[OPE-L:2845] Re: Value of labour power and real wage

Duncan K Foley (dkf2@columbia.edu)
Mon, 26 Aug 1996 09:13:00 -0700 (PDT)

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On Mon, 26 Aug 1996, Allin Cottrell wrote:
(in part)
> Okishio builds in the assumption of a given real commodity wage, and the
> theorem falls under the alternative assumption of a given value of
> labour power; and Duncan says that he prefers the latter assumption.
> I agree that the latter assumption is quite reasonable, but as a history
> of thought point, I find it hard to accept that this was what Marx had
> in mind.

Of course, it's very difficult to tell exactly what Marx had in mind in
these cases where his language is not completely explicit. I'm struck by
the parallel with the transformation problem, where the conservation of
surplus value in the form of profit also turns on the invariability of the
value of labor-power.

> His analysis of relative surplus value builds in the
> assumption that the thrust of technological change under capitalism is
> to reduce the value of the workers' means of consumption, and hence to
> reduce the value of labour power.

Actually, it's possible to have a fall in the rate of profit with some
fall in the value of labor-power (as long as the real wage rises less than
the productivity of labor). This seems to be what comes out of a large
number of studies of the long-run profiles of actual capital accumulation
(for example, Dumenil-Levy).

> Conversely, if the value of the means
> of consumption is continually reduced but the value of labour power
> remains constant, that implies a progressive increase in the real
> commodity wage -- and it's pretty clear that this was not what Marx
> envisaged, although it may be what has happened in the advanced
> capitalist economies.

To my mind this is the nub of the issue. I think, though I couldn't prove
it, that Marx realized analytically that important results depended on the
constancy of the value of labor-power, but was reluctant to emphasize this
point because it allowed for a rise in the real wage and Marx had invested
an enormous amount politically in the thesis of the immiserisation of the
proletariat and a falling real wage. (I think he adopted this point of
view under Engels' influence in the 1840s, when in fact there was
considerable reason to think that industrial capitalism had lowered real
wages, and then was faced with a combined historical and theoretical
dilemma in the 1850s when the real wage rose and he began to work out his
economic analysis in detail.) I think this political inhibition against
discussing rising real wages lies behind a number of the difficult and
puzzling problems in understanding Marx's economic analysis, including the
transformation problem, the theory of the falling rate of profit, and the
theory of wages.