I’m sort of torn between never writing on Marx again until I actually know what I’m talking about, and continuing to use this blog as a place to store my ignorant thoughts. The latter is what the blog’s meant to be for. But now that it actually has (a couple of) readers, there’s a bigger downside to making an idiot of myself.
I am unafraid! I laugh in the face of intellectual embarrassment! And I post the following:
What is this ‘value’ thing then? Specifically, what is this labour theory of value? On any straightforward reading, it seems just utter nonsense. The value of a commodity is a result of the labour involved in its production? Really really not. I don’t think that’s what proponents of the labour theory of value are actually saying… (?). But so what’s going on?
There’s a weird circularity to any discussion of value. Let’s say you tell the following story: the value of a commodity is a result of the labour involved in its production. But because of a social/economic system based on exploitation – and because of the difference between labour and labour power – labour itself can produce more value than the value required for the production of labour. That’s surplus value. A certain value of commodities is required in order to keep labour more or less trim – workers have to eat and house themselves, and the capitalist class pays wages that allow this, much of the time. But because the use value of labour is (in part) its ability to produce value, there is a disjunct (a disjointure) between value in and value out, in the production process. The difference between labour and labour power is the disjointure that enables the accumulation of value. So – it’s apparently possible to say – workers aren’t paid for the true value of their labour. Ground of critique.
But all value – every commodity – produced under capitalism is a result of this production process based on disjointure. So it seems to me that everything falls apart if we try to say something like “the true value of labour isn’t represented in labour’s wages”. Because value itself, under capitalism, is based on this injustice. Where are we getting the solidity of value – the ‘true’ value of labour – that allows us to frame a critique of exploitation?
Where does value come from? Is there a real, non-exploitative value somewhere, at the base or root of the system, with surplus value built on top of this true reality of value? I don’t think that Marx believes this. And even if he does believe this – or if some other Marxist thinker believes this – where are we getting this value from? What is the account of the formation of value, here? And why on earth would labour produce value in the first place?
Value has already come on stage when ‘Capital’ begins. Where has it come from? What is it?
I think there’s a parallel here with orthodox economics’ theory of value. Marshallian analysis tells us that value – exchange value – is the result of a meeting between demand and supply… and that demand is a result of the meeting of desire (understood in terms of utility) and ability to pay. Utility – this wholly fantasised concept – is here apparently the ground for value. But of course (putting aside the fact that there ain’t no such thing as utility) utility doesn’t explain exchange value at all. All utility analysis can tell us is why certain things are valued more than others – once value has already ‘come on stage’. Exchange value, in Marshallian analysis, comes from the meeting of utility and cost (more or less) – but cost is already there, already out there, outside of us, in the world, in the system within which exchange and utility-maximisation takes place. The social system of valuation, within which different powers compete to maximise their utility, obviously cannot be explained simply in terms of utility. So where do we get the general concept of value that’s part of the system within which we analyse the determination of specific values, by means of supply and demand?
Now – something along these lines is why I don’t think Marx should be understood as grounding his critique on any idea of value. (And again I think I’m in the ballpark of N Pepperell’s posts here – though very much don’t attribute any of these opinions to N Pepperell, I’ve probably misunderstood everything…). My current take on this situation is: Marx doesn’t say – there’s this thing called value, it’s produced by labour, but under capitalism labour is exploited because the value of its product is more than the value of its wages. Rather, the concept of value that’s operative under capitalism (and, therefore, in Marx’s work too) is itself one of the objects of Marx’s critique. Marx’s idea is that this concept of value is a product of an exploitative social system, and that the system needs to be destroyed. His critique of the system, however, is not based on deploying the idea of value. Exploitation is just exploitation – it’s obviously exploitation. If people have to do work they hate, work that hurts them, that shortens or ruins their lives, and they’re doing this work for most of their waking hours, to serve the interests of the ruling class… that’s exploitation. You don’t need a theory of the production of surplus value to identify it as such. So Marx doesn’t say – here’s my theory of value; it allows us to recognise and analyse exploitation. He says – here’s exploitation; the social syste within which its embedded produces a certain theory of value (and, more important, a set of social behaviours that can be understood in terms of value); let’s analyse this theory, and develop it, in order to better understand exploitation, and the capitalist system it’s part of. Value doesn’t ground anything for Marx – it’s part of what needs to be explained. So, I think, it’s possibly politically misguided to deploy a ‘Marxist’ theory of value as a way of critiquing capitalism. Theory of value isn’t the starting point, here; it’s more like an object of critique.
Not sure how much of this is incredibly obvious and how much of it’s incredibly wrong. The interesting point, for me, I think, is that if something like the above is in the ballpark of right, it may be a mistake to see Marx as offering a theory of value that’s been occluded in the economics canon. Marx deployed the economic theories of his time, and, more importantly, analysed the social conditions that created them. The ‘labour theory of value’ was the principle economic theory he analysed, because it was prominent when Marx wrote. But the labour theory of value is no longer prominent (though it may not be as dead as we’re told…). It would, I think, [perhaps] be a mistake to read Marx and say ‘the (Marxist) labour theory of value needs to be brought back’. Rather, we should say – ‘the labour theory of value is no longer so prominent; economics now understands value in other ways; what has changed in the structure of capitalism such that economic theory has also changed?’ That, I think, would be a ‘Marxist’ question. (And another question, while we’re at it: why has no one developed a comprehensive critique of political economy since Marx? What the hell happened to left theorising? We’re due another proper critique, folks, come on, get busy…)
Needless to say, all this is just totally underinformed. I wonder why I’m writing it down, when I could be studying…