Surplus Exploitation

“Surplus exploitation” is Marx’s term for the value created by the worker that is not accounted for in the worker’s wages but instead accumulated by the capitalist.  Capitalism requires a continuous expansion of surplus (regardless of limits on resources) accumulated by a select few, resulting in wealth disparities and class antagonism.

An example of this is the empire of Rupert Murdoch who owns the companies that produce Fox News as well as shows such as “Family Guy,” a cartoon that makes fun of the same type of narrow-mindedness seen in pundits of the aforementioned network. Far from being a contradiction, this is the capitalist ethic at its purest: the creation of profits is ultimately the only value a capitalist system is capable of caring about and exploiting. Marx believes everything in society (even religion) can be analyzed according to how it relates to class antagonisms created by exploitation.

Marx’s famous equation of religion as an opium of the masses does not mean that he is altogether antagonistic toward religion.  Marx himself used opium, a common medicine in mid-19th century Europe. For Marx, religion and opium are painkillers that are not only addictive but even worse, since they treat symptoms rather than diseases. Religion is both an expression of and protest against real suffering, a metaphysical and ideological surplus exploitation.

Marx believes the need for religion will dissipate as class antagonisms caused by the capitalist condition (surplus exploitation) is properly dealt with. Later, Marx’s partner Engels came to recognize the end of capitalism in revolution would not necessarily kill all forms of religion–he believed there was in Christianity a revolutionary potential that could persist and continue to aid political liberation.

Marx is formed by Hegel’s concept of the dialectic.  A particular state of things cannot feel the need to change until it is faced with a contrasting state.  The proper dialectical solution does not simply synthesize the two contrasting states; instead, the dialectical solution incorporates the experience of the the internal antagonisms of the current state of being and sublates into a higher mode of being.  This is important to understand Marx’s dialectical materialism.  For a society to move forward (sublate) into a more liberated political order, the antagonism of the class struggle must be felt clearly.

Christianity can, at its worst, bypass this antagonism by mitigating the proletariat’s frustration with their impoverished existence.  At its best, Christianity can provide a narrative that 1) embraces material reality in the incarnation and, 2) after the death of God, leaves only the Holy Spirit as the remnant among a community that desires to bring liberation. For as Marx writes at the end of his Thesis on Feuerbach, “The philosophers [and theologians] have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

So Much for the Social Principles of Christianity << Previous  | |  Next >> Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right


  1. Chuck March 7, 2013

    By making its conclusions reliant on traditional authority.

    Evidence based thinking to ethics.

    By admitting where the Bible is failed history and at best superstition.

  2. Abigail March 7, 2013

    I’m not understanding the connection between religion and surplus exploitation. The way I’m understanding it, economically, surplus exploitation occurs when workers create economic value, and do not receive as much as they give; instead the value is passed to someone above them in the hierarchy. What value is being created by people in religion that they are not getting back but instead passing to the next person above them?

  3. Abigail March 7, 2013

    “The philosophers [and theologians] have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

    Ack, this kind of thinking irks me. It’s like saying, “the point of sculpting is to change the rock, not evaluate it, so grab your hammer and start pounding.” Or “we need to have the latest and greatest technology in our school/business/studio.” (why? for what purpose? what problem are we solving?) Action without reflection and interpretation is called recklessness. We are all changing the world in our own small ways, every day, and those changes are happening based on how we are interpreting the world. If we change how we interpret the world, we’ll change how we react to it. Changing the world intelligently requires reinterpretation. Beliefs lead to actions.

    • Chuck March 7, 2013

      I understand your semantic problem. I didn’t share it until you exposed it.

      I read the idea, “The philosophers [and theologians] have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” as a criticism to intention and, as such, it seemed accurate. Philosophy and theology seem to operate in abstractions and don’t concern themselves with testing ideas for their worth against lived experience. They may be gifted in describing how things are but don’t explain why that is with a commitment to what can be realized by it.

      Beliefs inform behavior, which may or may not lead to actions. The certainty of belief in philosophical syllogism or theological dogma seems to invite inaction through the certainty that their description is accurate simply through the act of describing.

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  5. Will March 9, 2013

    I seem to have a disconnect with Marx, he seems a bit whiney to me. His critique of religion and philosophy is not lost, however I fail to see where he was able to accurately understand the human animal. Marx’s view of oppression via “the system” seems to me like a child who runs around screaming,”That’s not fair!”

    The way that people operate mentally will dictate the role they play in society. Regardless of what system (communism, capitalism, tribalism, theocracy, etc) society operates within human nature still prevails. NOTE: This statement assumes that all people generally work within the parameters of their own social climate. There is not nor ever will be a perfect system in which all people feel as appreciated as they wish to be.

    Marx is a whiner. In addition, the communist philosophy fails in many aspects, as does capitalism. People are best left to find the way of life that works for them whether it is through politics, philosophy, religion, or anarchy. The reality is that humans, like water will react and develop to their own potential.

    NOTE: I don’t mean to come off angry, I’m just calling it like I see it.

    • Abigail March 10, 2013

      I get the feeling that few of us on here have warm fuzzy feelings for Marx, considering how his ideas ended up playing out in history. I wonder if he had known what his books would end up being used for, if he would modify his stance on some things. No way to know…

      However, I don’t think that pointing out injustices is de facto “whiny.” Recognizing the problem is half the problem, as they say.

      • Chuck March 10, 2013

        Marx having to face the brutalities of one of his adherents sounds like a good premise for speculative fiction.

        • Abigail March 10, 2013

          maybe a neat Hollywood movie plot in there somewhere! :)

          • Chuck March 10, 2013

            It’s a shame that Philip K. Dick is no longer alive. We could petition him to write it. I just finished “The Man in the High Castle” and his imagined world if the Axis Powers won WWII was chilling.

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