Sam Knafo’s piece ‘Political Marxism and Value Theory’, published in Historical Materialism, in 2007 has struck me the first time I read it. Sam takes seriously the ‘historical’ in the historical materialism and his work challenges economistic and formalist understandings of Marxism. I want to reflect on this piece today, on the basis of my own evolving thoughts, trying to depict insights and limits of his approach to value by using other readings – especially the path-breaking interventions by Jim Kincaid and Nicole Pepperell. Such cross-readings are quite important to bring together some research agendas, which evolve independent from each other.

Thanks to his ability to explain complex ideas with great clarity, Sam poses his problem as follows:

‘When products are compared on the market through a single quantitative scale (prices), then labour is considered in abstract and quantitative terms, in terms of labour time. But it is not clear why and how labour is equalised in its products… Capitalists never establish prices for their commodities directly according to labour time. Consumers do not judge the value of a product according to labour time they think is required for producing these commodities. Without any institution responsible for such valuation, what concrete mechanisms can value commodities according to labour time? (Knafo 2007, p. 82)’.

Here, Sam, the good historian, asks a pertinent question to the political economist. Interestingly enough, his concern resonates the post-Keynesian economist, Joan Robinson in her Economic Philosophy. Robinson argues that value is a relationship between people and there never will be a unit for measuring (p. 34). She argues that value is a metaphysical concept and like all metaphysical concepts, “when you try to pin down, it turns out to be just a word” (Robinson, 1962, p.29). She says: where shall we find it? (p.29) But interestingly, Marx himself asks the same question: “The objectivity of commodities as values differs from Dame Quickly in the sense that a man knows not where to have it.” (Capital, Volume 1). In his critique of Fine and Saad Filho, Jim Kincaid (2009) makes a similar argument:

‘but known to whom? Not to capitalists as agents – they operate at levels very far from the abstractions of Marxist logic and base their decisions on accountancies which compare costs of production with the flow of monetary returns and commodities are sold. So it must be known theoretically? But how can there be a theoretical knowledge of quantified value without the category of measuring value and therefore of money?’ 

Sam, then, criticises the Marxist political economists who argue that value is generated in the process of production. Marx himself would agree with this (even though some other things he says in Capital and those political economists refer to might appear to contradict this claim). He argues that value does not derive from the use-value of commodities. Then does it come from being the product of labour? But no, even the product of labour undergoes change in our hands. Marx says: “If we make abstraction from its use value, we make abstraction at the same time from material elements and shapes that make those products a use value we see it no longer as a table, house, yarn…. Neither can they be regarded as the product of the labour of joiner, mason, spinner.” Here Marx wants to say that labouring activities embodied in the products do not explain value in themselves. But the subjective valuations of producers themselves cannot determine value neither, because individuals have different preferences.

He continues:

Valuation is not a process by which we abstract socially from concrete labour some kind of quantitative value. In comparing prices, they unwittingly choose among norms of production and circulation, social norms, which are validated through market dynamics. But this imperative on the capitalist to produce more cheaply does not determine how it is met.

This is an important insight. Look at the word ‘unwittingly’. I think Sam grasps here a critical dimension of what Marx was set to mean and what Nicole has grasped with the concept of ‘unintentional’ in her own work. When we choose goods in the market, we unintentionally pick up which labouring activities’ value will be realised. As Kincaid (2009: 217) argues ‘in circulation there is a selection from the total value produced of what is to count and what is not count as realised value…. This delayed and retrospective assessment does effect the ontological status of value produced which remains provisional-virtual until the circulation and realisation processes are complete.’ Sam does reach the conclusion that examining value is to ‘problematise how social norms are sanctioned by commodity-exchange’ (emphasis is mine) (Knafo, 2007: 92-3). Again, what Sam says is very similar to what Nicole says when she talks about abstract labour acting as a coercive force and to what Jim says ‘What counts as socially necessary labour time has to be established as a norm, separately in each branch of production…Imperatives of law of value are implemented at a micro-level of capitalist agency, and help determine broader patterns of capital allocation, pressures to increase productivity’ (2009: 218, emphasis is mine). But Sam reminds, as Jim would agree, that law of value does not determine the specific strategies implemented by capitalists.

Sam is trying to show that the meaning of labour is not that labour is the source of value. Again, as the good historian, Sam asks why labour became such an important category in the 18th century political economy. ‘How can we understand for example why political economists started talking about the centrality of labour time at a time precisely when machines were becoming more important and made it more difficult to attribute value to its supposed true source?’ This is a paradox pointed also by Nicole in her own work. But their responses have a slight difference.

For Sam, it is qualitative differences in the labour process that surprised classical political economists. It is the newly found ability to systematically transform the labour process, which makes capitalism specific (p. 89). ‘The concept of value represented a conceptual solution for apprehending an increasingly complex reality by positing a common denominator that could level this diversity. Development of value theory was a means to abstract from important qualitative differences and to render commensurable the increasingly unequal development that accompanies capitalism.’

Abstracting complex qualitative differences and making commensurable unequal development in capitalism can be what political economists have done in order to come to terms with the reality of their own world. However, this alone does not explain everything what Marx himself tried to do. Sam is correct in arguing that ‘labour does not produce value in itself’. But he misses a strategic opportunity when he continues that labour ‘constitutes a central factor in determining the capacity of some capitalists to be more productive than others and what strategies they pursue. That is why valuation ultimately becomes intricately linked to the question of labour, because it is the struggle over production which becomes central determinant in the way capitalists fix prices.’ I say missing a strategic opportunity, because his analysis now treats labour solely in empirical and historical terms, as a way for the capitalist to make a difference in competition. Organisation of labour process, the ways in which labour is hired, controlled, supervised, fired…etc. are undoubtedly important components of capitalist production and I agree that such norms around labour process became more significant within capitalism.  But, then, why do we need a concept such as abstract labour at all? Just to solve a conceptual problem to grasp a complex reality?

Value, abstract labour and social labour are not simply conceptual tools to understand the new reality of capital. They are, to use Nicole’s vocabulary, emergent properties of our actions in capitalist society. They are real, enacted abstractions, which arise as a result of our actions. The process of valuation, the way in which capitalists fix prices….etc. do come together to produce value. We do act as if all labouring activities in the market can be equalised. 

Through the lenses of Political Marxism, Sam looks at the market imperative of competition as a structural condition; however in order to avoid structuralism, he offers to look at the way in which individuals relate to those structures. Thus, market imperative is not an abstract, formal thing, the unwitting choices of consumers put pressures on merchants and producers to reduce prices and re-organise labour. Elsewhere, he would also talk about how strategies of some capitalists would put pressure on other capitalists to imitate similar norms or invent new ones. But while trying to historicise categories of political economy and thus escaping from Scylla of determinism and economism, he risks falling into the Charybdis of historicism. 

Sam is right to criticise Marxist political economists who try to build a general economic theory of capital. His text grasps rightly the historically specific aspect of the categories used in Capital. He focuses on how some categories became significant with the rise of capitalism, but his analysis remains insufficient to grasp the practical genesis of those categories, as Nicole does in her work.

If the problem about labour were only its significance (in terms of production norms, class struggle..etc.) for the capitalist to survive in the market, then why would we really need a category such as abstract labour? Wouldn’t we only talk about labourers and capitalists, their actions and their unintended effects rather than referring to a category such as ‘Capital’? We need an analysis which goes beyond the dichotomy historical vs. abstract.

Sam’s work had started with the intriguing question of why classical political economists saw labour as source of value in a period characterised by technological revolutions; Nicole’s work problematises the even more intriguing question of why, despite centuries of technological advances, despite all new political economy which no longer sees labour as the main source of value, despite the fact that many skills and types of labour are made redundant, capitalism is still producing and reproducing new forms of labour, new types of sectors and new forms of skills.

To go back to the initial question of this post: Despite tensions, the texts I mention here are correctly diverging from the dominant Marxist political economy, because they reject correctly the fact that value is produced by someone or is somewhere. I wish they were wrong: Having a concrete target and a concrete locus of struggle would have made the job of socialists so much easier…