Re: [OPE-L] Why aren't non-labourers sources of value?

From: Ian Wright (iwright@GMAIL.COM)
Date: Mon Apr 25 2005 - 00:20:22 EDT

Andy thanks for taking the time to respond.
> ... I would want to emphasise the need to develop a concept of
> capital once having developed a concept of value. All further
> qualitative and quantitative developments must await an adequate
> concept of capital. I am very uncomfortable at your attempted model
> building absent capital.
I completely agree on the need to have an adequate concept of capital
prior to fully understanding capitalism. But so far my models are an
attempt to form an adequate concept of value, which I think is a
precondition of forming an adequate concept of capital. I think all
approaches that exclusively concentrate on equilibrium prices (e.g.,
Sraffian prices, Walrasian prices, Marx's prices=values in Vol 1.,
etc) must necessarily fail to capture the full meaning of value, which
is why I am interested in dynamics. If I didn't think there was a
problem here, my model building would have gotten further by now.
> Again, and no doubt as a function of this being but a brief sketch of
> your view, there are many problems with the way you have put this. Is
> value only a representation? I'd say 'value' is a strange (ghostly)
> 'object' in itself. Strange because non-sensuous and hence value itself
> has to be represented - and is represented by price. Isn't 'abstract
> labour' an aspect of an activity or process, rather than an object?
> Value is 'congealed' abstract labour, not abstract labour as such.
> Abstract labour is, in this way, the substance of value. Anyway, I still
> think I understand what you are getting at here -- so the above are just
> quibbles.
1. Terminology
I must confess to some semantic drift: I am employing Marx's terms
with slightly altered meanings. My apologies for lack of clarity. I
need to do some terminological spring-cleaning. Let me try to be
clearer by trying to remove the term "value" from the discussion, and
by defining some of my terms.
Clearly different kinds of money are "sensuous", quantitative
representations (e.g., the dollar in my pocket). I'll use the term
money to refer generally to these quantitative representations that we
pass around when engaged in economic activity. I am using the term
"abstract labour" to refer to the trans-social causal powers of
humans, in particular our ability to learn and manifest new types of
concrete labour. I understand this to be very close, if not identical
with, your "productively creative nature of humans". Animal-labour,
machine-labour etc. does not have this causal power. So I do not use
"abstract labour" to mean "an aspect of an activity or process"; I use
it to refer to a transfactual mechanism with causal powers (Bhaskar),
a natural kind term for humanity. Concrete labour I use to denote
particular kinds of work activity.
Abstract labour is a "non-sensuous", homogenous power, which is
necessarily represented in quantitative terms because it is precisely
the power to manifest as a diverse range of qualities, that is
concrete forms of labour. This is the rational aspect of the value
form in capitalism (and pre-capitalism with developed markets and a
division of labour). Compare, for instance, computational power, which
can manifest as crunching numbers, displaying 3-D graphics, parsing
natural language sentences, routing email messages etc. Despite its
variety of "sensuous" qualities we nonetheless measure it
quantitatively, in simple instructions per time unit, a number.
Concrete labour, in contrast, is distinguished according to kinds
(weaving, tailoring etc.), and quite clearly cannot be added up in
good conscience without the identification of the underlying
"non-sensuous" abstract labour and its associated (self-transforming)
2. "Control relations"
Using this terminology I am trying to formulate an argument about the
regular causal relations between money and abstract labour, in
constrast to the lack of regular causal relations between money and
machine-labour, animal-labour, and the "labour" or work of natural
processes etc. Once unique and regular causal relations are identified
between a representation and an object it is then possible to ascribe
objective semantics to that representation, in just the same way we
can observe other systems, such as a thermostat, and draw the
conclusion that parts of it represent the temperature of a room, and
parts of it represent a desired (absent) room temperature.
The summary argument is that money refers to abstract labour in virtue
of the control relation between the flow pattern of money and the
manifestation pattern of abstract labour. I agree this is a very
abstract formulation. Without entering a detailed discussion of actual
economic models, the main points are:
(i) Prices have only measure semantics in stationary states.  In
dynamic models, prices have control signal semantics, that is function
to distribute information about necessary economic change.
Out-of-equilibrium prices function as a control ignal for abstract
labour and direct its allocation, in a similar manner to the
imperative statements of a plan, although the informational content is
much impoverished compared to the qualitative statements of a
conscious plan. The flow pattern of money is a mechanism that meets
Marx's trans-social requirement that all societies implement schemes
for the organization of social labour time. The manifestation pattern
of abstract labour, that is how it forms into kinds of concrete
labours, is controlled by these price signals. This dynamic, however
imperfect and causally slack in practice, makes market societies a
"functioning whole".
This is hidden in (hypothetical) equilibrium states because in such
states there is no need to continually re-plan and distribute price
signal imperatives across the economy; hence, the imperative is "do
nothing", resulting in incomplete theories of price as "measures" of
labour-embodied, "indices" of scarcity, and so forth.
(ii) In a naturalised theory of semantics it is causality that grounds
semantic relations between a representation and an object. For
instance, we can only ascribe objective semantics to a thermostat by
noticing how its internal state regularly alters when the temperature
of the room changes, but does not regularly alter when the number of
people in the room changes. So what a price represents depends on its
causal relations with other parts of the economic system, and is only
apparent when things change.
Often fixed-capital is reallocated according to price signals. And
sometimes abstract labour is not reallocated according to price
signals. Why does money refer only to abstract-labour, not
machine-labour or animal-labour? Money does not refer to machine-power
or animal-power because although machines and animals do have the
power to perform transformative work they do not participate in the
formation and execution of the (unconscious) plan -- it is only
abstract labour that is regularly innovative and creative, that both
causes and responds to disequilibrium price signals by changing its
concrete form in order to cause or adapt to new economic
circumstances. In the case of non-abstract-labour, the regular control
relations between a representation (money) and an object
(machine-labour or animal-labour) necessarily break down, not due to
accidental causes, but necessary causes rooted in the fact that these
forces of production are not abstract-labour.
3. Qualitative basis of LTV
I understand this account to be essentially identical to Marx-Rubin's
qualitative theory of value. From this perspective, some of the better
known objections to a LTV melt away. For instance, the fact that
prices in a hypothetical static equilibrium of uniform profits can be
calculated without reference to labour-values is an interesting but
second-order issue that has no direct bearing on the objective
semantics of money just outlined.

Another example:
Christopher Arthur wrote:
> Precisely because of the inversion of abstract and concrete it is
> possible to have empty forms. I have never understood how you deal
> with 'honour and conscience' - is the sale of these evidence of a
> material power? Generally I think it is impermissable for LTV simply
> to note that 'other things' have a price form. This is precisely what
> must be explained, and I explian it and then ask under what
> circumstances might it be right to argue some of these prices have
> material grounds.
I agree that it is impermissable to exclude other things with price
from a complete theory of value. We can add non-reproducibles, such as
great works of art, which clearly have a price without any obvious
relationship to SNLT, to the list of "other things".
But prices are only measures of SNLT in certain very special cases; in
general they are control signals for the allocation of abstract
labour. In the case of non-reproducibles by definition the price
imperative cannot be satisfied and there is a permanent scarcity. For
example, there can be only one Van Gogh. In such instances, abstract
labour does respond to such price signals and attempts to satisfy the
value imperative as far as it is materially possible to do so, and
hence manifests in such concrete forms as the production of
reproducible posters of sunflowers etc. (This phenomenon is quite
general: skyscrapers when land is persistently scarce, use of cooking
oil in cars when petrol is persistently scarce etc.)
On my reading of Marx-Rubin's theory of value such "exceptional" cases
are unproblematic and do not represent exceptions to the theory. For
example, although I do not understand the meaning of an `empty form',
I do know that a thermostat may send a control signal to a radiator
yet fail to raise the temperature of the room due to the persistent
presence of a countervailing force, such as a chill from an open
window. This does not alter the semantics of the control signal.
Similarly, a persistent high price for non-reproducibles, and hence a
persistent lack of a quantitative relationship between price and SNLT,
does not imply that price is not a control signal for the reallocation
of social labour, which in this case is signalling demand for a great
work of art. If "empty forms" implies representation without a
referent, or representations that are arbitrary and not materially
related to abstract labour, then I think that step is unnecessary to
explain the price of things such as "honour", "conscience", and
non-reproducibles. We do not need Ricardo's exceptions: the Marxist
theory is better. Prices can signal plan-like imperatives that fail to
be fulfilled by abstract labour.

But of course, a complete theory must be able to give a quantitative
account of such instances.
> I'd want to say the
> fundamental point is that labour is the only input to production whose
> actual quality and quantity is open to choice, at any given point in
> time, because not forever fixed by external constraints and internal
> structure. (The labourer changes relevant aspects of their inner
> structure as well as the external constraints through their labour). As
> you say, it is this choice of labour quality and quantity that then
> determines the allocation of other inputs.
I agree with what you say, but I think the fundamental point is the
regular causal relations of control between money and abstract-labour,
and the corresponding lack of those relations between money and
non-abstract-labour, such as machine-labour, animal-labour, natural
processes etc.
4. Marx's argument for LTV in Vol 1
Marx cannot make a control relations argument for a LTV in Vol 1
because he assumes value and price coincide. But it is only when value
and price do not coincide that economic events unfold that reveal the
control relations between money and abstract labour. So Marx says that
quantitative exchange-value must represent some common substance
(true), and that only one substance remains after abstracting from all
the properties of commodities, which is human labour (false, howler).
I have learnt from this list that Marx drafted these chapters many
times, perhaps indicating dissatisfaction. Rubin goes further than
Marx, I think, and extends his theory.
> think I see what you are getting at but would not commit to agreeing
> with your approach, even in general. The quibbles etc above (see also
> below) probably stem from important differences in our respective
> approaches; there are so many aspects involved here that aren't even
> touched upon in a brief email exchange. On the other hand there do seem
> to be interesting commonalities (one of which is the influence of
> realism).
I question if there really are any important differences in our
approaches. I think there's lots to learn from Hegel and Marx's use of
him. I am interested in consensus, especially from different
theoretical approaches, and especially given the fact that the
Marx-Rubin qualitative theory is undeveloped and under-appreciated.
For instance, I think the above (necessarily brief) account of the
objective semantics of money is close to Ilyenkov's discussion of the
money form of value in "Dialectical Logic". However, he does not have
Rubin's concept of a control signal, that peculiar barometer.
Best wishes,

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