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Re: [ox-en] Re: Role of markets

Sorry for the delayed reply... I'm leaving a lot of the original in for context, which makes this a very long mail.

Paul Cockshott wrote:

Smith explained why this is when he said that labour was the original
currency with which we purchase our wants and necessities from nature.

I assume you yourself do not believe this, or labour value would be found in all societies

No I think Adam Smith was dead right here. One has to distinguish
between value and its form of representation. Value is socially
necessary labour time, its form of manifestation in capitalist society
is in an equivalence relation between commodities -- exchange value.
This was one of the distinctions over which Marx made great play,
accusing his predecessors of ignoring the distinction between value and
exchange value. Ironically, the majority of Marx's followers also ignore

When Smith says labour is the original currency, he is speaking of value
in itself not exchange value, he means socially necessary labour time.
This is then reflected in the quantitative exchange ratio of
commodities. Gold exchanges with silver at a stable 12 to 1 ratio
because of the different labour productivities of gold and silver mines.

Thus labour value is found in all societies, but is only made manifest
as exchange value in some societies. In others it is manifest in the
form of customary allocation of the population to social roles in the
old caste society of the Hindus, or in specific practices of computation
by quipu etc among the Incas.


I'm not going to argue that Marx didn't talk in these terms, though not entirely consistently. I will argue that I think it's wrong, whatever Marx thought. Basically in the assumptions that work can be separated from the rest of life (so that work is a disutility to minimize and leisure a utility to maximize), that obsessive concern with time is universal, and in the opposition assumed between man and nature.

I don't think any of the three assumptions apply to hunter-gatherer societies, even the ones in situations of scarcity. I don't know what anthropologists nowadays think of Sahlins and Stone Age Economics nowadays but IIRC that was once a fairly standard opinion.

For purely farming societies the opposition between man and nature is there (ish) but not the other two, if only because life becomes pretty much nothing but work for six months and pretty much no work for the other six. Concern with time is all about getting things done before it rains, or the crop rots, or it freezes or whatever, not a concern over maximizing or minimizing value.

Where value does universally start to appear is where you have rulers concerned about the proportion of people's effort that is going to them.

The difference this makes is in whether you think value will always exist (an essential part of the relationship man:nature) or is a temporary phenomenon which did not exist once and may not again (if there are no rulers to enforce it).

To tell you the truth, part of the reason for not replying earlier was that I thought with ex-Krisis members around someone else would reply to this, but they are keeping quiet..

The idea of labour being the basis of distribution is classic
originating with Owen, and being elaborated by Marx in the Critique of
the Gotha programme.
'elaborated' as in 'replaced': 'from each according to his abilities, to

each according to his needs'. That is precisely not distribution based on labour time.

The common response to this argument would be "that is the second stage, preceded by a long period of 'to each according to his work'" But we have a long period of history of the previously existing socialist states to show that 'to each according to his work' - measure by labour time - never showed the slightest tendency to evolve into 'to each according to his needs'.

My take on this is somewhat different.

Countries like the DDR and USSR did not actually introduce the labour
voucher scheme advocated by Marx. They retained money, and they retained
state enterprises which were subjects or right. The workers were not
paid the money equivalent of 8 hours for an 8 hour day, but much less.
The difference went as profit, just as it would in a capitalist economy,
but, since the only shareholder in these enterprises was the state, the
profit went to the state not private rentiers.

The state then provided many services and commodities either free, or at
heavily subsidised prices in order to try and conform to the principle
of distribution according to need.

The effect was that workers were being exploited in state enterprises in
order to provide for distribution of many services according to need.

But this means that the ratio between the labour value of take home pay
and the working day was even lower than under capitalism -- since take
home pay understated the real wage that people consumed. But it meant
that labour was even more undervalued than it was in the west. If a West
German firm only paid for half the labour it used ( assuming an
exploitation rate of 100%, which is roughly right), an East German firm
might pay out in wages only about 30% of the labour it used.

But what is sold cheap is never valued. If labour is cheap, it is wasted
and not used efficiently. This is true for the untouchables toiling in
the quarries and brickworks of modern India for example. The wages are
so low that it does not pay to modernise and use new machinery.
Similarly in the DDR, lower wages meant that it was rational for East
German firms to be more wasteful of labour than would be the case in the

If workers in Leipzig had been paid in labour tokens not Ost Marks, then
the situation would have been different. If for each hour they worked
they got 60 mins of tokens, then it would have provided an incentive to
Robotron to have been even more efficient in their use of labour than
Siemens. Of course in a system of labour tokens you would need to have
income tax, as Marx pointed out, but a tax on income, with tax rates
democratically voted on is quite different from paying for the state out
of company profits.

So in a differently organized system East German (and other) workers could have been better paid, a consequence of which would probably have been more democracy.

That doesn't answer my question of whether you think it is possible to have a system based on 'from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs', that is one where there is in no relation between an individual's work and their consumption (which is not to say that there is no statistical relation).

Back in the 60s I used to have arguments with my dad about hippies: he used to say 'but if everyone just dropped out, everyone would starve', to which my response was 'lots of people don't want to live in squats or benders, and the ones who don't can easily support the ones who do'. I see I'm basically still just repeating the same thing...


It sounds like you believe it is simply not possible to have a society based on this principle, or that like the old Soviets, it is to be postponed to a distant non-time in the future when all people are

There was much of this moralism on the part of Che Guevara and Kruschov,
the new socialist man etc. My take on it is that distribution according
to need is quite different from distribution according to wants. Needs
are something that can be assessed objectively by people other than the
person in need.
An alcoholic may think that they 'need' another bottle of Gin, but that
does not mean that society will agree to provide it to them for free,
and may not even agree that they should get it at all.

Who would the people be doing this 'objective assessment' of my needs if not a new set of rulers? If I want to have three children (with the resulting extra consumption) can they tell me 'no, you only need 2?'. If so - if they believe they can separate what I want from what I need 'objectively' - they are dictators, and if not, then they will not have actual control over distribution.

This kind of separation of 'need' and 'want' is only possible by sleight of hand: take current family, number of tvs per head, cars per family etc as given, and you can claim that this presupposed existing system shows what people objectively 'need', and anything else is just 'desire'. The British will then have lots of needs, and most of Africa mere desires.

The question of self-harm is rather separate from that of general consumption, and doesn't make a good basis for a general argument.

> Where distribution ad-libitum does become possible is with information.

'Become' is a bit of a weasel word. Become logically, or is becoming in time? Logically I don't think the status of information has ever changed. Politically, it's clearly changing hugely.

What is changing in time is the size of the information component in goods, mainly through the deliberate computerization of everything possible. A generic microprocessor is far cheaper than machine-specific clockwork, or analogue electronics, so that only the informational content/software distinguishes one system from another. So in that sense the possibility of ad-libitum distribution of goods is becoming greater.

<snipping long section>

You are right that ecological problems can not be solved by the
or maximisation of any single scalar quantity. The idea of minimising
labour input is to increase leisure and to achieve the best output for
the minimum effort.


- Suppose I want to achieve the best output for the maximum enjoyment of

my work, instead? (this would be the William Morris variant of Marxism)


Why are these conflicting goals? Would not the enjoyment of the brick
kiln workers of Kerala be improved by the introduction of modern plant
and machinery, which would also reduce labour input?

Yes, that is one possibility. I know nothing about brick kiln workers in Kerala, but I can imagine that for some rather abstract generic brick kiln workers there might be other possibilities, for example:

- they are from an area with a long history of working in brick (the area was once famous for magnificent moulded bas-reliefs made from thousands of individually different bricks), and before they were herded into the factory they used to admire the most skilled producers of these bas-reliefs. Now they are running the production they would like to increase this element of their work and decrease the level of mechanization

- bricks are part of a foreign method of construction brought in to build luxury houses unsuited to the area and vulnerable to earthquakes. Work in the brick kilns has always been an imposition, and given any chance the people doing it would love to escape, mechanized or not. Of course people will still need houses, so they decide to investigate alternative methods of house building (the original local method was wood based but the forests are long gone). Co-operation with South American Indians working on reviving adobe architecture for large-scale buildings sounds like it would be really enjoyable..

I could go on with more. The point is that maximizing their enjoyment is not necessarily going to fit with a planner who is busily trying to minimize time by maximizing mechanization. Especially if the planner believes he is doing it to fit their objective needs which they are too dumb to see.


- Suppose I want to use my leisure productively, does my output get included in the calculations? (the free software problem, continued

Well if you want it to be leisure activity, then it does not get
included. If you want to work overtime or on a second job, then it does
get included, but during such hours you worked on a 2nd job you would be
submitting to the tasks and goals set by the collective within which you
were working.

But doesn't that completely mess up planning? If (I don't know the real figures) 20% of software (in terms of lines of code multiplied by times a program is run, say) is produced in people's free time, and you plan for x hours of people writing software in 'jobs', doesn't that mean your production figures will be 20% out? Or conversely, if you say that 10,000 man hours have gone into software produced in jobs and that a corresponding amount of labour vouchers need to be provided to use the software, what happens when no-one coughs up the labour vouchers because they are using the software produced in leisure time instead?

<snip long and interesting section from Paul comparing possibilities
for ecological planning in a planned system and under Kyoto>

I would say that any labour that is not required for the reproduction of
society in its current state of development and civilisation is surplus.
This is an analytic term, having a concept of something and having the
technique to exactly measure it are two different things.

You really think all concepts have a measure? The measure of labour 'in jobs' is time, and I am arguing that is a social measure, valid here and now, but not universal. But if you say that no it is universal, then you have precisely excluded labour 'outside jobs', outside working time, from having any measure. So it's normally considered as irrelevant. All the arguments of the wages for housework feminists never had much impact on economic theory. Fine, economics works as well or badly as ever without it. Or has done until now. The problem for economics will be if this labour grows in importance in the same areas as labour in jobs. Measuring it isn't a problem of technique, it's a logical problem given the assumptions.

As I said in an earlier post, goods whose marginal costs of
tends to zero fall into one of the categories for which even
markets are not appropriate.

The question of markets is a bit separate from the question of use of labour values in planning though. How does labour-value based planning of production relate to production of goods with low marginal cost of reproduction, especially in an environment where people are also creating those goods for pleasure? I would suspect the labour-time approach can't say anything useful about it at all.

If the goods are created just for pleasure then that is not a problem.
But that is true only of a portion of informational goods. Developing a
new cancer drug is a process of information production. It is however a
very costly process of production in terms of the effort that has go to
into it. Once the drug has been developed, the information about its
formula can be distributed at minimal cost. What I am saying is that
because the marginal cost of disemminating the formula of the drug is so
low there should be not royalty charges impeding its cheap production.
But society still has to have some way of accounting for and defraying
the considerable labour cost involved in producing the information in
the first place.

And what is that way in a labour-value based system? Are you saying that production of information would be paid for by a tax on other production (the value of labour vouchers would be reduced slightly below the number of hours it took to work for them)? It doesn't sound hard to imagine; basically a return of information production to something like an expanded version of the university system. The university system is where most of the new drugs really originate from anyway. Clearly production of information would have to be authorised in case it catered for wants instead of needs. And good time-keeping would be essential. Sorry, too late in the evening and my sarcasm control is malfunctioning. Boris Kagarlitsky once had an argument a bit like this - free software developers were a GOOD THING and should be recognized as productive and paid for by the state, which would then set their targets..


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