[OPE-L:1881] Is 'Value, Price and Profit' a Theory of "Increasing Misery" by Marx?

Subject: [OPE-L:1881] Is 'Value, Price and Profit' a Theory of "Increasing Misery" by Marx?
From: Paul Zarembka (zarembka@ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU)
Date: Fri Dec 10 1999 - 07:17:52 EST

It has been asserted on this list that Marx's "Value, Price and Profit"
(VPP) is the key theoretical support for Marx having an "increasing
misery" theory. That text represents a lecture to the International
Working Men's Association in June 1865, responding to John Weston of the
Association concerning the role of trade unions. The social context
described by Marx is:

"There reigns now on the Continent a real epidemic of strikes, and a
general clamour for a rise of wages" (p. 5, Progress Publishers, Moscow,
1947). {Lapides provides much more elaboration of the context, pp.

Marx opposes unions abdicating on the wage issue and concludes some fifty
pages later with the following:
    "I shall conclude by proposing the following resolutions:
    "Firstly, A general rise in the rate of wages would result in a fall
of the general rate of profit, but, broadly speaking, not affect the
prices of commodities.
    "Secondly, The general tendency of capitalist production is not to
raise, but to sink the average standard of wages.
    "Thirdly, Trades Unions work well as centres of resistance against the
encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of
their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla
war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously
trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever
for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the
ultimate abolition of the wages system." (Section XIV, p. 55)
    There is a lot of very interesting material between pages 5 and 55 of
VPP and I'll try to quote what seems most germane and make some comments.
[In { } brackets are references to Sinha/Lapides which may be passed over
for those so inclined.] Anyone reading this can skip to the CONCLUSION.

1. "The *will* of the capitalist is certainly to take as much as
possible. What we have to do is not to talk about his *will*, but to
inquire into his *power*, the *limits of that power*, and the *character
of those limits*." (Section I, pp. 7-8, italics indicated by *).

    That is, while the capitalist doesn't give a damn about workers beyond
their survival in a condition to be exploited, capital is not all

2. "The general rise in the rate of wages [theoretically considered]
would, therefore, after a temporary disturbance of market prices, only
result in a general fall of the rate of profit without any permanent
change in the prices of commodities" (II, p. 11).

    Marx is arguing that if wages rise, profits fall (opposing what we
would now call a wage-push theory of inflation and stable real wages).

3. "I propose calling your attention to the real rise of wages that took
place in Great Britain from 1849 to 1859....What was the result [of the
Ten Hours Bill]? A rise in the money wages of the factory operatives,
despite the curtaining of the working day, a great increase in the number
of factory hands employed, a continuous fall in the prices of their
products, a marvelous development in the productive powers of their labor,
an unheard-of progressive expansion of the markets for their
commodities.... [Thus,] official propounders of economic science had been
wrong, while the instinct of the people had been right" (II, p. 12-13).

    {Cf. Sinha's claim in his draft book review of Lapides that in Capital
Vol. I "the whole of section 5 of chapter 25 (68 pages in total) is
devoted to documenting a declining tendency of real wages in England (for
the period 1846-66) and Ireland (for the period 1860-65)" (OPE # 1112)
    If Marx had indeed documented in Capital a 'declining tendency' in
wages for the period 1846-66 we would have Marx contradicting himself from
VPP. Actually, Marx's section 5, subsection (a.) "England from 1846-1866"
has only two references to wages and both are imbedded in quotes of
others. The Irish time period is too short to bother with.}

4. "Supply and demand regulate nothing but the temporary *fluctuations*
of market prices.... [T]hey can never account for that *value* itself....
The same holds true of wages and of the prices of all other commodities"
(IV, p. 21).

    Marx is here setting up the question of what does determine the value
of labor power and of wages.

5. "*Price*, taken by itself, is nothing but the *monetary expression of
value*" (VI, p. 29) and "all descriptions of commodities are, on the
average, sold at their respective *values* or natural prices" (p. 31).
"[T]he *value of laboring power* is determined by the *value of the
necessities* required to produce, develop, maintain, and perpetuate the
laboring power" (VII, p. 34).

    What is actually included in "necessities" by Marx is not clearly
elaborated, unfortunately for our discussion, but logical in Marx's
limited context ("I cannot promise to [develop the question] in a very
satisfactory way, because to do so I should be obliged to go over the
whole field of political economy. I can, as the French would say, but
effleurer la question, touch upon the main points"--VI, p. 24.)

6. "By virtue of the increased productivity of labor, the same amount of
the average daily necessaries might sink from three to two shillings, or
only four hours out of the working day, instead of six, be wanted to
reproduce an equivalent for the value of daily necessities. The working
man would now be able to buy with two shillings as many necessaries as he
did before with those three shillings. Indeed, the *value of labor
[power]* would have sunk, but that diminished value would command the same
amount of commodities as before....Although the laborer's absolute
standard of life would have remained the same, his *relative* wages, and
therewith his *relative social position*, as compared with that of the
capitalist, would have been lowered. If the working man should resist
that reduction of relative wages, he would only try to get some share of
the increased productive powers of this own labor, and to maintain his
former relative position in the social scale" (XIII, "Main cases of
attempts at raising wages or resisting their fall", pp. 44-45)

"In all the cases I have considered, and they form ninety-nine out of a
hundred, you have seen that a struggle for a rise of wages follows only in
the track of *previous* changes,...in one word, as reactions of labor
against the previous action of capital" (p. 49).

    The "will" of capital is limited by the reactions of labor.

7. "[T]he question now ultimately arises, how far, in this incessant
struggle between capital and labor, the latter is likely to prove
successful.... But there are some peculiar features which distinguish the
*value of the laboring power*...from the value of all other commodities.
The value of the laboring power is formed by two elements--the one merely
physical, the other historical or social" (XIV, p. 50).

"Profits [orwages] is only settled by the continuous struggle between
capital and labor, the capitalist constantly tending to reduce wages to
their physical minimum, and to extend the working day to its physical
maximum, while the working man constantly presses in the opposite
direction. The matter resolves itself into a question of the respective
powers of the combatants." (pp. 51-52).

    To this point there is NO HINT OF AN INCREASING MISERY doctrine. We
are down to the last three pages.

8. After mentioning the United States where capital "cannot prevent the
labor market from being continuously emptied by the continuous conversion
of wage laborers into independent, self-sustaining peasants" (XIV, p. 52),
Marx turns to the older capitalist countries. He notes the substitution
of machinery for labor power as a means of undermining the gains labor has
made against capital (recall his empirical comments about England in
1849-1859). He notes that accumulation of capital is also being
accelerated which he says implies a rise of the composition of capital [I
have to record my own reservation regarding how Marx might be defining or
failing to define "accumulation of capital." P.Z.]. And Marx notes that
"the demand for labor [power] keeps ... no pace with accumulation of
capital, [although the demand for labor power] will still increase" (p.

    {Sinha's main criticism of Lapides' book in his draft review is that
Lapides does not factor technical change and unemployment into an overall
conditioning of the wage determination issue. But note that Marx says
that the demand for labor power is increasing, leading at least this
writer to wonder about increasing unemployment.}

"These few hints will suffice to show that the very development of modern
industry must progressively turn the scale in favor of the capitalist
against the working man, and that consequently the general tendency of
capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of
wages, or to push the *value of labor [power]* more or less to its
*minimum limit*. Such being the tendency of *things* in this system, is
this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance
against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making
the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If
they did, they would be degraded to one level of mass of broken wretches
past starvation.... By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with
capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of
any larger movement" (p. 54).

    The first sentence here is the only one to *possibly* describe an
increasing misery but given the simultaneous reference to "standard of
wages" OR "value of labor power"--which are NOT the same things, no firm
conclusion can be drawn. The RELATIVE position of labor vis-a-vis capital
turns against labor when v falls, but real wages could be either falling
or still be increasing! Furthermore, Marx immediately goes on to say that
workers must fight back the general tendency of capitalist production.

    Marx finalizes with a call for "abolition of the wages system!" (p.
55), and the summary at the top of this message.


CONCLUSION: If we were to broaden the definition of "increasing misery"
to include increased insecurity of existence, increased penetration of
non-capitalist system (from "accumulation of capital"), increased RELATIVE
strength of capital over labor, many more Marxists would accept
"increasing misery" as a PREDICTION of Marx's thought.

    But most persons think of the "increasing misery" concept as narrowly
as the typical neoclassical definition of real wages (ignoring
qualifications like "we can no longer speak of a rise or of a fall in the
wage unless we specify the standard, for what is a rise in one standard
may be a fall in another"--Sraffa, PRODUCTION OF COMMODITIES BY MEANS OF

    And with that narrow concept, it is difficult to accept a remark such
as (even distinguishing falling, from fixed, wages):

    "A quite different version of the iron law of wages was provided by
Karl Marx. He put great emphasis upon the 'reserve army of the
unemployed.'...This, Marx thought, would depress wages to the subsistence
level." "[T]he basic Marxian conclusion" is that there is a "tendency for
real wages rates to fall to a *minimum subsistence level*" (Paul
Samuelson, ECONOMICS, 6th ed., section entitled "The Iron Law of Wages:
Malthus and Marx", pp. 553 and 554).

   {It is also difficult to accept a phrase "Marx's prediction of
increasing misery of the working class"--whether or not it continues with
"rests on the assumption that the rate of labor saving technical change
combined with the rate of growth of population would be higher than the
rate at which capital accumulation could absorb the labor force" (Sinha,
draft review of Lapides' book, 9/5/99, OPE #1112.)}

Paul Z.

Paul Zarembka, supporting RESEARCH IN POLITICAL ECONOMY, web site
******************** http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/PZarembka

This archive was generated by hypermail 2a24 : Sun Dec 12 1999 - 15:45:03 EST