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Class societies are divided into ruler and producers.

Exploitation and the social metabolism of class societies (part 2)

Part 1 of this two-part essay can be found here.

The essential difference between the various economic forms of society, between, for instance, a society based on slave-labour, and one based on wage-labour, lies only in the mode in which this surplus-labour is in each case extracted from the actual producer, the labourer. (Marx 1867, p. 217)

The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up en of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers…which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state. (Marx 1894, p. 794)

…direct exploitation of labour costs labour, as every slave-driver knows (Marx 1867, p. 594)

In our previous essay, we discussed how the social metabolism of human societies is unique in that all human societies and all human beings are dependent upon social labor. This dependence has characterized all human societies for millions of years. But although all humans are dependent upon social labor, not all humans actually engage in labor. In fact, the last five thousand yeas of human development have been dominated by classes that, although they do not produce anything, are nevertheless abundantly provided with the good things of life, things that are produced by other people’s labor.

Viewed in terms of their underlying social metabolism, all human societies fall into two categories. On the one hand, there are egalitarian societies in which all members have more or less equal access to the social product and participate more or less equally in production through expenditure of their own labor energy, with differences based primarily on age and sex.

On the other hand, there are class societies in which members of some classes—the ruling classes—enjoy preferential access to the social product and do not themselves have any obligation to participate directly in production through expenditure of their own labor energy. These ruling classes consume labor energy in the form of goods and services at a higher rate than the rest of the population, so that they enjoy larger houses, better food, and even personal servants to attend to their needs, and typically enjoy better health and live longer than the rest of the population. Conversely, the producing classes are forced to perform all the labor which supports the society but their access to the social product is restricted so that they consume labor at a much lower rate, have smaller houses, poorer food, no servants, are less healthy, and don’t live as long as members of the ruling classes.

Bourgeois social science, though it is aware of these facts, doesn’t see the need for any explanation. I once overheard a colleague explain to her class that whenever large groups of people come together they just naturally form hierarchies. Just as, I suppose, apples just naturally fall from trees. Of course, if Newton had accepted this he never would have formulated his laws of motion, And if we accept my colleague’s non-explanation (which is pretty much general among bourgeois social science), we will never understand the laws of motion of human development. Instead, we must look at this division of society into classes as a problematic, whose solution must be looked for in Marx’s Capital, as quoted above.

Marx tells us that the extraction of surplus labor is the key to this division of society into classes and that, further, this extraction of surplus labor itself requires labor in the form of expenditures of time and energy by the ruling classes, In other words, the division of society into classes is a product of the conscious activity of the ruling classes.

Marx and Engels also noted that the rise of class society occurs simultaneously with the appearance of a specialized institution of social control, the State. As Engels noted,

The state, therefore, has not existed from all eternity. There have been societies which have managed without it, which had no notion of the state or state power. At a definite stage of economic development, which necessarily involved the cleavage of society into classes, the state became a necessity because of this cleavage. We are now rapidly approaching a stage in the development of production at which the existence of these classes has not only ceased to be a necessity, but becomes a positive hindrance to production. They will fall as inevitably as they once arose. The state inevitably falls with them. The society which organizes production anew on the basis of free and equal association of the producers will put the whole state machinery where it will then belong–into the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze ax. (Engels 1884, p. 232)

We may turn to a deeper exploration of these insights of Marx and Engels to uncover the underlying social metabolism of class society. Figure 1 diagrams the respective metabolic patterns of the two types of human societies, Communal and Class.

Figure 1. The Social Metabolism of Communal and Class Societies

Communal and class societies

As an anthropologist, I use the term, Ancestral Communism, to refer to communal, egalitarian societies, for this is the original social order of our species. This communal social order is associated with small populations of hunters and gathers as well as some horticulturalists. It was universal among our species until about ten thousand years ago.

Unfortunately, the more familiar term used by many Marxists as well as anthropologists, “primitive communism” (Lee 1991), like the common Nineteenth Century terms savagery and barbarism, has pejorative connotations. Although early life may have been “nasty, brutish, and short’,” as Hobbes suggested, we must remember that these were Noble Savages. They cared about each other and for each other. They shared their lives and labors. They cooperated in raising their kids. We would not be here otherwise. The term “Ancestral Communism” pays proper respect to these people, who, after all, were our ancestors. We owe our existence to them.

Class societies only begin to appear about ten thousand years ago and have dominated the past five thousand years of human history. These class societies are typically associated with large, dense populations based on intensive agriculture. They first appear in Mesopotamia and Egypt, then independently in the Indus Valley and north China, then in Mexico and Peru. From the centers, they spread outward at the expense of the egalitarian, communal societies until now they dominate the earth.

I call these class societies patriarchal systems of class rule (aka civilization) since they are universally characterized by gender as well as class inequality. As Engels correctly notes, the rise of patriarchy, or the “world historical defeat of the female sex” (p. 120), occurs simultaneously with the rise of class rule.

Class societies are divided, basically, into ruling and producing classes with a distinctive social metabolism, Members of the ruling classes enjoy preferential access to the social product, or, in other words, they consume labor energy at a much higher rate than do members of the producing classes. Further, they do not engage directly in production through the direct expenditure of their own labor time.

By contrast, members of the producing classes perform all the labor on which the entire society depends, but their own access to the social product is restricted, so they consume labor energy at a much lower rate than members of the ruling classes. As a result, their standard of living, health, and longevity is much lower than members of the ruling classes. At the same time, they are forced to work much longer hours than their communal ancestors did, for they need to support not only themselves but also the elevated life-style of their predatory ruling classes.

The ruling classes do not engage in production themselves. Instead, they expend their time and energy in maintaining an exploitative system, which, universally, has three components. First, there are the exploitative techniques, or the precise instrumentalities through which surplus is extracted from the direct producers, such as simple plunder, slavery, tribute, rent, taxation, usury, and wage labor. Secondly, there is the State, an organization of monopolizes violence and is thereby able to physically coerce the direct producers. Third, there is the Church, which monopolizes access to the sacred and supernatural and is thereby able to control the minds of the direct producers. The State and the Church, then, form twin agencies of social control, which Leslie White has termed “The State-Church” (White 1959). Let us examine each of these in turn.

The exploitative techniques are the instruments for extracting surplus labor from the direct producers. As Marx notes, quoted above, “exploitation of labor costs labor.” The labor of exploitation involves purposeful activity aimed at the extraction of surplus labor from the direct producers.  It requires time and energy, or labor, to supervise and dominate slaves, to collect taxes, rent, tribute, and interest, and to keep records of all this. These things don’t happen automatically. They require definite inputs of time and energy, both directly by the rulers themselves, and by the functionaries of the rulers—overseers, scribes, bureaucrats, book-keepers, and so on. Ruling classes, therefore, require retainer classes to do much of the actual work of exploiting and ruling.

Similarly, definite inputs of time and energy are needed to support and control the State-Church—supervision, record-keeping, enforcement, and so forth. Again, this is usually carried out by specialized functionaries.

The State and the Church form twin agencies of oppression whose purpose is to support and legitimate ruling class exploitation and the wealth and privileges resulting from exploitation. But in addition to their repressive role, these agencies also carry out a variety of socially beneficial functions.

Marx once wrote of the Asiatic state:

There have been in Asia, generally, from immemorial times, but three departments of Government: that of Finance, or the plunder of the interior, that of War, or the plunder of the exterior; and finally, the department of Public Works. (Marx 1853, p. 90)

Marx’s statement here calls our attention to the dual role of the State, as an agency of oppression and of government.  Generally speaking, the State carried on the following functions in developed class societies: waging war, suppressing class conflict, protecting private property, punishing theft, constructing and maintaining irrigation works, running state monopolies of key economic resources, regulation of markets, standardization of weights and measures, coinage of money, maintaining roads, and controlling education. (White 1959)

The Church is often viewed as a religious institution, but it is also an important agency of social control.  This is well understood by the Catholic Church.  Pope Leo XIII, for example, declared that

God has divided the government of the human race between two authorities, ecclesiastical and civil, establishing one over things divine, the other over things human. (as quoted by White 1959, p. 303)

The importance of the Church in social control is made even more explicit in the following statement of Pope Benedict XV:

Only too well does experience show that when religion is banished, human authority totters to its fall…when the rulers of the people disdain the authority of God, the people in turn despise the authority of men.  There remains, it is true, the usual expedient of suppressing rebellion by force, but to what effect?  Force subdues the bodies of men, not their souls. (as quoted by White 1959, p. 325)

The implication is clear. Only the Church can subdue the souls of human beings and make them accept the oppressiveness of class rule. Leslie White has provided abundant documentation of the role of the Church in subduing the souls of human beings and supporting the ruling class by 1) supporting the State in its functions of waging war, suppressing class struggle, and protecting private property, and 2) “keeping the subordinate class at home obedient and docile” (White 1959, p. 303-328).  The content of the religious ideology promulgated by the Church helps fulfill this latter function by promising the subordinate class in the afterlife the rewards they are denied in this world, and by threatening the punishment of Hell for misbehavior in this world.

The Church also plays an important role in legitimating the system by teaching that the social order is an extension of the natural and sacred orders.  This legitimation has a dual aspect.  First, there is the manipulative, thought control aspect in which the content of religious ideology is consciously shaped in order to support the existing system.  Second, and also very important, is the legitimation of the system, both to the ruled and to the rulers themselves.

To return to my colleague’s comment, perhaps it is true that when large numbers of people come together, they naturally form hierarchies, but the mechanisms they use to naturally form these hierarchies are everywhere the same: violence, exploitation, and thought control. This is true is ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, in ancient India and China, in ancient Mexico and Peru, and in all historic civilizations. It is also true in modern capitalism, but the analysis of capitalism and imperialism requires the more specialized conceptual tools developed by Marx in Capital.

Such, in broad outline, is the metabolism of all class societies. All human societies depend upon definite modes of production (variously categorized as communal, tribal, ancient, tributary, feudal, capitalist, and socialist). As the forces of production develop, and become capable of supporting large, dense, and sedentary populations, some men begin to devise ways of exploiting the labor of others. Over time, these develop into definite modes of exploitation. The mode of exploitation may be thought of as the mode of production of the ruling classes and, of course, undergoes its own development alongside the mode of production (Ruyle 1975)

Future essays will deal with decisive transitions in the evolution of the human social metabolism: the origin of our species (Homo faber) and the origin and evolution of exploitation and class rule (aka civilization), as well as the analysis of capitalism, imperialism, and socialism.


  • Engels, Frederick. 1884. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. New York: International Publishers (1972).
  • Lee, Richard B. 1991. “Reflections on primitive communism.” Pp. 252-68 in Hunters and Gatherers: Volume 1; : History, evolution and Social Change, edited by David Riches Tim Ingold, James Woodburn. New York: Berg.
  • Marx, Karl. 1853. “The British Rule in India.” in New York Daily Tribune. New York: (Reprinted in Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization.  Shlomo Avineri, ed.  New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1969.  Pp. 88-95.).
  • —. 1867. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume I: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965.
  • —. 1894. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume III: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966.
  • Ruyle, Eugene E. 1975. “Mode of Production and Mode of Exploitation: The Mechanical and the Dialectical.” Dialectical Anthropology 1:7-23.
  • White, Leslie A. 1959. The Evolution of Culture. New York: Mc-Graw-Hill.

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