You will occasionally come upon supposed refutations of Marx's theory of value that I find just ignorant. One might talk about two divers. One comes up with a handful of sand, and the other comes up with a pearl. They have put in the same labor, but their products are of quite different exchange values. Or consider the labor that goes into making a useless product, something that cannot be sold as a commodity on a market. Obviously, labor does not create value. A refutation can only be effective, at least among serious people, if it attempts to start with an understanding of the idea being attacked. A critique could be immanent and transcend the position it starts with. Or it can end up just rejecting that position. I am not sure why I included a bit about commodity fetishism in my
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You will occasionally come upon supposed refutations of Marx's theory of value that I find just ignorant. One might talk about two divers. One comes up with a handful of sand, and the other comes up with a pearl. They have put in the same labor, but their products are of quite different exchange values. Or consider the labor that goes into making a useless product, something that cannot be sold as a commodity on a market. Obviously, labor does not create value.
A refutation can only be effective, at least among serious people, if it attempts to start with an understanding of the idea being attacked. A critique could be immanent and transcend the position it starts with. Or it can end up just rejecting that position.
I am not sure why I included a bit about commodity fetishism in my Frequently Asked Questions about the Labor Theory of Value. Apparently, one of my most popular posts is this one, in which I collect passages in Marx on vulgar political economy, commodity fetishism, and the illusions created by competition.
Marx, in Capital, for example, is analyzing the conditions that allow for a capitalist society to continue, to be self reproducing, albeit with fits and starts. One condition is that labor be distributed among many different concrete activities. For car and trucks to be produced, workers, besides making cars, maybe must be making tires out of rubber and steel out of iron, for example. And trucks or locomotives might be being driven to deliver steel or tires to outside of Detroit. The workers performing these activities are in a social relationship, but they do not see this. Even the managers of firms do not see this. Rather, this social relationship between workers is brought about selling and buying commodities, such as tires, steel, and cars. Prices bopping about on markets bring about and maintain the relationships between workers. One can see why an analysis of capitalism might begin with an analysis of a commodity.
Individuals living in a self-reproducing society take on various roles, roles that cannot be defined in terms of a single individual or single transaction. Teachers cannot exist without students sometimes listening. And for a teacher to be a teacher, there cannot be just one teacher who once taught one student for one session. Instead, to be a teacher requires that one sometime has taught a student week after week. Nor can a king exist, Antoine de Saint-Exupery to the contrary, alone on an isolated asteroid. Subjects also must exist who acknowledge at least the possibility of sovereignty.
Marx treats the capitalist as 'capital personified'. The capitalist repeatedly uses money to buy raw materials and machinery (means of production) and hire workers (labor power). The workers make a commodity under the direction of the capitalist, and the capitalist owns what the worker makes. Those commodities must then sell the produced commodities on the market. The repeating of this process, time after time, is what makes a capitalist a capitalist according to Marx.
Neither capitalists nor workers calculate labor values. When the capitalist sells commodities on the market, he does not view the commodity as a 'material receptacle of homogeneous human labour'. And capitalists are not required to recognize that the relative prices of commodities express a social relationship characterizing how the total workforce is distributed among their establishments in the various industries in which production goes on in parallel.
Workers pressing for higher wages, less hours, and better working conditions also need no awareness of the labor time embodied in the commodities that they produce and in the commodities embodied in their wage. I take no issue, though, that it is helpful for workers and their advocates to have some awareness of the 'laws of motion' of the mode of production for the society in which they live.
It is a necessary consequence of this analysis that sometimes capitalists will direct workers to make something that cannot be sold as a commodity on the market. In some industries and processes, one expects a certain average failure rate. In oil drilling, for instance, one would expect a certain number of wells to fail. This rate may be lowered by technological advances, such as in controlled denotations and in signal processing applied to returns from various kinds of sensors. Likewise, if all of a company's research and development efforts pay off, it is not doing R and D right.
The deviation of market prices from prices of production is another reason sometimes some commodities cannot be sold on the market for prices that cover the average rate of profits. It is precisely the capitalists reactions to these deviations that bring about the social relationship between workers.
In this post, I have not even defined labor values, much less made any claims about quantitative relations between prices and labor values. I have also deliberately not used the phrase 'socially necessary abstract labor time' (SNALT). I think it clear that Marx thought that none of his claims depended on prices of production being proportional to labor values. I end where one could start with a mathematical treatment of Marx's theory of value. Only then could one argue about whether Sraffa's standard commodity does or does not provide a solution to the transformation problem.References
- Arato, Andrew and Paul Breines. 1979. The Young Lukács and the Origins of Western Marxism. The Seabury Press.
- López, Daniel Andrés. 2019. Lukács: Praxis and the Absolute. Brill Books.
- Lukács, Georg. 1967. History and Class Consciousness. Trans. by Rodney Livingston.. Merlin.
- Rubin, Isaak I. Essays on Marx's Theory of Value.