and motive to offer and enforce exploitative terms to the lower-energy levels.) And the terms of exploitation evolve with the system. When a given power differential becomes visible to the culture, and is acknowledged and subjected to moral judgement, the "necessary violence" that facilitates that mode of exploitation will be reassessed. Inevitably, it seems, the exploit will be criminalized and excluded from the competitive landscape of the formal economy. The course of civil, labor and environmental rights, expanding continuously through the 18th-20th centuries, does give an optimistic sense of progress in the ‘redemption’ of exploitation. But clearly we are only reframing and displacing exploitation, not eradicating it.
Let us redirect our attention then, to the work of taking responsibility for exploitation, of framing ways to manage the process and impacts of exploitation. “We” should be read to include a spectrum of radicalized, repenting, reluctant, and recalcitrant owners of exploitative systems, and the corresponding ranks of contesting, conscripted, consenting, and collaborating workers. Thus convened, the participants in the processes of production can establish the terms of a ”language game” to be enjoined to decide the distribution of responsibilities, risks and rewards. The ambiguous mis-en-scene, in short, of a labor dispute, played out over time in the arena of public culture.
What does it mean to make good use of something? How do we engage equitably with people across a power gradient? Who gets to define the intention, the means, and the meaning of the work? I will call upon an unlikely champion here: Jean-Francois Lyotard. He takes such a distant, cool view of human affairs, that when he does step in and name ethical imperatives, it seems his judgement is universally noted and respected. Lyotard’s key contribution today is to be his concept of “terror”. Its an incredibly simple concept, not philosophical at all: No person in a dialogue should be forced by pressures, or threats of pressure, from outside the terms of the dialogue. I feel that this is the only realistic limit that can be placed on the open, agonistic dialogues we must continue to have about exploitation. If a participant has already been the victim of terror, that fact ideally ought to be addressed and rectified outside of the ongoing debate, held between willing participants, about ownership and distribution of the processes of production. More realistically, we must recognize that past and present uses of terror are in the course of being recognized, acknowledged and remedied. And that the terms of remedy, their adequacy from the perspective of justice, will rightly continue to be contested as part of the main dialogue.
I haven’t said much about non-human resources and their right to resist exploitation. From a postmodern perspective, it is seen that other species and natural entities are excluded from the arena of contestation on the basis of their exclusion from the fraternity of human language. Human advocates with fight on their behalf, and they will rely on repurposed terms from the debates on human resource exploitation. Short of a widespread return to shamanism, the natural world will never have the opportunity to directly interject its own terms into the dialogue about exploitation.`This is a signpost to the inherently provincial and socially-bounded nature of our tools for deliberating meaning and justice.
We have lost any overarching ideals or prerogatives that might have served as arbiters over our “language games”. And the nature of the games -- you must be in it to win it -- favors locals and parties motivated to overcome the costs of participating. Far from ensuring favorable outcomes, these factors only highlight the importance of maintaining local cultures with high ethical standards and high levels of literacy in the “language games” critical to the local economy. The Basques and other separatist economies are hardly representative examples here, with the advantage of their unusually close social bonds; a more sobering example would be Appalachian coal country, a place that has survived a lot of violence in its history of exploitation.
The struggle to reform economic exploitation is just one of the many social discourses that are both ends and means of local cultures. Human societies consist of patterns, habits, traditions and institutions that reinforce certain ‘folkways’ in the production of social meaning. Communities will forever be in the midst of these dialogues, and many of them will be agonistic. This perspective allows us to hazard a definition, that the “good” cultures, institutions, spaces of dialogue, and individual players, will be those that maintain the most open, diverse, patient, fair, well-moderated dialogues, and that provide protections for dissidence, enforce respect for outcomes, and provide mechanisms for ‘forgetting’ some of the strife that such open debate entails.