Marxian Economic Thought Research Paper

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Marxian economic thought encompasses the originary doctrines put forward by Karl Marx together with all the developments and controversies concerning them which have evolved since the mid-nineteenth century. The core of the Marxian ‘critique of political economy,’ and its differentia specifica from other currents in economics, may however be encapsulated in a few sentences. The chief and almost exclusive object of analysis is capital understood as a social relation of production, where exploitation occurs within a monetary commodity-economy. The theoretical instrument employed by Marx to show the link between money and exploitation as well as the endogeneity of crises is the theory that value has its exclusive source in abstract labor as activity—namely, the living labor of the wage workers.

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1. Capital as a Social Relation of Production

According to Marx, the capitalist social relation may be defined as the historical situation where the ‘objective’ conditions of production (i.e., the means of production, including original resources other than labor) are privately owned by one section of society, the capitalist class, to the exclusion of the other, the working class. Separated from the material conditions of labor and hence unable independently to produce their own means of subsistence, workers are compelled to sell to capitalist firms the only thing they own, the ‘subjective’ condition of production (i.e., their labor power), against a money wage to be spent in buying wage goods. Labor power is the capacity for labor: it is the mental and physical capabilities set in motion to do useful work, producing use values of any kind, and it is inseparable from the living body of human beings. The labor contract between the capitalists and the wage workers presupposes that the latter are juridicially free subjects (unlike slaves or serfs), and hence that they put their labor power at the disposal of the former only for a limited period of time. The owners of the means of production, the ‘industrial capitalists,’ need an initial finance from the owners of money, the ‘money capitalists,’ not only to buy the means of production among themselves (which, from the point of view of the capitalist class as a whole, amounts to a purely ‘internal’ transaction), but also and primarily to buy workers’ labor power (which, from the same point of view, is its only ‘external’ purchase). The commodity output belongs to the industrial capitalists, who sell it to ‘merchant-capitalists’ who, in turn, realize it on the market.

Marx assumes that industrial capitalists initially have at their disposal the money they need, and that they sell the output on the market without intermediation (for a classic survey of Marxian economics, see Sweezy 1970; for more recent perspectives, Harvey 1999, Foley 1986). The capitalist process in a given production period may be summarized in the following terms. The first purchase on the so-called labor market is the opening act, and it enables capitalist entrepreneurs to set production going. Firms look forward to selling the commodity product on the output market against money. The receipts must at least cover the initial advance, thereby closing the circuit. Two kinds of monetary circulation are involved here. Wage workers sell commodities, C (which, in this case, cannot but be their own labor power) against money, M, in order to obtain different commodities, C (which, in this case, cannot but be the commodity basket needed to reproduce the workers, arising out from prior production processes and owned by capitalists). Thus, wage earners are trapped in what Marx calls ‘simple commodity circulation,’ or C–M–C . On the other hand, capitalist firms buy commodities in order to sell, hence the circulation appears to be an instance of M–C–M . More precisely: ‘money capital’ (M) is advanced to purchase commodities (C), which are specified as the means of production (MP) and labor power (LP). MP and LP are the constitutive elements of ‘productive capital,’ and their joint action in production gives rise to ‘commodity capital’ (C ) to be sold on the market and transformed back into money (M ). Once expressed in this form, it is clear that capitalist circulation has meaning only in so far as the amount of money at the end is expected to be higher than the money advanced at the beginning of the circuit—that is, if M M and the value advanced as money has been able to earn a surplus alue, consisting in gross money profits (which firms will actually share with financiers, merchantcapitalists, land-owners and rentiers). M–C–M is the ‘general formula of capital,’ because capital is defined by Marx as self-expanding alue. The class divide between capitalists and wage workers may therefore be reinterpreted as separating those who have access to the advance of money as capital, money ‘making’ money, from those who have access to money only as income.

The main question addressed by Marx in the first volume of Capital is the following: how can the capitalist class get out of economic process more than they put in? What they put in, as a class, is money capital, which represents the means of production and the means of subsistence required for the current process of production. What they get out is the money value of the commodity output sold on the market at the end of the circuit. From a macroeconomic point of view, it is clear that the ‘valorization’ of capital cannot have its origin in the ‘internal’ exchanges within the capitalist class (i.e., between firms), because any profit one producer gains by buying cheap and selling dear would transfer a loss to other producers. As a consequence, the source of surplus value must be traced back to the only exchange which is ‘external’ to the capitalist class, namely the purchase of labor power.

2. The Origin of Surplus Value

To begin, let us assume that capitalist firms produce to meet effective demand, and let us take the standpoint of the total capital articulated in different industries. The methods of production (including the intensity and the productive power of labor), employment and the real wage are all known. Marx proceeds by the method of comparison. The labor power bought by capital has, like any other commodity, an exchange value and a use value: the former is the monetary form of the ‘necessary labor’ required to reproduce the means of subsistence, and is gi en before production; the latter is ‘living labor,’ or labor in motion during production. If the living labor extracted from workers were equal to necessary labor (if, that is, the economic system merely allowed for workers’ consumption), there would be no surplus value and hence no profits. Though hypothetical and capitalistically impossible, this situation is meaningful and real, since a vital capitalist production process needs to reintegrate the capital advanced to reproduce the working population at the historically given standard of living. In this kind of Marxian analogue of Schumpeter’s ‘circular flow’ relative prices reduce to the ratio between the labor contents embodied in commodities, or ‘values,’ which are expressed in money as ‘simple’ or ‘direct’ prices through the multiplication for the ‘monetary expression of labor’ (the quantity of money which is produced by one hour of labor).

But the living labor of wage workers is inherently not a constant but a ariable magnitude, whose actual quantity is yet to be determined when the labor contract is bargained, and that will materialize only within production proper. The length of the working day may be extended beyond the limit of necessary labor, so that a surplus labor is created. Indeed, the control and the compulsion by capital of workers’ effort guarantee that this potential extension of social working over and above the necessary labor day actually takes place. In this way what may be called ‘originary profits’ emerge. Marx assumes that the lengthening of the working day is the same for each worker, so that originary profits are proportional to employment. Their sum is total surplus value. So as not to confuse the inquiry into the origin of the capitalist surplus value with that into its distribution among competing capitals, Marx sticks to the same price rule, i.e. ‘simple prices’ proportional to the labor embodied in commodities. He can then subtract from the total quantity of living labor that has really been extorted in capitalist labor processes and objectified in the fresh value added the smaller quantity of labor that the workers really have to perform to produce the equivalent of the wage-goods.

The comparison Marx makes is not between a situation with petty commodity producers, whose wage exhaust income, and a situation where capitalists are present and making profits out of a proportional reduction in wages. It is rather between two actually capitalist situations, where the determining factor is the ‘continuation’ of the social working day (holding constant the given price rule). An implication of the price rule adopted by Marx is that the labor-time represented through the value of the money wage bill is the same as the labor-time necessary to produce the means of subsistence bought on the market. If the real consumption of the working class determines the bargaining on the labor market, and firms’ expectation about sales are taken to be confirmed on the commodity market, then the process of capital’s self-expansion is transparently determined by the exploitation of the working class in production, and this is simply reflected in circulation as money making profits. Of course, the possibility of surplus labor is there from the start, after the productivity of labor has reached a certain level. However, Marx’s key point is that, because the special feature of the commodity labor power is that it is inextricably bound to the bodies of the workers, they may resist capital’s compulsion. In capitalism there is creation of value only in so far as there is the anticipation of the creation of surplus value (i.e. valorization); and the potential valorization expected in the purchase of labor power on the labor market is realized only in so far as the capitalist class wins the class struggle in production and make workers work (provided, of course, firms are then able to sell the output). This is the most basic justification for labor being the sole source of value. Value is nothing but ‘dead,’ objectified labor (expressed through money) because surplus value—the real capitalist wealth—depends causally on the objectification of the li ing labor of the wage-workers in the capitalist labor process as a contested terrain: where workers are potentially recalcitrant, and where capital needs to secure labor to get surplus labor.

In capitalism, therefore, the generativity of surplus is an endogenous variable influenced by the social form taken by production as production for a surplus value to be realized on the market. With given technology and assuming that competition on the labor market establishes a uniform real wage, ‘necessary labor’ is constant. Surplus value is extracted either by lengthening the working day or by speeding up the pace of production with greater intensity of labor. Marx calls this method of raising surplus value the production of ‘absolute surplus value.’ When the length of the working day is legally and or conflictually limited, capital may enlarge surplus value by the production of ‘relative surplus value.’ Technical change, which increases the producti e power of labor, lowers the unit-values of commodities. To the extent that the changing organization of production directly or indirectly affects the firms that produce wagegoods, necessary labor, and so the value of labor power, falls. This makes room for a higher surplus labor and thus a higher surplus value. Changes in production techniques leading to relative surplus value is a much more powerful way of controlling worker performance than is the simple personal control needed to obtain absolute surplus value. Moving from ‘cooperation’ to the ‘manufacturing division of labor’ to ‘the machine and big industry’ stage, a specifically capitalist mode of production is built up. In this latter, labor is no longer subsumed ‘formally’ to capital— with surplus value extraction going on within the technological framework historically inherited by capital—but ‘really,’ through a capitalistically designed system of production. Workers become mere attendants and ‘appendages’ of the means of production as means of absorption of labor power in motion. They are mere bearers of the value-creating substance. The concrete qualities and skills possessed by laborers spring from a structure of production incessantly revolutionized from within and designed to command living labor within the valorization process. Labor is now purely abstract, indifferent to its particular form (which is dictated by capital) in the very moment of acti ity, where it has lost the object of capitalist manipulation in the search for profit. This stripping away from labor of all its qualitative determinateness and its reduction to mere quantity encompasses both the historically dominant tendency to deskilling and the periodically recurring phases of partial reskilling.

3. Capital and Competition

The outcome of the total valorization process may be quantitatively summarized with the help of a few definitions. Marx calls the part of the money-capital advanced by firms that is used to buy the means of productions ‘constant capital’ because, through the mediation of labor as concrete labor, the value of the raw materials and of the instruments of production is transferred to the value of the product. He calls ‘variable capital’ the remaining portion of the moneycapital advanced—namely, the money-form taken by the means of subsistence that buys the workers to incorporate them in the valorization process—because when living labor is pumped out from workers’ capacity to labor as abstract labor, it not only replaces the value advanced by the capitalists in purchasing labor power, but also produces value over and above this limit, and, so, surplus value. Constant and variable capital must not be confused with fixed and circulating capital: ‘fixed capital’ is the capital tied up in plant and equipment lasting more than the chosen time-period; and ‘circulating capital’ is the capital advanced for wages and raw materials, and it is only partially consumed within the period. The ratio of the surplus value to the variable capital is Marx’s ‘rate of surplus value.’ It accurately expresses the degree of exploitation, this latter being interpreted as the appropriation by capital of surplus labor within the social working day: the higher (lower) the ratio, the higher (lower) the hours the laborers spend working for the capitalist class relative to the hours they spend producing for their own consumption. A similar division between constant capital, variable capital and surplus value, may be detected within the value of the output produced by single capitals as components of total capital. On the other hand, capitalists naturally refer the surplus value to the total capital they advanced. Surplus value as related to the sum of constant and variable capital takes the new name of ‘profit,’ and this new ratio is thereby known as the ‘rate of profit’. Because it connects surplus value not only to variable capital but also to constant capital, the rate of profit obscures the internal necessary relation between surplus value as the effect to living labor as the cause. Profit increasingly comes to be seen as produced by the whole capital as a thing (either as money-capital or as the ensemble of means of production, including workers as things among things) rather than as a social relation between classes. Nevertheless, this fetishistic mystification is not mere illusion; on the contrary, it depends on the fact that, to exploit labor, capital has to be simultaneously advanced as constant capital, and that thereby wage labor is a part of capital on the same footing as the instruments of labor and the raw materials. From this standpoint, the rate of profit accurately express the degree of valorization of all the value advanced as capital.

Before going on, it is necessary to understand the crucial role and the different meaning of competition in Marx. Competition is, for him, an essential feature of capitalist reality. What all capitals have in common—the inner tendency of ‘capital in general’—is their systematic ability to make money grow. It is accounted for by the exploitation of the working class by capital as a whole. The nature of capital, however, is realized only through the interrelationship of the many capitals in opposition to each other. This is already clear in the very definition of abstract labor and value (on Marx’s labor theory of value the best treatments are: Colletti 1972, Rubin 1973, Napoleoni 1975, Reuten and Williams 1989; on the relationship between Marx and Hegel, see the essay by Arthur in Moseley 1993). The ‘socially necessary’ amount of abstract labor contained in a commodity comes to be established through the ex post socialization in exchange of dissociated capitalist-commodity producers. Therefore, the determination of ‘social values’ as regulators of production leading to some ‘equilibrium’ allocation of social labor—the ‘law of value’—affirms itself on individual capitals only through the mediation of the reciprocal interaction on the market.

Marxian competition is of two kinds (Grossmann 1977). The first is intra-branch (or ‘dynamic’) competition (this side of Marx’s legacy was a powerful source of inspiration for Schumpeter). Within a given sector, there is a stratification of conditions of production, and firms may be ranked according to their high, average or low productivity. The social value of a unit of output tends towards the individual value of the firms producing the dominant mass of the commodities sold within the sector. This, of course, implies that a sufficiently strong shift in demand may indirectly affect social value. Those firms whose individual value is lower (higher) than social value earn a surplus value that is higher (lower) than the normal. There is, therefore, a permanent incentive for single capitals to innovate in search of extra-surplus value, whatever the industry involved. This provides the micro-mechanism leading to the systematic production of relative surplus value, independently of the conscious motivations of the individual capitalists. The new, more advanced methods of production increasing the productive power of labor are embodied in more mechanized labor processes. Thus, the ‘technical composition of capital’—the number of means of production relative to the number of workers employed—rises. This is represented by a growth in the ratio of constant capital to variable capital, both measured at the values ruling before innovation, what Marx calls the ‘organic composition of capital.’ But the ‘devaluation’ (the reduction in unit values) of commodities resulting from innovation permeates also the capital-goods sector and may well result in a fall of the ‘value composition of capital,’ that is, of the value-index of the composition of capital measured at the values prevailing after the change.

4. The ‘Transformation Problem’

The struggle to secure, if only temporarily, extrasurplus value expresses a tendency to a di ersification of the rate of profit within a given sector. On the other hand, the second kind of competition, inter-branch (or ‘static’) competition, expresses the tendency to an equalization of the rate of profit across sectors. Whereas intra-branch competition is enforced by accumulation, which increases the size of capitals, inter-branch competition is enforced by the mobility of capitals of a given size. An apparent contradiction, however, comes to the fore. The rate of profit is the ratio of surplus value to the whole (stock of ) capital invested. Assuming, for the sake of simplicity, that all capital is circulating capital, and that the latter is anticipated for the whole period, if both the numerator and the denominator are divided by the variable capital, the rate of profit is a positive function of the rate of surplus value and a negative function of the (value) composition of capital. If, as Marx assumes, competition makes uniform both the length of the working day and the average wage, then the rate of surplus value is the same everywhere. In other words, the labor power bought by variable capital produces a value and a surplus value which is proportional to the labor time expended. But there is no reason to assume a similar uniformity in the compositions of capital. If ‘normal’ prices were equal to simple prices, then the rate of profit would in general diverge among branches of production: ‘prices of production’ including a profit equalized across sectors cannot be proportional to values.

Marx offers a solution to the problem in Volume III of Capital: ‘prices of production’ must be interpreted as ‘transformed’ simple prices that merely redistribute surplus value among capitalist commodity-producers.

They are the prices of the capitalist outputs reached through the application to the capital advanced in each industry (still accounted in ‘value’ terms) of an a erage rate of profit. This latter is theoretically constructed as the ratio of the total surplus value to the sum of constant and variable capital invested in the whole economy. This ‘value’ aggregate rate of profit reflects the total abstract labor congealed in the surplus value over the total abstract labor congealed in capital. As such, it acts as the necessary intermediate bridge between simple prices proportional to values (highlighting the genesis of surplus value) and prices of production (representing the ‘free’ operation of interbranch competition). The total surplus value resulting from the valorization process is now apportioned to individual capitals as a profit proportional to their amount. The profit accruing to a given capital, therefore, may be higher or lower than the surplus value produced by the labor power bought by its own variable capital if the (value) composition of that capital is higher or lower than the average. In Marx’s transformation two equalities are respected: the sum of simple prices is equal to the sum of prices of production, and the sum of surplus values is equal to the sum of profits. Moreover, the ‘price’ and the ‘value’ rate of profit are identical. Once inter-branch competition is introduced into the theoretical picture, prices of production replace social values as the centres of gravity of effective, market prices.

A long debate developed from the attempt of subsequent authors to correct what seemed to be an ‘error’ recognized by Marx himself as present in his transformation. There appeared to be a double and inconsistent evaluation of the same commodities when considered as inputs (means of subsistence and elements of workers’ subsistence) and as outputs. The former were computed at ‘simple prices’ and the latter at ‘prices of production’ (Foley 2000 provides an overview of the discussion; for a denial that there is any error in Marx’s transformation, see the chapter by Andrew Kliman in Bellofiore 1998). The tradition starting with Dmitriev, Bortkiewicz and TuganBaranovski and reaching maturity with Seton and Steedman’s reading of the Sraffa model of price determination abandons Marx’s successi ist method and frames the transformation in the setting of a simultaneous equation system. Taking the methods of production and the real wage as the data, it is possible to fix the prices of production, but in general the two equalities cannot be maintained together and the ‘price’ rate of profit deviates from the ‘value’ rate of profit. More damagingly, the labor theory of value appears to be redundant, since the values expressed by simple prices are known starting from the ‘physical’ configuration of production and of workers’ subsistence, and this is the given from which the prices of production can immediately be determined, so that there is no need for a dual-system accounting. Rather than being a strength of his theory, as Marx thought, the derivation of prices of production from values (through simple prices) seems to end up in the dissolution of the foundation of the whole theoretical construction.

Among the various attempts to counter this negative conclusion, most forcibly put by Samuelson, three positions may be singled out. The first is represented by Dumenil, Foley and Lipietz (compare Foley 1986; but see also: Dumenil 1980, Lipietz 1982, and the chapter by Desai in Bellofiore 1998). In Foley’s version, the key point is a new interpretation of the value of money and of the value of labor power, which are assumed as the constants of the transformation. The ‘value of money,’ (i. e. the amount of abstract labor time the monetary units represent), is defined as the ratio of the total direct labor time expended in the period to the total money income—which, of course, is the reciprocal of the ‘monetary expression of labor’. The ‘value of labor power’ is no longer defined as the labor embodied in a predetermined commodity bundle consumed by workers, but as the labor represented in the equivalent going to the workers—namely, the given money wage translated into a claim on social labor being multiplied by the value of money. The purchasing power of this money wage, and, so, the labor embodied in the real wage, may change in the transformation from simple prices to prices of production, and workers’ consumer choices are allowed to change. Given that the money value of income is postulated to be the measure of the additional value created by workers and that the value of labor power expresses the distribution of this additional value between capital and labor, variable capital is read as the labor ‘commanded’ in exchange by money wages (the ‘paid’ portion of living labor) and surplus value as the labor ‘commanded’ in exchange by gross money profits (the ‘unpaid’ portion of living labor). From this point of view, the two Marxian equalities are both respected, provided that the equality between the sum of simple prices and the sum of production prices is applied to the total new value added and not to the total value embodied in the commodity product (a point particularly stressed by Dumenil and Lipietz); but the ‘price’ rate of profit may still vary relative to the ‘value’ rate of profit. A second position is articulated by Fred Moseley in his contribution to Bellofiore (1998). In his view, the givens in the transformation are the value components (constant and variable capital, surplus value) interpreted as money magnitudes, which are taken to be the same whatever the price rule. This is tantamount to saying that constant capital is also to be thought of in terms of the labortime represented in the equivalent: as the labor ‘commanded’ by the money advanced by firms to buy the means of production, rather than in terms of the labor embodied in these latter. Through this further rereading, the two Marxian equalities are confirmed in their originary version, with the ‘value’ and the ‘price’ average rate of profit being one and the same.

The third position (cf. Bellofiore-Finelli’s chapter in Bellofiore 1998) is based on a reconstruction of Marxian theory within a non-commodity money approach, and on an initial differentiation between money capital (identified with the banking system) and industrial capital (identified with the whole firmsector). It shares with the New Interpretation the view that the core insight of the labor theory of value is the identity between the net product coming out from the living labor of the wage workers evaluated at simple prices and at prices of production. But the third position derives a stronger claim on distribution from the clear separation between firms’ monopoly access to money as capital and wage-earners’ access only to money as income. Indeed, this distinction means that, through its aggregate investment decision, industrial capital’s macro-behavior is able to set the real consumption goods which are left available to workers as a class, their freedom to choose as individual consumers notwithstanding (a point which was implicitly taken up again by Keynes in some chapters in his Treatise on Money, and extended by some postKeynesian writers and by the Circuit theory of money). As a consequence, the transformation of simple prices into prices of production means a redoubling of the value of labor power, with ‘paid labor’ (i.e., the labortime equi alent expressed in the money-prices of the wage-goods bought in exchange) departing from ‘necessary labor’ (i.e., the abstract labor-time actually performed to produce those wage-goods). The rate of surplus-value of the first volume of Capital even after the transformation accurately depicts the outcome of the struggle over labor time in production proper, and hence the division between the total living labor expended and the share which has been undertaken for the reproduction of the working class. Since, however, prices of production redistribute the new value added among individual capitals in such a way that the producers of wage-goods may obtain a higher or lower amount than actually produced by the labor-power they employed, the gross money profit money wage rate is a different quantitative measure, a deceptive form of appearance in circulation obscuring the origin of surplus value from labor.

The new approaches see commodity-exchange at simple prices (proportional to values) or at prices of production as alternati e price rules. The reasons for Marx’s moving from the former to the latter may be summarized as follows. Exchange at simple prices makes it transparent that labor is the source of value and surplus value. The redundancy criticism can be rejected once it is realized that the quantity of inputs other than labor and the quantity of output (i.e. the givens in the transformation) are subordinate to the actual use—namely, exploitation—of labor power in production. Value as objectified labor realized in money, and embodying surplus value and surplus labor, expresses capital’s degree of success in constituting the fundamental capital relation, that is, in winning its battle as total capital against the working class and thus becoming a self-valorizing value. Although some partial treatment of intra-branch competition is required to understand why and how much living labor is ‘pumped out’ in capitalist labor processes, interbranch competition—and therefore the redistribution of the new value added across sectors and the derivation of prices of production—is a secondary logical moment to be abstracted from at the beginning of the inquiry. Marx is here again adopting the method of comparison. The ‘simple price’ level of abstraction looks at single capitals as aliquot parts of capital as a whole, on the fiction that each of them is getting all the value that is produced in its individual sphere. The ‘price of production’ level of abstraction allows for capital mobility equalizing the rate of profit across sectors, and each individual capital has to gain profits in proportion to the investments. This second level may be interpreted as a more concrete layer of the theory. The former, ‘hypothetical’ capitalism, is, however, by no means a first approximation in the sense of giving a preliminary, inexact picture: it rather truly reflects the living labor expended in the different branches of production, that is the hidden essence of the capitalist process. The more so if the ‘value’ subdivision of the social working day between the two classes is understood as invariant to the price rule.


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