There’s a passage in Capital that really makes me sweat. It goes like this:
When we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it.
Why does this worry me? In epistemological terms, this statement is like the loose end of a sweater which, if pulled, could unravel the whole of Marx’s contribution to materialist social thought.
The predominant tendency in sociology is to treat society as, in one way or another, a product of the human mind. For instance, Anthony Giddens understand society as a ‘virtual order’. This virtual order is comprised of knowledge people have about how to act in the world. So despite the orientation of Giddens’s theory to practice, the constitutive stuff out of which society is assembled is fundamentally ideational: it is knowledge in people’s heads. Society is nothing other than the combination of all of this knowledge.
Likewise Max Weber understands society in terms of the meanings and motivations that, in his view, cause social action; Parsons understands society in terms of shared cultural values and normative expectations; and so on. For many important social theorists, it’s not just that human subjectivity is an important part of social life. Look closely at their theories and you find that subjectivity is precisely the stuff that social life is made of.
We can call this type of approach idealist: not in the sense that it idealizes society (although that sometimes happens) or that it advocates the pursuit of lofty ideals (although that sometimes happens also) but in that we approach the understanding of society first and foremost by investigating the ideas of the people in it.
Marx appears to stand opposed to this tendency. In The German Ideology, the “Thesis on Feuerbach”, the Communist Manifesto, and elsewhere, he and Engels argue explicitly against sociological idealism. They assert that to understand society we must begin by studying not what people think but what we do.
And what we do, first and foremost, is material production. Everything we do, even just sitting and thinking, requires prior acts of material production – for instance, of the food and clothing that allow me to sit and think in comfort, and so on.
So Marx treats society as made up primarily of material social relations – that is, concrete, practical relations among human beings engaged in the collective (and generally alienated and exploitative) labour of production.
This assumes that relations of production exceed the subjectivity of the humans who participate in them. In other words, relations of production have important qualities which which their participants may not intend or even know about – and these nonintentional, nonsubjective qualities exert an important, even decisive, causal influence on what people do and what people think
One of the crucial applications of this approach is Marx’s analysis of exploitation. This analysis is central to the entire theoretical project of Capital.
Marx argues that in a capitalist system all commodities have a value equal to the amount of socially necessary labour-time required to produce them, that this value is objective and measurable, and that all profit comes from the difference between the value (in this sense) which workers produce and the value required to reproduce their labour-power.
Marx is concerned to show that, independently of what workers or even capitalists themselves may think, capitalism depends on exploitation, understood as an objective process in which workers are paid less than the full value of what they produce.
In other words, exploitation is not part of any ‘virtual order’ in Giddens’s sense because, even though it is entirely a product of human action, it happens and has causal effects whether or not any individual human being intends for it to happen or even knows about it.
Let’s look at this a little more closely. Exploitation is the appropriate of surplus value. But what is value? Where and how does value exist?
Marx defines value as quantity, measured in time, of the socially necessary labour-power expended in producing a commodity. Note that this is not a description of where value comes from; it is a definition of what value is, of what the word “value” means when Marx uses it.
So given this definition, we might be tempted to assume that value is a universal, objective feature of all products of human labour. After all, any thing made by people required some definite amount and quality of labour to produce, in the same sense that it requires some definite amounts and qualities of matter and energy to produce.
But Marx does not take this route, not exactly.
For one thing, only commodities — i.e., only things that are exchanged for other things — have value in the Marxian sense. Use-values that are not exchanged do not have value per se. So value is not a universal property of all products of human labour.
Furthermore, in his discussion of commodity fetishism, Marx writes that
when we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it.
At face value this statement seems to reinforce Marx’s anti-idealism. We don’t intend to relate commodities to each other as values, i.e. as definite quantities of socially necessary labour-time; this just happens because of the relation of commodity exchange.
Except, it happens because we equate as values our different products. The act of equating differing products as values is a subjectively meaningful act.
If we observe the transfer of two sets of objects between two human beings on a purely behavioural level, we do not perceive an exchange of values, just a movement of bodies through space. Only the subjective attribution of the quality of value makes this event a “sale” and a “purchase”. For that matter, the relation of “ownership” involves an element of subjective meaning irreducible to pure behaviour.
In the little story Marx tells about exchange in this passage, the actors involved in an exchange “equate as values our different products”. But where does that equation take place? What makes the simultaneous transfer of two physical objects into an equation of values?
The simplest answer is that that equation takes place in the minds of the participants, that the equation is a perception shared by them.
Why this? Let’s eliminate some alternative possibilities.
- Value is not a physical property of the two products in themselves. The structure of the matter-energy which makes up the two products does not change because of the act of exchange.
- Value is not, in Marx’s theory, a metaphysical essence. That is to say, value is not a property which pertains to objects independently of their physical composition. We know this because the materialist method of history outlined in The German Ideology rejects metaphysical essentialism in principle.
Value therefore must be physical, i.e. material, quality of commodities, but one which is located somewhere other than in the objects themselves. That is, value must be a quality which is attached to commodities through their relation to some other part of the natural universe. But what part?
The obvious candidate is the human mind. Value is a meaning attributed to objects by actors who exchange them. Therefore, value would exist, physically speaking, in the minds of human beings, as a shared or intersubjective meaning.
This has profound consequences.
In Marx’s analysis, according to his use of the labour theory of value, the entire capitalist economy is nothing other than a system of the circulation of values. All of the formal properties, exigencies, nomothetic propositions which Marx derives are based on the rule of the conservation in exchange of value, and hence on a concept of value in which the objective equivalency of differing types of labour is established through the exchange of products.
If the value of labour is fundamentally immanent to the domain of human intersubjectivity ,then the entire capitalist economy as Marx theorizes it is located within Giddens’s “virtual order”, i.e. the realm of practically oriented ideation.
This would make exploitation, at most, an unintended consequence of intentional action. Disaster.
Why disaster? Exploitation would no longer appear as a true counterfactual, as a material mechanism which operates independently of human intentionality. Rather it would appear only as an unrecognized implication of the meanings which we attribute to things.
Capital itself would no longer appear as a theoretical work property so called, and merely as an exceptionally thick description of one form of human social action.
Marx’s ‘materialist method of history’ would appear materialist only in the sense that it privileges the material as the primary object of concern for human subjectivity, rather than treating the material as efficacious in itself and as that which produces human subjectivity.
Marx’s attempt to invert idealist social theory, and stand on its feet that which had precariously on its head, would have failed.
And this would leave us without any systematic materialist social theory from which to begin theorizing the immense project of rebuilding the social order from the roots up.
I think there is another alternative, however. (Of course. I would, wouldn’t I?)
The equivalency established between two products exchanged as commodities, and hence the value (defined as congealed expended socially necessary labour-power) of commodities themselves, may reside not in the minds of the participants to that exchange – or, more precisely, in the intersubjective relation between – but in the mind of the observer – or, more precisely, in the relation between observer and observed. That is to say, it’s not societal members but Marx himself who finds in the exchange of products an equalization of the differing labours expended in their production.
In other words, value is a formal concept. It is a concept developed by a would-be-scientific observer to designate an observed pattern.
This pattern may or may not be present to mind for the participants in the action in question. That is to say, the formal concept is not validated by its correspondence, or invalidated by its non-correspondence, with the subjective intentions of the people to whose actions it is applied.
Rather, a formal concept is validated or invalidated by the epistemological service it provides to the would-be-scientific observer. It is validated by the work that it does.
This service, of course, depends on the purpose of the would-be-scientist. Many formal concepts are simply heuristic: they help to simplify a complex phenomenon with only a minimal loss of meaning or detail. Some are predictive: they help to predict (or retrodict) unknown phenomena from a knowledge of others.
Both of these goals are practical; they relate to epistemological practice. But some formal concepts have a more broadly practical goal: they help to intervene in the phenomena to which they refer, to render knowable the otherwise unknown consequences of socially involved action.
Of course, whenever we evaluate Marx’s concepts, we do so from the perspective of the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach:
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
So Marx’s labour theory of value, and his analysis of exploitation, was intended by him not simply to describe the world but to assist in changing it. And this is also what we want from it as well.
The concept of exploitation, and with it Marx’s entire theoretical project, stands or falls with the revolution.