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Labor-power

In order to get at what Marx wants to explain with the labor theory of value, you need to get at what what he means when he’s discussing labor, but to understand this you really need to understand what he means by “labor-power.” The distinction between the two is what allows the LTV to function in the way that it does, and overlooking it is what is at base of many common dismissals of Marx’s value theory. These usually run something like the following:

  1. Let’s suppose that my labor is the source of the value of what I produce.
  2. But then consider what would happen if I set about making a shoe. I don’t really know what I am doing. But I labor all the same. And I spend 12 hours making a pair of shoes. Therefor their value should be equivalent to whatever else might take me twelve hours.
  3. Then I take my shoe to the market, and sell them. Let’s say I can get 12 dollars for them. But this does not work. Because now my labor is only worth 1 dollar per hour. I could just as easily have spent 12 hours working at McDonald’s 12 hours and made 84 dollars.
  4. Obviously the labor theory of value is flawed.

This portrayal of the LTV obscures the distinction that Marx is at pains to draw in Capital, that between labor and labor-power. There are several characteristics of both, and perhaps my dear readers can toss their favorite quotes describing each to me, but for the moment I want to look at the section in Chapter 7 that discusses the capitalist’s perplexity about the genesis of surplus value — that is the seeming strangeness about how one can produce surplus. It is here that the difference between the use-value and the exchange-value of labor-power are made explicit, and here that we can further drive a wedge between labor-power and labor considered in the abstract.

[T]he past labor embodied in the labor-power and the living labor it can perform, and the daily cost of maintaining labor-power and its daily expenditure in work, are two totally different things. The former determines the exchange-value of the labor-power, the latter its use-value. The fact that half a day’s labor is necessary to keep the worker alive during 24 hours does not in anyway prevent him from working a whole day. Therefore the value of labor-power, and the value that labor-power valorizes in the labor-process, are two entirely different magnitudes; and this difference was what the capitalist had in mind when he was purchasing the labor-power. (300)

This is slightly obscure. But not overly so if you can read. There is a slippage between what labor-power can do and what it costs on the market, between its use and its price. A worker can work a whole day; he can be paid for as little — say — as he produces in half of it, just enough to keep him going. The difference between the two is the very thing the capitalist has in mind when he hires an employee, or Marx says,

What was really decisive for him was the specific use-value which this commodity possesses of being a source not only of value but of more value than it has itself. This is the specific service the capitalist expects from labor-power, and in this transaction he acts in accordance with the eternal laws of commodity-exchange. (300-1)

So nice that this works out according to the inviolate nature of society as conceived as a striving collection of self-interested individualists! Some things never change. The section goes on, and it is here that the difference between labor-power and labor is spelled out, by further noting how the rules of exchange are balanced in the favor of the purchaser of labor-power:

In fact, the seller of labor-power, like the seller of any other commodity, realizes its exchange-value, and alienates its use-value. He cannot take the one without giving the other. The use-value of labour-power, in other words labor, belongs just as little as the use-value of oil after it has been sold belongs to the dealer who sold it. (301, emphasis of course mine)

So here we see what Marx means by labor: the use-value of labor-power, the total amount of work done in a day (which is always ultimately determined by specific social relations). Moreover, we see that the internal rules of exchange, the eternal immutable laws posited in capitalist society are imbalanced; they confer right to the use-value of labor-power to those who buy it in exchange, and to those who sell it its price. Insofar as capital is value productive, the former will always be more than the former. But this is not, according to the rules of exchange, “an injustice towards the seller” of labor (301). It is merely how things are. And of course the seller of labor is perfectly free (to starve and) to decline to sell his labor-power. This freedom to decline to labor is why there is such a vested interest in keeping laborers implicated in the system of capitalist production — locked out of private land, and kept away from machinery with which to realize the full product of labor themselves.

At any rate, the price of labor-power is the site of a conflict of interests between two broadly defined economic classes: those who sell their labor-power in order to eat, and those who purchase it in order to make a profit. The price therefor is a mediate measure of two economic impulses: the one wishing to preserve more of its product for itself, the other to garner the greatest amount in profit; the relatively greater power of one will raise or lower the cost of labor-power, and hence its value-portion of a labor-day. That is: wages are determined by class struggle.

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46 Responses

  1. Hi JCD. I just wrote a hideously involved response to this post, which even I had trouble parsing, so here’s trying again.

    Basically, I don’t think the labour / labour power distinction can carry the explanatory weight you’re putting on it here. The distinction gives us (among other things) an account of valorisation - an account of how capitalists make money – given that labour is what produces value. But you can get problems like those you outline at the start of your post just by focussing on the relation between labour and prices – you don’t need to make a detour through wages, and thus through the labour / labour power distinction, in order for the LTV to hit difficulties. Thus the relevant price, in your opening example, wouldn’t be the price of your labour power, but the price of the commodities produced by the use of it: the difference in wages between different industries isn’t what critics of the LTV need point to; and so the labour / labour power distinction doesn’t help counter them.

    Now LTV theorists can, I think, bring on the category of abstract social labour, or of socially necessary labour time, to account for apparent problems along the lines of “what if I’m rubbish at making shoes’”. And then another set of issues unfolds. I’ll leave that alone, since socially necessary labour time is what produced the unreadable first version of this comment. :-P But w/r/t labour power, in my opinion we can pretty easily keep the labour / labour power distinction, and the account of exploitation associated with it, while rejecting the idea that labour alone produces value. I think this gives us a more economically credible account of capitalist exploitation than a lot of the LTV-type-stuff. (I also think it keeps us closer to Marx, but I guess that’s controversial.) I really haven’t read much of the LTV literature, though, so pinches of salt all round.

  2. It sounds like you’re complaining that Jake’s post doesn’t answer a concern you personally have about the LTV, even though answering that objection — whatever it is — wasn’t the point of Jake’s post. (Or maybe it was and I’m totally missing context.) Complaining that a post about x doesn’t mollify your misgivings about y seems sort of silly, no? If you have questions about Marx’s theory of value, the best thing for you to do would be to read Capital and read the copious secondary literature written on this topic. After all, one’s personal confusion about x can’t serve as proof of x’s intrinsic incoherence or invalidity. It would be a strange world indeed if the opposite were the case, right?

  3. Jake, what you say here sounds about right to me. It sounds like what you’re saying is that some critics of Marx’s theory of value identify the value of labor with the time it takes to make a particular thing, but Marx never says anything like that. This is closely related with the error of political economy that Marx points out, viz., the identification of the value of labor with the value of the product. Such an identification obscures the valorization process and the exploitation of labor lying at the basis of it. This is indeed an important aspect of Marx’s theory of value, since the fact that labor is forced to take the form of value is a necessary precondition of exploitation, and the manifestation of this imposition of value is the wage, which itself obscures the process of exploitation. So what you said here is pretty clear to me and gels with my understanding of the imposition of the value-form on labor.

  4. Jim - I’ve been thinking about the LTV quite a bit recently, and there may be a wires-crossed effect, such that I’m responding inappropriately. I took JCD to be arguing that one reason people reject the labour theory of value is that they don’t have an adequate grasp of the labour / labour power distinction. Obviously there can be lots of reasons for scepticism about the LTV, but my feeling is that some of the more significant difficulties can’t be resolved by foregrounding labour versus labour power. The stuff about socially necessary labour time was probably just me haring off after my own preoccupations – but my point was that since it’s labour (the use value of labour power) that’s taken by the LTV to produce value, bringing on labour power may help us to determine the rate of profit or whatever, but doesn’t answer questions about the relation, causal or otherwise, between labour and value.

    But apologies, JCD, if I’m coming at this askew and getting the focus wrong.

    - Duncan

  5. Jim - I’ve been thinking about the LTV quite a bit recently, and there may be a wires-crossed effect, such that I’m responding inappropriately. I took JCD to be arguing that one reason people reject the labour theory of value is that they don’t have an adequate grasp of the labour / labour power distinction.

    First of all, there is no “labor theory of value” in Marx. Marx never uses that phrase to describe what he’s doing in Capital (though I’m not sure if he does in other works).

    Second, Marx does have a theory of value, but that theory is not a theory of how labor generates value so much as it’s a theory of how, under specific historical circumstances, labor takes the social form of value and how as a result the product of labor takes the form of an exchange-value.

    Therefore, thirdly, it is a mistake to restrict one’s understanding of Marx’s theory of value to the exposition given in Chapter 1 of Capital. It in fact requires one to understand the whole of Capital, especially those sections dealing with the imposition of the value-form on labor, which manifests itself as a wage. But that requires one to understand the relationship between labor-power and labor.

    So it might be the case that some people are unhappy with what they see as “difficulties” in “Marx’s labor theory of value”, but if these difficulties are based in a straw man characterization of Marx’s theory, the difficulty is theirs, not Marx’s.

    Obviously there can be lots of reasons for scepticism about the LTV, but my feeling is that some of the more significant difficulties can’t be resolved by foregrounding labour versus labour power.

    I would not say that this distinction is the Archimedian point from which to grasp the essence of Marx’s theory of value; however, one invariably encounters the need to understand this distinction if he’s going to understand correctly what Marx has to say about value when it appears as a wage. Again, if this fails to address “scepticism” of Marx’s theory which is based in a misreading of Marx, I fail to see how that’s a problem.

    but my point was that since it’s labour (the use value of labour power) that’s taken by the LTV to produce value, bringing on labour power may help us to determine the rate of profit or whatever, but doesn’t answer questions about the relation, causal or otherwise, between labour and value.

    Of course it doesn’t address that, but that’s a highly simplistic, reductionist understanding of what Marx actually says about the relationship between labor and value, so I’m not sure why one would need to address it.

    I mean, if that’s really your concern, then that’s correct: the distinction between labor and labor-power won’t resolve it. The only thing that will resolve it is actually reading Capital and understanding what Marx really says.

    If you’re looking for a basic, systematic exposition and defense of Marx’s theory of value — which it sounds like you are — then I recommend I.I. Rubin’s “Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value” which you can get online at marxists.org. That will probably do more for your understanding of Marx than simply wondering in an abstract way whether it’s right or wrong.

  6. Jim - okay. I’ve only read tiny sections of the Rubin, but he seems really good. We may be on much the same page here - I’m not sure I’d totally agree that there’s no ‘Labour Theory of Value’ in Marx, exactly, but I’d definitely agree that the crude LTV you take me to be straw-man-burning is a travesty of Marx’s position. Again - I’m probably coming at this from the wrong context.

    If your take on Capital is close to Rubin’s, I should probably read him properly and figure out exactly what you mean by this:

    that theory is not a theory of how labor generates value so much as it’s a theory of how, under specific historical circumstances, labor takes the social form of value”

    My guess at a gloss on that, not having read the Rubin, would be something like: under capitalism, a social category or social ‘thing’ - call it abstract labour - is produced, which is closely bound up with the category of value, in turn closely bound up with exchange value. I don’t have a problem with something along these lines, I don’t think - although obviously that depends on how it’s fleshed out. In particular, I’d be worried, still, about the direction of causality here. If we’re indeed agreed that labour doesn’t produce value (except trivially, in the sense that labour produces commodities, and commodities are ‘bearers’ of value), then fine - I see this to be a clear consequence of Marx’s argument. However, I’m always profoundly unclear, when people talk about the labour theory of value, if this is indeed what’s meant - partly because, as you say, it no longer seems to make much intuitive sense to talk about ‘The Labour Theory of Value’ in this context, given the other historical resonances of the phrase; and partly because there are passages in Capital that do seem to suggest a ‘crude’ LTV. I think it’s pretty clear that Marx is critical of this position, a lot of the time - but there are also passages that are hard to read except in a (to me) more problematic way (usually in the stuff Marx didn’t work up for publication, which may explain it - but Vol. III, for instance, has plenty).

    Anyway - clearly I’m coming across as some one interested in building a straw man Marx and then knocking him down - which is kind of the opposite of what I want to be doing. My bad.

    The crux seems to me to be what you mean by this: “labor takes the social form of value”. If you felt like expanding on this, I’d be interested - but I’ll probably read the Rubin at some point, and get a better sense of your take on the text that way.

  7. I’m not saying you’re interested in anything. I’m saying you don’t understand Marx’s theory of value. :-) It’s different.

    Clearly labor does produce value. But in what sense? There’s the substance of value, the form of value, and the magnitude of value. Labor plays a different role in all of those. But all of those roles are determined by the social relations present in actual, concrete capitalist society. Different concrete labors are made commensurate with one another by virtue of the exchange of commodities. Commodities cannot be exchanged unless they are made commensurate. This act of making them commensurate makes the labors commensurate. But the only reason they have to be made commensurate in the first place is because individual producers are isolated from one another. In other words, there’s no planning process to effect an equalization of the labors of individual producers, so the only way to bring it about is through the process of exchange on the market. It’s that basic, given social situation — not some magical property of labor in itself — that effects the relationship between labor and value. So trying to boil down Marx’s theory of value to the “direction of causality” between labor and value is to miss the point completely. Marx’s theory of value — and really the whole book is his theory of value, not just the first chapter — is a theory of how concrete social relations give rise to a necessary form of appearance of both labor and value, not simply how labor causes value or value causes labor.

    In fact, Marx never even speaks in terms of causes when he talks about labor and value. Instead he’ll talk about a necessary form of appearance, i.e., how one thing (labor) is forced to appear as another (value) or how value is forced to appear as exchange-value. So whether or not you’re intending to present Marx’s thought in a weak, even nonsensical way, every time you impute to him terminology or concepts he doesn’t use, you are in fact doing that. And that’s the source of your confusion, not a deficit in Marx’s actual theory.

  8. Hey Praxis: I’m going to try to bring the labor-power/labor distinction to bear on skepticism about the LTV. I was going to do it with this post, but then it got too long, and I ran out of energy.

    Thus the relevant price, in your opening example, wouldn’t be the price of your labour power, but the price of the commodities produced by the use of it

    This I think will be shown — or at least I hope to show it — as being derived from the relation of the distinction between the rate of exploitation, which is a result of the class struggle. The price of commodities, it seems, since it is based on getting the great mass of laborers to purchase things to “reproduce” their labor-power, is going to be bound to the total working day and how much is produced therein. For profit to be had, there has to be a difference between total product and the amount purchasable with a day’s wages — total product must have more value than wages. But I will attempt to flesh that out in a companion post.

    Re: socially necessary labor time, I don’t think this is all that problematic. It’s calculable across given industries — how much labor-time is “generally” required, on average, to make a given thing. In every “real” job that I have had, I’ve been given various quotas that I had to meet. You meet or exceed them or you get shitcanned — because if you’re not, the bean counters know that you are not making the company a profit.

  9. Hrm. I do think Marx has a LTV, or I suppose I should say, his value-theory is labor-centric. But where Ricardo, for instance, merely takes wages as a given in the relative theory of price, Marx analyzes them as the product of historically constituted social relations.

  10. Marx never calls his own point of view a “labor theory of value”, and so I think we should apply the term cautiously. If by “labor theory of value” all we mean are theories according to which there is a relation between economic value and labor, then yes, Marx holds one, but that doesn’t tell us much. Marx himself, very early on in the book in Chapter 2, tells us that price not only diverges from the value of the commodity but must necessarily diverge from it. The reason it necessarily diverges is because there is no planned coordination between producers; each produces with no plan other than to make a profit. Why people ignore this and try to look in Marx for a theory of price directly caused (or whatever) by labor is beyond me. Marx very clearly states that the price is caused by other factors, the most important being the capital social relation itself. Ignoring that at the expense of trying to locate a theory of price in Marx is, in fact, the definition of what Marx calls “fetishism”. Trying to come up with a theory by means of which labor creates this thing called “value” is the essence of fetishism. Value is in essence a social relation. That’s Marx’s actual theory of value. That’s what the whole book is about.

  11. Hey guys, I just wrote a huge comment which got swallowed by some computer glitch. :-( I’ll try again shortly…

  12. Okay. It’s probably a good thing that comment got eaten, as it was a little… intemperate :-P. Let’s see if I can do better. [Oh christ this is so long - sorry :-(]

    1) Jim – despite your slightly patronising tone, I think we’re very close on this. It’s mostly my fault for not being clearer where I’m coming from. (Although you’ll probably disagree that clarity is the issue :-P). First up: despite how it may appear, I’m not trying to beat up on some straw man Marx, who holds a ridiculous labour theory of value. Rather, I’m trying to criticise what I take to be a ‘labour theory of value’ held by at least some people (the theory would be, in some form or another, that labour time determines price) and which I take not to be Marx’s position – although (possibly unlike you) I think there’s some solid ground for reading it out of Marx; I don’t think Marx is consistent, and I think he sometimes advances positions that can be critiqued using resources elsewhere in the text. But that’s not really important. Relevant thing is: I agree with you when you complain about people reading Marx this way.

    2) For instance, I agree with this 100%: “Trying to come up with a theory by means of which labor creates this thing called “value” is the essence of fetishism.” I agree 100% - but am sort of surprised: is this really a widely held reading of Marx? If it is I’m delighted, because it means I’m much less out on left-field than I thought. Certainly some of the secondary literature I’ve been reading seems to be saying things a lot like “labor creates this thing called ‘value’”. (Though not Rubin, so far; he looks excellent.) This has been the source of much of the bafflement I mentioned ;-).

    3) So. “Different concrete labours are made commensurate with one another by virtue of the exchange of commodities.” Yes. Provided we understand that this ‘commensurability’ is a socially produced thing that only has reality – though it does have social reality – within the limited context of capitalist production / exchange. I take it that this is what you mean. “Commodities cannot be exchanged unless they are made commensurate. This act of making them commensurate makes the labors commensurate. But the only reason they have to be made commensurate in the first place is because individual producers are isolated from one another.” Yes. Although producers’ labours would have to be made socially commensurate somehow, whether they’re isolated or not - commensurability being a social thing, planning being just as much a “making” of commensurability as market exchange – and ‘isolation’, too, being a socially produced social phenomenon. But this all might go without saying - sorry. “In other words, there’s no planning process to effect an equalization of the labors of individual producers, so the only way to bring it about is through the process of exchange on the market. It’s that basic, given social situation – not some magical property of labor in itself – that effects the relationship between labor and value. So trying to boil down Marx’s theory of value to the “direction of causality” between labor and value is to miss the point completely.” Well…

    4) …Yes. If by ‘value’ we mean a general ‘abstract’ social category, not the kind of value that can be expressed in, or identical with, a market price – i.e. as long as we don’t mean something close to exchange value. If we do mean something close to exchange value (and – to repeat – I’m not saying we should mean this; but I think that plenty of people do mean it… if we are talking about something like exchange value, causation becomes very relevant. Whether it’s a widely held position or not, the ‘labour theory of value’ I was originally complaining about is the idea that labour time in some sense determines, or ‘regulates’ – or causes – exchange value. The position you’re proposing (and which I agree is much closer to much of Marx) wouldn’t involve this. However, it would imply a (presumably rather complex) causal account of the relation between exchange value and labour – even if this isn’t the focus of our attention. Now, I’ve not read much of the Rubin, but this early passage seems to me to be relevant:

    On the market society regulates the products of labor, the commodities, i.e., things. In this way the community indirectly regulates the working activity of people, since the circulation of goods on the market, the rise and fall of their prices, lead to changes in the allocation of the working activity of the separate commodity producers, to their entry into certain branches of production or their exit from them, to the redistribution of the productive forces of society.”

    We’re here talking about the regulation of labour by price - or rather by the social relations embodied in or influencing price (/ market exchange). Again – I’m delighted, but I’m not sure how common this reading is. Certainly I’m not sure that its implications are followed through in a lot of the secondary literature. Here the rise and fall of prices are regulating labour – changing the allocation of working activity – deciding what gets to count as productive labour and what does not. This seems to me to be both a causal account, and a causal account directly opposed to the ‘labour theory of value’ I started off complaining about. You may disagree though?

    5) In any case [still addressing Jim, interminably :-)] I realise this isn’t what you’re talking about when you talk about ‘value’ – your analysis is pitched at a different level. And I need to read the rest of the Rubin. I’m not clear, given what I take all this to imply, what you mean when you say “Clearly labour does produce value.” I agree with this: “If by “labor theory of value” all we mean are theories according to which there is a relation between economic value and labor, then yes, Marx holds one, but that doesn’t tell us much”. Clearly some sense of “labour does produce value” is compatible with this latter formula, but it doesn’t strike me as likely to be a strong one. Which is fine by me – but I’m just not sure I’m reading you right.

    6) Okay. JCD :-). “Re: socially necessary labor time, I don’t think this is all that problematic. It’s calculable across given industries – how much labor-time is ‘generally’ required, on average, to make a given thing. In every ‘real’ job that I have had, I’ve been given various quotas that I had to meet. you meet or exceed them or you get shitcanned – because if you’re not, the bean counters know that you are not making the company a profit.” Yes, exactly :-). But here, again – staying at the causal level (which I realise isn’t the focus of Jim’s analysis) – this is a regulation of labour by market prices, not the other way around. There’s a correlation between (socially necessary) labour and (exchange) value because socially necessary labour is the labour required to make something that can make a profit. Labour doesn’t produce price – the price, and the social requirement of profitability, enforces demands on labour. And your personal concrete labour is therefore regulated by the (market produced) “socially necessary” labour: if your labour falls short of this socially enacted standard, you get shit-canned. In a sense this is a making-commensurable of labour – but in the same sense that demand is “reduced” if prices rise and people can’t afford to buy food. It’s a commensurability that works through the enforced exclusion of certain would-be labourers from the socially general category of labour. (And, eventually, probably, their reabsorbtion into another industry or firm). And, again, this means that on a causal level, “labour” isn’t influencing market price so much as market price is producing and enforcing a certain practice of labour. Again, there’s a sense in which this could be called a ‘labour theory of value’ – but I’m unclear (seriously) if this is in fact what most people mean by that phrase.

    Okay. There’s probably much more to say, but I’ve cluttered your blog with my junk for more than long enough. :-(. Apologies for passive-aggressive length and repetitions and typos, etc. Cheers…

  13. Value mediates between labor and exchange-value. Value is a form of appearance of labor, and exchange-value is a form of appearance of both. That is not the same thing as saying one thing “causes” another. If you believe that Marx’s account of value “would imply a (presumably rather complex) causal account of the relation between exchange value and labour”, then you need to support that with something from the text. You need to produce a quote or a passage from Marx or a series of them showing that Marx believes such a causal relation to hold. Otherwise, I don’t think you’re going to convince me or anyone else who has read Marx and can’t find such an expression of the relation between labor, value, and exchange-value in the work.

    Rather, I’m trying to criticise what I take to be a ‘labour theory of value’ held by at least some people (the theory would be, in some form or another, that labour time determines price) and which I take not to be Marx’s position – although (possibly unlike you) I think there’s some solid ground for reading it out of Marx; I don’t think Marx is consistent, and I think he sometimes advances positions that can be critiqued using resources elsewhere in the text

    Maybe we have different methods of reading. I assume that Marx is smarter than me and has something to teach me, and I assume that he was a careful reader of his own work. If I find one passage x that seems to contradict passage y, I don’t assume Marx has contradicted himself but rather that there’s something I am missing in the reading. For example, here is a very clear, considered statement on the relation between price and what Marx calls “magnitude of value” from Chapter 3:

    The possibility, therefore, of quantitative incongruity between price and magnitude of value, or the deviation of the former from the latter, is inherent in the price-form itself. This is no defect, but, on the contrary, admirably adapts the price-form to a mode of production whose inherent laws impose themselves only as the mean of apparently lawless irregularities that compensate one another.

    I’ve read a considerable amount of Marx, and I can’t find any passage in which he contradicts this point. Can you? If anything, it seems to repeat a very common theme in Marx’s analysis of capitalism: the relationship between equilibrium and disequilibrium. Harvey talks about this early in his book, and Rubin gives an extensive treatment of it. Marx’s theory of value is a theory of equilibrium, but capitalism is a system of disequilibrium (overproduction, for example). Price has to deviate from magnitude of value if such disequilibrium is to occur. So nothing would contradict Marx more than your insistence that labor “causes” price. If Marx’s position is what you say it is, then literally nothing else Marx says about capitalism can make sense, since we can’t have crisis anymore. It becomes a system of equilibrium rather than disequilibrium.

    “Commodities cannot be exchanged unless they are made commensurate. This act of making them commensurate makes the labors commensurate. But the only reason they have to be made commensurate in the first place is because individual producers are isolated from one another.” Yes. Although producers’ labours would have to be made socially commensurate somehow, whether they’re isolated or not - commensurability being a social thing, planning being just as much a “making” of commensurability as market exchange – and ‘isolation’, too, being a socially produced social phenomenon.

    No. By “made commensurate” I mean that they are made equal in terms of their exchange-value. Labors and products cannot be made commensurate in a mode of production where the means of production are not owned privately. This is because the private ownership over the means of production is the condition of having commodity-producing society at all. So in a planned economy, we might distribute labors and products of labor in accordance with their use-values — in terms of what we need — but that’s not at all the same as making them commensurate in the specific economic sense of judging them to be equivalent exchange-values.

  14. For instance, I agree with this 100%: “Trying to come up with a theory by means of which labor creates this thing called “value” is the essence of fetishism.” I agree 100% - but am sort of surprised: is this really a widely held reading of Marx? If it is I’m delighted, because it means I’m much less out on left-field than I thought. Certainly some of the secondary literature I’ve been reading seems to be saying things a lot like “labor creates this thing called ‘value’”. (Though not Rubin, so far; he looks excellent.) This has been the source of much of the bafflement I mentioned ;-).

    Because Marx holds there to be something called “value” which is separate from the observable prices at which commodities exchange, some have criticized Marx for holding on to a ghost-entity which does no empirical work outside of his own theory of capitalism. And since Marx holds that, under capitalism, there is a determinate relationship between labor and value, it’s a short step to concluding that Marx holds labor to have some sort of magical property which produces this unobservable thing, “value”.

    In one sense, such a reading is understandable: given the general reified conditions of capitalist society, we’re trained or conditioned to understand capitalism in economic or atomistic terms. If we’re not speaking in terms of the individual desires or individual people, their personal acts of valuing things, or the empirical things they’re valuing, we might as well be rubbing ourselves in shit and howling at the moon. This is how a lot of econ students think. This is basically Bohm-Bawerk’s line of thought.

    On the other hand, it’s very hard to find the textual basis in Marx for such a reading. He includes the section on Fetishism right after he explains the commodity form. I take the thesis of that section to be: because labors are made commensurate (economically identical) only by means of making the commodities equal, we’re led to the view that these laws of value are in fact laws of things — but really the opposite is the truth, they’re all social relations. And then you’re supposed to read everything in that light. Value is a social relation. Capital is the social relation giving rise to surplus-value. Surplus-value is itself a social relation involving access to social wealth. Etc. It’s clear as day to me on the page, but that may be because I came to Capital without first going through a lot of “Marxist” thought. And maybe it’s also because I’ve explicitly chosen to bracket in a lot of the common criticisms of Marx’s method which say that the labor theory of value isn’t worth a whole lot and we’re better without it. This seems to be the position of a lot of post-war Keynesian Marxism. But my position right now is that if you get rid of the theory of value, there’s really nothing left in Marx. The whole thing is a development of his theory of value.

  15. Labour doesn’t produce price – the price, and the social requirement of profitability, enforces demands on labour.

    Right. But consider for a second what price is. The reason there are prices is because there is no other way to allocate labor and goods under a system where the means of production are owned privately. Because of the concrete social relations, the product of society is a commodity: a use-value which also has an exchange-value. Because there is no other form of coordination between producers, you have the “market” reacting against labor all the time. For example, right now in the States there’s massive overproduction of houses. That was a necessary consequence of the wildly deregulated free market system, not an accident of it. And now that has had massive repercussions on production in other areas and most importantly it’s had an impact on labor. But you can’t reason from any of this that there’s something wrong with Marx’s theory of value. Quite the opposite! Marx’s theory of value is the only theory that really makes sense of why crises like this aren’t just accidents but are inherent in the system. On Marx’s account, price isn’t just something that floats out there and which has this causal effect on labor. On the contrary, price has its basis in the basic social relation that defines capitalism: the contemporary system of slavery defined by the forced imposition of the value-form on labor.

  16. Hi Jim. I’m a bit busy today but I’ll reply to these comments as soon as I can…

  17. Now I just lost a reply. Let’s try again.

    We’re here talking about the regulation of labour by price - or rather by the social relations embodied in or influencing price (/ market exchange). Again – I’m delighted, but I’m not sure how common this reading is. Certainly I’m not sure that its implications are followed through in a lot of the secondary literature. Here the rise and fall of prices are regulating labour – changing the allocation of working activity – deciding what gets to count as productive labour and what does not. This seems to me to be both a causal account, and a causal account directly opposed to the ‘labour theory of value’ I started off complaining about. You may disagree though?

    I don’t deny that there are causal relations in capitalism. Of course there are. Changes in prices have a causal effect on employment. We’re seeing that now in the U.S. and in other developed countries. What I deny is that Marx’s elementary theory of the relation between labor, value, and exchange-value in chapter 1 is a causal theory. It’s a theory of the form of appearance the product of labor must take given the imposition of the commodity-form on labor. (That last part in italics isn’t explicit in the first chapter, but it comes out more clearly as you read the rest of the book.)

    Anyway, sorry for doing this in such a scattered way. I think that about covers it. I’m writing responses in between bouts of slaving for my capitalist masters.

  18. Okay. This is going to be scattershot. [And it’s horrifyingly long – huge apologies, especially to JCD…] It gets less prickly as it goes on :-).

    1) “Maybe we have different methods of reading. I assume that Marx is smarter than me and has something to teach me, and I assume that he was a careful reader of his own work. If I find one passage x that seems to contradict passage y, I don’t assume Marx has contradicted himself but rather that there’s something I am missing in the reading.”

    Well okay. My point is that if I find an apparent contradiction in Marx I don’t assume either that Marx has contradicted himself or that there’s something I’m missing. I try to get the best interpretation I can out of the texts I have, taking it for granted that Marx is extraordinarily brilliant and knowledgeable and all the rest, but also not assuming that he’s consistent. I think that most of the apparent ‘contradictions’ that people point to in Marx’s work are anything but contradictions – a lot of the things that people read as contradictions come from either a) people believing a position that Marx is critiquing is Marx’s own position, or b) Marx just being clever and complex and stuff. I do, at times, find Marx to be inconsistent (though, as I think I’ve mentioned already [it may have been in the comment that got eaten], most of the passages that strike me this way come from stuff he didn’t prepare for publication himself – and no one has a duty to complete self-consistency in draftwork or notebooks, obviously). But this doesn’t mean I’m imputing inconsistency to Marx without aiming to find the best reading available. I think you’re probably hearing my gestures regarding inconsistency as taking more substantial issue with Marx’s work than I am. Anyway.

    2) That out of the way, I think we’re still talking past each other. You write: “nothing would contradict Marx more than your insistence that labor “causes” price.” But I am not insisting that labour “causes” price. I am not insisting this - I am not claiming it. My view, as I’ve said, is that some theories, some of which are referred to under the heading ‘the labour theory of value’ (though this phrase may have other meanings) claim that labour (or labour time) causes price, although accounts of how this causal relation operates differ. I disagree with this, and I believe it’s a misreading of Marx to claim that this is Marx’s theory of value – although (possibly unlike you) I think this kind of thing can plausibly be read out of some of Marx’s work. Nonetheless, I think that to read this out of (or into) Marx is to seriously misunderstand Marx’s critical account of the functioning of capitalism. I think we agree on this – I’m not sure why we’re arguing.

    3) “By ‘made commensurate’ I mean that they are made equal in terms of their exchange value… [etc.]”. Okay. You’re distinguishing terminologically between the equalisation of labour through planning and the making-commensurate of labour through commodity exchange. Fair enough. I wasn’t trying to suggest that these are the same thing, obviously.

    4) Now. I’m not clear on what you’re getting at with this - “If you believe that Marx’s account of value “would imply a (presumably rather complex) causal account of the relation between exchange value and labour” then you need to support that with something from the text” – since you obviously agree that Marx’s description of capitalism (which is, I’m assuming, inseparable from though not identical with his theory of value) involves lots of claims about causal relations between exchange value and labour. This is an obvious, even trivial, point. As you say later, for example - “Changes in prices have a causal effect on employment.” That’s the kind of thing I’m getting at. (You may take this to be obvious – it is obvious – but since you’ve objected when I’ve started talking about the role of causation in Marx’s theory, I’ll make the point anyway.) (I talk a bit about where, in my opinion, it is and isn’t appropriate to see Marx as giving a causal account below, btw.)

    5) So, I’m going to have a shot at saying what I take to be going on here. I’m sure I don’t have anything like an adequate grasp of your views, so you’ll have to correct me if and when I misrepresent what you think.

     — -

    It seems to me that a lot of the talking-past-each-other in this thread comes down to the distinction between exchange value and value. Please note that when I spoke above about causal relations between labour and exchange value, I was talking about exchange value. This is relevant. There’s a big difference between talking about the relation between labour and exchange value, and talking about the relation between labour, value and exchange value. The difference turns on how we understand the category of value.

    What I started off calling ‘the labour theory of value’ – the theory to which I am objecting - does claim that there’s a causal chain running from labour to exchange value. I don’t have any particular versions of this in mind, and there are clearly plenty of versions (as usual, I need to read more of the literature), but it seems to me that at least some of them rest on some kind of conflation of value and exchange value. Many don’t conflate exchange value and value, but nonetheless assign value a causal role in the relation between labour and exchange value. The story here would be: labour ‘causes’ value; value ‘causes’ exchange value. In some more or less elaborate and complicated way.

    - Now, I take it (though I could be wrong about your views) that neither you nor I hold this position, and that neither of us believe it provides a good reading of a) Marx’s account of value, or b) Marx’s account of the causal relations between labour and exchange value. I may be misreading you, in which case please correct me. Running with what I’ve just said, for the moment, there are then two questions:

    1) What is Marx’s account of the causal relation(s) between labour and exchange value?

    2) What is Marx’s theory of value?

    W/r/t (1) I’ve gestured above – very briefly – at what I take to be one important aspect of Marx’s account. To repeat in even more telegraphic terms – the movements of the market, and of the market prices of commodities (both long and short term) – movements of prices which are not caused (even in the long run) by the amount of labour time embedded in commodities (or whatever) [though obviously labour costs are part of the costs of production and there’s a connection between the exploitation of labour and ‘productivity’; but no one’s denying this] – these movements are one of the most important ways in which labour is regulated, and exploited, in capitalism. In order to make a profit, capitalist firms require labour to produce commodities that can be sold on the market for more than the cost of their production. This influences, indeed dictates, both what work is done – no capitalist wants their employees to work at things that won’t make money, even if what makes money may sometimes only be known after the fact – and also how labour is treated within the capitalist firm. My (somewhat obvious) point is that while causal influences run both ways and all over the place, one of the most important such influences is precisely the influence of price over labour – rather than, as what I’m calling the ‘labour theory of value’ tends to emphasise, the influence of labour (/ labour time) over price. Again, you probably regard this as obvious – I’m not totally sure of your take on things. But I think this kind of account (which obviously needs to be just massively more fleshed out) cuts very much against the grain of some theories that go by the name ‘labour theory of value’. Because, basically, it reverses the direction of causation between labour and exchange value. (There’s a whole heap of other stuff going on too, it goes without saying. I just think that this is really important and often downplayed.)

    Now w/r/t (2): This probably gets more to the heart of our discussion, and I’m much hazier here on what the points of disagreement between us are. A few comments back, you wrote: “In fact, Marx never even speaks in terms of causes when he talks about labor and value. Instead he’ll talk about a necessary form of appearance, i.e., how one thing (labor) is forced to appear as another (value) or how value is forced to appear as exchange-value.” It seems to me that here you’re objecting to what you see as my attempt to assign value a causal role in capitalism. (Again, I could be wrong about your objection.) I think you’re hearing me as talking about value when in fact I’m talking about exchange value, and exchange. I take it – though again I’m not sure – that you do not regard value as playing a causal role in the functioning of capitalist society. Again, correct me if I’m wrong.

    So the second question is - what is ‘value’? I’m going to gesture at a possible account. This isn’t something that I’m particularly fiercely attached to (certainly not in the shonky version below). And I probably won’t put it very well. Still…

     —  — 

    We’re dealing with a capitalist economy that regulates labour (and lots of other things) in large part through the relations between commodities. Commodities are related through market exchange, and market exchange takes place within and is enabled by a social system within which commodities are regarded / treated as possessing something called ‘value’. Any individual commodity, when it’s exchanged, is exchanged at a price – and this price is seen as expressive of its ‘value’. [It’s going to sound for a little while here as if I’m conflating value and exchange value; I’m not.] When a commodity is bought or sold, it is bought or sold at its ‘exchange value’. When a commodity is put up for sale in a shop window, with a price tag on it, this price tag indicates what the would-be seller of the commodity intends its exchange value to be. This could change if the business goes under, or something, obviously, but ‘exchange value’ can still be used to talk about intended-prices-of-sale and things like that, if we want to.

    All this is premised, however, on the idea - or (again probably better) the socially enacted social category - of value. Because any given commodity may not sell at the price people expect it to – and because commodities can be sold at what people regard as the ‘wrong’ price (either at the time of sale or retrospectively, as with the bursting of a bubble) this social treatment of commodities necessarily differentiates between ‘value’ and ‘exchange value’. The fact that exchange value does not necessarily equal value is essential to the operation of the social categories ‘value’ and ‘exchange value’. You quoted this passage:

    The possibility, therefore, of quantitative incongruity between price and magnitude of value, or the deviation of the former from the latter, is inherent in the price-form itself.”

    You suggested that I was trying to contradict this point - but I’m not. I believe, like you, that this point is central to Marx’s analysis of the social structure of capitalism.

    However. Because, under capitalism, price is associated with ‘value’ in this way [again; I’m not confusing price with value, or exchange value with value, though that may not be clear yet; I’m saying that they’re connected in the socially produced categories of capitalism] there is a tendency to attribute ‘value’ to commodities, either as if it were a property of the commodities themselves, or, crucially, as if it were some kind of immaterial substance that can inhere in commodities. This would be an immaterial social substance. Because capitalism operates through this mode of social perception and behaviour – because people act as if there were this thing called ‘value’, which can take ‘substantial’ form (even if immaterially) – it is legitimate to say that value has a social reality (though more below). When, however, we talk about Marx’s ‘theory of value’, we’re not talking about a theory of value-as-substance-which-can-inhere-in-commodities, but rather about Marx’s theory of a social form of behaviour and perception which is both produced by capitalist social relations and allows people to behave as if there is such a thing as value-as-substance. We’re talking about a theory of a social form (if you like) which is characterised by the apparent social creation of an ‘immaterial social substance’.

    Value’, then, would be the socially produced ‘substance’ - or, not the same thing, ‘substratum’ - that enables capitalist production and exchange. (Through the kind of making-commensurable you were talking about above.) (In reality, of course, it would be a social relation, or rather the product of a complex set of social relations).

    Unfortunately for political economy, however, value does not in fact behave like a substance. It is, if you like, a contradictory thing, a contradictory social thing, because ‘value’ must both a) behave as if it can be ‘pinned down’ in an exchange value, and b) always be capable of deviating from its supposed manifestation, even as it is ‘manifested’. A better way of putting things would therefore be: under capitalism we socially produce a social ‘thing’, ‘value’, and behave as if it behaved as if it were a substance. A theory of value, if it is to be adequate, cannot theorise value as substance, even in the limited sense of channelling what’s socially ‘valid’ under capitalism. It must instead give a full account of the social relations that produce value as social reality.

    This means that there are at least two levels of engagement with the category of ‘value’, in Marx. There’s the ‘political-economic’ level, within which value is treated as something like a ‘substance’ that can inhere in commodities, because this is part of how the value form operates in capitalist social relations, and (as I’ve said) has a certain validity in terms of those relations. Then there’s the level at which Marx examines, if you like, the social conditions of possibility of this ‘substantialist’ use of the social category ‘value’, and also describes the way in which the functioning of ‘value’, as a set of social relations, fails to correspond to its own ‘substantialisation’.

    Value-as-substance can’t in itself provide any kind of causal account of anything, unless it’s re-understood as what it really is – a social relation or relations – and then the causal account will just be account of those relations, and how they produce capitalist social reality. The problem with ‘economistic’ accounts of value is that they act as if value-as-substance were a causal agent.

    Okay. For what it’s worth (and changing gears), when I talk about inconsistencies in Marx, I’m thinking of moments in which I see him as moving into a semi-‘substantialist’ treatment of value, despite the fact that the level of his analysis at these moments should restrict him to a discussion of the social relations that produce the ‘value form’. I’m not particularly keen on arguing back and forth about how much Marx does this – I mention it just because I think that these sorts of moments in Marx are where some of the LTV-type reads come from (reads that I, like you, see as missing the thrust of Marx’s critique). In any case, it’s this kind of move that I see as producing what I (again like you) regard as fetishised forms of economic analysis. I’d argue, of course, that these kinds of problems are exemplified in modern equilibrium analysis and so on. But that’s a whole other story.

     — -

    * sigh *. Okay. This comment is just unconscionably long – I’m really sorry to flood your site JCD :-(. Just really quickly to finish: Jim – if you’ve actually read this (which… who would :-P), and if you feel like replying (ditto…) I’ve got some quick questions (though whether they can be answered quickly is another matter… :-)).

    1) To what extent (if any) is the kind of thing I’m hitting at above the kind of thing you’re trying to say when you talk about Marx’s theory of value?

    2) What do you mean by ‘mediates’ when you talk about value mediating between labour and exchange value?

    3) Most of all I’m curious what you mean when you say: “Marx holds that, under capitalism, there is a determinate relationship between labor and value”. What definition of ‘value’ (and of ‘labor’, for that matter) do you have such that there can be a determinate relation between value and labour?

    I should also add that I’ve not had much practice at writing about this kind of stuff, and there are, I’m sure, many inadequate formulations in the above, in addition to the usual typos etc. I hope I’ve not said anything I’ll cringe at if I read it back tomorrow…

    So so sorry about the incredible length.

    Best…

  19. Hmmm… reading that back I’m worried that I’m still over-emphasising the extent to which I see Marx as inconsistent. Basically: Marx is awesome. Glad to clear that up.

    (I’m getting off your site, now, JCD, I promise!)

  20. Okay. I see now that you’re not attributing to Marx the view that he holds a labor theory of value according to which price is determined by labor. However, I can hardly be blamed for reading you as saying this. You replied with these concerns to a post dealing with Marx’s labor theory of value, not with someone else’s labor theory of value. You haven’t even specified who these other people are, so exactly who your objections are aimed at and why you’re voicing them here in a post about Marx is extremely obscure.

    That being said, if you want to understand how a causal account fits into Marx’s theory of capitalism, you need to begin by distinguishing it from the analytical account of value Marx gives in the opening chapter of Capital.

    Briefly, in Chapter 1, Marx explains how the substance of value is abstract labor and the magnitude of value is determined by socially necessary labor time. None of these can be causal relationships because none of these are physical objects. They’re social relations.

    It’s different if we’re talking about the fluctuation of prices on the market and actual, concrete laborers. Of course there can be causal relations between those things, because they’re concrete physical things. The way in which they effect one another is determined by the social relation. You can’t understand why there are crises, consistent unemployment, layoffs, etc., unless you go back to the theory of value. The theory of value tells you why they’re able to cause one another at all in the way they do, but the theory of value is not itself a causal theory. It’s much closer to a metaphysical theory, albeit a historically conditioned one. The theory of value is the essence of the capital social relation itself. But that’s a different level of analysis from the analysis of actual market prices effecting actual labor.

    Does that make sense?

  21. praxis, you seem to be asking what does labour have to do with the value of commodities?

    and the answer is: “dead” labour, the quality of having been made by people for use by people, is the only thing all commodities have in common. It is the only common denominator of all commodities, thus it is the only property that can serve as the basis for equivalences between things which are very diverse, in systems of exchange between _individual human proprietors_.

    Exchange-value seems at first to be a quantitatve relation, the proportion in which use-values are exchanged for one another. In this relation they constitute equal exchangeable magnitudes. Thus one volume of Propertius and eight ounces of snuff may have the same exchange-value, despite the dissimilar use-values of snuff and elegies. Considered as exchange-value, one use-value is worth just as much as another, provided the two are available in the appropriate proportion. The exchange-value of a palace can be expressed in a definite number of tins of boot polish. London manufacturers of boot polish, on the other hand, have expressed the exchange-value of their numerous tins of polish in terms of palaces. Quite irrespective, therefore, of their natural form of existence, and without regard to the specific character of the needs they satisfy as use-values, commodities in definite quantities are congruent, they take one another’s place in the exchange process, are regarded as equivalents, and despite their motley appearance have a common denominator.

    Use-values serve directly as means of existence. But, on the other hand, these means of existence are themselves the products of social activity, the result of expended human energy, materialized labour. As objectification of social labour, all commodities are crystallisations of the same substance.”

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/ch01.htm

    I don’t see how this is metaphysical - it’s really very straightforward and kinda obvious if you think about it for a second or two.

  22. Hey Praxis. There’s a section in Chapter 6 that lays out what Marx is getting at when he discusses the labor-market, and how this relates to his theory of valuation. In short I think that we’re pretty close to agreement about the “market” regulating the price of labor; but Marx I think is attempting to show how the “laws” of the market are not merely arbitrary, but are the result of specific social relations — that between those who sell their labor and those who buy it. I will expand on this in a bit. Tonight however I eat cheese. And drink wine.

  23. Damn – now I want cheese and wine. :-)

    Jim –

    w/r/t why I voiced these concerns as a comment to JCD’s post – it was because I took his post to be aimed, in part, at combating criticisms of the labour theory of value. I understood ‘the labour theory of value’ to be the theory that, under capitalism, price is determined by labour time. (I understood JCD to be attributing some kind of LTV to Marx – I don’t want to put words in JCD’s mouth, obviously; I’m just trying to make clear where I was coming from). Since I disagree with the LTV, I left a (hopefully not too obnoxious) comment gesturing at some of the reasons why. Since I don’t think Marx is best read as proposing an LTV [though, again, I think he can be plausibly so read], I added, parenthetically: “I also think it [my scepticism about the LTV] keeps us closer to Marx”. [And I added that this may be a controversial interpretation.] In retrospect, I should have been way more explicit about all this, clearly.

    exactly who your objections are aimed at and why you’re voicing them here in a post about Marx is extremely obscure”

    Well – I see lots of readings of Marx as attributing to Marx a labour theory of value :-). That’s why. [That plus all the numberless qualifications and provisos I’ve already interminably gestured at.]

    Chabert, hi - that’s a beautiful quote. I agree, of course, that there’s nothing metaphysical about Marx’s theory. (Jim – I’m not sure how you’re appropriating the term?) Consider this again, though:

    As objectification of social labour, all commodities are crystallisations of the same substance.”

    Is this account obvious if we think about it for a second or two? Doesn’t it seem sort of counter-intuitive? What “substance” are we talking about, such that it can be “crystallised”? “Social labour”? How does “social labour” get produced (if you see it as being ‘produced’?), such that it has these properties, and can be understood as behaving like a substance? I think all this is non-intuitive; I think it requires further theorisation / explication; I think Marx provides that further theorisation, but that in doing so he hugely complicates, and in some respects undermines, the idea of value-as-substance-as-social-labour. (My last horribly long comment hopefully gives a slightly better sense of my take on this.)

    I don’t want to go on forever again. But just quickly (talking to Chabert still :-)): you call ‘dead’ labour “the only property that can serve as the basis for equivalences between things which are very diverse, in systems of exchange between _individual human proprietors_.” How are you understanding the historical register, here? With ‘individual human proprietors’ are you limiting this account to capitalism? Would you see dead labour as playing the role of providing equivalence between use-values in some non-capitalist societies? I’m strongly inclined to read Capital’s theory of value as restricted to capitalist production / exchange. I think Marx, in Capital, sees capitalism as unique in producing the social category of ‘social labour’. If this is right, surely there must be other mechanisms of equivalence in other, non-capitalist, systems of exchange? In which case, again, doesn’t the idea of ‘social labour’ as basis of equivalence lack intuitiveness - or wouldn’t its intuitiveness have to be explained with reference to intuitions produced by capitalist social relations? You may not be restricting the category in this way, though.

    And real quick: JCD :-) - I didn’t mean to suggest that movements of the market are arbitrary. Just that they can’t be accounted for by the labour time > exchange value theory. But enough from me for now. Enjoy cheese.

  24. I do think it is metaphysical or that there’s at least metaphysics behind it. Marx gets the distinction between use-value and exchange-value from Aristotle’s Politics, which he cites in the Contribution. For Aristotle, exchange-value is inherently problematic, because it assumes that qualitatively distinct use-values have something in common by virtue of which they can be made equal. It then raises the metaphysical question: what is that thing which substances have in certain quantities which makes some exchanges fail and some unfair? He presents and fails to solve this problem in Nicomachean Ethics 5.

    You can see that the problem is one of the ends or purposes of things. Things with distinct purposes must be really distinct things. If I aim at one thing with a hoe and another thing with a rake, they can’t be the same thing. And yet they are treated as identical in virtue of something in their exchange. This is a common sense point of view, but it also implies a metaphysics of things: that they are determined in their beingness by the purposes they serve. One can simply make believe that all things aim at the same purpose — say, maximizing utility or happiness — but then that requires replacing one metaphysics with another (arguably less plausible) one.

    One can argue as some did that the labor makes the two things equal. But this doesn’t work either, since labors are distinguished by their ends just as objects are. Take away the distinct ends, and you obliterate the beingness of the labors. Sure, one can treat all labors equally insofar as they’re expenditures of human energy, but that’s thin gruel for constructing a theory of value.

    A very serious student of Aristotle, Marx was highly sensitive to this problem. Those who attempt to impute to Marx Smith’s or Ricardo’s labor theories of value don’t understand that, from Marx’s perspective, such a theory isn’t just empirically inaccurate but is a metaphysical impossibility. It’s Marx’s Aristotleanism which makes such a reply impossible for him. It’s for this reason that he writes section two of chapter one of Capital, which he considered to be one of his two or three unique contributions.

    So yeah, I would call this a metaphysical problem. It’s an area of metaphysics — metaphysics of (economic) value — that I think very few people have bothered with. The analytic of value in chapter one is no more “economics” than Nicomachean Ethics 5 was. The problem is: what is value? What must labor be like to create value? And I don’t think the problem is solved in chapter 1 or in the corresponding section of the Contribution. If you restrict yourself to those, you’re not going to get the answer. (Though I think the answer in the Contribution is more revealing.)

  25. Doesn’t it seem sort of counter-intuitive?”

    Not to me, no, it doesn’t…

    What “substance” are we talking about, such that it can be “crystallised”?”

    Well, the human species is substantial, we exist, we have certain capacities - ““Social labour”?” among them, purposeful expenditure of human energy, it’s complex assuredly, we don’t know everything about how life works, how we think, but that doesn’t mean it’s insubstantial. Crystallised, given a concrete and definite form - a metaphor: you have lots of physical actions, over time, and the premeditated result is a cigarette lighter. The cigarette lighter is the “crystallisation” of all the human actions which resulted in it. Like ants and ant cities.

    http://www.antstuff.net/assets/images/ant-city-3.JPG

    The latter “crystallise” the ant life, all the ant actions, that produce them. Don’t you see all that ant life when you look at that ant city? Our environment today and everything in it is a ‘crystallisation’ of history, of all the actions that produced it.

    How does “social labour” get produced (if you see it as being ‘produced’?),”

    among our capacities there is language and self consciousness, so the individual organisms that make up the species can coordinate activities.

    Would you see dead labour as playing the role of providing equivalence between use-values in some non-capitalist societies? ”

    In some highly active commercial situations, with highly homogenised productive labour, it does seem as though labour value governed the exchanges of certain abundant commodities, abundant peasant produced agricultural products that were exchanged in large volumes, for example in the Ottoman Mediterranean in the 16th-17th century. If you look at something like olives and the products made from olives (oil, soap), it seems as though yeah, its pretty obvious already the more labour, the more the commodity is worth. The kind of labour involved is not as homogenised and temporally measured as assembly line factory labour, but it’s pretty fungible - peasants producing olives, olive oil, and olive oil soap.

    Viticulture and its products. England ate all the dried raisins in the world practically in the 16th and 17th centuries, and most of them went through Venice. England also imported grape products – wine, brandy – from elsewhere. Viticulture is pretty uniform labour-wise in this period all around the med. England was capitalist; Venice and the eastern Mediterranean where the raisins came from, were not. A lot of other stuff was shipped through or from Venice to England in this period. So that’s an interesting period and circuit of commodities to examine. I would say yeah, labour value is already appearing in abundant luxury commodities even though they were not being produced by commodified labour. Can you think of a single instance of a reasonably abundant commodity involving little social labour consistently more expensive than those involving more?

    But when producers are seperated from their means of producing their subsistence, there is a qualitative change, because they must sell their labour power, all they have to sell, for money to acquire what they need and want, to reproduce themselves. Labour power like every other commodity has a labour value - that is, there is a certain amount of social labour “crystallised” in the labourer’s capacity to labour, in the human being’s capacity to labour. With formally free labourers, who have the title to their own labour power, labour power is sold in lots of time, a day, an hour. And these labourers are now buyers of commodities as well, not the case with the peasant producers of commodities even in developed mercantile societies, so that the necessary labour - the labour needed to reproduce the producers - and the surplus labour become visible. So the commensuration of the products of this labour, including the human life that is the capacity to perform it, becomes more consistent.

  26. Jim, I don’t think Marx, at least not by the time of Capital, accepted that the question “what is value” could have anything other than an historical materialist answer. “One can argue as some did that the labor makes the two things equal. But this doesn’t work either, since labors are distinguished by their ends just as objects are.” But Marx never says commodities which are exchanged as equivalents are therefore identical or the same or even similar; they are simply exchangable for one another as equivalents in certain social arrangements. A metaphysical bent of mind might require a certain kind of explanation for this equivalence for the purposes of exchange - there is some ghostly essence which they share which would somehow necessitate this, so that exchange would be latent in matter itself - but I don’t think Marx was of this disposition. The equivalence of commodities is produced by people in social relations just as the commodities are produced by people in social relations. “Sure, one can treat all labors equally insofar as they’re expenditures of human energy, but that’s thin gruel for constructing a theory of value.” It is the basis for the theory of value - the human capacity to produce what human beings can use is the basis for the theory of value. The variety of labours is produced by people also, skill differences etc, all this is as much a product of human capacities, of social labour - of the total human creative activity - as the products these varied labours make. Everything begins and ends with purposeful human action that is production and “enjoyment” of one kind or another.

  27. the idea of value-as-substance-as-social-labour”

    i think you are shuffling the terms around and also replacing substance with a homonym. Social human labour is the substance of value, not the other way around. So the assertion is that social labour is the material, the pith, essence, matter, content of value, value being the relations between individuals of the human species which appear as the relations between things the human species produces. Social labour is simply literal, referring to socially performed human labour. It is assumed you know what social labour is, that the referent of this literal language is accessible to your understanding without difficulty - there’s no suggestion that it is secretly something else, a glowing green slime, a magic stone. You are assumed to understand social labour as a material process.

    The human species is a biological species which has capacities to alter its environment in purposeful ways. Use value is the relation between the species and individuals of the species to aspects of the environment and the products of the exertion of its own capacities. When the means of these activities and the products of these activities are enclosed in private property, it is human life itself that is alienated and subjected to the ownership of a minority of individuals of the species.

    It is not a matter of living labour being realised in objective labour as its objective organ, but of objective labour being preserved and increased by the absorption of living labour, thereby becoming self-valorising value, capital, and functioning as such. The means of production now appear only as absorbers of the largest possible quantity of living labour. Living labour now appears only as a means for the valorisation and therefore capitalisation of existing values. And, leaving aside our previous analysis, the means of production again appear, precisely for that reason, as éminemment the presence of capital vis-à-vis living labour, and indeed they now appear as the rule of past, dead labour over living labour. Living labour, precisely in its value-creating function, is constantly incorporated into the valorisation process of objectified labour. Labour, as the exertion, the expenditure of vital forces, is the personal activity of the worker. But as value-creating, as engaged in its own objectification process, the labour of the worker itself becomes a mode of existence of the value of the capital, incorporated into the value of the capital, once he enters into the production process. This power of preserving value and creating new value is therefore capital’s power, and the process appears as one of capital’s self-valorisation, while the worker who creates the value — value alien to him — is on the contrary impoverished.”
     http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/economic/ch02.htm

  28. Hey guys. I totally agree with Chabert about Marx’s historical materialism. On the other stuff - not sure I’ve got time to respond properly tonight. Will soon. Cheers…

  29. Okay. Hey Chabert. This’ll be too hasty, I’m afraid.

    i think you are shuffling the terms around and also replacing substance with a homonym. Social human labour is the substance of value, not the other way around. So the assertion is that social labour is the material, the pith, essence, matter, content of value…”

    W/r/t to homonyming – that’s interesting. Don’t forget that I see Marx as critiquing the green slime sense of substance, w/r/t value. W/r/t ‘social labour’ – I think this is an important disagreement. I don’t deny that the kind of thing you’re talking about is there in Marx – the literal sense, if you like. But I also think ‘social labour’ refers to a social category specific to and produced by capitalist social relations. (Doesn’t mean that I’m treating it as a magic stone of course. If you wanted you could just talk about all the social relations themselves.)

    From Ch. 1: “Men do not therefore bring the products of their labour into relation with each other as values because they see these objects merely as the material integuments of homogenous human labour. The reverse is true: by equating their different products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour.” (p. 166 of the Fowkes)

    This equation of labour is something we do - it may connect, in some ways, to a transhistorically-applicable category of human-labour-in-general. But that doesn’t mean that the category of social labour (as the equivalence or homogenisation of individual labours through capitalist exchange) isn’t socially produced and doesn’t have social effects that human-labour-in-general itself couldn’t. And these social practices – the practices that equate labour in this way – are specific to capitalism.

    In your earlier comments chabert you talked about the crystallisation of labour as just the production of stuff by people (or by ants or whatever). Assuming we’re restricting ourselves to human labour – or to social human labour, understood as an ahistorical category (i.e. one that could be applied to almost any human society) the problem is: this is way too general a category to have any real explanatory / elucidatory power w/r/t capitalism. Doesn’t loads of human activity (arguably almost all of it) fall into this category, including stuff that has no role in the production of capitalist value?

    The usual example is housework – which is often unpaid labour, the results of which are not sold in or granted ‘value’ by the capitalist exchange system. Does housework not count as labour? In a sense it doesn’t. In a more general sense – the sense I think you’re using – it does; but how does this sense connect up with the claims of political economy, or our critique of it? If housework is labour, and labour is the substance (matter, content, pith) of value, where’s the value? Assuming you can have labour without (capitalist) value, but not value without labour (which would eliminate the problem), the question then becomes: what’s the content of our theory? What’s it actually saying or doing beyond the claim that commodities are produced by people doing stuff – which of course is clear as day.

    Can you think of a single instance of a reasonably abundant commodity involving little social labour consistently more expensive than those involving more?”

    Well – this is where my lack of grounding in actual empirical economics comes back to bite me on the arse. :-P. But a couple points.

    - As I say, I don’t see the logical connection between the kind of very general claims you’re making about human activity and this kind of political-economic claim. How do you get from there to here?

    - That aside. The idea is that social labour in the context of production-for-sale does in some sense determine price, right? As I say, I don’t actually have any data. But isn’t it a pretty familiar fact that lots of cheap commodities are produced in sweatshop conditions, and that they’re cheap not because so little labour’s gone into their production relative to comparable commodities, but simply because the workers in question are paid fuck all? At the other end of the scale, aren’t we familiar with highly desirable & exclusive brands, etc. producing wildly expensive commodities for not much labour to speak of? These seem to me like fairly intuitive examples where there isn’t much correlation between labour in and value out.

    You say “reasonably abundant commodity” – which would exclude from consideration extremes of scarcity and over-abundance, where supply and demand would presumably play a major role in determining market price (I guess my ‘exclusive brands’ might fit into that category, arguably). I’m not sure why it makes sense to eliminate these scenarios from our theory of value. Assuming we do, and we’re talking just about scenarios of reasonable abundance, surely there’s a commonsensical reason why there would tend to be some correlation between the labour involved in a commodity’s production and the commodity’s price: for most industries, labour is one of the main costs of production. That in itself would give you some connection between labour and price – but of course mainstream economics would give you the same connection; so there’s no critical leverage.

    All in all, I don’t understand what useful claims the LTV is meant to be making.

    I should add that partly because I’m rushing a bit and partly because I’m talking to Chabert both the terminology and stuff under discussion has shifted since I was talking with Jim above – I’ve stopped making the value / exchange value distinction, for instance. That may be unwise – but I hope it’s clear what I’m saying.

    That was a cool ant city. :-)

  30. Right. One of the questions Marx is trying to answer in chapter 1 of Capital is: by virtue of what does an equal exchange take place? What is it that allows two qualitatively different use-values to have identical exchange-values? It’s the exact same question Aristotle unsuccessfully attempts to answer in Nicomachean Ethics 5. In fact, the very distinction between use-values and exchange-values is one Marx explicitly takes from Aristotle, as Marx himself admits in the first footnote in chapter 1 of the Contribution. Marx knows that an account of exchange is only as good as its ability to say what the different sorts of things have in common that lets one say x houses = y beds or x commodity A = y commodity B. Marx explicitly intends to reproduce Aristotle’s problem in the opening pages of Capital and the Contribution.

    It’s important to notice that the only way such a problem can arise at all is if one takes the Aristotlean metaphysics of substance as one’s starting point. Aristotlean metaphysics is a theory according to which the sorts of things that can be said to exist are qualitatively distinct substances that naturally achieve distinct ends or are used to achieve distinct ends. It’s an obvious, common sense view on the world according to which the most basic elements of experience aren’t atoms or sense impressions but rather really existing whole entities caught up in a web of purposes. This metaphysical starting point makes all the difference in one’s account of exchangability. If one assumes, as empiricists do, that the only really existing things are discrete sense impressions and that we only unite these sense impressions into objects by convention, then one won’t run into the problem of how to make qualitatively distinct things commensurate. The utilitarianism that is based on this empiricism will have no difficulty saying that we aim at the same thing with all items and all actions: pleasure. Then it’s just a matter of quantifying this pleasure to come up with an economic theory. That’s what Jevons in fact does, and it’s the opening shot of marginalism. Marx rejects a marginalist solution, because he rejects the flattening of experience that comes with the adoption of an empiricist metaphysics. Marx is an Aristotlean, so his starting point is qualitatively distinct use-values that serve different purposes.

    Same goes for labor. If labor is the matter of exchange value (its “substance”), it can’t be natural or useful labor like Smith and Ricardo thought. This is because Marx starts from an Aristotlean understanding of human action. Human labors are what they are by virtue of the distinct ends they serve. One could just treat them as physiological labors pure and simple, an expenditure of sweat and energy, but that would be just as invalid as the marginalist move. And it’s invalid from a metaphysical point of view. That’s why Marx rejects it. Marx recognizes that such a role can only be played by a labor that is metaphysically peculiar, a labor which is homogeneous, uniform, and without quality. If natural labor is at the bottom of such abstract labor, then it must have undergone a transformation to become such a kind of labor. The transformation turned it from labor discriminated into species into labor all of the same species. According to Marx, this sort of labor is brought about by systematic exchange. There was a change which fundamentally changed labor from one sort of thing into another. This transformation is invisible if one starts from a utilitarian metaphysics of action according to which all labors aim at pleasure.

    So yes, Marx’s theory of value is in fact a metaphysical and historical theory of value. I think it’s quite impossible to see the substance of the divergence between Marx’s account of value and utilitarian or marginalist accounts of value without keeping Marx’s metaphysics in mind. And I think a proper defense of Marx’s position against the other side requires one to ground it in a defensible metaphysics. Because that’s clearly how Marx understands his own work.

  31. It’s the exact same question Aristotle unsuccessfully attempts to answer in Nicomachean Ethics 5”

    But Marx does not leave the reason for his failure mysterious:

    Aristotle thus tells us himself just where his further analysis suffers shipwreck, namely, on the lack of the concept of value. What is that which is equal, i.e. the common substance, which the house represents for the bed in the expression of the value of the bed? Such a thing ‘cannot in truth exist’, says Aristotle. Why? With respect to the bed the house represents something which is equal (stellt ein Gleiches vor) insofar as it represents what in both, the bed and the house, is really equal. And that is – human labour.

    But the fact that in the form of commodity-values all labours are expressed as equal human labour and hence as counting equally (als gleichgeseltend) could not be read out of the value-form of commodities by Aristotle, because Greek society rested on slave labour and hence had the inequality of people and their labours as a natural basis. The secret of the expression of value, the equality of all labours and the fact that all labours count equally because and insofar as they are human labour as such can only be deciphered when the concept of human equality already possesses the fixity of a popular prejudice. But that is only possible in a society in which the commodity-form is the general form of the product of labour and thus also the relation of people to one another as possessors of commodities is the ruling social relation. The genius of Aristotle shines precisely in the fact that he discovers in the expression of value of commodities a relation of equality. Only the historical limit of the society in which he lived prevents him from finding out what, ‘in truth’, this relation of equality consists in. ”

    I don’t know what’s gained by labelling Marx “an Aristotelian” except to inject some essentialism as if it were necessarily implied though overtly rejected; does the appeal for Marx of some (much) of Aristotle’s holistic thought and ‘consequentialist’ posture justify imposing Aristotle (and his metaphysics) whole on Marx when Marx explicitly rejects it? (rejecting Aristotle’s theory and praxis, along with eternal man and eternal nature and science and morality, everything that goes with it) There’s a swipe at (revered, honoured, of course, the dear old wise one) Aristotle quoted in the post above here…on the topic of justice and exchange. It was in search of justice that Aristotle finds himself pondering commensurability of products of labour.

    Because that’s clearly how Marx understands his own work.”

    Don’t think that’s the case really, though so many Marxists do pile on the Aristotle (and Kant); I think Marx was repeatedly insisting that value is a history of praxis, humanity is too - not essence. When dealing with value we are dealing with properties of processes only, lived relations.I’m sure Marx never proposed that human thought - intention, design, unique species capacity to belong to the kingdom of ends - was somehow not physiological.

    praxis - social labour:

    As the exchangeable values of commodities are only social functions of those things, and have nothing at all to do with the natural qualities, we must first ask, What is the common social substance of all commodities? It is labour. To produce a commodity a certain amount of labour must be bestowed upon it, or worked up in it. And I say not only labour, but social labour. A man who produces an article for his own immediate use, to consume it himself, creates a product, but not a commodity. As a self-sustaining producer he has nothing to do with society. But to produce a commodity, a man must not only produce an article satisfying some social want, but his labour itself must form part and parcel of the total sum of labour expended by society. It must be subordinate to the division of labour within society. It is nothing without the other divisions of labour, and on its part is required to integrate them.”

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1865/value-price-profit/ch02.htm

    Commodity production, and social labour, exists in societies dominated by the peasant mode of production or others; but in the capitalist mode of production, it is the principal, dominant, universal type of production. The assertion is that commodities have labour values as a result - as Jim notes - of a certain state of exchange, a certain commercial development. The commodification of labour as labour power is not necessary for the appearance of labour value, though its not so consistent, there are discontinuities between spheres of production (urban artisan manufacture, rural peasant production).

    But isn’t it a pretty familiar fact that lots of cheap commodities are produced in sweatshop conditions, and that they’re cheap not because so little labour’s gone into their production relative to comparable commodities, but simply because the workers in question are paid fuck all?”

    These commodities are not cheap _for the producers who produce them_. Who also exist and have to live. Whose labour power is also a commodity in relation to which these commodities exist and thus a factor in their value. The price for you is one anecdote, a robinsonade. These commodities are “cheap” for you. For the capitalist, these products are actually free and then some.

    So: how is it that depressing the wages of commodity producers in sweatshops makes things cheaper for some consumers? Why should the wages of the producers have any effect on the relations of these products to your labouring life? On what you have to exchange for these products? What’s happening here? (are you arbitraging labour power when you buy a dvd player?)

    If something is getting cheaper for you, and more expensive for those people who produce it and everyone sharing their social standard of living, is its value really declining? Might not their socially determined standard of living and yours be diverging?

    Price…is an anecdote. It is a one to one relation between two specific commodities at least one of which has to be money at a specific time and place. In many commodities you buy, price includes monopoly rents for intellectual property and the like.

    The international division of labour, maintained and shaped by imperialism, clearly gives rise to ever more complex relations between value (the relation of a given commodity to every other commodified use value in existence) and prices (the relation in a specific time and place between a given commodity for sale and local money.) There’s labour devoted to maintaining the international division of labour, and imperialism, too - it’s a pretty labour intensive endeavour.

  32. That is correct. Marx is in fact an essentialist.

    I think you’re getting confused because you think being historical and being metaphysical are mutually exclusive. Hegel clearly showed they’re not. On this point, there’s hardly any distance at all between Marx and Hegel.

  33. This has been an interesting conversation. I don’t really think I have a horse in the Marx as essentialist race: the most interesting aspects of his theory seem to boil down to the simple proposition that the best way to get a grip on the dynamics of human society is to look at the social relations of the people living within it. Which might be construed in an abstract way, but I think that that would be an error; it’s better to approach these things from the raw concrete muck wherein they find their existence. But I’ve always had a thing for sensuality.

    Praxis: “I didn’t mean to suggest that movements of the market are arbitrary. Just that they can’t be accounted for by the labour time > exchange value theory.” I am fairly godawful at economic math, but there is an interesting paper by Anwar Shaikh where he looks at the correlation of relative prices to relative labor costs. This was in Ricardo — who claimed that there was a 91% correlation I believe. Ricardo is roundly lambasted of course. But by using data from the States post WWII through the 70s, Shaikh demonstrates that there is a greater than 91% correlation in the ratio of prices to labor costs (determined throughout all the stages of manufacture). Ricardo apparently was more right than he himself was willing to claim. As I said, I am godawful at economics math; but I sat through a lecture course with Shaikh and one day he went through this, and it was fairly compelling. I have to work through the paper a bit more in depth to better appreciate the methodology. But if it is kosher, then it is in fact true that there is a greater than 90% correlation of relative prices to relative labor. A 90% correlation in economics is pretty staggering.

    But more importantly: even the classical economics did not think that any labor was “productive.” A specific sort of labor is posited as being necessary. Ricardo more or less took it as a given in working out his theory, but he did so because he was a theorist of the capitalists for the capitalists; Marx, who approached capitalism from an opposing view was more interested in the genesis of the position of those who were selling their labor-power on the labor-market, and thereby producing value. This is what ‘labor’ has to be to be sensible as a source of valorization for Marx. So, the argument that “labor” cannot determing “exchange value” may be true if we simply assume that “labor” means merely effort; but that is never what Marx or the other classical PEs believe.

  34. I think you’re getting confused because you think being historical and being metaphysical are mutually exclusive. Hegel clearly showed they’re not. On this point, there’s hardly any distance at all between Marx and Hegel.”

    I’m not confused, though we disagree. Marx is neither Hegelian nor Aristotelian. He’s a militant materialist.

    Injecting some extra essentialism, perhaps I should have said. The only substance is human physiology and nature, the material world.

    Hegel clearly showed they’re not. ”

    he was unfortunately upside down.

    essentialist” has become a loaded word, so forget that and look at his Or the reaming of Lassalle in the Gotha programme:

    Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. ”

    The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor.”

    It is the bourgeoisie who are variously Aristotlian, Hegelian, Kantian…all their metaphysics is ideology.

  35. looks at his”…explanation for artistotle’s failure…”Or

  36. So I guess you could say

    I think it’s quite impossible to see the substance of the divergence between Marx’s account of value and utilitarian or marginalist accounts of value without keeping Marx’s metaphysics in mind. And I think a proper defense of Marx’s position against the other side requires one to ground it in a defensible metaphysics”

    because what a “defensible metaphysics” would be is determined by the fact that

    The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor”

    so if you want to win an argument with bourgeois economics you could remove the materialism from Marx and pretend Marx’ case is Aristotelian-Kanitan-Hegeialian and triumph on the turf of their metaphysics. But it’s not actually Marx’ position, which is historical, dialectical, and _materialist_.

  37. effectively what you do when you give kingdom-of-ends- habitation the “supernatural” power is you occlude the indispensible role of enclosure, cease to contest that, and conceded that private property - the enclosure which is the sine qua non of exchange value and thus of the appearance of labour as distinct activity and the conditions for the commodification of labour power - is the eternal given or natural condition of all things.

  38. Hey guys. Agree – interesting discussion. This’ll be pretty inadequate, but.

    1) I’m in the ‘Marx not metaphysician’ camp.

    2) JCD – that looks like a very interesting paper – thank you. Alas, my numbers ain’t up to it. I’ll get back to you in a few years, when I’ve actually got the comprehension skills. :-) (I agree with this of course – “that “labor” means merely effort… is never what Marx or the other classical PEs believe.” That’s why I’m (a bit clumsily) stressing the social production of the category of ‘social labour’. It might have involved less faffing around if I’d just talked about wage-labour, but, you know….)

    3) “These commodities are not cheap _for the producers who produce them_. Who also exist and have to live.” Yes, of course. “Might not their socially determined standard of living and yours be diverging?” Yes. Didn’t mean to suggest otherwise.

    Different price levels – and the international division of labour associated with them – are a massively potent means of exploitation. (The social relations that produce such differences are that exploitation.) But talking about the relation of a given commodity to every other commodified use value in existence, you can still, I think, say the kind of thing I’m trying to get at.

    However: I need to do some more thinking about all this – and I’m pretty hung over today. I might try to step gracefully aside from this conversation, and promise a better response some other time…

  39. Marx on ‘utility’:

    The relation of “usefulness”, which is supposed to be the sole relation of the individuals to one another in the union, is at once paraphrased as “eating” one another. The “perfect Christians” of the union, of course, also celebrate holy communion, only not by eating together but by eating one another.

    The extent to which this theory of mutual exploitation, which Bentham expounded ad nauseam, could already at the beginning of the present century be regarded as a phase of the previous one is shown by Hegel in his Phänomenologie. See there the chapter “The Struggle of Enlightenment with Superstition”, where the theory of usefulness is depicted as the final result of enlightenment. The apparent absurdity of merging all the manifold relationships of people in the one relation of usefulness, this apparently metaphysical abstraction arises from the fact that in modern bourgeois society all relations are subordinated in practice to the one abstract monetary-commercial relation. This theory came to the fore with Hobbes and Locke, at the same time as the first and second English revolutions, those first battles by which the bourgeoisie won political power. it is to be found even earlier, of course, among writers on political economy, as a tacit presupposition. Political economy is the real science of this theory of utility; it acquires its true content among the Physiocrats, since they were the first to treat political economy systematically. In Helvétius and Holbach one can already find an idealisation of this doctrine, which fully corresponds to the attitude of opposition adopted by the French bourgeoisie before the revolution. Holbach depicts the entire activity of individuals in their mutual intercourse, e. g., speech, love, etc., as a relation of utility and utilisation. Hence the actual relations that are presupposed here are speech, love, definite manifestations of definite qualities of individuals. Now these relations are supposed not to have the meaning peculiar to them but to be the expression and manifestation of some third relation attributed to them, the relation of utility or utilisation. This paraphrasing ceases to be meaningless and arbitrary only when these relations have validity for the individual not on their own account, not as spontaneous activity, but rather as disguises, though by no means disguises of the category of Utilisation, but of an actual third aim and relation which is called the relation of utility.

    The verbal masquerade only has meaning when it is the unconscious or deliberate expression of an actual masquerade. In this case, the utility relation has a quite definite meaning, namely, that I derive benefit for myself by doing harm to someone else (exploitation de 1’homme par l’homme, [exploitation of man by man.” See Doctrine de Saint-Simon. Exposition. Première année]); in this case moreover the use that I derive from some relation is entirely extraneous to this relation, as we saw above in connection with ability [Vermögen] that from each ability a product alien to it was demanded, a relation determined by social relations — and this is precisely the relation of utility. All this is actually the case with the bourgeois. For him only one relation is valid on its own account — the relation of exploitation; all other relations have validity for him only insofar as he can include them under this one relation; and even where he encounters relations which cannot be directly subordinated to the relation of exploitation, he subordinates them to it at least in his imagination. The material expression of this use is money which represents the value of all things, people and social relations. Incidentally, one sees at a glance that the category of “utilisation” is first abstracted from the actual relations of intercourse which I have with other people (but by no means from reflection and mere will) and then these relations. are made out to be the reality of the category that has been abstracted from them themselves, a wholly metaphysical method of procedure. In exactly the same way and with the same justification, Hegel depicts all relations as relations of the objective spirit. Hence Holbach’s theory is the historically justified philosophical illusion about the bourgeoisie just then developing in France, whose thirst for exploitation could still be regarded as a thirst for the full development of individuals in conditions of intercourse freed from the old feudal fetters. Liberation from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie, i. e., competition, was, of course, for the eighteenth century the only possible way of offering the individuals a new career for freer development. The theoretical proclamation of the consciousness corresponding to this bourgeois practice, of the consciousness of mutual exploitation as the universal mutual relation of all individuals, was also a bold and open step forward. It was a kind of enlightenment which interpreted the political, patriarchal, religious and sentimental embellishment of exploitation under feudalism in a secular way; the embellishment corresponded to the form of exploitation existing at that time and it had been systematised especially by the theoretical writers of the absolute monarchy.

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch03m.htm

  40. Chabert – you have all the Marx quotes at your fingertips :-). I need more scholarly knowledge. :-). Anyway, I really am going to step aside from this, but just wanted to say thanks for the discussion. I’ve found it really helpful.

    Also wanted to say - I hadn’t read any of Anwar Shaikh’s stuff before. But I’ve been (very superficially) browsing the page of his you linked to, JCD, and it’s just excellent, very rich. So thanks for the pointer.

    Cheers …

  41. I’m not confused, though we disagree. Marx is neither Hegelian nor Aristotelian. He’s a militant materialist.

    This is a slogan. We’re not even having a disagreement, because you don’t understand what I’m saying to you well enough to disagree with it.

  42. o if you want to win an argument with bourgeois economics you could remove the materialism from Marx and pretend Marx’ case is Aristotelian-Kanitan-Hegeialian and triumph on the turf of their metaphysics. But it’s not actually Marx’ position, which is historical, dialectical, and _materialist_.

    False dichotomy. Very ham-fisted, too. An almost perfect straw man of the position I carefully laid out in two thoughtful posts.

    I appreciate your time, but I appreciate mine more, and I’d rather not spend it going back and forth with someone who clearly lacks the subtlety of intellect necessary to deal with a complex reality unfiltered through pamphlet slogans. Good day.

  43. Jim Jim, I like your style, I do. Don’t go!

    Aristotle

    can’t see _value_
    hiding behind _justice_
    because of _slavery_

    Infant slaves too are commodities, with exchange value.

    without there being any Victor Frankenstein to make them, without their mothers, or God, or Mother Nature, consenting, intending or planning their physiological production.

    You can see that the problem is one of the ends or purposes of things. Things with distinct purposes must be really distinct things. If I aim at one thing with a hoe and another thing with a rake, they can’t be the same thing. And yet they are treated as identical in virtue of something in their exchange. This is a common sense point of view, but it also implies a metaphysics of things: that they are determined in their beingness by the purposes they serve.”

    What’s the purpose of a person? From whose point of view would the purpose of humanity be accessible?

    Aristotelian metaphysics maybe wins for “intellectual subtlety”, but this is not a merit!

  44. Marx’ position is that, while it looks to Aristotle like the disinterested exercise of his theoretical capacities has allowed him to discover that a slave and a master are really two different things, what’s happened is the other way around - the perception arising from occupying a position in a lived mode of production, that is the assumption that a slave and a master are different things, has given rise to Aristotle’s metaphysics; his metaphysics is the ideology of those political and social relations.

    (You assume Marx is “smarter than you” - he’s the teacher, you’re the pupil - but Marx assumed he was “smarter than” Aristotle.)

  45. Marx is an Aristotlean, so his starting point is qualitatively distinct use-values that serve different purposes.”

    But Marx’ word for the Aristotelian metaphysical position is “stupidity”:

    The most essential factor of the labour process is the worker himself, and in the ancient production process this worker was a slave. It does not follow from this that the worker is by nature a slave (although Aristotle is not very far removed from holding this opinion), any more than it follows that spindles and cotton are by their nature capital because they are at present consumed in the labour process by wage labourers. The stupidity of this procedure, whereby a definite social relation of production, which is expressed in things, is taken as the material and natural quality of these things, strikes us forcibly when we open the nearest textbook of political economy, and read on the very first page that the elements of the production process, reduced to their most general form, are land, capital and labour.”

  46. holy crap…!

    I’ve only skimmed the comments to this thread, it’ll probly be like 2 weeks before I can get to really reading read through it in depth. I look forward to that.

    Re: the post, JCD, nicely done. I like your ending point a great deal. There’s a quote to this effect, obliquely anyway, where Marx speaks of moral determinants to the value of labor power.

    I just had a thought following on. You wrote “what Marx means by labor: the use-value of labor-power, the total amount of work done in a day (which is always ultimately determined by specific social relations).”

    I’m not disagreeing with you but I think there’s something interesting here. This is the definition of the use value of labor power from a capitalist point of view. That’s not the only use value of labor power, though. Labor power can also produce all sorts of other things, indeed in order to live up to its use value of producing surplus value labor power must also produce another use value in addition to surplus value - that’s clumsy, let me try again. The means by which labor power realizes the use value of producing surplus value - the means by which the capitalist makes use of labor power - is by producing a use value which is sold for more than the cost of producing the product (sorry, not trying to be pedantic, just thinking this through), because a commodity must always have a use value in order to be sellable. So labor power is set to work, made to produce some use value to which the capitalist is relatively indifferent; the sale of that use value realizes value advanced for the purchase of the labor power, ie surplus value produced. So, labor power’s use value is double even for the capitalist. And labor power has over use values than the production of whatever it is the capitalist sets the worker to make. (Sorry if this doesn’t speak directly to where you’re going in this post; your post helped me think this out.)

    take care,
     Nate



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