How may the Capitalist System lead to exploitation of workers?

SC3101 Social Thought and Social Theory is by far the most insightful and enjoyable module I am taking this semester.

During a make up tutorial with Dr. George Radic’s class today, he explained Karl Marx’s reading, “Capital” so well, and I finally understood a glimpse of why Marx thinks that the Capitalist system may lead to exploitation. Let me attempt to explain his fascinating idea:

First, commodity is defined as any product that satisfies the needs of humans, and is in turn traded for something else. Each commodity has two types of values: use-value and exchange-value. Use-value expresses how much a commodity is of value to the needs or preferences of somebody. A pen may be of immense use-value to someone who prefers writing on paper, but of no value to someone who types in the computer instead. As use-value is subjective to individuals, it is not important in the discussion here. On the other hand, exchange value is the value of a product as determined by market supply and demand. If the demand of gold increases or the supply of gold decreases so much that there is a higher demand, the value of gold increases. If the demand of gold decreases or the supply of gold increases so much that there is no more demand, then the value of gold decreases.

(** Just a side note, this is also a common criticism of the Capitalist system. You may wonder, when supply is too much for the demand available, shouldn’t producers simply cut down the supply to prevent overproduction? In reality, that is not true. Instead, products, especially perishable goods such as milk, will be thrown away to lower the supply supplied to consumers, creating major wastage of products. Another way producers can earn profit is to artificially restrict the production or supply of goods, even if they have the means to do produce more to meet the demands of consumers, so as to raise the price of the products they sell. )

So where does the exploitation of workers come in this picture?

In the Capitalist system, the working class are people with no property, and are hence made to sell their labour power as means of survival. Labour-power is commoditised and the labour time that is necessary to create a product is exchanged for the creation of a product. Here comes the problem.

Are the value of products determined by how much labour time was invested into the products? The simple answer is no. Because the value of products are determined by how the market values them, a worker can spend 1000h in a pair of shoes, and the pair of shoes is sold for a meagre sum of $0.50. The sums just do not add up. Workers are exploited as the value of the products they create does not take into the account of their labour time and effort.

So this is Marx theory of labour in essence. Of course this may be a huge simplification of Marx’s theories and there are also plenty of assumptions made on the part of Marx as well (e.g. value of a product may determined by more factors than just demand and supply), but it does also help to explain why humans are so obsessed with money as well.

Money is the measure of the value of commodity as determined by market forces. (*Note that money can also be a commodity in the context of foreign exchange market) But while money can be equivalent to the commodity, commodities are not important to the Capitalists. Only money is important because only money can be exchanged for something else. That is when money becomes the sole definition of everything and people start to fetishise over money. An example is Education. We do not go to school to get a job and buy a car. We go to school to get a job and earn money. With this money we can exchange it for many commodities such as a car. Marx terms this phenomenon “the fetishism of money”.

And that’s all I learnt that I wanted to share today. 🙂

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Humans and Faith

In my secondary school or junior college days, my teachers (usually teachers teaching an arts related subject such as general paper or integrated humanities) often told us, “There is no right or wrong answer.”

I was often confused when my teachers do so because when we eventually arrived at an answer, there were times when they simply frown and said, “Hmm.. not quite right. ” In those times, I still believed that my teachers had an answer that they were inclined to believe in their minds and hoped that they were able to steer us in the “right” direction.

After a sociology lecture on Methods, Types and Paradigms for SC2101 (Methods of Social Research), I finally understood what it really means when a perspective to an issue is neither right nor wrong. As teachers or students, we may have subconsciously understood this concept, but have never really understood why.

Dr. Feng explained that in sociology, there are 3 main paradigms: Functionalism, Conflict Theory and Symbolic Interactionism. Functionalists believed that “society is a system, in which each part performs a function to serve the whole”. Conflict theorists believed that “society is a field of confrontations between people dominating and people being dominated”. Symbolic Interactionists believed that “society is a stage of communication with a shared meanings system, which comes from social interaction. ” All these 3 perspectives can be used to understand a social phenomenon. No matter what beliefs one holds which leads him or her to be inclined towards a perspective, no one can say that any of these 3 perspectives are wrong.

The question is: Why? Why does the study of the natural world often leads us to one single answer but not for the study of the social world? Why does the study of cells, atoms, atmosphere, energy etc require so much more objectivity than that of the study of inequality, genders, power relations etc.?

The answer lies in the characteristics of humans. Dr. Feng notes that humans are non-examinable and non-debatable. This is because the psychological processes of humans are invisible. As such, the things we note about another person may not be true. They are inevitably based on assumptions which are influenced by our own cultures, subjective experiences, knowledge and beliefs. I was once fascinated by a quote by chinese scholar, writer and poet 王国维 (Wang Guo Wei). He wrote, “以我观物,故物皆我之色彩。” It skilfully encapsulates the idea that everyone’s perception of the world is coloured by his or her own subjectivity. In other words, we can only attempt to understand others via an understanding of ourself. But it is questionable whether we truly understand ourselves as well.

This issue got me thinking about the study of religion. Perhaps, religion is a human need simply because humans need a simple and perhaps even convenient answer to all the questions we cannot answer. I was reminded of an excerpt from Mitch Albom’s book, Have a Little Faith.


“Look, if you say that science will eventually prove there is no God, on that I must differ. No matter how small they take it back, to a tadpole, to an atom, there is always something they can’t explain, something that created it all at the end of the search.

“And no matter how far they try to go the other way – to extend life, play around with the genes, clone this, clone that, live to one hundred and fifty – at some point, life is over. And then what happens? When the life comes to an end?”

I shrugged.

“You see?”

He leaned back. He smiled.

“When you come to the end, that’s where God begins.”


“When you come to an end, that’s where God begins. ” Personally, I believe that God exists. However, what I do not know is whether we perceive God to be what God really is. Perhaps God is not omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent or benevolent. Perhaps he is just a supernatural being without all the values and meanings we have attached to it.

I do not know a lot about religions. Considering the nature of the study of human society,  I doubt that I can ever know more about religion with any confidence that what I know is “correct”. But after this lecture, what I now know is why it is so difficult to understand the society and a subject like religion.

Dr. Feng concluded by sharing with us the story of the elephant and the blind men. (Source: http://www.jainworld.com/literature/story25.htm)


Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”

They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.

“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.

“Oh, no! It is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.

“Oh, no! It is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.” Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features what you all said.”

“Oh!” everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.


This story is commonly known among everyone. Yet, its concept is not easily applied and exercised. As humans, we have to acknowledge how small we are and how limited our perception and knowledge of the world is. It is as true for the wise men to say that all the blind men are right as it is true to say that all the blind men are wrong. The only thing we can do and ought to do is to suspend our own judgement and be open and more tolerant of other perspectives.

After all, there is truly no right or wrong answer.

The Oil Paradox and Global Inequality

Since I will be taking a module on sociology of inequality this semester, I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts on inequality based on a limited knowledge of the recent oil crash after reading 2 articles from the straits times “A year to take advantage of cheap oil” and “Understanding the oil crash”.

On 7th January 2015, Brent crude oil yesterday fell below US$50 (S$67) a barrel for the first time since May 2009. I was rather perplexed by this phenomenon because the reactions seem rather mixed. I then realised that this was because the plunge of oil prices have different impacts on producers and consumers.

The plunge in oil prices is mainly caused by the shale revolution in America, which enables America to extract shale oil and gas which were untapped on previously. This has increased the supply of oil significantly. However, oil companies in Saudi Arabia do not wish to decrease their supply as they would want to drive out their American counterparts by lowering their profits further.

At the same time, the fall in oil prices is also worrying as it signifies that the demand for oil is low and that economic growth is slowing down. Developing countries such as China are not growing as much as they were.

For oil importers and consumers, especially developing countries such as China, a fall in oil prices indicate lower cost of production for industries, lower inflation and stimulate the economy.

On the other hand, for oil exporters and producers, especially countries such as Saudi Arabia and America, lower oil prices will indicate a fall in profits. In the past, a fall in oil prices might have been a good thing for industries in America, but the rapid growth of oil companies also mean that they make up a larger part of the economy and have a greater impact on the stocks in the market, thus leading to a plunge in stocks in America. (The plunge in stocks can also be attributed to other reasons such as a weakening Euro caused by political instability in Greece. This has raised fears and uncertainties about the eurozone and the global economy.)

This made me recall a statement my Integrated Humanities teacher made in class. He said, “When someone becomes richer, it must be that money is taken away someone else. When someone becomes poorer, it must be that money is taken away from him and given to someone else.” In that sense, the world economy acts like a zero sum game, whereby one person’s gain is equivalent to another person’s loss.

When I was young, I used to think that one will become richer by his own effort. If he is poor, he must get a job and work harder to earn more money. (I believe this is the effect of meritocracy in Singapore’s education.) It is only when I grew up and learnt more about economics that I realised that our personal wealth is not just controlled by our own efforts.

If any global phenomenon, such as the plunge in oil prices definitely mean that some countries will gain in some aspects, while others will lose, does that mean the global equality can never be reached?

Then, I started realising that perhaps, if we choose to define equality simply in the monetary sense, we have to accept that equality can never be achieved. Well, we even had different natural endowments in the first place. For example, Singapore didn’t have an abundance of natural resources, but we are well endowed with a strategic location and a relative lack of natural disasters.

However, if we redefine our definition of equality and broaden it to include other aspects such as a stable society, beautiful sceneries and a general satisfaction of life, it could be possible that different countries in the world is not unequal, but merely different.

Once, a friend of mine, embarked on trip to India for a mission trip. She returned sharing about how the people there are rather satisfied with their lives and even strive to share whatever they have in their house with their guests. They needed no sympathy, even though they are “poor”. This is because, they are only poor by our standards. This is typical of ethnocentrism, whereby people of a culture judge people of another culture by their own culture’s yardstick and standards.

A food for thought before I take my first lecture on sociology of inequality in school this week.

Sources:
1. A year to take advantage of cheap oil: http://www.straitstimes.com/news/opinion/more-opinion-stories/story/year-take-advantage-cheap-oil-20150106
2. Understanding the oil crash: http://www.straitstimes.com/news/opinion/more-opinion-stories/story/understanding-the-oil-crash-20141205
3. Alarm bells ring as oil dips below US$50: http://www.onenewspage.com/n/Asia-Pacific/754uw3q7n/Alarm-bells-ring-as-oil-dips-below-US.htm