What Is Value? A Marxist Perspective

Marx’s critique of capitalism, and more specifically his theory of value, is still very relevant today, as I argue in my new book Fetishism and the Theory of Value: Reassessing Marx in the 21st Century.

But his work is often misunderstood, not only by orthodox economists but also by others – such as ‘greens’ – who seek inspiration in his writings. Economists, if they refer to his work at all, have tended to focus on the quantitative labour theory of value, ignoring what Marx called the qualitative theory of value: his critique of the economic categories of ‘bourgeois’ economics which mystify –  and hence also justify – the reality of what is really going on. The concept of fetishism is crucial to this theory, but by economists this has been either ignored or treated as the work of Marx the philosopher or Marx the sociologist. Marx introduces the concept of commodity fetishism in the very first chapter of Capital Volume I, where he seeks to get to grips with the mysterious phenomenon of exchange value. Rather than simplistically equating value with price – as is the practice of the market system and mainstream economics – he delves deep into the beliefs and practices that constitute and sustain the capitalist system. In other works, he applies the concept of fetishism to capital, money and interest-bearing capital. By reference to what he calls the ‘Trinity Formula’ he shows how, by presenting profit as the return on capital and rent as the return on land, both profit and rent are taken for granted, and go unchallenged. That the surplus value generated in production accrues solely to capital is treated as somehow ‘natural’.

In my book, I show the continuing relevance of Marx’s theory today, especially with regard to finance and the environment. Both the financial crisis of 2008 and the continuing crisis of environmental destruction are related to the way in which the market increasingly extends its grip over our lives: through the financialisation of everyday life, and through the use of market instruments and market principles that shape our relationship with nature.

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The Power of the Market

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“The ‘market’ is a bad master, but can be a good servant.”
S. Chakravarty (1993: 420)

In the world today, more and more interpersonal interactions are replaced by market transactions. The market system is both an economic and a cultural phenomenon, yet we seem to be hardly aware of the values that are bound up in it. This phenomenon is manifest at many levels: from the family, through the neighbourhood and the enterprise, to the nation and the globe. If there is such a thing as global ethics, I suggest, then they are – like it or not – the ethics of the market. My purpose here is to elaborate this claim, and to assess its implications. I shall distinguish between the market as a theoretical construct in economics, and the market as a social institution.

My main hypothesis can be briefly stated as follows: the most convincing ethical argument currently being made in favour of the market is its neutrality. Whether the market is in fact neutral may be disputed. But if one accepts this claim, it implies that the market is amoral, rather than immoral, and there remain, I suggest, two objections to allowing the market ethic to prevail. The first is that this is an abrogation of moral responsibility. It implies delegating decisions of major social and material significance to powers which are beyond our control, and whose outcome is uncertain. Second, the neutrality of the market comes at a cost in social and human terms; social relations between persons are replaced by contractual relations between economic agents.Read More »