In 2018, David Harvey wrote an article on Marxist theory of value, entitled “Marx’s Refusal of the Labour Theory of Value” which was followed by a critical essay, “David Harvey’s Misunderstanding of Marx’s Law of Value” written by Michael Roberts. Then Harvey responded to criticisms in a second short piece, “The Misunderstandings of Michael Roberts.” (which is available as an annex to Roberts’ aforementioned article). In this study, I also try to criticize Harvey’s understanding of the theory of value as presented in this debate.
In his short but comprehensive article, Harvey poses the question “what … was Marx’s distinctive value theory and how does it differ from the labour theory of value?” And he comments on almost all concepts and discussions within Marxism, allocating at least one sentence for each. It is my opinion that there are several theoretical criticisms to be raised against Harvey’s account of the theory of value presented in his intense essay. But first, let’s give a brief presentation of Harvey’s account of Marxist theory of value.
In Marx’s Capital, Harvey argues, the value is “initially taken to be a reflection of the social (abstract) labour congealed in commodities.” He continues to refer the subsequent chapters in Capital, following the steps of capitalist development until he comes up with “the value form.” The emergence of the value form, he says, is conditioned by the course of “value in motion” here, and at this point, “value thereby becomes an embedded regulatory norm in the sphere of exchange only under conditions of capital accumulation.” (Emphases are mine) One can understand that the first stage referred to as “initially” in Harvey’s account corresponds to Ricardo’s labour theory of value, and then in a second stage to which Harvey points by saying “thereby”, Marx integrates such value into circulation. This is clarified by his expression that “Marx appears to have done little more than synthesize and formalize Ricardo’s labour theory of value by embedding it in the totality of circulation and accumulation.” However, Harvey suggests that the value having moved from the sphere of production into the sphere of exchange should not be considered as “the end of story. If this was so then much of the criticism launched against Marx’s theory of value would be justified.” His suggestion has a point because, within this framework, there emerges two definitions of value which cannot be linked to each other in a non-contradictory way. It is from this perspective which I would like to explore below that Harvey attempts to analyze such dual definition of value and then tries to form a combination and establish its relations.
To Harvey, the first chapters of Capital provide a definition of value on the basis of social abstract labour in the sphere of production whereas it becomes the value form of the sphere of circulation in the following chapters. Such duality is solved by Harvey as follows: “Value becomes an unstable and perpetually evolving inner connectivity (an internal or dialectical relation) between value as defined in the realm of circulation in the market and value as constantly being redefined through revolutions in the realm of production.” In his opinion, this dual definition of value is present in Marx too: “The contradictory relation between value as defined in the market and value as reconstructed by transformations in the labour process is central to Marx’s thinking.” He argues that “Marx’s value theory … centers on the constantly shifting and contradictory unity between what is traditionally referred to as the labour theory of value in the sphere of the market … and the value theory of labour in the sphere of production.” (All emphases are mine) Then he attempts to explain this contradictory unity.
Harvey’s effort is to extract one single definition of value from the value in the sphere of production and the value in the sphere of circulation. In his opinion, this is exactly how “the formulation of value in the first chapter of Capital is revolutionized by what comes later.” In fact, the title of his first article, “Marx’s Refusal of the Labour Theory of Value”, points to a refusal of the Ricardian labour theory of value (as value in the sphere of production) as well as a redefinition of the value, which finds its expression in the sphere of circulation, as the contradictory unity of value.
Harvey resorts to combining two values defined as such within the value in the sphere of circulation. This is exactly what drives Roberts to think that Harvey creates value in the sphere of circulation. Yet he does not. What Harvey tries to do is to integrate the value in the production and the value in the circulation into the latter: “The fraught and contradictory relation between production and realization rests on the fact that value depends on the existence of wants, needs and desires backed by ability to pay in a population of consumers. Such wants, needs and desires are deeply embedded in the world of social reproduction. Without them, as Marx notes in the first chapter of Capital, there is no value.” As he rephrases elsewhere, “if there is no market, there is no value.”
Harvey’s first article ends with a definition of one single value as value form. He provides an explanation of the movements of the value form as caused “by the anarchy of market exchange, by revolutionary transformations in technologies and organizational forms, by unfolding practices of social reproduction, and massive transformations in the wants, needs and desires of whole populations expressed through the cultures of everyday life.” All determinations of the value as finally defined are those either belonging directly to the sphere of circulation or defined by their mediation through that sphere. It is easy but wrong to conclude that Harvey understands value only within the circulation. The problem is deeper. Harvey is a great scholar of Capital, great enough to know that value is not created in the sphere of circulation. His weakness lies in his grasp of Marx’s method and his lack of understanding Capital with it.
Value in the production, value in the circulation
Marx presents his criticisms to Ricardo’s labour theory of value in Theories of Surplus Value (Marx,1968:164) “Ricardo starts out from the determination of the relative values … of commodities by ‘the quantity of labour.’… if two commodities are equivalents … then it is obvious that regarded as exchange-values, their substance must be the same. Their substance is labour. That is why they are ‘values.’ Their magnitude varies, according to whether they contain more or less of this substance. But Ricardo does not examine the form—the peculiar characteristic of labour that creates exchange-value or manifests itself in exchange-values—the nature of this labour.” Elsewhere in the same work, he also argues that Ricardo (Marx,1968:172)“does not even examine the form of value—the particular form which labour assumes as the substance of value. He only examines the magnitudes of value, the quantities of this abstract, general and, in this form social, labour which engender differences in the magnitudes of value of commodities.” According to Marx, Ricardo understands the substance of value and its magnitude. What he fails to see is the value form itself. In other words, Ricardo treats labour as the substance of value and the labour-time as the measure of the magnitude of labour while he fails to understand ‘the form’ of this ‘substance’.
To evaluate the aforementioned quotes from the standpoint of today’s formal logic, one can easily conclude that Ricardo grasps the formation of value in the sphere of production but fails to catch its new expression as value form. Such a formal analysis brings us to a duality of the value in the production and the value in the circulation. The problem of the formal logic is now tied to link these two values together. Any relation developed on such formal ground is considered to be internally connected but inevitably remains as an eclectic and external relation.
Ricardo examines value to the extent that it is a means to the realization of exchange between the equivalents. For him, value is not something objective; it is rather a general abstract which is a measure for the equivalency of exchange. Ricardo fails to conceive the form of value because he does not even think that value can be an objectivity with a form. Value as a social abstract general which is a measure for the equivalency of exchange surely cannot assume a form as material beings do. Ricardo’s failure in grasping the form of value is not caused by his imperception of the sphere of circulation and its dynamics. It is rather because of his lack of understanding that value can be an objectivity. For him, value is an abstract general which is formed as a result of the occurrence of exchange. He inevitably finds himself in search of a solution for a bunch of contradictions and inconsistencies emerging in the expression of labour –which he sees as a substance– in terms of value. His position is similar to that of today’s formal approach that forms a duality of the value in production and the value in circulation or value form, and then, on this very basis, seeks for non-contradictory totality of value, which becomes an impossible solution.
Marx’s account of value, on the other hand, does not offer a solution for the problem that Ricardo creates within the boundaries of formal logic. The reason is simple; such problem does not appear in the first place in his account. Marx does not abstract the value created in production in Ricardo into the sphere of circulation. On the contrary, he shows us that value is not an abstract general, revealing that the value form in commodities cannot be found in one single atom of the commodity since it is the form of an objectivity as distinct from the body of that commodity.
In Ricardo, value is considered as an equivalence that enables the exchange, as an abstract universal, whereas Marx treats it as a real, objective category of the social mode of production. In Marx’s account, value as an ‘immaterial objectivity’ is an organic whole; its essence is labour and its form appears as exchange value. Therefore value is a sensible, special kind of concreteness while its form, i.e. exchange value, is the highest abstract and general form of the bourgeois mode of production. It is because of the fact that value is objective and concrete that the value form as its property can be an abstract general. Value itself is not. Ricardo has spent a lifetime to solve the inconsistencies arising from the expressions of labour in production in terms of value while such discrepancies cannot even appear in Marx’s account. Finding such discrepancies in Marx’s theory of value is resulted from an inability to go beyond Ricardo’s theory of value while attributing it to Marx. What makes Marx’s theory of value difficult lies in the hardship of grasping the objectivity of value.
As any concreteness outside the individual’s consciousness, once the objectivity and concreteness of value is grasped, then the substance and form of this concrete value becomes apparent. Only a true method can help us avoid an error of grasping the substance and the form in separation and putting them into an eclectic relation. This is where, I think, Rubin’s contribution is helpful (Rubin,1990:117) “One cannot forget that, on the question of the relation between content and form, Marx took the standpoint of Hegel, and not of Kant. Kant treated form as something external in relation to the content, and as something which adheres to the content from the outside. From the standpoint of Hegel’s philosophy, the content is not in itself something to which form adheres from the outside. Rather, through its development, the content itself gives birth to the form which was already latent in the content. Form necessarily grows out of the content itself. This is a basic premise of Hegel’s and Marx’s methodology, a premise which is opposed to Kant’s methodology. From this point of view, the form of value necessarily grows out of the substance of value.” Such description of substance and form clearly suggests that they cannot be defined in separation. At first glance, similar to Kant, Harvey seems to establish an eclectic link between them. However, he does not link the substance and the form, or the content and the form in the aforementioned terms, to each other at all. Upon the formation of the substance of the value, he transforms such substance into the form of value by abstraction. And he does so by defining them both as values. From this point of view, Harvey’s approach falls behind not only Hegel’s and Marx’s methodology, but even that of Kant. To Harvey, the substance of value is the value defined in the sphere of production. The form of the value, on the other hand, finds its definition in the sphere of circulation or in the market. In Harvey, ‘substance’ and ‘form’ are both values. In his opinion, it is possible to reach a consistent definition of value once the labour-value in production, one of these two values, is bashfully left out. He seems unaware that it is Lockean formal methodology that brings him to such a dual understanding of value. Trapped in such formal logic, Harvey seeks to build a coherent theory of value in order to avoid the attacks on the weaknesses of his theory of value developed in duality. But he also seems unaware that the duality in which he finds himself is very much of his creation.
Objectivity and reality of value
In Harvey’s description, despite its immateriality, value is objective. But it is not real: “… this tracks back to how Marx sets up how the abstraction of value –which, by the way, is in Marx’s view, a social relation hence ‘immaterial but objective’ and not ‘immanent’ and ‘real’ as the quote from Murray Smith proposes (“not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities” says Marx in Capital)” In his response to Roberts, Harvey explains this complex conceptualization as follows: “The essence of value is abstract labour or, as I prefer to refer to it, ‘socially necessary labour time’. … No matter whether we say ‘abstract labour’ or ‘socially necessary’, however, the onus then falls on how the abstraction is made and how socially necessary is to be understood. The answer to such questions has to be grounded in material processes and not constructed through idealist exercises. So by what materialist process is value constructed if it is not ‘immanent’ in commodities but historically created.” In all these quotes, Harvey talks about the value described as an abstraction, rather than the formation of abstract labour. However, value is expressed as an objectivity outside consciousness despite being described as an abstraction. In Harvey’s view, the value that cannot be found, therefore not “immanent”, in the atoms of the commodity, is not accepted to be “real” because of such immateriality. But still, it does not lose its objectivity since it is subjected to a social and historical abstraction. Harvey finally declares in advance that any attempts to defy his idiosyncratic conceptualization would be “idealist exercises.”
Harvey’s abovementioned description of the value form as an objectivity outside individual’s consciousness despite being a social and historical abstraction of consciousness requires a materialistic explanation. Otherwise, the assertion that such ideal determinations of thought are objective bears a risk of coinciding with idealistic propositions, unless they are based on the material grounds. It is idealist scholars who start out from the observation that the ideal forms are objective and cannot be products of individual’s consciousness, but fail to explain such objectivity and try to solve the problem by attributing the ideal determinations to a sort of a priori or upper consciousness. The explanation of these ideal determinations standing in opposition to individual’s consciousness, and yet immaterial but objective, is the fundamental point of divergence between idealism and materialism. In Ilienkov’s terms, (Ilienkov,1977:83) “pointing out the fact that the thing and the form of the thing exist outside the individual consciousness and do not depend on individual will still does not solve the problem of their objectivity in its fully materialistic sense.” Not being on the theoretical ground of the thing and the form of the thing, Harvey’s premise that a social and historical abstraction is objective, as it stands, might well appear to be an idealistic conclusion. It is therefore necessary to extend the debate on objectivity.
In his so-called Lesser Logic, Hegel provides a definition of the objective in everyday life (Hegel,1991:82)“In ordinary language, to be ‘objective’ is to be present outside us and to come to us from outside through perception.” According to Hegel, Kant begins with arguing that thoughts are not provided by senses but belong to consciousness itself, therefore they must be subjective. However, in face of the fact that the determinations of thought should overcome the individual’s consciousness and subjectivity, he makes an inversion in this definition. In Hegel’s words, (Hegel,1991:82) “Kant calls the thought-product –and, to be precise, the universal and the necessary– ‘objective,’ and what is only sensed, he calls ‘subjective.’” Hegel finds Kant’s latter description more convenient than his first approach, despite all the criticisms laid on it. “What ordinary consciousness is confronted with, what can be perceived by the senses (e. g., this animal, this star, etc.), appears to it as what subsists on its own account, or as what is independent,” Hegel first points out, then he claims that the opposite is true (Hegel,1991:82-83) “what can be perceived by the senses is really secondary and not self-standing, while thoughts, on the contrary, are what is genuinely independent and primitive.” Thus he concludes that thoughts are objective while the objects of sensation remains in the subjective side. Despite its idealism, Hegel’s objective idealist view represents a progressive move within the debate on the objectivity of thoughts.
What drives Kant to become aware of the objectivity of thoughts, albeit his inconsistencies, and what makes Hegel conclude that thoughts are indeed objective is these immaterial but objective forms. They appear as belonging to consciousness while, as universal and necessary forms, i.e. objective forms, they exist outside and force themselves on the individual’s consciousness. Hegel mentions three positions to be taken regarding the definition of objectivity. First approach is to consider it as “externally present, as distinct from what is only subjective.” Secondly, one can think within Kant’s understanding of objectivity of “what is universal and necessary” as distinct from sensation and subjectivity. Third position is that of Hegel which suggest to think of objectivity in terms of what is there, of (Hegel,1991:83)“the in-itself as thought-product… as distinct from what is only thought by us, and hence still distinct from the matter itself, or from the matter in-itself ” Therefore Hegel brings us to the point where the objectivity coincides with its concept, i.e. the reality, the idea. In Hegel’s approach, however, the idea finds its place primarily again in consciousness. But such consciousness appears outside human consciousness, existing not in material universe, but only in another consciousness, an upper, an absolute consciousness. This is exactly where Marx takes over. To move forward from this point, Ilienkov argues that (Ilienkov,1977:86) “here ideal form actually does stand in opposition to individual consciousness and individual will … and is necessarily perceived precisely as the form of the external thing, not its palpable form, but as the form of another equally palpable thing that it represents, expresses, embodies, differing, however, from the palpable corporeality of both things and having nothing in common with their sensuously perceptible physical nature. What is embodied and ‘represented’ here is a definite form of labour, a definite form of human objective activity, that is to say, the transformation of nature by social man.” The idea as the identification of objectivity and concept is transmitted from Hegel’s description as existing outside consciousness but within another absolute consciousness into its reality as “the form of social human activity represented in the thing.” According to Ilienkov, what gives the form its objectivity is not the act of abstraction. Rather, such objectivity is provided by the material and real form of the activity of social human existence.
One can build an explanation of the objectivity of a social and historical determination or form on this very basis. It is our right to expect Harvey’s question, “what materialist process is value constructed if it is not ‘immanent’ in commodities but historically created” to be discussed on this ground, the dialectical ground on which the relation between the objective and the subjective, between what is material and what is thought-product, should be built. However, Harvey does not necessarily need to make such conceptual and theoretical explanations throughout his article. This does not mean that there is no theoretical ground at all. He wrote on a theoretically positivist ground, using a formal method which is widely accepted and taken for granted to be scientific. Unfortunately, many finds it unnecessary to open this ground for discussion.
Marx talks about the value form within the aforementioned framework, as the “ideal” form of value. Let’s see how Ilienkov reads the respective section regarding the value form which Harvey is unable to find in atoms: (Ilienkov,1977:72) “In Capital Marx defines the form of value in general as ‘purely ideal’ not on the grounds that it exists only ‘in the consciousness’, only in the head of the commodity-owner, but on quite opposite grounds. The price or the money form of value, like any form of value in general, is IDEAL because it is totally distinct from the palpable, corporeal form of commodity in which it is presented, we read in the chapter of ‘Money’ … In other words, the form of value is IDEAL, although it exists outside human consciousness and independently of it.” (Emphases are mine) Ilienkov also provides an explanation for why the ideal is objective despite being immaterial: (Ilienkov,1977:89) “It is ‘ideal’ because it does not include a single atom of the substance of the body in which it is represented, because it is the form of quite another body. And this other body is present here not bodily, materially (‘bodily’ it is at quite a different point in space), but only once again ‘ideally’, and here there is not a single atom of its substance.” When he is unable to see the value form in a single atom, Harvey tends to think that the value form should be an abstraction, then he concludes that this abstraction should be expressed as an objectivity. Ilienkov’s view is not only different from Harvey’s analysis but also much more progressive.
Harvey’s methodology propels him to a definition of a value form which is objective but not real. Ilienkov, on the other hand, attempts to explain the reality as the source of objectivity: (Ilienkov,1977:86) “Ideality, according to Marx, is nothing else but the form of social human activity represented in the thing. Or, conversely, the form of human activity represented as a thing, as an object.” In Marx, the value form exists as the form of material human activity. It is not the case that value is formed because exchange begins to happen, but value happens to exist as an objective category because humans sustain their social existence in a capitalistic way. For Ricardo, value exists in regard to the equivalency of exchange. As far as he sees, the production is made, the products are carried into the sphere of circulation, and then the value comes to being for equivalent exchanges of these products. Ricardo moves from exchange towards value. Marx, on the very contrary, starts out from questioning why the products present themselves in the value form. Hence he becomes able to explain the modes of social production of humans as well as the objectivity of value created by its capitalist form. Like Ricardo, Harvey takes exchange as departure. His debate centers on the relations of equivalence into which products enters in the sphere of exchange, and the exchange dynamics of these equivalencies. Therefore, value, in Harvey’s account, becomes an abstract general which allows the exchange whereas, in Marx, it appears to be an objective category of the way in which social human materially produces himself.
The methodology of Harvey’s theory of value is that of Locke. I have already mentioned above the descriptions of value theory outlined by Harvey at the end of his first article. To remind briefly, he presents the determinations of his theory of value as “the existence of wants, needs and desires backed by ability to pay in a population of consumers”, “the anarchy of market exchange, … revolutionary transformations in technologies and organizational forms, … unfolding practices of social reproduction, and massive transformations in the wants, needs and desires of whole populations expressed through the cultures of everyday life.” By putting the determinations of value in this way, Harvey in fact dissolves value into its particular appearances, into its abstract qualities. Harvey’s method (Hegel,1991:296)“consists therefore in dissolving the concrete that is given, isolating its distinctions and bestowing the form of abstract universality upon them.” According to Hegel, (Hegel,1991:297) “here, thinking has the significance only of abstraction or of formal identity. This is the standpoint of Locke and of all empiricists.” Harvey believes that he can provide an explanation of value through the same method. All determinations having been dissolved are abstract qualities and particular appearances of the value, so they cannot be separated from it. It is only by discussing the method applied here that we can be aware of the fallacy. Harvey makes the same mistake as a great mind like Locke does. Hegel gives an illuminating example as such: (Hegel,1991:297) “a chemist puts a piece of meat into his retort, tortures it in many ways, and then says that he has found that it consists of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, etc. But these abstract materials are no longer meat.” Just like Locke, Harvey also thinks that knowledge cannot be formed by any other methods. So Harvey’s account can explain value only to the extent that human beings can be explained by carbon making up their bodies.
According to Harvey’s belief, value can be derived from its abstract qualities and particular appearances which he attains through a formal analysis. He tries to respond the criticisms by saying that it is impossible for these determinations and particularities not to be found in the value itself. Claiming that these determinations are also present in Marx, he invites us to read and understand Capital by reducing it to Locke’s method. What promotes Harvey’s self-confidence in this regard is the common belief that Locke’s empiricism and formal logic is the only scientific method today.
Being encouraged by Harvey who makes only brief comments on Capital’s chapters, I did not go in theoretical details. But I believe that the debate deserves to be extended. E.V. Ilienkov’s article, “The Concept of the Ideal” from which I presented some quotes is promising for its readers to have more productive insights. The way in which the theoretical debate on the expression of immaterial objectivity or the ideality of value form in Marx’s Capital is presented by Ilienkov is very different from Harvey’s reading of Capital. Additionally, Isaak Illich Rubin’s Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value widens one’s horizon for the debate on the substance and the form of value. It is possible to find the reasons why Marx’s refusal of the labour theory of value, the very title of Harvey’s piece, is not the case for Rubin in this book. I believe that these two works, the depths of which are impossible to present here in this short piece, provides significant opportunities to discuss Marx’s debate on value.
To recapitulate my criticisms in 6 points:
- Harvey takes the substance of value as the value in the sphere of production, and the form of value as the value in the sphere of circulation. For him, the substance of value and the form of value are both values.
- Harvey tries to unite these two values created by himself with the purpose of overcoming the contradictions created by this duality. But he combines them within the sphere of circulation in an eclectical way.
- Therefore, the abstract universality of the value form that he treats as the value in the sphere of production is considered by him as the abstract universality of value itself. In Harvey, it is not the form of value, but the value itself that becomes an abstract general.
- The value considered as an abstract general in Harvey’s account loses its reality. The value, as an abstract general, finds its objectivity in another abstraction. Then he argues that the objectivity is provided here since such abstraction is made through historical and social thinking.
- By an analytic methodology, Harvey dissolves value into its particular appearances. Then he moves to form value from these abstract determinations.
- Although he uses Locke’s formal method, one can see neither one single trace of this method nor that of its critiques such as Kant, Hegel, and Marx. Today, it is a matter of question in itself how to elude the self-evident truth and acceptance of positivism and its formal methodology.
David Harvey, “Marx’s Refusal of the Labour Theory of Value”, 14 March 2018 (available: http://davidharvey.org/2018/03/marxs-refusal-of-the-labour-theory-of-value-by-david-harvey/)
–, “The Misunderstandings of Michael Roberts.” (available: https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/marxs-law-of-value-a-debate-between-david-harvey-and-michael-roberts/)
Michael Roberts, “David Harvey’s Misunderstanding of Marx’s Law of Value”, 2 April 2018 (available: https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/marxs-law-of-value-a-debate-between-david-harvey-and-michael-roberts/ )
Hegel, G.W.F (1991) The Encyclopaedia Logic: Part I of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences with the Zusatze, Indianapolis&Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Ilienkov, E.V., (1977) “The Concept of the Ideal”, in The Phiosophy in the USSR: Problems of Dialectical Materialism, Moscow: Progress Publishers, pp.81-99.
Marx, K. (1968) Theories of Surplus Value, Book 2, Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Rubin, I.I. (1990) Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, (4th edition), Moscow: Progress Publishers.