Recently a correspondent posed some questions to me that I would like to respond to publicly since others might get something out of my response.
Q: “How would a socialist system account for jobs that don’t occur on property? Or small businesses that adhere to the service industry where minuscule amounts of profit comes from labor time as opposed to capital investment? i.e., I get paid $22 per hour / 89.50 labor rate. 60 otherwise goes overhead. And I sell the parts my boss invests in with his capital.”
I’ve been faced with this question and I’m unsure how to respond; what is a fairly short explanation of how a social system based on workplace democracy would replace this? What’s the socialist solution to this problem?
A: In general, I shy away from questions about how a future socialist system will work but in the Russian revolution the original intent was to only expropriate the big capitalists. In the immediate period, however, a policy of War Communism led to the expropriation of all privately owned firms, large and small. This was a function more of the need to disempower a middle class that was hostile to the revolution rather than comply with any socialist blueprint—which of course Marx never intended to begin with.
Once the civil war ended, War Communism was abandoned. From that point on, large enterprises remained collectivized but small to medium sized peasants were given a lot of leeway—similar to the experiment taking place in Cuba today. Cuba adopted something similar to War Communism in its early years but this was a function more of the prevailing understanding of what “socialism” was about in 1960 than anything else. It really made no sense to expropriate small hotels, restaurants, retail shops and the like.
I am not exactly sure I get the drift of you math but in a way it is beside the point. If the American working class ever seizes control of Exxon, IBM, Chase, GM, Pfizer, Monsanto et al, it will be absolutely unnecessary to take over small enterprises. The important thing to understand is that unlike a pizza parlor or a nail-polishing shoppe, Exxon and Monsanto have enormous social and economic power. Negligence by Exxon destroyed wildlife in Alaska for a generation. Monsanto’s drive to make GM hegemonic will lead to huge risks for the ecosphere. These are our big concerns not whether a bike shop or a frozen yogurt shop adheres to the labor theory of value.
Q: Hello, I’m getting ready for a debate on Marxism and my opponent has in the past pointed out that value is in fact subjective. I may value a pot at $100 yet he may value it at $50. If it is true that Labor determines the value of this pot, how do I argue against the Subjective Theory of Value?
I myself do not possess too much of an understanding of the Labor Theory, and most attempts at reading long articles do little to advance my knowledge. If I’m understanding the Labor Theory wrong, can you give me a simple explanation of it devoid of confusing rhetoric and such?
Thanks a lot.
A: This is a variation I have heard on arguments against the labor theory of value that involve art, which in a way a pot can be seen as. For example, how does a painting by a well-established abstract artist command prices of a million dollars when it was executed in a day while a landscape by a mediocre artist that took a year to paint is valued at $1000?
Marx was far more concerned to explain the pricing of more mundane items like a yard of cotton textiles, which do not involve taste or training. Capitalist production does not involve esthetics. Steel production, mining, manufacturing, rail transportation, etc. all revolve around basic commodities and services that can be produced anywhere. That is why offshoring has become such a powerful weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie. There was a book review recently in the NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/06/business/a-game-of-chairs-and-globalization.html) that takes a close look at what takes place with the Bassett furniture company:
There are superb scenes in which Mr. Bassett’s son, and then Mr. Bassett himself, go in search of the Louis Philippe, finally finding it being made in a grim plant in a remote corner of northeast China near the North Korean border. Their quest climaxes when Mr. Bassett meets face to face with the owner, who is planning a mammoth factory complex that threatens to eradicate what remains of the American industry. Mr. Bassett is coldly informed that the only way Vaughan-Bassett can survive is to shut its factories and sell Chinese furniture.
The furniture company managed to resist offshoring but the overall prospects for that kind of manufacturing is grim.
Another book that I would strongly recommend is “Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-year Quest for Cheap Labor” by Jefferson Cowie that I read when it came out in 1999. Much of it can be read online:
I should add that the labor theory of value is best understood as a way of understanding the class relationships between worker and boss rather than as a way of pricing commodities—although a couple of British economists have written extensively about how computers would make such a thing possible under socialism: http://users.wfu.edu/cottrell/eea97.pdf. It is very technical, I’m afraid.
I think James Devine, a California economist, wrote one of the best things: http://myweb.lmu.edu/jdevine/notes/Law-of-Value.html
Here is an excerpt:
In an e-mail discussion, Brad deLong of U.C.-Berkeley economics wrote that: “The LTV [labor theory of value] is not true: average market prices are not labor values, and the deviations of the average prices of particular commodities from their labor values are not simple redistributions of ‘surplus value’ from boss to boss…. “
It’s hard to say that Marx’s “labor theory of value” is “not true” if one doesn’t understand it, just as it’s hard to say that it’s “true” if one doesn’t understand it. In fact, there are a lot of questions about what “it” is. In fact, it’s unclear what to call “it.” Below, I present one interpretation of the “LTV” which I hope will make these questions clear, allowing us to move on to other issues.
Finally, there’s a very good piece by Brian McKenna on CounterPunch titled “If Marx’s Math is Fundamental, Why Do So Few Teach It?” that is very good. It is drawn from his personal experience:
I’ve had several fast food jobs. I’ll never forget my first. I was 19 and I flipped burgers at Gino’s (a competitor of McDonald’s) in 1975 in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I was earning money for college. Ginos advertised “flexible hours” to cater to college student’s busy needs. I signed on at $1.90 an hour, plus one free hamburger per shift.
One day I was called in at the last minute for an evening shift of four hours. Not owning a car, I took public transportation to the place, about 4 miles away, for the 4:00 shift. It started to rain. When I arrived, soaking wet at 4:00, I was told, ‘we don’t need you anymore tonight, Brian.
“But it took an hour to get here and I want to work. Please let me do something.”
“Can’t you see?” the manager pointed out the window, “it’s raining out, hard, and no one is coming into Ginos. We don’t need you. Can you work a shift on Saturday at 11:00 to 2:00?”
“Can I at least have my hamburger?”
“But you didn’t work!” he said.
Needless to say, those bastards at McDonald’s and Ginos will be on the expropriation block the day after the workers seize power.