Why the “labor theory of value” isn’t Marxist

It’s Ricardian. Marx took up the categories of “political economy” (what Raya later called “bourgeois thought of bourgeois mode of production”) and implodes them by uncovering the real social relations behind these seemingly given “things.” Ricardo was a part of classical political economy and one of the best since he was able to understand the movement of the categories better than the vulgar economists. But he still sided with the view of private property as a natural human condition and ascribed a kind of supernatural power to labor that we see Marx sharply diverging from in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. The Marxist orthodoxy (social democracy, Lenin (with some exception), Stalin, and Trotsky) took Marxism as a “new political economy”, a corrective to “bourgeois political economy” (which is a redundancy). They essentially made Marxism Ricardian by missing the whole method of “diremption,” imploding the categories of political economy instead of trying to mediate them externally. Which is partly why orthodox Marxism found itself merely trying to better manage capitalism than overthrow it.

Marx’s “corrective” to Ricardo, if we leave aside his overall methodology which sees relations instead of things (or things as a mode of expression of relations), is that he puts forward the unity between the “division of labor” and “private property,” the first referring to the activity of alienation, while the latter refers to its result (which is why in his debate with Proudhon he says he doesn’t “side” with labor against property because they are the same thing). Furthermore, he took Ricardo’s category of “labor” (reified as inherently one-sided) and split it into “living labor” and “labor-power.” Is isn’t labor as activity that is commodified and sold but workers capacity to work. People aren’t paid for their labor but their ability to labor which must be reproduced through the wage. If they were paid for their labor, they would be paid the full value of what they create which makes no sense because that tears the entire rug out from under wage labor, surplus value, and profit and therefore capitalism as a whole. Ricardo knows workers doesn’t get paid for all of their labor but he is never able to theoretically clarify what it is that becomes commodified. He was trapped by the fetish of relations as things in perpetuity.

And this is why some of my fellow Wobblies fall short when they reproduce the both incorrect and tautological phrase that “profits are stolen wages.” Wages and profits both are forms of alienated labor.


1 Comment

  1. The word critique has become unfortunately fashionable, redundantly misused simply to mean “criticism.” It can be difficult to tell the difference between a critique and description – – perhaps a rigorous critique really is just a definitive and complete description, taking the function and logic of a system to its necessary but unacknowledged conclusions.

    Ricardo may have had trouble understanding why workers are not paid the full value of the labor they contribute to the commodities they produce, but Marx was able to intervene in this misunderstanding w the development of the category of labor power– which itself still merges nicely with Marx’s own conception of the LTV.

    In Reading Capital Politically, Harry Cleaver vividly describes how the value of labor power, the collective wage pay to the collective worker, is determined in a political, historical struggle between classes. It is in this context that I came to the conclusion that, in Marx’s hands, the labor theory of value is not Ricardian at all, but goes well beyond Ricardo: from Marx, the LTV is an underlying aspect of the brutal leveling of all society to a fundamental rule that on the one hand minimizes the total labor hours required to produce any given output, and on the other hand maximizes total labor output, flooding society with dead labor that can find no use for those who can afford it, but remains unaffordable for those who could use it (many of whom produced it!).

    In Ricardo’s hands, the labor theory of value is one among many classical economic ideological categories, simply one more technical term mobilized in his attempt to grasp partially a system that can only be understood and it’s totality.

    Marx’s work, through insights represented in the categories of socially necessary labor time and labor power, mobilizes the labor theory of value as a critique of capitalism: Capital brutally reduces all labor to its fundamental function of value mobilized for the sake of accumulation of more value. Ricardo’s labor theory of value is Ricardian, limited by classical economic ideology, technocratic and incomplete (he himself recognizes that he never is able to explain the source of profits and the problem of ‘the value of labor and the wage’). Marx’s labor theory of value is not Ricardo’s, it is a critique in the sense of a full description of the brutal power of capitalism which mobilizes labor for the ceaseless accumulation of ever more labor precisely through the function of socially necessary labor time. Value as a category (both in the sense of a critique and in the sense of a really existing abstract category functioning in society) is created out of the circulation and function of capital, which values human life only for the sake of accumulation of more dead labor, itself ‘measured’ in terms of socially necessary labor time, abstract value, which ultimately, seen at the level of the whole, represents the total amount of life extracted from the working class.

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