Monday, 10 February 2014

Foucault’s Critique of Marx’s ‘Surplus Value’ (3)

19th Century Economics in Relation to Marx



First a bit of economic history which also shows that Marx was a traditionalist – even at his most “economically revolutionary”.

Foucault places Ricardo, not Marx, as the true revolutionary economist of the 19th century. To Marx and most Marxists, Ricardo was seen as a “transitional figure” between the “classical economists” (e.g., Adam Smith) and Marx’s own theories. Foucault argues his case by arguing that it was Ricardo, not Marx, who freed labour, or labour power, from being secondary to monetary and other kinds of exchange. Labour power was the true “measure of value”; not products or their monetary values (as measured in other ways). Goods, all goods, gained value because of the labour power expended upon them; not because of scarcity, or intrinsic value, or anything else. Labour was at the very heart of economics and thus the determiner of value and exchange. (I can’t say if Foucault is right on all this.)

It follows from all this that if Marx’s “theory of value” is basically that of Ricardo, the there was no actual break at all between “bourgeois” and “socialist” economic theories (Marx’s own). More specifically, then, Ricardo, the non-socialist, and Marx (the socialist) belonged to the same “post-Classical episteme”. In fact, the disputes between Marx (Marxists) and Ricardo (the “bourgeois economists”) were, according to Foucault, mere “storms in a children’s paddling pool”.

More interestingly, as I mentioned earlier and as I hinted at just now, it was Marx’s specific economic theory of “surplus value” (basically derived from Ricardo’s emphasis on labour) which shows Marx to have been the 19th century German metaphysician that he was.

Surplus Value


The gist of Marx’s theory of surplus value is that because the true measure of value is labour power, or the units of labour involved in production, then that is reflected in the price the owner of capital asks for when selling his products to others. However, in order for the capitalist to make a profit, he must demand extra labour power to guarantee that profit. That is, if he sold goods at to the value of their real labour power, or the units of labour involved in production, he would not make a profit because his labourers would be paid at the correct or fair price for their labour; as expressed in the labour theory of value. Thus he must demand extra labour from his workers, over and above what would generate the actual price of their products, to guarantee a profit. That extra, that surplus value of labour, is what generates his profits and which is, similarly, taken away from the workers themselves who will not now receive a correct or fair price for their labour.

But all this is philosophical – metaphysical – baloney. Even if the theory can be understood clearly, it still involves incredible metaphysical assumptions. Who is to say there is even such a thing as a "fair value" let alone a "correct value" of given labour? How can even an economist decide what belongs to the labourer and what belongs to the capitalist? The facts can’t decide this matter. The transference of value from labour is either metaphorical or metaphysical (or both). Without arbitrary stipulations, societal customs, norms, economic traditions, etc. none of Marx’s theory is at all factual. It is metaphysical. In a sense it is not even theoretical. It’s as if “real value” or “true price” etc. existed in the ethereal air before any system of capitalist economics even began. Before capitalism, and during, there was seen to be an absolute value of labour and therefore an absolute value of produce. And even these things are absolute, then surplus value will be an absolute too. It must be an economic fact that the capitalist genuinely creams off surplus value from his workers. It must be an economic fact that there is, or should be, a given price for products given a certain amount of labour. But how could there be? These aren’t facts. Thus they must be, as it were, metaphysical impositions on the economic facts or realities. It’s like the distinction between fact and value. Marx imposed values (literally and metaphorically) on certain economic facts and realities. But that imposition is not itself factual. It must be metaphysical.

There is no determinate “value” for labour and therefore for price and exchange. There are facts about how much labour was involved in production. There are facts about how much the capitalist gets compared to the average worker. There are facts about how long hours the workers work compared to the few hours of the capitalist. But not of these facts determine price and value; let alone facts about surplus value. All that Marx has left is basically a metaphysical assumption about value which are themselves basically determined by Marx’s hidden normative/moral position on the status of the worker vis-à-vis the capitalist who employs him. Thus he goes beyond economics, and even economic theory, into the realm of metaphysics and also into the real of normative/moral economics.

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