Re: [OPE-L] Why aren't non-labourers sources of value?

From: Andrew Brown (A.Brown@LUBS.LEEDS.AC.UK)
Date: Tue Apr 19 2005 - 11:06:02 EDT

Ian and all,

Finally, a brief chance to respond to Ian's message of 14 April...

Ian wrote:
'Sort of a response to Andy and Paul but this touches on other posts ...
As a quick sketch, the reason I'd give why human labour alone is the
substance of value is that changes in the flow pattern of money
control the manifestation pattern of abstract labour.'

I reply:
The language you use here is terribly formal / mathematical looking to
my eye. However, in conjunction with the rest of your post I do see what
you are getting at, I think.

You continue:
' Value refers to
abstract labour, has these objective semantics, in virtue of the
regular causal connections between a representation (value) and an
object (abstract labour).'

I reply:
Again, and no doubt as a function of this being but a brief sketch of
your view, there are many problems with the way you have put this. Is
value only a representation? I'd say 'value' is a strange (ghostly)
'object' in itself. Strange because non-sensuous and hence value itself
has to be represented - and is represented by price. Isn't 'abstract
labour' an aspect of an activity or process, rather than an object?
Value is 'congealed' abstract labour, not abstract labour as such.
Abstract labour is, in this way, the substance of value. Anyway, I still
think I understand what you are getting at here -- so the above are just

You continue:
' The flow pattern of value is the control
signal of an adaptive system that functions to continually reallocate
social labour in response to changes in the composition of demand. New
concrete forms of labouring activity appear in response to new flow
patterns of value. The continual feedback in the control system
creates kinds of people, types of concrete activities, which are
use-values for each other.

All societies must allocate resources, and distributed money flows are
the language of the unconscious plan implemented by market societies.
But the language of value is understood only by humans, and its
directives can only be implemented by humans. It therefore only talks
to them, and therefore is only about their causal powers.'

I reply:
I tried to argue in my original post on this subject that it is the
productively creative nature of humans, in their labour, that is the key
here. True, a machine can't understand language but is this the most
abstract and simple, or fundamental, point to make? I'd want to say the
fundamental point is that labour is the only input to production whose
actual quality and quantity is open to choice, at any given point in
time, because not forever fixed by external constraints and internal
structure. (The labourer changes relevant aspects of their inner
structure as well as the external constraints through their labour). As
you say, it is this choice of labour quality and quantity that then
determines the allocation of other inputs.

You continue:
'We don't need specifically capitalist relations for the above to hold,
although it is capitalism, with the pursuit of profit as the
overarching goal, which really makes the control relations sing.'

I reply:
I think we do need capitalism because in any other mode of production
the market 'allocation' is peripheral relative to the dominant
production relations (feudal or slave, say). Value is only 'fully
developed' in capitalism. 

You continue:
'Hence value does not refer to machine labour-power or animal
labour-power because this kind of labour-power cannot keep up with the
plan -- it is non-innovating: It neither causes or responds to
disequilibrium price signals by changing its concrete form in order to
adapt to new economic circumstances.'

I reply:
Don't you mean 'machine-power' and 'animal-power'? Here you mention some
aspects of the key point I want to make but mixed up with other stuff.
I'd want to stress that key point alone under such constraints of

You continue:
'This explanation is quite different from Marx's argument in Vol I: the
common thing left over. I think most of it, however, is in Rubin: his
"transmission belt" that makes an economy a functioning whole, and his
strange kind of "barometer" that not only measures the weather but
corrects it. It is implicit in Marx's "every child knows" letter.
Andy, would you agree this general approach? Do you still think as
much weight should be placed on Marx's common substance argument of
Vol I, as you did in your thesis, compared to his transhistorical
requirement that societies must implement schemes to organise their

I reply:
I think I see what you are getting at but would not commit to agreeing
with your approach, even in general. The quibbles etc above (see also
below) probably stem from important differences in our respective
approaches; there are so many aspects involved here that aren't even
touched upon in a brief email exchange. On the other hand there do seem
to be interesting commonalities (one of which is the influence of

Regarding Marx, I'd want to stress that the trans-historical stuff in
itself tells us nothing about value (since fully developed value is
historical, not trans-historical). It is the common substance argument
that adequately develops the historical concept of value, of course
presupposing all the trans-historical aspects of the notion of 'mode of
production' but starting with the *capitalist* commodity -- and so from
the outset having to develop historical not trans-historical concepts. 

My main comment on the rest of your post (copied below) is that I would
want to emphasise the need to develop a concept of capital once having
developed a concept of value. All further qualitative and quantitative
developments must await an adequate concept of capital. I am very
uncomfortable at your attempted model building absent capital. Marx's
'Capital' does exactly this development of the concept of capital that I
would want to see.

Many thanks,


The problem is to make the Marx-Rubin qualitative theory of value
quantitatively precise, and this is not helped by the fact that the
majority of formalisations of Marx's theory have been static and have
ignored what I take to be the central point of their theory: the
causal connections between money and labour allocation out of
equilibrium, and how value controls the manifestation of abstract

One of the more difficult points of the theory, which I am grappling
with, is that value primarily refers to an absence, a negativity,
rather than a positive presence. A plan is a series of steps to bring
into being something that does not yet exist, and hence a plan refers
to absences. If the pattern of flow of value implements a kind of plan
then prices have plan-like semantics, that is somehow refer to
configurations that should exist, not configurations that do exist. A
clue can be found in even the simplest control systems, such as the
lowly thermostat, which has a representation that refers to a
temperature that does not exist, an absent temperature. I am not yet
clear on this. But this seems very different to most other economic
theories I have encountered, and therefore I am wary of formal
theories that view prices solely as measures (either as indices of
scarcity or distributional variables). From the Marx-Rubin
perspective, this has got to be an incomplete picture.

Paul wrote
> That is why the first step in discussing this has to be to establish
> that you actually do have a theoretical object : robot value. If
> you don't have this as a well defined concept there is nothing to
> discuss.

For the sketched reasons I do not think value can refer to robot
labour because robot labour  (at least for the foreseeable future)
will not have the causal powers of abstract labour and therefore will
be restricted in the kinds of concrete labour it can manifest. Robots
will not be able to do the value dance with us.

So, Paul,  this is the background to why I objected to your phrase
about "defining" value. But I agree that the qualitative theory of
value should also be quantitative and make predictions about actual
prices in capitalism.


P.S. I've just read Christopher Arthur's post about "empty forms". An
interesting ontological possibility ... as are "negative forms", that
is representations of absences.

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