I’ve read several works recently that argue that Marx’s labour theory of value, while appropriate for the period in which it was written, now needs to be updated to account for the role of technology in the production of wealth. I have no problem with the general notion that, in significant respects, Marx’s argument remains bound to the 19th century, but I can’t help but find this particular notion of what is outdated in Marx’s argument somewhat odd. The implication of this line of criticism is that, when Marx was writing, it remained unclear that technology would become increasingly important in the generation of material wealth, and that Marx – creature of his time, as are we all – simply couldn’t see that human labour would not remain as important to the material reproduction of society as it undoubtedly was in his own day. This line of criticism assumes, then, that Marx’s principal aim was to theorise the material reproduction of society, that Marx believed that wage labour was key to material reproduction in his era, and that he developed the labour theory of value in order to cast light on the ways in which, in spite of deceiving appearances created by the market, wage labour played this pivotal social role.
I’ve run into this criticism of Marx a number of times before, and I always find it extremely strange, mainly because it seems to block out any historical awareness of the industrial revolution and the utopian hopes that were placed in technological progress well into the 19th century (and beyond, of course, but my point here is that Marx would have been well aware of the concept of technological progress when he was writing). At best it seems historically implausible to think that Marx – who was attempting specifically to theorise the central historical dynamics of his time – should have been insensitive to the visibly growing role technology was playing in the production of material wealth, particularly given the contemporary attention this phenomenon received. More to the point, Capital makes frequent reference to recent technological innovations, and to the ways in which such innovations make possible the production of greater amounts of material wealth with less investment of human labour per unit output: in light of such passages, Marx can hardly be said to be unaware that the production of material wealth had come to rely more and more heavily on technology, and less and less on the investment of human labour. But if he were aware of the increasing reliance of material reproduction on technological forces – if he even drew attention to this trend in his own text – then it is worth asking what he could possibly have intended by proclaiming a “labour theory of value”: can this element of Marx’s theory be seen as anything other than the most perverse contradiction?
If we’re to see the “labour theory of value” as anything other than the most bizarre of anachronisms – not simply in our time, but in Marx’s – I think we have to consider the possibility that Capital might be trying to do something more than theorising how material wealth is generated in capitalist society. Marx in fact suggests this fairly directly, early in the first volume of Capital, first by defining exchange value as something that does not contain any use value:
As use values, commodities are, above all, of different qualities, but as exchange values they are merely different quantities, and consequently do not contain an atom of use value.
And then – and more importantly – by defining value as a social substance:
If then we leave out of consideration the use value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labour. But even the product of labour itself has undergone a change in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use value, we make abstraction at the same time from the material elements and shapes that make the product a use value; we see in it no longer a table, a house, yarn, or any other useful thing. Its existence as a material thing is put out of sight. Neither can it any longer be regarded as the product of the labour of the joiner, the mason, the spinner, or of any other definite kind of productive labour. Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied in them, and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract.
Let us now consider the residue of each of these products; it consists of the same unsubstantial reality in each, a mere congelation of homogeneous human labour, of labour power expended without regard to the mode of its expenditure. All that these things now tell us is, that human labour power has been expended in their production, that human labour is embodied in them. When looked at as crystals of this social substance, common to them all, they are – Values.
Marx argues that this social substance – but not material wealth – is measured in terms of socially average labour time. Significantly, he does this in a passage that explicitly thematises the role of technological progress in increasing productivity:
A use value, or useful article, therefore, has value only because human labour in the abstract has been embodied or materialised in it. How, then, is the magnitude of this value to be measured? Plainly, by the quantity of the value-creating substance, the labour, contained in the article. The quantity of labour, however, is measured by its duration, and labour time in its turn finds its standard in weeks, days, and hours.
Some people might think that if the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labour spent on it, the more idle and unskilful the labourer, the more valuable would his commodity be, because more time would be required in its production. The labour, however, that forms the substance of value, is homogeneous human labour, expenditure of one uniform labour power. The total labour power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour power of society, and takes effect as such; that is, so far as it requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on an average, no more than is socially necessary. The labour time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time. The introduction of power-looms into England probably reduced by one-half the labour required to weave a given quantity of yarn into cloth. The hand-loom weavers, as a matter of fact, continued to require the same time as before; but for all that, the product of one hour of their labour represented after the change only half an hour’s social labour, and consequently fell to one-half its former value.
We see then that that which determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour time socially necessary for its production. Each individual commodity, in this connexion, is to be considered as an average sample of its class. Commodities, therefore, in which equal quantities of labour are embodied, or which can be produced in the same time, have the same value. The value of one commodity is to the value of any other, as the labour time necessary for the production of the one is to that necessary for the production of the other. “As values, all commodities are only definite masses of congealed labour time.”
The value of a commodity would therefore remain constant, if the labour time required for its production also remained constant. But the latter changes with every variation in the productiveness of labour. This productiveness is determined by various circumstances, amongst others, by the average amount of skill of the workmen, the state of science, and the degree of its practical application, the social organisation of production, the extent and capabilities of the means of production, and by physical conditions. For example, the same amount of labour in favourable seasons is embodied in 8 bushels of corn, and in unfavourable, only in four. The same labour extracts from rich mines more metal than from poor mines. Diamonds are of very rare occurrence on the earth’s surface, and hence their discovery costs, on an average, a great deal of labour time. Consequently much labour is represented in a small compass. Jacob doubts whether gold has ever been paid for at its full value. This applies still more to diamonds. According to Eschwege, the total produce of the Brazilian diamond mines for the eighty years, ending in 1823, had not realised the price of one-and-a-half years’ average produce of the sugar and coffee plantations of the same country, although the diamonds cost much more labour, and therefore represented more value. With richer mines, the same quantity of labour would embody itself in more diamonds, and their value would fall. If we could succeed at a small expenditure of labour, in converting carbon into diamonds, their value might fall below that of bricks. In general, the greater the productiveness of labour, the less is the labour time required for the production of an article, the less is the amount of labour crystallised in that article, and the less is its value; and vice versâ, the less the productiveness of labour, the greater is the labour time required for the production of an article, and the greater is its value. The value of a commodity, therefore, varies directly as the quantity, and inversely as the productiveness, of the labour incorporated in it.
So what’s going on here? Why these strange manoeuvres of distinguishing between value and use value (and the even stranger manoeuvre of distinguishing between value and exchange value, although I’ll leave this latter point aside for present purposes)? The passages above already suggest what’s at stake (and apologies in advance for being very abbreviated here – some of these points have been developed in greater detail elsewhere on the blog, and I’m pressed for time tonight): the distinction between use value and value allows Marx to begin to drive a wedge between a potential role technology could play, in a different organisation of social life, and the role technology actually does play in a capitalist context. Use value – material wealth, the material reproduction of society – can be generated in the absence of the expenditure of human labour: it can be produced (as Marx says somewhere) “gratis” by nature, or it can be generated by technology. Use value, or the material reproduction of society, is therefore completely indifferent to whether human labour is expended in the creation of material wealth. Capitalism, however, is not indifferent. Instead, this contingent social configuration imposes – this is Marx’s claim – a purely social coercion for the expenditure of human labour, which has – this is key to Marx’s argument – nothing intrinsically to do with the need to expend human labour for the generation of material wealth.
This social compulsion for the expenditure of human labour – which Marx understands as the impersonal and unintended side effect of collective practices consciously directed to other ends – is what Marx is trying to capture with the concept of the “labour theory of value”. Seen in this light, the “labour theory of value” is intended, among other things, to thematise the ambivalent implications of technological development under capitalism. On the one hand, technology figures in Marx’s argument as a force that increases productivity and represents a reservoir of historically-constituted potential for a form of material reproduction that is not reliant on the expenditure of human labour. On the other hand, as realised in the current social context, technological development figures as a form of actual compulsion, in that each technological innovation contributes to resetting the socially average labour time required for the production of particular goods – a distinctive social role, not intrinsic to the creation of material wealth, that binds technological innovation to a restless dynamic of coercive revolutionisation of the means of production (and of the social bonds, institutional structures, and other elements of social life that are also caught up in such transformations), such that technology comes to figure – for contingent social reasons – as the master, rather than the servant, of humankind.
Marx’s “labour theory of value”, far from being unaware of the role technology would come to play in generating material wealth, can better be understood as an attempt to grasp a central paradox of technological progress: Marx was seeking (among other things) to provide a social explanation for the boundless, “instrumental”, character of technological development in the modern era, trying to grasp why technological progress didn’t appear to be living up to the utopian hopes invested in it, asking why the restless advance of the productive forces did not appear to be accompanied by a commensurate advance in human freedom – all questions that remain quite contemporary in their resonance, even if we reject the details of Marx’s theory. Moreover, Marx’s “labour theory of value” was intended to lay the foundation for a non-pessimistic response to these questions – to argue that this paradox does not reside intrinsically in technology – that it has nothing to do with material reproduction as such – that it instead resides in a purely “social substance”, in the unintended consequences of collective human action – and, as a product of human practice, could be overcome without sacrificing technologically-mediated material production. Marx was therefore attempting to operate on the terrain of an immanent social critique – trying to identify the practical foundations of coercive dynamics, while also mining those same dynamics for the unrealised potentials they carry in their wake. In this respect, his theory compares favourably to some other critiques of “instrumental reason”, which identify these same paradoxes as central to modernity, but which claim to ground them in labour, material reproduction, or technology per se.