Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Reflections on Elson’s “Value Theory of Labour”, part 1

So, by popular demand, a follow up to the book-meme post, where I responded to Nate’s tag with a few sentences from Diane Elson’s “The Value Theory of Labour” from her edited volume (1979) Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism. This post wasn’t the first time someone has asked me to talk about my work in relation to Elson’s, so I promised to follow up on the short meme post with something longer soon. This is that something longer… ;-P

Before I get into Elson, I should mention the progress of the meme over at Now-Times – where my tag forced poor Alexei to have to translate a text in German, which also contained selections from Greek – I suppose, like all viruses, this one hits some people harder than others… Over at Grundlegung, Tom responded to the meme, but then rudely placed himself in quarantine and refused to share and share alike. I have patiently tried to explain that Tom has undertaken the commitment to infect others when he undertook the commitment to acknowledge the tag, but Tom, as always, stubbornly resists the implications of Brandom’s queen’s shilling argument. Tom: I have updated your score accordingly. Praxisblog promises “an appallingly long and obsessive response to that damn book meme”. I think I am afraid. The meme has hit massthink whilst Ryan/Aless is travelling – I’m certain we can all understand how inconvenient that is – he’ll respond in a more settled moment. I didn’t tag Gabriel Gottlieb over at Self and World, but the bug got to him anyway, and I’ll link his response here because I am still groaning from his title: “On the Very Idea of an Internet Meme”. Andrew over at Union Street tried to tag me, only to realise I’ve already been bitten – if you like, Andrew, you can consider this post a relapse, and consider that your second tag made me come down with a much worse case of this thing, forcing me to engage more deeply with the text than just quoting a few sentences…

Okay. Diane Elson. Note that I’m likely just to post notes on Elson’s piece here, rather than provide a worked out argument about how our positions intersect – since a few other folks hovering around have also read her, there should be some possibility for correcting anything I get too terribly wrong here…

Elson’s piece starts with an excellent question: what is Marx’s theory of value a theory of? The answer to this question is far from obvious, and major differences of interpretation of Marx’s work pivot on the issue.

Elson begins by outlining two common interpretations of the labour theory of value:

(1) The theory of value allows Marx to prove the existence of exploitation.

Elson associates this position with a transhistorical conception of the category of value – a conception that holds that surplus in all societies is based on value, but that in capitalism this is concealed – hence the need for a theory to reveal value (and human labour) as the basis for the surplus. Elson argues that Marx does not appear to have regarded value as a transhistorical category, and also that Marx’s concern was not to demonstrate that exploitation exists under capitalism, but rather to analyse the form of exploitation specific to capitalism. She argues, however, that this approach does at least keep the political charge of Marx’s theory at the forefront. (115-116)

(2) The theory of value allows Marx to explain prices.

Elson associates this approach with attempts to see Marx as a sort of critical culmination of classical political economy, proposing a theory with a similar object to that of Smith, Ricardo or Mill, which provides an explanation of equilibrium prices in a capitalist economy. Elson notes the (tacit or explicit) depoliticisation of the theory entailed by this reading – and also notes a tendency to hold the question of the determination of equilibrium prices to be so central that the category of value has come to be rejected, as arguments have been put forward that for why this category is inadequate to account for prices. (116-121)

She then opens a third possibility: that the object of the concept of value was never to theorise price – or, indeed, to account for “the origin or cause of anything” (121). She suggests that Marx’s concept of “determination” has been flattened into a notion of “cause” or “origin” in a way quite alien to Marx’s use of the term. (I agree with Elson on this – “determination” is one of a number of concepts that picks up very different analytical valences when lifted out of its Hegelian context and translated into the terrain of the applied social sciences – to the detriment of Marx’s analysis.) She therefore turns to an analysis of the object of Marx’s theory and the method of Marx’s analysis, as a necessary precursor to teasing out Marx’s relationship to Ricardo and to the questions that preoccupied classical political economy. (122-123)

Elson argues that the object of Marx’s theory was not the phenomena of exchange, but rather labour. In her words:

It is not a matter of seeking an explanation of why prices are what they are and finding it in labour. But rather of seeking an understanding of why labour takes the forms it does, and what the political consequences are. (123)

This analysis of the form of labour, moreover, is concerned with more than simply how labour is distributed within capitalism – a question that, for Elson, points back to the more traditional understanding of the labour theory of value. (124-128) It also points beyond the analysis of what Elson calls the “structure of production” – a concept Elson regards as too “deterministic” in a causal sense. (128-129) In Elson’s own words:

As several authors pointed out, Marx’s concept of determination is not ‘deterministic’… Although Marx stresses that determination can never be simply an exercise of individual wills, he also stresses that it is not independent of and completely exterior to the actions of individuals….

Distribution of social labour is not an adequate metaphor for this process of determination, because such determination always begins from some pre-given, fixed, determinate structure, which is placed outside the process of social determination. What is required is a conceptualisation of a process of social determination that proceeds from the indeterminate to the determinate; from the potential to the actual; from the formless to the formed. Capital is an attempt to provide just that. (129-130)

Elson notes that Marx’s formulations of this problematic, particularly prior to Capital, are often confusing and inconsistent – in part, she argues, because he was wrestling this problematic out of political economic texts that were concerned with something closer to a “labour theory of value”. Elson therefore centres her analysis on Capital, where she believes the object and method that are specific to Marx’s work are developed more clearly. (130)

Elson next offers the interesting suggestion that the readings of value theory she has already discussed are all guilty of what she calls a “misplaced concreteness” – a tendency to posit that certain “independent” variables are somehow already “given” in the process of production, while understanding the problem to be how to determine, based on those givens, certain other, “dependent” variables in the process of circulation. She argues:

It is simply taken for granted that any theory requires separable determining factors, discretely distinct from what they are supposed to determine….

This approach poses the relation of determination as an effect of some already given, discretely distinct elements or factors on some other, quite separate, element or factors, whose general form is given, but whose position within a possible range is not, using what Georges-cu-Roegen calls ‘arithmomorphic concepts’. Essentially a rationalist method, it assumes that the phenomena of the material world are like the symbols of arithmetic and formal logic, separate and self-bounded and relate to each other in the same way. This is not Marx’s method; his theory of value is not constructed on rationalist lines. (131)

“Arithmomorphic concepts” may become my new favourite term. I agree with Elson on this – I’ve been drawing attention to a similar problem by tugging on the issue of what Marx means when he calls Capital a “scientific” work – a phrase that is often misinterpreted in analogous ways to the concept of “determination” that Elson focusses on here. Just as Marx’s “science” is not an instrumental or positivist exercise, but an exercise in reconstructing a network of relationally-determined concepts, his notion of “determination” is intended to situate his categories within the network of relationships within which they acquire their present-day meaning: the concept of “determination” operative in his work is not a causal concept in an applied social science sense of the term.

Back to Elson: She argues that this presupposition – of givens strictly separated from dependent variables – operates even in some apparently unlikely places, such as in Althusser’s concept of “structural causality”, and in approaches that break with concepts of structure, only to try to recover “conditions of existence” purported to lie behind structure. (131) She then uses Ollman, as well as her own examination of Marx’s chemical metaphors and his complex discussion of the relationship between value, exchange-value, and labour time, to illustrate the ways in which Marx’s categories include within themselves aspects of the reality they are described as “determining” – undermining an interpretation that would see them in terms of independent-dependent variable relationships. (132-135)

She uses this analysis to argue that Capital, while viewing labour-time and price as distinct, does not understand the relationship between the two as that of an independent to a dependent variable. Elson argues:

The social necessity of labour in a capitalist economy cannot be determined independent of the price form: hence values cannot be calculated or observed independently of prices. (136)

Thinking back for a moment to the argument I’ve been making on the blog and in the thesis about Marx’s appropriation of Hegel: one of the things I’ve suggested that Marx draws from Hegel, is a peculiar argument about the relation of “essence” and “appearance”. Hegel criticises approaches that separate essence and appearance into two separate substances or worlds, and then try to answer the question of how these separate substances are related to one another. Essence and appearance are intrinsically related, for Hegel: they are mutually interpenetrating, mutually generative, sharing the same substance, but also distinct from one another. Marx takes this sort of argument over into Capital, with value presented as a kind of “social essence” generated in and through the flux and apparent lawlessness of the appearance of exchange (the argument is a bit more complex than this, as exchange isn’t the only site of “flux” – I’ll leave this point aside for now). In Marx’s argument, this social “essence” does not exist as some separate substance that sits outside exchange, determining the movement of “appearances” in the form of prices. Instead, value is something that emerges in and through that flux – a pattern or regularity that the flux itself generates, in and through its apparent random walk. Within this framework, it doesn’t make sense to talk about “value” as if it exerts a casual force on exchange as the dependent variable. Value is rather itself an “effect”, a “result”, intrinsically bound together with the flux through which it becomes manifest as a non-random pattern emergent over time. This pattern “determines” the flux, not in a casual sense, but as a description of the qualitative attributes of one of the aspects of, in this case, an overarching process in which both the “law” of value and the “flux” of exchange are moments.

I’m not suggesting here that Elson is making exactly the same argument, or would agree with how I’m am (somewhat clumsily) expressing the point here – I’m just trying to link her argument back to the ways I’ve expressed similar points recently on the blog. Elson, for her part, goes on from the quote above into a (to be honest, somewhat confusing to me – but that’s probably because I’m used to making this argument via Hegel’s essence/appearance distinction) discussion of “immanent measures”. Her point is to draw attention to what I usually call the “counterfactual” dimension of value-determining labour: the fact that this labour bears no relationship to empirically-observable inputs of labour time in production. She uses this to segue into an argument that money, not labour-time, serves as the social standard of measurement – and that labour-time and money are not understood as discrete variables whose proportional relationship to one another must be discovered, but rather as different forms assumed by a continuous a social process. (136-139)

Elson next asks whether she has perhaps demonstrated that Marx’s argument is incoherent, circular, or serves no purpose. If the argument can’t explain causation or origin in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, what possible purpose could the argument serve? (139)

To address this question, she moves to an argument about dialectical materialism – about Marx’s theory as theory of immanent historical transformation through which social forms dissolve themselves and change into new forms, via internal social dynamics with no external cause. In Elson’s read, this approach does not involve making an argument about how earlier social forms led to later ones: even if the raw materials for a later social form derive from an earlier form, it is not this story of historical origin that is important for grasping a social form – this would entail adopting a standpoint outside a social form, to grasp that social form – an approach that Elson argues falls back into the independent-dependent variable trap. Instead, social forms must be understood with reference to their own immanent logic – and uncovering how that logic suspends within itself contradictory moments or potentials that determine that social form as transient and transformable. (139-142)

Elson argues that it is these contradictory moments that Marx describes as “determinants” – and that this description does not imply that the “determinant” somehow sits outside the social form, causing that social form to unfold in a particular way. Instead, “determinants” are moments of a complex social form, isolated out in Marx’s analysis and considered in abstraction from one another, in order better to draw attention to the conflictual potentials embodied in the society as a whole. The analysis does not stop with this process of isolation and abstraction, but then moves on to resubmerge the isolated moments back into the social process, which we can now grasp differently, as a unity that presupposes all the conflictual moments that have been analysed in isolation. Elson’s description here again echoes points I have been making through my analysis of Hegel’s influence on Marx:

These different, counter-posed aspects are often referred to be Marx as ‘determinants’ or ‘determinations’ (just as the opposed movements whose resultant is the ellipse are referred to as ‘determinants’). But that does not mean that the form is produced or caused by the ‘determination’ or ‘determinants’ acting in some autonomous way… The point is that the determinants are not independent variables, but are simply aspects, one-sided abstractions singled out as a way of analysing the form.

The analysis of a form into its determinants is, however, only the first phase of the investigation. After this phase of individuation of a moment from the historical process, and dissection of the tendencies or aspects counterposed in it, comes the phase of synthesis, of reconstitution of the appearance of the form, and of re-immersing it in process… This second phase does not simply take us back where we began, but beyond it, because it enables us to understand our starting point in a different light, as predicated on other aspects of a continuous material process. It suggests new abstractions which need to be made from a different angle, in order to capture more of the process. The phase of synthesis brings us back to continuities which the phase of analysis has deliberately severed. The whole method moves in an ever-widening spiral, taking account of more and more aspects of the historical process from which the starting point was individuated and detached. (142-143)

This is a very nice description of Marx’s method in Capital. From my point of view, it omits some details that begin to explain the order in which Marx introduces this categories – but this is a sort of trivial point to make, in response to a brief discussion that has other argumentative targets in view. I like very much the way Elson emphasises Marx’s practice of taking something that presents itself as a unified object, and then breaking that object into aspects, and teasing out the often conflictual dimensions of each aspect – this point is quite central to how I read Marx. I’m less happy with the characterisation of this method in terms of a back-and-forth movement from analysis to synthesis, although these are terms that Marx himself occasionally uses in discussion of his work, and my unease is more a matter of concern that these terms – much like “determination” – have more common associations that don’t quite capture what Marx does. I like the way that Elson emphasises how Marx’s method makes it possible to transform our understanding of categories – although I would like to supplement this with a discussion of how the categories are then introduced based on the order required to tease out the relationships that connect them to one another, to reveal how categories presuppose one another, would also open up an argument about how our understanding of earlier categories comes to be transformed, not simply by Marx’s analysis of the moments of those categories, but by the unfolding of the later categories as well. Again, though, I don’t understand this as something required for what Elson is trying to achieve in this article.

Elson concludes this pivotal section by asking what form of knowledge we acquire through this method. Her answer:

It cannot give a Cartesian Absolute Knowledge of the world, its status as true knowledge validated by some epistemological principle. Rather it is based upon a rejection of that aspiration as a form of idealism…. It is taken for granted, in this method, that the world has a material existence outside our attempts to understand it; and that any category we use to cut up the continuum of the material world can only capture a partial knowledge, a particular aspect seen from a certain vantage point. (143)

Elson uses this point to argue that world cannot be appropriated fully in thought; she suggests, however, that it could perhaps be fully appropriated in practice (143) – a position I’m not sure Marx would share, as practice also has its situatedness, its form: I’m not sure that appropriation of the world can be “completed”, whether in thought or in practice… She then moves to a criticism specifically of “capital logic” approaches, on the grounds that such approaches confuse capital – which she takes to be a category of analysis – with an entity, existent in the world in some form. She argues that this move falls into an:

illusion, taking capital not as a one-sided abstraction, a category of analysis, but as an entity; and understanding the historical process of form determination as the product of the self-development of this entity. (144)

My reaction to this comment depends on what Elson means by certain key terms. As phrased, this comment strangely sounds to me a bit like a reintroduction of a sort of essence/appearance distinction of which Elson is critical in other moments of her account: the comment seems to position our “thoughts” about an object, as subsisting outside that object – and also to position our thoughts as, in Hegelian terms, “inessential” in relation to their object, which is constructed as separate from themselves. I take Marx instead to be making a practice-theoretic argument about the generation of categories of thought – such that what we “think” is what, in some dimension of social practice, we “do”. I take his arguments about value, abstract labour, capital, and similar “supersensible” categories to be Durkheimian – to be arguments that we are enacting such things as social entities by behaving as though such entities exist in our collective practice. This doesn’t mean that such entities exist somehow outside our practice, “determining” that practice in a causal sense – and I take it that it is this move of which Elson is critical, as this sort of move is both idealist and tends to be undermining of attempts to conceptualise agency. I understand the concern motivating her critical comments here. As expressed, however, these comments treat capital as more “illusory” than I think Marx takes it to be: capital is something we do, something we create – and also something we can undo, something we don’t need to create. It is a social – not solely a conceptual – reality in the present time; it needn’t be either a social or conceptual reality in the future.

I’m only about halfway through Elson’s chapter at this point – from here, having laid a solid foundation, Elson jumps into the textual and argumentative specifics of her reading of the labour theory of value. I think I’ll pause here for tonight – it’s getting late, and I have an early start tomorrow. Hopefully I can find time to comment on the remainder of the piece soon. [Note: part two here.]

7 responses to “Reflections on Elson’s “Value Theory of Labour”, part 1

  1. Pingback: » Reflections on Elson’s “Value Theory of Labour”, part 2

  2. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: A Way of Visualising Abstract Labour and Value

  3. Pingback: Working Definition of Capitalism « Praxis

  4. kapitalism101 January 4, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Hello. Thanks for the post on Elson. I have been wanting to read this Elson work but it is out of print. I think some noble soul needs to scan it into their computer and liberate it by posting it on onebigtorrent or scribd or their own site….. know anyone who might be able to do this?

  5. N Pepperell January 4, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    The Elson piece above is actually (comparatively) brief – it’s a chapter in a collection. I don’t own the book it’s in, but I’m happy to scan and mail it to you – it will probably take a few weeks, though, as I’m not in range of the relevant library right now.

  6. Bill Kerr May 19, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    I’m interested in the Elson original too, so if you do scan it then please send me a copy too. I came across a reference to it in David Harvey’s book “Limits to Capital” and found your blog entry when I searched.

  7. JoSorel July 6, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    May be you guys already know (Im writing after 2 yrs of this thread), but still, since I just find it on Google search, the entire book seems to be here:

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