[OPE-L:2351] Re: Chapter 5 and Marx's method

Gil Skillman (gskillman@wesleyan.edu)
Fri, 24 May 1996 07:49:57 -0700

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Paul writes:

>What dimensions would you assign to labour and labour power?
>Conventionally one counts labour as person hours, and since power
>is the ability to deliver work per unit time, this would imply that
>labour power was measured as labour per unit time. Since
>labour = persons x hours
>we must have
>labour-power = labour / hour = persons
>so labour power must be measured in person-equivalents, in terms
>of the number of workers of average ability required to complete
>a task.

I'm glad you raised the issue of units of measurement, Paul, because I think
it leads into an interesting substantive issue that might be a proper topic
for discussion on this list. But before getting to that, a minor point:

1) I agree with what you've said here, based on Marx's treatment of value,
subject to a small caveat that you may have intended anyway. As you define
its units, labor-power is a stock variable, such as a slaveowner would
purchase. But capitalists purchase labor-power as a flow variable, i.e. so
many units per "transaction period" (let's say a day). Thus, wouldn't it be
preferable to represent labor-power in units of persons/day, and then
proceed as you've indicated above?

2) Now to a separate point. There's something about Marx's measure of value
that has puzzled me for a long time. As corroborated by your remarks above,
this measure is solely in hours. However, there are two senses in which a
worker expends labor, extensive (number of hours) and intensive (effort per
hour). These variables are substitutes in production. Therefore the
"labor" production coefficient, measured in hours, is in some sense an
endogenous variable, i.e. a function of effort. No inconsistency here--it's
what Marx says as well--but it does raise problems:

1) If prevailing effort levels depend on such things as the unemployment
rate (as in efficiency wage models), then labor values are in turn a
function of such market variables as the wage rate.

2) Suppose capitalists manage to double the rate of *effort* estraction,
all other things equal. Then the rate of profit necessarily goes up, but
the rate of exploitation stays the same (subject to some indexing variation
I haven't thought about--but the statement certainly holds in the one-sector
model). This is perfectly in line with what Marx says of course, but seems
to go against the spirit of the notion of exploitation.

These problems are avoidable. Suppose we define "labor" in abstract
terms--measured in ergs, perhaps--as "effective labor performed", understood
as a function of both hours and effort per hour (a simple version of which
would be hours times effort per hour). Then problem (1) is solved because
production coefficients are given by technology---actual abstract labor
extracted being a function of social relations of production, as before.
Problem (2) is solved, since under the stated conditions, s/v necessarily

What do you think? And what do fellow OPErs think about this?