Schrödinger’s Capital: Michael Heinrich explains why Marxists don’t have to prove anything

NOTE 14: Proof is for real sciences, not labor theory?

What sort of science is this that Marxists believe in? According to Michael Heinrich:

“Tied up with the question concerning the difference between Marx’s value theory and classical value theory is the question of whether Marx had “proven” the labor theory of value, that is, whether he had established beyond the shadow of a doubt that labor and nothing else underlies the value of a commodity. This question has been frequently discussed in the literature about Marx. But as we’re about to see, Marx was not at all interested in such a “proof [value lies behind prices].”

That statement is from Michael Heinrich’s Introduction to the three volumes of Capital, chapter 3, section 2, and it is just astonishing.

To understand the flaw in Heinrich’s reasoning, remove Marx and insert Einstein: “Einstein was not at all interested in such a proof of the existence of space-time relativity.”

Or, remove Marx and insert Darwin: “Darwin was not at all interested in such a proof of evolution.”

Would physicists or biologists accept this argument from Heinrich? Why would anyone who calls herself a Marxist? We are discussing the whole underlying structure of a modern capitalist economy, but we don’t require proof for that structure? We can just wing it until we get to extremely complex questions like the transformation problem or whether there is a law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, where, all of a sudden, proof value is behind prices and profits is demanded?

And Marxists wonder why no one takes them seriously.

The problem is this: As Heinrich argues, whether something is a commodity does not depend on its materiality. An apple is material, but a taxi ride is not — yet both are commodities. However, an apple is a commodity, but an aircraft carrier is not — although both are very material and “sensuous”. Finally, an apple may or may not have exchange value, but this has no relationship whatsoever to whether it was produced for exchange.

To give another example of another problem class of goods found in the market: a steel girder is most definitely a commodity when employed to construct a building,  but is it a commodity when employed to construct an aircraft carrier? A computer is most definitely a commodity when I buy it, but is it a commodity when installed on a jet fighter? The same fly-by-wire system may be installed on a 787 and F16, but does it have the same economic content in both?  How would you know? Doesn’t this have to be proven?

So, what are we to make of this criticism by Heinrich of Hardt and Negri:

“And with that, we have sorted out the matter of the frequently stated argument that with the “transition from an industrial  to a service economy” or in the left-wing variant of Hardt and Negri—the transition from “material” to “immaterial” production—  Marx’s value theory has become outmoded.”

Hold on, not so fast, Michael.

In theory this might be entirely true, because ‘immaterial production’ has nothing at all to do with whether it is a commodity, but, don’t you have to show empirical evidence the statement is true, not simply assert it? Don’t you have to show that the time expended (for example) in the monthly department meeting counts as value-producing labor? How are you going to demonstrate this?

Hardt and Negri raise a critical question that cannot be simply dismissed as Heinrich does:

What is the economic significance of a massive increase in so-called services, knowledge, financial and public sectors since World War II?

Here is the thing:

Even as there has been an explosion of these sector, a number of Marxists academics have noted the rapid expansion of something they call superfluous labor in the economy. Chris Harman wrote about this in 2007, citing the works of Moseley, Shaikh and Tonak, and Mohun, Kidron. Moishe Postone, in his book, Time, Labor and Social Domination, showed that the emergence of superfluous labor may not be accidental, but a predicted result of Marx’s labor theory of value.

However, according to Heinrich, a growing mass of labor time that creates no value in the economy is not something that has to be proven.  How is it possible to show whether Postone, Harman or Hardt and Negri are correct if you have not yet shown value even exists?

Moreover, Heinrich even conflates proof of an argument with the argument itself:

“Adam Smith had ‘proven’ the determination of a commodity’s value through labor with the argument that labor entails effort  and that we therefore estimate the value of something according to how much effort is involved in producing it.”

This is not proof, it is a hypothesis. Adam Smith advanced a hypothesis to explain the value property of commodities. He did not prove anything. All too often Marxists are willing to accept a convincing argument as “proof” for the empirical validity of its propositions.

Does labor theory require proof as rigorous as that underlying relativity or evolution? There is no question this is true.

2 thoughts on “Schrödinger’s Capital: Michael Heinrich explains why Marxists don’t have to prove anything”

  1. This completely misunderstands and conveniently ignores the part where Marx says the chatter about the need to prove value stems from a misunderstanding of what it is. Marx is trying to explain (Like Heinrich says) how it is possible for subjects to reproduce themselves through exchange relations. Marx’s answer is that the value relation indirectly apportions labour to various needs by validating the objectified labour as an objectification of social labour. Marx says that this validates the mutual dependency of an individual labour and the total labours which are carried out for social reproduction.

    The fact is that whether the commodity assumed the form of a good or service has no bearing on the relation between a reified service and its validation as corresponding to an allocation of socially necessary objectified general labour time. The question remains the same: is this labour necessary for the reproduction of the social total capital? If not, it is unproductive labour and claims social labour without an equivalent. If so, it is productive labour and the labour objectified in the good/service becomes part of the social distribution of labour. Hence Marx’s comment that Smith’s conflation of material sustenance with value producing labour arises from him conflating a social property of the product of labour with an actual property. Hence Marx’s discussion of the “value” of rent in Volume 3 of Capital. Value is a claim on a certain amount of social labour. It is a social relation. Can you empirically measure or view macro and abstract social relations between people? You could of course do what people like Shaikh do and empirically test the average time of commodity production and correlate it to market prices. This still would not empirically “prove” value theory because abstract labour is a social relation. It takes place on the level of ontology, not on the level of appearances. It presupposes and underlines the movement of prices and inflation of money but does not appear with it, empirically or otherwise.


    1. According to Marx, “the common substance that manifests itself in the exchange value of commodities, whenever they are exchanged, is their value.” Since 1971, there has been no exchange value to manifest the values of commodities. Now we can look at this one of two ways: either Marx was wrong, or production is not longer regulated by value. Since Marx predicted the production based on exchange value would break down, this appears to conclusively prove his thesis.


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