[OPE-L:6528] Re: [OPE] Variable capital

jurriaan bendien (Jbendien@globalxs.nl)
Thu, 30 Apr 1998 20:56:53 +0200

Eduardo writes:

> Variable capital, at least as I interpret it, has in fact two different
> measures: what it costs to capitalists and the amount of new value
> within production.

He is of course free to interpret "variable capital" as he likes, but I
don't think this interpretation has much to do with Marx whom Eduardo
claims to follow - the quote notwithstanding.

A given variable capital can indeed be measured in two different ways,
namely in money, or in terms of the number of average socially necessary
labour hours required to reproduce it. But this is a near-tautology which
applies to any stock or flow of capital or commodities. As a result of an
investigation we may conclude that the labour-power has been sold above or
below its value, but this has nothing to do with the volume of new value

The "new value created" is in fact a component of the new commodity
product, or a commodity capital, a materialised output. To obtain the
"increment of variable capital", i.e. the result of the immediate process
of production, i.e. the surplus-value (and not V), the production costs (C
+ V) must be deducted from the value of the new product. Now it seems a
bit obscure to me to say that V "equals V + S", or that we have to "deduct
V from the product... to obtain V".

Marx's general point is simply that human labour power, at an historically
given level of productivity (assuming a certain level of dexterity, mental
development, technology etc.), is capable of producing an output which is
equal in value to its own reproduction cost plus an additional (surplus)
product. There you have, historically, the material basis of class society.
In capitalist society, the process of surplus extraction from productive
activity becomes a purely chrematistic activity, i.e. takes on the forms of
value, according to the formula M-C...P...C'-M'.

The "labour force" thus becomes "capital" in the sense that it is bought as
a commodity with a money price, and used to generate more money than the
investor started out with. Marx actually insists that "The variable
capital functions as variable capital only to the extent that it is
actually applied, and during the time for which it is applied" (Cap 2,
Penguin, p. 375). In other words, labour "functions as capital" when it is
actually engaged in the production of surplus-value, and not otherwise.

Eduardo seems to want to say that "V is still V at the end-point of a
labour process", perhaps a bit like a hot-air balloon which has been shrunk
or swollen in size, but is still a hot-air balloon. But to my way of
thinking this conflates input costs with output values. At the end of the
working period variable capital has precisely been "expended" (to use
Marx's phrase), i.e. used up, and thus it ceases to be.

What hinges on all this, one could well ask ? A worker might complain at
the end of the production cycle that his labour capacity or effort has been
"under-valued", but as trade unionists know, that's normally just tough
luck, because the contract for his labour power (and thereby the valuation
of variable capital) was struck before the production began. Except for a
clear breach of contract by the employer, the best he can do is negotiate a
better contract next time round. Such is capitalism, unfortunately.


Jurriaan Bendien