Why would labour be the source of value? The idea seems ridiculous. I don’t know how Marxist or Ricardians would justify their claims. (And N. Pepperell’s Rough Theory has a series of fascinating posts arguing that Marx is really critiquing the labour theory of value, because he is critiquing the social production of the category of labour). Still, I can imagine an argument along these lines.
Start with the completely mainstream idea of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is what you give up to get something – all costs, we’re told, are opportunity costs. Then consider that the most important thing you give up to get anything is your life. You can give up a portion of your life (by dedicating your time to something or someone you value), or you can give up your life altogether (those things we value most, we would be willing to die for). Since our lives are lived in time, when we give time to something we also prove the value it has to us, because we give up – we let die – some portion of our lives.
The next step would be to say that life, or life-time, is not a commodity, which can be given up in favour of some other commodity; life is special, because we are life; we are our lives. Giving up life is altogether different from giving up anything else. And in fact, the argument would run, it is only the giving up of life that ultimately grants value. If I give up a commodity, in order to receive another commodity, that may demonstrate how much I value it. But the original commodity’s value is only created by the fact that I would be willing to give up life for it in turn – in fact, by the fact that I already have given up life for it, in working to receive the money I paid for it. How much we value something precisely corresponds to how much of our lives we’ve given to it; nothing else matters.
Since labour just is life – life lived within the social realm of capitalist production – all value within capitalist production must therefore come from the giving up of labour.
Now, I can imagine an objection to this argument along the following lines: we value something by giving up our own lives, yet under capitalism those with the most value are those who give up least. Wealthy capitalists possess far more value than they ever could give life for. Indeed, many of the wealthiest people in the world have never worked a day in their lives. This is true. But it is now possible to emphasise the collectivity of the subject who values capitalist commodities. Value is social. I value something, because we give up so much for it.
The argument would run as follows. Exploitation creates value by forcing others to give up their lives. Capitalist exploitation thus depends on the specular logic of identification. Capitalist exploitation, we could say, is a form of sacrifice. If I sacrifice someone to the gods – or send men to their deaths in war – I feel that something is honoured by this murder because I identify, however transiently, with those I kill – and this identification equates this death with mine. I imagine myself as the murdered one, and in doing so I imagine the immense value I would place on something if I myself chose to die for it. Since in fact another dies, I can live this act of self-sacrifice while also surviving it – another’s death creates a value I myself can enjoy. And this is the operation that takes place every day when the owners of capital force their workers to give up their lives, in order to produce commodities. Capitalism is an immense machine, dedicated to the production of value through the sacrifice of others’ lives. And that’s why labour is the source of value.
I’m pretty sure this isn’t the labour theory of value as presented in Ricardo or Marx. But I wonder what resonance it has with classical political economy.