November 12, 2008

Labour Theory of Value: Interim Report (Part 2)

Filed under: Economics, Marx, NP — duncan @ 4:23 pm

Okay.  Here’s my current favourite passage in Capital:

“It is the extraction of this surplus-value that forms the immediate process of production, and this faces no other barriers than those just mentioned.  As soon as the amount of surplus labour it has proved possible to extort has been objectified in commodities, the surplus-value has been produced.  But this production of surplus-value is only the first act in the capitalist production process, and its completion only brings to an end the immediate production process itself.  Capital has absorbed a given amount of unpaid labour.  With the development of this process as expressed in the fall in the profit rate, the mass of surplus-value thus produced swells to monstrous proportions.  Now comes the second act in the process.  The total mass of commodities, the total product, must be sold, both that portion which replaces constant and variable capital and that which represents surplus-value.  If this does not happen, or happens only partly, or only at prices that are less than the price of production, then although the worker is certainly exploited, his exploitation is not realized as such for the capitalist and may even not involve any realization of the surplus-value extracted, or only a partial realization; indeed, it may even mean a partial or complete loss of his capital.  The conditions for immediate exploitation and for realization of that exploitation are not identical.  Not only are they separate in time and space, they are also separate in theory.”  (Vol. III, p. 352)

I’m not sure I’m in a position to expand on this adequately now – but this passage strikes me as articulating the central equivocation in Capital.  The issue is – what is the relation between the “immediate production” and the “realization” of value?  According to this schema, value can be ‘produced’ that is never realized – and, indeed, the ‘production’ of non-realized value is central to the capitalist system.  Does not this lack of ‘realization’ of value that’s been (immediately) ‘produced’ reflect back on, expand, and in a sense transform the concept of ‘production’?  Indeed, isn’t this the heart of Marx’s argument – not just his argument about the systemic contradictions that produce crises, but also his argument about the coercive power of capitalist social relations to enforce the exploitations of capitalist production?  And doesn’t this stand in marked tension with the ‘standard’ labour theory of value, which I was complaining about in my last post?  If I were going to offer an interpretation of Capital – which I’m not, any time soon, because I’ve still got a whole lot of Marx still to ingest – I think I’d probably take my bearings from this passage, and others like it.


  1. Hi,

    Just to give you a tip:
    M. Postone’s “Time, Labor and Social Domination” is a “reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory”, writing up against what he calls “traditional marxism” and as such the traditional understanding of Marx’ LTV as being essentially a market-category – that is as regulating prices and allocating workforce and ressources. Instead he proposes to understand the category of value as a category of Production (and social life in general) – which seems to be the way you also are thinking/working from your quotation of Capital III.
    To give you an idea of what he is all about, from the back of my mind: Essentially Postone starts of from the passage in Grundrisse called “Contradiction between the foundation of bourgeois production (value as measure) and its development” and Marx’ distinction between Value and real, material Wealth, implying that Value is a form of wealth historically specific to capitalism, and a category (grasping the subjective and objective dimensions of social life) structuring social relations in capitalism through the category of abstract labor. As such the LTV is not a transhistorical theory of material wealth as some traditional marxists (including Habermas) and many of Marx’ critics would have it, such as Joan Robinson, Jon Elster.

    I havent finish reading the book yet, I am reading it at the moment, but it seems to me that it is a powerful reinterpretation of Marx having a lot to offer contemporary marxist thought regarding value and LTV, but it also has deals with many other dimensions of social life in capitalism, although on a highly abstract level.

    From what I know of it, I think that Postone has a lot in common with the german (and danish) school of Kapital-logik of the 1970’s drawing on Roman Rosdolsky. But I don’t know if Postone is familiar with that tradition or even aware of it.


    Comment by MadsLJ — November 14, 2008 @ 10:25 am

  2. Thanks Mads. I’ve read the first half of Postone’s book – the library return date won out against my reading speed – and I didn’t get much into the chapter on ‘Abstract Time’, which I gather is excellent. FWIW, I think the book’s really good in lots of ways, but also involves some pretty dire hypostatisations – I think you hit real difficulties if you try to translate Postone’s categories back into more political-economic terms. (To be clear, it’s not abstraction per se I have problems with; it’s just that Postone doesn’t, to my taste, adequately connect the abstractions to their real economic construction/operation. It’s not clear exactly how abstract labour operates as a form of social domination, for example.) (Which is presumably one of the reasons he gets beat up on for neglecting class analysis, etc.) (Though I still think he’s good in lots of ways – sorry to be so mean.)

    On market versus production. It seems to me that the LTV, as generally understood, is very much a category of production. The idea, after all, is that value can ultimately be traced back to the amount of labour ’embedded’ in commodities – and that the process of embedding (or however you want to describe it) takes place in production – during the labouring process (the production of use-values). Postone’s polemical point seems to me oriented against (‘traditional’) Marxisms that identify capitalism altogether with the marketplace, and that therefore focus on (the emancipatory potential of) the category of labour without taking account of how (abstract social) labour is a historically specific and basically coercive social relation. That sounds pretty much right to me. Abolition not realisation, etc.

    But (w/r/t what I said in the post)… I’m not really trying to return value-theory to production as against the market. (Like I say, I think the LTV is already firmly located in an analysis of production.) (I mean – orthodox supply and demand analysis is more the value-theory that emphasises the market.) I’m trying to argue that Marx’s analysis strongly implies that production can’t be understood ‘in itself’ – that the ‘realization’ of value, in the marketplace, is an essential moment in the ‘production’ of value per se. Realization can’t be separated from production, even though they can be practically and analytically distinguished – they’re still bound together. This is really the heart of Marx’s theory of crises, of overproduction, etc – and it stands in marked tension with his heavy emphasis on the LTV.

    Hmmm… I’ve a strong feeling I should say more, but I’m not entirely sure what. I’m afraid the above is very random and scattered. Sorry – bunged-up brain. Thanks for your comment, anyhow. I’ll post more if more occurs.

    Comment by praxis — November 14, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

  3. […] former has the disadvantage of being false. (My earlier remarks on the labour theory of value: 1; 2; 3) But there are plenty of places in the three volumes of Capital where Marx seems to be saying […]

    Pingback by Marx Reading Group: Chapter 25 – Initial Remarks on Value Theory « — March 14, 2010 @ 11:08 am

  4. […] Labour Theory of Value: Interim Report (Part 2) « PraxisNov 12, 2008 … Okay. Here’s my current favourite passage in Capital: “It is the extraction of this surplus-value that forms the immediate process of production, … […]

    Pingback by Praxis interim | Jakzodiac — April 2, 2012 @ 4:49 am

  5. The first point that can be made is that such a theory isn’t addressed in the numerous post-Fordist or culturalist accounts of PR. As I have previously mentioned these analyses rely on the productive straw man account of Marx’s theory of value, contending that it is solely interested in production. By stressing that Marx has a monetary theory of value that unities production and circulation it seems to me that PR can be conceived of as necessary component of the realization of value in exchange. This means I will make the argument that PR practitioners can be considered as productive labor since their work is an integral component of valorization. As a result, they can be slotted into the schema of constitution, social reproduction and domination in what I propose can be seen as the contemporary version of the trinity formula.

    Comment by Mabel Stafford — January 17, 2013 @ 6:05 pm

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