Super-Exploitation: Capitalism Needs Racism and Patriarchy

Oppression is so good for business, Canadian capitalists can’t go without it.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

On capitalism’s historical necessity for oppression

Exploitation and oppression are the twin pillars of capitalism. In this analysis, I demonstrate that a patriarchal and racist labour market hierarchy is an indispensable component of Canadian capitalism. Using data from the Canadian Census, I propose a thought experiment and a simple statistical simulation to quantify, at least in part, the economic benefits of racism and patriarchy accruing to the capitalist class. Racism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression stratify the labour market in ways that create opportunities for employers to boost their profits by paying oppressed workers lower than average wages. This is the essence of the concept of super-exploitation, which acts as a powerful, but often unspoken, incentive for the capitalist ruling class to perpetuate a society based on oppression— notwithstanding the recent woke-washing of corporate and political elites.

The secret to the rise of capitalism, one that many have still not heard, is that in order to get started, to grow, and mature in historical terms, it absolutely required violent dispossession and massive theft of other people’s wealth, land, and even bodies. In order to facilitate this accumulation by dispossession, capitalism has both absorbed pre-existing forms of oppression, like patriarchy, and invented novel forms of oppression including racism and the particular form of genocidal oppression faced by victims of colonialism.

Racism’s roots run deep, right to the core of capitalism due to the centrality of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and inherently racist and genocidal regimes of colonial land theft to the industrialization of Europe and then its settler-colony offshoots, especially the USA and Canada. Consequently, capitalist relations of production developed on the basis of a racial hierarchy of exploitation from the very beginning, growing an inherent reliance on both outright slavery and super-exploitation of workers oppressed by racism and colonialism.

Patriarchy, likewise, is deeply rooted in the development of capitalism by the gendered dimensions of the ruling class war on the European peasantry, which was a pre-condition for privatization of land and formation of an urban working class. As a result, capitalism rose from a basis of gendered relations of production, growing wholly dependent on the unpaid domestic and caring labour of women and super-exploitation of women as workers, especially those, again, oppressed by colonialism and racism.

Super-exploitation and super-profits: intersections between exploitation and oppression

Capitalism requires many forms of oppression to maximize the exploitation that keeps the motors of profit humming along. Profit is the fundamental motive force that animates capitalism, the main indicator of “health” and driver of investment in a capitalist economy. Capitalists are dogged by what Marx called the most important law of political economy, the tendency for profit rates to fall over time as capital accumulates. Individual firms will fail and entire economies will sputter into stagnation and crisis without sufficient profitability. Upon the pain of destruction, therefore, declining profit rates nipping at their heels, capitalists are forced to continually chase after opportunities to raise the rate and total mass of profits.

Profits that are above and beyond the average rate of return on investment are known as super-profits. That capitalists are greatly motivated by the hunt for super-profits is known not just to Marxists, but also to many in business circles. There are many potential sources of super-profits: colonialism and imperialism, technological advantages in production, monopoly power, and last but not least, in the way that gender and racial oppression shape capitalist relations of production.

Racism and patriarchy create a structure of uneven exploitation within capitalism, because bosses are often able to get away with paying certain groups of oppressed workers —in this case, workers that are racialized, women, and especially racialized women— lower than average wages, i.e., super-exploitation, thereby earning higher profits than they might have otherwise, i.e., super-profits. Disproportionate numbers of oppressed workers, facing much higher rates of unemployment and underemployment, are pushed into the ranks of the reserve army of labour, serving as a pool of cheap and precarious labour for capitalists to exploit in labour intensive, low wage industries.

Uneven exploitation in Canadian capitalism

Many white Canadians are probably unaware that Canada consistently places among the worst in the world in the world in terms of racist labour market discrimination. Canada also constantly ranks as having one of the highest gender wage gaps among OECD nations. Examining data on income, race, and gender from the 2016 Canadian Census confirms the expectation that the labour market of Canadian capitalism is highly stratified by racism, patriarchy, and colonialism.

Unsurprisingly, the wages of white men form the tip of the wage pyramid. Racialized men earned on average only 74¢ to every dollar earned by a non-racialized man. The upper and lower portions of the wage hierarchy are clearly divided by a gender line. White women earned only an average of 67¢ to each dollar earned by white men and the average wages of racialized women were 45% lower than white men. Indigenous workers, bearing the double oppression of racism and colonial dispossession, have been pushed to the very floor of the income hierarchy1.

Access to the entire person-level set of Census data is understandably highly restricted, so the precise distribution of incomes in Canada can’t be easily known. However, it’s possible to simulate the full income distribution using the sample of Census data available to the public. Below is another way of visualizing the distribution of employment income for all workers along the lines of race and gender— the lines bisecting the curves represent the half-way point in the workforce.

The causes of super-exploitation in Canada

Again, it is obvious that Canadian capitalism’s wage structure is greatly influenced by racism and patriarchy. This edifice of over-exploitation is complicated, caused by the interaction of many factors. To touch on them all would take some time and is beyond the scope of this analysis. However, the racial income hierarchy can be explained to a large degree by the racism of the Canadian labour market, including, but not limited to, discrimination based on:

Women face a double-sided exploitation under capitalism— expropriation of unpaid labour on one hand and super-exploitation in the capitalist labour market on the other. Women in general made up the bottom range of the income hierarchy and incomes were the lowest overall for racialized women. Existing research has shown a very strong link between the demands of unpaid domestic and caring labour and reductions in income for women. A global study of the unpaid labour of women found that those committing more than twice as much time to domestic labour as men made an average incomes that were 65% lower. Sectors of the economy based on caring labour are dominated by women and chronic under-payment. In Canada, the value women’s unpaid caring work has been estimated to be over a quarter of GDP, which would have been around $440B in 2019.

The burdens of caring work placed on women are compounded by outright sexist bias and discrimination in hiring and the workplace. Canadian women are paid less for equivalent work than their co-workers who are men, even with comparable levels of education and experience, directly after graduation. Women and especially racialized women are significantly over-represented in low wage occupations and among those with part-time or temporary employment.

The value of oppression to Canadian capitalists

I propose a simple thought experiment to approximate the economic value of this systematic over-exploitation of oppressed workers:

What would the distribution of incomes look like without any oppression based hierarchy?

For the sake of the thought experiment, let’s assume that Canadian capitalists, all other things being equal, had to pay women and racialized workers the same average wages as white men, both on an hourly basis and in terms of total yearly income. That means no systematic underpayment of racialized people and women. No more pool of oppressed workers that can be super-exploited because they have been pushed to the economic margins; no more taking advantage of part-time and precarious workers and practices like zero-hour contracts to fine time work schedules for maximum profitability; and so on.

A simple simulation of the distribution of Canadian incomes as though all workers were paid the same average wages as white men can be illuminating here. Using parameters obtained from the 2016 Canadian Census micro-data, I simulated what the wage bill for all workers would be if the distribution of incomes were the same as white men, an average annual income of $56,920. The wage bill of all Canadian workers would have shot up by over $100 billion dollars, which is about 36% of corporate profits for that year.

This figure is probably an under-estimate of the true value of racial and patriarchal oppression to Canadian capitalists, since it doesn’t take into account the multifaceted super-exploitation of immigrants, which no doubt significantly overlaps the racial/gender dimensions of exploitation. Despite the recent flurry of flimsy corporate branding exercises in anti-oppression, it’s basically impossible to imagine capitalists giving up on a wellspring of profits as lucrative as super-exploitation.

  1. Note on the data: the categories used come from the Census question on “visible minority status,” a rather unfortunately outdated concept. Additionally, that data does not include those who self-identified as Indigenous, instead subsuming them into the “not a visible minority” category that is overwhelmingly made up of White people. Major studies on employment inequality in Canada using this data have therefore missed the persistent, systematic labour market discrimination imposed on Indigenous workers in the Canadian labour market. I have added in data on Indigenous workers which is also sourced from the 2016 Census for comparison.

Data sources

Ryan Romard
Ryan Romard
Sociologist | Research Analyst

Sociology, data science, and data visualization.