Thoughts on the labor theory of value

[Disclaimer: I do not claim or attempt to say anything original here. I’m just trying to think through Marx’s theory. I realize this is an area where I’ve put my foot in my mouth in previous posts, and I’m open to correction.]

Marx’s labor theory of value is often summarized in a dismissive way, as though he thinks that there’s literally some kind of labor-substance that adheres in a commodity, providing it with an objective value. This theory is often set over against a more Austrian-style relativism, where value is determined by desire. As I painstakingly worked my way through the first two sections of Capital in German (in preparation for my summer seminar, which begins tomorrow by the way), it struck me that Marx’s theory is more robust and weird than I had realized. In a way, it charts a path between the supposed “objectivity” of earlier uses of the labor theory of value in political economy and the later “subjectivity” of the Austrian school. And a helpful way to get at that is to think of value as replacement value.

This is of course where the exposition ends up: the fair price of labor is its replacement value, i.e., what it takes to keep the worker alive — and more than that, to maintain what the worker would recognize as a minimally dignified human life. Already we get a kind of cultural relativism here, with the English workers requiring beer while the French require wine, etc. There’s also another form of relativism in that changes in technological development affect the value of commodities. It’s not that the product you so laboriously made is still “objectively” worth the work you put into it, even after someone else figures out an easier way to do it — once that advance has been made, your product is worth what the mass-produced equivalent is worth. In both cases, it’s a matter of “how much trouble does it take to replace this English worker (qua English) or this linen,” under current conditions.

Two controversial points in his theory make more sense in this light: namely, his decision to average out different kinds of skilled labor into a uniform labor and his claim that natural resources have no intrinsic value. In the first case, it seemed to me that one could think in terms of, for example, a tailored suit. With sufficient time and effort, an unskilled laborer could in theory make a garment identical to a perfectly tailored suit — it would just take forever. In this connection, the tailor’s training has somehow “compressed” the labor necessary (perhaps foreshadowing contemporary language of “human capital”). In terms of natural resources, it does sound terrible and anti-ecological to claim that raw materials have no intrinsic value, etc., but if we keep in mind that value is always only human value, it makes more sense. Essentially, the value of a natural resource is how much trouble you have to take to find it. This indirectly means that less common materials are worth more, but that’s because they’re harder to find — if you lose your diamond, it’s going to take a lot more trouble to replace it than if you lose your chunk of sandstone. One can understand this as a case of “man makes his own destiny, but not in conditions of his own choosing.” Natural resources do have objective properties, their distribution in the world is a brute fact beyond our control — but they only properly have “value” in the context of a given social mode of production, even if the underlying facts strongly determine the value that they will have in that context. (That being said, I find it a lot harder, if not impossible, to “redeem” his masculine-feminine imagery in this regard.)

So, to risk extrapolating a bit: one objection that occurs to me is that in today’s world, the hand-made linen would probably be considered more valuable than the mass-produced kind. I would suggest that we can imagine a society where, for example, they would think “beer is beer, don’t be so fussy.” In that case, your dry-hopped double IPA would be “objectively” (i.e., effectively, under those social conditions) worth as much as a Miller High Life. The extra care you put into the IPA wouldn’t add any value to the end product, which for those benighted souls would be equivalent to a Miller High Life — it would just be a stupid waste of time. For people in my demographic, though, the differences between the IPA and the Miller High Life make a difference. (One could think of parallel situations, like if people don’t actually care about the difference between organic and mass-produced food, etc., and then the organic Kobe beef would be worth the same as supermarket ground chuck.) It’s not a matter of sheer arbitrary whim, though, because the standard is still how much trouble it would take to replace something. It’s just that social circumstances can produce a situation where it’s not worth it to take all that extra trouble.

12 thoughts on “Thoughts on the labor theory of value

  1. I certainly not an expert here either, but I think that your last objection, as it is related to exchange, is accounted for through the caveat that all labor must be socially necessary labor. This is where his labor theory departs from Smith and Ricardo. Value undergoes changes as it becomes social (the social world of PBR drinkers sets a lower value on beer labor).

  2. Definitely. I was meaning to say that we can respond to that objection in Marx’s terms. Labor and value are always human, and that concretely means they are always formed with reference to a historically specific society with a historically specific mode of production.

  3. In 1980, I had the opportunity to take a graduate course “Mathematics for Economist” from Herb Gintis, one of the best Marxian economists of his time. During the course he mentioned Marx only once, but it was in relation to Marx’s theory of labor. The context was in building input-output tables, a method of looking at the total economic impact of a change in final demand (which will in total be greater than the change in demand). Dr Gintis, stated that mathematically since the output was always greater than the sum of the inputs, it could be inferred that some input was exploited. Labor being the only human input, Marx chose that to be the exploited input. Gintis called this a ‘jelly doughnut’ theory and felt it was a logical error. As this was a math class, he did not delve into a full blown discourse and left the statement hang. As I am not a Marxist I never followed up on his comment and did not take further classes from him.

  4. “Labor and value are always human”

    Both of these seem open to challenge, if not necessarily for Marx.

    As for the last paragraph, your comments is what Bourdieu was trying to get at with the idea of cultural capital. He also attempts to explain how an objectively shitty drink like PBR can become something else when consumed by groups with high cultural capital, if only because it is so ironic and hilarious to drink beer that crappy.

  5. There is a lot of research with primates that would suggest that they have a conception of relative value and express, among other emotions, rage and jealousy when one is given a low-value treat for completing a task while their neighbour is given a high-value treat for completing the same task. Out of spite, the one receiving the low-value treat will often refuse to eat it. This seems to suggest at least certain primates are able to agree in the abstract that some things are more valuable than others and act on this conception in concrete empirical situations.

    I gather you aren’t disputing that animals possess the capacity to labour given that you don’t mention this. I can’t see how Marx could deny this, at least coherently. Even Locke accepted this point.

  6. Right, it’s obvious that animals can labor, though it seems like they would function analogously to machinery in Marx — domesticating, breeding, and training animals is certainly a powerful form of technology.

    As for the primates — I’d be willing to accept that different sentient species have their own scale of value. I wasn’t intending to deny that so much as to point to the incoherence of claiming that something is just “inherently valuable.” Value is necessarily a relative term, it can’t be absolute.

  7. That primates find things valuable doesn’t seem particularly relevant, though, because primates don’t (I’m fairly sure) exchange commodities, so exchange value isn’t a useful category for understanding their activity. For the same reason, they don’t labour – obviously they can perform tasks, but it’s not labour in the sense that Marx is talking about, i.e., wage labour.

  8. Voyou stole my thunder, but I would add that it is not the mere exchange of commodities that is important but the threshold that is reached when value becomes self-relating, becomes it’s own circulation and where it cannot become subordinated to subjective desire nor to “objectified” labour. Therefore I would make a distinction between a labour theory of value, and a theory of value.

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