Labor theory of value (4TH CENTURY BC- )

With roots in the work of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), labor theory of value became a central feature in analyses by such classical economists as the Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) and the English economist David Ricardo (1772-1823).

They stated that the value of a commodity was determined by the quantity of labor needed to produce it, the effort of the labor, or the amount of labor of others obtained in exchange.

The German theorist Karl Marx (1818-1883) argued that labor might dictate the value of a good but the existence of capitalists extracting profits meant that labor did not get to keep all the value.

Labor theory of value was superseded by the marginal productivity theory of distribution at the end of the 19th century, which emphasized that many factors determined the value of a good.

Also see: marginal utility theory

R Meek, Studies in the Labor Theory of Value (London, 1973)

Definitions of value and labor

When speaking in terms of a labor theory of value, “value,” without any qualifying adjective should theoretically refer to the amount of labor necessary to produce a marketable commodity, including the labor necessary to develop any real capital used in the production. Both David Ricardo[7] and Karl Marx tried to quantify and embody all labor components in order to develop a theory of the real price, or natural price of a commodity.[8] The labor theory of value as presented by Adam Smith did not require the quantification of past labor, nor did it deal with the labor needed to create the tools (capital) that might be used in producing a commodity. Smith’s theory of value was very similar to the later utility theories in that Smith proclaimed that a commodity was worth whatever labor it would command in others (value in trade) or whatever labor it would “save” the self (value in use), or both. However, this “value” is subject to supply and demand at a particular time:

The real price of every thing, what every thing really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it. What every thing is really worth to the man who has acquired it, and who wants to dispose of it or exchange it for something else, is the toil and trouble which it can save to himself, and which it can impose upon other people. (Wealth of Nations Book 1, chapter V)

Smith’s theory of price has nothing to do with the past labor spent in producing a commodity. It speaks only of the labor that can be “commanded” or “saved” at present. If there is no use for a buggy whip, then the item is economically worthless in trade or in use, regardless of all the labor spent in creating it.

Distinctions of economically pertinent labor

Value “in use” is the usefulness of this commodity, its utility. A classical paradox often comes up when considering this type of value. In the words of Adam Smith:

The word value, it is to be observed, has two different meanings, and sometimes expresses the utility of some particular object, and sometimes the power of purchasing other goods which the possession of that object conveys. The one may be called “value in use”; the other, “value in exchange.” The things which have the greatest value in use have frequently little or no value in exchange; and, on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value in use. Nothing is more useful than water: but it will purchase scarce anything; scarce anything can be had in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarce any value in use; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it (Wealth of Nations Book 1, chapter IV).

Value “in exchange” is the relative proportion with which this commodity exchanges for another commodity (in other words, its price in the case of money). It is relative to labor as explained by Adam Smith:

The value of any commodity, […] to the person who possesses it, and who means not to use or consume it himself, but to exchange it for other commodities, is equal to the quantity of labour which it enables him to purchase or command. Labour, therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities (Wealth of Nations Book 1, chapter V).

Value (without qualification) is the labor embodied in a commodity under a given structure of production. Marx defined the value of the commodity by this third definition. In his terms, value is the ‘socially necessary abstract labor’ embodied in a commodity. To David Ricardo and other classical economists, this definition serves as a measure of “real cost”, “absolute value”, or a “measure of value” invariable under changes in distribution and technology.[9]

Ricardo, other classical economists and Marx began their expositions with the assumption that value in exchange was equal to or proportional to this labor value. They thought this was a good assumption from which to explore the dynamics of development in capitalist societies. Other supporters of the labor theory of value used the word “value” in the second sense to represent “exchange value”.[10]

Labor process

Since the term “value” is understood in the LTV as denoting something created by labor, and its “magnitude” as something proportional to the quantity of labor performed, it is important to explain how the labor process both preserves value and adds new value in the commodities it creates.[note 1]

The value of a commodity increases in proportion to the duration and intensity of labor performed on average for its production. Part of what the LTV means by “socially necessary” is that the value only increases in proportion to this labor as it is performed with average skill and average productivity. So though workers may labor with greater skill or more productivity than others, these more skillful and more productive workers thus produce more value through the production of greater quantities of the finished commodity. Each unit still bears the same value as all the others of the same class of commodity. By working sloppily, unskilled workers may drag down the average skill of labor, thus increasing the average labor time necessary for the production of each unit commodity. But these unskillful workers cannot hope to sell the result of their labor process at a higher price (as opposed to value) simply because they have spent more time than other workers producing the same kind of commodities.

However, production not only involves labor, but also certain means of labor: tools, materials, power plants and so on. These means of labor—also known as means of production—are often the product of another labor process as well. So the labor process inevitably involves these means of production that already enter the process with a certain amount of value. Labor also requires other means of production that are not produced with labor and therefore bear no value: such as sunlight, air, uncultivated land, unextracted minerals, etc. While useful, even crucial to the production process, these bring no value to that process. In terms of means of production resulting from another labor process, LTV treats the magnitude of value of these produced means of production as constant throughout the labor process. Due to the constancy of their value, these means of production are referred to, in this light, as constant capital.

Consider for example workers who take coffee beans, use a roaster to roast them, and then use a brewer to brew and dispense a fresh cup of coffee. In performing this labor, these workers add value to the coffee beans and water that comprise the material ingredients of a cup of coffee. The worker also transfers the value of constant capital—the value of the beans; some specific depreciated value of the roaster and the brewer; and the value of the cup—to the value of the final cup of coffee. Again, on average, the worker can transfer no more than the value of these means of labor previously possessed to the finished cup of coffee.[note 2] So the value of coffee produced in a day equals the sum of both the value of the means of labor—this constant capital—and the value newly added by the worker in proportion to the duration and intensity of their work.

Often this is expressed mathematically as:

{\displaystyle c+L=W},

  • {\displaystyle c} is the constant capital of materials used in a period plus the depreciated portion of tools and plant used in the process. (A period is typically a day, week, year, or a single turnover: meaning the time required to complete one batch of coffee, for example.)
  • {\displaystyle L} is the quantity of labor time (average skill and productivity) performed in producing the finished commodities during the period
  • {\displaystyle W} is the value (or think “worth”) of the product of the period ({\displaystyle w} comes from the German word for value: wert)

Note: if the product resulting from the labor process is homogeneous (all similar in quality and traits, for example, all cups of coffee) then the value of the period’s product can be divided by the total number of items (use-values or {\displaystyle v_{u}}) produced to derive the unit value of each item. {\displaystyle {\begin{matrix}w_{i}={\frac {W}{\sum v_{u}}}\,\end{matrix}}} where {\displaystyle {\begin{matrix}\sum v_{u}\end{matrix}}} is the total items produced.

The LTV further divides the value added during the period of production, {\displaystyle L}, into two parts. The first part is the portion of the process when the workers add value equivalent to the wages they are paid. For example, if the period in question is one week and these workers collectively are paid $1,000, then the time necessary to add $1,000 to—while preserving the value of—constant capital is considered the necessary labor portion of the period (or week): denoted {\displaystyle NL}. The remaining period is considered the surplus labor portion of the week: or {\displaystyle SL}. The value used to purchase labor-power, for example, the $1,000 paid in wages to these workers for the week, is called variable capital ({\displaystyle v}). This is because in contrast to the constant capital expended on means of production, variable capital can add value in the labor process. The amount it adds depends on the duration, intensity, productivity and skill of the labor-power purchased: in this sense, the buyer of labor-power has purchased a commodity of variable use. Finally, the value added during the portion of the period when surplus labor is performed is called surplus value ({\displaystyle s}). From the variables defined above, we find two other common expressions for the value produced during a given period:

{\displaystyle c+v+s=W}

{\displaystyle c+NL+SL=W}

The first form of the equation expresses the value resulting from production, focusing on the costs {\displaystyle c+v} and the surplus value appropriated in the process of production, {\displaystyle s}. The second form of the equation focuses on the value of production in terms of the values added by the labor performed during the process {\displaystyle NL+SL}

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