Re: [OPE-L] questions on the interpretation of labour values

From: Paul Cockshott (wpc@DCS.GLA.AC.UK)
Date: Wed Feb 21 2007 - 04:58:49 EST

Jerrry wrote:
Clean air (in the atmosphere, as distinct from manufactured oxygen)
does not have value but may come to be _valued_.  How can we
grasp the _valuation_ of nature under capitalism using Marxian
conceptions? [In mainstream theory, there is the concept of
external costs.] How could one, for instance, calculate the _value_
of  clean air from a Marxian perspective?  By the costs in terms of
LP and MP in terms of  _cleaning_ the air?  But, how does one know
or estimate before the fact what those costs in the future will be?
And wouldn't the value of clean air from the perspective of capital
and the state be different from the 'value' of clean air from a working-
class perspective?  [Recalling Mike L's emphasis that social
issues should not be one-sidedly looked at from the standpoint of
capital.  Nor should they be looked at only from the general standpoint
humanity.  They need, as Mitch Cohen emphasized, to be looked
at holistically. But has this been done?  How could it be done?]

Paul C
I think that in proposing to put a valuation onto clean air or any other
aspect of nature you could be drifting into what Foley is calling Adam's
fallacy: the idea that by applying a price to things and optimizing on
that one ends up in the best of all possible worlds.

Prices and values come into existence and work because there is an
underlying quantity - human labour - that can be redeployed between
activities. Otherwise the huge dimension reduction involved would be
irrational. Even within capitalist production the information content of
an input output table for the whole economy is is many many times
greater than the information content of the final set of prices. It is
only possible for price to function at all because in the long run any
adjustment in demand for intermediate products works out to a
re-adjustment in the allocation of labour between branches of

If you attempt to apply the same logic to eco-systems it does not work.
There is no equivalent of labour that can be redeployed by nature
between branches of the eco-system. There are flows of energy between
trophic levels, and there is a gross input of energy into the sytem
potentially available for photosynthesis. If one removes one predator
from a given trophic level, then to a certain extent other predators may
step in to use that energy, so one might be tempted to equate the flow
of food energy between levels with labour, but this would be invalid. 

1. The adjustment time required is so much longer in nature because
evolutionary adaptation of the species is required. In Nova Scotia for
instance there is evidence that the lynx is beginning to attempt to
occupy the niche previously occupied by the wolf and prey on deer, but
this predation will be much less effective until evolutionary pressure
causes the size of the lynx to grow and enable it to tackle adult deer.

2. There exist complex feebacks in nature which may mean that removing a
predator causes herbivore populations to explode leading to a degraded
flora and reduced total photosynthetic energy flow.

Attempts to apply valuations to nature are a projection of capitalist
social relations onto a domain on which they do not apply. Rather than
using prices to regulate relations with nature it is probably better to
use absolute quantitative controls. For instance a socialist economy
should fix absolute
Plan targets for the use of carbon fuels which tend to zero over a short
timescale and then use constraint based programming techniques to derive
i/o matrices that are compatible with this.

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