MARXISM - Three Lies about Value
VALUE - Mud pies, Mona Lisa and the wealth of Nature
We could sum up some of what we have been saying with a pair of questions and answers:
Q. What is capital within capitalism?
A. The accumulation of values.
2nd Q. From where do those values come?
A. From the application of human capacities, aka labour.
It’s time to take another look at ‘value’. Instead of saying more about what Marx said about the labour theory of value, we’re going to expose three lies about Marx’s concept of value. The liars will serve as what Mao called ‘teachers by negative example’. The wrong thinking rises from a combination of ignorance, ideology and deliberate deceit.
The first lie about mud pies. I have not made this up. Student comrades at the Australian National University assure me that this nonsense is being taught in what passes for economics in academe. The mud-pie story is supposed to show how silly Marx is. It goes like this:
A child makes mud pies in her backyard. To do so she must expend labour. In doing so, she transfer labour to the dirt and water. Therefore, the mud pies must have an economic ‘value’.
One version stops here. Students are supposed to see how childish Marx’s ideas are. A more advanced version of the lie is that the mud pies do not have a price. And since bourgeois economics equates value with price, Marx is again exposed as a fool.
Let’s not dwell on the ignorance and stupidity of the professors pushing this lie. Instead, let’s focus on what Marx would have said if asked about mud pies. First, he’d accept that the child has added value to the dirt and water. She’s made a use-value. Now you might ask, of what use is a mud-pie? The use is that it amuses its maker. It fulfills her need for play. We could go further, and point out that her act of shaping the mud teaches her something about form. In addition, when the mud dries, its consistency will be different. In brief, making mud pies has psychological and pedagogical uses.
But use value is not the same as exchange value. The presence of exchange-value is crucial to Marx’s labour theory of value. In the case of a child making mud pies for fun, two essential exchanges are absent. First, the child has not sold her capacity to make mud pies – i.e. her labour-power – for money wages. Secondly, she has not exchanged the product of her labour for any other commodity. In short, her labour is not part of the capitalist mode of production. Indeed, it’s not part of any mode of production. Of course, her parents will have to be part of some mode of production in order to keep her alive.
So, the ANU academics think they have disposed of Marx’s analysis of capitalism by taking an example from which capitalism is absent.
Before leaving these intellectual frauds behind, let’s give the thumbscrew one more turn. Let’s relocate the making of mud pies from backyards into the capitalist mode of production. Mud is used in certain cosmetic treatments. The customer pays money to have mud applied to her face. The use-value is to improve the quality of the skin. The exchange-value is in the money she pays the firm to supply this service. The exchange-value is also present in the sale of labour-power by the person who applies and removes the mud.
Now let’s give the thumbscrew yet another twist. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith writes of poor folk who collect and sell pebbles. Picking up pretty stones, is another form of child’s play. But like the sale of mud-packs, the Scottish paupers perform that labour to earn money. The use-value to the people who buy the pebbles is to fulfill a fancy, not their stomachs. But we can bet Paris to a peanut that none of the mud-pie scholars will have read beyond page 15 of The Wealth of Nations. Their ignorance applies not only to Marx but to their own Master mind.
Now let’s leap to the opposite extreme. Should a child’s mud pie ever happen to have an exchange-value, its sale price would be no more than a dollar or two.
The Mona Lisa on the other hand is ‘priceless’. It is ‘priceless’ because it is in a state collection and is unlikely to come onto the market. Were it to be stolen again and enter the black market, the bids would start at a billion Euros.
In this case, Marx’s critics do not deny that Leonardo added ‘value’ to the paints, canvas and brushes. Rather, their accusation is that the price that the masterpiece would fetch today bears no relation to the cost of the labour that went into its production. Hence, like the mud pie, the ‘Mona Lisa’ refutes the labour theory of value.
How would Marx respond? The first thing he might point out is the ‘Mona Lisa’ was produced around 1,500, more than 200 years before the capitalist mode of production became dominant. The second point is that the price that Leonardo put on his creation was related to the costs of its production. The third, and very much more important point concerns the nature of those costs.
Here we need to spotlight a crucial element in Marx’s labour theory of value.
What is ‘socially necessary’?
For purposes of illustration, Marx will write about a wage-slave selling her labour-power to this or that personification of capital. Such individual relations are merely a way of introducing a fuller account. His objective is to explain how social capital exploits social labour. He deals with the socially necessary costs of average labour. Hence, the labour theory of value applies only to labour which is reproducible. You can’t mass produce geniuses.
A fourth point makes the point clear. Leonardo could have made an exact copy of the ‘Mona Lisa’. Many portrait painters did just that. They were commissioned to make one for the sitter to keep, and the other to be sent to a friend hundreds of miles away. But there is an ocean between a copy by the original artist and the mass production of postcards of the ‘Mona Lisa’. The social labour of factory hands who produce millions of momentoes fits perfectly into Marx’s labour theory of value. The value of their product is subject to the socially necessary costs of reproduction, to competition.
A third lie about the labour theory of value has infected environmentalists. They hear that Marx argues that only labour can add value. From this correct account of his view, they conclude that he ‘devalues’ nature. Here we run into a source of confusion that devils many a discussion.
The word ‘value’ has several connotations. We use value in a moral sense, in an aesthetic sense and in an economic sense. Only stupefaction can result from a refusal to distinguish the various meanings. Marx fully recognises the value of nature in the ethical and aesthetic senses. But the labour theory of value is not about our feelings.
So far this morning, I’ve refrained from quoting Marx but I’d like to conclude with the opening of his attack on the draft programme of the German Workers Party in 1875, known as his Critique of the Gotha Programme. He opens by quoting a sentence from the Programme:
Labour is the source of all wealth and all culture.’
He rejects this claim totally. Here’s what he says:
Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values … as [is] labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour power.
Marx is drawing a line between wealth and value.
To repeat, nature is ‘just as much the source’ of wealth, as is labour.
The distinction is between wealth and value as economic categories. In short, only labour can add value to the wealth of use-values supplied by nature.
The labour theory of value cannot be grasped from a thirty-minute radio discussion. I hope I’ve sparked interest in putting in the hours of study necessary to absorb the great truth that Marx has supplied.
See also Political Economy