The notion of dependency is usually not associated with Marx’s thought. Interestingly enough, it is only at the margins of the Marxist discussion that this concept has been taken seriously. In feminist theory, Christine Delphy (1984) has shown that the exploitation of women by men does not depend so much on the tasks they are performing at home than on the fact that they are performing tasks for whom they are dependent. In “dependency theory”, this concept has also been used to analyze the exploitation of the periphery of the world economy by its center (Gunder Frank 1978). In both cases, what comes to the fore is that individuals, social groups and countries can be exploited by other individuals, groups or countries because they are depending on them. Furthermore, in both cases the dependency is conceived as being produced by a set of social, political and cultural factors, as well as being reproduced by the very process of exploitation. These ideas were already at play in Marx’ theory of capitalist exploitation, and it may well be the case that they still raise relevant issues.

Capitalist exploitation as multifold dependency

In Capital, exploitation is analyzed at the macro-scale of the structural social relation between capitalists and proletarians, at the meso-scale of institutions such as extended and legally regulated markets, or the manufacture and large-scale industry, and at the micro-scale of the experience of exploitation. As a “social relation of production”, exploitation is defined as structural dependency: since they are dispossessed of the means of production, the proletarians are dependent on the capitalist to produce their means of subsistence (Marx 1990, 270-274). At the meso-level, this structural dependency actualizes itself in various institutional forms. On the market, it takes the form of a monetary dependency of those who are deprived of the means of payment, and therefore have to sell their labor-power to those who are in possession of these means of payment (ibid, 280). In the workplaces, the structural dependency takes other forms, notably those related to the technical division of labor and technological autonomisation of the means of production. The technical division of labor implies that the individual activity loses its function and value if it is not integrated in a process of productive cooperation (ibid. 480-491). It then depends both on other individual productive activities and on a directing authority organizing cooperation (ibid, 448,450). Furthermore, the technological autonomisation of the means of production as systems of machines implies that the very rhythm and intensity of the worker does not depend on him but on his means of production (ibid, 544, 535). And finally, at the micro level, the experience of exploitation as domination is embodied in experiences of dependence: the worker knows that he has to sell his labor power on the labor market and that he has to obey the directing authority and the machines, even if he is reluctant to do all this, because he is dependent on wages for his survival.

This multifold dependency is analyzed by Marx as the result of a network of historical processes addressed notably in the section on the “So-called Primitive accumulation”. What comes to the fore, then, is the expropriation of the agricultural population from the land, creating a mass of workers deprived of the means of production. But his dependency also results from the transformation of the independent craftsman into a worker of an “heterogeneous manufacture” (or putting-out system) and “organic manufacture,” (ibid, 461-470) and later of a large-scale industry.1 As soon as it has become systemic, this multifold dependency tends to reproduce itself: the wages are never enough to enable workers to buy the means of production and the other inputs (raw materials, business premises, energy, etc.) that would make them independent of the capitalists. “In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the ‘natural laws of production’, i.e. it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs form the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them” (Marx, 899).

Capitalist exploitation continually reproduces the structural as well as institutional dependencies it is grounded upon, and continually worsens them, since the monetary dependency is increased by the production of a “relative surplus population” or “industrial army”, while the technical dependency is increasing due to the technical division of labor and technologization of the labor process. The development of capitalism as a specific mode of production appears, then, as a process of deepening the dependency of the worker. In its final stage, in large-scale industry, “his helpless dependence upon the factory as a whole, and therefore upon the capitalist, is rendered complete” (Ibid, 547).

Dependency as a critical concept

Given that Marx himself has depicted capitalist exploitation as a process of increasing dependency, it is quite surprising that in the debates concerning the normative standards of the critique of exploitation, dependency has almost never been mentioned.2 These debates have mainly considered the three normative standards of injustice, domination and alienation.3 Indeed, Marx’s account of exploitation can be articulated in terms of structural inequality, that is, in terms of injustice (of distributive and acquisitive types). It can also be articulated in terms of structural subordination of the activities of the working class to the benefits of the members of the ruling classes, that is, in terms of domination as a social relation of domination between classes as well as an asymmetrical relation of power in the workplaces. And finally, exploitation can be analyzed as an experience of loss of control over one’s own working activity and the contexts and products of this activity, that is, as alienation. But something is missing in this picture in which the critique of exploitation is articulated only with reference to these three critical concepts. What is not taken into account is the fact that the structural injustice and domination, as well as the alienation characteristic of work, are rooted in a system of organized dependency that gives a specific meaning to the very experiences of injustice, domination and alienation. Suffering from injustices that are experienced as simply the result of past unjust appropriation of properties (acquisitive injustice), or contemporary unjust distributive mechanisms (distributive injustice), is not the same as suffering from inequalities one is depending on. Having to serve the interests of those whom one is afraid of is not the same as having to obey those whom one is depending on. Having the feeling of being dispossessed of one’s working activity by its social environment is not the same as when one is also experiencing that this activity depends on this environment, in the sense that one can’t actually find better environments for this activity. Moreover, bringing dependency back into the picture can help capture the fact that one of the specificities of the negative social experiences of exploitation is its ambivalent nature. As an experience of injustice, exploitation can always turn into habituation to injustice, and as an experience of domination, exploitation can always turn into “voluntary servitude”. These turns also define a specific form of alienation as attachment to what one refuses – namely injustice and domination.4

Taking dependency into account in the criticism of capitalist exploitation can also help in tackling an issue that can hardly be articulated solely in terms of injustice, domination and alienation: the issue of socially organized asymmetrical dependency. Now, this latter issue seems particularly relevant in the age of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. At the macro-level, the dismantlement of welfare protections is clearly making individuals economically more dependent on their own exploitation. But neoliberalism has not only reduced state protections against economical dependency, it has also generalized new forms of economical dependency, such as private debt. To the short-term dependency of the wage, which usually (that is for the majority of wage earners) does not amount to more than the living costs for a month, it has added the long-term dependency of private debt that makes individuals dependent on their exploitation for years. Moreover, at the meso-level, contemporary neoliberalism is giving more and more room to “independent workers”, freed from the organizing authority of the firm and of the power-relations structuring capitalist workplaces, but nevertheless exploited by capitalist firms who organize their exchanges with their clients (in “platform capitalism”) or who use them to outsource their productive activities.5 Exploitation operates then only through forms of organized dependency of the productive activity itself.

It therefore seems that contemporary transformations of capitalist exploitation require a robust critical concept of asymmetrical dependency. Marx has paved the way for such a concept, and he has also suggested that one should not only think of dependency in terms of intersubjective and contextual dependency alone, as is often the case in contemporary discussions, but also in terms of material and systemic dependency.