[OPE-L:2495] Re: Was Lenin a nondualist, supporter of the single-system vision

Duncan K Foley (dkf2@columbia.edu)
Fri, 7 Jun 1996 11:25:24 -0700

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On Fri, 7 Jun 1996, Paul Cockshott wrote:
(among other things)
> Paul C:
> To say that individual commodites do not sell exactly at their values
> is not the same thing as saying that commodities in aggregate sell
> at their value. The latter is a quite vacuous statement.

I think it is a tautology, but like many tautologies, such as f = ma, I
don't think it is vacuous, since it plays a critical conceptual role in
the framework of the historical materialist theory of capitalism.

> What I take
> Marx and the classical political economists as holding was that, in
> modern language, prices are highly correlated with labour values, that
> if value is the signal, and deviations due to supply and demand imbalances
> the noise, then the signal to noise ratio is high.

I don't think Marx had any empirical basis for judging the actual
"signal/noise" ratio between values and price. But suppose for a moment
that changes in technology greatly diminished the correlation between
embodied labor coefficients and price. Would this lead us to reject the
labor theory of value in the sense of, for example, regarding surplus
value as an expression of unpaid labor?

> Saying that commodities in aggregate exchange at their values is vacuous
> since it would still be true even if there was a zero correlation
> between prices and values.

Or a negative one, I suppose. But isn't that exactly what we want in an
interpretation of the labor theory of value? Marx saw the idea that labor
is the substance of value as the way to link exploitation in capitalist
societies with exploitation in pre-capitalist societies. This idea should
not be conditional on any particular form of competition or configuration
of market prices, I think.

> Let us assume that prices bear no relation
> to labour content, it would still be the case that if we took two random
> samples of 10,000 commodities, spent $1 on each of them, then the $10,000
> spent on each bundle would purchase about the same amount of embodied labour,
> just as it would purchase about the same amount of embodied wheat, coal etc.
> There would then be no reason to treat labour rather than, coal, sunshine,
> or proximity to the holy city as the source of value, since given a large
> enough aggregate, any arbitrarily chosen property of commodities will be
> conserved in exchange.

There's quite a lot of discussion of this point in the literature. From a
purely formal point of view there isn't any argument against taking energy
or land as the substance of value, as John Roemer argued at length. The
stipulation that we regard value added as the expression of living labor
time links the reading of capitalist value relations to the underlying
human relation of exploitation. I don't think it really makes sense to try
to ground this point of view purely in empirical correlations.

> Paul C:
> I suggest that you try giving a formal specification of what you
> mean by the above. In the process you may see the ambiguity of
> your terminology.

(The above being the aggregate identity of value added and living labor.
This is discussed at length in the literature on the "new interpretation"
of Gerard Dumenil and me.

> Paul C:
> The analysis of the production of surplus value is contingent upon there
> being a positive correlation between prices and values.

Here we come to the nub of the issue, I think. Are you really content to
ground the analysis of surplus value on an empirical correlation that
might very well have turned out different, and as history progresses, may

> If we assume that price is uncorrelated to labour content,
> then there is no reason to suppose that the product, containing as
> it does more labour than the raw materials should sell for more than
> the raw materials. If adding labour makes no difference to price, then
> the product is as likely to sell for less than the raw materials
> as it is to sell for more. Thus whether a production process makes
> a profit or a loss would be completely random and unconnected to
> labour employed.

I think this is true for any particular production process. At that level
the relation between unpaid labor time and surplus value may be completely
obscured by the vagaries of competition and pricing. But as Marx argued
rather clearly in ch 4-6 of V1 of Capital, this conclusion cannot be
sustained when we consider the process of capitalist production as a

> If one believes this, then the whole analysis of exploitation is
> pointless.

I believe this, but I don't think the whole analysis of exploitation is