“What initially concerns producers in practice when they make an exchange is how much of some other product they get for their own; in what proportions can the products be exchanged? As soon as these proportions have attained a certain customary stability, they appear to result from the nature of the products, so that, for instance, one ton of iron and two ounces of gold appear to be equal in value, in the same way as a pound of gold and a pound of iron are equal in weight, despite their different physical and chemical properties. The value character of the products of labour becomes firmly established only when they act as magnitudes of value. These magnitudes vary continually, independently of the will, foreknowledge and actions of the exchangers.I do not claim to be well versed in all the intricacies and subtleties of Marx’s philosophy and economics, but there seems to be a serious contradiction here.
Their own movement within society has for them the form of a movement made by things, and these things, far from being under their control, in fact control them. The production of commodities must be fully developed before the scientific conviction emerges, from experience itself, that all the different kinds of private labour (which are carried on independently of each other; and yet, as spontaneously developed branches of the social division of labour, are in a situation of all-round dependence on each other) are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them. The reason for this reduction is that in the midst of the accidental and ever-fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour-time socially necessary to produce them asserts itself as a regulative law of nature. In the same way, the law of gravity asserts itself when a person’s house collapses on top of him. The determination of the magnitude of value by labour-time is therefore a secret hidden under the apparent movements in the relative values of commodities.” (Marx 1982: 168).
To assert that the labour theory of value is a “regulative law of nature” analogous to the law of gravity makes a bold and astonishing claim: the labour theory is like a universally true natural law that inheres in the nature of the universe itself.
But, at the same time, some expositors of Marx claim that Marx only intended the labour theory of value to be a historically contingent “law” of the capitalist mode of production.
Why, then, does Marx compare it to the law of gravity? Is it only rhetoric?
At the same time, the true nature of value is a “secret hidden” underneath the fluctuating exchange values or ratios of commodities as occurring on markets.
This would suggest that the labour theory of value is not meant to explain the actual exchange values or ratios of commodities, or the market prices of goods in a monetary economy.
But aren’t Marxists endlessly trying to solve their perplexing transformation problem? This transformation problem is an explicit attempt to “transform” the values of commodities as socially necessary labour-time into money prices on the market.
And, if the type of value as determined by socially necessary labour-time really is such an important, fundamental concept, then identifying and quantifying it ought to be a straightforward empirical exercise. Why is it a “secret hidden,” as if only the true believer can recognise it and fathom its profundity?
One rapidly comes to suspect that the labour theory of value verges on something mystical.
Marx, Karl. 1982. Capital. Volume One. A Critique of Political Economy (trans. Ben Fowkes). Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, England.