November 24, 2007

The Inequality of Labour.

Filed under: Economics, Marx — duncan @ 8:16 pm

For vulgar economics money is the principle of commensurability which permits capitalist exchange to take place. For Marx, money is merely a veil concealing the true principle of commensurability: labour time.

I confess to being confused by Marx’s theories (I’m still labouring through the early chapters of ‘Capital’). How, for instance, is Marx able to distinguish between price and value, given his theory of value?

But what interests me right now is the way in which Marx makes labour time the ontological foundation of his economics. Marx homogenises labour into abstract labour time – and this homogenisation allows Marx to posit the proletariat as possessing a single unified political will. Marx’s proletariat is the subject of ‘abstract labour’: a single entity that bears little relation to actual workers.

“Equality in the full sense between different types of labour can be arrived at only if we abstract from their real inequality.” (Capital, p. 166) This is one of the most basic theoretical moves of Marxism. Real inequality must be elided, in favour of a fictional, abstract equality of labour-time.

Should radical economics really be based on such an elision of the inequality of labour? Isn’t this just as much a fiction as the capitalist economists’ ‘utility’ or ‘welfare’? And doesn’t it have many of the same consequences for economic theorising?

On page 199 of my edition, Marx accompanies “the owner of some commodity, say our old friend the linen weaver, to the scene of action, the market.” The weaver’s linen is valued at £2. “We leave out of consideration here any possible subjective errors in calculation by the owner of the commodity, which will immediately be corrected objectively in the market. We suppose him to have spent on his product only the average socially necessary quantity of labour-time.” (pgs 201-2)

Marx here binds together one of the distinctive features of his own theory – the emphasis on labour-time – and one of the guiding myths of capitalist economics – the objectivity of the market. These two ideas support each other. Though Marx mocks vulgar economists’ emphasis on money, Marx’s theory here supports that emphasis. The market price is the objective price – because “real inequality” has been abstracted out of existence.

Marx, I’m sure, complicates and expands this as he goes on. But at this stage of my reading I’ll ask again – why does Marxism have such a grip on the radical left? Surely we can do better than this…


  1. I’m not sure Marxism has all that much of a grip (it occurs to me that this sentence can perhaps be read as a multiplicity) 🙂 It probably depends on where you hang out.

    For what it’s worth, my reading is that a great deal of Capital is not quite what it seems – that Marx is often holding out positions that are posited by other thinkers, not in order to advocate these positions, but to ask instead: what sort of society would we have to live in, to make this a plausible thing for someone to think? This sort of question would only ever need to be asked, if the positions being held up for analysis do in fact seem quite readily contradicted by empirical experience: if it’s clear that something like “labour time” structures exchange, then there’s no particular mystery as to why people think that “labour time” structures exchange. However, since it’s in fact not particularly clear that this is true at all, it becomes a mystery why an otherwise apparently intelligent political economists suggest that this might be the case.

    We could just say, “what idiots!” and move on 🙂 – engaging in what, in fancy Hegelian terms, would be called an “abstract negation” – treating the positions we want to criticise as the products of a kind of conceptual or logical error. Marx’s mode of argument, though, seems to be an attempt (whether successful or not) at a kind of “determinate negation” – at a sort of argument that goes: I’m going to disagree with you, eventually – but first I’m going to explain why you might be tempted to come to that particular conclusion – why your mistake isn’t a “mere” error, but is instead sort of a plausible way of looking at things, if you are paying attention to this part of the social context while, perhaps, ignoring that one. etc. I’m not overfond of Marx’s way of presenting this kind of argument (I think, to be honest, it would be difficult deliberately to design a presentation more likely to confuse its readers, than spending most of your text speaking in other people’s voices, without being very, very, very explicit that this is what you are doing). I do, though, think the basic impulse – to look into why certain views might be common, even if you are going to reject them – can be a good approach for a critical social theory.

    In terms of the argument about value, the way I understand it is: there is some level of collective practice that is behaving as if human labour is specifically and directly important. We know this because, as productivity increases, the consequence is not a commensurate reduction in the amount of human labour required, but instead a whole cascade of other consequences, that seems to reconstitute labour in new forms, as it is displaced from old ones (so, populations are ejected from agriculture and into manufacturing, and then from manufacturing and into new forms of work). We take this for granted – we naturalise it: Marx is trying to suggest that perhaps it should be examined more closely, the way an anthropologist might try to make sense of a new society.

    He uses a variety of textual strategies to try to distance us from what we’re doing – metaphors of the fetish, for example. In the process, he both retains and criticises the political economic notion of a “labour theory of value”: yes, there is some strange way that we appear, collectively and across society as a whole, to “value” human labour – but not perhaps in the way or for the reasons suggested by political economy.

    This doesn’t mean that his argument is sufficient or correct – only that (I think) it’s simply a very different kind of argument than he’s usually read as making. (Sorry to dive in and bombard you with a long comment on Marx – your post caught my eye as I was writing on this for other purposes, so you’ve given me an excuse to blurt… ;-P)

    Comment by N Pepperell — November 29, 2007 @ 10:12 pm

  2. Thanks for your blurt :)! I’ve been reading your blog – though I hadn’t come across it when I wrote this post – and I think your take on ‘Capital’ is brilliant and persuasive. It makes sense of a lot of the things that had baffled and frustrated me about the text – and of course it ties in perfectly with Marx’s avowed Hegelianism. I’ll continue reading the book with opened eyes…

    Your remarks about labour are also fascinating, but I don’t have anything useful to say in reply. Regarding Marx’s lack of grip – I was mainly thinking of the way in which the intellectual tradition I admire (broadly, postwar French philosophy and the English-language Theory associated with it) often takes Marx as the beginning and end of its engagement with economics. That’s understandable – Marx is more or less the only great economist who was also a great philosopher. (I suppose there’s Mill… but who cares about his economics?) But I wish modern philosophical critiques of capitalist economics didn’t rely quite so heavily on Marx…

    On the other hand, I may only think this because I’ve been misreading Marx – assuming that a lot of his work is outdated (Ricardo plus communism plus philosophical and literary genius), when in fact, as you say, the apparently anachronistic economic arguments are part of an immanent critique of those arguments as they appear elsewhere in the political-economic literature. So, again, I need to keep reading, with more care and sympathy.

    Anyway, thanks again for your thoughts. It’s very flattering to receive such erudite criticism. And keep up the good Rough Theory work!

    Comment by praxisblog — December 3, 2007 @ 4:09 pm

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