[iDC] Some notes in defense of a labor theory of value

Mark Andrejevic markbandrejevic at gmail.com
Mon Oct 26 08:26:19 UTC 2009

In response to Adam's post on the labor theory of value -- I'm almost
willing to be convinced by this, but in the interest of keeping the
discussion going, I'll forward a few observations in defense of the labor
theory of value and a couple of challenges to Adam's claims.
First, it is worth noting that the labor theory of value and the
valorization of labor via its commodification are analytically distinct.
That is to say, it is one thing to claim that value is a function of labor
(that, for example, air is free because it doesn't require labor to create
it -- at least not yet) and another to describe a particular set of social
relations that allow for the capture of this value (i.e., the
commodification of labor made possible by the privatization of productive

It is the failure to make this distinction that leads to the claim that
"labor only creates value in so far as it is commodified, that is in so far
as it is scarce. But if labor and life coincide, then labor is per
definition no longer scarce and the process of commodification no longer
operates." While it may be true that if labor is not scarce it cannot be
commodified, it is demonstrably not the case that labor which is not
commodified does not generate value. If this were the case, slavery and
feudalism would not have produced value (one might argue that, in some
systems of slavery, laborers were commmodified -- but that is not the same
thing as commodifying labor). In other words we know that there have
been economic systems with markets and prices in which labor is not sold as
a commodity. In these systems surplus is also extracted, though by other
means than the commodification of labor (but not without the human labor
required to create value). In other words it is important to distinguish
between the claims that labor is the source of value and that wage labor is
the source of surplus value.

The reason that labor cannot be priced at zero within capitalist relations
is a function of scarcity, but not quite in the way Adam describes it. In
sheer numeric terms the goal of capital is decidedly not to make labor a
scarce resource in any particular labor market --  as Marx notes, the goal
is the creation of a reserve pool of unemployed or underemployed to reduce
the bargaining power of labor. But if there is a surplus of labor -- as
there is in many capitalist economies, why doesn't this drive the cost of
labor down to zero? Because the price of labor is a function of the socially
determined cost of its replacement. This is the level at which scarcity
operates. Were scarcity to truly disappear (if food, shelter, and other
elements of the socially determined replacement cost of labor were to have
no cost because they were available in the way air is to us -- that is, they
required no labor), the price of labor could, theoretically, go to zero (as
would the incentive to sell one's labor power). In such a scenario, by
assumption, prices would also go to zero, and the mechanism for capturing
surplus value would disappear. Nothing from nothing leaves nothing (Preston,
1975). The result would be not an overabundance of labor, but its
disappearance, at least from an economic perspective (presumably activity
would continue in such a scenario, but it would not generate economic
value). Perhaps this is what Adam means by the disappearance of scarcity and
the consequent end of the labor theory of value.

Regardless, this is decidedly not the situation in the examples of the
online economy adduced by Adam. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the
ability of users to engage in activities that generate value for companies
like Google and Facebook (which recently turned a profit for the first time)
is reliant upon existing regimes of wage labor. We have not (yet?) reached
the point, in the miraculous online economy, that we can all feed ourselves
(and manufacture the physical infrastructure for our communication networks,
etc.) by browsing, networking, and posting. The so-called online economy
piggybacks on the offline one -- it is not (yet?), I'd argue, a conceptually
independent system (let alone a post-capitalist one).

One takeaway point from these observations is that the fact that productive
activity (the creation of commodities that can be sold in the
marketplace) is unwaged and uncoerced (if, indeed, this is the case) does
not mean that it cannot generate value (so long as scarcity has not yet
disappeared in the sense described above). The unwaged character of the
activity does raise the question regarding how and whether one might want to
conceive of this activity as subject to the critique of the exploitation of
labor. One thing that is becoming increasingly clear in a range of
professions is that activity once assumed to be distinct from the waged
sphere of working life (and thus not subject to the same power imbalances
that structure the "freely" agreed upon terms of wage labor) is being folded
into it. Blogging as a means of promoting one's work, managing consumer
concerns or spinning product lines, social networking as a means of building
client lists, recruiting new employees, finding customers, and so on. More
on this at the conference...
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