I’m always pleased when Marx’s critique of political economy and the theory of value are topics of discussion, especially since students are rarely exposed to those ideas in their usual mainstream economics courses. Their professors generally don’t know about any theory of value other than the neoclassical economics they learned and preach—and, as a consequence, students aren’t taught that there is a fundamental critique of the neoclassical theory of value that stems from Marx’s work.
The result is, in fact, quite embarrassing. When I ask students to compare Marx’s theory of profits with the neoclassical theory of profits, they have no idea what I’m talking about. The way they learn economics from my neoclassical colleagues, profits are competed away. “So,” I ask them, “what you have is a theory of capitalism according to which there are no profits”? Then, of course, I have to start all over, teach them the neoclassical theory of profits (as the normal return to capital, rK, where r is the profit rate and K the amount of capital) and only then explain to them the Marxian critique of neoclassical profits (based on s, the amount of surplus-value that arises through exploitation). I am forced to make up for mainstream economists’ poor understanding and explanation of their own theory.
So, good, we now have a new discussion of Marx’s approach—first in the form of Branko Milanovic’s “primer” and then in Fred Moseley’s response to Milanovic. Both are well worth reading in their entirety—and I agree with many of the ideas they put forward.
But I do have a few major disagreements with their treatments. Milanovic, for example, insists that Marx develops his theory through three kinds of production: non-capitalism, “petty commodity production,” and capitalism. I read Marx differently. My view is that Marx starts with the commodity and then proceeds to develop, step by step (across volumes 1, 2, and 3 of Capital), the conditions of existence of capitalist commodity production, which is the goal of the analysis. These are not different historical stages or kinds of production but, rather, different levels of abstraction. So, conceptually, Marx starts from one proposition (that the value and exchange-value of commodities are equal to the amount of socially necessary abstract labor-time embodied in their production), then proceeds to another (where the value and exchange-value of commodities are equal to the value of capital, both variable and constant, and surplus-value embodied in the commodity during the course of production), and finally to a third level (where value and exchange-value can’t be equal, since the price of production, p, now includes an average rate of return on capital).
My other two concerns pertain to both authors. Milanovic and Moseley assert that Marx’s focus was mainly at the macro level, “the determination of the total profit (or surplus-value) produced in the capitalist economy as a whole.” I didn’t understand that idea back in 2013 and I remain unconvinced today. As I see it, Marx focused on both the micro and macro level and in fact worked to make his theory consistent at the two levels. Starting with the value of individual commodities (as I explained above), Marx concluded that, at the aggregate level, two identities needed to hold: the total value of commodities equaled the sum of their prices, and total surplus-value equalled total profits. That’s both a micro theory and a macro theory, a theory of value, price, and profit at both levels.*
The second, and perhaps most important, idea missing from Milanovic’s and Moseley’s interpretations of Marx’s approach is critique. Both authors proceed as if Marx developed his own theory of labor value, instead of seeing it as a critique of the classicals’ theory of value (which, we must remember, is the sub-title of Capital, “A Critique of Political Economy”). In my view, Marx begins where the classicals leave off (with an “immense accumulation of commodities,” Adam Smith’s wealth of nations) and then shows how the production of wealth in a capitalist society involves the performance, appropriation, and distribution of surplus labor.
That’s Marx’s class critique of political economy, which pertains as much to the mainstream economics of our time as to his.
*I don’t have the space here to explain how, for any individual commodity, the amount of value embodied during the course of its production won’t generally be equal to the amount of value for which the commodity exchanges. It is conceptually important that individual commodities have both numbers—value and exchange-value—attached to them, especially when they are not quantitatively equal at the micro level. It speaks to the fact that surplus-value is both appropriated (by capitalists from workers, through exploitation) and redistributed (among capitalists, within and across industries).