[OPE-L:1572] Re: Lapides and Marx's wage theory

Gerald Levy (glevy@pratt.edu)
Sun, 24 Oct 1999 08:52:12 -0400 (EDT)

Re Jurriaan's [OPE-L:1571]:

Previously I asked:

> > how about a theory of wages which incorporates all of the
> > determinations for that subject?

Jurriaan replied:

> Because that is a virtually impossible task. As Marx remarks in his
> address to the General Council of the First International (1865), "By
> comparing the standard wages or values of labour in different
> countries, and by comparing them in different historical epochs of the
> same country, you will find that the value of labour itself is not a
> fixed but a variable magnitude, even supposing the values of all other
> commodities to remain constant".

To say that "the value of labour [sic] itself is not a fixed but a
variable magnitude" does *not* at all suggest that the development of a
"theory of wages which incorporates all of the determinants of that
subject" is a "virtually impossible task". Indeed, he suggests *nothing*
of the sort above.

> I have
> posted already an index of labour costs in diferent countries in the
> world giving a rough and ready indication of the disparity of wage
> levels in the world for one year. Do you think that a single theory can
> explain all of that data ?

Yes, I think that is one of the tasks of theory. International disparity
in wages is as much a topic for theoretical explanation as the related
topics of foreign trade and the world market and crises. On the most basic
level, the understanding of the social and cultural component of the wage,
and relatedly the concept of need, has to be explained rather than

> I don't rule out the possibility, but I would say it is
> practically speaking virtually impossible, especially in view of the
> law of wages that Marx specifies.

What is the "law of wages" that Marx specifies?

> We could specify a number of generalities such
> as lower limits and upper limits, generalities about productivity,
> generalities about workers' needs, generalities about supply and demand of
> labour power in relation to the reserve army of labour, generalities about
> demographic situation, generalities about state regulation, generalities
> about the "social wage" and taxation etc. etc. But we would not get very
> far with explaining the real level of disparities of wage levels in the
> world. To explain it, we would need all of Marx's theory and much more.

Yes, we need more than Marx. But, there is a rich undeveloped mine in Marx
where he, at various points, suggests (and doesn't always explain) the
determinants of wages.

Of course, we are familiar with the concept of labour-power as a commodity
(that Mike W, amongst others, has been critical of) and the value of

Since Marx didn't hold to a subsistence theory of wages, there is also the
question of what determines the social and cultural standard of the wage
that varies over time and space (temporally and spatially). Relatedly,
there is the question of "necessity" as it applies to workers' wages.

Then, there is the question of skill differences among workers.

The industrial reserve army.

How the process of accumulation and trade cycles and economic crises
affects wages.

The subject of differential profit rates among firms and across branches
of production.

Class fragmentation (here we could discuss discrimination and wages
differences by race, gender, etc.).

Class struggle, including trade union organization and trade union
consciousness and the level of class solidarity.

State policies, including such issues as inflation and the "social wage".

Foreign trade, including protectionism and foreign exchange rates.

World market and crises, where:

         "the world market the conclusion, in which production is posited
          as a totality together with all its moments, but within which,
          at the same time, all contradictions come into play. The world
          market, then, again, forms the presupposition of the whole as
          well as its substratum. Crises are then the general intimation
          which points beyond the presupposition, and the urge which
          drives towards the adoption of a new historic form"
          (_Grundrisse_, Penguin edition pp. 227-228)

Of course, these "generalities" need to be developed, explained, and
deepened, but that is the task of theory.

> Actually, I think
> Marx could not complete this task anyway, just like his theory of economic
> cycles, simply because he did not have the necessary data to do it.

I don't "buy" this argument. Clearly, *Marx* thought that he was able to
"complete" the subject of cycles (even if he didn't do it). Not once did
he ever suggest that the lack of data was a hurdle which he was incapable
of overcoming in terms of developing the theory of capitalist crises and

> Marx
> based his economic theorising on a lot of data and a critical sifting of
> research findings by others, he did not speculatively develop a theory like
> Hegel did.

Marx's method is briefly explained in the "Introduction" to the
_Grundrisse_, unless you have a better source? (of course, the "Prefaces"
and "Introductions" to Volume 1 provide some valuable insights as well).
> After all, if a worker was to ask you "What determines the
> >wage?", how would you be able to non-simplistically answer that question?
> I have never been asked that question by a worker (I am a worker myself,
> incidentally, earning a wage). But if that worker asked me that question, I
> would be motivated to ask him/her first "why do you ask that question, what
> is your motivation ?".

That is a good way of avoiding answering the question of the worker.

We, though, have an *obligation* to give an answer to this -- most basic
-- theoretical (and practical) question. Without it, we only have hints at
and suggestions of a theory, rather than a theory proper.

> Horses cannot take the place of workers (other than in exceptional
> circumstances) for reasons that Marx specifies when he discusses what
> distinguishes human labour. But anyway Marx warns that he considers workers
> and capitalists only in their capacity as economic agents, not as living
> personalities.

Exactly! You have put your finger on how workers are examined in _Capital_
-- as subjects without a subjectivity. And human labour is different from
the physical activity of horses because workers have subjectivity. E.g.
workers can organize collectively and win a higher wage. Can horses,
through their collective action, succeed in winning reforms from their
> I agree, but horses have a subjectivity too, although admittedly I
> haven't heard of horses consciously changing the world.

It is precisely the ability of humans to change the world, rather than
the presence of thumbs, which separates out the economic role of human
labor vs. the physical productive activity of horses.

> I agree, although after seeing the movie "Eyes Wide Shut" I think this
> notion of "character masks" is more a middle class concept than a working
> class concept.

You, yourself, suggested it above. And, btw, I didn't invent the
expression. Marx used the term as well.
> Ernest
> Mandel, who had really wanted to become an economist in his youth, said
> candidly once in the late 1980s at a cadre school that he felt he should
> have spent less time working on problems of economic analysis in his life,
> and more on problems of the party, on problems of subjectivity.

Of course, he was speaking to a "cadre school". What did you expect him to
say -- that he should have devoted more time to his theoretical and
political-economic writings and research and less to party-building?

Nonetheless, I'm sure he believed it. And being politically active and
concerned with developing (and understanding) theory shouldn't be viewed
as mutually exclusive.

In solidarity, Jerry

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