[OPE-L:4286] Steve on the worthlessness of labor as the source of surplus value

From: Alejandro Ramos (aramos@btl.net)
Date: Wed Oct 25 2000 - 23:32:55 EDT

Re Steve 4275 and Paul 4278; related also to Gil 4250 and my 4253. 

Please note that I'm not *stricly* engaging your arguments but rather
drafting my ideas.

>From Steve 4275:

"With respect to the labor theory of value interpretation of Marx, I argue
that it is based on incorrectly accepting the premise that labor is the
only source of value, and working logically forward from there.
The reason I call the premise incorrect is that, if you read Marx closely,
after 1857 that was not his initial premise but a deduction from a prior
set of dialectical premises about the commodity, exchange-value and
use-value. I argue that working logically from those premises reaches a
conclusion which contradicts the labor theory of value."

>From Paul 4278:

"My reference to Althusser was not entirely accidental.  If I am defending
a non-Hegelian reading of Marx, why would I be interested your discussion
of "dialectical premises", derivative of a Hegelian reading?"

My comment:

I think the idea, perhaps the wording, that the propostion "[human] labor
is the only source of value" is "deduced" from a set of "dialectical
premises" comes from Bohm-Bawerk's interpretation of Marx's Ch. 1. I don't
have the book right now and cannot check this out.

But, in any case, it seems to me that Marx doesn't "deduce" this
proposition from "logical" or "dialectical" premises. Marx is neither a
thinker devoted to the "abstract dialectics" nor a economist "proofing
theorems". He didn't like abstract sandcastles.

His arguments are essentially *historical* and thus derived from
*observation*. Marx is not a Platonic thinker (as Walras, and contemporary
economists are) but rather a kind of Aristotelian, concerned with the
understanding of the "laws of motion" of real things. Throughout the
history of wo/mankind, all social human productive organisms have spent its
labor power in order to survive in a given natural enviroment. This can be
verified. This expenditure is the main quantitative aspect of the
productive vital activity of such organisms. Individuals have always been
concerned with the accounting or book-keeping of this expenditure, whatever
the degree in which it is/was formally organized: "In all situations, the
labor-time it costs to produce the means of subsistence must necessarily
concern mankind." Capital, I. p. 164, Penguin.

In the particular productive organism Marx is most concerned with --the
commodity producing society, capitalism-- this book-keeping is *socially
ignored*. Here, Robinsons, equipped with watch, ledger, ink and pen and
ready for "keep a set of books [regarding] the labor time that specific
quantities of [their] products have on average cost [them]" (p. 170), are
not common. Anyway, records are partial and dubious and above all not
socially taken into account as measure of the productive organism activity.
There is no "social Robinson" here. Yet, this expenditure is, as in other
historic examples, quite real, observable and could be eventually recorded.
No doubt that, without it, any human productive organism will disappear.

Hence, the issue is that, given the features of this society ("private
exchange"), the socially prevailing form of book-keeping is not worked out
in terms of the real, observable expenditures of human labor power but in,
at first sight, strange, weird, categories such as "prices" and "values",
measured in something which everybody name as "money". In this society,
individuals really think and *talk* about the things as if they have a
seemingly *natural* and intrisic feature called, in general terms, "value",
and they actually use "money" to measure this. Here, things are "valuable",
individuals say. This is by no means a transhistorical feature, but
something that appears in this specific human productive organism. In
addition to this, it's easily verifiable that these "value/money" figures
are the socially accepted and general way for accounting the things society
produces and/or consumes in order to survive. There are no other figures
socially available for this.

Marx's theory or, say, conjecture, is that this bizarre accounting is only
a particular way of doing what other productive organisms have done or
could do, in more or less degree, in terms of the expenditure of human
labor power. So, this theory is not "derived" from premises ("dialectical"
or not) of any model, theorem or concept. It is a hypothesis concerning a
particular, historic, human productive organism in which all the terms of
the formulation have a factual support. "Value" is not a "theoretical
entity", "derived" from "premises", or "calculated" within "models", but a
socially used category, as "money", "commodity", "price", "capital",
"wage", etc. are. Marx gives us a theory about what is behind this socially
spread category, about what is the meaning of this *measuring practice* in
which, regarding the  material reproduction, everybody is in fact involved.

So, Marx "as an economist" is not pair of people such Walras and the like,
who are model builders, concerned with ideal, *imaginary* theoretical
entities whose properties have to be tested only logically or
mathematically. Problems concerning such people are e.g.: The theoretical
entity which, in my notation, I call "market", is it in equilibrium? Is
this equilibrium stable? Or: Can I produce a model of capitalism with one
premise less than other models presented by morally depreciated
researchers? Or: The theoretical self-reproducing entity which in my
notation I call "capitalism" (but, changing notation, can be a beehive), is
it viable if its physical surplus product = 0? etc.

As happens with any Platonic thinking, supporters are often mystics and
idolize their "theoretical creatures". As Plato, they are keen to advise
tyrants about how reach "perfect societies", now updated to "perfect
markets"; admision to the powerful sect is as always restricted.

Coming back to my analogy with the theory of heart attacks: Walras-like
biologists would primarily develop a model of what they *believe* is a
"general heart". Then, they may discover that, their model of heart does
*not* suffer attacks, and "proof" this on the spot by using logic and
mathematics. A highly valuable knowdlege, indeed. Platonism doesn't
distinguish between reality and model because in its metaphysics, reality
is the model. Observable things are proyections, or rather *distortions* of
the everlasting model, which exists in itself and by itself.

People like Marx would try, firstly, to have a collection of real,
palpable, hearts (this sounds too Aztec!), observe them, and then make
hypothesis about how do they work and why do they have failures. They seek
to record empirical information of any kind, describe it in abstract terms,
and make hypothesis about the thing's "law of motion".

So, Marx "as an economist" has the eyes of a social book-keeper, recording,
accounting for, tracing down, the *time marked* expenditure of human labor
power, which is nothing but the vital activity of the productive organism
in question. His mathematics are not that of the self-equilibrating
theoretical entities, but kind of accounting mathematics. His early
predecessors are the mycaenean book-keepers, the Inka Kipukamayokuna, and
the like. The magnitudes he refers to have, in principle, a real,
observable, measurable content. They are always *historic* and hence time
determined. His theory is, actually, a sketch of a system of accounting for
a given social organism.

Probably thanks to Feuerbach (a rarely mentioned influence), Marx is always
concerned with "sensous", "palpable" things. What he records as "value" has
an objective content, it is real work *effectively done* in a given time:
"with regard to the foundation of the quantitative determination of value,
namely the duration of that expenditure... this is *quite palpably*
different from its quality" (p. 164).  It's not "derived" from "models" in
which the figure is "what would be, if the economy, remains in stationary
state from here to doomsday (i.e. long-run)." It is rather a palpable,
recordable magnitude and, then, not a virtual one. Neither Marx nor
Robinson are interested in "virtual" accounting of social efforts. Robinson
do have a watch and uses it. Indeed, Marx's "value' is the opposite of
notions such as "oportunity cost", coming from subjective presumptions or
arbitrary "appraisals"; it is rather the record of objective and time
determined expenditures of human labor power, which, in the end must appear
as "money".

I think this Mr Robinson K. Marx is still alone in his sun-bathed island,
keep marching and book-keeping capitalism. In the academic business, one
Carl Walras is starring him until now, unfortunately.

Alejandro Ramos

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