Thursday, August 22, 2013

Preliminary Thoughts on Volume Two of the Collected Papers of Robert Paul Wolff

1.0 Introduction

I have been reading From Each According to His Ability: Essays on Karl Marx and Classical Political Economy, by Robert Paul Wolff. This is a collection of essays, including critiques of Wolff's views by John Roemer and David Schweickart with Wolff's responses. I have read at least two1 of these essays before2. Many of these essays build on two books Wolff has written3. This book is available only as an E-book4. Some typographic errors exist here and there. It is basically self-published, with Wolff getting permission from various journals to republish the essays not originally presented on his blog.

These essays concentrate on two main themes. One is a formal presentation of Marxist political economy, developed by Piero Sraffa and others. The other is an interpretation of the curious literary style of Marx's Capital, in which commodities are treated as persons, persons are personifications of abstract classes, and the argument in the first chapter for the labor theory of value5 is difficult to take seriously.

2.0 A Formal Interpretation of Marx

Wolff is impressed with how Sraffians and analytical Marxists have (or should have) transformed our understanding of economics. Before this recent development, Marxists tended to concentrate on philosophical themes of alienation in Marx's early works, historical materialism, and cultural criticism. Marx's economics seemed to be in the trash bin of history:

"There has, in the past two decades, been an enormous world-wide upsurge of serious interest in, and rigorous investigation of, the central theses of the political economy of Karl Marx. Such doctrines as the labour theory of value, which for almost a century were ridiculed as outmoded ideology, as superstition, as metaphysics, are now taken seriously and debated with the aid of the most sophisticated tools of modern formal analysis. What began primarily as an activity of mathematical economists has now become a philosophical endeavor as well, with the result that the rediscovery of Marx is taking on a broader and deeper dimension." -- Robert Paul Wolff, "A Reply to Professor Schweickart"

I think Wolff is too optimistic here. I, of course, agree that a rigorous, formal, reconstruction of classical and Marxian economics is now available to economists. It is my impression, however, that, due to the sociology of the profession, most economists are unaware of the existence of this approach. I expect them to be still echoing seriously outdated mistakes about Marx's economics being ideology, superstition, and metaphysics. At least, I do not expect this formal reconstruction to be available in textbooks widely used by economists up through graduate school.

For his formal analysis, Wolff draws on definitions of labor values in terms of quantity flows between industries, as expressed in Leontief input-output matrices for self-reproducing capitalist economies. Prices of production are similarly calculated from such inter-industry quantity flows and an external specification of the distribution of the surplus. Wolff quotes Adam Smith on how a process akin to gravitation will lead market prices to approach prices of production, but does not otherwise analyze this claim extensively.

Wolff notes that both Ricardo and Marx were aware that prices of production generally deviate from labor values. Wolff discusses Marx's solution to the transformation problem, and what Wolff calls "conservation laws"6. The equality of surplus value with, to a first approximation, profits, seems to be primary with Wolff. He points out that this equality can be obtained by a specification of the appropriate numeraire. So he brings in a second equality between total value produced in a given time and the total output, evaluated at prices of production. Because of a dimensional analysis, Wolff's ends up interpreting Marx as claiming a general equality between the ratio of surplus value to total value and the ratio of profits to the prices of output. And, in consistency with the traditions upon which Wolff draws, he argues that Marx's claim is mistaken, except in special cases7.

Marx, however, assumes the labor theory of value in Volume 1, to explain the origin of profits. As I read Wolff, he does not think Marx's difficulties with solving the transformation problem invalidates the Volume 1 analysis. Marx's innovation in Volume 1 is to introduce the distinction between labor and labor power, where the latter is the labor value embodied in the commodities purchased by (non-saving) workers for consumption. For Wolff, what Morishima has dubbed the Fundamental Theorem of Marxism seems, at first glance, to justify Marx. A surplus is available to be distributed to capitalists as profit and to landlords as rent if and only if labor is exploited. That is, the labor value of output net of the labor value of capital goods consumed in producing that output must exceed the labor-value of labor power for a profit to exist.

For Wolff, the most serious objection to Marx's economics seems to be that this Fundamental Theorem is true for all commodities, not just labor-power. Surplus value exists, for example, if and only if corn is exploited. Wolff thinks he has an answer to this objection. Labor power is different than other commodities in that it is produced outside of capitalist relations, in some sense. Household production, outside of slavery, need not obtain the general rate of profits used in calculating prices of production. Furthermore, workers in selling their labor power must put their wills under the direction of the capitalists8.

3.0 Literary Matters

Wolff's literary analysis of Capital concentrates on the opening chapters. He thinks Marx adopted a style appropriate for his material. When observing a capitalist economy, all trades in the market look like they are made between equals, at least under competitive conditions. For Marx, this is a mystifying illusion resulting from commodity fetishism. Furthermore, Marx treats the labor theory of value with a certain amount of irony. For Marx, according to Wolf, labor values are not a physical embodiment of past labor, but the result of social relationships.

Why does Marx write in a ironic, mystifying style? To see that there is a problem in treating commodities as naturally commensurable and in accounting for the source of profits. If all commodities trade at labor values, how can profits arise? How can workers be said to be exploited, in a descriptive sense? Marx wants the reader to see that the reality thrown up by capitalist economies is topsy-turvy, and that these are questions that need to be asked and answered.

4.0 Conclusion

These essays reflect a perspective developed in the late 1970s and in the 1980s. You can find, on Wolff's blog, some commentators pointing out, for example, the Temporal Single System Interpretation (TSSI) of Andrew Kliman and others. I happen to agree with Wolff's perspective. But the reader should be aware that Wolff has not addressed more recent developments, either in Marxist and Sraffian economic theory, or in literary criticism9.

Wolff, being disappointed in the reception of the second of his books on Marx, never wrote a planned third book to integrate his mathematical formalist perspective on Marx and his ironic reading of Marx. The essays in the fourth section of this volume of his collected papers provide a start to such integration. But I have yet to read this section.

  1. I think some other chapters might have been blog posts. At least, there is some redundancy, either among chapters or between chapters and other things Wolff has written.
  2. "Ricardo's Principles", originally a series of blog posts (for example) in 2011, and Wolff (1982).
  3. Understanding Marx and Moneybags Must Be So Lucky.
  4. Is it available only in a Kindle format?
  5. I refer to Marx's supposed search for a "common element" in commodities, an argument that Wolff says is entirely meretricious.
  6. Elsewhere, I have written about these conditions as "invariants".
  7. When all commodities are produced with the same organic composition of capital or when the output of the economy is in standard proportions.
  8. Wolff's disputes with Roemer and Schweickart are over the precise statement of this claim and its validity.
  9. See Kornbluh (2010) for a recent literary reading of Marx's Capital drawing on postmodern theory. Kornbluh also sees Marx style as attempting to defamiliarize capitalism so as to explain the mystifications produced in a capitalist economy.


Emil Bakkum said...

"Such doctrines as the labour theory of value, which for almost a century were ridiculed as outmoded ideology, as superstition, as metaphysics, are now taken seriously "

In fact the labour theory of value was the leading paradigm in eastern Europe.

Robert Vienneau said...

I guess both Robert Paul Wolff and I took an excessively western viewpoint.