All right, at long last let me try to address some of many intelligent comments provoked by my multipart series on Marx. I have gone back in the comments section and collected up some of them, but by no means all. Even so, I want to try to respond to some of these.
Let me begin with a comment I was unable to locate but which, if my memory serves, was posted by LFC. He (is that correct?) notes that if at an early stage in the development of capitalism the ratio of embodied labor to direct labor is 100 to 1, at a later stage it may have grown to 1000 to 1, and that would seem to keep driving the profit rate down if profit really is the money form of the surplus value extracted from the direct labor inputs. This is exactly the inference Marx drew, which led him to postulate that there would be a tendency for the rate of profit to fall in capitalism. As it happens, Marx was wrong. My colleague at the University of Massachusetts, Sam Bowles, proved rather elegantly that in the sort of economy Marx was analyzing if a new more capital-intensive process of production were introduced by an innovative capitalist resulting in a momentary rise in that capitalist’s profit rate, the consequence when the system settle down into equilibrium would be a rise, not a fall, in the profit rate globally. He announced this result triumphantly to a class he was teaching, only to have one of the students point out that a Japanese economist named Okishio had proved it 10 years earlier. Sam was consequently reduced to publishing an article In the Cambridge Journal of Economics with the title “A New Proof of Okishio’s Theorem.”
The second comment came in the form of an email from Jerry Fresia. He wrote: "You write that by means of a long historical process workers who produce commodities are deprived of control over their work, their tools, and skills. What is interesting to me is that this exploitation (the correct term here?) is parallel to the alienation that will take place once the farmer, let us say, enters the factory. So apart from alienation in the factory, a farmer who produces corn as a commodity also suffers a type of market dehumanization. Would it be correct to say that?"
This is a little complicated but the essential answer is yes. Under the pressure of market competition, the natural rhythms of farm work must give way to a sort of industrial farm production that one sees most clearly in the raising of chickens or pigs for market. It is my impression that some independent farmers to this day successfully resist the market pressures sufficiently to gain a genuine satisfaction from the activity of farming but I think they are rare as compared with the industrialization of food production that is characteristic of advanced capitalism.
Jamie Kelly, a philosophy professor at Vassar College, poses several questions into lengthy email messages. Let me take up the first of them. The second is too complicated for me to try to deal with in this post. Kelly first writes: “If you abandon the centrality of the labor/labor-power distinction, does that mean you also give up on Marx's account of surplus value (i.e., it is the difference between the value labor produces, and the value of labour-power)? That would surrender a lot of the theoretical apparatus of Capital (e.g., his account of the working day, and maybe even his account of automation), but I don't see how surplus value can be cashed-out without relying on the labour theory of value.
To my mind, the key historical claim that Marx makes about the transition from feudalism to capitalism is the doctrine of double freedom: workers under capitalism are free in the sense of having the right to sell their labour power, and 'free' in the sense of having nothing to sell but their labour power. This undergirds both his claims about the exploitation of workers, and his explanation of the enormous productivity of capitalism. Do you think double freedom can be made sense of without the labour theory of value?
Marx leverages the labor/labor-power distinction so much throughout Capital, that I am having a hard time seeing how the working day, machinery and modern industry, or even primitive accumulation (i.e., the best parts of the book) can be salvaged without it.”
There are several questions in this message, all turning on my rejection of The Labor Theory of Value. First, recall what I said early in my essay about the 19th century meaning of the phrase “theory of value.” To Smith or Ricardo or Marx a theory of value was a theory of natural or long-term or equilibrium price, as we would say today. Marx’s theory of capitalism without The Labor Theory of Value is, many would say, like Hamlet without the Prince. Certainly that is the view of most contemporary writers who identify themselves as Marxists. But I think this is wrong. I do not think there is a single important and valuable element of Marx’s analysis and critique of capitalism that cannot survive scuttling a theory of natural price that turns out to be analytically incorrect. You can see this quite clearly in Kelly’s second paragraph where he talks about the “doctrine of double freedom.” The exploitation of the workers is grounded in their having lost everything but their bare ability to sell their labor and the mystification of capitalism that serves to rationalize it and justify it in the eyes of those who live within it is nicely captured by this notion of double freedom. Marx’s account of the working day, of machinery and modern industry, of primitive accumulation and much else, grounded in his extensive historical studies, nowhere makes essential use of The Labor Theory of Value. Whether you take to my rudimentary effort to develop an alternative analytical framework or not, I think that effort makes clear that one can talk meaningfully about the ways in which capitalism exploits labor quite independently of the particular analytical framework that Marx introduced to explain this phenomenon, which he correctly believed lay at the root of the structure of capitalism. When I hear Marxists insisting that there cannot be Marxism without The Labor Theory of Value, I sometimes think I am listening to Catholics saying it cannot be Christianity without the virgin birth or Shiite Muslims saying there cannot be Islam without the hidden Imam or Jews saying you cannot be Jewish if you do not keep kosher. I am willing like Spinoza to be driven from the congregation if that is what it takes to follow what I believe to be the truth.
The frequent commentator who uses the nom de blog Marcel Proust, writes as follows: “So far as I am aware, all economic systems more technologically advanced than that of hunters and gatherers -- perhaps excepting pastoralism -- depend fundamentally on the exploitation of someone. The only reason that I can understand for taking this to be Marx's key insight is that capitalism has successfully mystified itself, if I may engage in a huge bit of anthropomorphism and attribute agency to the system itself. Nearly everyone who is part of the system believes that one way or another, they are making free choices and therefore cannot possibly be exploited.” To which I need only say Amen. Marx could not agree more. What distinguishes capitalism from slavery or feudalism, the two earlier forms of economic organization about which Marx writes, is not the fact but the manner of exploitation as well as the accompanying mystification that is typical of capitalism.
Well, that is enough for today. I will go back and look again to see whether I can surface some other interesting comments.