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Friday, April 3, 2015


Those of you who read the Comments will have seen an exchange between Chris and myself triggered by my post on Paul Krugman.  There was one little phrase in Chris's last comment that raises some interesting questions for anyone trying to imagine a socialist society [something, by the way. that Marx did only fitfully and not in any systematic fashion, for good reason.]  In the midst of a wider comment, Chris says that in a socialist society we would want to get rid of surplus value, that being the value form of the labor performed by workers over and above what is required to reproduce their ability to labor.  Now, in a socialist society everyone will participate democratically in the important economic decisions of the society, so we cannot deduce a priori what will be decided.  But I am pretty sure folks are not going to want to get rid of all of that surplus labor, regardless of whether it is called "surplus value" or not.  Let me explain why.  This is going to take a while, because there are a great many reasons for not limiting ourselves in a socialist society to necessary labor.

First of all, let us just be clear about what constitutes necessary labor.  The total labor required to produce the means of existence of the working class is necessary labor.  This includes the labor required to replace the used up means of production [tools, machinery, raw materials, etc.].  Since the workers themselves must be replaced as they "wear out," necessary labor includes the labor that supports the raising of children and the preparation of them to enter the work force [including some, but by no means all, of their education.]  All of this is a matter of physical, chemical, and biological laws, and can no more be ignored by a socialist society than it can ignore the times tables.

Why might a socialist society decide that more than this necessary labor ought to be performed?  [I.e., why might a socialist society decide to engage in "surplus labor"?]  There are many reasons.  Here are some of them.

First, a socialist society might decide that it wants to perform enough labor to make it possible for old people, sick people, and others not available for the labor force to live decent lives.  This labor is in no way required by the objective dictates of the economy.  A socialist society could perfectly well decide to allow its old people to starve and die, denying them even medical care [which requires medical workers to perform surplus labor, of course.]  I would certainly hope that a democratic socialist society would make such a choice, but let us be clear:  it would be a choice to perform surplus labor, not a requirement for the reproduction of the working class [as the raising of children is.]

Second, a socialist society might decide to alter the definition of "necessary labor" by raising the standard of living of the working class to include entertainment, additional leisure, luxury goods [like IPhones], or education in the Humanities [not really required to prepare the labor force for productive labor, no matter what desperate Philosophy Departments may say these days.]  As David Ricardo pointed out half a century before Marx published Capital, what constitutes "subsistence" in a society at any time in its history is in part determined socially, not simply biologically.

Third, as the demographic composition of the population changes [more children, or maybe fewer  children and more old folks], a socialist society that has decided to perform the surplus labor required to support those not in the labor force will find the quantity of that surplus labor changing.  If the population is aging, as America's is, those in the labor force will have to increase the amount of surplus labor they perform, because [as economists sometimes say] a smaller fraction of the total population will be supporting the entire population with its labor.

Fourth, the population may be growing.  [This is different from the demographic mix changing.]  A socialist society may decide [but, as always, it need not -- this is a genuine choice] that it wants to expand the Gross Domestic Product at a corresponding rate, so that the average level of consumption need not be reduced.  This will require surplus labor from those engaged in producing the stuff needed to expand output [machinery, tools, etc. -- what I would call capital goods, but Chris does not like that word "capital," so I will just call it "stuff."]  If the population keeps growing, output will have to keep growing to avoid a decline in living standards.

Fifth [this one is a bit tricky], people in a socialist society may decide that they want to work harder than they need to, in order to expand the amount of stuff available to raise the level of output, so that some future generation [their children, their grand-children] can live better lives than they do.  There a number of societies, mostly notably the People's Republic of China, that have made this decision, although in the case of China it would be stretching the meaning of words unacceptably to describe this decision as "democratic."

These are just some of the reasons why the people in a socialist society might decide to perform what is technically classified as surplus labor.  Marx knew all of this, of course.  Indeed, all of this will occur to anyone who thinks about the matter for a few moments without wearing ideological blinders.

So, Chris, unless you really mean to endorse a heartless, ruthless, take no prisoners, throw-the-old-folks-out-on-the-street form of socialism, I would be a little cautious about saying so readily that you want to get rid of that surplus value.  Of course, you can certainly refuse to call it "surplus value," or even "surplus labor," but renaming things, by and large, does not change their nature, as Marx in a number of passages rather mordantly points out.


Chris said...

Professor Wolff,
Thank you kindly for your response. I appreciate you taking time away from your schedule to clarify your differences (but also our agreements!).

There's probably not much left to say, because I do in fact agree with you that a socialist society should do 1-5; to the degree that the environment and not the market, will tolerate a surplus. So of course I have no desire to throw people out on the streets and let them die in agony.

Our disagreement, per usual comes at the end:

"Of course, you can certainly refuse to call it "surplus value," or even "surplus labor," but renaming things, by and large, does not change their nature, as Marx in a number of passages rather mordantly points out."

I do think there is an essential difference between surplus labor and surplus value. I also think the nature of these sorts of things (capital included) will change when social relations that reproduce them change. Capital did not exist in the past, and it does not be necessity have to exist in the future. I still think we could have a socialist future that's a P...C...P(') productive arrangement, where surplus goods are made, but capital and surplus value are not reproduced, and money is non-existent (or at the very least not the universal equivalent of exchange).

All that said, since we do agree on 1-5, and many other things, I'll jokingly but amicable conclude: with enemies like you, who needs friends ;)

stephendarling said...

Dear Chris,

The question here is the nature of the underlying social relations of production. Under capitalism the core social relation of production is the capital/wage-labour relation - a social power relation of production wherein capitalists dominate and exploit wage-workers at the point of production. Under some form of democratic socialism (see the 2nd edition of David Schweickart's book, After Capitalism) the core social relation of production is between co-operative workers; hence it will presumably be a relation that is non-oppressive and non-exploitative. The question of a 'social surplus' is not the problem; nor is money, for that matter. Neither are forms of a 'social evil'. To say so or at least to suggest that they are misses the point and just focuses on the epiphenomena of the social system in question. The 'social evil' is the present one under capitalism which results in greater and greater profits for capitalists at the expense of wage workers (think about the gross exploitation of cheap Chinese labour by western capitalists like Apple). Anyway, just a few thoughts to toss around.


classtruggle said...

Chapter 18 in Volume I of CAPITAL is about the importance of the distinction between labour and labour-power, and necessary labour time and surplus labour-time.

These formulae --

surplus-value/variable capital (s/v)


surplus labour/necessary labour

represent the same thing in different terms; the first as ‘a ratio of values’ and the second as ‘a ratio of times during which those values are produced’ (Fowkes 1976 ed, p. 668).

In Chapter 10 under the section 'Voracious appetite for Surplus Labour' Marx also compares the capitalist and pre-capitalist in their drive for surplus labour. He observes in pre-capitalist economic formations the production process is primarily concerned with use-values and so surplus labour, he says, will be limited to a 'set of needs' beyond the merely physical. In ancient times, he observes 'overwork becomes frightful only when the aim is to obtain exchange-value in its
independent monetary shape, i.e., in the production of gold and silver.' (p.345).

And the extraction of surplus labour in a pre-capitalist economy is different from a capitalist system in that in the former, the surplus labour is evident as surplus; it is separated from the necessary labour required to reproduce the means of subsistence for the worker (e.g. corvee system). In the capitalist system, however, the extraction of surplus labour is done simultaneously with the necessary labour. In the working day he argued, both forms of labour are being performed, necessary and surplus, without any distinction between the two.

classtruggle said...

The ‘reduction of the working day to the necessary labour-time’ would mean that necessary labour time would ‘expand to take up more of the day.’ And this, marx says, happens for ‘two reasons: first, because the worker’s conditions of life would improve, and his aspirations become greater [meaning his needs or ‘means of subsistence’ expand], and second, because a part of what is now surplus would then count as necessary labour, namely the labour which is necessary for the formation of a social fund for reserve and accumulation’ (Fowkes trans., p.667).

Note a) Marx does not use the concept of value, but labour-time because under socialism there would be no exchanging commodities since there is no market (production and distribution of the product would be democratically planned) and b) that here production is now necessary because it is for the well-being of society and its future.

Chris said...

I understand that, but I still don't see why we couldn't have a P-C-P society instead of one involving M-C...P...C'-M'.

I agree that we need democratic ownership of the means of production, organized production, a surplus of goods for the elderly, young, injured, etc., I'm just question the motive to keep capital and money in existence. That's all. I’ve been consistent that these are determinates of various social relations, and the social relation of capitalist to wage worker is less than great, but I also think the social relationship that reproduces capital is less than just.

It's because one deals with values, and one deals with time, that I don't say they are in fact the same thing. As Marx makes clear in the critique of the Gotha program, the ultimate goal of a socialist society is to kill the law of value. We would then want to do exactly what you rightfully pointed out, which is re-conceptualize what is necessary labor. And if we are humane people that will involve 1-5 of Wolff's list.

Your last post is what I was trying to press on Wolff, from Marx's perspective, so thank you for sharing that! I couldn't remember the page he had said it in, but I knew it had been said.

stephendarling said...

Dear Chris,

I appreciate what you say. I use to think you had to get rid of markets as well as capitalism and so was a critic of market socialism. But, if you reflect on it, markets have always been (more or less) around in some form; so has money and various forms of 'capital', but not specifically industrial capital as discussed by Marx (which is at the centre of his analysis of the capitalist market system in Volume 1 of Capital). Presumably, under some form of a modern democratic socialist market system alienation will disappear, which of course is a strong feature of the prevailing capitalist market system. Also, under such a market system the underlying motive will no longer be the profit one of capitalists, but something like a need's based approach wherein we produce what we need (including a surplus product) for the good of all and we do so around some kind of Rawlsian principles about fairness and justice.

By the way, I too think that Marx's labour theory of value is central to his critique of political economy, especially regarding uncovering the fundamental laws of motions of modern capitalism.


Chris said...

I agree with all you say Stephen except this part:
"if you reflect on it, markets have always been (more or less) around in some form; so has money"

I don't think anthropology bears this out. Look, I don't want to be a complete anti-essentialist, or relativist, but we have to be weary - and Marx has shown us why so many times - of comporting our present economic categories of thought into other modes of production. The human species is 150,000 years old, I don't think it's prudent to comport market and/or money into that long history. I see those two things as fairly recent.

stephendarling said...

Dear Chris,

Fair enough. It was a bit loosely put. Thanks.


stephendarling said...

Dear Chris,

Maybe, it was very loosely put! In our country (Australia), prior to white colonisation, obviously there were no markets, etc. in the hunter-gatherer lives of the indigenous people.

Best regards,