value and exchange value

Allin Cottrell cottrell at
Wed Aug 2 20:55:27 MDT 1995

Carroll Cox wrote recently:

    I have followed the various discussions of use value and exchange value,
but they have not touched on what to me (at the time some years ago when I was
reading and re-reading Vol. I of *Capital*) was the most baffling concept in
the work: that of exchange value as the form of value.

 [quote deleted]

    Most discussions I have seen of Marxian economics simply discuss exchange
value and use value as though they exhausted the subject, but here Marx seems
to place central emphasis on this "hidden" relation, that between value and its
*form*, exchange value. Neither use value nor exchange value is *value*,


I think the solution here is quite simple, if 'value' simpliciter is
defined as the labor-time socially necessary to produce a given
product.  Then one has the idea that exchange-value is the social
form taken on by socially necessary labor-time in a commodity-producing
society.  In such a society, the necessary metabolism of labor-time
within the system is accomplished via the exchange of commodities,
and, by and large (with well known exceptions for non-repoducible
goods), these commodities exchange in proportion to the labor time
they embody.  (A good deal of recent empirical work shows this idea
to be an excellent approximation to reality.) In the quote from Marx
that Carroll gave (deleted here), Marx is pointing out that while
Ricardo upheld the idea that commodities exchange in proportion to
embodied labor, he did not explain under what conditions labor-time
"takes on the form" of exchange-value.

No doubt some people will object to this formulation.  It's true that
Marx and Engels sometimes used a terminology incompatible with the
above -- namely when they talk of labor time taking on the form of
"value" (note: not "exchange-value") under capitalism.  But IMO
this was just an unfortunate inconsistency on their part.  If it
is taken literally, it gives rise to a very puzzling schema:
labor-time takes on the form of value, and value takes on the form
of exchange-value.  This is not deep, it is incoherent.  There are
too many levels, "more parameters than data-points" in the jargon
of econometrics.

Allin Cottrell
Department of Economics
Wake Forest University
cottrell at
(910) 759-5762

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