Marx and the Labor Theory of Value, part 2

Given the interest of those who have thus far read this blog from political forums, I am elucidating further my interpretation of Marx.  This interpretation does not fully take into account the modifications made on the part of, or inspired by, the critique of the Italian autonomists in the 1960s.  Such modifications may be discussed in future posts.  I do remain largely convinced by the Althusserian interpretation of the Young Marx vis-a-vis the Old Marx, with only a few significant but (on the whole) uneventful reservations.

I have also updated some examples in the previous post, to give them context.

[In the future, all additions to my original posts will be placed in brackets, such as is this.]

While this organization of the labor process by capitalists is central to the accumulation of capital under capitalism and to the whole of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, capitalists do not participate in labor as such.  The presence of capitalists in labor is a social relation, and is accounted for in terms of that relation, in terms of the POSSIBILITY of the generation and accumulation of surplus value, but not in the actual generation of value itself.

If one were so inclined, one could include “capitalist labor” in the equations that described the value of commodities.  But it would just so happen that the capitalist input of labor time would be such an inconsequential quantity compared to the quantity that workers put in that its influence on the movement of capitalism would be entirely superfluous.  The essential role of the capitalist is to accumulate capital; it is not to contribute to its valorization (making x capital x + y capital).  And in no scientific work does what is unessential to the science figure in its analysis: even though density has an important relation to mass, it would have been absurd for Newton to write to write his second law F = ma, and to demand that the m be subscripted with the name of the substance in question–for the substance of m is completely irrelevant to the equation.  I do, however, accept that there might be a theory of surplus value that would need to take account of capitalist labor–but the use of such a theory would be a use alien to the use in Das Kapital; it is the context of the theory in which a concept is oriented that gives the concept its meaning.  You attempt to tear the concept out of its original context, place it within a new context (“what account of the the production of commodities is needed to reconcile my moral sympathy for capitalists?”), and criticize it on those grounds.  But in the context of Das Kapital, Marx’s elucidation of value is completely sufficient.

As I said in my earlier post, if you focus on the immediate normative consequences of the theory, the price that you will pay is that you will be that you cannot and will not be able to appreciate the theory.  It is perhaps the appropriation of Marxism by liberals in the English speaking world that most thoroughly sabotages discussions on Marx’s theory of surplus value.  (Perhaps you had a high school teacher that made you read the Communist Manifesto, or perhaps you read a few social histories in undergrad that cited Marx; I implore you, please forget as much of this as possible; see:  Marx’s theory of surplus value does NOT demand a liberal anti-capitalist attitude, i.e. the poor are exploited and their rights are violated, and we need to give back to them the fruits of their labor.  Not only does Marx think it is impossible to give back to the exploited the fruits of their labor under capitalism, but he condemns the very human rights oriented philosophies that would suggest such a thing, as being a self-indulgence that obscures the very reality that it condemns.  [It is a commonplace among those who have delved into Marx at one level less superficial than the common discourse that at no point does Marx condemn capitalism as unjust; and so, the exploitation of surplus value, too, is neither decried as unjust, nor can we infer that Marx would ever intend for us to think it is so according to his critique of capitalism.]

After the failure of the 1848 European revolutions, Marx came to see Capital itself as the only means of overthrowing Capital; condemnation of Capital, as one can see by reading the chapters on the working day, is endemic to the movement of Capital itself; liberal critique and political agitation within capitalism is endemic to the movement of capitalism itself, without which capitalism cannot survive [(such is also true, incidentally, of the institutions under capitalism, e.g. psychiatry and the organization of medical practice).  This fact has been most thoroughly explored in Boltanski and Chiapello’s masterpiece The New Spirit of Capitalism.]  It is only the movement of capitalism itself that can undermine the relations of production between the capitalist and the worker that make the extraction of surplus value possible, because it is only capitalism itself that determines these relations–it is not the evil, rich capitalist and the good, poor worker that determine these relations through some kind of contract negotiation (which was the attitude of the bourgeois political economists that Marx polemicized against).  Consequently, accepting the theory of surplus value does not amount to condemning the capitalist, nor, as I said earlier, marginalizing his role in the production process.  It is for this reason that Marx did not morally criticize capitalism; he imagined, instead, the possibility of its self-undermining on the basis of its existent reality and contradictions.

There were many things that Marx got wrong, but so far, while I would be very happy to hear it, I have not yet seen a single time Marx’s theory of surplus value–as understood properly in the context of what Marx was trying to achieve in Das Kapital–knocked down through argument.

[Moreover, even as far as Marx’s predictions are concerned, taken in a different light, Marx could be entirely vindicated on all counts–except that the proletariat was to consummate his predictions through agitation in the style of the French revolution.  If Marx is at fault, it was his inability to imagine that most of his predictions would be carried out in an almost entirely different mode than changes had occurred until that point.  But, given his prophetic genius, that he was unable to recognize that his critique would result in a synthesis of capitalism and socialism–rather than a rift and history that would bring to fruition everything that had come before–is really a minor flaw resulting from his relatively incidental conception of change (incidental, that is, when compared to the sheer scientific, rather than violently revolutionary, value of Marx’s work).  Hs theories pointed in the direction of the future, and that he has been taken to be categorically wrong, that he must constantly be said to be categorically wrong, is not a sign of his points being immaterial, but rather a sign of his constant relevance.  For, what is truly wrong is relegated to the dustbin of history and does not touch even the fringes of the academy.

Clownish, too, is the defense by modern “Marxists,” who point to the continued eruption of contradictions within the social and economic order as a sign that Marx may, in the end, be correct.  No, Marx has already been vindicated–History has already moved in the direction that he predicted, for the reasons that he predicted, with only his understanding of innovation, and hence the timeline and revolutionary character of his changes being insufficient.  And he will continue to be relevant precisely for the fact that society–barring the possibility of enormous ecological, military, etc. catastrophe–will continue to move toward the end that he predicted.  Academia does not manifest a bulwark of Marxists and discussion about Marxism, because they are trapped in the ivory tower, excluded from the real world, from the rest of us, and hence uninformed about reality.  No, academia manifests a bulwark of Marxists because modernity is, in a sense, Marxist–Marx’s intervention was successful in an essential and complete way, with the caveat that it had to compromise in dialectical fashion.  That most of their interpretations of Marx entirely lack imagination is however the stiltedness of the average academic.

On what grounds, however, is such a re-interpretation of Marx’s work justified, in terms of Marx’s own system?  This will be the subject for a future post.]

I end this post, in light of Chairman Mao’s 117th birthday yesterday (when this original post was written), with a quote of encouragement for those interested in Marx:

“Study hard, make progress everyday.”
Chairman Mao


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