Professor Weeks proposes that the key to Marx's critique of capitalist society is the labor theory of value. A commodity-producing society, he argues, necessarily gives rise to a capitalist society, so that commodity production and the exploitation of labor are inseparably linked.
Originally published in 1982.
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Capital and Exploitation
By John Weeks
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1981 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
VALUE AS EMBODIED LABOR
The theory of value that Marx developed provides at the same time (1) the revelation that capitalism is merely one form of exploitative (class) society; (2) the explanation of the historical transition from precapitalist to capitalist society; (3) a theory of the concrete operation of a capitalist economy; and (4) an explanation of why others would explain the workings of a capitalist economy in an alternative theoretical framework. The theory explains not only current reality and how history gave rise to current reality but why erroneous theories of that reality exist. Without a clear grasp of the concept of value, such explanatory claim by a theory seems at best exaggerated, at worst metaphysical and vacuous — to explain everything is to explain nothing. Yet, the theory of value does provide the basis for all these analytical tasks. Capitalist society is the first society in which the reproduction of society and of the class relations of that society require the general circulation of commodities. This implies that the task of the theory of a capitalist society is to explain the integration of circulation and production, how socially isolated (private) production is rendered social. That is, how a social division of labor is affected without a conscious organization of social production. Within capitalist relations of production, this is obviously achieved through the exchange of products as commodities, and products not only are exchanged but must be exchanged. Because of the central mediating role of exchange in capitalist society, the analysis of the quantitative aspect of exchange necessarily must be considered. Indeed, it appears that this aspect of exchange's mediating role is the dominant one, since to individual producers the ratio in which their products exchange against other products as commodities determines the conditions or even the possibility of repeating the production and circulation process.
While the quantitative aspect of exchange must be addressed and analyzed by any value theory, what distinguishes Marx's value theory is that the quantitative aspect of exchange plays a minor role compared to the analysis of the qualitative aspect, and the former derives from the latter. In other words, the rate at which things exchange can only be considered once one has a theory of why they exchange. The two aspects are inseparable, and no "technical" explanation of exchange exists divorced from the social relations that govern exchange. While this relationship between the qualitative and quantitative aspects is basic to Marx's method and to the understanding of the operation of a capitalist economy, it has been overlooked by generations of Marxian writers, and stressed infrequently. Therefore, any serious consideration of the labor theory of value must begin with a clear formulation of what Marx called "the form of value" in order to avoid theoretical mistakes.
B. Engels's Formulation of the Theory of Value
The power of Marx's theory of value lies in its treatment of the form of value, and this is the scientific basis of his consideration of the magnitude of value. As many writers have pointed out, consideration of the latter without attention to the former characterizes the value theory of Ricardo, for example, and even more, of Sraffa and Sraffians. Yet the treatment of the labor theory of value as if it were merely a theory of the magnitude of value is common among those who consider themselves Marxists, and they can find support for their approach in an authority no less illustrious than Friedrich Engels.
Engels had a central role in the struggle to build the communist movement, and by doing so earned the respect of subsequent generations of revolutionaries. Engels was not merely Marx's friend and benefactor but also a revolutionary theorist of great importance. Recognition of Engels's contributions does not, however, require that his work be immune to criticism, and the following discussion, which demonstrates his basic disagreements with Marx, in no way implies that he did not make major contributions to the development of socialist thought and practice.
Engels appended to the end of Volume III of Capital a now-famous essay "Law of Value and Rate of Profit" in which he sought to answer Marx's critics by providing a brief explanation of his long-time collaborator's value theory. Because of the close association of Marx and Engels, this statement came to have major influence on the thinking of subsequent Marxists. A careful consideration of Engels's view is not merely an exercise in the history of thought, but can provide a full and clear understanding of the labor theory of value and, therefore, of the concrete operation of a capitalist economy.
In his defense of Marx, Engels begins by considering the interpretation of Marx's theory of value by Sombart, a nineteenth-century German economist who argued that value is not an empirical, but a mental construct. That is, in a capitalist economy, value is not something of the real world, does not exist independently of one's conceiving it, but is a concept that one creates in order to explain reality. Engels agreed with this view but objected that it was incomplete, that "it by no means exhausts the entire significance of the law of value for the economic stages of society's development dominated by the law."
Engels then proceeds to argue that the law of value has ruled exchange for the entire history of the circulation of products as commodities: "the Marxian law of value holds generally, as far as economic laws are valid at all, for the whole period of simple commodity-production, that is, up to the time when the latter suffers a modification through the appearance of the capitalist form of production. ... [T]hus the law of value has prevailed during a period of from five to seven thousand years."
This is, indeed, a conclusion that leaps off the page at the reader (particularly since Engels's upper-limit estimate, seven thousand years, reaches back beyond recorded civilization). The assertion has two parts, which are closely related. First, that "the law of value holds generally" for all periods of commodity circulation. Second, that it holds up to the appearance of capitalism, when it undergoes a "modification." More important than the particular time span suggested by Engels is the fundamental view that the value form is not specific to capitalism. Indeed, he suggests that it persists only in modified form under capitalism, and its pure form characterizes precapitalist society. These two related aspects of Engels's theory of value result from his method of analysis.
Engels develops his theory of the cause of exchange on the basis of a presupposed surplus of products arising in "more or less communistic communities." It is unclear if this surplus is a general surplus over subsistence production or particular surpluses of specific use values. The ambiguity is important, for the former implies a class society, since a general surplus can exist as an objective phenomenon only if it is appropriated from the direct producer. In the absence of specific reference to classes, there can be no analysis of the appropriation of the surplus product from a producing class to a nonproducing class. Without classes, no part of society's production appears as a surplus. In such circumstances, a surplus product must be deduced on the basis of some physical (subsistence) definition of surplus, which the analyst necessarily imposes externally upon the society. Thus, a general surplus product either is an objective phenomenon of exploitation, an observable, material fact of society; or it becomes arbitrarily and subjectively defined by an external observer. On the other hand, if Engels is not referring to a general surplus, but to surpluses of specific products (use values), then he necessarily implies a division of labor, such that the surpluses reflect the producers' anticipation of being able to exchange one use value for another. In other words, a process is presupposed by which individual producers or groups of producers have decided to specialize to some degree. In either case, we have a presupposition of certain social relations upon which exchange is predicated, a point pursued in detail in the following section.
On the basis of these surpluses, exchange develops between communities first, "but later also prevails within the community." Thus the explanation of exchange is based on the existence of individual productivity or specialization. Further, this exchange generates the dissolution of these primitive communities, so that the circulation of the products of labor is seen as the motive force for changes in social relations among producers. The exchange is carried out by "family heads," who have the right to the product of their labor. As the argument develops, we begin to get a picture of the society being considered, which presumably endured for five to seven thousand years: a society of independent, exchanging producers ("working peasants ... with ... their own farmsteads"), specializing within a social division of labor, and with property rights to the entire product of their labor. It is unclear how such a society allows for exploitation and classes, since the basis of class society is the appropriation of the surplus product of the direct producers, but this anticipates the critique of Engels's argument.
This exchange is explicitly treated as marginal to the reproduction of the producing families ("the little that such a family had to obtain by barter or buy"), and the method of manufacture of the products obtained in exchange is presumed to be known by the exchanging families, i.e., not just by the producer of each product. At this point Engels gives an explanation for the division of labor that the exchange process presupposes: "[Exchange] consisted principally of the objects of handicraft production, that is, such things the nature of whose manufacture was by no means unknown to the peasant, and which he did not produce only because he lacked the raw material or because the purchased article was much better or very much cheaper."
This implies that specialization — division of labor — derives from some process akin to "comparative advantage"; choice of what to produce is an individually determined one based on resource endowments and abilities. Explicit here is a view that those in the exchange process meet each other in the marketplace as equals — "the peasants, as well as the people from whom they bought, were themselves workers; the exchanged products were each one's own products." We must keep in mind that Engels is not describing a class society in which the surplus products are appropriated and exchanged by the ruling class, but a society of equals, exchanging the products of their labor.
The analysis of the magnitude of value follows directly from this analysis of social relations.
Hence the peasant of the Middle Ages knew fairly accurately the labor time required for the manufacture of the article obtained by him in barter. What had they expended in making these products? Labor and labor alone. ... [H]ow then could they exchange these products of theirs for those of other laboring producers otherwise than in the ratio of the labor expended on them? Not only was the labor-time spent on these products the only suitable measure for the quantitative determination of the values to be exchanged; no other was possible.
The argument for the quantitative determination of exchange is clinched by Engels with a rhetorical question appealing to the native intelligence of the peasant and craftsman, "Or is it believed that the peasant and the artisan were so stupid as to give up the product of ten hours labor of one person for that of a single hour's labor of another?"
We can summarize Engels's theory of value as follows: exchange occurs because of the production of a technologically available surplus and specialization that is prompted by producers achieving quality or cost advantages based on access to raw materials or individual abilities; the magnitude of value is determined by the knowledge or perception by the exchanging parties of the labor time required in production; and this knowledge is obtained from direct observation. Further, this system of exchange is based upon each independent producer possessing the right to the full product of his labor.
Engels then argues that such a theory necessarily implies that the law of value so stated undergoes a major modification with the introduction of money ("metallic money" is Engels's term); indeed, that this law of value operates in its purest form when exchanges are barter. With the introduction of a money commodity, "value" in the sense Engels uses the term becomes obscured. The obfuscation is of a particular type; namely, that which before was directly perceived — at least according to the argument — can no longer be perceived; to wit, with the introduction of money, "[T]he peasant and artisan were partly unable to estimate approximately the labor employed therein. ... From the practical point of view, money became the decisive measure of value. ... [T]he more [commodities] came from distant countries, and the less, therefore, the labor-time necessary for their production could be checked."
Our purpose at the moment is to provide a faithful rendering of Engels's theory. However, one cannot help but note that it is not obvious why money should play an obfuscating role. If peasants and artisans have direct knowledge of the concrete labor time expended in production of commodities, and exchange is based on this knowledge, the introduction of money merely requires the seller to keep in mind how much of his labor time is exchanged against a given quantity of the money commodity when he becomes a buyer of a commodity whose embodied labor time he knows. In other words, if labor times are known, they are known whether exchanges involve money or not. Engels deals with this inconsistency by saying, "[Consciousness [on the part of peasants and artisans] of the value-measuring property of labor had been fairly well dimmed by the habit of reckoning with money; in the popular mind money began to represent absolute value."
Whether or not one thinks that consciousness and habit play a decisive role in the quantitative determination of exchange, this position would seem to be inconsistent with Engels's rhetorical question about the intelligence of peasants and artisans. One could ask, "is it believed that the peasant and artisan, having direct knowledge of embodied labor times, were so stupid as to forget this knowledge with the introduction of money?" Given that the theory is based on perception, the key to the obfuscation of embodied labor time would have to be the fact that commodities begin to come "from distant countries," so that embodied labor cannot be directly known. Money in such a theory plays no role except as a convenient unit of account; it is merely a means of circulation. Its use in exchange does not affect Engels's theory so long as exchange is between individual direct producers, his comments to the contrary notwithstanding.
Once Engels has presented his theory of value, which is explicitly formulated for noncapitalist relations of productions, he considers the transition to capitalism and the relevance of value, as he has defined it, for that mode of production. Once capitalist relations are considered, one must establish a theory of profit. On this point, he begins with merchant's capital, a form of capital that pre-dates industrial capital and the appropriation of surplus value. Here his argument parallels his earlier one. Merchants, like artisans and peasants, know each others' costs, and on the basis of these perceptions, "the merchant's efforts are deliberately and consciously aimed at making this rate of profit equal for all participants." Thus, in precapitalist times, not only did products exchange as commodities according to embodied labor time but there was a tendency for rates of profit on merchant capital to equalize. Both of these tendencies were the result of direct knowledge and perception of labor times and costs.
Excerpted from Capital and Exploitation by John Weeks. Copyright © 1981 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- FrontMatter, pg. i
- Contents, pg. vii
- Acknowledgments, pg. ix
- Introduction, pg. 1
- I. Value as Embodied Labor, pg. 11
- II. Value as A Social Relation, pg. 27
- III. Exploitation and the Rate of Surplus Value Appendix: Stalin's Views on the Law of Value, pg. 88
- IV. Theory of Money, pg. 95
- V. Credit, Credit Crises, and Social Capital, pg. 123
- VI. The Competition among Capitals, pg. 149
- VII. Fixed Capital and Circulation, pg. 173
- VIII. Accumulation and Crises, pg. 187
- Index, pg. 219