[OPE-L:450] Marginal, Average, and Equal

Alan Freeman (100042.617@compuserve.com)
Wed, 8 Nov 1995 01:38:04 -0800

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Re: Gil Skillman's unanswered question; its meaning in the
modern world

Also Re: Chaion Lee's short question; marginal and average
value contribution of labour

In "[OPE-L:339] Re: Chaion Lee's Short Question" Gil asked a
question which, in my opinion, has not been answered:

" why isn't the value of every commodity determined by
marginal rather than average production conditions, as in
Marx's specification?"

I referred to this in two previous posts which said why I
didn't think the answers given to Gil were satisfactory, and
provided some references to the history of the discussion.
This post argues for a method of procedure which might yield
a more satisfactory interim answer. It begins with an
assessment of what is at stake, and why the question is an
important one.

The basic answer I want to give is this: It is the average,
and not the marginal contribution of labour which determines
the value added because the value contribution of all labour
is *equal*. This is the clearly-stated underlying assumption
of Marx's value analysis. He accepts that differences in
skill, energy and so on can modify this but this is not what
is at stake in the question that Gil asks, which relates to
variations in productivity arising not from the capacities
of the workers but from the machines they are using and
perhaps the way they are organised.

Another way to say the same thing is that that variations in
value-producing capacity cannot be traced back to variations
in the machinery employed. They must be localised and
isolated in the intrinsic characteristics of the workers. If
machines or raw materials are not a source of value, they
cannot be responsible for variations in value.

This question is absolutely fundamental and we should
consider carefully what the alternatives are.

Empirically there are enormous variations between the
apparent value-producing capacity of workers in different
industries and above all different countries. The 'value-
added' by a Bangla Deshi worker measured in dollars is
between fifty and one hundred times smaller than that added
by an American worker. I don't have the exact figure to hand
and a very useful contribution which those working with
empirical data might make is to use their international data
to make *inter-country* comparisons of this nature.

If, therefore, these figures *accurately* represent the real
value contribution of these two different workers, then we
must conclude that for some reason unconnected to the
effects of the market in capital, Bangla Deshi workers are
fifty times less productive than American workers. Moreover
this is the way it 'appears' on the surface of modern
capitalism. It is one of the most important ideological
transports for racism. It provides a 'natural' explanation
for inequality which says, poor people are worse off because
they are inferior beings.

If, against this, a scientific analysis reveals that the
value contributions of all workers are either essentially
equal, which I believe them to be, or capable of being
transformed into equal contributions at most by suitable
education, then we can make a small but significant
contribution to humankind.

If, on the other hand, our analysis shows that inequality
between different groups of workers originates not with
differences in the capital they are given to work with, but
in intrinsic differences in their productive capacities,
then it becomes considerably harder to explain how we are to
resist one of the most all-pervading features of the modern
market, the division of the world into a majority of
desperately poor and starving, and a minority of relatively
well-endowed. Because the explanation that remains is that
this division, being rooted in intrinsic differences among
workers, is part of the natural order of things.

If, finally, all we 'discover' is that Marx is confused
about the issue and there are lots of unanswered questions,
then I really don't think we have made things better for
anyone, and I think we might have made them worse. This is
the real source of my anxiety about the terms of this
debate. If what we are attempting is to pose all the
questions before we start on the answers, and if moreover
the questions are to be derived from the study of Marx's
texts, then I think we risk making things worse than they
were before we began. I think what we have to do is put the
contradictions and difficulties in Marx's texts in their
proper context by measuring them against the standpoint of
the problems in the modern world, and in modern political
economy, that they ought to help us address. To put it
another way; all problems, as Marx essentially put it, are
merely answers seeking an outlet. Humanity does not pose
problems without simultaneously posing the solution. Our
task is to eke out the solution, not the problem. The
problems of the world today are only too obvious.

Just to avoid any further misunderstandings: I don't at all
attribute *any* of these views to Gil or anyone else in the
debate. I do want to indicate that the political conclusions
of an alternative view are very serious indeed. The question
therefore demands methods that are appropriate to its
solution. Which, among others, is the reason I think Gil is
absolutely right to persist in asking this question.

Unfortunately, we cannot deduce scientific conclusions from
moral imperatives. Though I passionately believe, and think
I can prove, that the 'natural' view is in fact fetishised
and wrong, this is not an adequate basis for rejecting it.
If it were scientifically correct that workers in India were
intrinsically less productive, we couldn't refute racist
arguments with political economy - though I am not sure I
want to live in a world which works like that.

However inequality on this scale and of this type is one of
the few and only things about the world which has changed
since Marx's day. Unlike the role of money, the wage
relation, and so on, it therefore requires the development
of some of the least finished and most deeply buried
concepts that we inherit from Marx.

Moreover the most important changes since Marx's time are
not changes in the world with the one exception of the
advent of imperialism, but changes in political economy,
which no longer accepts that labour is either the source or
the measure of value, and is therefore less capable than
ever of even posing the correct questions, never mind
producing the right answers.

For these two reasons, in putting the case for average
instead of marginal labour I think we have to adopt a
different standpoint than the usual one. While the answer is
present in Marx's text it is not as well-developed as fits
the problem under study; and we cannot assume like Marx that
our audience (and the world in general) accepts labour to be
the source of value.

I therefore want to ask how modern political economy views
the question in the light of the problems it faces, by
interrogating its concept of value. I want to establish what
general level of agreement we have about value, its
magnitude, origin and substance without the prior assumption
that its magnitude is given by labour time. Then I want to
take this agreement as the basis for examining the different
solutions to Gil's question posed by different branches of
political economy including Marx's, and on this basis
demonstrate the contradictions in all other approaches, and
the superiority of Marx's.

This I hope to begin on in my next posting.

Alan Freeman 8 November 1995