Law of Value - a definition

Chris Burford cburford at
Sat Apr 29 08:31:01 MDT 1995

While I welcome the efforts of Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell to
defend the continuing relevance of the labour theory of value, I think on
reflection it may not be helpful if I just accept their definition.


"The law of value states that value, understood as the labour time
socially necessary to produce a commodity, is conserved in the exchange
of commodities".


I wanted to check Engels article actually entitled the Law of Value,
which must be having its hundredth birthday just about now as it was one
of the last things he wrote, but it is on another computer.

My recollection is that there is not a mathematical formula there, but an
extremely interesting historical explanation.

I therefore will stir it up a bit by proposing that


(Exchange) value is an emergent property of a human society that trades
commodities and could be called "tradability".

It exists in the minds of
all participants to the transaction and includes their estimate of the
probable estimates of the tradability of the commodity in question and
the unit of exchange, *in the minds of all other people having access to
use of that trading system*.


In the individual exchange therefore the price of a commodity oscillates
sometimes wildly, around the socially necessary labour content of the

For the society as a whole the estimate of what is tradable (regarded as
useful - for the stomach or the imagination) and how the total labour
force divides its labour between different economic activities, and the
time socially necessary to create a commodity, are shaped and refashioned
anew each day. At a social level this all oscillates (again sometimes
wildly) around the ultimate attractor, the emerged property, of the total
social labour time available for commodity production.


I think this concept of value as an emergent property may seem a little
amorphous because the boundaries fluctuate, as those of most living
systems do. The mathematics require non-linear equations, and fuzzy logic
but I suggest it gives a fuller fit with what we see.

As it happens, completely by chance, and not to prove the point by
reference to holy writ, [would Marxists ever wish to argue that way even
as we approach the great man's birthday?] I stumbled on a passage from
Capital which I had annotated twenty years ago with the comment
"effect of law of value of commodities on society".

I submit that the wording is highly compatible with chaos theory and the
concept within complexity theory, of emerging properties of self-organising

>From Capital vol 1, Chapter XIV Section 4, Division of Labour in
Manufacture, and Division of Labour in Society, 7th paragraph,
page 355 Lawrence and Wishart, London 1970 edition >


... in the society outside the workshop, chance and caprice have full
play in distributing the producers and their means of production among
the various branches of industry. The different spheres of production, it
is true, constantly tend to an equilibrium: for, on the one hand, while
each produceer of a commodity is bound to produce a use-value, to satisfy
a particular social want, and while the extent of these wants differs
quantitatively, still there exists an inner relation which settles their
proportions into a regular system, and that system one of spontaneous
growth; and, on the other hand, the law of the value of commodities
ultimately determines how much of its disposable working-time society can
expend on each particular class of commodities. But this constant
tendency to equilibrium, of the various spheres of production, is
exercised, only in the shape of a reaction against the constant upsetting
of this equilibrium. ...

The division of labour within the society brings into contact independent
commodity producers, who acknowledge no other authority but that of
competition, of the coercion exerted by the pressure of their mutual
interests; just as in the animal kingdom, the bellum omnium contra omnes
more or less preserves the conditions of existence of every species."

So, Marx used the language of dialectics to expose the inner workings of
what goes on before our eyes. In modern scientific discourse, the passage
above shows how positive and negative feedback between the individual
components creates a self-organising fluctuating system that permits our
continued reproduction as a commodity producing species.

What appears to be chance, caprice or chaos, on the individual level are
also, as chaos theory suggests, often the workings of a much larger
pattern, albeit one not constrained within mechanically reliable tramlines.

And what is Marx talking about when he says "there exists an inner
relation which settles their proportions into a regular system", if it is
not the same thing as complexity theory would call an emerging property of
a self-organising system".

Marx still lives.

Chris Burford, London.

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