This is a draft of the script for my next video “Value and Price”. Any feedback is helpful. The footnotes have yet to be numerically linked to the main text.
There is a lot of confusion over Marx’s theory of value and price. Let’s take care of that. [Obviously I'm just skimming the surface here, but I suspect that what my audience wants is a broad concept of the main points.]
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. At noon today a hot dog that took 20 minutes to make might sell for the same price as a bowel of soup that took an hour to make. Ack! Is this non-identity of value and price the end of Marx and the end of all radical politics?
I hope not. The reason we have two concepts, value and price, is because they are not the same. 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 knew all of these things then there would be no need to have value or price or a market for that matter. We could just plan everything on a computer.
But we don’t have a planned economy. What division of labor and what level of productivity are necessary for the division of labor to reproduce itself each day? Nobody knows. When capitalist hire workers and buy inputs they don’t know what sort of profit they will make. And when we go to the store we don’t know how much labor has gone into the things we buy. 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 meant that individual workers must strive to work at the average level of productivity. This is Socially Necessary Labor Time (see my video ‘Socially Necessary Labor Time’). When we say that labor is ‘apportioned’ we are talking about the division of labor, that is, deciding how much labor should be apportioned to what tasks. 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. 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 that almost everything else falls into place. Value is created in production by human labor. It takes the form of commodities with definite values that 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.
If value is created in production then the value of a commodity is the socially necessary labor time that goes into it. But we can’t see this labor time when we look at the commodity. All we see are the exchange values that occur when this commodity trades with other commodities. We can only see the social relations between producers through these exchange values. When the commodity exchanges for money then we see a special form of its exchange-value: price. Price is the form of appearance of value. It is the way we see value at work in the real world.
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.
When we say that price is the ‘form of appearance’ of value we mean that the value of a commodity is not stamped on its side for the world to see. 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. As such money represents value in the abstract. It is a measure 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.
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 demand 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.
If supply and demand were in balance then price would equal value. This is why it is meaningless to try to form a theory of price just by relying on demand and supply. If demand and supply were to actually balance for all commodities we would need some external factor to explain the exchange ratios between commodities. For this reason Marx often abstracts away from demand and supply imbalances when making his analysis of value.
Side Note on Marx’s Method
In fact Marx often asks us to assume, for the purpose of illustration, that value=price. This is not because he thinks that, on the average, or in the long run, value always equals price. It’s because the divergence of value from price has no bearing on any of his main conclusions about the qualitative aspects of value: that the origin of profit is the exploitation of labor, that capitalism is unstable and prone to crisis, etc. By isolating the fluctuations of price and value he can put our attention on the class relation between capital and labor in the workplace, instead of letting us get distracted by the distribution of value through market fluctuations.
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.
3 components of value
The value of a commodity is divided into 3 components:
constant capital (c)- is the value of the past labor that went into the production of any inputs.
The other two components of value are new value created by the worker.
variable capital (v)- is the wage paid to the worker
surplus value (s)- is the surplus labor the worker performs for the capitalist above the value of their wage.
The line between V and S is the site of class struggle as capitalists try to get as much surplus labor out of workers at a given wage. That’s why it’s called ‘variable capital’. The value of non-labor inputs are called constant because they can’t create any more value once they are bought. They pass their value directly into the value of the final commodity.
C+V represent the cost of production to the capitalist. Marx calls this the ‘cost-price’. Capitalists must at least recoup the value of their cost-price if they are to continue production each period. If they didn’t at least recoup their cost price they would not have money to pay workers or buy inputs.
But capitalists also must have an incentive to invest. They also require profit. But the profit they get from selling their commodities is not always equal to the surplus value they produce. Previously we said that value is created in production but that the seller can gain more or less value depending on the fluctuation of price. Now we can also say that surplus value is created in production but the capitalist can gain more or less profit than depending on the price of the commodity. 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. The deviation of individual capitalists’ profit and surplus value is thus a necessary part of capitalist competition. However the total amount of surplus value produced is always equal to the total amount of profit received. As with price and value, surplus value can only be created in production even though it is redistributed in exchange.
Prices of Production
The most notable case of surplus value being redistributed in exchange is Marx’s theory of Prices of Production. Before explaining that we first have to take a brief detour to talk about average profit rates. 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. As money flows into a high-profit sector, the supply of these commodities rise and their prices fall. Those high-profits start to erode. The opposite happens with low-profit sectors. Of course this doesn’t mean that all sectors of the economy always have the same average profit rate. This is only a tendency, one hindered by barriers to entry, monopoly, etc.
If surplus value can only be created by human labor we would expect the highest profits to come from capitalists who hire the highest ratio of workers to machines. We would expect the lowest profits from capitalists who spend lots of money on machines and very little on workers. (This is the concept of the ‘organic composition of capital’: the higher the ratio of machines over workers the higher the organic composition of capital.) If capitalist A spends $75 on wages and only $25 on constant capital we would expect her to make more profit that Capitalist B who spends $25 on wages and $75 on constant capital. The more workers relative to machines the more surplus value is produced per dollar invested. Both capitalists invest $100 but one has a much higher profit rate than the other.
Assuming no barriers to the flow of capital we should see a tendency for profit rates to equalize, for capitalists to make the same return on investment for every $100 invested. How can this happen? If we keep in mind the fact that value and surplus value can only be created in production but can be redistributed via prices and money then the solution is already in front of us. Surplus value is redistributed between capitalists to form an average rate of profit.
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 raise, 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”. They are formed like this:
where p is the total surplus value created by the working class divided evenly between capitalists, or the average profit.
There are some common critiques of Marx’s concept of value and price. There is room here only to sketch out a few and give some brief rejoinders.
1. Q: If price is just cost price (c+v) plus average profit what is the point of talking about value at all? Why not just have a theory of price that says prices are the cost of production plus an average mark-up?
A: Such a strategy would not explain the relation of price to the disciplining and apportioning of labor by capital, the social relations which are coordinated by the price system. After all, cost-price represents a definite quantity of current and past labor. And the average profit is completely dependent on the amount of surplus labor extracted by the working class.
If we eliminate value as a category then we have no way of explaining money. Money, as the commodity which all other commodities measure their value in, is the embodiment of labor in the abstract. Without this real abstraction we have no way of comparing the relative worth of one commodity from the next. This is why neoclassical theory doesn’t really have a theory of money, but rather bases its system upon the notion of barter. Marx, by contrast, shows how the intrinsic value of the commodity can only find its expression in the money prices.
2, Q: If value rarely ever equals price, what is the point of value analysis? How can you prove that they aren’t two sets of numbers, labor times and prices, coexisting with no relation?
A: Attempts to prove or disprove Marx’s theory of value by finding instances of price-value divergence or identity will always fail. This is because the theory only makes sense if individual values and prices deviate. Value is a process, always in motion, and always in fluctuation. By analyzing value we can understand the violent social contradictions that create this dynamism and fluctuation.
Some Marxists like to think of values like long-run equilibrium prices. If demand and supply were in balance, technology didn’t change, and there was no equalization of the profit rate then yes, values would be long-run equilibrium prices. But these conditions never occur and so I don’t know how useful this concept is.
3. Q: The transformation problem
A: There is a long standing claim that Marx’s concept of the Production Price is mathematically incoherent. This charge is called “The Transformation Problem”. But the TP is actually not a problem for Marx at all. It only arises when his value-price theory is forced into a bull-shit Walrasian General Equilibrium framework where input and output prices always equal each other and prices never change or fluctuate. As we’ve seen change and fluctuation are the whole point for Marx so this so-called problem is not really a problem at all. For more on this see my video “What Transformation Problem?”
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. This in stark contrast with the neoclassical tradition which tells us nothing about the social relations of capitalism. Neoclassical economics’ main ideological purpose is to prove that markets lead to the optimum allocation of scarce resources. In order to meet this aim it must abstract away from capitalist productive relations, basing itself on a theory of barter. This means that money must be artificially injected into the model down the road since there is no role for value in the abstract. And when we get to Walrasian General Equilibrium price even loses its role. This is clearly not a science at all, but a sham set of elegant equations
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 focussing 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.