Labor Theory of Value

Dr. Richard Wolff debates libertarian Antony Sammeroff on the Labor Theory of Value on the Lions of Liberty Podcast, hosted by Marc Clair. This is a Marxist economist debating a free market libertarian.

I admire Richard Wolff, and his efforts to bring Marx’s views into the evaluation of capitalism. I also use Marx for this purpose. But we approach Marx from different perspectives. Wolff focuses on the labor theory of values, and defines exploitation as the surplus value obtained from an employee by the employer. I cannot dispute the meaning of “exploitation” in this technical, stipulated sense. But the word “exploitation” also carries a negative sense of injustice. Libertarians object to this additional sense of injustice, by pointing out that the employer-employee relation is based on an agreement — a contract. And, as long as both abide by the agreement, no injustice has been done.

There is an injustice, but, in my view, it does not come from the employer and his profits; it comes from the political system which bars people from free access to subsistence land — making land into a sellable and taxable commodity. This forces people into a market economy, and there is no choice here — everyone has to enter the market economy. Both employer and employee are victims from this perspective. Compare this with two gladiators thrown into the arena. One is strong; the other weaker. One wins; the other loses. One is an employer; the other an employee. The injustice is in the fact that both gladiators have been forced into the arena.

I see no reason to bring into considerations anything other than the principle of supply and demand to account for a labor market and wages. For example, in my field of philosophy, there was and is an oversupply of eligible teachers — as there is in most fields of learning; consequently, colleges have found that it is more economical to hire “adjunct” teachers than full-time teachers. Let’s take a look at the salaries at City Colleges in Chicago, where I worked as an adjunct. Full-time teacher salaries range from roughly $60,000 to $100,000 per year. So, let’s say, an average full-time teacher gets $40,000 for teaching four 3-credit courses per semester. From one perspective, this is $10,000 per 3-credit course; while the adjunct will get at most $3,000 for teaching the same course. Furthermore, an adjunct cannot teach more than 3 such courses per semester at this school; so, for 2 semesters, he can make at most, at this rate, $18,000, as contrasted with a full-time teacher who will get $80,000. Is this just? Is this a case of exploitation?

Take other cases of popular entertainers and sports stars. Such people can earn millions — and it has nothing to do with the hours of labor; it has to do with the willingness of a large number of fans and audiences to pay large amounts to view and hear them. Let me cite a recent case. Jordan Peterson recently refused to participate in a debate with Richard Wolff at Boise State University in Idaho. His reason for refusal to participate is that he wanted a minimum of $50,000 for a 1-hour debate, which the students could not pay. Apparently, this is the minimum which he gets for his public appearances. Is this just? By the principle of supply and demand, this is what he can get; and so he takes advantage of his popularity to demand whatever he can get. If he is exploiting, he is exploiting his popularity.

I see employers in this same light of trying to get the most compensation within the market system. They will pay their employees the least they can; so that they can garner the maximum profit. I find it incoherent to think here of injustice. The concept of justice makes sense only relative to a free agreement. But when considering agreements, we must also take note of the circumstances. If there is no access to free subsistence land, what alternative does a person have? Starve, beg, steal, or work at whatever is available. Both the employer and the employee have been thrust into the arena of the market, just like gladiators, and they must do the best in the circumstances. The injustice is that both employers and employees have been forced into the market economy against their will. We have all been barred from a free access to subsistence land by governments.

So, unlike Wolff who focuses on the labor theory of values, I focus in Marx on his discussion of “Primitive Accumulation” (chapter 26) in Part VIII of Capital, where he talks about the conquest and forceful eviction of people from land. It is this barring of people from a free access to land which creates a proletariat class which must work for wages — a class of wage-slaves.

Richard Wolff keeps repeating that most economists celebrate capitalism, and that one must also take into account the critics of capitalism, especially Karl Marx. This reminds me of al-Ghazali who wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahafut al-Falasifa) which was critized by Averroes in his The Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahafut al-Tahafut). If Marx is al-Ghazli, then we have a slew of Averroeses who have criticized portions of Marx.

And the portion of Marx which Richard Wolff emphasizes is the labor theory of values, this is also the portion of Marx which has received the most criticism. I will cite three sources for this criticism. The first is Bertrand Russell in his German Social Democracy (p. 15). The second is Karl Popper in the second volume of his Open Society and Its Enemies (chapter 20, p. 170), the third is Alexander Gray, The Socialist Tradition (chapter 12, p. 310.)

Are worker-owned enterprises antithetical to capitalism?

Richard Wolff objects to capitalism because of the employer-employee relationship which has “exploitation” — meaning that the employer gets more money than the employee. His alternative is to have worker-owned businesses.

From my perspective, although such a co-op as Mondragon makes for a democratic workplace and a desirable place to work at, it does not constitute an antithesis to capitalism — even if all businesses are co-ops. Why? If other things are left as they are (ceteris paribus), then presumably these co-ops will compete as do all businesses for markets, with the resulting consolidation of successful enterprises as occurs now.

But the crucial question which is not answered by a system of co-ops is what happens to the unemployed? Where is the safety-valve? In the United States in mid-nineteenth century, the north-eastern coast of the United States was overpopulated with immigrants. The Homestead Act of 1862 was enacted as such a safety-valve. [Whether it worked or not, is a separate issue.] The point was that giving people a free access to subsistence land was the right solution. And not giving the freed slaves access to 40 acres and a mule in 1865 was the wrong solution.

Richard Wolff, apparently does not see that the necessary condition for capitalism — of whatever form — is the deprivation to people of free access to subsistence land.

If people have access to free subsistence land, they can bargain with employers or co-ops for living conditions preferable to a self-sufficient life on a piece of land

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