Wednesday, March 02, 2016

A misplaced concrete perspective of value

Index for a series of articles about Value
1) Marx and the domains of ignorance
2) Unpacking the value suitcase
3) The commodity perspective on value
4) The labour process and different categories of labour
5) The social form perspective of value
6) The equivalent form and the evolution of value into money
7) A misplaced concrete perspective of value
8) Fetishism and alienation
9) Metamorphosis of Value

In a previous section, the commodity perspective on value, I said:
Value is measured by the quantity of human labour added to the commodity. If productivity increases due to improved technology then the value or cost of the product should decline proportionately. eg. Power looms in England in Marx's time doubled productivity and so the cost of cloth produced by yarn should have halved.

Marx talks about materialized or crystallized or embedded or congealed or abstract human labour adding value to a commodity.
From this presentation strategy by Marx in the first part of Capital Chapter one it can too easily and incorrectly be interpreted that Value is defined as embedded abstract human labour and that the whole point of value theory is mathematical quantification.

Nevertheless, there are qualifiers that ought to warn us that the above interpretation is far too tidy:
  • if a thing is made with labour but useless then it has no value, the labour does not count
  • a thing can be a use value without having value (eg. air, virgin soil)
  • private labour creates use values but not commodities
  • value is only real if the product goes to market and is sold. That is what distinguishes a commodity from a product.
In Diane Elson's words there is a misplaced concreteness in the way that many interpret Marx.

Embedded or congealed labour time as value is not helpful, it makes it sound as though it is like a physical property

Elson argues that since Marx uses metaphors that are chemical and biological (crystallisation, incarnation, embodiment, metabolism, metamorphosis) and not mathematical that he is trying to convey the idea that value represents a change of form (eg. use value created by concrete labour changes form into exchange value represented by abstract, social labour) rather than something that can be calculated precisely in a logical / mathematical sense. One stream of thought since Marx has tried to pin down value as a precise magnitude or has emphasised the quantitative aspect (embedded or congealed labour) rather then the qualitative aspect, that value changes its form continually through the whole process of capitalist production and circulation.

There is a natural human tendency to settle on a tidy, neat, tangible definition of value. Unfortunately, this doesn't work. Value is an essential concept to understand the inner workings of capitalism but also a complex concept.

Why is value complicated? It is a deeply embedded although historically contingent, multifaceted (it has a form, a substance and a magnitude) social concept. Moreover, it takes on the much desired (lusted after) physical form of money. Hence it possesses both very real and phantom like (historically contingent) properties.

Reference and Further Reading:
Elson, Diane. The Value Theory of Labour. In: Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism. Verso (September 1, 2015)

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