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Thanks to Jerry Levy and Nicola Taylor for having started (1667;
1672) the interesting discussion on value-form theory (VFT). I
apologize for my long silence: bogged with teaching and political
work. In that perspective this post, in trying to catch up, will be a
little long. For those who find that easier: I include an attachement
in Word and in WP51, all identical to the text here below.
It will be understood that when below I refer to VFT without
qualification, then that is my stand within VFT.
1. Labour and Value
2. Value-form and System
3. Abstract labour
5. Marx and VFT
6. Substance and transcendental form
7. Capital as subject
8. Systemic determination
1. LABOUR AND VALUE
Behind a number of the posts seems to be lurking the question of
how VFT deals with basic concepts in view of quantitative work.
For VFT "labour is the fundamental determinant of value and
surplus-value" (for determination and causation see 8 below).
However, this thesis merely makes one into a Classical Political
Economist (CPE). Both Smith and Ricardo took labour exploitation
for granted (as does the current worker and entrepreneur at least if
s/he has no a degree in economics). But fine, the thesis is important
enough, and not one to put on second plane. Indeed, if you dont
buy this thesis (I would think) you are not a Marxist or Marxian
Political Economist (MPE). Nevertheless subscribing to this thesis
is not sufficient to be a Marxist. What is the extra of Marxism
beyond CPE? Here opinions diverge.
2. VALUE-FORM AND SYSTEM
The two fundamental `beyonds' are value-form and system.
(a) `Political Economy never asked the question WHY' etcetera.
(Someone rightfully quoted this text of Marx CI-1-4 in the course
of the discussion.) That is the point, and this takes one to VFT.
(b) The other fundamental `beyond' is to view capitalism, the
CMP, as a system (and this makes, a.o., matters of causation,
determination etc tricky).
The two together take one into Marx's account of Hegelian
Dialectics and to the general architectonic of `Capital' (I would
think, though you may disagree and still be a Marxist, but then tell
me what your `beyond' is).
3. ABSTRACT LABOUR
One key concept in the debate so far has been, rightfully, the
concept of `abstract labour'. This is key to the qualification of the
thesis sub 1 in the light of both VF and System sub 2.
a) First, why `abstract' labour? Since this is about the
`abstraction in practice' or `actual abstraction' through which labour
is subsumed under the VF (cf Value-Form and the State (from now
on VFS) p. 62).
b) This is quite different from a `conceptual abstraction', e.g.
`the US labour force' or `apples' (individual `concrete' apples nor
labourers are framed alike). Of course in conventional language one
never calls this abstract (it is merely a universal) -- to do so would
c) Fred Moseley seems to use `abstract' in a different sense
(which I dont think is helpfull) namely that of a subset of (b). For
him `abstract labour' is labour in the second sense though only a
subset of that, namely socially neccessary labour. Thus socially
non-necessary labour is another subset. (As with (b), in
conventional language no one will understand why you would call
In fact, in VFS, we use a combination of (a) and (b): L
(conceptually abstract labour -- a conceptual aggregation if you
want -- better the universal labour) is brought under the value-form
"m" (monetary expression of labour) whence we have mL for
actual abstract labour. Does AL `exist'? asks Fred in 1935. Yes
abstract labour exists (moreover, there is nothing metaphysical
about it -- Re your 1952) but I dont know exactly what you mean
by a 'separate' entity (anyway it is system-determined so VF-
In his 1704 (see also 1950) Fred proposes the formula P=mL'
[I take liberty to add a dash to L, indicating the subset] (where P `is
the aggregate price of commodities' and L' `the aggregate amount
of abstract labour in the economy as a whole; and m the `money-
value added per hour of abstract labour'). First of all I assume
that -- quite appart from the AL issue ■■ this formula is a slip,
unless P is merely `the price' of value-added (Y or py). So I
propose to rewrite the formula into what I believe Fred means:
Y = mL'. (But Fred, if you indeed mean Y, it is funny that on the
one occasion were mainstream economics keeps on using the term
VALUE-added, to want to replace that with price.)
But still then I dont see what is abstract about L' (appart from it
being the subset of a conceptual abstraction, or rather merely the
subset of a universal). (In terms of Fred's formula I can make no
sense of his 1889: the ghostly objectivity of abstract labour [his L']
determines the quantity of money price ?? Determines? How,
what?) Cf. Chris Arthur 1966: `AL cannot have an entirely separate
existence from the value form ... etc' I fully agree with this post
(with one caveat: `R&W measure labour in money'?? No, abstract
labour is measured in money). On the same issue John Ernst in
1974 makes the point that for Marx abstract labour is not
independent of value/price.
It is interesting to note that in our (VFS) formula -- Y = mL
(where mL stands for abstract labour) -- m = the monetary
expression of labour. It is a constant in the absence of
inflation/deflation, and only if all production gets realised would the
ideal monetary expression m' be equal to the actual monetary
expression m. Thus there is a parallel between Fred's and the VFS
formula (cf Jerry in 1879 on ideal and actual (surplus-)value; cf
Fred 1903). In its actual form, however, Y = mL fits the capitalist
statistics (as it should). This takes me to quantification.
In several contributions (e.g. Fred Moseley in 1704) it was argued
that VFT does not (Fred even writes `cannot') provide a
quantitative theory of profit. I disagree: R = mL - wL. This is the
quantitative determination and there is, I would think, nothing
mysterious about it (but note also that if mL is not abstract labour,
this is Classical rather than Marxist -- note also that CPE would
probably not quarrel with Fred's L'). Another matter is that VFT
indeed is not a price theory (but this was, I would think, neither
Marx's concern -- to the extent that this is relevant at all: I fully
agree with Jerry's 1705 on this and other matters).
Does it (mL) determine price (cf Fred 1935)? It is one
determinant of price, I suppose you havent lost means of production
X(i)= dK(i) + m(i)l(i) [where the i's should be subscripts]; x =
In 1836 Fred retakes up the issue (by the way he refers to
Likitkijsomboon's article in RRPE as an ally in criticising VFT's
"failure" of a quantitative theory of surplus-value; Fred might as
well have pointed to the reply to L. in the same journal 1995 27/3).
Here is the sketch of quantitative proceeding that Fred requests
(but note again, there is nothing particularly Marxist about THIS -
it is polished up CPE). Surplus-value is explained by surlus-labour
AND the monetary expression of labour (m). If all productivity
changes would be translated in L (that is if m would be constant,
i.e. if there is no price inflation/deflation in the strict sense) then
there is, macro-economicly, a one to one relationship between SV
But Fred wants more (I believe) he seems to want a micro
theory. But the point is that with the devision of S into profit,
interest and rent, and again with the devision of those between and
within sectors of production all sort of contingencies come in (many
of those related to power factors). The result of those devisions is
the actual profit and rate of profit of firms. And this is what matters
for the actual decisions of enterprises, and that is what matters for
the analysis of cycle and conjuncture. (From several of my papers
in progeress that Fred has seen (ISMT 1998 and ISMT 1999) he
knows that I am carrying out that kind of quantitative empirical
Fred asks (1836) `can one have an adequate comprehension of
capitalism without an explanation of the magnitude of surplus-
value?'. The answer is no. Jerry's answer in 1838 is correct:
abstract labour can only be measured through prices. How would
you do it Fred (without resorting to a naturalistic theory)?
In 1870 Nicola Taylor writes: `my brief thought is that R&W
are not interested in providing a quantitative theory of the
magnitude of surplus-value'. Speaking for myself (but I am almost
sure Mike agrees) I/we are intersted in this. (Andrew Brown in
1872 is right that it is argued in VFS that abstract labour time
determines the magnitude of value - for my part Andrew, no need
to get you straigt; there is no huge gulf between `Capital' and VFS
(see also Mike W. in his 1996 posted by Jerry and #5 below). I
also think Andrew Brown is correct in 1880 that for Marx, as well
as VFS, value can only be calculated ex-post as price, see the
Results [more explicit references are in my 1999 paper in the
Revista di Politica Economica]. And, again, Nicola (1870) is right,
surplus-value, or value generally, has no measure other than in
prices (or, more specifically, in prices and labour).
On Nicola's corrolary in that same post: The focus in R&W is
indeed on labour as value-creating; but at the same time of course it
is exploited labour (see also #1 above). The very existence of profit
is of course the result of exploitation -- I am sorry if we have taken
that too much for granted (did we Jerry? - I refer to your 1879 -
see chapter one #9 of VFS, where I think it is made explicit that
labour is the only one source of surplus-value/profit). But Nicola
(1870) is also right that in terms of political action the form-
determination is crucial (talk for one our with a labourer on the
production line: of course s/he knows that s/he is being exploited;
however it is hard to imagine a world without money as THE
criterium for all sorts of decision). See also #1 above on the
difference between CPE and MPE. The rest of this post of Nicky is
I agree with Julian Wells (1779) that it is surprising that many
of those who do empirical work seem suspicious of VFT. Indeed
empirical work is the logical complement of the approach. I also
agree with Jerry (1784) that VFT has the advantage of being able to
utilize empirical studies and data developed by non-Marxists since
'translation' is not required to the same degree as other, non-VFT
Marxians, would require. In that same post he pointedly refers to
the relationship between 'basic theory' (necessary moments I would
add) and 'stages theory' (i.e. 'contingency' which may be related to
regimes of accumulation). Indeed that is crucial to empirical
5. MARX AND VFT
In his 1952 Fred writes: `So, I ask again, what does value-form
theory explain that Marx theory cannot explain, that would justify
the rejection of Marx's quantitative theory?'
The short answer to this question is: nothing. The short
motivation for the answer: since Marx is the founder of value-form
theory. The short statement of the problem we have now: (1) there
are apparently other interpretations of Marx around than Fred's; (2)
sometimes Fred is correct in his interpretation of Marx, since Marx
was a human being and made mistakes. (Please grant him that. In
his 1895 -- coming back to his 1757, in reply to Andrew 1785 --
Chris writes: "Oh dear - this is all so complicated. I should have
said `value as substance is money' ... etcetera". That is why.)
Referring again to Andrew Brown's 1872, there is no huge gulf
between 'Capital' and VFS (in fact I am more convinced of that
now -- after several restudies of `Capital' -- than I was in 1989). I
think though there is a huge gulf between labour-embodied
theoreticians or almost labour-embodied theoreticians and Marx. I
also think there is a gulf between concrete labour theoreticians
(even if the concrete labour is called abstract -- cf #3 on abstract
labour above) and Marx.
6. SUBSTANCE AND TRANSCENCENTAL FORM
The phrase used in VFS of `value as pure transcendental form' is
perhaps not a very happy one. I grant that Andrew Brown (cf his
1889 ■■ see also Chris in 1909). The reason we used that phrase is
to bring to the fore that we are not talking about an ontological
form (in the sense of the 'shape' of a cup or the shape of an
ashtray). That is all (I am sure Mike W. agrees). Further, it is to
stress that `it' (value) has no substance! Nevertheless it is a
magnitude that has a determination (i.e. abstract labour). Like Chris
I prefer not to use the term substance. (As far as I remember we
did not go into that in VFS. In my 1993 paper in Moseley ed I did,
stating that this notion risks to be taken for a `real embodiment.)
7. CAPITAL AS SUBJECT
I much agree with Nicola 1912, though not with its last sentence
where she says: 'production of SV is form determined [yes]; i.e.
there is an ontological inversion whereby capital rather than labour
becomes the subject of production'. I hesitate with 'subject' (Chris,
on the other hand, will like this I suppose) and disagree with
ontological. It is first of all an ideological inversion. Nevertheless
that ideology has reality (cf labour expulsion and the TRPF;
economic crises show the inversion is not ontological). Perhaps I
misunderstand you, then please explain.
8. SYSTEMIC DETERMINATION
Replying to one of the questions posed by Nicola Taylor (in 2019)
to Mike W. (not for him of course): I would argue there is a
`causal' connection between labour and value (thus also SV). Two
nuances: (1) causation is tricky since we are concerned with a
system (see also Chris Arthur in e.g. 1901 on causation). (2) This
does not mean that we can derive a theory of price from merely
labour. Though I would argue that in the aggregate there is a direct
relation between labour and value (caveat: value, as expressed in
money ■■ there is no other expression ■■ is also a monetary
variable due to inflation or deflation).
I agree with Jerry (1677) -- this was about Uno and VFT -- that
from the very beginning on Marx's Capital is about capitalism.
Chris Arthur has written a number of convincing paper about this
(e.g. his 1997 in Moseley & Campbell eds).
Finally, it was most appropriate to have Steve Keen's report on
cycle and stock market (2003) in this VFT interchange.
PS: Unfortunately Value-Form and the State is out of print. I send
out a bound xerox-copy on request.
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