[OPE-L:3531] Re: Hilferding and skill

Allin Cottrell (cottrell@wfu.edu)
Fri, 25 Oct 1996 19:10:27 -0700 (PDT)

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OK, time to get to the substantive issue. Steve says, with
perhaps some legitimacy, that he is building upon Marx's own
analysis, according to which the "use-value" of
labour-power, to the capitalist, is that this particular
commodity is capable of producing value, and more value than
it embodies.

First, let me say that I have no quarrel at all with what I
take to be Marx's basic theory of exploitation, according to
which the source of profit is the prolongation of the
working time of the working class beyond that which is
required to reproduce their wages. *But*, I think that the
particular formulation of this theory upon which Steve draws
is quite questionable. It seems to me doubly metaphorical.

First, the idea that the use-value of labour-power resides
in its capacity to create value seems like a metaphorical
use of the term "use-value". According to Marx's own basic
analysis, use-value is linked with the *concrete*
characteristics of particular labours. For example, the
weaver's labour produces, as its use-value output, cloth.
It is under its aspect of "abstract labour", on the other
hand, that the weaver's labour -- along with that of the
cobbler, the brewer, and the computer programmer -- creates
value. Thus, to say that the use-value of labour-power is
that it creates value seems wrong -- almost as if one were
to say that the use-value of cars to GM is that they can be
sold at a profit (a sort of bad pun, in Marxian terms).

Secondly, it is surely not the "commodity" labour-power that
creates value anyway. Labour-power is a *capacity*, and
it's the *exercise* of this capacity -- actual labour --
that creates value.

I think that in chs. 5 & 6 of Capital, I, Marx was arguably
too concerned to produce a cute answer to the conundrum:
given that the capitalist buys a bunch of commodities at
their value, and sells the resulting output at *its* value,
how come he can make a profit? The cute answer is that the
commodity labour-power has as its use-value the power of
creating value. The deeper (but messier) answer is that
when the capitalist "buys labour-power" he's not really
"purchasing a commodity" in the ordinary sense at all, but
rather purchasing the right to put the worker to work for a
certain period (the length of which is partially determined
by class struggle, as is the intensity of work), and there
is nothing to rule out the possibility that he gets the
workers to work for longer than is required to reproduce
their wages.

Anyway, it seems to me that, if Marx's ch. 5/6 analysis is
perhaps a bit too cute but basically harmless, Steve's
extension of the argument takes us completely off the rails.
The basic communist democratic premise is that an hour's
labour is an hour's labour, period (always allowing for the
possibility of *naturally* scarce talents). Trained workers
can transmit to their product the labour-time that went into
training them, but they can't, simply by virtue of the fact
that they are trained, "create value" at a higher rate than
average. The alternative would seem to be a curious conceit
of the educator: "I can make my students' labour count as
ten times an ordinary worker's, just by exercising my
use-value as a teacher." If you're a good teacher, teaching
something really useful, you can increase the power of
creating *use-value* among your students -- relative to
their pre-training state -- to a degree that's unrelated to
their resulting Sweezy coefficients. (That was one moral of
my typing example.) What you can't do, however, is make an
hour of your students' direct labour-time count for more
than an hour of anyone else's labour-time, in the context of
reckoning the social cost of producing things, which is what
I take the concept of value ultimately to be about --
*unless* the enrollment to your classes is artificially
limited, generating a rent effect.