Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 18, 2016

Do capitalists create use-values?

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 4:41 pm

I received this in an email yesterday:

Hello,

            I have only read the Communist Manifesto and chapter 1 of Capital, so my analysis may be misrepresentative of Marxist thought and the capitalist system as a whole; I, therefore, would like a little help from someone that is much more well-read than myself.

            My question is one that I have scoured the internet and my own reason for, with little success in the achievement of a coherent answer. This question being, does the capitalist not provide an essential service, in his planning of the production, the careful delegating of responsibilities to certain individuals, and the act of selling the commodities, to the workers he employs? In more technical terms, is he not creating a use-value to the workers by these actions, for, if he were not present, this would have to be done by the workers themselves, assuming the constancy of all other aspects of the capitalist mode of production?

            Could this use-value, created through the service of the capitalist, be the true source of surplus value, and therefore of profit? The immensity sometimes seen present in the profit would be due to the immensity of the use-value created, for he is creating a rather massive use-value when he sells the commodities produced by every single worker in a massive factory.

            I have heard it said (bear in mind, on Reddit, so it may be misrepresentative) that Marx ignored the fact that the capitalist himself does labor. How true is this?

            As an end statement, I would like to state that I have nothing less than a truly open mind, and ask these questions only after much reasoning being done on my own part.

Thank you!

My reply:

There is little doubt that the capitalist provides an essential service in supervising production. All you need to do is read a biography of Stephen Jobs to figure this out. However, there is ample evidence that workers do not need a capitalist to organize production. The Mondragon company in Spain has a vast economic empire including the manufacture of pressure cookers, bicycles, and building supplies but it is a worker-owned cooperative, not a private corporation. Furthermore, the USSR had a number of very innovative production units without the need for a capitalist to supervise production such as in aerospace, munitions, and heavy industry. The Soviet economy collapsed, however, because it was distorted by bureaucratic control over the firms that had many problems such as hoarding, etc. You can find out about these problems by reading Alec Nove, especially his “The Economics of Feasible Socialism”, portions of which can be read on Google Books.

More problematic is the question you raise: “In more technical terms, is he not creating a use-value to the workers by these actions, for, if he were not present, this would have to be done by the workers themselves, assuming the constancy of all other aspects of the capitalist mode of production?”

This is not what Marx had in mind when he coined the term “use-value”. For Marx, it was associated with the commodity, which is something that originated as raw materials in nature such as cotton, wood, iron, etc. and that labor transforms into something useful such as a shirt, a chair or the hull of a ship. Under capitalism, the commodity also has exchange-value, which is its capability to produce profits and cash for the capitalist who hires the worker.

You might find something I wrote about value theory worth reading: https://louisproyect.org/2014/07/08/questions-about-socialism-and-value-theory/

Looking a bit further into these questions, I have the same problem again with this:

Could this use-value, created through the service of the capitalist, be the true source of surplus value, and therefore of profit? The immensity sometimes seen present in the profit would be due to the immensity of the use-value created, for he is creating a rather massive use-value when he sells the commodities produced by every single worker in a massive factory.

Well, this is essentially the analysis put forward by Mises and Hayek, the Austrian economists who influenced Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan and that pervades the Republican Party think tanks such as the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, et al. Just to repeat myself on the “use-value” question, this is not how Marx used the term. That being said, Marx did recognize the vast productive power of the modern capitalist system. As you have read “The Communist Manifesto”, this should be obvious to you from this:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

So in essence Marx did not ever question the vastly productive capacities of the capitalist system, nor did any of those who came after him. Furthermore, if capitalism could simply continue to provide jobs for the billions of people living on earth with a wage sufficient to maintain a reasonably comfortable lifestyle, there will never be a socialist revolution even if most workers are alienated by the monotony of factory life and the general social decay associated with commodification—something I am reminded of when I walk into a subway station and see ads covering every inch of the station as well as the trains that enter them.

People rise up against capitalism when it is stagnant, not when it is thriving. For example, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Scotland are now to one degree or another witnessing the growth of parties on the far left because of unemployment. The capitalists tell the people that before returning to normal they will have to endure austerity for some undefined period. This is pretty much what they were told in the 1930s as well. When you are like the Koch brothers, there is no hurry for the business cycle to trend upwards. When you have $100 million a year to piss away, time is not of the essence.

Given such business slumps, the workers tend to get angry–so much so that they join parties committed to ending capitalist rule. To keep them at bay, the capitalists try to solve their problems by grabbing land and resources in other countries where cheap foreign labor in places like China or Vietnam can help keep the homeland at peace through cheap commodities sold at Walmart. Competition over empire-building risks war as the ruling classes collide with each other over turf just like the mafia cartel wars in Mexico. This is essentially what caused WWI, WWII and colonial wars too numerous to mention.

Finally, even if the capitalist system retains some of the dynamism you speak of, there is the environmental crisis that ultimately will threaten the survival of civilization. To maintain profits, the capitalist class will drill for oil in places that pose vast risks such as the Gulf of Mexico. When oil and coal are used to keep the factories going, greenhouse gases cause climate change sufficient to flood much of New York City or London by the end of the 21st century. The capitalists are not too worried about this since they are not in it for the long haul. The Koch brothers are happy with the way things are and shrug off such dangers if not funding professors and journalists willing to lie on their behalf.

To conclude, your concern about “use values”, however understood, is misplaced when the survival of the human race is at stake. Better to tamp down the “dynamism” of the capitalist system in the interests of peace, clean air and a general state of contentment with the world around us.

 

5 Comments »

  1. Thanks for this blog post regarding whether capitalism creates “use-values”; I really enjoyed it and am definitely recommending this blog to my friends and family. I’m a 15 year old with a blog on financial markets and economics at shreysfinanceblog.com, and would really appreciate it if you could read and comment on some of my articles, and perhaps follow, reblog and share some of my posts on social media. Thanks again for this fantastic post.

    Comment by Shrey Srivastava — February 18, 2016 @ 5:03 pm

  2. I thought that capital and therefore capitalists were separate from labor. Capitalists provide capital. The organization of production can be done by a manager or anyone else designated to do it, including the capitalist. But it is not a function of the capitalist as a capitalist. Therefore, the answer is simply that the capitalist provides capital, not use values.

    Comment by Anonymous Coward — February 18, 2016 @ 5:17 pm

  3. This book might be of some value to your correspondent.

    drjasonsmith@hotmail.com ________________________________

    Comment by drjasonwsmith — February 18, 2016 @ 5:44 pm

  4. I think this discussion is missing the boat here. As I understand it “capital”, standing at one end of the capital-labour RELATION, sees what the worker, at the other end, is bearing which is that “peculiar commodity” (Marx)—labour power (Arbeitskraft) and capital sees it as a use-value which, like all commodities, also has an exchange-value exemplified in the cost of buying (or renting) that labour power for a period of time. So it isn’t only “labourers” which confront a world of use-values (which are exchanged for their hard-earned money), but capital itself—which sees the use-value of labour power as the means for accumulating profit or surplus value.. Thus, the capitalist, too, must work but sees his or her work as a kind of self-affirmation—contrary to the alienation which is the experience of the bearer of labour power. This is the dialectic of the capital/labour relation and, therefore, the origin of the tension in the relation. Marx makes it clear that both capital and labour, as human beings, are equally alienated from their essential human possibilities or potentialities, i.e., their essence. Scott Meikle lays this our clearly in his book on Aristotle and Marx.

    Comment by uh...clem — February 19, 2016 @ 12:59 am

  5. Tell him to read “value, price, and profit” and “wage labor and capitalism.” Marx wrote these for a general audience of workers, they answer his question and they’re well written.

    The biggest problem in “Marxism” has always been that people read interpretations by dilettantes rather than reading Marx.

    Comment by Forty five pound — February 19, 2016 @ 10:09 pm


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