This is a draft of a script from my upcoming video series “Law of Value”.
A Spectre haunts the face of Marxist theory: the spectre of the mudpie argument. It was this central conundrum that Marx devoted his momentous work “Das MudPie”. It has since haunted Marxist theorists of all persuasions. How can Marxists theory go on in light of this devastating contradiction?
If you spend any time reading about Marx’s theory of value on the internet you probably will come across some version of this asinine excuse for a critique called “the mudpie argument.” The basic style of the mudpie argument is similar to many advanced by those who know nothing about Marx’s theory of value: one constructs a ridiculous strawman argument that has nothing to do with Marx and then proceeds to knock it down with “devastating” brilliance, moral outrage, and a few clever asides about Stalinism. The MudPie argument goes something like this:
Marx claimed that labor is what gives all commodities value. But what if I make a mudpie? This is a product of labor yet nobody will buy it. It has no value. So Hah! Take that Karl Marx!
The problem with this argument is that Marx never claimed that anything produced by work has value. Value, for Marx, is an historically specific form of social labor. Let’s look closer at what is meant by “Social Labor”.
What is a society?
The key difference between human and animals, for Marx, is in the way they create their own worlds. Humans aren’t slaves to their own evolutionary destiny, repeating the same patterns of survival over and over for millennium. Instead humans actively shape the world in which they live. There is certain creative aspect to human labor in which we imagine the product of our work in our mind before we go about the work:
“But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.”
-Das Kapital, Karl Marx
This world which we create forms the structure of our lived experience: we live in, wear, eat and think about the products of our own creation. The structure of our social relations, from the way we relate in cultural and family groups, to the organization of production, to ideas about the world we live in, constitute a created universe powered by the creative power of human labor. Yet this world of our creation also acts back upon us. It structures both our desires and our means of attaining these desires. In this sense, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please” (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx)
In different times and different places this organization of human activity has been radically different. The level of technological development, the organization of production, the organization of classes, and the shared conceptions about the world have all changed radically over time. It is the organization of these different “modes of production” and the way the organization of production effects the other aspects of a society that was of interest to Marx. In essence Marx is asking what this organization of production can tell us about a society.
This means that Marx is not just interested in any labor. He is interested in “social labor”- labor that is part of this mode of production, labor that goes into the make-up of a society. The first step then, in looking at a particular historical mode of production, is to ask how the private labor of an individual becomes social labor. In many pre-capitalist modes of production labor is “directly social”, that is, the relations between laborers is organized directly like in a family farm or a hunter-gather society.
In a capitalist society labor becomes social through commodity exchange. People don’t directly relate their labor to each other. Instead they exchange their labor in the market in form of commodities. Even the ability to work itself is bought and sold in the market in the form of the commodity “labor power” which is bought with a wage. Instead of seeing one person’s work directly related to another’s we see two commodities being related to each other. This leads to all sorts illusions in which people ascribe the powers of labor to commodities. (see video on “fetishism”)
It is this relation of labors to one another, in the form of commodity exchange, which forms the basis of the law of value. (This is not just occasional trade between Native American tribes, or along the Silk Road. Marx is concerned with a society in which the dominant type of production is the production of commodities for exchange.) This comparison of private labors with each other exerts an indirect disciplining force upon production. Marx’s theory of value seeks to understand the nature of this disciplining force.
The MudPie argument assumes that when Marx is talking about labor and value he it talking about all labor and value for all time. But this is contrary to the entire point of Marx’s project which begins with an analysis of how labor becomes social in the particular, historically unique instance of capitalist commodity exchange.
The underlying implication in the MudPie argument is that a MudPie doesn’t have value because it doesn’t have any use to anyone, it doesn’t have any subjective value. This is used, supposedly as proof that it is this desire or demand for commodities which gives them their values. But no labor can become social, in any society, without producing something useful. Just because social labor has a use doesn’t mean that that usefulness is what gives it value.
For Marx useless things have no value. Similarly useful things which don’t require labor (like air, or gravity) have no value. Marx’s definition of a commodity includes the fact that commodities have both use-values and exchange-values.
Even more shocking to “MudPie theorists” would be the fact that Marx was very clear that changes in demand had effects on price. When demand increases prices rise temporarily. This price rise signals a reapportioning of social labor- more labor (living labor and dead labor) is moved into the production of this commodity (1).
But underlying these fluctuations of demand and supply lies a more basic observation about human society. We only have so much time as a society to devote to the production of our needs. If we are to have food, houses, clothes, DVD’s, and beer we are going to have to devote work to these things. Some things take a lot more labor to produce than others. They cost society more in terms of its expenditure of the total social labor. In a market society this cost isn’t decided by a committee, it’s decided by prices in the market. And this is what value is. Labor becomes social when its products obtain a price in the market. And these prices coordinate the social labor process.
When Marx says that labor, in a capitalist society, creates value we should take him literally. Only human labor can create commodities. No matter how much we may desire a commodity this desire cannot create the commodity. But this doesn’t mean that any product of labor has value. In order for labor to become social it has to exchange its product on the market. This implies that the labor has produced something socially useful.
(1) Living and Dead labor: Dead labor is past labor embodied in already-made commodities. Living labor is current labor. So a bread maker combines the dead labor embodied in sugar, grain, etc. with their own labor of baking.