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Marx’s argument remains bound to the 19th century, but I can’t help but find this particular notion of what is outdated in Marx’s argument somewhat odd.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.
Touché on the point about classifying Marx method as ‘immanent social critique’ based on his perception of ‘technology.’ If only he had employed identified ‘dialogic’ relations instead of ‘dialectic’ ones 😉
Two quick clarifications though…
‘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’
Is this a component of ‘capital’? Or more precisely one of the ‘non-labour’ aspects of capital.
‘On the other hand, as realised in the current social context, technological development figures as a FORM OF 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.’
Is this part of ‘false consciousness’? Or more precisely a process by which commodity fetishism feeds the hegemonic metaphysics of the bourgeois.
After writing this post, I was wincing about how I had written as though I were offering some sort of consensus reading of Capital – as though this was an interpretation everyone does or should share – when I actually think the reading is somewhat idiosyncratic. So forgive me the preliminary caveats that I’m not necessarily giving a standard reading here, and I therefore really should ground what I’m saying in a much more careful textual analysis than I have time to offer… If it helps, although I have an interest in what Marx was trying to do, I also have an interest in seeing how much we might be able to mine from the text for a contemporary social critique – and sometimes I don’t distinguish between these two interests as clearly as I should 🙂 All this by way of saying that I’ll take a stab at your questions, but won’t guarantee that what I’ll say is unambiguous in Marx…
On the first question of whether historically constituted potentials (technological or otherwise) should be seen as “part of capital” – my take on this has generally been to repurpose the concept of alienation, and to say that the argument is that immanent potentials are part of capital, but can’t be fully realised so long as they remain bound up with the processes that brought these potentials into being. So, as bound up in the process of the reproduction of capital, immanent potentials are alienated and can therefore operate as, or contribute to, the forms of compulsion that are constitutive of capitalism. One side effect of this process of alienation is that aspects of contemporary society that have emancipatory implications can actually become the objects of critique, if their alienated character is not recognised, and the critique therefore doesn’t distinguish very clearly between what things currently are, and what things potentially could be.
I may be missing a nuance in your question, though, when you ask about the “non-labour” aspects of capital?
On the issue of false consciousness: it depends on what you mean. I’m hoping to write more soon on the concept of the fetish (and on other theorists’ notions of the concept of “real abstraction”) – it may be that some of this will get into your question more adequately than what I can write here.
In a very abbreviated way, my gut instinct is that Marx understands the treadmill process that results from “resetting” socially average labour time as a process that confronts individuals (whether capitalists or workers) as a form of objective necessity – where “objective” here simply means that this compulsion is not generated intentionally by any social collectivity, but is instead a manifestation of a peculiar kind of social relation through which individuals and social groups unintentionally compel one another – whether those groups “believe” in this compulsion in some way or not. (In this sense, the argument parallels Weber’s concept of the “iron cage” that persists even after the collapse of the forms of religious subjectivity that brought it into being – asceticism retains a collectively-coercive aspect, even after it has ceased to be “meaningful”.)
The existence of this kind of compulsion can, of course, render more socially plausible various forms of rationalisation and metaphysics that might serve the interests of particular social groups. But the existence of some sort of coercive social treadmill that constantly resets a socially required level of productivity based on socially average labour time is not “illusory” – it is a form of coercion individuals impose unintentionally on one another, which confronts those individuals as an “objectivity” over which they have no individual control.
This presentation doesn’t explain how the concept of the “fetish” fits in to all of this. I take the argument about the “fetish” to be an argument that how the distinctive form of social determination under capitalism takes the historically unique shape of the perception that certain things have been stripped of all social determinations – that they are “material”. So the fetish reinforces the socially-generated dynamic I’m hand waving at above, by causing it to appear to have something intrinsically to do with material reproduction. I take Marx to be trying to unfold an analysis that penetrates the fetish by providing analytical categories that clearly distinguish between current, historically-constituted potentials for organising material reproduction, and the strange forms of compulsion that characterise capitalism as a social form.
As stated, this is really inadequate – apologies for the vagueness and for not grounding this reading in some way…
I concur with your “gut instincts.” If I may rephrase (and regrettably condense) you comments by suggesting that what ‘I mean’ by false consciousness is that “belief” – in the sense that you have used it – is to be separated from “compulsion.”
As to the role or ‘mechanics’ of the ‘fetish,’ I wonder (in a burst of now well documented free association) if this the point at which ones analysis inevitably takes on a Lacanian flavour?
With regard to the “alienated immanent potentials” within ‘capital,’ I would question the theoretical utility (no pun intended) of referring to ‘labour time’ – socially averaged or not – as the common unit of calculation. I am quite comfortable with the monologic effect of the term “labour” that makes a lot of “Marx” coherent and relevant (an effect that I ‘read into’ Marx). Linking it to a concept like “time” seems too… dichotomous (?). I wonder does such a link (the link between ‘labour’ and ‘time’) unnecessarily restrict (or even ‘alienate’) the immanent potential of the discourse?
I hope that made sense! :0
We may be venturing further and further away from anything Marx could plausibly be said to have intended, but my impulse is to agree with your reservation about the notion of socially average labour time as a means of calculation (with the implication that there might then be some “objective” means of tracking whether this principle is operative – a line of interpretation of Marx that is much more mainstream than what I’m suggesting here, with its own vast literature, and which may be more accurate to Marx’s intent – I’m not completely sure). But – yes. My instinct is to say that Marx’s argument can be read, in a sense, as though it has been written “backwards”: that the early categories are, in effect, the structures that are being acted out in social practice. Marx could be read as trying to explain how other forms of theory – political economic discourse in particular – are confused about the “ontological status” of these (in Marx) purely social entities that should be understood more as the unintended side effects of collective practice, than as, e.g., conceptual generalisations, or intentional goals of practice, or asocial entities, etc., etc.
I think it’s at least possible to suggest – whether this is what Marx saw himself as doing or not – that the analysis in Capital provides the basis for a theory of why it should come to seem socially plausible to interpret the historical patterns Marx is analysing in terms of categories like socially average labour time (remembering that Marx is drawing this concept from others, and then trying to embed the discourse from which the concept derives in his own critical social theory), even if it is not difficult to come up with examples (some of which are in fact mentioned in passing in Capital) in which the compulsion of socially average labour time does not seem to operate, or at least doesn’t seem to operate in a clear or lockstep fashion. So, in a sense, the question becomes: how can we understand why it might have become plausible to interpret the world in terms of categories like these – why are these interpretive categories persuasive or intuitive to many people – in spite of all these apparent inconsistencies?
One way to answer this question – and this would be the path consonant with the overwhelming preponderance of the literature on Marx – would be to argue that, in spite of surface appearances, there are deep structures which actually do operate this way. I take this to be a more “mainstream” interpretation of what Marx is trying to do. Another way to answer this question – and I tilt this way, and am therefore an outlier (and, I should confess, tend to get accused of lack of rigour when I present to proper Marxists…) – is to say that these forms of thought or interpretation might be rendered plausible by dimensions of our social experience, even though they may in fact not reflect a “deep structure” – that, through a messy range of institutions, practices, and cultural tenets that vary from place to place and change quite dramatically over time, we seem to keep reconstituting various sorts of compulsion to expend direct human labour in production, no matter how high productivity grows – and that the experience of living in such a strange social context renders all sorts of rationalisations plausible for why this might occur – and that the early categories in Capital can be understood as a social analysis of some of the rationalisations prominent in the 19th century…
This may be nonsense. Even readings of Marx that I quite like, don’t seem to go here and, although I’m generally comfortable suggesting that Marx might have meant – or at least implied – all sorts of outlying things, this reading is a bit too much of an outlier for me to feel comfortable suggesting that it can easily be grounded in the text of Capital – at the very least, I’d need to do a level of work on that text that I haven’t done. But in terms of my own work, I tend to think more this way – to see the institutional and cultural landscape as fairly messy, to see myself as analysing the social plausibility (and therefore the nonrandomness) of forms of perception and thought that I nevertheless don’t think must exist in the exact form that they do, even within the social context I’m analysing… So the “mechanics” of the whole system, from my point of view, are looser, and… er… lurchier than they would be for other interpretations of Marx with which I’m familiar…
And you were worried about making sense… ;-P
In response to your instincts (as I have (mis)understood them?!) I would agree that Marx IS trying to ‘graft’ what can be termed ‘capitalist signifiers’ to a ‘dialectic’ subjectivity. This effort does justify an engagement with the “ontological” conflation of “labour time.”
I wonder if the persuasiveness, intuitiveness (and I would cautiously add ‘relevance’) of interpretative categories in Capital are best read in light of comments made by Marx elsewhere?
“The tradition [and metaphysical assumptions] of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living.”
However, I would tend to argue that any talk of the ‘persuasiveness’ of the interpretative categories used by Marx relates more to the ‘deep structures’ (or ‘non-random forms of perception’) that coalesce around the concept of ‘time’ rather than ‘labour.’
In brief (and ever so crudely), I feel that the ontological understanding of ‘time,’ (something Marx inherits from Hegel? Something at least mentioned in the ‘will’!) is the limiting factor in ideas about ‘labour time.’ A limit that compels Marx down the futile path of trying to quantify socially averaged labour time (and I agree that he can be read backwards) and a limit that ensures that in his narrative the concept of ‘technology’ is always ‘coupled’ with the (temporal) concept of ‘progress.’
Oh surely they don’t weigh that heavily!
The question, I suppose, is what you mean by the “ontological understanding of ‘time'”. Personally – leaving Marx aside – I think the distinctive “structure” of time in the modern era (and the perceptions of this structure) is something that would need to be theorised. I (again personally) don’t think that we are dealing with a “mere” perception – I think a temporal pattern is being enacted in collective practice. I just tend to think that the pattern is not itself as “rigorous” as would be implied by a strictly quantitative interpretation of what Marx was trying to get at by the notion of socially average labour time – so, I think there are tendencies, for example, for technologies, forms of organisation, etc., to spread in dramatic, “snowballing” cascades – but a complex range of more aleatory (at least with reference to this kind of theory) factors determine how this unfolds, such that the general pattern is observable at a very general level and on a long historical scale, but with a large number of eddies and side currents running in tandem with this overarching trend.
I think there’s quite a lot of textual evidence in Capital that Marx is aware of what I’m calling eddies and side trends – which is what makes me wonder whether he does believe that there is something underneath that could be quantified, or whether this interpretation might be one of many unfortunate instances where people have interpreted Marx to be saying something that he is in fact criticising. It’s just that the main lines of interpretation here are, I think, sufficiently strong, that I’m not sure how confident I am in pushing an outlying reading of Marx in this particular respect – so I dither a bit. And, since I’ve been more interested in what can we pull from Marx (and many others) for contemporary theory than in Marx’s “intent”, I haven’t done the sort of work on Marx’s text that would be required to fight back against the weight of this particular tradition on the brains of the living…
The “dead weight of tradition” issue is interesting. I tend to read this in a Benjaminian sense: as a comment about the historically constituted potentials that the present bears within itself – potentials that, in alienated form, function more as forms of compulsion or constraint, than as potentials that could be developed into new forms of freedom.
The relationship to Hegel is also interesting – but I’m not sure how you read Hegel? Are you wondering whether Marx retains a sort of transhistorical notion of “progress”? The sort of narrative that seems to be reflected in his more generalising statements about human societies and how they come to be transformed? I think it’s unclear, by Capital, whether Marx understands himself to be unfolding just the latest example of how the development of technology has prepared the way for the revolutionisation of a form of social life, or whether he is doing something more historically specified – trying to argue more that, in spite of appearances, there is no “material” reason that our society can’t be transformed – while analysing the “appearances” that can disguise this contingency, and also analysing (although here, I think, in a more undeveloped way than he could have) the forms of subjectivity that point toward a different form of social life.
I’ll have to apologise – my laptop battery is inexplicably about to run out of power (should have another couple of hours in it – technology, you know… ;-P). I’ll post this, with apologies that it isn’t quite all I had intended to say, and I haven’t had a chance even to look over it…
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This is an excellent post and very helpful, thank you. Among other things, I like how you engage with people who reject Marx out of hand, my own impulse is to just reject them out of hand, which isn’t productive at all. I also like how your post stresses the ambivalence of technology in the present. That’s useful for criticizing actually existing technology, so to speak, and its uses but not rejecting technology as such. This impulse has inspired tiny left groups in at least three countries and languages – ZeroWork, Lavoro Zero, and TrabajoZero – to say that the positive use of technology should be to reduce labor time. I think Marx makes some remark about this as well in the Grundrisse, about what wealth might be after capitalism. If you don’t know his work, I find Harry Cleaver quite good on technology and on Marx on technology. I’ve also found the book CyberMarx helpful (despite the poor title) and this essay by Raniero Panzieri, “The Capitalist Use of Machinery.” http://www.geocities.com/cordobakaf/panzieri.html
Nate – Many thanks for this. Always happy to get recommendations for readings – my background is weirdly scattered (spread too thin across too many different types of writing), and so chances are generally good that I won’t have read something I should have!
I tend to read Marx as working a great deal with notions of ambivalence – it gives his work a very supple normative core, enabling it to provide a basis for interpreting movements as romantic, affirmative, utopian (in the sense of unrealisable), etc., by providing a way of slicing through aspects of capitalism, turning things around and asking, “Well, what else could we do with this?” – taking seriously the notion that things don’t have to remain in the state in which we’ve inherited them, but also providing a basis for understanding why emancipatory transformation might be so difficult, because the context itself makes it easy for the eye and the heart to be diverted and become confused…
Running this morning (this is my “horror day” teaching…) – just wanted to say thanks for the recommendations and comment.
You’re welcome, thanks for the great blog! I always feel a bit nervous in recommending things because I’m nervous about coming off as pedantic or condescending. Glad to know I didn’t. (Lump tells me to stop worrying.) I hope your teaching life calms down a bit, sounds hectic. Oh before I forget, I just skimmed your post (much I want to go back to on your blog and read when I get a chance) where you mentioned someone else’s post on Fichte, there’s a book by Tom Rockmore on Marx and Fichte that I remember liking, if you’re interested in that combo.
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