Hi All. Below is a — relatively brief — statement on my (present) understanding of “value”. While “value” is one of Marx’s most essential concepts it is also one of the most confusing and difficult to understand. I feel that much of the confusion relates to a failure to distinguish between “value” as articulated in Marx’s “Law of Value” (and Engles’ discussion of the same) and the “value form” — often presented as the “Value Form Theory”. Hopefully, this will help clarify this distinction and argument.
Marx’s “Law of Value” indicates that the way things have exchanged throughout history is through their value or the socially necessary, abstract labor they embody. As I.I. Rubin (Essays on Surplus Value) explains; abstract labor is the “content” or substance of value. The “measure” of this substance can be “money” (but historically has been many things e.g. cattle or even “in the head”/Grundrisse). However, exchange did not dominate the social form and the way wants and needs were provided in previous historical epochs. For example, there was no exchange that measured abstract labor time between lord and serf, master or slave or in “primitive” communal societies. And, as Marx indicates, this relative dearth of exchange is why Aristotle could not understand that when, for example, five beds exchanged for a house in ancient Greece, it was because equal amounts of abstract labor time — as the substance of value — were embodied in the beds and the house. But while the substance of value was the basis of exchange prior to capitalism and frequently measured e.g. by cattle or coins, the value economy or “value form” is a social form where exchange dominates the way people meet their needs and wants. And, in turn, production is increasingly driven by an interest in exchange rather than use value and for accumulating (surplus) value — most often measured by money.
Thus, what is central to Marx’s critique of political economy is the assertion (theory) that the “value form” — not the substance or measure of value — is a unique, socio-historical construct that is “fetishized” as being timeless, natural or inevitable as and therefore impervious to change. For Marx, the value form can consequently be eliminated (including eliminating measures of value e.g. money as well as labor chits) in a revolutionary communist society. *
Significantly, the possibility of extinguishing the value form is also at the core of what separates Marx from the socialists of his day (e.g. Proudhon) as well as most contemporary “socialists” who maintain and fetishize the value form by continuing to measure and reward labor time as a basis for providing needs and wants*. Similarly, in contrast to Marx’s “Law of Value”, most political economists who espouse a “Labor Theory of Value” recognize that labor time is the “substance” of value and that is ‘measured” by money, but fetishize the value ‘form’ **. In this way, the dynamics of capitalism that denies the promise of freedom and equality are perpetuated.
*Albeit, cognition of and apportioning abstract labor time as the substance of value may, of course, be a factor in deciding what and how the wants and needs of those in a communal society are met.
**Also critiquing the “Labor Theory of Value” of others; Marx’s “Law of Value” posits that the amount of abstract labor time does not necessarily determine value. For example, if a worker takes longer to produce something than what is ‘socially necessary’, it does not have more value. This opposes Ricardo and others who maintained that the value of a commodity was determined solely by the amount of embodied labor. Thus, for Ricardo, the product of a worker who worked faster had less value than the product of someone who worked slower. And opposed to those who assigned value to all products of labor, Marx posited that if something does not or cannot be exchanged and, for example, has no use value for others, it does not have value — no matter how much labor it embodies. So too, Marx noted that it was not only the direct or immediate amount of labor applied that determines value, but value includes the time workers spent to acquire skills as well as the previous labor embodied in the tools or machinery employed. These dimensions of value help further explain how things have exchanged throughout history — before the commodity and value “form”.