The Unmaking of Labor Theory by Michael Heinrich, Andrew Kliman et al.
Michael Heinrich has produced a “new interpretation” of labor theory that some argue removes any discussion of a theory of crisis implicit in Capital. In response to this alleged attempt to fundamentally revise labor theory, Andrew Kliman, Alan Freeman, Nick Potts, Alexey Gusev, and Brendan Cooney have published an essay purporting to defend the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall against Heinrich. Although it appears both sides are in conflict, I will show that actually both sides of this debate share fundamental agreement on the only real issue raised by Heinrich’s argument.
Heinrich has just about blown up the Marxist academy with his new interpretation of Marx and labor theory’s alleged crisis theory. His interpretation has been welcomed by some labor theorists and severely criticized by others. Michael Heinrich’s interpretation of Marx’s writings although less familiar to me, stands in contradiction to that of Robert Kurz. While Kurz believed capitalism had entered its final crisis, Heinrich, as I understand him, argues in his new interpretation that Marx’s writing contains no theory of capitalist collapse and not even a final theory of crisis.
The questions Heinrich raises may seem complicated, but, in reality, they are fairly simple once their implications are understood. Following the dominant interpretation among labor theorists, Heinrich argues,
“In Marx’s work, no final presentation of his theory of crisis can be found. Instead, there are various approaches to explain crises.”
According to Heinrich, in the 1850’s, crises had a political significance for Marx: he predicted these crises would trigger a new round of class conflict between the two great classes.
“In the first half of the nineteenth century, it became clear that periodic economic crises were an inevitable component of modern capitalism. In the Communist Manifesto, they were regarded as a threat to the economic existence of bourgeois society. Crises first took on a special political meaning for Marx in 1850 when he attempted a closer analysis of the failed revolutions of 1848–1849. He now regarded the crisis of 1847–1848 as the decisive process which led to revolution, from which he drew the conclusion: ‘A new revolution is possible only in consequence of a new crisis. It is, however, just as certain as this crisis.'”
Marx accurately predicted the crisis of 1857-58 and, when it erupted, studied it and made use of it to extend his understanding of capital. Heinrich argues that the thesis of capitalist collapse Marx proposed in the Grundrisse, captured the idea, “A new revolution is … just as certain as this crisis.” According to Heinrich then, Marx’s analysis of capitalism in his Grundrisse writings was colored by his expectation that the 1857 crisis would trigger a new revolution:
“In the Grundrisse, the theory of crisis bears the stamp of the expected ‘deluge’ that Marx wrote about in his letters.”
Heinrich makes two assertion founded on the facts that are difficult to contradict: first, Marx saw the political implications of a capitalist crisis; second, Marx proposes in the Grundrisse the outline of an argument on the final collapse of capitalism. Heinrich then makes the argument Marx’s grasp of the possible political implications of crises more or less accounts for his prediction of capitalist collapse. The assertion is that the prediction of an eventual collapse of capitalism hinges wholly on Marx’s assumption regarding the political implications of the crisis this collapse would produce.
Heinrich’s assessment is important for the obvious reason that we have not so far seen a political revolution triggered by any such crisis, nor have we seen the collapse of capitalism. Marx’s expectation crisis would produce a political revolution turned out to be erroneous in the 1857 crisis and, perhaps more relevant for us, by events of the Great Depression.
The problem with this argument is that while Marx continues to hold to the idea of a collapse of capitalism as late as the 1880s, the idea that this crisis would necessarily trigger a political revolution never appeared in his finished works. The closest we come to such an assertion is a passage in Engel’s Socialism that the crisis might result either in a proletarian revolution, or in the assumption by the present state of the functions of the capitalist.
Let’s leave this aside for the moment and return to Heinrich’s argument.
Returning to the Grundrisse, Heinrich discusses the so-called “Fragment on Machines”. In this passage, Marx explicitly lays out an argument for why he thinks capitalism must ultimately collapse. The mode of production is founded on labor, but at the same time aims to constantly reduce the contribution of labor to production of wealth. Marx concludes:
“As soon as labour in its immediate form has ceased to be the great source of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and therefore exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labour of the masses has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few has ceased to be the condition for the development of the general powers of the human head. As a result, production based upon exchange value collapses.”
Development of the forces of production and labor
The technical argument here is not all that surprising and has been made by many thinkers based not on labor theory but common sense. Industrialization, by greatly increasing the productive powers of labor, was abolishing the need for labor. Eventually, the productive power of society would exceed the need for labor in any form. Once this occurred, society would be forced to reduce hours of labor. As Engels explained in Socialism, “the perfecting of machinery is making human labor superfluous.”
Were Marx and Engels wrong in their assessment?
It is possible to cite any number of 18th, 19th and 20th century thinkers who more or less came to the same conclusion. The recognition even extended to the emerging Marginalist school, which had completely disposed of the notion of labor as the source of value. For instance, in 1909, the Marginalist economist, Sydney Chapman, argued improved methods of production would lead to a progressive reduction of the optimal length for the working day. According to Tom Walker, author of Jobs, Liberty and the Bottom Line, Chapman, a pupil of Alfred Marshall, made the following argument:
“First, the length of working day that would be best for workers’ welfare is shorter than the length that would produce the largest output. Second, the play of competition would tend to make the working day too long, even from the standpoint of production. Third, improved methods of production would lead to a progressive reduction of the optimal length for the working day. As a consequence, renewed conflict over the length of the working day would break out from time to time.”
Tom Walker notes many of the Marginalist economists of the day greeted Chapman’s argument with praise. Marginalism may have tried to eliminate the labor theory of value, but, despite its efforts, the historically limited, relative character of the capitalist mode of production penetrated even into its economic theories:
“Alfred Marshall cited Chapman’s theory as authoritative. So did Marshall’s successor at Cambridge, A.C. Pigou, who based his own discussion of working time in The Economics of Welfare on Chapman’s theory. Lionel Robbins referred to Chapman’s article as having effectively dealt with ‘one of the chief problems of the analysis of economic equilibrium’ – i.e., the determination of the hours of work in industrial civilization. John Hicks, called the theory the ‘classical statement of the theory of ‘hours’ in a free market’, and presented a meticulous six-page précis of it.”
But Chapman is not the only example of the validity of the labor theory collapse thesis reflected in non-labor theory writings. In 1930, J.M. Keynes wrote on the topic in “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”:
“For the moment the very rapidity of these changes is hurting us and bringing difficult problems to solve. Those countries are suffering relatively which are not in the vanguard of progress. We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come–namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.”
In 1932, Bertrand Russell wrote, “In praise of idleness”, where he stated:
“Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone. This was made obvious during the war. At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or Government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since. The significance of this fact was concealed by finance: borrowing made it appear as if the future was nourishing the present. But that, of course, would have been impossible; a man cannot eat a loaf of bread that does not yet exist. The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the week had been cut down to four, all would have been well.”
After World War II, Keynes again raised the problem of hours of labor and pointed to the eventual necessity for its reduction. In a document posted to Tom Walker’s website, Keynes, in a memo titled, “The long-term problem of full employment” explained that even his own underconsumptionist theory was only a short-term solution to the impact development of the productive forces would have on hours of labor:
“10. As the third phase comes into sight; the problem stressed by Sir H. Henderson begins to be pressing. It becomes necessary to encourage wise consumption and discourage saving,-and to absorb some part of the unwanted surplus by increased leisure, more holidays (which are a wonderfully good way of getting rid of money) and shorter hours.”
The idea industrialization would do away with the need for labor is a straightforward technical argument for which there are few counter-arguments.
Enter the “lump of labor fallacy”
Where Marx alone differs from most other writers on the question of the social impact the diminishing demand for labor would have is that he recognizes the profoundly disintegrative effects the abolition of labor would have on all existing relations within bourgeois society. Since, in the historical materialist critique of society, all existing relations within a society are determined by its mode of production, the reduction of the demand for productive labor had to have the most far-reaching impact on social relations hitherto experienced by mankind.
The validity of Marx’s central thesis is supported, as usual, not by recognizing his contribution, but by a sophisticated and comprehensive effort to erase the real movement of society from public discussion. The most notable counter-argument is made by bourgeois simpleton economists who suggest the necessity for a reduction of hours of labor is a fallacy. They argue this idea is what they call the “lump of labor fallacy”. Wikipedia defines the lump of labor fallacy this way:
“In economics, the lump of labour fallacy (or lump of jobs fallacy, fallacy of labour scarcity, or the zero-sum fallacy, from its ties to the zero-sum game) is the contention that the amount of work available to labourers is fixed. It is considered a fallacy by most economists, who hold that the amount of work is not static. Another way to describe the fallacy is that it treats the demand for labour as an exogenous variable, when it is not.
Historically, the term “lump of labour” originated to rebut the idea that reducing the number of hours that employees are allowed to labour during the working day would lead to a reduction in unemployment. The term has also been used to describe the commonly held beliefs that increasing labour productivity and immigration cause unemployment. Whereas some argue that immigrants displace domestic workers, others believe this to be a fallacy, arguing that such a view relies on a belief that the number of jobs in the economy is fixed, whereas in reality immigration increases the size of the economy, thus creating more jobs.”
Note here that nothing in the Wikipedia entry admits to the possibilities of less work made possible by industrialization. Instead the possibility of less work is posed in its opposite form as a lack of “opportunity” to labor. Less work is reduced to a measure simply designed to reduce unemployment, not as the inevitable result of the development of the productive forces. In this form, a so-called refutation of the “lump of labor fallacy” has appeared in almost every American intro economics textbook since the Great Depression. The argument is that the needs of individuals will always outstrip the productivity of labor. There is, therefore, no possibility that labor time can ever be reduced and all calls for such a reduction of hours of labor is counterproductive to improving the material standard of living of the working class.
Remember this argument, because it figures in the following discussion by Heinrich of the Marxian notion of value as well as the resistance by Marxists to every argument for abolition of the fascist state.
How Heinrich rediscovers the immature Marx
According to Heinrich, Marx’s statement in the Grundrisse,
“have often been quoted, but without regard for how insufficiently secure the categorical foundations of the Grundrisse are.”
By this Heinrich means, the labor theory notion of labor is not the production of material objects, like cars or shoes, but the production of value. Unlike the production of cars and shoes, the production of value is the production of an immaterial substance called “abstract labor”. Kurz, in his 2012 article that I discussed last week, called this labor that produces labor. Labor that produces labor has no intention to satisfy human need in the form of cars or shoes, but only to expand itself.
Heinrich is arguing that this definition of labor is inadequately developed by Marx in the Grundrisse. Marx could still be said to be operating under the notion that satisfying needs in the form of cars and shoes, was the same as value production. Heinrich takes the opportunity posed by this alleged defect in Marx’s development in the 1850s to insert his own radical refutation of the labor theory collapse thesis:
“If abstract labor remains the substance of value, then it is not clear why labor time can no longer be its intrinsic measure, and it’s not clear why ‘production based on exchange value’ should necessarily collapse.”
Since in our determination of the value of a commodity not a single jot of useful concrete labor enter into the question, who is to say the exchange value of the commodity will disappear? Why can’t exchange continue indefinitely based simply on the flows of currency between individuals who otherwise produce nothing?
Actually, Heinrich is just outright lying about Marx’s argument on the notion of value — a deliberate, overt and calculated lie that is necessary if Heinrich is to expunge Marx’s collapse thesis from labor theory.
When I first read Heinrich’s essay, what immediately jumped into my mind is his amateurish attempt to build an unbridgeable chasm between concrete labor from abstract labor. This notion is not to be found anywhere in Capital so far as I can tell. Heinrich, of course, knows more on this subject than I can ever hope to learn by reading him, but his definition of value is deliberately calculated to be incomplete. Value in Capital is not simply defined as abstract labor, but as socially necessary labor time.
The current fashion among the wertkritik school and many other Marxist schools is to refer to “abstract labor” — this increases their insider street cred as radical critics of capitalist relations on the cutting edge of contemporary thinking on the subject — however the category, value, enters into Capital only as “socially necessary labor time”. Moreover, the abstract quality of socially necessary labor time enters the picture by means of the expenditure of concrete labor itself. There is thus not simply a question of the distinction that must be made between abstract and concrete labor, but the relation between them as well.
Which is to say, not all the labor expended by the social producers, even if it results in an object that is useful, is socially necessary.
What is the measure of this concrete labor time as value producing labor? What is its limit? By what means does concrete labor become socially necessary labor? When Heinrich asserts, “it’s not clear why “production based on exchange value” should necessarily collapse”, he is arguing that labor time itself has no socially necessary limit. At a minimum he should be asked why this does not put him on the same side of this question as Keynes, Samuelson, Friedman and the rest of those bourgeois simpletons.
To put it simply, Heinrich has simply presented us with the Marxian version of the bourgeois argument against the so-called “lump of labor fallacy”, employing the slang prevalent within the cloistered space of a barren academic Marxist desert.
Collapse, crisis and proletarian revolution
The criticism of Heinrich, therefore, has to be carefully distinguished from the issue raised by Andrew Kliman, Alan Freeman, Nick Potts, Alexey Gusev, and Brendan Cooney, regarding a so-called theory of crisis. It is well known among labor theorists that Marx never elaborated any such crisis theory — it is a fantasy they have created to secure tenure in their chosen profession. “Marxist economics” can only exist on the basis of a theory of crisis, said to be implicit in labor theory. “Marxist economics” can only exist on the basis of a theory that proposes regular predictable cycles of expansion and contraction. If there is no such cycle, there is no “Marxist economics”.
And the question here must also be distinguished from the idea any particular crisis might trigger the much hoped for proletarian revolution. At least in light of Socialism, by Engels, a proletarian revolution is at best a contingent outcome of crisis, not a necessary one. The laws of motion of capitalist society, Engels argued, may just as likely result in the state assuming all the functions of the capitalist class as it might lead to the proletariat raising itself to position of the ruling class.
I think it is necessary to distinguish the question raised by Heinrich on the nature of value from the problem of crisis theory and revolution, to focus on his actual argument, not the objections raised by idiot Marxists. like Kliman et al. Heinrich is asking whether capitalism must collapse as Marx asserts in the Grundrisse and reiterates in Capital. “How capitalism works” has nothing to do with this. Nor does “How capitalism is overthrown by the working class”. The sole question Heinrich is raising of any significance is my favorite:
Is there a definite limit on the productive labor time of society?
Does the labor time of the working class have any material limits beyond which this labor becomes superfluous to both classes? Postone and Kurz argue that it does, while Heinrich, the Marxist academy and all bourgeois simpletons argue it doesn’t. Most labor theorists including Kliman, Freeman, Potts, Gusev and Cooney likely side with Heinrich and bourgeois simpletons on this critical question. Certainly the Monthly Review School, who published Heinrich’s essay does as well. In other words, the so-called “debate” over Heinrich’s assertions regarding crisis theory is an entirely phony dispute over a side issue, while the central issue on which all sides likely agree goes unmentioned.
Once we clear away all the underbrush in this dispute, it is possible to see its class implications. If there is no such thing as socially necessary labor time as Heinrich asserts, labor can expand indefinitely and exploitation never need end. If, however, there is a thing called socially necessary labor time, as Marx and Engels insisted throughout their entire careers, the capitalist epoch must come to an end.
This, I think, is why all the debate revolves around the nature of “value” — the abstraction — and never defines what this value really is.
What is value?
In his essay, Heinrich argues:
“The distinction between concrete and abstract labor, which Marx refers to in Capital as ‘crucial to an understanding of political economy,’ is not at all present in the Grundrisse.”
In fact, Marx makes no such distinction at all, although he is widely quoted to the effect by certain fashionable Marxists. Marx makes a distinction between the use value of the commodity and its exchange value. Consistent with this, he makes a distinction between labor, “so far as it finds expression in value” and “characteristics that belong to it as a creator of use values.” To put this another way, Marx makes a distinction between “useful labor” and “socially necessary labor”. “Socially necessary labor” has been displaced in the discussion among some Marxists by the term abstract labor — which is far less precise. Briefly, this labor is abstracted from the useful qualities of particular labors, but it is not abstracted from social necessity.
Is it true, as Heinrich alleges, that “The distinction between concrete and abstract labor, which Marx refers to in Capital as “crucial to an understanding of political economy,” is not at all present in the Grundrisse? In fact it is not true at all. The notion of necessary labor is already present in the very paragraph in the Grundrisse Heinrich cites. In that paragraph, Marx explains capital:
“Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary.”
If there is a distinction to be made here, it is not the one Heinrich highlights — between useful and abstract labor — but between socially necessary and superfluous labor. But, of course in Capital superfluous labor as a category made its appearance as “useless labor”. Unless I miss my guess, the category, superfluous labor, already implies labor that is neither necessary nor useful. In fact, Marx specifically indicates labor must be both socially useful and socially necessary in “Capital”. The last sentence of section one of chapter 1 of Capital Marx leaves us with this thought,
“Lastly nothing can have value, without being an object of utility.”
Which is to say, a commodity cannot embody socially necessary labor unless this labor is also useful. This why Heinrich attempts to redefine value as “abstract labor” — value can only exist in an object that is socially necessary. Abstract labor, on the other hand, suffers no such limitation. Superfluous labor is as much a form of abstract labor as is value, but has neither any usefulness nor value. According to Marx:
“If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.”
If we substitute the term superfluous for useless, you can get my point. In commodity production, what makes an object useless is not that it has no practical use as an object, but that is has no “use values for others”. I think an argument can be made that abstract labor, Heinrich’s preferred category, includes both socially necessary and superfluous labor, but the distinction between the two categories is that one labor is socially useful while the other is not. Another way to put this, no object can have value that is not socially useful, but abstract labor can be useful or superfluous.
However, According to Heinrich, abstract labor has no necessary connection to whether the labor expended is socially useful or even produces an “object” with utility:
“The social substance of wealth or value in capitalism is abstract labor, whereby it does not matter whether this abstract labor can be traced back to labor-power expended in the process of production, or to the transfer of value of used means of production.
I am hard pressed to see any such definition in Capital of this sort of “social substance” Heinrich refers to as value. Marx does speak of human labor in the abstract and he defines this as “a mere congelation of homogeneous human labour”, but he states,
“the common substance that manifests itself in the exchange value of commodities, whenever they are exchanged, is their value.”
And he adds the caveat:
“We see then that that which determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour time socially necessary for its production.”
So the “common substance” of exchange value is not simply “abstract labor”, but the “socially necessary labor” required to produce the commodity. Marx does not define this substance as “abstract labor”, but as value, or socially necessary labor time. In Heinrich’s argument, the substance of value is abstract human labor; in Capital, this social substance is Value.
Unless I am missing something here, Heinrich is putting forward a definition in which exchange value is simply abstract human labor, not socially necessary labor time. The distinction here is significant, because, having defined “the substance of value” as abstract labor without more, it would appear this substance can be created without limit — as is the case with debased fascist state fiat. We will see this implication of Heinrich’s argument in the next section.
The debate over crisis theory is a sideshow and a sham
Clearly the “law of the tendency of the rate of profit” to fall is NOT Heinrich’s big error. This law, whether it can be demonstrated by the emprirical evidence or not, is derived from the law of value, i.e., from the law of “socially necessary labor time”. It is a side-show to deflect our attention from the real aim of Heinrich’s project: Heinrich is not aiming ending an attempt to elaborate a theory of crisis, but to remove the thesis of the collapse of capitalism from labor theory– that was the theory over which he debated Kurz. Kliman and his gang of amateurs are out of their league because they don’t even understand the terrain on which they are fighting.
This is why Heinrich begins his Monthly Review essay not with the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, but with value and its substance. Heinrich’s argument is breathtaking in its implications and he follows it up, right out of the box, in his essay and in his book by going not after crisis theory, but after the arguments of Hardt and Negri. The target he aims at is their assertion that labor is no longer the measure of value, which, he argues, is Grundrisse, not Capital.
What is really at stake can best be understood by an excerpt from essay by Matthijs Krul reviewing Heinrich’s book:
“Marx seems to have assumed not so much that crisis itself would bring down capitalism – in fact, the deepest moment of a crisis is the moment that the rate of profit is restored and capitalism as a system becomes healthy – but that people would, over time, come to see through the recurring crises that capitalism is an irrational and destructive system and should be gotten rid of. While it is certainly true that moments of major capitalist crises produce upsurges in revolts and in radical critiques of the social relations that prevail among us, it is simultaneously also true that crises are the moments of organizational weakness and vulnerability for unions, social movements, and working class parties, even including communal forms of collectivity. Revolutionary moments do indeed happen, but Heinrich is right to emphasize that this is not anything guaranteed by the will of history, and that nobody can yet predict where they come from or what form they will ultimately take. “
Everything about Heinrich’s errors is on display in this excerpt from Krul’s review. According to the dominant interpretation of Capital, Marx offers a coherent explanation of capitalist crises, which crises must, sooner or later, lead to the overthrow of capitalism by the working class. However what is missing here is the recognition that Heinrich aims not at crisis theory itself, but at the central thesis of Capital: capitalism must and will collapse.
Krul is correct when he explains Heinrich’s “Introduction” is not just an introduction of Capital but a polemic, however he is wrong to assert the target of this polemic is unclear. It is all too clear from the beginning Heinrich aims his polemic at Marx and his thesis on the collapse of capitalism. Heinrich’s “Introduction” is above all a critique of Marx’s conception of capital as a historically limited, relative mode of production of wealth. Once it is clear the target of Heinrich’s polemic is the idea that capitalism must collapse, it becomes clearer how and why he cherry-picks Capital to establish his argument. Heinrich does not believe capitalism will collapse and to consistently and comprehensively disprove “catastrophists” like Kurz and wertkritik he must also dismiss crises, since the collapse of capitalism is prefigured in every crisis produced by the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
This goes to the meaning of my favorite quote in all of Capital:
“The rate of profit is the motive power of capitalist production. Things are produced only so long as they can be produced with a profit. Hence the concern of the English economists over the decline of the rate of profit. The fact that the bare possibility of this happening should worry Ricardo, shows his profound understanding of the conditions of capitalist production. It is that which is held against him, it is his unconcern about “human beings,” and his having an eye solely for the development of the productive forces, whatever the cost in human beings and capital-values — it is precisely that which is the important thing about him. Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital. This is just the way in which it unconsciously creates the material requirements of a higher mode of production. What worries Ricardo is the fact that the rate of profit, the stimulating principle of capitalist production, the fundamental premise and driving force of accumulation, should be endangered by the development of production itself. And here the quantitative proportion means everything. There is, indeed, something deeper behind it, of which he is only vaguely aware. It comes to the surface here in a purely economic way — i.e., from the bourgeois point of view, within the limitations of capitalist understanding, from the standpoint of capitalist production itself — that it has its barrier, that it is relative, that it is not an absolute, but only a historical mode of production corresponding to a definite limited epoch in the development of the material requirements of production.”
Heinrich’s argument is that Marx was wrong about the historical limitation and relative character of the capitalist mode of production, not simply crises produced by the falling rate of profit. Disproving the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is only Heinrich’s way of distracting us from the empirical evidence of the limited shelf-life of capitalism.
In this criticism, Heinrich is actually in bed, not in conflict, with both the Monthly Review school AND Kliman et al, and most Marxist academics. Heinrich’s project begins with his redefinition of value as abstract labor without more. The reason why Marxists keep circling around the text 140 years later is that they, like Heinrich, do not accept its fundamental assertion. Once you accept Marx’s thesis on collapse, we are no longer tied to what Krul rightly criticizes as the “substitution of philology and exegesis for direct debate”. Is collapse the inherent result of the processes we can observe or not? It then becomes a matter of empirical research; labor theorists are freed of the need to pore over the sacred text like monks trying to resolve a question of dogma. Debates that loom large for a moment and then pass, like the present one between Kliman and his pals and Heinrich, become less significant, because, once the debris is cleared, it becomes clear Kliman is in complete agreement with Heinrich over the real question under discussion: Must capitalism collapse?
Kliman absolute agreement with Heinrich on this question can be seen in his recent response to David Graeber, who raised the question of bullshit jobs, where he reduced hours of labor to mere ploy by social-democrats to fluff up their image:
“But why is post-work catching on at this particular moment, when lack of work is the immediate and intractable problem faced by tens of millions of workers in Europe and the U.S.? Quiggin tells us that the renewed interest is the result of Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s promotion of a 1930 essay in which John Maynard Keynes suggested that a 15-hour workweek would become feasible by about 2030. But the underlying goal is to give social democracy a human face—for even its proponents find it rather desiccated in its received form.”
The debate over the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is merely a debate between those, like Hienrich, who think the rate of profit is directionless and can be ignored entirely and those, like Kliman, who believe in a punctuated steady state model capitalism where equilibrium is continually reestablished through crises. The real question at issue is whether or not there is a definite limit on socially necessary labor time of society and, therefore, a definite limit on the capitalist epoch that operates independent of all external influences.
A “monetary theory of value”, i.e., a neoclassical theory of money
Sam Williams has taken Heinrich to the woodshed on his assertion Marx proposed a “a monetary theory of value”. To produce this alleged theory of value, Heinrich must, first of all, declare that abstract labor time cannot be measured by its duration, but only in the form of what serves as money:
“[A]bstract [Heinrich’s emphasis] labor, Heinrich writes, “cannot be measured in terms of an hour of labor. …” (p. 50) Here, after a promising start, Heinrich stumbles badly. If it is true that abstract labor cannot be measured quantitatively, Marx’s theory of value is in deep trouble. For example, if we cannot measure abstract labor in quantitative terms, how can we say that the value of one commodity is greater or lesser than the value of another? In what sense can a diamond be more valuable than a candy bar?
In reality, we can measure both concrete labor and abstract labor in terms of some unit of time. What is true is that in any particular instance, a given amount of concrete labor measured in terms of time will almost certainly represent a different quantity of abstract labor, also measured in terms of some unit of time. But the total quantity of concrete labor in a commodity-producing society will in any given period of time still equal the total quantity of abstract labor. In failing to realize that concrete labor can be measured quantitatively in terms of time, Heinrich commits a grave error. It is at the root of all the other errors he makes in his analysis of value, money and price.”
Williams shows that Heinrich simply redefines exchange value as “whatever the fascist state decides serves as money”, in place of the accepted labor theory definition of value as socially necessary labor time. This redefinition is critical to Heinrich’s argument because once socially necessary labor time is removed from labor theory, an argument can be made that labor in the capitalist mode of production has no necessary duration. Since it is precisely the limit on labor as a measure of wealth that constitutes the limit on the capitalist mode of production, overthrowing the accepted definition of value is essential to overthrowing the conception of capital as a historically limited mode of production. We are, therefore, left only with valueless fascist state fiat that can be produced from nothing at a computer terminal and notion of value that is simply reduced to the prices of commodities in the market.
We are, in other words, reintroduced to the neoclassical theory of money in the lingo of fashionable Marxist dogma. The Marx who discovered this limit on socially necessary labor time must be the “immature” Marx of the Grundrisse, not the polished Marx of Capital.
Capital and labor theory
In truth, the thesis Marx advanced that capitalism will collapse does not need Capital at all, once it was elaborated. Its validity is a matter of empirical research and extension of Marx’s initial observation with additional insights by labor theorists. But two things prevent this work: first, the idea that Capital explains “How capitalism works”; and, second, the search for a so-called “theory of crisis”. Most of the sterile debate over “what Marx wrote”, center on these two problems.
Crisis theory, in particular, has to be elaborated because of the prevailing Marxist idea that capitalism does not collapse but is “overthrown” by the proletariat. If capitalism is to be “overthrown”, a mechanism has to be introduced that motivates the proletariat to “overthrow” it. This mechanism is the crisis produced by the falling rate of profit. In this argument, the crisis produces such suffering for the mass of society it must throw off existing relations.
However, it should be absolutely clear: Marx never employed this mechanism in his discussion in Capital. In Capital the collapse of capitalism is argued solely on the basis of the law of value, i.e., on the law of “socially necessary labor time”. This thread of argument begins not with Capital, but with the German Ideology where Marx and Engels speak of a mass of proletarians who are not only utterly cut off from self-activity but from labor itself.
Marx and Engels were referencing the technical transformation of all the conditions of labor that would be produced by industrialization — a transformation that would, eventually, make labor itself obsolete. Capital is an elaboration of labor theory’s central thesis employing for this purpose how this process appears within the illusory conceptions of the bourgeois viewpoint. Which is to say, Capital demonstrates this evidence for a process leading to collapse that was already evident to political economy but expressed “in a purely economic way — i.e., from the bourgeois point of view, within the limitations of capitalist understanding, from the standpoint of capitalist production itself”.
“That it has its barrier.”
The barrier mentioned in Capital is never at any point presented as the threat posed by the class struggle of the proletariat to the existing order and the existing state, but as capital itself. Marx is very insistent on this and he goes out of his way to reiterate it again and again:
“The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself.”
This does not suggest the proletarian class struggle has no role to play, only that even in the absence of the struggle capitalism collapses. We can be entirely confident about the class struggle because we know it can only hasten the inevitable. The argument here has been labeled “deterministic” by the apologists for the capitalist class, but it is nothing of the sort. Nothing determines the class struggle but the proletariat’s own organization and consciousness. The collapse of capitalism, however, is the expression of its character as a limited, transitional social form that must end in communism.
It is simply a communist movement of the whole of society.