[OPE-L] empirical measurement of changes in the value of labour-power

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Sun Dec 16 2007 - 07:59:36 EST


In what you say I think you efface both what Marx argues and the whole controversy among economic historians about the concept. What Marx argues is that the VLP, representing an average reproduction cost expressible in a quantity of social labour-time, is determined INDEPENDENTLY of and PRIOR TO the circulation (buying and selling) of labour power, he says so very explicitly. He must necessarily argue this, because otherwise he commits himself to a circular argument that boils down to a tautology, where prices determine values while values determine prices.

Economic historians would agree with you about the influence of the balance of power between social classes, but they would argue that insofar as empirically the VLP cannot be specified independently of the real wage and the real wage cannot be specified independently of the VLP, the VLP determines the real wage, and the real wage determines the VLP. In that case the VLP concept seems to be redundant, because it adds nothing to the explanation of the evolution of wage levels. That is what I tried to respond to, explaining that the VLP has nothing directly to do with the real wage but with the average cost of living.

It is true that variations in wage costs will feed into the average cost-of-living for all workers sooner or later, but since they are only one component of capital costs, the average cost-of-living can rise or fall independently of wage levels. The average cost of living is not simply "determined" by wage levels. This is the problem which a narrow focus on real wages does not address, i.e. it does not of itself explain what the changes in buying power of the wage are attributable to. In Marx's theory, we don't confuse the empirical indicator of a trend with the reality to which it refers. Only slipshod economists do.

Indeed, the average cost-of-living can vary independently of variations in the balance of power between social classes, since nobody has any control over how the average cost-of-living for all workers may evolve, although they can partially influence it. The state can influence it with taxation, benefits, incomes policy, (un)employment policy, trade policy and monetary policy; the employers can influence it by hiring policies, the exploitation rate of labour and the prices of their output; and workers can influence it through struggling for better wages & conditions, and labour mobility. 

If, for example, the price of imported foodstuffs rises structurally, this affects the cost-of-living without any local social classes being able to annul that fact, though of course the state can respond with tarriffs and subsidies, capitalists can try to find cheaper substitutes, and workers can change their diet if they can or campaign for higher wages.

As Marx himself acknowledges, he did not provide a theory of the labour market, and Michael Lebowitz does not provide such a theory either (Ben Fine attempts to do so in Labour Market Theory: A Constructive Reassessment. Routledge, London, 1998). In my opinion, Lebowitz in fact evades all the important unsolved theoretical questions involved here. We can all agree that workers have needs, that the VLP can rise, etc. but this does not explain the dynamics of the labour market, why wage contracts take the form they do, or why working conditions evolve in the way they do.

Marx's thesis is that "Above all, [capital] overturns all the legal or traditional barriers that would prevent it from buying this or that kind of labour-power as it sees fit, or from appropriating this or that kind of labour" (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, Pelican ed., p. 1013). And therefore, he considers that the specific ways in which labour may contingently be bought or sold have no bearing on the essence of capital, or on the essential economic relations involved. But obviously the "overturning of all the legal or traditional barriers" is an intensely political matter, that is the subject of class conflicts (currently, in Europe, the focus is on flexibilising hiring and firing policies). 

I am very suspicious of references to "levels of abstraction and concretisation". Either you are able to theorise something, or you are not. Evading the issue, by saying that a particular problem is not relevant at a certain level of abstraction, is to invoke a tyranny of concepts which are asserted without proof of their applicability. Marx's argument is that  "in a given country, at a given period, the average quantity of the means of subsistence necessary for the worker is practically known." That is something you can test. In reality, the monetary equivalent of that quantity is stipulated or implicit in legal regulations.


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