Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Labour Theory of Value and Animal Labour

Marx’s labour theory of value (LTV) in Volume 1 of Capital states that the exchange value of commodities is fundamentally caused by socially necessary labour time (SNLT). SNLT is supposed to be a cause of real world individual exchange values and prices. It is well known that there is a severe and blatant contradiction between volume 1 (1867) and volume 3 of Capital (1894). By volume 3 of Capital, Marx has retreated into a position on the relation between labour value and price where it only holds in a grossly unrealistic state where the profit rate is equalised and individual prices above or below labour values will cancel each other out in the aggregate to make the prices-equal-value equation hold.

But my comments below cut much deeper than complaints about the internally inconsistent and contradictory aspects of Marx’s work: they are a fundamental critique of the very conceptual coherence of Marx’s LTV and the idea of human SNLT.

In what follows, let us assume that the LTV is meant to be an empirical proposition and not some analytic statement (where it would true by definition, tautologous and empirically empty).

If the LTV is asserted as an empirical proposition, it seeks to explain empirically how the labour value in commodities is created.

I have already pointed to a fundamental problem identified by Piero Sraffa:
“There appears to be no objective difference between the labour of a wage earner and that of a slave; of a slave and of a horse; of a horse and of a machine, of a machine and of an element of nature (?this does not eat). It is a purely mystical conception that attributes to human labour a special gift of determining value. Does the capitalist entrepreneur, who is the real ‘subject’ of valuation and exchange, make a great difference whether he employs men or animals? Does the slave-owner?” (Sraffa, unpublished note, D3/12/9: 89, quoted in Kurz and Salvadori 2010: 199).
The fact is, as Sraffa notes, labour power in production is not limited to human beings: historically and to this day, animal labour was, and still is in developing nations, a fundamentally important source of labour power.

if Marx’s abstract socially-necessary labour time (SNLT) units were meaningful measures of every type of heterogeneous, concrete human labour, then many types of the labour performed by animals ought to be measurable in terms of SNLT units too, especially when human labour can be substituted for animal labour (e.g., horse mills could be replaced with mills where humans do the work, ploughs can be pulled by humans, and so could carts or carriages).

Why does a coherent, empirically grounded theory of labour value exclude animals? This is exactly the point that Piero Sraffa is raising in his criticisms of the labour theory of value.

And there many other questions too.

Marxists might complain that animals do not sell their labour and are owned by humans and are a type of capital good. But so what?

We could easily imagine a counterfactual situation in which large numbers of people in industrial economies do not sell their labour, are enslaved and worked to death to produce commodities, and treated as capital goods. Would the commodities produced by slave labour cease to have a SNLT value? If slave labour does still have a SNLT value, then it follows that even if people receive no wages and are owned as slaves, then this doesn’t change the fact that they produce labour value in commodities.

But we can say the same thing about animals: animals receive no wages either, so why does their labour not count as SNLT?

One could go on to argue that animals can’t speak or spend money, but one could easily imagine counterfactual situations in which humans are made to work without spending money or or never taught natural human language. Would their labour cease to create SNLT?

Finally, it is no good for Marxists to fall back on an analytic definition of the LTV, where it is just true by definition. I have no reason to accept an analytic definition I think is incoherent and not empirically relevant.

We can see here how the LTV has severe conceptual problems from the very beginning.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Kurz, Heinz D. and Neri Salvadori. 2010. “Sraffa and the Labour Theory of Value: A Few Observations,” in John Vint et al. (eds.), Economic Theory and Economic Thought: Essays in Honour of Ian Steedman. Routledge, London and New York. 189–215.

14 comments:

  1. Former Neo LiberalApril 1, 2015 at 10:59 AM

    "Does the capitalist entrepreneur, who is the real ‘subject’ of valuation and exchange, make a great difference whether he employs men or animals? "

    Sraffa should be (and actually was if you bother to take in ideas rather than trawl for anything that whiffs of a critique of the LTV) aware that a capitalist cannot employ an animal without also having to employ another man to control the animal! For animals, unlike the human beings, do not clock in each day, switch on their own computer and start merrily typing away (after making a cuppa of course). They need help! So I think for the capitalist it makes a hell of a difference.

    Which is why I put it to you that animals are an instrument of labour.

    Sraffa knew all this and I in no way wish to infer that Sraffa was an idiot, because he was far greater than is being implied by Lord K.

    As you try to ridicule Marx you actually ridicule Sraffa.

    That would be like Johnny Ball trying to ridicule Newton but ridiculing Einstein!

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    1. "Which is why I put it to you that animals are an instrument of labour."

      Fine. Then you're a major idiot for trying to come on this blog and defend the classical LTV -- when your own admission here entails that the LTV needs massive revision and reworking.

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    2. Oh, and I think Sraffa's actual neo-Ricardian theory is flawed, so I really couldn't care less about claims of "ridiculing".

      I take any argument on its validity and soundness -- no matter who makes it, whether it's Marxists, Post Keynesians, neoclassicals, Austrians, etc.

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    3. Former Neo LiberalApril 1, 2015 at 11:49 AM

      I am simply defending the LTV from your ill thought out arguments. What you do is very unedifying actually.

      It doesn’t make sense to say I am an idiot for wanting to rework the LTV and at the same time defending it from criticism. A major part of the process of developing and reworking theory is precisely to engage with criticism – good or bad!

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    4. OK. So you wish to radically "rework" the LTV? So shouldn't you have said upfront something like: "oh, I do not support the LTV in its classical Marxist form"

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  2. Already answered. See here:

    [Animal labor] can be [accounted in terms of SNLT], though, quite easily, the same way as any machine used over multiple production cycles. That is, over a machine's life it transfers its full value, depreciated over time, plus the value of upkeep. And the value of an input, as I noted earlier, is its price at the time of acquisition, adjusted for inflation if depreciated over a long period.

    So, an ox pulling a plow would be evaluated on a business's books in the same as a tractor, with food and vet bills instead of gas and mechanic bills.


    As for specific parts of this post:

    The fact is, as Sraffa notes, labour power in production is not limited to human beings: historically and to this day, animal labour was, and still is in developing nations, a fundamentally important source of labour power.

    No they are not; "labor-power" has a very specific meaning. You need to understand the theory before you criticize it.

    Marxists might complain that animals do not sell their labour and are owned by humans and are a type of capital good. But so what?

    Yeah, so what? The ultimate rejoinder.

    "But that's wrong."
    "I don't care."

    We could easily imagine a counterfactual situation in which large numbers of people in industrial economies do not sell their labour, are enslaved and worked to death to produce commodities, and treated as capital goods. Would the commodities produced by slave labour cease to have a SNLT value?

    I don't know if you're aware of this, but the horror of slavery was that people were treated as machines, or animals -- as subhuman, basically. In other words, in a Southern plantation owner's accounts, slaves are not accounted for as employees with wages, but capital goods with a purchase price and upkeep costs:

    "The slave industry consisted of two types of firms. One owned or rented the capital goods (slaves) and used them as factors of production to produce a marketable commodity (labor services) or combined them with other factors to produce marketable commodities (cotton, railroad services, gold, etc.). The other owned those capital goods (female slaves) which were used to produce new capital goods (slaves). Some firms, usually plantations, engaged in all three, producing labor services, agricultural products, and new slaves."

    Slaves did not participate in production as free laborers capable of quitting and finding another boss, they did not get to bargain for their wage, etc. They enter (or more accurately are entered) into a definite relation that differs from wage-labor.

    To a capitalist, it's the equivalent of stumbling on extremely advanced technology that produces gads of output with relatively little employed labor input (i.e., field bosses and the like -- not zero, as you seem to imply). Hence why it kept prices low, and enabled slaveowners to effectively leech flows of value from producers who actually employed wage labor, elsewhere.

    I'll give you a moment to be horrified (as well you should be), before reminding you that the analysis of Capital is conducted from the point of view of capital (with reference to its accounts), and not of Marx, himself a staunch abolitionist who congratulated Lincoln in written correspondence. Don't shoot the whistleblower for exposing the crime -- not that any thinking person needs value theory to explain exactly what's wrong with slavery. In fact, it would be grossly offensive to minimize the disgusting historical blight of slavery by framing it as merely wage labor, however extremely undercompensated.

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    1. (1) "No they are not; "labor-power" has a very specific meaning. You need to understand the theory before you criticize it."

      That is no answer. You just want to retreat into an analytic definition of labor-power and refuse to acknowledge that there is no reason for your critics to accept your definiton -- let alone your LTV -- if they find it incomplete and conceptually dubious and plainly not useful as an coherent economic concept.

      (2) "I don't know if you're aware of this, but the horror of slavery was that people were treated as machines, or animals -- as subhuman, basically., etc, etc."

      OK, Hedlund. I've been extremely patient with you. You actually accuse me of not understanding the horrors of slavery? Seriously? You think I am minimizng "the disgusting historical blight of slavery"?

      This is the point when your just f*cking insulting me and really showing when confronted with a deep conceptual problem with the LTV, all you can do is throw up straw man arguments.

      However, the fact is I am a patient and reasonable guy. I'll give you a chance, the benefit of the doubt: withdraw that remark and apologise for it.

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    2. That is no answer. You just want to retreat into an analytic definition of labor-power and refuse to acknowledge that there is no reason for your critics to accept your definiton -- let alone your LTV -- if they find it incomplete and conceptually dubious and plainly not useful as an coherent economic concept.

      It is an answer. If it's "just" an analytic definition, then you should have no trouble grasping it and using it appropriately. All sciences must define their terms.

      Here, I'll lend a hand: Labor-power (the value of reproducing the worker's ability to work from day to day) is not the same thing as labor (the actual trans-historical value-creating activity itself, consisting of humanity's metabolism with nature to serve its own needs), and this is not just some nitpick, but *the* crucial distinction that enabled Marx to succeed where Ricardo failed at determining the origin of profits under equal exchange.

      I already told you I don't care if my critics like this or that definition. We can stick any old word to the concepts as we like, so long as we're coherent about their referents.

      OK, Hedlund. I've been extremely patient with you. You actually accuse me of not understanding the horrors of slavery? Seriously? You think I am minimizng "the disgusting historical blight of slavery"?

      Alright, mea culpa there. The fact is that I've actually encountered a number of people in my years of debate who have taken the "capital's account" view as some sign that Marx viewed people suffering slavery as inhuman. Given that there have already been a number of uncharitable readings tendered, I assumed (mistakenly) that you might take that tack as well, so I preemptively responded to it.

      I was mistaken to do so, and accordingly I retract my flip remark and apologize.

      showing when confronted with a deep conceptual problem with the LTV

      ...And I understand your frustration, but this just isn't so. I'm still waiting to see a deep conceptual problem that doesn't stem from an easily identified misunderstanding. You kind of shoot from the hip on this subject, and I'm encouraging you to make sure you've sighted and confirmed your target first.

      You may think me an ideologue for defending this theory so persistently. In fact, I am quite the opposite; I desperately wish for it to be false, in fact. If Marx was wrong, then that's quite a burden lifted, as capitalism might indeed be then shown to be globally tractable with just the right combination of policies. It'd mean we're living in a much better world and have a much more manageable task ahead of us than I've been supposing. Who wouldn't wish for that?

      However, if all critiques of the theory prove specious or ill-informed, then referring to any of them as "refutations" would be little more than wishful thinking. Someone commited to the truth can't well settle for that. I'm sure you understand this.

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    3. Quick clarification, as I was in a rush when I wrote that last comment: labor-power is technically defined as the capacity to perform labor for a given time. The parenthetical bit I provided is how it is valued, but not strictly its definition.

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    4. In your comment in the previous post, all you say is that animals are treated as capital goods. That doesn't answer the question of why their labour should not count towards labour value.

      And your second point appears to be: "Labor-power" only means of the labour of a free human being who rents labour to capitalists, by definition.

      I could formulate a rival theory with the analytic definition: "abstract human and animal labour is the sole source of commodity labour value". Then found a whole theory on it. How do you prove my theory isn't as good as yours?

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    5. That doesn't answer the question of why their labour should not count towards labour value.

      Well, now that we've admitted animals and machines into the same category, the question has been generalized to "why doesn't capital generate value?" (Note: I'll spare the standard thought experiments about machines that require no labor time to produce output, as I trust everyone can ponder that out on their own.)

      It's understandable to me that, to your perspective, I'm presenting basically a weird accounting system that seemingly arbitrarily privileges one input over others. Insofar as there's something overlooked in that description, it is the fact that the object of investigation here is, once again, a social relation. This isn't just this airy-fairy term; owner and worker enter into a definite correspondence that distinguishes itself from the correspondence a person (even an owner) has with other social actors, or with objects. A capitalist must enter into a particular relation to pursue production, and then must receive social validation in the form of realization in order to continue the venture. Recognition factors into every stage of the process of reproduction.

      And what distinguishes the different relations mentioned above? For one thing, unlike capital, a wage laborer can say "no." The dynamics of class struggle and social control could not be more different from those of use — as with an object, or a living being over which one has absolute authority to physically coerce or even destroy. Further: Capitalists have to pay wages. Believe it or not, that detail is enormously important. Marx usually evaluates value in money terms for a reason.

      And it's here that you can see why "variable capital" becomes the source of surplus value via the distinction, and the difference, between labor and labor-power. No such distinction exists for the means of production, due to the aforementioned gap between a human social relation (the wage form) and a human-object relation (the use of a machine). Capital is wholly subject to the will of its user; but controlling the mass of social labor in society, in the absence of slavery, requires a system of social recognition.

      And the rest is a matter, as I've said, of accounting. Remember: in this system, "value" is value to capital. Thus, in effect, capitalists' accounts measure capital as the money value of socially necessary labor time, equal for identical inputs or outputs. Hence why Marx, in his letter to Kugelmann, noted: "Even if there were no chapter on 'value' in my book, the analysis of the real relationships which I give would contain the proof and demonstration of the real value relation."

      That said, the above merely constitutes the explication of the theory. It's still, however, a theory, and explication, however grounded and however convincing, is never enough to validate a theory without reference to empirical testing. But you know that. Nothing is ever going to make this logically necessary and, anyway, necessity is not exactly a requirement of a scientific theory. Nor is the condition of being subjectively satisfying. If that were the case, we'd never have gotten far with quantum theory.

      So the final word on it goes something like this: "Because the theory contains no inconsistency, it is logically valid irrespective of whether one finds it subjectively satisfying or not. A theory is something that explains, not something to be explained. The rest in the hands of empirical study."

      How do you prove my theory isn't as good as yours?

      Excellent question! Unfortunately, said question remains open, with "no general or uncontroversial solution" yet formulated for deciding between rival empirically validated theories. The practical answer is: "Keep testing! Something's gotta give!"

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    6. "Thus, in effect, capitalists' accounts measure capital as the money value of socially necessary labor time, equal for identical inputs or outputs."

      And the fact that this is clearly empirically false gives you no pause?

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    7. The statement that Marx's theory uses capitalists' accounts as its basis for the analysis of value? I don't think that's false; there's certainly firsthand-source evidence supporting the idea. But if you've been digging through his writings (perhaps his correspondences with Engels?) and have found evidence to the contrary, then please share it. Needless to say, holding any "clearly empirically false" statement as true would give me pause.

      For real: If one has falsifying evidence, one should never bogart that stuff; instead, bandy it about freely. The goal here is to promote broader understanding, not to obscure — though one may be forgiven for concluding otherwise in light of the recent output of this blog. In particular, I notice your new post says "in volume 1 of Capital, Marx dispensed even with scarcity as a fundamental determinant of exchange value." Seeing as I have shown this to be *clearly empirically false,* one must conclude that this should give you pause.

      And while you're paused, maybe we can get to the heart of why it is you've made the claim. I have a few hypotheses: Either you're conflating "exchange value" with "value" (a common mistake), you failed to read the falsifying evidence I presented, or you're just out to publish hit piece after hit piece irrespective of their factual content. Which of these would you say sounds closest to the case? I try not to attribute to malice that which can be explained by a sloppy reading, so I am withholding judgment until I hear your side of the story.

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  3. The Demise of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value and the ‘New Interpretation’:
    A Recap Noteby Ernesto Screpanti professor of Political Economy at the University of Siena http://www.deps.unisi.it/sites/st02/files/allegatiparagrafo/14-03-2015/708.pdf

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