A Brief Primer on Value Theory, Part 2: Unpacking the Marxian Theory of Value


From Ricardo to Marx

We now arrive at Marx and his own take on the labor theory of value. This section will be longer and more detail that the cursory treatment of the Phsyiocrats, Smith and Ricardo, which was perhaps unjustly short and taking in depth. But this, after all, is only a brief primer intended to illustrate the broad differences, and not a detailed study. If more time is spent on Marx, it is because Marx’s treatment of capitalism is far more systematic than the Classicalists, and it is difficult to talk about, say, value, without dipping into other various, such as the so-called “transformation problem”.

Given the dialectic nature of Marx’s approach to political economy, it’s interesting to see how a sort of play of contradictions is what drives the various transformations in the LTV. The Ricardian approach, which correlated value-as-labor with a price-as-production cost theory was an attempt to carry out a synthesis of the contradictory perspectives offered by Smith (value-as-labor and labor-as-stock). It would be this correlation that would, in fact, give rise to a particular school of pro-market socialists. This school of “Ricardian socialism” would include in its numbers individuals like Thomas Hodgskin, Charles Hall, John Francois Bray, and Percy Ravenstone, had ties to various working class movements and co-operative movements such as the Chartists, the Owenites, the Knights of Labor, and would greatly influence Proudhon’s development of mutualism. In their schema, the capitalist system was inherently exploitative because of the operations of value: if price and value are the same, then the laborer should be receiving the full proceeds of that value in the form of profit. As the capitalist is taking a portion of these proceeds, the laborer is being systematically robbed. To quote Engels, “Insofar as modern socialism, no matter of what tendency, starts out from bourgeois political economy, it almost without exception takes up the Ricardian theory of value.” (quoted in Carson, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, pg. 15)

Indeed, Marx himself drew heavily on the Ricardian socialists, and throughout the 1840s he committed himself to a deep study of Ricardian economists (this was also the decade in which he was close to Proudhon, before his largely fallacious attack on mutualism in 1847’s The Poverty of Philosophy). True to his dialectical process, he came to the conclusion that Ricardo’s solution to Smith contained contradictions of its own, and was unable to properly resolve the proposition of labor-value with price. Put simply, if price and value were aligned, there would be no way for profit to be realized. Marx might have overstated this divergence (as we saw in the last post, with the juxtaposition of the “natural price” with the “market price”), but the question of the relationship between value and price, and what it meant for labor, preoccupied the revolutionary thinkers of this time. As Proudhon wrote in 1851,

The price of things is not proportionate to their value: it is larger or smaller according to an influence which justice condemns, but the existing economic chaos excuses – Usury. Usury is the arbitrary factor in commerce. Inasmuch as, under the present system, the producer has no guarantee that he can exchange his product, nor the merchant any certainty of reselling, each one endeavors to pass off his merchandise at the highest possible price, in order to obtain by the excess of profit the security of which labor and exchange fail sufficiently to assure him. The profit thus obtained in excess of the cost, including the wages of the seller, is called Increase. Increase – theft – is therefore compensation for insecurity. Everybody being given to Increase, there is reciprocal falsehood in all relations, and universal deceit, by common consent, as to the value of things. (Proudhon, “The General Idea of Revolution in the Nineteenth Century”)

In order to solve this perceived problem, Marx made a critical distinction that not only transformed the labor theory of value, but the overarching structure of the critique of capitalism.


To draw out Marx’s new take on value theory, we can return to the “energeticist model” touched on in the previous post. As noted before, the Industrial Revolution had generated a cultural fixation of machines, begetting not only a host of metaphors to approach labor and industry, but the growing study of thermodynamic processes. The realization of these processes, in turn, deepened the emergent understand of the human, labor, production, and the cosmos. Much of this can attributed, as Anson Rabinbach argues, to the arguments set forth by the German physician Hermann von Helmholtz, who had approached the study of the conservation of energy through his work on muscle metabolism. In lectures and essays beginning the late 1840s, Helmhotz defined the functions of nature in terms of kraft, which would later be translated into English as the more conventional “energy” – though for Helmhotz, the term denoted force, and more specifically, work in a distinctively humanist way:

In a cycle of lectures on the conservation of energy delivered in 1862-63, Helmholtz acknowledged that his original model for the concept of work as the universal measure of Kraft was human labor: “The concept of work for machines or natural processes is taken from the comparison with the work performance of human beings, and is … comprehensible through a comparison with human labor.” Helmholtz thus established the equivalence of human, animal, and inorganic mechanical work, applicable to all motion, irrespective of intelligence, skill, design, or any other extraneous circumstance. Work was the transcendental principle of nature and society-the pure productive power of Kraft. For Helmholtz the value of human labor was determined more by the force expended than by the skill involved, which is a product of “time and trouble.” (Rabinbach, The Human Motor, pg. 59)

These concerns were taken up by a host of other scientists, philosophers, and scholars, most notably for our purposes here the German physiologist Ludwig Büchner. While pursuing a methodology different from Helmholtz’s own (for a comparison of Büchner’s overlaps and divergences with Helmholtz, see Scott Edgar’s “The Physiology of Sense Organs and Neo-Kantian Conceptions of Objectivity: Helmholtz, Lange, Liebman” in the edited volume Objectivity in Science: New Perspectives from Science and Technology Studies, pgs. 101-122), a common emphasis on kraft was shared. For Büchner, kraft was not only a notion that could unify the sciences into a common framework, but was something with far-reaching philosophical, social, and ultimately political implications in that it embodied a scientific foundation for materialism. It would provide “’an indestructible foundation’ for a view of nature that would ‘decisively ban every kind of supernaturalism and idealism from the explanation of natural events.’” (Rabinbach, The Human Motor, pg. 50) This view of nature would be one of constant exchange of energy, moving back and forth form the body to the environment.

Though Marx would criticize Büchner, he would begin adopting the thinker’s language and sets of metaphors, and further them with his own metaphors drawn from heavy industry. Büchner, in 1855’s Staff und Kraft, would describe the skeleton as the immobile frame that support a host of transformations passing through the body; two years later, in the Grundrisse, Marx would redeploy this notion and add that while all sorts of metabolic exchanges were taking place in the body at different paces, it was bone which “may be regarded as the fixed capital of the human body.” Fixed capital, of course, is a concept adopted from Ricardo to describe assets that are not used up in the production process – land, buildings, factories, equipment, so on and so forth. Elsewhere, the famous Marxian “general formula of capital” – C-M-C and M-C-M’ – gets described as an eternal “process of production, as a real metabolism.” (Marx, Grundrisse, pg. 217) So here we have a return to some themes introduced first by the Physiocrats: economic circulation being likened to bodily processes, and the nature of circulation being bound to transformations. The major differences are two-fold: the understanding of bodily processes has been shifted from simple flow of blood to wider metabolic processes connected to Nature itself, and industrialization has been introduced into the picture, in the form of the skeleton. In other words, we are back to a familiar terrain: value theory.


Alongside Kraft, Helmholtz came to identify another force: Arbeitskraft, or “labor-power”, which he defines as Kraft being converted into mechanical labor. In the Grundrisse, Marx explicitly uses the term Arbeitskraft, though the concept remains remarkably underdeveloped. But, as he would later elaborate upon in Capital, it is Arbeitskraft, or labor-power, that holds the key to solving the problem of value and price:

Classical Political Economy borrowed from every-day life the category “price of labour” without further criticism, and then simply asked the question, how is this price determined? It soon recognized that the change in the relations of demand and supply explained in regard to the price of labour, as of all other commodities, nothing except its changes i.e., the oscillations of the market-price above or below a certain mean. If demand and supply balance, the oscillation of prices ceases, all other conditions remaining the same. But then demand and supply also cease to explain anything. The price of labour, at the moment when demand and supply are in equilibrium, is its natural price, determined independently of the relation of demand and supply. And how this price is determined is just the question… As with other commodities, this value was then further determined by the cost of production. But what is the cost of production-of the labourer, i.e., the cost of producing or reproducing the labourer himself? This question unconsciously substituted itself in Political Economy for the original one; for the search after the cost of production of labour as such turned in a circle and never left the spot. What economists therefore call value of labour, is in fact the value of labour-power, as it exists in the personality of the labourer, which is as different from its function, labour, as a machine is from the work it performs. (Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Chapter 19, emphasis mine)

In shifting the focus from labor, as an act unto itself, to labor-power, as the source of value, Marx effectively shifts the focus from the pre-industrial economy to the industrial economy, thus building into his theory the transition itself. While this might sound abstract, look at it like this: in the pre-industrial economy, a craftsman was able to produce a good, and proceed to sale it on the market for an agreed upon price. As the craftsman received the full return, he was able to receive the full value of his labor – the movement of value playing out in full accordance here with the Ricardian perspective. But this is not how it operates in the industrialized, capitalist economy. The craftsman is the exception, the wage laborer is the rule. This is precisely what Marx took Proudhon to task for, for desiring an economy more reflective of a pre-capitalist age – though it must be pointed out that this is little more than a strawman, and does not reflect Proudhon’s perspective in the slightest (see Proudhon’s “The General Idea of Revolution in the Nineteenth Century”).

The transition from the pre-industrial economy to the industrial economy fundamentally transformed the way that relations through society operated (this, of course, is the foundation of any socialist critique). To be a wage-laborer, a member of the industrial working class, brings with it a host of social relations different from the social relations connected to an economy based on craftsmen or one based on feudalism. It could be said that the economy was even more social in nature, with on one hand the growth of mass markets, and on the other hand higher concentrations of labor in a single firm. This is why Marx approaches labor not simply as labor, but socially-necessary labor.

How does one approach assessing value in labor-power? To return to a line in Marx’s quote above, we see a concern with “the cost of production-of the labourer, i.e., the cost of producing or reproducing the labourer himself”. This is a question that directly concerns the ability of the laborer to labor (i.e., what drives labor-power), which is the wage itself. Following the earlier classicalists, Marx positions the wage as labor-power’s value, as it is precisely what the laborer agrees to in exchange for the labor-power. The wage, being traded for labor-power and not labor, does corresponds directly to the production process itself, but to the unit of time that each unit of wage denotes (for example: $8 dollars pay for 1 hour of work). Thus Marx arrives at the formulation of socially-necessary labor time (SNLT), which is the value being discussed in the Marxian LTV. Or, more properly, value corresponds to the amount of SNLT that flows into a given commodity. To identify this amount we can speak of two different forms of labor that are present in a commodity:

  • Living labor, which is the labor that goes into production of a commodity by working with tools, equipment and raw materials.
  • Embodied labor, which is the past labor that went into the tools, equipment, and raw materials that living labor uses to produce.

So taken most basically, if a hammer, some nails, lacquer, and treated wood had a total of 3 hours of embodied labor, and it took 1 hour of living labor to assemble this into a table, the end product would have a value of 4. Now, for the capitalist to realize a profit, they have to sell it on the market at a level higher than the amount of value contained within it. Let us say that the capitalist sells the table for a price equivalent to a value of 7. This difference between market value and SNLT yields, for the capitalist, a profit of 3 – what Marx calls surplus value. Taken over a period of time, this post-SNLT excess becomes the rate of profit (ROP). The formula for the ROP is this:

s/(c + v)

where S is surplus value, C is fixed capital (or constant capital, as Marx calls it here), and V is the worker’s wages.

The Rate of Profit

There are several “circuits” going on in this model of the capitalist economy. We have the transformation of money, shifted by labor into the form of the commodity, and then being realized as a higher sum of money if surplus value is realized through consumption (M–C–M’); the transformation of commodity into money through consumption, which then flows back into the commodity in the form of re-investment (C–M–C); money into value through the wages exchanged for labor-power; value into money through labor and sale, on and on. The most important aspect of this is that it is value that emerges as the central driver of the capitalism economy. It enables production in two ways: by setting the stage for production by providing the laborer with a wage, and establishing the possibility for consumption – and thus future production – through stored wages being exchanged on the market. At the same time, profit too is essential, for it is from profit that both constant capital and variable capital derive. Thus, from a birds eye view, the capitalist economy runs out the cycles of value and profit co-producing one another.

Introducing another critical factor complicates this dynamic system: that of competition. For all of this to run smoothly, the capitalist must not only be realizing surplus value, but realizing it against competitors not only once, but for the entire duration that the capitalist is actively engaged with the economy. As competition drives prices towards actual value – that is, the equilibrium price – it becomes more and more difficult for M-C-M’ to actualize. The capitalist, if they are business-savy in the slightest, will do what all business-savy capitalists do: lower the cost of production. This means producing the same amount of commodities or even more commodities with laborers who are either accepting lower wagers or by simply eliminating the number of laborers through labor-saving technology (or most both). In this scenario we arrive at another important concept: the organic composition of capital (OCC), which is ratio of laborers to machines in the production process (or from the point of view of the capitalist, the ratio of variable capital to constant capital). In attempts to drive down prices to raise profits, so often the OCC shifts, with the ratio moving machines/constant capital above labor/variable capital.

What does this have to do with value theory? Just about everything. Let’s say we have two table-producing firms who are competing with one another. For the sake of the experiment, let us say that both produce a certain number of tables that manage to clear the market with each passing day. Firm 1 has six employees making tables and two machines that aid them, while Firm 2 has two employees and six machines. Undoubtedly Firm 2 would produce more tables, and assuming they all clear each day, would realize higher profits at the end of the week by having 1) lower costs and 2) more units moved. Following Marx’s formulations, however, it would be Firm 1 that is producing more value. If we stretch the credibility of this thought experiment and imagine that we are in a town where Firm 1 and Firm 2 are the only sources of employment, it would be the sum of laborers at Firm who carry out more economic behavior outside out work.

It’s obvious that in time Firm 1, feeling the pressure exerted by the efficiency of Firm 2, would eventually alter the ratios within its OCC, and replace some workers with machines. While the firm might make a higher profit, it is suddenly adding less value. If the rate of value declines, so then does the rate of surplus value, a situation that exacerbates, Marx tells us, as technological advancements spread and transform production processes on a total level (an example today would be the rising role of automation). Falling realization of surplus value, of course, leads to a falling rate of profit. This is what Marx described as the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF).  Marx:

[The capitalist] mode of production produces a progressive relative decrease of the variable capital as compared to the constant capital, and consequently a continuously rising organic composition of the total capital. The immediate result of this is that the rate of surplus-value, at the same, or even a rising, degree of labour exploitation, is represented by a continually falling general rate of profit… The progressive tendency of the general rate of profit to fall is, therefore, just an expression peculiar to the capitalist mode of production of the progressive development of the social productivity of labour. This does not mean to say that the rate of profit may not fall temporarily for other reasons. But proceeding from the nature of the capitalist mode of production, it is thereby proved logical necessity that in its development the general average rate of surplus-value must express itself in a falling general rate of profit. Since the mass of the employed living labour is continually on the decline as compared to the mass of materialised labour set in motion by it, i.e., to the productively consumed means of production, it follows that the portion of living labour, unpaid and congealed in surplus-value, must also be continually on the decrease compared to the amount of value represented by the invested total capital. Since the ratio of the mass of surplus-value to the value of the invested total capital forms the rate of profit, this rate must constantly fall. (Marx, Capital, Vol. 3, Part 3, Chapter 13)

We won’t concern ourselves here on the question of whether or not that the TRPF to fall is a real-world phenomenon (or if it is a terminal situation, more properly). I will refer the interested reader to Michael Robert’s work on the subject. Hopefully this topic will be taken up at a later date.

What I do ant to draw attention to is that way in which Marx’s TRPF serves as a continuation of the thermodynamic basis of his value theory. In the 1840s and 1850s the discovery of the second law of thermodynamics became recognized, positing that as something changes from one state to the next, a portion of it is lost. In the conversion of heat in the heat engine, some heat would also escape; in any system, transformation would entail that across time, elements in the system would break down. This is the realization of entropy, which like all things energetic captured the popular imagination of the Victorian era – the Fin de siècle in particular – and beyond. Everything from the explosion of studies into ‘exhaustion and fatigue’ or all types to the managerial society obsessed with curing social ills to Oswald Spengler’s two-volume Decline of the West bore the stamp of entropy’s influence. As Rabinbach describes,

For Nietzsche, as for many nineteenth-century thinkers, fatigue was identified with modernity itself: “Disintegration characterizes this time, and thus uncertainty: nothing stands firmly on its feet or on a hard faith in itself: one lives for tomorrow as the day after tomorrow is dubious. Everything on our way is slippery and dangerous, and the ice that still supports us has become thin: all of us feel the warm, uncanny breath of the thawing wind; where we still walk, soon no one will be able to walk… The discovery of entropy attested to a pessimistic view of nature in which the available amount of energy or heat was continuously diminishing, conjuring up the specter of an apocalyptic “state of unchanging death. As the historian Saul Friedlander has pointed out, the fin-de- siècle loss of faith in progress brought about a “wholly new vision: that of the total end of man.” (Rabinbach, The Human Motor, pgs. 19-20)

In the Communist Manifesto (written in 1848), Marx and Engels had praised modernity (and by extension, capitalism) for its recreation of the world, penning the now-famous reflections on the “Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty…” But by Volume 3 of Capital (written between 1863 and 1883), the ecstatic language and vision of the manifesto gave way to something else entirely. Modernity-as-rebirth had transitioned to modernity-as-decay.

As we may recall, it was labor-power than Marx positioned as the source of value, and itself was drawn from the depiction of energy conceived by scientists like Helmholtz. Just as energy was capable of transforming form, so too did value, moving from money to commodity and back to money, commodity to money to commodity again, wage to profit, value to surplus value, on and on. Just as energy exhibits dissipation as it undergoes transformation and moves forward through time, so too does value diminish in the march of time, vanishing at human labor itself disappears into the machine. And just as the dissipation of energy, as entropy, leads (from the perspective of the scientists of the 1800s, of course) to the inevitable breakdown of all systems, so too does the decrease in value ultimately lead to crisis in the economic system through the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Thus Marx’s vision of capitalism, from the perspective of his value theory, comes to see capitalism as an immense machine for the transformation of things, a heat engine even, that is wearing itself down.

There are problems, however, that arise at this point and potentially undermine not only Marx’s suggestion that the rate of profit will fall, but his value theory as a whole. This set of concerns, which is known as the “transformation problem”, will be taken up in the next post.


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