Here’s a yo-yo. Let’s say it took an hour to make, parts and everything. And here’s a bag of high-fructose jelly beans. Let’s say they took 20 minutes to make. What if they both sold for $5, despite having different labor contents? Wouldn’t this be a big problem for Marx’s value theory?
When people get their panties in a bunch about price/value it’s over this issue of price and value not being the same all the time. Ack! Is this non-identity of value and price the end of Marx and the end of all radical politics?
I hope not. After all, the reason we have two concepts, value and price, is because they are not the same. It is the relation between them that counts. It is the relation between them that explains the inner mechanisms of capitalist production and exchange. If value and price were the same we would automatically know how much labor went into a commodity and what level of output we needed to meet societies demand. But if we already knew all of these things then there would be no need to have value or price or even a market for that matter. We could just plan everything on a computer.
But we don’t have a planned economy. How many yo-yos and jelly beans should society produce? How much of society’s labor time should go in to each? Nobody knows! And when the capitalist buys plastic and string and hires yo-yo makers she doesn’t know how much profit she’ll make. And when we go to the store we can’t see how much work went into our yo-yos and jelly beans! These decisions all must happen through the fluctuation of price signals. These fluctuations reflect back upon production to discipline and apportion labor.
Discipline and Apportion
When we say that labor is ‘disciplined’ we mean that Joe Shmoe on the jellybean assembly line is pushed to work at the average level of productivity. On the shop floor he is pushed by the speed of the machine and his boss. But the machine and his boss are being pushed by competition in the market to lower the Socially Necessary Labor Time it takes to make jellybeans. (see my video ‘Socially Necessary Labor Time’)
When we say that labor is ‘apportioned’ we are talking about how many people work at the jelly bean factory and how many work at the yo-yo factory, and so on. In other words, we are talking about the division of labor.
The division of labor and the SNLT determine what is produced, how much is produced and what the values between these commodities are.
But the unique thing about capitalism is that these decisions about disciplining and apportioning labor only happen after the labor has been performed. Price signals are judgements on past labor which then influence future labor (see my video Production and Exchange). As the products of labor leave production, enter circulation and then become inputs into future production we have a continual feedback loop of information.
Production and Exchange
This feedback loop could be confusing unless we remember this important principle:
‘value cannot be created in exchange’
Once you understand this almost everything else falls into place. Value is created in production by human labor. It takes the form of commodities with definite values. Commodities enter the market place where they acquire prices. Sometimes these prices are above their values. Sometimes below. These signals act back upon production to discipline and apportion labor. Thus the enormous, complex division of labor in a capitalist society is coordinated through the value relations between the commodities.
Because value cannot be created in exchange this means that the exchange of commodities is a zero-sum game. If some commodities sell above values then others must sell below. There can be no aggregate increase in value merely through the process of commodities changing owners. To have new value there must be new labor.
Unlike neoclassical theory where prices arise merely from the collision of subjective motivations of individuals bartering, totally abstracting away from the production process, the Marxist theory of of value and price directly links these phenomenon to the need for society to reproduce itself through a capitalist division of labor.
Value, Price and Money
Yo-yo’s don’t walk around with “1 hour of labor” written all over them. We only know the social value of a Yo-Yo through its money price. This is what we mean when we say that price is the ‘form of appearance’ of value. It is the visible, tangible form that value takes in the world. We only see the relations between laborers through the exchange ratios of commodities. Money is the god of all commodities. It is the one commodity that all other commodities measure their value in. Thus price is a very special type of exchange value. Prices represent values in the abstract. They are measures of abstract labor (See my video on Abstract Labor).
Thus when the price of a jellybean rises above its value this means that the jellybean commands more money than its value, that it commands more abstract labor in exchange than it required in production.
If value can’t be created in exchange this means that the total amount of value produced is always equal to the total prices of these commodities. But individual values and prices can and must diverge in order for the price mechanism to discipline and apportion labor.
Demand and Supply
One of the main reasons that prices deviate from values is the constant fluctuations of demand and supply. As capital revolutionizes the productivity of labor, values change, output and prices change, and demand and supply fluctuate. If demand for jellybeans is higher than supply then the prices of jellybeans rise above their values, they command more abstract labor in exchange, and this triggers a reapportioning of labor to bring supply in line with demand.
In the case of a monopoly or oligopoly supply is kept artificially low so that prices rise and the monopolists get extra profit.
If the supply and demand of yo-yos, jellybeans and all other commodities magically balanced, then prices would equal values. (That is, if we are abstracting from prices of production.) But if this was the case we wouldn’t have much need for price. We’d automatically know how much labor input went into anything we demanded and we could just organize everything on a computer without a market.
Side Note on Marx’s Method
Sometimes people think that profit comes from unequal exchange. This can be true for individuals but not for society as a whole because value cannot be created in exchange. One person’s loss is another’s gain. In order for there to be an aggregate increase in society’s profit there must be exploitation of workers for surplus value. In order to not confuse the individual profits than can occur from unequal exchange with the surplus value generate from exploiting workers Marx often suggests that we imagine that values=prices. This allows us to more easily see the origin of surplus value.
This does not mean that Marx actually thinks that prices always equal value, or even that they gravitate toward that state over the long run. In fact he says just the opposite: that demand and supply rarely meet and that prices and values are rarely the same.
Marx’s argument about surplus value, and all of his other conclusions as well, are totally valid whether or not values equal price. Sometimes people think that by pointing to value-price divergences they have somehow undermined the theory of surplus value. This is an error.
Before we move on we should review the main points thus far: Value can’t be created in exchange, only moved around. Money is the measure of value. If a commodity sells above its value this is the same as saying that it commands more labor in exchange than the labor that went into it.
Component Parts of Value
I haven’t been to a yo-yo factory but I picture an assembly line of people wrapping string around yo-yos. There’s probably another room where plastic gets poured into molds. But this isn’t all of the labor that goes into a yo-yo. Before any of this labor can commence materials much be purchased: string, plastic, molds, paint. And all of those inputs come from past labor processes elsewhere in the world. Every labor process has new active labor, which Marx calls “living labor”, and inputs from past labor, which Marx calls “dead labor”.
Dead labor cannot create value. The cost of purchasing inputs like string and plastic is passed onto the output prices of yo-yos, but no new value comes from this labor because it is already done laboring!
Living labor creates the new value. The worker creates the value of their wage so that the capitalist makes back their investment. The worker also performs surplus labor for the capitalist. This is surplus value.
At the beginning of the day the capitalist lays out money for inputs and wages. This is her cost of production. If she wants to continue to make yo-yos tomorrow she will need to make back enough money to buy inputs and wages tomorrow. Thus prices are inherently tied to the need for the system to reproduce itself. She also needs an incentive to invest: this is profit. Thus prices are inherently tied to the need for the capital to exploit labor.
The capitalist doesn’t lay out anything for surplus value. This she acquires from the worker for free. That’s why it’s called exploitation. But the profit capitalists get from selling their commodities is not always equal to the surplus value they produce. If the price of yo-yos rise above their value then when they are sold the capitalist’s profit is higher than the surplus value contained in the product! Surplus value has been transferred in exchange.
I started by saying that price and value were not equal because they were different concepts. Now we can add that surplus value and profit are not always equal because they represent different concepts as well. Surplus value can only be created in production but it can be redistributed in exchange.
If a capitalist’s profit is higher than the surplus value they create in production we call this “super-profit”. As we discussed in the video on SNLT, super-profits are the prime motivating force of a capitalist economy. They drive innovation and attract investment. They are a necessary part of capitalist competition.
Prices of Production
Now if you really want to talk about surplus value being redistributed in exchange then you have to talk about Prices of Production.
It starts with a puzzle:
Let’s say jellybeans take just a tiny bit of living labor compared to all the dead labor that goes into the inputs. You basically buy a lot of sugar, corn syrup and die, and and then you hire someone to push some buttons in factory while machines turn that sugar into bean shaped sugar. But let’s say that yo-yos take a lot more labor in comparison. You buy some plastic and string and then you have to hire people to make plastic molds, paint the yo-yos, and then let’s not forget how long it takes to wind up a yo-yo…. So the two industries have different proportions of living to dead labor.
Since the yo-yo factory has a higher proportion of living labor we can assume (assuming equal rates of exploitation) that the yo-yo factory must produce more surplus value than the jellybean factory. More workers means more value means more surplus value. We’d expect the yo-yo factory to be more profitable.
But there’s also this phenomenon called Average Profits.This is where the puzzle comes in. If capital is free to invest in any industry, free to move in search of the highest profits, this causes a tendency for profit rates to equalize. Jellybean makers start to invest in the yo-yo industry, cutting into their profit margins. Capital flows from one industry to the other. Supply and demand change. Prices change. Eventually, assuming the free flow of capital, jellybean makers and yo-yo makers enjoy the same rate of profit.
Now you see the puzzle. One industry produces more surplus value than the other, but they have the same rate of profit. HOW CAN THIS BE?
If we remember that value cannot be created in exchange, and that surplus value cannot be created in exchange, then we can easily solve the puzzle. First we note the following two principles:
1. Total prices equal total values.
2. Total surplus value equals total profit.
And the answer to our riddle is this: Surplus value is redistributed between capitalists to form an average rate of profit. That should seem simple enough since we’ve already discussed the redistribution of value in exchange.
How do capitalist’s redistribute surplus value? Do they send it to each other in the mail? No. Prices do this work of redistribution. The prices for some commodities fall, others rise, and thus capitalists gain and lose surplus value in exchange in a way that equalizes profit rates. In this way surplus value becomes less of the property of the individual capitalist and more the property of the capitalist class as whole, uniting the class in their common interest in the exploitation of labor. These new prices, the prices which redistribute surplus value to form an average rate of profit, Marx calls “Prices of Production”.
Prices of production systematically deviate from values yet they are directly related to values. The total level of surplus value created determines the amount of value that can be redistributed to form these new prices of production. In addition, the tendency towards an average rate of profit is merely a tendency. Just as supply and demand fluctuate, never balancing, so do profit rates.
Another note on method.
So we see several different factors to keep in mind when discussing price.
If there is no equalization of profit rates and demand and supply are in balance then we can say that price=value.
If we assume a perfect equalization of profit rates and supply and demand are in balance then we can say that price=prices of production.
If we then let supply and demand fluctuate around these prices of production we get market prices.
Sometimes Marx just talks about value, sometime he talks about prices of production, and sometimes he talks about market price. These are three different levels of abstraction. Many mistakes have been make by people not paying attention to what level of abstraction is currently being discussed. Bohm-Bawerk, for instance, complained that in one place Marx said that value=price but in another place said that prices of production=price. He thought Marx was contradicting himself. But had Bohm-Bawerk been interested in actually reading Max a little more closely he might have realized that Marx’s analysis takes place on many levels of abstraction and that we must keep these levels in mind at all times if we want to understand what is going on.
We should also keep in mind that Marx’s central conclusions about exploitation, crisis and all of the other antagonisms of a capitalist society still hold whether we are talking about value, price of production or market price. Regardless of the level of abstraction, value cannot be created in exchange, and surplus value can only come from the exploitation of the working class.
We can only conclude that Marx gives a a quite robust and practical explanation of the way that commodity exchange regulates the reproduction of a capitalist division of labor and class relations. There is definitely a lot more to say on the topic, and a number of controversies to examine. On my WordPress blog you can find footnotes and references pointing you to more information and resources on this topic.
And now we can see how radically different Marx’s theory of price is from his Neoclassical critics. For neoclassical economics price is a reflection of equilibrium, of a state rest where all utilities are maximized. For Marx price formation is a ceaseless process of fluctuation that is part of a much larger process of value formation and distribution as capitalists compete to exploit workers better than their competitors, thus constantly revolutionizing the technological basis of society.
From Marx’s theory of price we can immediately move to a theory of capitalist crisis. Because the tendency toward an average profit rate redistributes value between industries there is no way to keep firms from investing more and more in machines and less and less in workers. In fact the race for super-profit compels capitalists to decrease socially necessary labor time by spending more on machines to make workers more efficient. This means while individual capitalists race to increase their own super-profit, that over time the average profit rate of the economy as a whole falls. The worker finds herself confronted with a greater and greater mass of machinery, while the capitalist class finds itself getting a lower and lower rate of return on larger and larger investments. The time is right for a crisis!
Footnotes: Actually this is more like a glossary of terms and topics:
Value: Marx’s terms have an elastic quality. In different places they stretch or constrict to contain more or less content. This is because Marx understands things (and processes) only relationally. Things only have meaning in how they relate to other things. Value is a particularly elastic term because it sits at the very center of capitalist social relations. Sometimes when Marx says “value” he is talking about the exchange value of commodities, sometimes he is talking about the labor that goes into a commodity, sometimes he is talking about the form of social relations unique to a capitalist society. Understanding value theory requires that we are aware of what particular aspect of value is being referred to in a specific context. See Bertell Ollman’s “Dance of the Dialectic” for more on the elasticity of Marx’s terms.
Quality-Quantity: Value theory has both qualitative and quantitative dimensions. It’s a theory of social relations. In contrast to predecessors who treated categories like capital and labor only at the level of content, Marx was concerned with the form of these things took in a market society. In such a society they take the form of value relations and these involve certain laws, imply certain social relations, fetishism, etc…. These are all the qualitative aspects of value theory, in many ways the most crucial aspects of his theory to understand for formulating an understanding of the radical challenges of anti-capitalist politics.
But value theory also has a quantitative dimension, which comes to the foreground when we look at the value-price dimension. At times in the 20th century, due to the persistent myth that there was something internally inconsistent with the quantitative side of Marx’s value theory, Marxists have attempted to distance themselves from the quantitative aspects of value theory, instead developing approaches which attempted to side-step these quantitative aspects by focusing only on the qualitative aspects of the theory. This is no longer necessary, see my vid on TRansformation Problem.
Indirectly Social: Marx calls this unique way of organizing labor “indirectly social”. Rather than operating on some sort of plan where we decide how much labor should go into the production of various things our labor is distributed indirectly through the price signals of the market. We perform private labor. This labor is not social labor when we are performing it. It only becomes social after we finish working when the products of our labor meet in the market. Here in the market we find out if our labor has been socially useful and if it has been performed at the average level of efficiency. Isaac Rubin has a good discussion of Indirectly Social labor here.
Appropriation of Value: Bourgeois theory often confuses the appropriation of value with the creation of value in its idea of returns to factors of production. A bourgeois economist might argue that because the owner of land gets rent from their land that this means that the land has produced value. But in Marx’s system only human labor can produce value. The rent a landlord gets is an appropriation of value. The value is created elsewhere and the landlord appropriates it. (There’s a much more complex theory of rent, but that’s another topic.) Or we might hear that risk creates value. It could be that risky ventures require a greater potential reward to encourage risk. But there is a difference between making a big monetary reward on an investment (appropriating value) and actually creating value.
Money: Marx sees money as the embodiment of labor time in the abstract. He builds this theory directly from his theory of the commodity. Commodities have both a use-value and an exchange-value. The use-value is a specific dimension of the commodity particular to each object and their various uses. Exchange-value is a universal, abstract dimension of the commodity. It is the empty quantitative relations between a commodity and all other commodities. It is numbers, not qualities. This leads to the separation of use and exchange value. Use-value stays in the bodily form of the commodity while exchange-value separates itself from the commodity in the form of money. Money becomes the commodity that all other commodities measure themselves against. As such it is the universal measure of value and the universal measure of abstract labor. While Marx’s theory of money is robust and historical enough to allow for the evolution of non-commodity forms of money, at the abstract level he roots his analysis of Money in the money commodity (usually gold). Money gets its value from the fact that it is a product of labor. Money itself is a commodity with a use-value and an exchange value. But because its use as money becomes its purpose in measuring the value of other commodities this leads money to have some rather unique qualities. I will delve more deeply into the topic of money in a future video in this series. The best thing to read on Money is Marx’s “Critique of Political Economy“.
Equalities: Marx famously held three equalities to be true for the economy as a whole: 1. total value equals total price; 2. total surplus value equals total profit; 3. total value rate of profit equals total money rate of profit. This is discussed in vol. 3 of Marx’s Capital Part 2.
Organic Composition: the ratio of constant to variable capital is called the organic composition of capital and is drawn as c/v. The higher the organic composition in society as a whole, the lower the rate of profit. This is discussed in vol. 3 of Marx’s Capital, chapter 8.
Prices of Production: If capitalists receive an average rate of profit regardless of the ratio of constant to variable capital, how do prices of production still regulate the division of labor? Prices of Production still allocate labor because wages and surplus value are still involved in the prices of commodities. But, yes this allocation doesn’t happen as smoothly as it would in a world with no average rate of profit. In fact we already know that there is a systematic tendency in capitalism for capitalists to replace workers with machines. This increases the productivity of the remaining workers, allowing capitalists to produce below the SNLT and thus gain super-profits in exchange. Prices of production allow capitalists to continue to automate production without being punished for producing at a lower individual rate of profit. But if firms are replacing more and more workers with machines then less and less surplus value is being produced relative to the cost of all those machines. This leads to a Falling Rate of Profit in the economy as a whole. This is why in vol. 3 of Kapital Marx immediately moves from the discussion of Prices of Production to the theory of the Falling Rate of Profit. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall can lead to crisis, like the one we are in now. The rate of profit is only restored once enough capital value (ie the costs of production: workers, inputs) has been destroyed or devalued. See my video on the Falling Rate of Profit or any of my coverage of Kliman.
Input and Outputs prices: There is debate amongst Marxists as to the proper way to theorize input and output prices under Prices of Production. In short, many argue that input prices should not be valued at their original actual cost to the capitalist, but instead by the price it would cost to replace those inputs. This is called the ‘reproduction price’ of inputs. The logic behind this is that if prices of inputs rise I need to sell my product for more if I am going to repeat production tomorrow. This leads to a static equilibrium procedure in which input prices are retroactively revalued to meet output prices. But this process of holding input and output prices equal leads to the transformation problem and the various partial solutions to this problem. In response the Temporal Single System Interpretation (TSSI) holds that input prices should not be revalued to equal output prices, but that, instead there should be a temporal process in which output prices become the input prices of the next period, not the one that has already passed. Rather than valuing inputs at their ‘reproduction prices’ the TSSI folk value them at their ‘pre-production reproduction price’. That is the reproduction price of the input before it enters production. (See Kliman’s ‘Reclaiming Marx’s Capital’ for more on this.)
Transformation Problem: In short: Marx showed how value is redistributed in exchange to form prices of production. To do this he set up a simple numerical example where inputs purchased at their values are transformed into prices of production. But in the real world, his critics cried, inputs would be purchased at prices of production, not values! Since input prices and output prices must be the same in equilibrium theory (see above Inputs and Output prices) then there was some fancy math involved in figuring this all out. The upshot: total prices and total values don’t equal each other anymore. Furthermore value and production price were severed into two separate systems and it wasn’t clear what the relation was between them. The Temporal Single System (TSSI) response is to say that output prices of production are the input production prices of the next period, not the previous one. This eliminates the mathematical inconsistency in the transformation and also keeps values and prices of production as part of the same system, rather than two separate systems whose relation is only metaphysically related. The book to read on this topic is Andrew Kliman’s “Reclaiming Marx’s Capital; Refuting the Myth of Inconsistency”.
In my own awkward way I made a video on the subject several years back.
Levels of Abstraction: Marxists treat the levels of abstraction in value theory differently. This is often because of the strange way in which the transformation problem developed. The traditional interpretation of the transformation problem severs value and price of production into two separate systems whose relation has to be arbitrarily imposed mathematically. Value is seen as somehow determining prices of production, and then market prices are seen as fluctuations around these prices of production. The Temporal Single System Interpretation (TSSI) takes a different stance on the issue. It seems values being created in exchange but being sold at market prices. These market prices form the inputs into production and the outputs. Prices of production are tendential prices that market prices gravitate toward. Critics claim that the TSSI has erased important theoretical distinctions between value and price and just explained prices through past prices. But the TSSI claims that it has cut through the bullshit metaphysics and mapped out the practical way in which inputs and outputs relate in a temporal, fluctuating economy. Central to the TSSI’s understanding of these levels of abstraction is Marx’s statement that price is the form of appearance of value (or more specifically in chapter 3 of Vol 1 “Money as a measure of value, is the phenomenal form that must of necessity be assumed by that measure of value which is immanent in commodities, labour-time.”). Thus value cannot exist in some separate metaphysical system, whispering into the ears of prices. Instead if appears as price and is transformed in exchange through the ways described above.
NeoClassical Economics: There are plenty of things to read if you are looking for a good critique of the neoclassical orthodoxy. The reason there are so many things to read is that orthodox economics is a huge religion, all smoke and mirrors, with little relevance to the real world. Viewers who know too much to be watching my videos in the first place will notice that in this video I throw Pierro Sraffa’s face into some of the group shots of bourgeois economists. Sraffa is not a neoclassical economist and is actually responsible for a number of quite useful critiques of the neoclassical orthodoxy (See Steve Keen’s “Debunking Economics” for a good synopsis of the Sraffian critique”. So it is technically wrong for me to group Sraffa in this category. On the other hand the Sraffians still maintain that there is an internal inconsistency in Marx’s transformation procedure because they insist on modelling value and price through general equilibrium analysis. Many 20th century Marxists also have been influenced by the Sraffian critique of Marx. For a good critique of some of the problems with this approach see Alan Freeman’s great essay “The Psychopathology of Walrasian Marxism”. That Freeman paper appeared in an excellent, and prohibitively expensive, volume of essays, many of which contain good critiques of equilibrium economics. I also enjoy Mark Linder’s “Anti-Samuelson” as well as Simon Clarke’s “Marx, Marginalism and Sociology” which I’ve written about here.