Law of Value- Introduction

Part 1 of the Law of Value series.


Marx Quiz:


An economic crisis is also a time of ideological crisis. It’s a time when people start to reevaluate their ideas about the world, questioning some of the most basic assumptions they once had. Every capitalist crisis in history has brought about a rethinking and regrouping of mainstream economic thought. Interestingly this rethinking has always happened within the context of some sort of radical challenge to the economic order.

Marginal Utility theory, which still serves the basis of modern mainstream economic theory, emerged from the Great Depression of the late 1800s (yes there was another Great Depression prior to 1929) as an answer to the challenge of Karl Marx’s thorough critique of capitalism. Keynesianism emerged from the Great Depression of the 1930’s as a response to the failures of liberal economics, the challenge of a successful Bolshevik revolution and strong worker movements in the Western world. Neoliberalism emerged from the crisis of the 1970’s both as a backlash against the failures of Keynesianism to manage crisis and as an assault against the growth of large popular left-movements like the anti-war, student, civil-rights and women’s movements and the power of entrenched labor.

Alan Greenspan:

“Remember that what an ideology is is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality. Everyone has one… to exist you need an ideology. The question is whether it is accurate or not. And what I’m saying to you is: Yes, I’ve found a flaw- I don’t know how significant or permanent it is but I’ve been very distressed by that fact.”

With such admissions of failure from the neoliberal establishment we can’t help but begin to question the dominant economic ideas of our time. Yet it is not clear that we are entering this ideological crisis in the context of any viable challenges to the economic order. The failures of centrally-planned Soviet-style economies have largely purged the idea of alternatives to capitalism from the popular consciousness.  At such a time in may be useful to re-exmine the ideas of Karl Marx, to see what exactly he was trying to say in his critique of capitalism- not because we have some desire to repeat the political experiments of Lenin, Mao, Stalin or any of the others who claimed to embody the ideas of Marx, but because Marx presents a systematic, and thorough critique of capital that is wholly different, wholly unique in the history of economic thought. Such radical ideas are crucial in our search for a new understanding of our present condition and possibilities for social transformation. A society without the ability to critique itself is a dangerous society to live in, especially as it enters a long period of crisis.

There is a crucial difference between all the great bourgeois economists and Marx. They all saw crisis (except Keynes maybe) as something that came from outside of capitalism, disturbing the natural equilibrium of the market. When confronted with the reality that capitalism was prone to inequality, exploitation and crisis- that is, when it becomes apparent that there is a discontinuity between their theories and reality- bourgeois economists always blame reality for not conforming to their models. Reality has been poisoned by invading external forces, they say, in the form of state intervention, labor-movements, human greed, etc.  We see this same reactionary approach today in rising right-wing populism which blames the invasive influence of foreigners, left-intellectuals, homosexuals, non-Christians, and black presidents for the problems of society.

Marx takes the opposite approach. He sees the social antagonisms of capitalism as internal to the system. These social antagonisms are so basic to the system that they drag all other parts of society into their gravitational field.

Bourgeois economists have always seen the market as a realm of great freedom and equality. The fact that there is so much inequality, crisis and unfulfilled freedom in market societies is seen as an imperfection in reality, not theory. Contrary to what some lay people think, Marx does not start with an analysis of these social bads and then proceed to a critique of market relations. Marx doesn’t begin by talking about monopoly, poverty, exploitation, or state violence. He begins with this same realm of market freedom that his bourgeois critics are so enamored with, and then shows how all of these social antagonisms spring out of this basic productive relation. For Marx it all starts that the fact that capitalist production is production for market exchange. This basic form of production takes on law-like properties that he calls “The Law of Value”.

The Law of Value

What did Marx find so interesting about capitalist societies? It wasn’t just the freedom to buy or sell anything you wanted. It was the fact that in order to participate in the social life of a market society one has to buy and sell things. In order to survive, in order to participate in society, one has to enter the market to buy things and to sell the products of their own labor. This is a distinctly different organization of society than previous societies where working people largely supported themselves with their own labor- that is, they labored to make things for their own use. (Or more specifically, laboring classes supported themselves with their own labor and supported the ruling class.) In a capitalist society people don’t make things that have any use for themselves at all. They produce things in order to exchange them. Thus the coordination of the social labor process happens indirectly through exchange.

In a society of private producers, coordinated indirectly through the market, the social relations between these people take the form of relations between things, of commodity relations. The relations between people become value relations expressed in commodity prices. Economically, people can only relate to each other through money prices, through value. This world of commodity relations takes an independent form, outside of the control of individuals, that acts back upon and directs the flow of human affairs. Adam Smith called it the “hidden hand of the market.” Marx calls it “the law of value.”

What is the law of value? It is the impersonal, blind forces of the economy exerting their influence upon society. It is unique to a society in which the dominant form of labor is production for market exchange. The relations between people become value relations between commodities. And these value relations become impersonal forces which have unexpected consequences for society. For instance, we get capital:

People have always used tools and other resources in their labor. These are called “means of production”. In a capitalist economy means of production become capital. Tools, machines, materials, and even workers are all commodities with values. This makes it possible to buy means of production in the market and sell the products of those means of production for a profit. That is, a person can invest money in production merely for the sake of getting more money. The pursuit of value as an end in itself becomes the dominating force in the society. This is what capital is, the expansion of value for its own sake, regardless of the social cost. Capital takes the form of a class that owns the means of production and another that must produce the profit for capital.

Capital is inherently asymmetrical, great poles of wealth and poverty spreading out from it in geographical and economic space. Capital is also self-negating. Although it represents an impersonal force above society, dominating the worker, it also relies on the worker to create profit for it. There is a social antagonism at it’s root. This social antagonism leads to periodic crisis and constant instability.

All of these radical implications and many more are part of Marx’s theory of value.

This video series will cover various topics in Marx’s theory of value: The difference between use-value, exchange value and value, the relation of supply, demand and price to value, abstract labor, exploitation, crisis, socially necessary labor time, and even what an understanding of value can tell us about changing the world. It is hoped that they can contribute to a better appreciation of the importance of value theory to radical movements today as they seek ideas with which to articulate their demands and strategies.

How much do you know?

Many people, supporters and opponents of Marx, think that they already know all there is to know about Marx’s theory of value. Let’s take a brief quiz to find out how much you know. Here are 10 True or False questions. Take out a paper and pencil and keep track of your answers. I’ll give the answers at the end.

True False Quiz:

1. Marx’s theory of value holds that any human labor creates value.

2. Marx’s theory of value is intended to be a theory of market prices.

3. Marx’s theory of value is the same as his predecessor David Ricardo.

4. Marx didn’t believe the forces of supply and demand were relevant to explaining value.

5. Marx’s theory of value is a theory of what workers should get paid.

6. Marx’s theory of value was a theory about how a communist society should be run.

7. Marx didn’t think consumer demand played a role in prices, value or other economic phenomena.

8. Marx’s theory of value doesn’t work in free markets.

9. Marx’s theory of value can’t explain why useless things like mudpies don’t have value.

10. Marx hated babies.

The answer to all of these questions is “FALSE”! If you answered “True” to any of them then perhaps you don’t know enough about Marx’s theory of value to actually make an informed judgement about it. If you are interested in understanding one of the most thorough theoretical critiques of capitalism ever created then perhaps this video series might be a good starting point. If you already know that you are going to hate Marx’s analysis then perhaps watching this video series would be a good starting point in educating yourself so that you don’t sound like a total idiot when you go mouthing-off all over the internet.

How you should watch these videos

The internet has given us access to more information than any generation before us. It has allowed for a great leveling of our access to information, allowing everyone to contribute to the sharing of information. But this hasn’t necessarily made our culture better informed, more intelligent, or better at critical thinking. In our rush for instant information we are losing our ability to properly contextualize information, to synthesize ideas, and to discern what sources of information we can trust. Let’s face it- in our consumer-culture we are conditioned to want instant gratification for no effort. We want easy answers that don’t require any personal sacrifice. (Neo, matrix, downloading information into his brain.)

You can’t learn everything you need to know about capitalism from a YouTube video. On the internet any fool can and will explain their inarticulate and half-formed personal theories into a web cam. These videos are not like that. They don’t represent my ideas at all. I am trying, to the best of my ability, to explain a complex body of intellectual work that spans a long history of debates as people grappled with these ideas. By acquainting ourselves with the history of ideas we can make sure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, and that we are aware of the implications of our arguments.

But a video or a blog cannot substitute for the real thing. I am dealing with complex, difficult ideas and I am not perfect. I may make mistakes. I may leave things out. If you really want to understand Marx you must go to the source.

We should also be aware of the ability of video to manipulate us on an emotional level.  Images, tone of voice and background music can all be helpful in helping us understand things. But they can also evoke emotional responses that are not necessarily rational. We should be aware of the way media effects our understanding of material and not let this get in the way of rational intellectual thinking. There is already enough of a shortage of rational thinking in our society.

There are a lot of ideas in each of these videos. One viewing may not be sufficient to absorb everything. That’s why I post the full text on my blog. The blog sometimes also contains tangents and side-arguments that were cut from the video as well as references and suggestions for future reading. I hope that the references on my blog might be a good starting point for people who are interested in learning more.

As we move through these different topics in the Law of Value our understanding of the Law of Value will deepen. At the end of each video there is a summary of the new layer of meaning we have added to the law of value. It would be wise to keep returning to this basic question as we progress through these videos: What happens when the relations between working people take the form of value relations between commodities?

Additional Reading:

Does the Internet Make You Smarter- Nicolas Carr, Wall Street Journal


About kapitalism101
This entry was posted in The Law of Value and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Law of Value- Introduction

  1. Geoff says:

    nice, what kind of video editing program do you have and does it work for non-macs? i have some Robinson Crusoe footage that might be good for the SNLT or mudpie pieces-whichever one it was where Crusoe is falsely exemplified as some kind of uber-libertarian hero even as he is alienated from market competition. I also have some obnoxiously overanalytical pieces to contribute to your Marx at the movies, mostly focusing on social antagonisms with political economy at the base.

  2. Laura says:

    I’d like the videos a lot more without the nude women – S&M shots.

  3. mike t says:

    I just found out about your video series from the Diet Soap podcast. I’ve been looking for an accessible introduction to Marxism, and this is the best I’ve come across. Thanks

  4. Morgan says:

    big ups man, choice videos, Karl is the man.

  5. Magpie says:

    This was a really pleasant surprise.

    Frankly, I was skeptical at first. As I started watching the videos, though, I changed my mind.

    Congratulations and thanks for making this available to the public.

  6. Michael says:

    Thank you so much for these videos. They are very well thought out. They inspire me to want to learn so much more about the subject. Bravo!!!

  7. Creatrix says:

    Terrific introductory series here. Looking forward to learning more. And just so you know, Heteconomist sent me this way, so anything I say going forward should TOTALLY be used against him. 🙂

  8. Richard says:

    ok, here’s the conversation so far, with a little editing:

    Brendan: “It was the fact that in order to participate in the social life of a market society one has to buy and sell things. In order to survive, in order to participate in society, one has to enter the market to buy things and to sell the products of their own labor.”

    Richard: either social life and economic life are exactly the same thing or they are distinct spheres of human existence. buying and selling things is economic, not social participation. also “social labor process” – very unclear.

    Brendan: social life and economic life are the same thing in a capitalist society. Our social relations take the form of commodity exchanges. This is the way Marx uses the term ‘social’. Our labor is not directly social, it becomes social through commodity exchange. Marx uses the term ‘social relations’ in the same way. Society is not an organization of sex or kickball. It is an organization of labors. How these social relations are organized changes in different societies. In capitalism social relations are organized through commodity exchange.
    ‘social labor process’: means labor that belongs to the total labor that makes up a society, as opposed to labor that an isolated Robinson Crusoe might do on a desert island.

    Richard: no, social life and economic life are not the same, anywhere. “take the form of” sounds like some mystical process; i suspend getting it for now
    Re: “social labor process” I looked it up in Das Kapital, as you often suggest, found at end of ch. 1:
    Karl Marx: “Let us now picture to ourselves, by way of change, a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour-power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour-power of the community”
    Richard: Thanks Karl, for clearing that up for me.

    Brendan: I think you’re drawing too clear a line between economic and social phenomena. An economy is an ensemble of people relating to each other. It implies and creates certain ways of seeing the world. Modes of Production have different value systems, for instance the privileging of private property and bourgeois rights…
    The current division of economics, sociology, philosophy, history, etc, into separate fields of study is a modern invention due to the narrowing of the scope of bourgeois economics

    Richard: “current division of economics, sociology…bourgeois economics” – an interesting observation – sociological strata, vertical and horizontal, class structure – overlapping for sure, which is why i majored in anthro. Cultural anthro and linguistics are separate; there is no cultural linguistics. bourgeois college prezs, school bds, DC’s Secy of HEW have damaged public education but separate fields of study don’t represent differences between social and econo-political structures. 1st thing marx had to do was define work.

    Richard: “privileging of private property and bourgeois rights” yet another sphere: laws and politics. The classic archetypes of human endeavor are politics, economics and social institutions. i don’t believe these have changed. and i dont think the lines have blurred betwixt them either.
    ok, blur the lines, for argument’s sake. but either they stay blurred or stay clearly delineated. otherwise, you’re flipping between blurry or clear to suit the argument, which may or may not yield more… truth?
    Richard: from your video “Mudpie 1” – you say “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…’”
    Richard: shared conceptions are thrown in with modes of production? society and culture are different, social and economic – different words for a good reason. marx was an economist, attempting to imprint economic theory upon psycho-social theory. not cool lol

    Brendan: The labor that goes into the creation of society, social labor, is not directly social. It becomes social through market exchange. Labor only counts as social if it performs at the socially necessary labor time. If nobody buys the commodities I produce then my labor is not social labor. This is what I mean when I say that in capitalism our social relations take the form of market exchanges. I’m not talking about ‘social relations’ like having sex or playing kickball. I’m talking about labor.

    Richard: labor isnt the only activity that creates society. your mudpie thing – labor isnt social unless society interacts with the products of that particular labor, yes? however, if i make mudpies, polyurethane them and display them in an art gallery and no one buys them but “socially”, i become the next andy warhol… am i working? not for economic gain. i give the pies away. still not social labor? because there’s no market exchange? this is why social and economic are 2 different adjectives.

    Brendan: I don’t understand your example at all. If the pies aren’t sold then they can’t be consumed. The labor is just private labor and only effects you. If the pies are purchased in the market then your labor becomes disciplined by socially necessary labor time, is caught up in a social labor process, and becomes social labor.

    Richard: marx’ claim that capitalist laborers/people relate through commodity exchange is what exactly what we’re examining. repeating it doesn’t validate it. within the sphere of economics, sure, it all makes sense. but now the line between social and economic must be very clear. society is organized in many strata, not just unions and corporations and political parties. as capitalism keeps fucking us over, social orgs shrivel; hence facebook, utube, yahoogroups grow, until overlords shut us down.

    Brendan: facebook, YT and yahoo groups are all capitalist companies organized around commodity exchange

    Brendan: the field of economics is only a few hundred years old. It belongs specifically to capitalism where social relations between producers are indirect, therefore requiring analysis of understand. Because the organization of production is not direct, but instead ruled by impersonal market forces, a field of analysis called economics arises to attempt to make sense of these blind fluctuating averages.
    and that’s where we left off at YouTube.

    so, FB, YT and yahoogroups are capitalist cos orged around commod. exch. – and they are only that, nothing more? my point is that capitalist depersonalization is destroying “real world” social groups while virtual groups are growing. more importantly, i’m trying to understand the exact nature of that depersonalizing process.

    you said “I think you’re drawing too clear a line between economic and social phenomena. An economy is an ensemble of people relating to each other.”
    And by economy, you mean society? Because people relating to each other is a society first, with economic, social and political aspects, each containing distinct jargons, qualities and foci of examination, which in fact define them. putting the whole picture together, you may arrive at a larger picture of that ensemble as a culture, not simply a society or economy. This is exactly where I have trouble understanding marx. He can’t be as limited as he sounds. Fuck, my anthro mentors at CCNY were marxists and opened my eyes to how deviously I and my contemporaries had been sucked into the American “success” mindset.

    • Societies have to reproduce their material conditions in order to exist. I can’t live on sex or kickball. I need my stomach to fill. That’s the basic condition of life. This fundamental aspect is a firm ground to start theorizing. Marx argues that it is the essential element on which social life organizes itself. He’s not deterministic about it (contrary what 99% of main stream literature says about it. I suggest you read the introduction of the grundrisse (a draft of capital).

      • As for the specific form this takes in a capitalist society:

        it’s focused on the production of “surplus” value with wage labourers and capitalists. It can be clearly shown how widespread the influence of this historically specific form of production is on many ‘fields’ of social life. So large that the differences between these fields are actually not the most important thing for a social theory to focus on. It’s quite an interesting theory. I agree that Marx never detailled the different ways how all these fields interrelate. But the fundamental axiom (production of surplus value as very important for the material reproduction the current societies) is well taken. Engels once wrote a letter to someone (after Marx died) and he said that one should not focus on the ‘programmatic’ statements of for example the ‘base superstructure argument buut focus on the way they actually used the statements. For example the chapter on the working day in volume 1 and the 18th brumaire shows how Marx sees the interrelations between different fields of social life

  9. Richard says:

    ok, i have a LOT of reading to do, to catch up with you, so please forgive the sophomorics when they occur. you suggested the intro to the grundrisse, volume 1 (das kapital?) and the 18th brumaire (of louis bonaparte?) – will get on that asap, should have it done in no time flat. right. but i really am curious to know if Marx really sees the interrelations between different fields of social life… in any other terms besides economic, viz. brendan’s response to my comment re FB, YT and yahoo.

    it seems the basic premise, “I need my stomach to fill… is the essential element on which social life organizes itself” translates to WE need to fill OUR stomachs, in terms of social labor theory. and therein lies the rub, one huge rub, in today’s world. this is exactly where and how our american society became polarized. supposedly, the 99% recognize solidarity with the working class not only as a fact of life but also the driving force that will bring better living conditions (basically, more filled stomachs) for the majority of people, while the 1% (and the idiots among the working class who buy the trickle-down idea) believe only rugged individual daddy warbucks-ism will bring prosperity to all… only some will be more prosperous (“more equal”) than others, of course.

    either you have a social conscience/awareness or you don’t.

    but let me understand; you’re saying marx uses the term “social” not only in the way humans relate to each other but the way commodities relate to each other… the way inanimate objects “relate”? if labor itself is a commodity and workers relate to each other through commodity exchange… where does human sociality fit into this sordid picture?

    i’m probably mixing apples and oranges, entirely out of context but every time i approach marxism and start scratching for truth in and beneath his words, i find a (maybe unconscious) desire to reduce humanity from homo sapiens to homo solely-an-economic-entity, then starting from there, analyses of work, workers, production, value, even the word ‘social’, using the basic atomic unit as homo depersonalsis, homo robot.

    • Richard,

      Thanks for moving the conversation over to the blog. It is much easier to discuss things here without comment limits. There are also more regular readers of comments here so the conversation can be opened up for others to participate (as Mr. Everpresent already has).

      Before moving into the main question of the relation of the economic sphere to other forms of social organization I thought perhaps I’d address a few of the outlying questions/issues you raised.

      1. What does “take the form of” mean?
      Marx makes a lot of important form/content distinctions in his analysis. His analysis of the role of labor in a capitalist society is perhaps the best example. Adam Smith and others had argued that the content of value was labor, that is, that human labor was the substance being measured by the exchange value of commodities. Marx observed that this argument made it sound like all human labor, in all societies, resulted in exchange-values between the products of labor. Such an approach, focusing on content over form, makes capitalism seem universal and inevitable. Marx argued that regular, predictable exchange-value between the products of labor was only the result of a certain type of society: a society in which human labor takes the form of labor for commodity exchange. In many past societies, and hopefully in a future communist society, labor would not be labor for exchange value. Human labor (content) can take many forms (exchange, cooperative organization, serfdom, etc.)

      So Marx is very focused on the social form in which various content appears. His understanding of capital is similar. While bourgeois thinkers define capital by its content (tools, or investment, or factories), Marx defines capital by the form that tools, investments and factories take in a capitalist society: the form of self-expanding value for its own sake (profit for its own sake) based on the exploitation of wage-labor. This gives his definition of capital a social dimension: it has everything to do with capital and wage labor, exploitation, etc.

      By focusing on form Marx is able to identify the specific social organization of society that makes certain phenomena distinct, thus countering the universalizing nature of bourgeois thinking and creating the theoretical opening for envisioning a future non-capitalist society.

      2. You quoted from the Grundrise in relation to Marx being ‘aware of a few self-contradictions in his theories’. The quote you provided is not one in which Marx is claiming that his own theory is self-contradicting. Marx uses the term ‘contradiction’ in a unique way. On one hand it is an inheritance from Hegel whose theoretical system was based on the way ideas and their opposites formed contradictions which moved forward to a new synthesis…. (that was a pretty sketchy summary of Hegel) On the other hand Marx gives Hegel’s notion of ‘contradiction’ a material/sociological grounding. Marx is interested in contradictions that appear in society. Sometimes it is easier to think of them as ‘antagonisms’. The capital-labor relation is an antagonism or contradiction. The relation of use-value to exchange-value is a contradiction/antagonism. Etc. See my video: “Law of Value 5:Contradiction” for more.

      Now, onto the question of what Marx means by “social” and whether there is a reduction of all social phenomena to economic phenomena in Marx’s work…

      At one point you pulled a quote about cooperative production from Chapter 1 of Vol. 1 of Capital (“Let us now picture to ourselves,”… etc) as perhaps a definition of social labor. In this passage Marx is actually just illustrating one of many different types of social labor. His point here is not that labor is only social in some communist cooperative society. Labor is almost always social. Here he is talking about the different forms this social labor can take (capitalist labor, socialist labor, feudal labor, etc.) It is another example of a form/content distinction.

      So what is social labor? Social labor is labor that goes into the make-up of a society. Robinson Crusoe’s labor is not social. Me making mudpies and throwing them at a tree is not social labor. Making a widget for a Ford truck, teaching children to read, building a road… these are social labor. Marx observes that what is unique about humans is that we do not just move through physical space as if the world around us is given (like other animals). Rather humans actively shape the world around them. They create and recreate the world they live in with their labor. And in so doing they also create themselves. If we want to understand the world and our role in it we need to understand the specific FORMS that our labor takes as it creates the world and ourselves.

      Already, in this basic methodological observation, we have identified a dialectical reciprocity between human activity and the world in which it takes place. Human activity is shaping the environment (be it the physical environment, the cyber world, the linguistic world, the legal world… these are all things we produce with our activity) But that world is also effecting human activity. Our past labor has produced a world that gives us certain potentialities, certain resources are at our disposal, and these potentials and resources limit future outcomes. But this isn’t just a question of the content of past human activity (so many factories were built, so many widgets made, so many books written, etc.) It’s also a question of the form that that activity takes and the way the form of our labor limits our future activity, choices, thinking, etc.

      Different forms of labor produce and require different social relations between people. The feudal organization of production required a feudal state and a Catholic church. It required certain ways of thinking about the world that legitimated these structures. These political and ideological structures were prerequisites for feudal labor but they were also reproduced every day by feudal labor. When serfs worked the landlord’s land they were reproducing his political power. When they gave tithes to the church they were reproducing the power of the church.

      The same is true of capitalism where our labor reproduces the institution of wage-labor (private ownership of means of production, capitalist state, organization of production via commodity exchange) while at the same time being a result of the institution of wage labor. The way Marx’s constant focus on labor as a primary category avoids the trap of determinism so often leveled against him is by understanding this way in which social relations are both a precondition and a result of a specific form of labor.

      I think we can apply this framework to some the debate we were having:

      When you say: “The classic archetypes of human endeavor are politics, economics and social institutions. i don’t believe these have changed. and i don’t think the lines have blurred betwixt them either.” I have to counter that this very juxtaposition of state/economy/civil society is a completely capitalist view of things. It is the product our own capitalist society where we have distinct realms of state, economic and civil society. This is not a universal distinction. Take a future communist society where production is organized democratically- here politics and economics would be the same thing. There would not be an autonomous world of blind economic forces which organized production and imposed its own value system on society. Rather, people would decide how and what to produce based on values they themselves chose. Or take feudalism… there was no civil society in feudalism. Civil society is a product of capitalism.

      In each case a certain organization of labor requires a certain organization of social relations. When Marx says “capitalist social relations” he is sometimes referring to the quite specific form of wage-labor. At other times he is referring to the wider set of institutional relations that are required for wage-labor to exist (private property, state, money, commodity exchange, etc.)

      When you argue that there is something abstractly universal about the different fields of study that we divide social phenomena into I think this is problematic. Take, for instance, when you call Marx an ‘economist’. Marx himself never called himself this. “Economists” didn’t even exist in his time. Rather, the field was called ‘political economy’. The reduction of political economy to ‘economics’ was an historical process very much centered on preserving the apologetic nature of bourgeois thought from the challenges of Marxism. It did so by systematically excluding certain questions from the field of economics, questions of politics, social organization, etc. This led to the rise of fields like ‘sociology’ and ‘economic history’ as distinct from ‘economics’. This was very much a political process in the academy that reflected the real political struggles between labor and capital in the real world. Bourgeois thinkers didn’t want people to think about the prerequisites behind capitalist labor. They wanted people to think of economic laws as eternal conditions of all human societies. Thus they had to purge questions of politics, sociology, etc from economics, creating distinct fields which treated these questions separately never questioning the entire structure of capitalist social relations as a totality. What makes Marx a radical thinker is the fact that his work integrates politics, sociology and economics in a way that identifies the interrelations between these as prerequisites for and results of capitalist production. (For more on this I recommend Simon Clarke’s “Marx, Marginalism and Sociology” and “From Political Economy to Economics” by Fine and Melonakis.)

      When you write: “every time i approach marxism and start scratching for truth in and beneath his words, i find a (maybe unconscious) desire to reduce humanity from homo sapiens to homo solely-an-economic-entity, then starting from there, analyses of work, workers, production, value, even the word ‘social’, using the basic atomic unit as homo depersonalsis, homo robot.”

      This is not unconscious at all. The form which labor takes in a capitalist society, wage-labor, is an extremely depersonalizing form. It is labor for the purpose of profit in the abstract, not for any human benefit. Humans are reduced to digits in a profit calculator. All other forms of social relations are degraded. Nothing can get in the way of maximizing profit. Marx’s analysis of capitalism is not based on some abstract postulated belief that human beings are nothing but digits in a profit calculator. Rather, his analysis is based on the ‘real abstractions’ made by capital itself as it reduces human potential to abstract measures of productive efficiency. In a real communist society humans would not appear this way, in fact they would be the exact opposite.

  10. Richard says:

    “Capital itself is the contradiction; while it constantly tries to suspend necessary labour time (and this is at the same time the reduction of the worker to a minimum, i.e. his existence as mere living labour capacity), surplus labour time exists only in antithesis with necessary labour time, so that capital posits necessary labour time as a necessary condition of its reproduction and realization. At a certain point, a development of the forces of material production — which is at the same time a development of the forces of the working class — suspends capital itself.”
    this may be what i’m talking about. i know marx was aware of a few self-contradictions in his theories. i have too little knowledge to guess whether he resolved these contradictions or at least discovered where and how they may have emerged in the initial stages of postulations.

  11. Richard says:

    where to start? i’ll try here:
    These political and ideological structures were prerequisites for feudal labor but they were also reproduced every day by feudal labor. When serfs worked the landlord’s land they were reproducing his political power. When they gave tithes to the church they were reproducing the power of the church.

    serf labor may contribute to and legitimize the church’s or landlord’s power but reproducing it? serf labor didn’t “again produce” feudal power. certainly part of a serf’s labor, measured in the part of the product he complacently gives to the church and landlord, is a response to the lord’s power, which would “take the form of” (man, i still don’t like that phrase, nor the form/content distinction you raised) soldiers, secular and sacred decrees, various forms of penalties for non-compliance, the material things/actions that result in the prerequisite ways of thinking you refer to. after all, the political/ideological structures didnt spring spontaneously from feudal society’s collective mind. serf labor reinforced, fortified, bolstered the power structure but did not reproduce it. this isn’t nit-picking. serfs didnt produce the feudal system; landlords did. likewise, they cant re-produce it, willingly or unwillingly – only the landlords do that. compliance with a system doesnt reproduce it. permitting bacteria to grow in my body until it kills me is me committing suicide; the bacteria were reproducing.

    certainly politics and economics are intimate partners. it’s the social connection that intrigues me. i relate to other workers directly, as members of the same economic class. i may not relate to them socially, for whatever reasons. what i am quite certain i dont do, is directly relate to people through commodities. indirectly? sure, my impersonal dollars bought an impersonal car, the product of the labor of hundreds of people in the same working class as myself… and therefore, a relationship exists… so indirectly that it seems meaningless, EXCEPT in terms of economics, NOT social relationships. this degrading of social labor value is the point, unless i’m mistaken, which i’m prone to being.

    the relationship of my labor to yours, in terms of wages, of course can “take the form of” commodity exchange, IN THE MARKET. but the social relationship of my painting to your bookkeepping is entirely conjectural. economically, i got paid a million bucks for a painting that took me 5 minutes of jackson pollack histrionics while you were paid a few thousand for devising a whole more efficient system of accounting for a small firm that took you a month. this opens the door to use value vs exchange value but this isnt my point. socially, my work borders on criminality, scamming innocent millionaires, while your work permitted the small firm to expand, hire more people, offer them profit sharing and stock options, etc. thereby making your work socially as well as economically… what? more beneficial, productive of better conditions for the workers? more secularly moral, if such a thing exists?

    my apologies, if i’m not using marxist terminology to clarify my argument; obviously i’m not adroit with it yet.

    • I’m curious about what you find problematic about the form/content distinction, but perhaps applying it to the direct/indirect social labor issue would help clarify.

      Marx would agree with you that in a capitalist society our labor is indirectly social. This is one of his main points about capitalist labor and one of his biggest criticisms of it. In a feudal society the social relations between oppressed and oppressor are direct: the serf works part of the day/year on her own land and part on the landlords land. It is very clear what part of the labor is labor for the serf and what part is labor for the landlord. The power relation between the two is direct. Also in a communist society the social relations between producers would be directly social because participants in the social labor process would decide democratically what the relations were between laborers.

      But in a capitalist society the relations between producers are indirect. They are mediated by commodity exchanges. It is only through the exchange of commodities that we know if we are producing at the average rate of productivity (the socially necessary labor time). It is only through commodity exchange that we learn if there is a demand for our product, how much to produce, etc. The relation of my labor to yours is only decided indirectly, after the labor takes place, through a process of market allocation.

      In both feudal and capitalist societies the CONTENT of the social relation between producers is the same: social labor; and the CONTENT of the social relation between classes is the same: surplus labor- one class producing a surplus for another. But this labor takes takes different FORMS in each society. In contrast to feudalism, the labor of a wage-worker is indirectly social. It takes the form of commodity exchanges between juridical equals in the market. It is the peculiar nature of this capitalist form of labor which is so complex and tricky to theorize. If social relations were direct in a capitalist society we wouldn’t need a field of economics to figure it out.

      Now, in relation to the issue of reproduction of social relations….
      Perhaps thinking about it in terms of capitalism would be more relevant. Marx identifies both the historic formation of the preconditions for capitalist production and the daily reproduction of those conditions themselves. So, for instance, the wage laborer and private ownership of the means of production were created historically through a process he calls Primitive Accumulation (see But these events from the 18th and 19th century are not at work today reproducing capitalist social relations. These social relations are reproduced today every day by wage laborers. How? By doing wage labor which creates surplus value for the capitalist class. This surplus labor becomes capital which then purchases more laborers the next day. Capital could not survive a day without wage-labor. This is because capital is not a thing, not a machine or a factory, but a specific relation between worker and capitalist. It is a specific FORM of the relation between those who create the social surplus and those that control that surplus.

      A thing, once produced, hangs around in time and space until it is used up or destroyed. A social relation is different. It only exists by being enacted everyday. If we cease to enact a social relation then it disappears. Bourgeois theory wants us to conceive capitalist social relations as things so that they appear permanent and unchanging. They want us to think of capital as a thing, private property as a universal essence of humanity, and commodity exchange as the natural form of human desire. But Marx wants us to understand that social relations are the result not of nature or necessity, but the result of our own actions. We ultimately have the power to change them. I believe this to be an extremely essential part of his method, one that makes his approach a truly radical one.

      I think the same thing can be said about feudalism. When you say “serfs didn’t produce the feudal system,” you are missing the distinction between historical creation of the preconditions for feudalism and the reproduction of those social relations on a daily basis. What makes a landlord is his control over surplus product. What makes a serf a serf is that they surrender a portion of their labor to the production of surplus product for the landlord. The social role of ‘landlord’ can’t exist without a serf who produces surplus for the landlord. This social role must be produced on an ongoing basis. All social roles must be reproduced because they are social roles, not things. They only exist through our actions.

      This doesn’t mean that it is easy to break out of a specific form of social relations. On the contrary it is extremely difficult. Much of Marx’s analysis is devoted to the explanation of how dominant, totalizing, and mystifying capitalist social relations are.

  12. towardutopia says:

    Brendan, this might not be the correct place to post on this issue, but what is your view of Marx’s methodology in ‘Capital’. Is he employing Dialectical materialism? Am asking so because I’ve found a few well-read sites claiming that Marx had abandoned diamat before his Capital-Vol.1, Can you help me out here?

  13. thomas says:

    It’s a shame how little traction your videos receive, while free market zealots spouting false rhetoric from the Ron Pauls of the world get millions of views. Nonetheless keep doing what you’re doing.

  14. Sheldon says:

    Howdy there, I really like your site and videos, and I would like to sit through all of them. However, I just don’t have the time to sit in front of the puter and watch Youtube. I am a big fan of mp3 podcasts, and have been listening to Harvey’s. Any chance you will take the sound your videos and put them in mp3s?

    • richard says:

      using today’s technology requires devoting some time to grunt work. you can download an older version of audacity and run it on any version of windows below 7. it will scrape the audio off anything coming over your puter’s speakers and save as .wav or .mp3. My crummy HTC droid lets me watch youtubes or just listen, by not looking at the screen…

    • Sheldon,

      Several other folks have asked me to do this as well. I hope to figure out a way to host audio for download in the coming months. I’ve been a bit swamped with work outside the blog, but I hope to get to it soon.

      • Sheldon says:

        Well thanks and I will be looking for it when you get to it. I did take Richard’s advice for the Audacity program download and may try that in the meantime.

  15. Sirtib says:

    Hi. What’s the music at the end of Law of Value 1: Introduction?

  16. allan harris says:

    This may be a bit off topic, but I wanted to get your opinion, if you have time. The labor theory of value has been rejected by all bourgeois (a great word, I think we should try to bring it back) economists. The idea that profit or surplus-value comes from the labor process and is fixed in the product or commodity at the time of production is treated as an impossibility. These economists all believe that value, profit, surplus-value are created in the process of buying and selling, and more importantly, that workers receive the full value of their work through wages.

    What if there were economic statistics, economic scientific evidence that workers produce more value that they receive in wages? For instance, The FRED (St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank) reports thousands of economic statistics. Two of these statistics are: 1) Real GDP per hour worked, and 2) Average Hourly Earnings of Production and Non-supervisory Employees. Needless to say the the figures do not match. For 2013 the figures are about $60 and $20 per hour, respectively.) These numbers are also reflected in OECD statistics (about $55 and $25, for the U.S.)

    I know that GDP includes not only production and services, but also private investment and government spending (as well as import-export numbers,) however, Marx would say that investment and government spending all come from the value produced by and appropriated from the value of labor. Even the bourgeois economists would admit that government spending is not production or investment, but rather a redistribution. The Keynesians of course would argue that government spending is in fact investment to increase demand.

    This raises the question of who exactly produces the Gross Domestic Product? Even if you limit GDP to actual goods and services, which is about 85% of GDP, then only workers produce GDP. And wages received per hour are still less by more than half of what is produced.

    It seems to me that this is proof that workers produce more per hour, more value per hour, than what they are paid. Workers thus add value or produce a “value-added” product without getting paid for it.

    Do you have any thoughts on this, i.e. using bourgeois economic statistics to prove Marx’s labor theory of value?

  17. Jara Handala says:

    Hi, Brendan, thanx for all your innovative work.

    Couldn’t find an ‘about’ here, so this is probably the best place for me to comment.

    I’ve just explained your work here,, & encouraged people to use your excellent materials on yt & on this blog.

    Please keep on moving – & thanx again.

  18. Andrew says:

    Brendan, do you plan on doing a video just on property rights? Or do you have any suggested reading material on this topic?

    It seems to me that property rights are inherently aggressive. If I own something I necessarily prevent anyone else from owning that something. But these rights also seem necessary to some degree, even outside a capitalist mode of production.

  19. LM says:

    Hi there, Can you please add close captioning to your videos for Deaf people? Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s