[OPE-L:103] Re: Marx's Goals

Gilbert Skillman (gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu)
Thu, 21 Sep 1995 17:38:30 -0700

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Paul Z. writes (indicated by >), in response to my comments
(indicated by >>):

> > 1) What I "see" has nothing to do with it;*Marx* sees the law of value
> > as a claim that labor values regulate prices, and corroborates this
> > vision repeatedly throughout Volume I and in places in the
> > Grundrisse, the Contribution to the Critique, Volume III, etc).
> > (Indeed, this vision is how Marx justifies making the abstraction
> > in Vol. I that Paul refers to; more on that below.)

> What the working class can learn from Capital Vol. 1, among other things,
> has nothing to do with the relatively trivial question of whether the
> labor time put into the computer I am now using reflects, relatively
> speaking, its market price/price of production (or whatever), relative to
> the labor time which went into the bagel and cream cheese I ate for lunch.

Fine, then as I have suggested, conveying Marx's theory of
exploitation has nothing to do with any "law of value." Second, as I
understand it the primary purpose of our group is not to discover "what the
working class can learn from Capital Vol. I" as written, but to
carry forward Marx's project--which may include correcting his

> Frankly, I don't care and I don't find my students caring about it
> either (except when they get thrown into a micro theory class and the
> instructor wants them to care about market prices). What they can learn
> has everything to do with the difference between their labor time and the
> value of their labor power--and that latter value is not obvious because it
> is covered up by the sphere of circulation (am I getting a "fair" wage?)

Unless one defines "value of labor power" tautologically as "whatever
workers get, consistent with the existence of profits", this
statement is doubly misleading: first, capitalist exploitation does not require
that workers get just the value of their labor power, as
(non-tautologically) defined by Marx; second, capitalist exploitation
does not require that capitalists hire labor *power* as opposed to,
say, labor *services*, as corroborated by Marx's historical commentary
in Volume III and the Resultate.

Students should care about this if they are led to believe that by
forming labor-owned firms they can avoid being exploited (since then no
capitalist would be hiring their labor power).

Of course I agree with Paul concerning Marx's point that the sphere
of circulation obscures the existence and basis of exploitation, but this has
nothing to do with the "law of value" as Marx understood it.

> > 2) However, If the law of value doesn't say this, it's hard to see
> > how it is anything other than a tautology, unless one were to confuse
> > it with the theory of exploitation. That would be inappropriate,
> > since
> The above wasn't a tautology for me and certainly is not for my students.
> I had to work at understanding the roots of profit in this system.

Right. That's Marx's theory of exploitation, not his law of value.
Unless one defines the latter as the former, which Marx manifestly
did not, then if the law doesn't say something to the effect that
prices are regulated by respective labor values, the law is a
tautology (at best).

> > 3) The law of value in Marx's sense is not required to prove that
> > exploitation is the basis of capitalist profit. Furthermore, as
> > mentioned in my previous post,
> Are we back with Steedman and Roomer?

No, we're forward with Skillman, as corroborated by Marx's analysis
of exploitation via usury, merchant's capital, and ground rent in
Volume III. I did find some relevant points of departure in Roemer, though.

> > 4) To the extent that Marx relies on a close interpretation of value theory
> > (what Paul refers to as Marx's abstraction from departures of prices from values)
> > to establish the argument, the argument is wrong, plainly wrong, demonstrably
> > wrong. And by the way, Marx doesn't simply make this abstraction for
> > convenience; at the end of (sorry) Chapter 5 he *insists* that one
> > must be able to account for surplus value on the basis that commodity
> > prices and values are proportional. That's invalid: price-value equivalence is
> > neither necessary nor particularly relevant to a world in which profit (and
> > therefore exploitation) exists.
> The conclusion of Chapter 5 is that "the money-owner...must buy his
> commodities at their value, sell them at their value, and yet at the end
> of the process withdraw more value from circulation than he threw into it
> at the beginning" (using the sexist English translation of the German
> original). That is what drives the drama of Chapter 6, The Sale
> and Purchase of Labor Power.

Yes, and Marx's insistence that the analysis of surplus value must
proceed on this basis is demonstrably wrong. The "exchange of
equivalents," to quote the passage just preceding that quoted by
Paul, is contrary to Marx's representation neither necessary nor
particularly relevant to a valid account of surplus value.

One key to the problem is found in Marx's footnote to this passage.
He asserts that surplus value cannot be explained "by referring to
*any* divergence between price and value" (emphasis added), but this has not
been established; *at best* Marx's Ch. 5 argument asserts that surplus
value cannot be established on the basis of such divergences *taken
alone.* (Even that conclusion is derived by fiat rather than
analysis, but that's a separate post.) But the relevant additional
condition must be adduced *whatever* one assumes about the link
between prices and values, and specifically capitalist production is
but one manifestation of that condition.

That's why the "drama in Ch. 6" is seriously misleading, to the
extent that Ch. 5 has one believe that capitalists *must* hire (only)
labor *power* in order to exploit labor. Clearly not true: usury
capitalists exploited labor.

> Well, anyway, that's my reaction.

I hope Paul and I aren't simply talking past each other here. If we are
simply using different words to say that capitalist profits imply
exploitation of labor, then we should stop here, because we agree.

If, however, it matters for our group's project that Marx asserts but
nowhere establishes a "law of value" understood independently of the
conclusion that capital exploits labor, then I continue to hold to my
original point.

Note in this regard that Marx refers to the law in various forms well
before he gets around to speaking about surplus value (Ch. 4) or
exploitation (Ch. 9), so he clearly sees a difference. One example
is from Chapter 1: "It becomes plain that it is not the exchange of
commodities which regulates the magnitude of their values, but rather
the reverse, the magnitude of the value of comodities which regulates
the proportion in which they exchange", but there are, let's see, at
least 15 other references in Marx's canon to the law of value independently of
its role in the theory of exploitation.

Again, I will cheerfully drop this line of comment if the group sees
it as not serving its immediate or overall agenda.

Gil Skillman