Overthrowing the Law of Value

Overthrowing the Law of Value


Marx writes, in volume 1 chapter 6 of Capital that

“The value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this special article.”

This is, in essence, the law of value. Now, the law of value is not a law like the laws of physics are. No, the law of value must be forced in to existence by the whips lashed across the backs of black slaves entering America, it must be forced in to existence by the bloody struggles against the free peasantry in Britain, it must be maintained by the murderous police violence encountered on the streets every day by working-class individuals. This law is not an historical absolute which has existed always and forever. In short, this law only exists when laborers have been completely denied the ability to make a living except by selling their ability to labor; when the means and materials of the production of life belong to something else.

The working-class, naturally does not take this lying down, not all the time at least. Marx implicitly points out the fundamental antagonism between worker and capitalist when he writes in volume 1 chapter 10 of Capital speaking as a laborer who has sold his labor-power.

“The commodity that I have sold to you differs from the crowd of other commodities, in that its use creates value, and a value greater than its own. That is why you bought it. That which on your side appears a spontaneous expansion of capital, is on mine extra expenditure of labour-power. You and I know on the market only one law, that of the exchange of commodities. And the consumption of the commodity belongs not to the seller who parts with it, but to the buyer, who acquires it. To you, therefore, belongs the use of my daily labour-power. But by means of the price that you pay for it each day, I must be able to reproduce it daily, and to sell it again. Apart from natural exhaustion through age, &c., I must be able on the morrow to work with the same normal amount of force, health and freshness as to-day. You preach to me constantly the gospel of “saving” and “abstinence.” Good! I will, like a sensible saving owner, husband my sole wealth, labour-power, and abstain from all foolish waste of it. I will each day spend, set in motion, put into action only as much of it as is compatible with its normal duration, and healthy development. By an unlimited extension of the working-day, you may in one day use up a quantity of labour-power greater than I can restore in three. What you gain in labour I lose in substance. The use of my labour-power and the spoliation of it are quite different things. If the average time that (doing a reasonable amount of work) an average labourer can live, is 30 years, the value of my labour-power, which you pay me from day to day is 1/(365×30) or 1/10950 of its total value. But if you consume it in 10 years, you pay me daily 1/10950 instead of 1/3650 of its total value, i.e., only 1/3 of its daily value, and you rob me, therefore, every day of 2/3 of the value of my commodity. You pay me for one day’s labour-power, whilst you use that of 3 days. That is against our contract and the law of exchanges. I demand, therefore, a working-day of normal length, and I demand it without any appeal to your heart, for in money matters sentiment is out of place. You may be a model citizen, perhaps a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and in the odour of sanctity to boot; but the thing that you represent face to face with me has no heart in its breast. That which seems to throb there is my own heart-beating. I demand the normal working-day because I, like every other seller, demand the value of my commodity.

We see then, that, apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.”

The working-class generally has little to no concern for how the law of value operates upon the constant capital consumed in production. This constant capital, after all, belongs to the other. What confronts the laborer is the means and materials of production in their physical form, albeit means and materials of production which control the labor process for the worker.

But when dealing with variable capital, the working-class is keenly interested in how the law of value is forced upon them. The capitalists would like to pay unskilled labor-power at a wage well below that of skilled labor-power. The unskilled labor-power, after all, contains much less labor-time than the skilled labor-power. For the worker, however, the average day to day existence of a skilled labor-power versus an unskilled labor-power requires the same amount of labor-time. Moreover, the amount of time spent laboring by the skilled and unskilled labor-power may be precisely the same, and yet a different result is obtained in the realm of wages, even with equal expenditures of labor-time.

The basis for the difference between the capitalist law of value and the working class opposition lies in the two-fold nature of the commodity. The commodity is, we will remember, simultaneously a use-value and a value. The value half of this equation represents labor-time that has already been expended, dead labor. The use-value half of this equation represents the commodity in motion, being consumed as real wealth for the satisfaction of living labor.

We can further trace the distinction to the production process.

When Marx describes the production process as a physical process, it is abundantly clear that living labor commands dead labor. The worker physically animates and controls the means and materials of production. This is the fundamental impulse that generates working class opposition, that living labor should dominate over dead labor, also in the social sphere as it already does in the purely physical sphere.

On the other hand, when Marx describes the production process as a process of valorization, it is just as abundantly clear that dead labor is, in fact, commanding living labor. Factories do not rust and rot away because workers leave them, communities rot away because factories close down. This, coupled with violent enforcement, is the source of the capitalist’s power. The dominion of dead labor over living.

“Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”

The domination of the living by the dead is the capitalist law of value.

The dominion of the living over the dead is the working class ideal.

Having established the above, lets confront a practical problem.

Taking S. Artesian’s recent piece let us see what our working class opposition has to say.

“The fundamental step to be taken is the elimination of all wage differentials.  The working class needs every worker to be compensated at the rate of the highest paid workers, regardless of specialty, training, skill, or seniority.”

Let us contrast this statement with Marx when, describing the capitalist law of value says in volume 1 chapter 10 of Capital

“In order to modify the human organism, so that it may acquire skill and handiness in a given branch of industry, and become labour-power of a special kind, a special education or training is requisite, and this, on its part, costs an equivalent in commodities of a greater or less amount. This amount varies according to the more or less complicated character of the labour-power. The expenses of this education (excessively small in the case of ordinary labour-power), enter pro tanto into the total value spent in its production.”

How can this be reconciled?

A worker may attend college to possess a skilled labor-power and thus be entitled, according to the capitalist law of value, to higher wages than a worker that did not train their labor-power. More labor-time was spent in the refining of the former labor-power than the latter.

According to the working class opposition, however, it is posited that the two labor-powers are valued at precisely the same level given that they spend the same amount of time in the production process. This may initially seem “unfair” given that the skilled worker paid and worked to go through college while the unskilled worker did not, but even this assumes the capitalist law of value. The First and Second International both recognized this exact case of education when they affirm that.

“Complete education for all at the expense of society”

Indeed, these Internationals recognized that refining labor-power from an unskilled to a skilled form is a process of production which should be paid for. The fundamental issue at stake here is that, in the case of skilled labor-power, the higher wage is based upon the already expired, the dead labor, required to turn unskilled labor-power in to skilled labor-power. Equal wages for both skilled and unskilled labor-powers rests upon the principle of the dominion of living labor over dead since the only consideration is to the labor-time expended at that instance. Because of this, the process of transforming an unskilled labor-power to a skilled labor-power would also be a paid process.

Moreover, these Internationals recognized the working class opposition in its most explicit expression.

“The payment to each worker of an equivalent of what his labour produces, less social charges”

The first portion of this statement is the defense of living labor against dead labor, that the living labor should receive full payment for what it produces while dead labor in the form of capital shall receive none (the constant capital consumed in the production process is replaced by its own value, what is done away with, then, is the value allotted to the owners of dead capital in the form of profit).

The Fulcrum of Class Struggle

The wage demand is not only the fulcrum of class struggle, it is also a lever firmly wedged in to the heart of the capitalist social relation. Wages are precisely that part of the social product which falls to the living labor-power while profit is that part of the social product which falls to accumulation, to the expansion of the dead labor ruling over living labor. As wages rise, profits sink, as profits rise wages sink. At first glance it might be inferred that if wages are on the rise then living labor is starting to overcome the rule of dead labor. Higher wages are contingent upon sinking profits of course, and it is true that higher wages results in a greater control over the social product for living labor. But it must never be forgotten that the law of value is held aloft by the armed force of the bourgeoisie. Higher wages are merely a smaller indemnity for the working class to pay, but an indemnity nonetheless. In order for the indemnity to be lifted, the class struggle must be definitively won. Luckily for us, the struggle for higher wages imparts upon us precisely those skills and organizations that we will need to utilize in order to overthrow the wage relation in its entirety. More than even this, the cyclical and structural crises in capitalism render previously acceptable levels of wages intolerable which brings about the question of State power. This question is brought about in circumstances which cause the capitalist productive apparatus to cease to operate under the capitalist social relation, forcing the working class to either starve or take over. But the working class will never deign to take over if it lacks a party with the willingness to do so, and without the organizations capable of running the productive apparatus. Lacking the first aspect, the working class will sacrifice this or that part of itself in order to save the whole. Lacking the second aspect, the working class will have a reach which exceeds their grasp resulting in a defeat to the whole working class.

But lets assume everything went well and the goal of the International is realized.

“The payment to each worker of an equivalent of what his labour produces, less social charges”

Just how much is that? S. Artesian calculates using some small amount of estimation that a Bangladeshi factory worker who presently makes €1.36 per day can reproduce the value of this wage in 14.4 seconds in a 12 hour working day. If the full value that this worker produces is paid, that would be a wage 3,000 times larger than the original, €4,080.

Dropping the objectivity for a moment, I don’t know what I would do with €4,080 every two weeks, let alone every day, granted I would probably work somewhere on the side of 6 hours rather than 12. This ‘problem’ is something which Marx recognizes in the Grundrisse when he writes.

“Real wealth manifests itself, rather – and large industry reveals this – in the monstrous disproportion between the labour time applied, and its product, as well as in the qualitative imbalance between labour, reduced to a pure abstraction, and the power of the production process it superintends.”

In the present moment, this excess of real wealth that the individual living labor-power cannot realistically consume, is turned in to dead labor used to dominate living labor even further. The International was rather prescient in adding the second part to this statement.

“The payment to each worker of an equivalent of what his labour produces, less social charges”

Less social charges means precisely that that excess of real wealth for the individual labor-power shall be utilized for the fulfillment and expansion of social needs. The advancement of the human species through the collective use of our resources can only come about through the combination of organizations both willing and able to seize the physical productive apparatus that capitalist society has bequeathed to us.

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