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

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Wed Feb 28 2007 - 13:34:36 EST

Hi Ian,
I included this in the appendix to my 
dissertation. These short reflections obviously 
arose out of OPE-L exchanges.

Characteristic of social labor in capitalism, as 
Paul Mattick, Jr., has put it, is that the 
transformation of quantities of various forms of 
concrete labor into homogeneous, abstract labor 
or value (as Marx defined it) occurs precisely 
through market exchange: value does not pre-exist 
it. Though the work of production is in fact 
social labor, "it is exercised under the control 
and to account of individual enterprises; the 
social character of production is thus undefined 
until the products are sold. Only then can the 
piece of work in social production be 
measured-for only then does it have such a 
place."  In other words, value and abstract labor 
can only be undefined except in relation to the 
system of prices just as a beam of atoms is 
undefined except after it has been passed through 
a Stern- Gerlach magnet. There is in fact an 
interesting analogy between value and quantum 
measurements in terms of the exact meaningless of 
what is being measured except as it is defined by 
the process of measuring it.
Consider David Lindley's comments on measurement in quantum mechanics:

In classical physics, we are accustomed to 
thinking of physical properties as having 
definite values, which we can try to apprehend by 
measurement. But in quantum physics, it is only 
the process of measurement that yields any 
definite number for a physical quantity, and the 
nature of quantum measurements is such that it is 
no longer possible to think of the underlying 
physical property (magnetic orientation of atoms, 
for example) as having any definite or reliable 
reality before the measurement takes place...[I]n 
quantum physics, it is only the conjunction of a 
system with a measuring device that yields 
definite results, and because different 
measurements (applying a Stern-Gerlach magnet 
with either up down or left or  right 
orientation, for example) produce results that, 
taken together, are incompatible with the 
preexistence of some definite state, we cannot
usefully define any sort of physical reality 
unless we describe not only the physical system 
under scrutiny but, also and with equal 
importance, the measurements we are making of it. 
This is no doubt baffling. We are through long 
familiarity grounded in the assumption of an 
external, objective, and definite reality, 
regardless of how much or how little we know 
about it. It is hard to find the language or the 
concepts to deal with a 'reality' that only 
becomes real when it is measured. There is no 
easy way to grasp this change of perspective, but 
persistence and patience allow a certain new 
familiarity to supplant the old.

The analogy here would be that value, like 
magnetic orientation, does not seem to be a 
property of things unless measured. We should not 
attribute any reality or credibility to them 
before the measurement. Strictly speaking, we 
cannot even claim they (value, magnetic 
orientation) are indeterminate or indefinite 
before measurement.
In short, at what point do commodities acquire 
value? If commodities are not values before they 
have, and are sold for, money price, then there 
can be temporal or causal sense in which values 
can be transformed into prices.  In A 
Contribution to the Critique of Political 
Economy, Marx pinpointed the difficulty:
But the different kinds of individual labour 
represented in these particular use values, in 
fact, becomeŠsocial labour only by being actually 
ex-changed for one anotherŠSocial labour-time 
exists in these commodities in a latent state, so 
to speak, and becomes evident only in the course 
of their ex-change. The point of departure is not 
the labour of individuals considered as social 
labour, but on the contrary the particular kinds 
of labour of private individuals, i.e., labour 
which proves that it is universal social labour 
only by supersession of its original character in 
the exchange process. Universal social labour is 
consequently not a ready made prerequisite, but 
an emerging result. Thus a new difficulty arises: 
on the one hand, commodities must enter the 
exchange process as materialized universal human 
labor, on the other hand, the labour time of 
individuals becomes materialized universal human 
labour time only as the result of the exchange 

In trying to understand how the propensity of a 
quantum system was drawn out in different ways 
according to how it was surrounded by measuring 
devices,  Werner Heisenberg was led to think of 
the system's potential as a "quantitative version 
of the old idea of 'potentia' in Aristotelian 
philosophy. It introduced something standing in 
the middle between the idea of an event and the 
actual event, a strange kind of physical reality 
just in the middle between possibility and 
reality."  For Marx, value also seems to exist in 
potentia; money measurement is thus more than the 
passive ascertainment of a pre-existing property 
but rather the production of a datum (value) 
through the active involvement of measurer and 
thing measured. In other words, value seems to 
describe a system--the thing being measured and 
the measurement being made--rather than being an 
independent description of the thing being 
measured. Value, in short, may not exist as an 
independent thing that can be transformed into 
It would seem then that value is best understood 
not in terms of the now outmoded distinction 
between primary and secondary qualities but 
rather in terms of the contrast between possessed 
and latent ones. Until the impact of relativity 
theory and quantum mechanics, it was tenable to 
categorize attributes as primary and secondary 
(so thought Anaxagoras, Galileo, Descartes, 
Locke); the former was supposed to be a feature 
which an object possesses independent of an 
observer. Classic examples were supposed to be 
mass, position or size. Primary qualities, that 
is, were thought to be resident within their 
object; inalienable from it and make up  their 
essence. An observer simply measured or read a 
primary quality, but the quality is in no sense 
dependent upon the observer. Secondary qualities 
arise from the interaction between the object and 
an observer. Taste and color are typical of this 
That distinction has broken down since with 
relativity theory: mass for example does vary 
with the relative speed of the object and 
observer. In short, if every quality is 
secondary, then the distinction between primary 
and secondary is simply uninformative.As already 
noted, Heisenberg tried to replace the old 
distinction of primary and secondary attributes 
with the idea that qualities of an object are 
either essential or potential; possessed or 
latent. With the uncertainty principle latent 
qualities manifest themselves as clearly present 
only upon measurement; that is, position and 
momentum appear as latent qualities.
This conceptual  innovation is helpful in 
understanding  Marx for whom value is a kind of 
latent quality of commodities which manifests 
itself as clearly present only upon  successful 
monetary ex-change or "collapse" onto the money 
price "vector" (of course not everything which 
has assumed the commodity form and sold for a 
price possess the quality of value, but no 
commodity which has not sold for a price is a--or 
possesses--value). To extend the analogy: 
Monetary  measurement forces a collapse of 
commodities into one of two eigenstates: value or 
no value. That is, a commodity undergoes a change 
from one state to  another in the process of 
        There are of course at least two places where the analogy breaks down:
(1) In  quantum mechanics,   measurement supplies 
a determinate value for the observable while we 
are not supplied  with such a determinate value 
by money measurement. That is, we cannot go from 
the price at which a commodity sells to its value.
(2) In quantum mechanics, we have definite 
probabilities for the values measurement will 

I have explored this analogy only to weaken our 
intuition that the thing being measured must 
pre-exist or exist independently of the 
measurement. It should not simply be assumed that 
if money price measures or represents value that 
value pre-exists the measurement and can itself 
be represented in a transparent way.  Once this 
assumption is relaxed, the whole problem of 
transforming a transparent value scheme into 
price scheme disappears. Rather all we have are 
money prices and money profits (as well as money 
rents and interest), the necessary forms of 
appearance of value and surplus value. We can 
infer from a price scheme what the underlying 
value magnitudes, e.g. s/v,  may be.  And more 
importantly we may infer from the differences in 
price schema over time how labor time relations 
must have changed or be changing and to what 
future consequence. We may indeed find 
explanatorily powerful an account of significant 
secular changes in prices and money profit, as 
well as morphological features such as the 
centralization of capital, the crisis cycle, an 
uneven division of labor,  in terms of changes in 
labor time relations. But there is always 
inference to changes in the underlying labor 
value magnitudes in a fetishistic economy, never 
a transformation from transparent pre-existing 
value magnitudes to price ones.
Paul Samuelson said in regards to just such a point:
One common misunderstanding of the inverse 
transformation problem needs to be cleared up. It 
is commonŠ[to] argue that only profits and prices 
have a reality and that Marx in beginning with 
values and rates of surplus value had already 
performed the inverse transformation ; thus the 
direct transformation merely brings him back to 
his starting placeŠThis is simply 
incorrectŠ[With] the Sraffa apparatus, or the 
equivalent Leontief apparatusŠone can go from an 
undiluted labor theory of value, in which the 
direct plus indirect labor-hour requirement of 
each goods and the subsistence can be reckoned in 
physical terms to Marx's tableau of values. (237)

But this is simply incorrect. One cannot begin 
with or "go from"  knowledge of the technical or 
physical norms of social production: these norms 
are discovered exactly in and through  sale at 
money price. Monetary magnitudes are logically 
and causally antecedent to physical production 
data. Samuelson simply does not understand Marx's 
most basic idea about commodity fetishism which 
cannot be formalized after all in high faluting 
algebra.  In a fetishistic economy, i.e. an 
economy in which social relations are mediated 
only through commodities, it is only through sale 
at money price that there is  social validation 
of private labor time and social determination of 
what the modal techniques are. As de Vroey has 
underlined, these are not known before the 
establishment of prices: socially necessary labor 
time exists  only at the articulation between 
value and price. We can thus no more start with 
the technical conditions as specified in a 
Sraffian framework than we can with values as 
specified in von Bortkiewicz's equations. The 
transformation problem is simply alien to the 
Marxian conception of value as a category for the 
understanding or more specifically as causal 
mechanism retroduced for the purposes of 
explaining changes, above all, in the average 
rate of profit over time in the long run.

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