Completely exhausted at the moment – just tossing some quick and probably very ill-thought notes onto the blog for future development. I keep meaning to say something about the curious way that Marx often uses simple mathematical relations to talk about value in the first volume of Capital. What interests me specifically is the way in which these passages – due to the mathematical form in which they are written – could seem to suggest that value is something one could potentially calculate. Yet the actual substance of the passages actually undermines any ability to get back “behind” the flux of the proportions in which goods exchange, to determine anything about the amount of “value” that is expressed through these fluctuations. So, for example, in a section titled “The Quantitative determination of Relative value”, Marx writes:
Every commodity, whose value it is intended to express, is a useful object of given quantity, as 15 bushels of corn, or 100 lbs of coffee. And a given quantity of any commodity contains a definite quantity of human labour. The value form must therefore not only express value generally, but also value in definite quantity. Therefore, in the value relation of commodity A to commodity B, of the linen to the coat, not only is the latter, as value in general, made the equal in quality of the linen, but a definite quantity of coat (1 coat) is made the equivalent of a definite quantity (20 yards) of linen.
The equation, 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, or 20 yards of linen are worth one coat, implies that the same quantity of value substance (congealed labour) is embodied in both; that the two commodities have each cost the same amount of labour of the same quantity of labour time. But the labour time necessary for the production of 20 yards of linen or 1 coat varies with every change in the productiveness of weaving or tailoring. We have now to consider the influence of such changes on the quantitative aspect of the relative expression of value.
I. Let the value of the linen vary, that of the coat remaining constant. If, say in consequence of the exhaustion of flax-growing soil, the labour time necessary for the production of the linen be doubled, the value of the linen will also be doubled. Instead of the equation, 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, we should have 20 yards of linen = 2 coats, since 1 coat would now contain only half the labour time embodied in 20 yards of linen. If, on the other hand, in consequence, say, of improved looms, this labour time be reduced by one-half, the value of the linen would fall by one-half. Consequently, we should have 20 yards of linen = ½ coat. The relative value of commodity A, i.e., its value expressed in commodity B, rises and falls directly as the value of A, the value of B being supposed constant.
II. Let the value of the linen remain constant, while the value of the coat varies. If, under these circumstances, in consequence, for instance, of a poor crop of wool, the labour time necessary for the production of a coat becomes doubled, we have instead of 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, 20 yards of linen = ½ coat. If, on the other hand, the value of the coat sinks by one-half, then 20 yards of linen = 2 coats. Hence, if the value of commodity A remain constant, its relative value expressed in commodity B rises and falls inversely as the value of B.
If we compare the different cases in I and II, we see that the same change of magnitude in relative value may arise from totally opposite causes. Thus, the equation, 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, becomes 20 yards of linen = 2 coats, either, because the value of the linen has doubled, or because the value of the coat has fallen by one-half; and it becomes 20 yards of linen = ½ coat, either, because the value of the linen has fallen by one-half, or because the value of the coat has doubled.
III. Let the quantities of labour time respectively necessary for the production of the linen and the coat vary simultaneously in the same direction and in the same proportion. In this case 20 yards of linen continue equal to 1 coat, however much their values may have altered. Their change of value is seen as soon as they are compared with a third commodity, whose value has remained constant. If the values of all commodities rose or fell simultaneously, and in the same proportion, their relative values would remain unaltered. Their real change of value would appear from the diminished or increased quantity of commodities produced in a given time.
IV. The labour time respectively necessary for the production of the linen and the coat, and therefore the value of these commodities may simultaneously vary in the same direction, but at unequal rates or in opposite directions, or in other ways. The effect of all these possible different variations, on the relative value of a commodity, may be deduced from the results of I, II, and III.
Thus real changes in the magnitude of value are neither unequivocally nor exhaustively reflected in their relative expression, that is, in the equation expressing the magnitude of relative value. The relative value of a commodity may vary, although its value remains constant. Its relative value may remain constant, although its value varies; and finally, simultaneous variations in the magnitude of value and in that of its relative expression by no means necessarily correspond in amount. (emphasis mine)
In other words, we have direct empirical access only to the shifts in the relative proportions in which goods are exchanged. There is no way to get back “behind” these empirically perceptible shifts, to perceive what value is “in itself” – value is operating in the text here as an an sich. Lukács takes Marx to be arguing that this is how the matter appears from the standpoint of bourgeois political economy. Lukács therefore supposes that, from a different standpoint – the standpoint of the proletariat – there is a means to make transparent and explicit, an underlying reality that remains opaque and mysterious from other standpoints.
I take Marx’s point to be otherwise. On the one hand, I hear Marx’s argument as an account of how a concept like an an sich might emerge historically at a given moment, due to social actors’ experience with a very mundane dimension of their social existence that provides everyday practical exposure to navigating something like a phenomena/noumena divide. On the other hand, I hear Marx’s argument to be that value is an immanent order – something that has no separate existence apart from the flux in which it manifests itself – something that does not lie behind empirical phenomena or otherwise exist separately from empirical phenomena, such that it might explain those phenomena. Instead, value is a pattern of empirical phenomena – a “determination” (not a cause, but a specification) of the qualitative characteristics of their movements.
Long-term and contradictory historical trends to displace labour in certain forms by increasing productivity, while reconstituting labour in new forms by constituting new industries and new needs: these tendencies amount to a collective enactment or performance of human labour as a sort of social pivot around which other aspects of “material” life revolve. This social centrality of human labour – revealed over time as productivity increases do not lead to commensurate reductions in human labour expenditure – suggests that there is a unique and distinctive non-economic sense in which capitalist society values labour, quite apart from the role human labour might play as a motive force in material reproduction. Material reproduction, for Marx, might plausibly be facilitated by nature – or machinery. Capitalism, however, relies on human labour – even as it also continues to accumulate historically unprecedented technological, organisational, and scientific capacities that render the contribution of human labour as a motive force for material production, increasingly negligible. Marx suggests that the political economists both stumble across the traces of these trends, and then make the plausible – but inappropriate – move of substantialising what they find – treating the consequences of historical trends – treating value – as something whose existence becomes manifest in the movement of phenomenal forms, and therefore missing how value is not a justification or explanation or cause of the movements that take place, but rather itself a product or implicit order acted out in and through those movements themselves, and inseparable from them…
I’m expressing this in a very imprecise way – just scattering notes here for myself…