[OPE-L:2266] Re: Chapter 5 and Marx's method

Gil Skillman (gskillman@wesleyan.edu)
Fri, 17 May 1996 15:36:06 -0700

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In response to the following passage from me,
>> To illustrate my point , consider Marx's discussion in Ch. 6 to his
>> treatments of merchant's capital in Ch. 20 and usury capital in Ch. 36 of
>> Volume III. In both of he latter cases capitalists enjoy the use value of
>> labor power, but *do not* do so by purchasing labor power as a commodity.

Duncan writes:

>I've stayed out of this discussion so far, because I'm puzzled in my own
>mind about it. But this formulation (usurers enjoy the use value of
>labor-power without purchasing it) makes me extremely uncomfortable, and I
>wonder if any of the rest of you share this feeling. Marx put a great deal
>of emphasis on the distinction between labor-power and labor, and viewed
>the discovery of labor-power as his main contribution to the line of
>classical political economy thinking. As I read it, however, labor-power
>comes into real social existence with the wage labor relation: that is one
>reason Marx thought Ricardo and Smith had difficulty disentangling
>labor-power from labor (for example in the labor-commanded vs
>labor-embodied accounts of the LTV). Usurers surely appropriate a surplus
>value, representing a surplus product and surplus labor time, but if they
>are lending, for example, to poor peasants, or sharecroppers, or to
>spendthrift lords of serfs, it doesn't seem to me correct to say they are
>enjoying the use value of labor-power, since there isn't any labor-power
>in those situations, only labor.

I agree with the need for care in using these terms. For example, I usually
add qualifiers to the discussion of usury and merchants' capital, as in the
phrase: "usury capital and merchants' capital extended to small producers."

But here I think I've already introduced a distinction that speaks to the
source of Duncan's discomfort; Duncan, I wonder if you'd agree. The
distinction is between "labor power" understood as simply the capacity to
labor, and the *commodity* labor power, i.e., the condition in which the
capacity to labor, and *only* the capacity to labor, is the basis of
exchange between capitalists and workers.

Re the former: I don't see how one could follow Marx's usage and still say,
re "lending...to poor peasants, or sharecroppers" [spendthrift lords, I
think, fall in a different category], that "there isn't any labor-power in
those situations, only labor." This seems definitionally impossible, since
Marx means by labor-power "the aggregate of those mental and physical
capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a
human being, capabilities which he sets in motion **whenever he produces a
use-value of any kind.**" [I, 271, Penguin; emphasis added] By this
definition, labor necessarily implies the expression or expenditure of labor

Re the latter: however, one can have labor, and therefore the use-value of
labor-power, without purchasing labor-power *as a commodity*, maintaining
the distinction Duncan suggests above. For what it's worth, I think the key
to Marx's discovery as it pertains to his critique of the classical school
is his distinction between the exchange value of the *commodity*
"labor-power" and its use-value, labor, a distinction that is maintained in
my usage.

However, I'm open to suggestions as to appropriate terminology. Perhaps
speaking of "the *use-value* of labor power" is potentially misleading,
since "use-value" may imply its complement, "exchange value", which implies
in turn a commodity, and thus muddies the distinction suggested previously.

In solidarity, Gil