Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 5 February 2021



Marx’s labour theory of value relies on the notion of socially necessary labour time. And we have seen that this category cannot be quantified, so that the valuations behind all private exchanges in capitalism must be politically founded, regulated, organized. But how can they be so? How is this possible? Marxism is silent on this, because it relies ultimately on some form of quantification of “socially necessary labour time” or labour power – which is why, although it is “social”, for Marx labour time must be “(objectively) necessary” rather than just “politically coercive”. The objection and circularity of the theory is patently clear: if labour power is the creature of coercion, how can it be objective and therefore quantifiable or measurable? And if it is not quantifiable, then how can capitalist exchanges and the calculation of profit function?

Marxist theory relies at this juncture on a subtle but fundamental shift: - a shift from a material, substantial notion of Value based on labour-time, to one that relies on the fetishism of commodities. It is by turning concrete labour into abstract labour that capitalism operated the quantification of labour power: by turning human living activity into a commodity that can be purchased “on the market” according to supply and demand capital manages to give a price to labour power. The flaw in the argument is obvious: supply and demand can tell us the price of a specific commodity; but it cannot tell us “what” this “price” represents! A relative price (one apple is worth two pears) will not do because it does not tell us what a banana is worth in units of value common to all commodities – in terms of “money” measured in value units.

This is why Marxists have always referred to labour power as abstract labour, that is, as human activity abstracted into units of time employed in the performance of a productive task “on average”. Because of the clear difficulty involved in this calculation, given that human activities are so multifarious and diverse and heterogeneous, Marxists then surreptitiously revert to the subterfuge that the abstraction of human living labour is achieved through the commodification of production, through the reduction of human production to a series of market-priced equivalent exchanges that “crystallize” human activity and its products into a relationship between “things”, between commodities – hence, “the fetishism of commodities”. It is the violence involved in the two-pronged coercion of human living labour, first by means of its alienation from the means of production, and second through the parcelization of “social labour” into “individual labours”, - it is through this violence that living labour can be abstracted or objectified into a quantifiable commodity like labour power measurable in units of chronological time. Thus, at the individual level, capital alienates living labour by separating it from the means of production, by expropriating workers. And at the social level, capital then turns the essential sociality of human activity – its being social labour – into individual parcels of abstract labour, into labour power. It is this double operation, individual alienation and social segmentation that allow the fetishization of living labour and of its products, what now become “commodities”.

For Marx and Marxists there are therefore two aspects to Value or exchange value: the first is that it is something quantifiable and measurable – objective in more than just a social sense, because otherwise the measurement would have to occur politically and institutionally, not “economically”, that is, “scientifically”; and the second is that for this objectification of Value to occur so that exchange values can be measured in common units of Value, concrete labour has to be fetishized into abstract labour. It is this second aspect, the commodification of living labour, its fetishization as a commodity, that turns it into abstract labour and socially necessary labour time from which exchange values derive a common measure as Value. At this precise point, Marxists argue, Value becomes a measure common to all exchange values, to all commodities. In other words, it is the fetishization of living labour, the reduction of concrete human living labour to abstract labour power that allows the generalization of commodity exchange. But then, when asked how this fetishization is possible, Marxists reply that it is the generalization of commodity exchange that allows the fetishization of concrete living labour into abstract labour power! Here, the vicious circle is stunningly and disastrously pellucid!

The fatal error of this type of theory is to mistake hypostatization with objectification, psychology with economics (or, more correctly, with economics as concentrated politics). The fact that capitalist social relations of production manage to turn political coercion into psychological mystification or fetishism of commodities through the generalization of exchange by monetary means cannot possibly account for the political reality that this purely mental process of mystification or hypostatization or reification or fetishism or mass hypnosis can lead to the effective co-ordination of productive activity such that the society of capital is reproduced on an expanded scale. Were it otherwise, all it would take to dismantle capitalism would be a collective form of psychoanalytic treatment or other kind of “enlightenment” to free us from the “necessary illusion” (Lukacs) or the “objective appearance” (Marx) of the commodity form! Just as illusions cannot be necessary and appearances cannot be objective, so necessity cannot be illusory and objectivity cannot be apparent! To the extent that alienation (intended in its psychological sense) and fetishism are illusions, then they should be easily dispelled by means of some kind of “consciousness-raising” activity. Yet if they truly are necessary and objective, then it will never be possible for us to rid ourselves of them! Neither of these options are realistic.

Those Marxists who pursue this account of how Value becomes effectual in capitalism base the psychological illusion of fetishism on the objective coercive reality of alienation, that is, on the forced separation of workers from the means of production and from the sociality of the labour process. Yet neither alienation nor segmentation are characteristics unique to capitalism: Max Weber(in Parliament und Regierung) insisted on the fact that the “separation” (Trennung) of workers or soldiers or indeed bureaucrats from their “means and objects of production” by their masters or commanders or lords has been a constant in human history. Clearly, therefore, neither the separation of workers from the means of production nor the remuneration of social labour as individual labours can be the differentia specifica of capitalism. Nor indeed can mental notions such as alienation and fetishism be the reason for its reproduction. If the operative medium for generalized exchange in capitalism is money – as a unit of account, as a medium of exchange, and as a store of value -, this can occur if and only if the use of money goes through a complex series of institutional processes centred and organized politically around the wage relation – that is, on real relations of force between capitalists and workers. In other words, alienation and fetishism are psychological descriptions, epithets, for what are real relations of power underlying the wage relation in its three characteristics that we described earlier: (a) the formal freedom of living labour or labour force, (b) the remuneration of social labour as individual labours, and (c) the extension of the wage relation to growing working populations. Each of these three conditions depend on sheer political coercion and violence, not on mental categories describing the mystification of social reality such as “fetishism” – although we ought to exclude “alienation” to the extent that it refers to (a) above, that is, the creation of formally free living labour or labour force.


There are two more riders to the Marxian labour theory of value. The first is that given the calculability of “socially necessary labour time”, it then becomes possible theoretically to divide or parcelize this labour time into individual labour times when the total social product or aggregate Value is considered. In that case, the notion of “social labour” evaporates or is obfuscated: Marx himself falls into this trap when he opines that “the capitalist does not pay” for the co-operation of workers. But it is the very notion of socially necessary labour time that nullifies any consideration of social labour! The capitalist cannot pay for social labour because the political recognition of social labour would spell the end of capitalism! Unless we fall back on the idea that socially necessary labour time is appropriate only for the capitalist mode of production, which effectively amounts to claiming that it is a form of political coercion specific to capitalism and applied and enforced through specific capitalist institutions.

The second rider is that socially necessary labour time narrows our critical focus to the distribution of the social product, even admitting the continued applicability of “social labour”. The disastrous outcome is that this focus on quantifiable socially necessary labour time and “the theft of labour time” from workers is that no attention whatsoever is paid to the reality that the capitalist class commands and dictates over not just labour power, but also and above all else over “what” is produced and how and when – and therefore also what is consumed! As we shall see soon, these questions are by far the most essential basis for political insurgency against the dictatorship of capital; yet these are precisely the questions that the notion of “socially necessary labour time” pushes to the wayside and out of consideration!

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