I've been thinking about the labor theory of value for the past year or so, primarily in a set of non-academic contexts. This has taken a couple of forms, a number of attempts to work through the first volume of Capital, but I've also been thinking about the crude and practical versions of the labor theory of value contained in Marx's more condensed pamphlets, Wage-Labor and Capital and Value, Price, and Profit, along with the versions of the concept that occur in a variety of radical labor and marxist settings. This latter version has a different audience in mind, and draws on different methods to conceptualize this. If we turn to the early chapters of Capital, we see a Marx who is deeply engaged with traditions of political economy along with the dialectical methodology of Hegel. In effect, Marx explores the categories of political economy to expose its gaps and lacunae, to expose the forms of exploitation contained within it, and to reveal its non-synthetic dialectical structure. Obviously, there has been some substantial examinations of this work, ranging from Althusser's collective and incomplete Reading Capital project, Harry Cleaver's Reading Capital Politically, which focuses exclusively on Chapter One of the first volume, and a variety of books by David Harvey. (You can see his lectures on the text here.)
But when turn to the more polemical version contained in a variety of pamphlets, popular education classes, and informal conversations, we find a very different version of the concept of the labor theory of value. Perhaps Marx's two pamphlets are the best place to see the shift in conceptualization. Rather than operating within the dense and theoretical debates, Marx's work in Wage-Labor and Capital, opens with a simple mathematical explanation of exploitation, defining terms for the audience, quickly working towards exposing the exploitative nature of the system that the text's working class audience lives within. The narrative starts from a definition of the wage, moving into a conversation about the commodity, how wages are set, into the nature of capital, and eventually ending in a conversation about the antagonistic relationship between labor and capital, as well as the effect of inter-capitalist rivalries. The forms of exploitation dealt with in the earlier text, are further dealt with in Value, Price, and Profit in simple arithmetic terms. When compared to the fluidity of the earlier system, we are operating in a system where the conceptual terms are considerably more stable, and just as significantly, a system that is far more familiar for those who have not spent much time engaging with Marxist theory. It stabilizes the system, and re-centers the discussion upon the figure of the worker.
There has obviously been quite a bit of criticism of this all-too familiar form of Marxism. We can find it in the critiques of Marxism presented by the philosophers Jean Baudrillard and Jean Francois Lyotard, as well as in critical Marxist engagements by Moishe Postone and many others. We have been told that this understanding of social structures is far too simplistic, mechanistic, and reduces the world to a sort of labor metaphysics. Over the years of my own writing on the subject, I've largely followed the second path, demanding that we engage in the far more complex and nuanced version of capitalist regime's of accumulation contained in Capital and Grundrisse. More significantly, these crude and mechanistic versions of historical materialism have led to a number of theoretical and practical mistakes, notably forms of economism that ignore the complex interactions of the capitalist world system, and transform the dense formation of institutions contained in the superstructure into a mere effect of the economic forms of the base. Perhaps most significantly, these cruder forms of Marxian thought have had the habit of stabilizing the categories of analysis that Marx is attacking, accepting homo oeconimicus as a transhistorical figure, and accepting the mystifying concepts of labor that are the precise focus of Marx's critique. We might think of this process as a sort of transformation of Marx into ideology, or to state it more clearly, a process of translating Marx's critique into terms that would be familiar to a set of common sense understandings of the world.
Despite those significant concerns, it strikes me that we have lost something very significant with the loss of this form of common sense, though. For all the problems contained in these crude forms of Marxism, its version of the labor theory of value contains a very simple and powerful argument, stating that capitalism operates through exploitation. The very simple mathematical formulas point allow workers to recognize that a percentage of each day of work is stolen by the capitalist for his own use. Surplus value is mechanically transformed into currency and hours, which concretely measure the exploitation of the work day. Without a doubt, we are operating within the homogeneous empty time of capital, operating within a logic of equivalence that is critiqued in the more theoretical works of Marx, but it also allows for a powerful challenge to the ideological structures of capital. It reverses the familiar narrative, shifting the role of demiurgic creator from the crafty entrepreneur to the vast collectivities of labor, marking the former figure as a thief and perhaps even a tyrant. It simultaneously allows for reformist demands around wages, working conditions and benefits, and begins to gesture towards the need to destroy this system altogether. Without this simple recognition, it is infinitely easier to accept the logic of the domination of capital, to accept the notion that when the boss purchases your labor power he has the right to control your every action while you're on the clock.
I think it's the acceptance of that last principle that has created so much resentment among non-unionized workers for the remaining unionized sections of labor. After all, for all the substantial problems with the practices of these organizations, there is an implicit rejection of the tyranny of the boss contained in the collective bargaining process, along with the existence of forms of representation in the workplace itself. To be sure, these forms of social contract continue to naturalize the forms of exploitation contained in the logic of capital, but they demand a say in the social arrangements of the workplace, and continue to hold onto a trace of the recognition of exploitation of the wage labor form. Without slipping into the dangerous reductive logic of Walter Benn Michaels among others, our ability to challenge the current state of things is deeply dependent on being able to reestablish the ethical critique contained in this basic notion of value, which argues that value is produced by labor, and that is stolen in the form of surplus value by capital. Getting to that point is going to be difficult, but that is perhaps something for another conversation.....