Spinning Marx in His Grave: How David Harvey got rid of labor power in his unfaithful Companion

by Jehu

Part two

In part one of this series I emphasized the highly irregular, even dishonest, methods David Harvey employs in his introduction to Marx’s Capital, A Companion to Marx’s Capital. In particular, I called attention to Harvey’s use of the terms “a priori” and “cryptic” to characterize how Marx handles the fundamental categories of political economy, the critique of which is the project Marx undertook by writing Capital.

jeswal_dylan-minerSince Capital is a critique of the theories of Marx’s contemporaries, it is not surprising that he begins with the categories already in place at the time he wrote his book. Harvey is essentially criticizing Marx for subjecting the categories of political economists like Ricardo, Malthus, Barbon, Mills and others to critical analysis, when this is precisely the project Marx had in mind when he began writing Capital.

When, for instance, Harvey criticizes Marx for making the ‘a priori’ assertion that the labor time required to produce commodities lay behind their exchange values, Harvey knows, or should know, that Marx is actually dismissing the argument of one school of political economists who claimed the values of commodities were expressions of their utility, i.e., of their capacity to satisfy human needs.

It is rather puzzling Harvey would call Marx’s argument that labor, not utility, gives commodities their values an  “a priori leap by way of assertion” unless he has another candidate for the job. In this part I will show that this is just Harvey’s motivation. Harvey does not think either labor or utility gives commodities their values; rather, Harvey is of the school that believes value itself is impossible until money has already emerged.

In Marx’s argument, money is just another commodity, while the value-form school believes value arises from exchange, not production. Thus exchange is necessary to reduce concrete particular use values into commodities. Knowingly or not, Harvey’s “Companion to Marx’s Capital” is a polemic against Marx’s Capital on behalf of the value-form school.

Value’s ‘phantom-like’ quality

There are three basic questions Marx answers in section 1 of the first chapter of Capital:

  1. What is value?
  2. What is the measure of value?
  3. What is the source of value?

In section 1 of chapter one, Marx goes about methodically providing his answer to these three questions. The labor that creates value, as Harvey explains, isn’t the actual concrete labor expended on production of each of the commodities, but only the labor expenditure necessary on average for their production. This argument by Marx clearly troubles Harvey. He points to the questionable materialism of Marx’s notion of value with its “phantom-like” quality. Value, which we cannot detect by any means, somehow makes commodities commensurable and is itself passed from one producer to the next through exchange.

This is nothing more than an attempt to throw dust in our eyes. Is there really anything enigmatic, mysterious or arcane in Marx’s discussion here? Is Marx delving into metaphysics? Of course not.

In first place, as we all know, Marx’s approach here is not at all unusual in the sciences. Something similar to Marx’s characterization of value as a “phantom-like objectivity” can be found in a wide variety of scientific fields. Consider, for instance, Darwin’s concept of evolution. We regularly refer to evolution, but has anyone ever actually observed the evolution of a new species?  Or consider Einstein’s theory of relativity. We know a gravitationally collapsed star must exist because we can see the indirect evidence for this, but has anyone ever actually seen a black hole? Obviously not, because the same theory that predicts the black hole says we can never observe it. Or Freud’s theory of consciousness: Can we detect consciousness in a brain cell? Has anyone ever actually peered into the head of another person to locate her consciousness?

Obviously none of these objects have ever been actually observed. Yet, we regularly refer to evolution, black holes and human consciousness as if we have observed them. In fact, we can only infer their existence from indirect evidence. They are theoretical constructs proposed to explain phenomenon we can observe. Likewise, the phantom-like quality of value is by no means a unique phenomenon in the world of science.

Harvey’s concern about the ‘phantom-like objectivity’ value, seems pretty silly; but, in fact, his statement is not silly at all. Rather, it is the opening salvo for a direct assault by Harvey on Marx’s argument on value.

Does value arise from exchange?

Harvey wants us to interpret Marx’s argument that exchange value is “the necessary mode of expression, or form of appearance, of value” in the way we might have once thought exposure to cold causes illness. According to one source, the common cold was originally diagnosed in the 14th century as a “discomfort caused by cold” and not an infection caused by a virus. In a similar vein, rather than seeing in exchange value evidence for value, in his discussion of section 1, Harvey tries to twist Marx’s argument to conform to the value-form school’s notion value arises from exchange.

However, to actually flip Marx’s argument over on its head, Harvey has to provide his own peculiar spin on Marx’s argument.  On page 19 of his Companion to Marx’s Capital, Harvey makes this statement:

“Value is “abstract human labour … objectified … or materialized” in the commodity. How can this value be measured? In the first instance, this plainly has something to do with labor-time. But as I already argued in setting up the difference between concrete and abstract labor, it cannot be the actual labor-time, because then the commodity would be “more valuable the more unskillful and lazy the worker who produced it:’ So “the labour that forms the substance of value is equal human labour, the expenditure of identical human labour-power:’ In order to get at what the “expenditure of identical human labour-power” might mean, he needs, he says, to look at “the total labour-power of society, which is manifested in the values of the world of commodities”

In the above passage, Harvey provides the answers to the three questions posed above. He has told us what value is: the substance of value is homogenous abstract human labor. He has defined how the value of a commodity produced by this abstract labor is measured: it is only labor time that is socially necessary on average for production of the commodity that counts as value. Finally, Harvey has told us the source of the value: the values of commodities are simply manifestations of the total labor power of society.

This last point is very important. As we all know, in Capital Marx introduced a novel concept into economic thought, “labor power”. Marx did not simply modify Ricardo’s argument to replace the term “labor time” with his own innovation, “socially necessary labor time”, he also distinguished between “labor” and “labor power” — defining the latter as the source of value. Unfortunately, Harvey’s ‘close reading’ of Capital completely fails to acknowledge this novel concept that had not appeared previously in the writings of Marx’s contemporaries.

Now why might Marx’s introduction of this new category, labor power, as the source of value at the beginning of his exhaustive discussion of the capitalist mode of production be something we might want to note? Obviously, we would want to take note of it because Marx later argues labor power is not just the source of value,but also surplus value. How could labor power create surplus value in Marx’s theory unless it created all value in commodity producing societies?

So, why did Harvey fail to mention the critical role labor power plays in Marx’s theory for production of value?

Harvey spins while Marx spins in his grave

But before we answer the question, let’s continue with Harvey’s own discussion.

From Marx’s phrase, “the total labour-power of society, which is manifested in the values of the world of commodities”, what grabs Harvey’s interest, oddly enough, is not the part where Marx introduces his new category, “the total labor power of society”, but the part where Marx adds the phrase, “the world of commodities”.

Marx, says Harvey, does not elaborate on the statement, so he volunteers to do it himself, “lest you misconstrue what the value theory is about.”

According to Harvey, the critical portion of Marx’s statement is not where he speaks about the total labor power of society — a new category that Harvey knows will become critical to understanding the capitalist mode of production at some later point — but rather, to invoke the idea of world trade. World trade is very big today, Harvey tells us (as if we did not already know this), far bigger even than in Marx’s day (as if we did not already know this too).

Thus, says Harvey, “The measure of value is derived out of this whole world of human laboring.”

“It is on this dynamic global terrain of exchange relations that value is being determined and perpetually redetermined. Marx was writing in a historical context where the world was opening up very fast to global trade, through the steamship, the railways and the telegraph. And he understood very well that value was not determined in our backyard or even within a national economy, but arose out of the whole world of commodity exchange. But he here again uses the power of abstraction to arrive at the idea of units of homogeneous labor, each of which “is the same as any other, to the extent that it has the character of a socially average unit of labour-power and acts as such;’ as if this reduction to the value form is actually occurring through world trade. (my emphasis)

Now, I admit I could be wrong, but it appears to me Harvey is twisting Marx’s argument to say value is determined by world trade. Is this unfair? Am I getting this wrong? Let’s see.

Here is Marx’s argument: Value is the expenditure of identical human labor power; which is to say, the expenditure of the total labour-power of society “is manifested in the values of the world of commodities”.

To put Marx’s argument in the simplest possible terms: Human labor power goes into the production process, value emerges from the production of commodities, appearing to be an attribute of the commodities.

And here is Harvey’s argument: Value is being determined and redetermined on the “dynamic global terrain of exchange relations”; which is to say, “reduction [of commodities] to the value form is actually occurring through world trade.” Thus value is not determined in our backyard or even within a national economy, but arises “out of the whole world of commodity exchange”.

To put Harvey’s argument in the simplest possible terms: concrete useful labor goes into the production process and use values emerge from the process. The reduction of concrete useful labors to the value-form is actually the result of world trade.

Under the guise of introducing his readers to Marx’s Capital, Harvey actually alleges that Marx has misunderstood capitalism and thus inverts the process by which commodities acquire their character as values. Commodities emerge from production as mere use values; they acquire their values through exchange within the world market.

Marx’s value versus Harvey’s values

Yet, if this were the only error Harvey passes on to his readers under the guise of familiarizing them with Marx’s theory, we might still imagine he simply misread Marx’s argument in Capital. The idea that the values of commodities arise from exchange is in fact a quite common misconception among bourgeois simpletons and Marxists seem no less prey to it. However, it turns out this misinterpretation of Marx is only the beginning. Harvey progresses from here to completely overthrow the classical concept of value itself.

Marx, explains Harvey, could get away with his cryptic presentation of the categories he employed in Capital because anybody who had read Ricardo would say, yes, this is Ricardo. However, Marx modifies Ricardo’s concept of value by inserting the phrase, “socially necessary”, into Ricardo’s definition of value, to arrive at a new definition of value not simply “labor time”, but “socially necessary labor time”. This modification, Harvey rightly argues, “makes a world of difference.”

“We are immediately forced to ask: what is socially necessary? How is that established, and by whom? Marx gives no immediate answers, but this question is one theme that runs throughout Capital. What are the social necessities embedded within a capitalist mode of production?”

Really? What the fuck does this statement even mean?

At this point, Harvey adopts a completely different sense of the word value than one employed by Marx — a moral, ethical or political sense of the term. In Marx and classical political economy the term value meant simply the labor time embodied in a commodity or, alternately, the worth of one commodity expressed in the form of another commodity, including money. Not so for Harvey. According to his concept of value, we must include morality, ethics, politics and some undefined catch-all category Harvey ‘cryptically’ refers to as “social necessities”.

“Is there, as Margaret Thatcher famously remarked, “no alternative;’ which in a way is like saying that the social necessities that surround us are so implacably set that we have no choice but to conform to them? At its foundation, this goes back to a question of by whom and how “values” are established. We all like to think, of course, that we have our own “values;’ and every election season in the United States there is an interminable discussion about candidates’ “values:’ But Marx is arguing that there is a certain kind and measure of value which is being determined by a process that we do not understand and which is not necessarily our conscious choice, and that the manner in which these values are being imposed on us has to be unpacked. If you want to understand who you are and where you stand in this maelstrom of churning values, you have first to understand how commodity values get created and produced and with what consequences-social, environmental, political and the like.”

Now I ask you, is this the sense of the term value Marx is trying to explain? Why does Harvey deliberately conflate the moral and/or political sense of the term value with the economic sense Marx employs the term in Capital?

Conflating labor theory with fascism

The answer to these questions probably won’t surprise you. By employing value in a political sense, Harvey can then argue what is “socially necessary” is not determined by socially necessary labor time, but is determined by state economic policy, i.e., by the outcome of a political struggle. Harvey’s argument is that what counts as socially necessary labor time is to be determined not by a material production process, but by fascist state economic policy.

How does this relate to the value-form school argument? If commodities become values only through exchange, money plays a necessary role in determining value. Since the Great Depression, and especially since 1971, this function has been appropriated by the fascist state as its sovereign power. Through its control of the national currency the state can, in the thinking of the value-form school, determine what economic activity is “socially necessary”, according to some preconceived, despotically imposed, plan.

Part of the aim of the value-form school in overturning Marx’s labor theory of value can be accomplished by dismissing his prediction production on the basis of exchange value was wrong and ultimately discarded by Marx. Another part of the aim is accomplished by constantly impugning the reputation of Marx’s life-long comrade, Frederick Engels. A third part is inventing a so-called “Marxian theory of crisis” intended to ‘prove’ capitalism, although subject to periodic crises, can continue indefinitely without collapse.

However, the aim of the value-form school is impeded by a particularly thorny problem. Marx makes the argument in chapter one of Capital that labor power is the source of value. This is an innovation he invents to replace Ricardo’s argument that labor itself is the source of value. Based on this innovation, Marx can later argue that once labor power itself becomes a commodity it also becomes the source of both value and surplus value.

In Marx’s argument, the commodity, labor power, is the source of surplus value precisely because, even in its non-commodity form, it is already the source of all value. You cannot get rid of Marx’s argument that labor power creates value, without immediately overthrowing the long-standing argument of communists that the capitalists exploit the working class. Once the first is rejected, the second must follow, sooner or later.

This argument is inconvenient for the value-form school, which seeks to demonstrate that money (exchange generally) is the source of the values of commodities. To accomplish their aims, the value-form school must show that the value of the commodity only emerges after money has already been established to give all commodities their values. And they must show this is already implicit in the “a priori and somewhat cryptic” argument Marx is making.

This is the service Harvey attempts to provide to the value-form school with his awful and unfaithful Companion.