Re: [OPE] Understanding Value

From: howard engelskirchen <>
Date: Sat Apr 25 2009 - 15:00:03 EDT

Hi Michael,

I think your assertion that abstract labor creates value is not quite right, and also you need to specify the social determinations you have in mind. The phrase abstract labor usually refers to labor that is the substance of value; as such it is labor expended and objectified. This is the sense in which it is contrasted with concrete labor. But objectified labor is value, it doesn't create value. It is living labor that creates value and living labor is always as concrete as it can be.

Marx does refer to living labor as abstract not in contrast to concrete labor but rather as a way of characterizing living labor as the use value of capital. Because living labor makes possible value's self-multiplication, capital and labor are both indifferent to the content or particularity of what is that is being produced. What you make is not this or that thing, but money. But labor abstract in this sense, though responsible for the commodity as a product of capital, it is not required for abstract labor as the substance of value - all that is required for the product as a bearer of value is that objects of utility be the product of the labor of private individuals working independently as part of the social division of labor.

            The different kinds of labor that Marx calls abstract are worth sorting out. There's a third category called abstract as well. This is labor as the abstract, as distinct from real, possibility of labor. Labor abstract in this sense is labor separated from the conditions of production and therefore from all possibility of production.

            These three distinct senses of labor as abstract are connected by a thread. Labor as mere abstract possibility provokes the sale of labor power as a commodity. Labor power is purchased as a commodity because it is the use value of capital and as such of no interest except insofar as it produces surplus value. Living labor as the use value of capital is objectified in the commodity as a product of capital and as such, as objectified, is abstract labor as the substance of value. But the converse need not follow: abstract labor as the substance of value is not necessarily living labor expended as the use value of capital nor need it presuppose the separation of the laborer from the conditions of production.

In solidarity,


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Michael Heinrich
  To: Outline on Political Economy mailing list
  Sent: Saturday, April 25, 2009 5:06 AM
  Subject: Re: [OPE] Understanding Value

  Dear Juriaan,

  your statement, that value "has nothing to do with exchange processes" is a serious position, which can be discussed. But when you state, that this is Marx's "real view", then we should read Marx and check if things are really so simple that this Marx's position and everyone who doesn't share this view has misunderstood Marx.

  Marx starts his analysis in the first chapter of "Capital" with the exchange relation of commodities and asks what the exchanged commodities have in common. Therefore exchange is always presupposed in his analysis. That we cannot speak of "value" (distinct from use-value) outside exchange relations, Marx also stresses in the section on commodity fetishism, where he wrote

  "It is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire a socially uniform objectivity as values, which is distinct from their sensuously varied objectivity as articles of utility." (Capital, vol. I, p. 166, Penguin).

  To stress this point doesn't mean, as you suppose, that "value arises out of the exchange". Exchange is not the source of value. It is abstract labour which creates value. But abstract labour itself is not identical with the concrete labour a certain individual has spent in production, abstract labour is already a certain social determination of labour. The value-creating process is not a process which happens only between man and nature outside any social determination. This process is a special social process, which takes place only under certain social conditions. The production of use-values is a condition of human life, the production of value only happens in societies based on exchange. As if Marx had foreseen such interpretations as yours, he states in the third volume of "Capital"

  "No producer considered in isolation produces a value or commodity, neither the industrialist nor the agriculturalist. His product becomes a value and a commodity only in a specific social context. Firstly, in so far as it appears as an expression of social labour, and therefore his own labour-time appears as a part of the general social labour-time; secondly, where this social character of his labour appears as a social character impressed on his product, in its money character and its general exchangeability as determined by its price." (Capital, vol. III, p. 777, Penguin).


  Jurriaan Bendien schrieb:
    Hi Howard,

    Thank you for your interpretation, but allow me to say that I happen to think this is not quite what Marx believed, and also, that it is not a coherent theory. You say for example:

    "Value exists because persons or productive entities independently produce products useless to them as part of the social division of labor. Market exchange is a consequence."

    Briefly put, I think Marx's real view is more like this:

    "Products have value in the economic sense because the material reality is, that it took human work effort to make them and procure them, and they are economized socially on that basis. In bourgeois society, however, value takes specific forms which are characteristic of that kind of society, and which are all derived from the most elementary structures of traded objects."

    That is to say, the existence of value as such (an sich, im allgemeinen) has ipso facto nothing to do with exchange processes, although, in common (vulgar) parlance, value is most often equated with exchange-value. Instead, the category of economic value arises out of human labor, and the necessity for human labor.

    That thesis, is precisely what the socialistic valueform theorists deny - they side with the bourgeois theorists, and argue that value arises out of exchange, and consequently that "economic activity" is properly defined as "trading activity", in other words, that economics = commerce (making money from trade).

    The effect of that denial by the socialistic valueform theorists is that there is no meaningful distinction anymore between values and money-prices, except that talking about values can convey a certain critical evaluation or an interpretation of the meaning of price phenomena. You can sort of sermonize about value and commerce as an evil, corruptive force and so on. It becomes impossible to construct a dynamic theory of production prices, market values and the levelling out of industrial profit rates, because the very basis of that theory is, that value movements and price movements occur autonomously of each other, even although they influence each other. The centrepiece of that theory is value-price deviations, but if value and price are the same thing, there can be no deviations.

    The advantage of adopting what I think is Marx's real view, rather than the socialistic valueform theorists or bourgeois theorists' view, is that it is very consistent with anthropological, archaeological and historical research findings, which show very clearly that the value of products was practically assumed by people even when there was no bourgeois market, and that a very good understanding existed of the normal work effort required to make or replace products, even although there was no market, or only the most rudimentary market relationships. Products had value, simply because people knew jolly well what it required to replace them, and they acted according to that assumption in organising everyday life.

    The core of Marx's interpretation of the law of value is, that exchange value is in the last instance regulated and determined (bestimmt) by value. But this idea makes no sense at all, if value and exchange value are considered to be more or less the same thing.

    The point about the economic value of products is, that it is "a quality which is quantifiable", you can have more or less amounts of it, but this actually corresponds closely to human labor-time, which has exactly the same characteristic. Value exists an an objective characteristic in the first instance not because of the exchangeability of the product, but because the product cost a certain amount of a community's work effort to produce, procure and replace.


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