February 27, 2008

Labour Theory of Value

Filed under: Economics, Philosophy — duncan @ 9:03 pm

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.


  1. When Marx is trying to get his readers to step back and think of capitalism anthropologically, the way it might look if we were approaching it without a native familiarity with how it works, he’ll sometimes approach it sort of this way – there’s a line in Grundrisse somewhere about tossing living labour into the flames – sacrificing it to the reproduction of capital. My favourite metaphors from Capital itself are the ones relating to vampires, werewolves and such: capital is presented in some sections as an undead entity, a sort of Frankenstein’s monster made up of the dead parts of what used to be living labour, but has come to be ossified as value. This undead entity can only animate itself by consuming living labour. In other sections, Marx uses some of the same sort of metaphors you discuss above, in describing some of the forms of subjectivity or the ideals asserted in political movements that are predicated on the self-assertion of labour as labour – he ventriloquises the workers talking about giving up their life force in the process of production.

    All of this, of course, intended to distance us from the concept of value – to make it look bizarre to us – to foreground its social and therefore transient character by associating it as strongly as he can with the weirdest mythological images he can think of (side from what he does in the main text, there are regular “anthropological” footnotes in Capital that point to what Marx thinks would seem exotic customs – the subtext is that our “customs” should appear equally “exotic”) – rather than to rationalise it, by arguing that, e.g., we “ought” to value labour.

    Marx gets very frustrated with “productivist” labour movements – movements that attempt to assert themselves politically based on the claim that, as you’ve put it above, “labour just is life” – it’s sort of the ultimate capitalist ideology, for him. I keep getting into trouble for saying this at conferences… 😉 But it’s really quite clear (well, for Marx…) in the text… But I would suspect you could find things fairly close to what you’ve written above, in both defences and critiques of capitalism… 🙂

    Comment by N Pepperell — February 27, 2008 @ 11:46 pm

  2. Thanks as always for these comments. I totally understand your antipathy to such remarks as “labour just is life” – I’m not trying to naturalise the category of labour! It seems to me that one of the big questions for anyone interested in economics is – what forces determine what gets to count as labour? (And: what gets to count as a commodity? What gets to count as exchange? Even: what gets to count as capitalism?) These terms/ideas are products of the very social forces we’re trying to analyse; we can’t analyse those forces if we take the terms as given. (Silly line of the day: the greatest trick capitalism ever pulled was convincing the world that it exists.)

    The reason I posted those remarks was really the stuff in the last paragraph – the stuff about identification and specularity. Let’s say we take it as given that labour involves a form of ‘sacrifice’ – the lives of labourers are sacrificed so that value can be produced. The question is: what is the nature of this ‘sacrifice’? Why would labourers giving up time and life ‘produce’ value – as if value were some ‘supersensible’ quality that inheres in labour, or is generated by labour, and that’s coagulated in commodities as labour is consumed in those commodities’ production? I don’t think there’s any very obvious reason why this would be so.

    The argument I was imagining/outlining in the post suggested that this ‘transmission’/’production’ of value was based on the commodities’ purchasers’ identification with labour, their identification with labourers’ sacrifices. I think this runs against the grain of the common idea that capitalists don’t give a thought to the lives of those they exploit. (In that sense, I guess, the argument’s reactionary). Not that capitalists sit up at night reflecting on the pain of factory workers. But the category of value in capitalism is created by a community or set of communities encompassing the whole economy – and value is therefore communal; we only value a commodity as we do because we’re part of a community which also includes those who suffered to produce it. (Which ties in with everything you were saying in your lecture about capitalism not just dissolving social bonds, but generating them, I hope.)

    But there’s a particular, peculiar form of community or identification involved here. If a sadist identifies with the person he tortures and kills, he feels that person’s pain as his own, the better to feel the power he wields in torturing and murdering. The sadist sees his own actions through his victim’s eyes, because only this allows him to understand his power’s effects – and thereby sustain his pleasurable image of himself as powerful. (I’m uncomfortably aware how close all this stuff is to Hegel’s master/slave dialectic. One problem here is that I’ve just not engaged seriously enough with Hegel – I’ve read enough of him to get a vague idea of some of what he says, but I haven’t done the legwork. Obviously this stuff is incredibly important to Marx. But I’m behind the curve, trying to catch up.) Sadism involves identification – but not in the way same as sacrifice. In sacrifice (I’m apparently arguing) we identify with our victims, but we also imagine the victim as choosing their murder willingly. In sacrifice we (symbolically) sacrifice ourselves, willingly, while simultaneously surviving to enjoy the effects of that sacrifice. And because self-sacrifice in the name of X is the ultimate proof of how much we value X, sacrifice ‘creates’ value.

    This is a very peculiar social relation – how can we imagine somebody as sacrificing themselves willingly, while at the same time we murder them? My suggestion (or the suggestion I’m imagining) is that the social category of labour is a category created precisely for this purpose. C.f. all the passages in ‘Capital’ where Marx achieves levels of sarcasm I didn’t think were possible when discussing ‘free’ labour, the ‘freeing up’ of labour. Labour has to be free, because only a free (self-)sacrifice of time and life produces value. But at the same time, labour has to be subjected to massive, systemic, violent, murderous coercion if labour’s sacrifice is to take place at all. And that’s what ‘labour’ is – the peculiar social category, produced by this peculiar social system, which allows both sides of this double-imperative to be fulfilled.

    That’s what I was trying to get at in the post, though obviously I didn’t succeed: this particular idea of sacrifice. I don’t think this is really incompatible with anything you’ve been saying (though correct me if I’m wrong). As to how common this perspective is – I can’t say. Unfortunately I’m pig-ignorant. One of the disadvantages of this blog is that because I use it to respond to whatever I’m reading, I end up discussing work I know almost nothing about. At times this is just embarrassing. At other times it’s very pleasurable and rewarding – as these comment threads have been for me. But clearly I need to do some serious reading. (Quite how I’ll make the library-time, I don’t know.)

    Re: Marx’s metaphors. I agree about their estranging effect, their making-exotic – this is surely one of Marx’s main aims. Oddly, though, these metaphors have, for me, a kind of anti-estranging effect. Perhaps because I’ve spent too much time with wacky metaphors; or perhaps because the world seems strange to me anyway; they always come as a blessed relief, a moment of clarity – at last, the deceptions end, and the madness makes itself known! Shades of the purpose of great literature – ‘to disturb the comfortable, and comfort the disturbed’…

    On the specific issue of vampirism and the undead, however – I think this is incredibly important. The metaphorics of life and death in Marx are totally pervasive – living labour and dead labour at the heart of ‘Capital’. I’m longing to do a deconstructionist reading of this stuff – especially since I don’t agree with some important aspects of ‘Specters of Marx’. But that’s a whole other ball of wax, for another day, or life.

    Thank you for reading through this interminable comment (if indeed you have ) I’m aware that the world contains more rewarding pastimes…

    Comment by praxisblog — February 28, 2008 @ 8:26 pm

  3. Sorry! I hadn’t meant to suggest that I took you to be naturalising labour – I took your post as a sort of anthropological consideration of the implied or tacit logic of capitalism – and then I went off onto a tangent… 😉 I’ve had a strange, ongoing interaction with a scholar locally who is very committed to the “labour is life” position – this position has an old standing in a certain kind of socialism, and it can sometimes be asserted as a critical ideal – in the case of the person I keep running into locally, this ideal takes something like the form “labour is life” – or, more specifically, “labour is central to human nature”, and so the tendency within capitalism, e.g, to deskill labouring activities, or to diminish the autonomy of labourers in the production process, etc., can be criticised against the normative centrality of labour as a sort of key category of human identity. Marx’s position is very different – that the tendency toward deskilling both makes possible automation and compels a search for forms of self-development that take place outside the sphere of material reproduction – to capitalism figures as a coercive process that accidentally teaches us that labour need not be a central category of human existence. Even as it teaches this, however, it preserves the centrality of labour in this social context – which provides a sort of experiential basis for people to assert the sorts of positions I keep running into at conferences… ;-P But I was thinking of those positions, not of what you were saying, in what I had written above.

    On whether someone needs to read Hegel in order to tackle Marx… Hegel’s a long slog, just to tackle Marx… The reality is, a great deal of the reading I’m outlining now, I worked out without a great background in Hegel – I knew a bit, but much of Marx’s textual strategy really can be worked out without going through Hegel – I think maybe the issue is more that certain things are just easier to do, now, in approaching Marx: there’s a sense in which our historical moment is a bit more similar to Marx’s, than much of the intervening period when major interpretations of his work were being unfolded; we have access to draft texts that weren’t available for much of the 20th century, and that make the textual strategy much simpler to grasp; and the political climate is very different… There are some very subtle things that aren’t evident unless Marx is read against Hegel – the first chapter of Capital in particular is a lot easier to read against Hegel, and the complexity of the chapter is much more visible – but the main line of argument really can be read on its own. My main reaction to reading Hegel, is that it made me feel a bit less insane in pushing this particular interpretation of Marx – it made me go from “the text can possibly be appropriated in this way” to “this is what I think Marx was doing”, if that makes sense? I guess I’m trying to say that I don’t think anyone needs to disqualify themselves from working with Marx, just on the grounds that they haven’t trawled through Hegel.

    In terms of the things you hit on above about the creation of the social category of labour: in a sense, there are multiple levels of creation. Most of what I’ve been writing about has been creation in the sense of enactment – things we are doing, without intending to do them. These enacted things then come to be articulated – possibly in many different ways, but with perhaps greater plausibility, if those articulations resonate and seem already familiar in terms of what we practice, what we enact. Some of Capital talks about what Marx thinks we’re enacting, some talks about forms of articulation of what we’re enacting (usually forms he thinks are partial, expressing some specific dimension of what we’re enacting, without realising how that dimension connects up with others), and some – particularly these anthropological metaphors and attempts to exoticise – are in a stronger sense Marx’s own articulations, intended as interventions to prise open certain practical possibilities.

    I think an exploration of the metaphors of the living and the dead in the work would be a fantastic project. There’s a recent book out on this (I’m completely blanking on the author and title), but I was a bit disappointed by it (for reasons that I seem to have suppressed along with the author and title ;-P). I had originally planned a paper on these metaphors for a conference earlier in the year, but decided instead to do something more directly related to the opening of the thesis – not sure when if ever I’d get back to it – it would be fantastic to read a good treatment of the topic. I’m curious about your criticisms of Spectres – I wrote something on it a very very long time ago (in a different life then), and keep meaning to read it again, but haven’t looked at it recently.

    Comment by N Pepperell — March 1, 2008 @ 1:15 am

  4. Possible response to your local scholar: Well, your life may be labour, but mine isn’t.

    I’d be interested to read your piece on Specters. I’ve not really worked through my problems with it – partly because I think I need a grounding in Hegel to do so… This is one of the many reasons I feel I need to read the guy; not just because of his massive influence on Marx (though that’s important), but just because of his massive importance to philosophy in general. In particular, I think that Derrida (who, obviously enough, I’m very interested in) has a very troubled relationship with Hegel, as it were. It’s far too simplistic, but one way to see deconstruction’s emphasis on aporia and contradiction is by seeing deconstruction as attempting to describe a kind of Hegelian dialectic – minus the Aufhebung. This project’s very problematic – because it’s incredibly easy to recuperate it for straightforward (so to speak) Hegelianism. Derrida spends a lot of time trying to explain why his work isn’t recuperable by any kind of syntehsising dialectic; but those explanations are in turn always in danger of being recuperated. In a way, I see Hegel as Derrida’s nemesis – and I’m not at all convinced that Derrida succeeds in maintaining an adequate distance from him. That’s one of the problems I have with ‘Specters’: it attempts to operate as a critique of both ‘Hegelian’ political thought (as represented/vulgarised by the neoliberal/neoconservative tradition), but it also wants to criticise Marx’s ‘materialism’ as complicit with the metaphysics of presence. IMO, however, Marx has a much more robust response to Hegel than Derrida. Derrida’s reading of Marx suppresses or ignores the most important anti-Hegelian aspects of Marx’s work – as well as the most politically significant. But as I say, I don’t know my Hegel – and I’m still slogging through Marx! – so all this is just arm-waving, more or less.

    If you ever wanted to post up your Specters piece, on the other hand, I’d be very interested to read it. (Vampire-like, I subsist on the life-blood of other people’s scholarship and insight :))

    Comment by praxisblog — March 2, 2008 @ 6:22 pm

  5. lol – I’d be more likely to write something new on Spectres, to be honest, than repost the old piece. I’m in a very different theoretical space. I am, though, beginning to do a series (occasional and sporadic) on different takes on Marx, and would like to take up Derrida’s work there. My basic reaction to reading Spectres – but I tend to have this reaction to Derrida in general – is that the argument was more “materialist” than I was expecting it to be, regardless of whether it recognises what I take to be Marx’s own critique of “naive materialism” that runs alongside his critique of Hegelian idealism.

    Hegel, though, is perhaps everyone’s nemesis 🙂 So yes, he’s probably unavoidable in the end. I think I worry that, if I sound too much like I think people “have” to read him in order to approach other texts adequately, the effect will be to turn people away from the whole field 🙂 I’ve found myself more sympathetic to Hegel than I had expected – not in the sense that I’m particularly tempted by his project or his method, but in the sense that his critiques of other approaches are often excellent. Of course, as seems to happen with me, my reading of Hegel tends to try to locate points of resonance with contemporary theoretical work – I give him the benefit of the doubt where his text allows it, and I seem to think his text allows more often than most other folks (with perfectly defensible readings of their own) do 🙂

    There’s something I really love about this description of deconstruction: “to describe a kind of Hegelian dialectic – minus the Aufhebung”. That’s wonderful 🙂

    Comment by N Pepperell — March 3, 2008 @ 5:06 am

  6. Thanx. 🙂 I got the Aufhebung formula off of Henry Staten – whose work at least 50% of this bog is stolen from – so I can’t claim credit; but glad you like.

    I understand why you don’t want to come across as ramming Hegel down people’s throats 🙂 – but as you say, he’s kind of inescapable. The fact that his critiques of everyone else are convincing is, I would imagine, part of the problem – he seems to be able to gobble up just about every other thinker out there, and emerge smiling, licking his lips. But I should shut up about him till I’ve read him.

    On Derrida – this is a subject I could talk about forever; but this thread’s not the place, and you have better things to do. Nonetheless, I’ll ever so briefly say a few very quick words. [NB: Dammit, not so brief!! Feel free not to bother reading.] I’m interested that you find Derrida more materialist than you tend to expect him to be. I think he is indeed much more materialist than he’s often portrayed as being: by the vulgar caricature, obviously, but also by some informed readings. But IMO he’s not nearly materialist enough – not for my tastes, anyway (though perhaps no one could be materialist enough for my tastes…); but also given some of his philosophical commitments. Basically (oversimplifying wildly) I see Derrida’s career as divided into two phases. In the ‘early’ phase he critiques the great texts of the canon by arguing that their tendency to subsume matter to form (where form more or less = ideality) already presupposes the material. (E.g.: the pure ideality of meaning already involves the materiality of the signifier). In the ‘later’ phase he retreats from the implications of this critique. The turning-point, IMO, is Glas – which, non-coincidentally, is also Derrida’s most sustained engagement with Hegel. Derrida can’t, IMO, take on Hegel’s Idealism at the level of philosophical argument – for reasons I’ve already kind of gestured towards, I think a deconstructionist critique of Hegel can just be reappropriated by the Hegelian dialectic. So Derrida has to rely on textual resources ‘outside’ deconstruction. In Glas he drafts in Genet, to act as the profane voice of anti-idealism, a voice that has no place within Hegel’s dialectic or (more to the point) within Derrida’s discursive critique of that dialectic. It’s not whimsy that leads Derrida to resort to ‘experimental’, ‘literary’ forms in Glas; it’s a belief that if he engages with Hegel on anything like Hegel’s own terms, he (Derrida) will be defeated. Glas is in many respects a triumph, IMO. But then Derrida is faced with a problem – if this move away from discursive argument is what it takes to sustain his project, how is he, Derrida, as a professional philosopher, meant to keep on working? At which point (again very much IMO) Derrida retreats. He gestures towards further experimentalism, but basically returns to discursive critique. Which is now a critique without destination; a critique that has to keep on returning to the philosophical terms it’s already rejected if it’s to sustain itself as critique. (All this would need to be heavily modified if it were to be an adequate characterisation of Derrida – because his work was always driven by this double-movement away from and towards philosophy. But I do think something important changes in the years after Glas.)

    In ‘Specters’ Derrida should (IMO) be largely on side with Marx’s materialism, and with Marx’s materialist rejection of philosophy in favour of more practical theorising. (In Marx’s case, economics/social critique). [I mean – Derrida ‘should’ be doing this if he wants to please me …] Instead, Derrida tries to find a midpoint between Marx’s turning away from philosophy and Hegel’s attempt to subsume everything within philosophy. He tries to find a midpoint between Hegel’s idealism and Marx’s materialism: which is – hauntology. It’s a brilliant neologism, and nifty idea; but materialist it ain’t. And that’s one of the main problems I have with ‘Specters’.

    That is no kind of brevity. Sorry. Also, I’m aware that I’ve monopolised this thread to talk about by own preoccupations, instead of yours. (Though that’s mainly because I don’t know enough to talk about yours 🙂 ). Plus this is all also too brief to be anything close to right. Oh lord. There’s really no need to respond to my gibber.

    Comment by praxisblog — March 5, 2008 @ 8:43 pm

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