Labor theory of value debate

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Tue Sep 20 12:16:20 MDT 1994


I approach the whole debate on LTV from a somewhat different
perspective than that of the academically trained economists, but allow me
to put in my two cents. (I am reading Ronald Meek's "Studies in the Labor
Theory of Value" to get a better understanding of some of the background
controversy and to give me a better perspective on the whole debate.)

But one problem I have with the authorities that Keene appeals to is that
the argumentation relies heavily on mathematics. I stopped by the Barnard
library and took a look at Minsky's book and was stopped dead in my
tracks by all of the differential equations.

This led me to consider why I am so wary at the outset of a theory so
heavily reliant on mathematics. Mathematics seems to be an insufficient
entry-point into the study of capitalism. It tends to view social phenomena
in a rather static fashion. Computer modelling, calculus, etc. might be
sufficient for figuring out how to build bridges, missile guidance systems,
etc. They don't seem exactly up to the task of analyzing the class struggle.

Math can state with some clarity that 6 + 3 = 9 and that by the same token
9 = 6 + 3. It doesn't necessarily have the same ability to deal with the
behavior of individuals and classes under capitalism. In a textbook
situation, one can talk about the role of the federal reserve, deficit
spending, unemployment insurance and other institutions in a welfare state
in averting crisis, but real life doesn't always take place in such a neat
fashion.

In other words, economics must interact with politics in order to analyze
economic phenomena within a dynamic social and historical reality. This
is missing from Keene's approach.

I think this is most obvious in his understanding of revolution. He says that
cataclysms like the Great Depression are as likely to lead to fascism as to
socialism. Since Keene is a self-described reformist, this shows a rather
acute misunderstanding of what took place in the 1930's. There were
powerful reformist parties that shared not only Keene's faith in the welfare
state but also some of Eduard Bernstein's anti-Marxist and anti-LTV
economic theories. These parties were hegemonic in a number of countries
including France and Germany. It was their failure of nerve and
sectarianism toward the CP (of course, the CP was also blindly sectarian)
that allowed fascism and Hitlerism to triumph.

There are signs of incipient fascism in Europe today and the political heirs
of depression-era reformism are committing the same kind of errors.
Mitterand adapts to Le Pen and the German social democrats accept quotas
on immigrants. Nothing seems to change. Sraffaist economics seems totally
besides the point when it comes to explaining or challenging
developments such as these.

Another flaw in the Keene economic schema is that it totally ignores the
reality of the underdeveloped world. It is all well and good to
talk about how "big government" makes "crashes of the Great Depression
 kind almost impossible". That's fine for the USA, Japan and Europe but
what does this mean for Africa, Latin America and most of Asia where
the great majority of the planet's population lives. Keynsianism has
very little significance for these countries. I would also argue that
one of the reasons the advanced countries have managed to avoid a
Great Depression is that the underdeveloped world has been undergoing a
GREAT DEPRESSION for most of the century at the expense of imperialism.


Louis N. Proyect (lnp3 at columbia.edu)


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