[OPE-L:7325] [OPE-L:854] when hell freezes over?

Gerald Levy (glevy@pratt.edu)
Thu, 8 Apr 1999 07:33:42 -0400 (EDT)

Alejandro R pointed out the section in Sraffa's _PCMC_ where the "workers
could live on air" is discussed. On p. 94 (#3 in Appendix D), Sraffa

"The notion of a Maximum rate of profit corresponding to a zero
wage has been suggested by Marx directly through an incidental
allusion to the possibility of a fall in the rate of profits
'even if workers could live on air', but more generally owing
to his emphatic rejection of the claim of Adam Smith and of
others after him that the price of every commodity 'either
immediately or ultimately' resolves itself entirely (that is
to say, without leaving any commodity residue) into wage,
profit and rent -- a claim which necessarily presupposed the
existence of 'ultimate' commodities produced by pure labour
without means of production except land, and which therefore
was incompatible with a fixed limit to the rise in profits."

Before (again) turning to the passage in question, a couple of points
about the above:

1) Sraffa, to his credit, refers to the "even if workers could live on
air" sentence as an "incidental allusion".

2) The purpose, I gather, of the wages = 0 assumption and the "Maximum
rate of profit" in Sraffa was to draw the wages-rate of profits
trade-off graph (p. 22). This particular graph, and the "Standard
system" to which it refers, was a contribution of Sraffa. Indeed, I
think it is now pretty clear that the modern origin of the v = 0
assumption is in Sraffa and attempts to defend and/or critique Sraffa
and others, such as Okishio. Yet, regardless of what we think about
that relationship, we see no formalization (graph or otherwise) in
Marx with this assumption.

On to the "incidental allusion" --

Marx writes:

"Two laborers, each working 12 hours daily, cannot produce the same
mass of surplus-value as 24 laborers working only 2 hours, even if
they could live on air and did not have to work for themselves at all.
In this respect, then, the compensation of the reduction in the number
of laborers by means of an intensification of exploitation has certain
impassable limits. It may, for this reason, check the fall in the rate
of profit, but cannot prevent it entirely." (Vol III, Kerr ed., p.


1) Note the *parenthetical* (and hypothetical) nature of the comment on
the possibility of workers living on air.

2) Remember that Vol III was a collection of unedited drafts only
published after Marx's death by Engels.

3) Note Marx's reference to "impassable limits" above. Does anyone doubt
that positive wages (v > 0) also represented for Marx an "impassable
limit" for capitalism? (Perhaps this is one reason Marx didn't draw the
same graph that Sraffa did).

4) If Marx said, "when hell freezes over ...", could we:

a) assert that Marx believed in hell?

b) assert that Marx believed that hell freezing over was an abstract

c) assert that Marx believed that hell would freeze over?

d) all of the above?

e) none of the above?

My answer is "e". It is simply an unfortunate expression. It means,
quite simply, nothing ... except perhaps as a literary exclamation
point (!). It's like saying "Holy Cow" or "Jesus Christ". Those who
repeat those expressions (including, occasionally, some on this list)
are not asserting that they are religious, Christians, or believers in
the holiness of cows. To base a mathematical formalization of a theory
on such shallow ice (no, not _real_ ice) is perilous indeed.

In solidarity, Jerry