Monday, February 29, 2016

The social form perspective of value

Index for a series of articles about Value
1) Marx and the domains of ignorance
2) Unpacking the value suitcase
3) The commodity perspective on value
4) The labour process and different categories of labour
5) The social form perspective of value
6) The equivalent form and the evolution of value into money
7) (to be continued)

What is a social form?

Unknown unknowns: All the things you don't know you don't know

I thought I had understood capitalism, that the bosses owned the means of production and the workers had no option but to sell their labour to the boss. There were rich people, poor people and class struggle.

But I didn't know about Value as a social form and so my real understanding of capitalism was deficient.

Despite my involvement in radical anti-imperialist / communist politics going back to the late 1960s I totally missed that a variety of social forms (formations) that we swim in daily have evolved and materialised from non material things, namely social relations. For example, some people worship money and virtually everyone can't help but adopt a strong interest in money, since it is essential to both survival and a good life. But most people haven't thought through that money originates in a social relation, that is, the need to standardise commodity exchange.

Such social forms are historically contingent, not an inevitable aspects of society. In the late 60s I had looked below the surface of capitalism and understood some of its workings but had missed that there was a lot more happening down there than I had imagined. Sadly, I now realise, my ignorance was and is shared by most other 60s radicals. This ignorance originated in a failure to understand Marx's most important work, “Capital”.

social forms

Social forms are things that emerge (materialise) as social artefacts as society evolves. Their origin is social not material. They become part of that society and are often perceived as part of the air we breathe. But it is social function that has brought them about and not the form which has created the social function. They don’t have any necessary permanence beyond that. Social forms in capitalist society include things of major importance such as value, abstract labour, money, capital, the commodity, commodity exchange, the market, rent and interest. These things emerge from a social process and are not set in stone for all time.

What Marx meant by Value as a social form was the capacity of a commodity to be exchanged as an equal. In terms of social or class consciousness some people have a strong sense of boss – worker relations as a social construct, something that can change, but usually do not have the same sense that Value has arisen socially and will not be around forever. You can imagine a society (socialism, communism) where things are produced for people's needs or wants, that people will receive food, medicine and white goods irrespective of their financial status. In such a society Value as a measure of commodities to be exchanged would whither away.

The social form of value

Commodities have a physical, bodily form (use values) and a value form (a social form). Value does not contain a single atom of matter. Value is a social reality. It comes into being through the social exchange of equivalents. Value hides behind exchange value, what we perceive on the surface.

After establishing that value is materialized or crystallized or embedded or congealed or abstract human labour Marx then starts to discuss the social form of value. By this he means that value is not a natural property of a commodity but arises socially due to the exchange of one commodity for another.

He doesn't emphasise that he is throwing a hand grenade into what he has previously established. Congealed, abstract labour has a concrete, measurable, cut and dried feel to it as a “definition” of value. He now introduces the idea that value is also social, that it exists in the space between the exchange of commodities, that it doesn't belong to a commodity but in the relationship of one commodity to another. This undermines the concrete feel of value.

This was confusing. How could value be BOTH a fluid social thing and a definite, even measurable, concrete thing at the same time?

I think I was vaguely aware that my thinking was being too literal, too linear and this intellectual demand that I hold two contradictory aspects in continual tension in my mind at the same time did require a different way of thinking. This is the Marxist way, his dialectical legacy from Hegel.

Note, however: In nature, the transformation of energy from one form to another (when a stone falls to the ground gravitational potential becomes kinetic energy becomes sound energy etc.) while at the same time the amounts of energy involved can be precisely measured. So the concept of change of form accompanying quantitative measurement, even precise measurement, is not a conceptual game changer in this case. But, of course, in the case of value, the origin of the form is social not natural and that adds another level of conceptual difficulty.

Rubin's definition of value

My confusion about value led me to search for a more complete definition. I thought I had found this in Isaak Rubin's writings and this felt like another AHA moment
“Marx analyses value in terms of its form, substance and magnitude. “The decisive, crucial point consists of revealing the necessary internal connection between the form, substance and magnitude of value” (Capital Volume one, first edition). The connection between these three aspects was hidden from the eyes of the analyst because Marx analysed them separately from each other. In the first German edition of Capital, Marx pointed out several times that the subject was the analysis of various aspects of one and the same object: value. “Now we know the substance of value. It is labour. We know the measure of its magnitude. It is labour time. What still remains is its form, which transforms value into exchange-value.” … In the second edition of Volume one of Capital these sentences were excluded, but the first chapter is divided into sections with separate headings: the heading of the first section say, “Substance of Value and Magnitude of Value”; the third section is titled: “Form of Value or Exchange-value.” As for the second section, which is devoted to the two fold character of labour, it is only a supplement to the first section, ie. To the theory of the substance of value”
- Ch 12, Content and Form of Value p. 112, in Essays on Marx's Theory of Value by Isaak Rubin
So, according to Rubin, the value of a commodity is:
  • a social form or social relation (the capacity for a commodity to be exchanged as an equal)
  • AND a substance or content which is embedded abstract, social labour
  • AND a magnitude (labour time)
Value is BOTH a dynamic social relation and embedded abstract labour. To see only the embedded labour part is to not understand value in motion. Embedded labour implies a static notion of value. But abstract labour and labour time are derived from a social process involving both the production and circulation of commodities. If there is a glut of commodities that are not sold they contain no value, the “embedded labour” counts for nothing.

Socially necessary labour time perspective on value

At some stage I became aware that David Harvey (in his online lectures) was explaining value with the phrase (from Marx) socially necessary labour time.

This is shorthand but, in a way, reasonable shorthand since it contains both the quantitative aspect (labour time) and the social qualitative aspect (socially necessary) in the one expression.

Socially necessary is when you think about it unpredictable. Who can say in advance how much labour is socially necessary? We don't know in advance whether the products will sell (if they don't their labour doesn't count) or whether new technology will be introduced which will reduce the necessary labour time or whether workers will agitate for a wage increase, etc.


Marx, Karl
- Chapter 1.3 The Form of Value or Exchange-value of Capital Vol 1
- Ch. 1 as per First German Edition
- The Value Form. Appendix to the 1st German edition of Capital, Volume 1, 1867

Rubin, Isaak. Essays on Marx's Theory of Value

Friday, February 26, 2016

The labour process and different categories of labour

Index for a series of articles about Value
1) Marx and the domains of ignorance
2) Unpacking the value suitcase
3) The commodity perspective on value
4) The labour process and different categories of labour
(to be continued)

Marx loves labour, as human essence, but hates the restriction or confinement or degradation of human labour under capitalism.

In my words from an earlier article about Marx's moral theory:
“Although we originate as part of nature, with our social labour we oppose nature. Our productivity is also imaginative. We imaginatively and self consciously transform nature and in that process also transform ourselves. This is a teleological process. Humans imagine new forms of the material and self and then through social labour bring that imagination into reality”
Or in Marx's words:
“Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. 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. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be.”
- Capital, vol 1, Ch 7
Labour is fluidity which in any society has to be socially 'fixed' or objectified in the production of particular goods. Human labour, unlike animals instinct, is indeterminate. With industrialisation the fluidity of labour is more apparent – jobs are not completely determined by tradition, religion, family ties etc. - individuals do frequently change jobs, etc.

How is human labour determined? Under capitalism there is individual choice within social limits. This evolves out of the life of definite individuals

Marx's Capital is an attempt to describe the conceptualisation of this social determination, from the indeterminate to the determinant, from the potential to the actual, from the formless to the formed.

Marx says (agreeing in this respect with his predecessors Adam Smith and David Ricardo – but in conflict with the marginal economists who came after Marx) that since use values can be exchanged as equivalents there must be a common denominator. Remember, when we talk of commodity exchange, we are dealing with the capitalist system here and not something set in place for all of time. This common denominator is materialized or crystallized or embedded or congealed or abstract human labour. However, note that these adjectives may give the wrong impression that labour enters a commodity as a physical property of the commodity. This is not a good way to look at it. Commodities exchange as equivalents in the marketplace, this is a social process, not a property of an individual commodity that can be be measured like the taste of tea or the amount of memory on a USB stick.

Labour has both a qualitative aspect and a quantitative aspect. With respect to use value the labour is qualitative (How and What). With respect to value the labour is quantitative (How much? How long a time?)

As capitalism develops labour saving technology also develops, which increases the productivity of labour. An increase in productivity leads to an increase in use values which means an increase in the total wealth of society. But an increase in productivity does not alter the value of labour, since that depends on how much and how long. As industry becomes more high tech and more productive the same amount of labour produces more. The ratio, c/v, between constant capital (c), which includes machinery, and variable capital (wages) increases. The dead labour incorporated in machines comes to predominate over living labour. Marx called this ratio, c/v, the organic composition of capital.

Put simply, the reason a 32GB USB stick cost $60 in 2010 but reduced to $16 by 2015 is that the amount of human labour required to make it is declining due mainly to progressive technological improvements. Despite all the objections to Marx's labour theory this much is fairly obvious.

Under capitalism labour power is just another commodity which is sold in the marketplace. Like other commodities it has a use value and an exchange-value. Use value is represented by the particular skills of the labourer, for example, computer programmer or school teacher. This is categorised by Marx as concrete and / or individual labour. Exchange value is reflected in the fact that all workers sells themselves in the labour market, their value works itself out as part of a social process. This aspect is categorised by Marx as abstract and / or social labour.

Under capitalism the historical tendency is for labour, including skilled labour, to become more general or universal. Capitalism needs technically skilled workers who are delivered through education but capitalism does not like irreplaceable or indispensable workers. Hence, all teachers, for example, are expected to know basic computer applications but creative computing is not encouraged, for most, since such teachers are difficult to replace. So the skilling of workers is at the same time accompanied by an opposing tendency of dumbing down or leveling of those skills. The abstract and social labour categories are not only abstractions arrived at through analysis but also a historical tendency (Harvey quoting Desai, p. 60 FN 16, “the category of abstract, undifferentiated labour is not an abstraction but a historical tendency”)

Capitalism levels labour. Work becomes impersonal. Shopping becomes self expression. These generalisations are a valid description of the direction capitalism takes us even though individual workers may find their jobs rewarding for now those jobs are continually being transformed into more mechanised forms of work. eg. Capitalism would love to replace teachers, who display some creativity, with computerised teaching machines. This process is beginning to happen through MOOCs and online courses (eg, the Salman Khan academy) but in general human to human teaching skills are incredibly complex and can't be emulated by computer interaction, yet.

The contradictions that Marx observes in human labour are between the labour which produces use values and the labour which produces exchange values.

In various places Marx uses the following terms to describe abstract labour which creates exchange values: simple, average, unskilled, homogenous, abstract, general, social (in the sense of producing social use values), universal.

My corresponding list of labour which creates use values is: useful, specific, skilled, heterogeneous, concrete, individual, social in a general sense (meaning sociable workers assisting each other and having some fun at work), creative.

The sense in which Marx uses the word social in creating exchange values needs to be explained and contrasted with the more general use of the word social, as in being sociable, on the second list in the creation of use values. See below.

There is only one labour process but it has these different aspects:

Individual or private labour

Individual or private labour means people working as individuals. Within capitalism individuals appear to have some choice as to their work. They may work in a group or on their own but their work has an individual or private aspect to it as well as a social – group like aspect.

Concrete labour

Concrete labour means that people can perform many different types of work, the diversity and qualitative differences in work. Some workers are engineers, some are teachers etc. In Marx's day he talked about tailors and weavers. Under capitalism there is a division of labour. This division of labour may take an extreme form (Taylorism in factories) or less extreme forms for skilled workers but our education system is geared to create specialists not polymaths.

Social labour

In section Chapter 1.4 of Capital on commodity fetishism Marx starts off by saying that there are things about the commodity that are non mysterious and other things that are mysterious

The non mysterious things are that use values are properties that satisfy human wants and that value is a product of human labour.

The mysterious things are that the social character of labour takes the form of social relations between products and that the social relations between men assume the form of a relation between things

social exchange between things”
By this Marx means that commodities appear as exchange-values, in a mutual relation with other commodities.

The problem here is the lack of clarity by Marx of his use of the word “social”. He is using social to refer to particular aspects that arise or flourish under capitalism and NOT social in the more general sense of any sort of social interaction.

I can discern two aspects of Marx's use of the word social. Value as a social form means that commodities are exchangeable on the market as equivalents. An exchange is a social interaction. Exchanges in the marketplace are a huge and important part of our lives. Products are transformed into the social form of a commodity, a product which is taken to the marketplace. The commodity becomes part of a complex social process, unlike products that are made by individuals for private use and which never enter the market.

The second aspect is that the labour that appears in exchange is also general labour or universal labour. Although the labour is performed by individuals it is irrelevant which individuals perform the labour. Universal labour time produces a universal product. Universal means any labourer, any product. It happens independent of individuals. Hence it is social. The universal is individual, the individual is universal. (Contribution, p. 32)

So social in this sense means both exchangeable and universal (interchangeable) . Universal means that labourers and products are interchangeable.

One way to understand the meaning of social labour is to see it as people working to produce social use values, irrespective of whether they work alone or in a social group, ie. people working to produce things not for their individual use but for the use of others.

Abstract labour

Abstract labour is the opposite of concrete in that different types of labour can still be compared. All work has something in common. This is not an assumption that all work is physiologically identical but that differences in work can be measured and quantified in some way. Abstract labour measures the quantity or duration of work. Abstract labour forms the substance of value

Although individual / social labour and concrete / abstract labour represent two pairs of dialectical opposites there are other helpful ways in which these aspects can be viewed. Individual labour and concrete labour both involve an element of subjective choice. Social labour and abstract labour both involve an element of detachment from the individual.

As capitalism progresses there is a historical process whereby capitalism levels and detaches labour from the individual. Abstract and social labour become dominant over their dialectical opposites of concrete and individual labour. Work becomes more impersonal and shopping becomes self expression. Labour becomes more like an interchangeable part. No one is indispensable. This is because the skilled artisan is anathema to capitalism. ( Harvey, p.59, “they must be subdued or eliminated by transformation of the labour process”) The domination of abstract labour signifies that “the process of production has mastery over man” (Marx,

Labour power, the capacity to labour, has the ability to create a surplus beyond the cost of its purchase by the capitalist. eg. The worker spends 6 hours a day working for himself (variable capital, v) and 2 hours a day working for the capitalist (surplus value, s). The rate of exploitation is s/v, in this case 2/6 or 33%.


Elson, Diane. The Value Theory of Labour. In Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism (Radical Thinkers). Verso (republished September 1, 2015)

Harvey, David. The Limits to Capital. Verso (2006), amazon

Marx, Karl.
- A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)
- Capital Vol 1, Chapter 1 (1867)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

head injury

Recently, I decided to leave Melbourne and head north to work in indigenous schools.

My first choice was Northern Territory since there is now a whole swathe of remote schools there that have introduced the Zig Engelmann Direct Instruction approach, imported into Australia by Noel Pearson and first implemented in a handful of Cape York schools. I wrote a report about this method in 2012: Direct Instruction observations at Djarragun College

Fate and luck intervened. I was offered a great job at Djarragun College, near Cairns, and decided to accept.

In the meantime I had booked a flight to Adelaide and went ahead with it.

The unusual headaches started on Monday 1st February and although not severe they weren't going away. So eventually I visited a doctor and he suggested a CT scan.

This revealed a chronic subdural haematoma which requires an operation. The problem is that blood has leaked into the brain cavity which puts pressure on the brain. The surgeon drilled some small holes in my head and then I had to lie flat on my back for 48 hours to drain out the old (motor oil) blood. I'm an active person so lying flat for 48 hours was the hardest thing for me about the whole procedure. I had the operation at the Royal Adelaide on Monday 8th and was discharged on Thursday 11th.

I'm still going to Djarragun but my start has been delayed to March 7th

The surgeon and nurses at the Royal Adelaide were brilliant. I'm reminded that we have a great medical system in Australia for urgent cases, even though waiting times could be improved for non urgent cases. Many thanks for the support I've received from friends and family during my brief hospital stay.

The first pic shows me still smiling straight after the operation.

The two other pics show the stapled wounds on the day of my discharge.

Reference: Chronic subdural haematoma in the elderly

Some points from this article which relate to my situation:
  • Presenting features in my case: headaches, drowsiness
  • Risk factors cerebral atrophy in the elderly, increasing space between the brain and the skull by 6-11% of total intracranial space. This stretches and can rupture the bridging veins and they haemorrhage into the subdural space. A history of head injury is absent in 30-50% of cases
  • Complications - recurrence can occur within 4 days to 4 weeks but this appears to be associated with inadequate expansion of the brain back into the void where the dead blood was. My surgeon says in my case this is unlikely since my brain has moved back to where is should be. But I won't know for sure until my next CT scan on Thursday 25th February.
  • Update, March 2nd: I had the CT scan on the 29th February and received clearance to fly to Cairns by the neurosurgeons on Tuesday 1st March. My flight is on Thursday 3rd March.