November 15, 2008

Labour Theory of Value: Interim Report (Part 3)

Filed under: Economics, Marx, NP — duncan @ 5:16 pm

Okay – here’s the really controversial one [edited down substantially, since the original version – oh dear…].

In my opinion, the Labour Theory of Value is a fetishised form of thought – a theory that’s the product of, rather than say an expose or analysis of, fetishism, as fetishism is defined in Chapter One of Volume One of Capital.

Here’s part of the famous passage.

“It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things… I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities”.

This sort of fetishism stuff is I think generally read as something like: the thing which is manifested and occluded in commodities is the value-producing activity of labour. Value may appear to be a quality of the commodities themselves, but it is actually a property produced by labour, and then fetishistically attached to commodities, occluding the fundamental link between labour and value.

Now, as I’ve already said, I don’t think we should accept that labour has the particular property of producing value, or of endowing commodities with value. Instead, value is a social category produced or enacted by a whole set of social and economic relations.

Under some circumstances, in capitalism, it becomes plausible to attribute the property of producing value not to this whole set of relations, but rather to a particular relation – the relation between a worker and the means of production – and in particular to the labouring activity itself. It becomes plausible to see labour as solely productive of value. But this is not, in fact, the case. We have taken a complex set of social relations, actions, interactions, etc. and attributed their properties or the social properties they produce/enact to a particular object or activity. In relation to the commodity, in Chapter One, Marx calls this fetishism – a “definite social relation among men” which “assumes the fantastic form of a relation among things”. But men are things too – and our labouring activity can also fetishistically be granted properties that are in reality produced by a larger set of social relations. I think the labour theory of value can best be understood in these terms.

Now clearly this kind of ‘fetishism’ is less pervasive, in capitalism, than commodity fetishism; and there’s a whole lot of other stuff that really ought to be said, expanded on, or qualified. But the usual excuses. More to follow, eventually, hopefully.


  1. I, too, have been on a little path of thinking recently through the dark woods of the labour theory. I can’t claim to have got into the clearing but I do have a thought that might help.

    As you read Marx (and as he doubtless ought to be read) Marx was trying to come up with a science of value. The economist as scientist was someone who might be able to quantify the business of value production independently of the messy fluctuations of the market. But this is a non-starter because something was overlooked from the beginning: the role of judgment. Of course there is a massive grain of truth in the labour theory (maybe an entire granary) since working on things does often (not always) make them more valuable. If I give you a wet fish and a couple of raw potatoes, you might say “Thankyou” and give me a couple of haikus in return, but if I go to the trouble of cooking them and making a really tasty meal, you might be willing to give me a much longer and more polished piece of your writing. So labour adds value (or can add value depending on the end product) but there can be no causal relationship and there is nothing here that the scientist could tally up independently of messy social goings on because the product of my labour in the kitchen will only have value if it is judged to be good on some relevant local cultural scale of things. Since the sensus communis (as Kant called it in the Critique of Judgment) pays little or no attention to the quantity of socially necessary labour time the latter ends up playing an insignificant role.

    Just a thought.

    I am glad, by the way, that I have somehow stumbled on your blog. It is great to see people who have absolutely no interest in jumping on bandwagons.

    Comment by neo-anchorite — November 30, 2008 @ 7:51 am

  2. Thanks for your kind words. This reply is way way way too long, and only tangentially related to what you actually say, above :-). It was even longer, but I’ve cut out loads, albeit not enough. Absolutely no need to read, obviously – I’m mainly I think just haring off into stuff that was on the brain anyhow.


    I haven’t read the Critique of Judgement. I really need to. I just googled-booked it (so shoddy :-() and I take it that this at least gestures towards the relevant idea:

    However, by the name sensus communis is to be understood the idea of a public sense, i.e., a critical faculty which in its reflective act takes account (a priori) of the mode of representation of everyone else, in order, as it were, to weigh its judgement with the collective reason of mankind, and thereby avoid the illusion arising from subjective and personal conditions which could readily be taken for objective, an illusion that would exert a prejudicial influence upon its judgement. This is accomplished by weighing the judgement, not so much with actual, as rather with the merely possible, judgements of others…

    Sorry to be so shonky – I probably shouldn’t even quote or comment on this given that I’ve just pulled it off of google (Must. Read. Third. Critique…) – but since I have: I find this incredibly interesting, and also very relevant to stuff I take Marx to be discussing. I love the way in which the hypothetical is linked to the objective, here (the good old Kantian ‘as if’) – the way in which “the collective reason of mankind” is merely “possible”, and yet this possibility is constitutive of individual consciousness. I see this as relevant to Marx’s stuff because (to be dumb and brief) this is exactly the kind of ‘speculative’ movement that Marx is focussing on when he talks about the ‘realization’ of value. Capitalists make labourers produce as much stuff as they can (for as little money as possible), on the understanding that the commodities so produced can be sold on the market. Only when this sale takes place is the value of those commodities “realized”. As I said in the post preceding this one, Marx seems to want to distinguish this “realization” of value from a “production” or “extraction” of value (from workers’ labour) which could in principle take place even if no market “realization” of value occurred.

    I don’t think Marx’s resources allow him to make this distinction in the strong way he does, nor do I think doing so is politically or analytically helpful. I think that there is no “production” of value that can be understood independently of the possibility of that value’s “realization”; and that the “production” and “realization” of value are analytically distinct simply because “realization” is, at the time of “production”, always only possible. This means that we’re unable to talk about production of value ‘itself’, independent of the as it were ‘realization-system’ of (in market capitalism) the marketplace – but also the numerous other social institutions that allow capital to make its circuit through the marketplace, consumers’ bank accounts or mattress-hoardes, the means of production, workers themselves, etc. Marx argues all this, of course – I hope I’m paraphrasing Marx – but I’m pretty confident that if it’s right it means he can’t consistently hold the labour theory of value.

    The point of all this w/r/t Kant is that in that ‘sensus communis’ passage, Kant is describing a kind of speculative relation to an imagined objective social judgement that very closely resembles Marx’s account of the ‘speculative’ constitution of value in production (where the ‘objective’ judgement is the judgement of the marketplace). My hunch is that that ain’t no coincidence – if I were going to sit down and actually read the Critique of Judgement (I will – I will – :-(), I’d approach it with the provisional hunch that Kant’s account of our assessment of aesthetic value very closely maps onto the capitalist mechanism for the production of commodities’ value, even as Kant works hard to claim that aesthetic value thoroughly escapes the logic of market exchange and utility. But – have I stressed this enough? 🙂 – I haven’t read the third Critique. So I’m basically pulling stuff out of my arse.

    Yach. There’s way more I ought to say… but at the same time, even one more word from me would be an additional word too many. So – cheers…

    Comment by duncan — December 1, 2008 @ 3:59 am

  3. Sorry. It was a mistake of me to use a term from Kant so glibly. It was more of an association of ideas or a sort of happy memory of days gone by than the expression of a belief that something in the Third Critique holds the key to anything in Marx. No, I didn’t mean that. My point was just that the very idea of a science of value (if that is what Marx was trying to lay the grounds for) seems so very, very questionable. And it seems so (I guess) because it assumes that there is some completely ahistorical quantification that supposedly underlies and explains the very historical and culturally local practice of judging the value of things. In your last paragraph you seem to say that maybe the judgments of value that are crucial in the art market are a model for all markets, and my guess at the moment is that this may be right. Every work of art requires labour but there is no correlation between the amount of socially necessary labour time expended in the production of art and its market value. (I have also been thinking about wrappers (do I have a life?) and the value they add, which I also imagine has nothing to do with the extra labour expended in the wrapper factory and the design studio.)

    A brief comment, though, about the sensus communis: I seem to remember 20 years ago (and forgive me but my memory is failing) discussions about the way the idea of the sensus communis was where Kant’s attempt to retain the absolute autonomy of the subject came undone since the subject seemed to rely on a real community of taste and not just on some solipsistic consideration of a hypothetical universality (as he intended it to be). It is that idea of a real community of taste (fashion, etc) that I had in mind (which is, admittedly, not the sort of thing Kant ever wanted to promote).

    All the best.

    Comment by neo-anchorite — December 1, 2008 @ 7:45 am

  4. Hi – sorry it’s taken me so long to reply (and sorry I’ve not got more to say now). Your last remark about Kant is very interesting – more food for thought. (I’m afraid I went off on rather a Kant-tangent in my comment above.) W/r/t Marx & the science of value – I don’t see Marx (or at least the later Marx, the Marx of Capital) as aiming for a ‘science’ in this sense – I don’t see him as after an ahistorical account. To my mind (for what my mind’s worth) the category of value, in Marx, is historically determined: capitalist ‘value’ – the kind of value discussed in Marx’s work – could only really ‘exist’ as a product of the capitalist social system. [gah – much to brief, sorry, running low on words tonight…]


    Comment by duncan — December 6, 2008 @ 3:20 am

  5. […] 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 stuff […]

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

  6. JI think Marx’s point is that value (manifested in the natural or market price) is the heart of commodity society – the land of fetishised relationships.

    I think King and Ripstein explain this wonderfully well:
    “By the end of the final volume of Capital, though, both exchange and
    exploitation are recognized for the social processes that they are. Each
    depends on the capitalist’s ability to appropriate surplus, rather than on
    any objective feature of the labor process or the commodities produced. It is
    because exchange is a social process that its confrontation of those involved
    as a natural process is a fetish. All commodities are made commensurable
    by capitalist appropriation, not vice-versa. The subtitle of Capital is ‘a
    critique of political economy’: as critique, it investigates the conditions and
    limits of exchange. It turns out that exchange is conditioned not by prior
    exchangeability, but by the appropriation of surplus by those who control
    the means of production. That is why “the products of labor acquire a
    uniform social status.” It is also the answer to the question that “political
    economy has never thought to ask,” i. e. “why labor is represented by the
    value of its product and labor time by the magnitude of that value.” Labor
    is measured by the value of its product because the capitalist buys it for
    what it can produce. Labor-power is the source of surplus value because it
    is purchased on the basis of its ability to produce not physical surplus, but
    surplus value. Labor, initially the shared feature of commodities, turns out
    to be ‘abstract’ in capitalist production not because it is all interchangeable,
    but because capitalist social relations make it so.”

    You will notice that King, and Marx, and me too, agree with you: “value is a social category produced or enacted by a whole set of social and economic relations”. Very few ‘Marxists’ seem to have noticed that Marx is a critic of Ricardo; he is not agree with Ricardo’s key idea, the labour theory of value (a phrase Marx never uses).

    Comment by rhh1 — January 6, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

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