The problematic of variable capital and the drift of the ideal
determinations of science
The determination of economic reality by the real process of production finds its expression in the concept of the organic composition of capital. Marx, as we know, distinguishes between the technical composition of capital, which is in fact the composition or decomposition of the production process into its real elements; its composition in terms of value, namely the sum of the determinate and distinct values of which a given capital is formed; and, finally, its organic composition, which is nothing other than its value-composition as it results from and is determined by its technical composition.1 However, the determination of the organic composition by the technical composition, that of capital by the real process of production, remains unclear as long as the elements that compose the latter have not themselves been made the object of a radical elucidation. Thus, since every production process implies instruments and raw materials, the difference which is established between the various means of labor will be found on the economic level as well; this will be the difference between fixed capital and circulating capital.2 The difference between fixed capital and circulating capital is a difference in the mode of circulation of these values, a mode of circulation which itself depends on the nature of the material elements of the process and on the use made of them within the process. It is because the raw material is wholly consumed in the course of production that its value passes entirely into the product and henceforth circulates with it—let us understand by this: circulates with the product considered as a commodity, as being itself a value. It is because the instrument is “consumed” only at the end of a great number of processes that it gives up its value gradually and thus accords only a minute part of this value to each product.3
However, like the raw material, the labor-power in action in the production process is wholly consumed in it; its value, therefore, passes entirely into the product, and this is why the value of labor-power constitutes, along with that of the raw material circulating capital. What characterizes them is that, as values incorporated into the product—whereas their material base has been wholly consumed—they will be converted into money, which will then have to be reconverted into labor-power and raw materials in order to replace the base that has disappeared.4 No doubt, in each case, this reconversion obeys a different rhythm, and labor-power and raw materials each have a different circulation by reason of their specific reality.5 Despite this difference in their mode of circulation, these two values, therefore, together constitute “circulating capital”; it is due to this common determination that they leave the production process at its end in order to pass entirely into the product, and it is in this way that they are both opposed to fixed capital.6
Inasmuch as the organic composition of capital is determined by its technical composition, it refers us back to the latter. Is the organic composition of capital, which has just been recognized and described, that is, its composition out of fixed elements and circulating elements, essential? This could be the case only if the real difference upon which it rests, the difference between elements that are partially or wholly consumed in the production process, were itself an essential difference. Now Marx gave another description of the organic composition of capital. In chapter XXV of Capital we read:
The composition of capital is to be understood in a twofold sense. On the side of value, it is determined by the proportion in which it is divided into constant capital or value of the means of production, and variable capital or value of labor-power, the sum total of wages. On the side of material, as it functions in the process of production, all capital is divided into means of production and living labor-power. This latter composition is determined by the relation between the mass of the means of production employed, on the one hand, and the mass of labor necessary for their employment on the other. I call the former the value-composition, the latter the technical composition of capital. Between the two there is a strict correlation. To express this, I call the value-composition of capital, in so far as it is determined by its technical composition and mirrors the changes of the latter, the organic composition of capital.7
What is most noteworthy in this text, which is presented as an exhaustive clarification of the concept of the composition of capital and which allows the twofold stratification, revealed and adhered to throughout the entire analysis, to appear as the condition for this clarification—namely the level that seems to be the economic level as such or the level of value, of the determinations of this appearance by the real production process, the level, finally, of this process itself which is that of reality—is that it is no longer a question of the differentiation of capital into fixed and circulating capital. And this is the case because the real difference upon which this distinction rests and which it expresses, the difference in the manner of transmitting value to the product, depending on whether it is a question of the instrument of labor or, on the contrary, that of raw materials and labor-power, is itself placed out of bounds. Not that it disappears; the distinction between fixed capital and circulating capital still remains. But both are inessential distinctions, and this is why the introductory text of chapter XXV no longer mentions them. What arises in place of them, and is presented as the sole theme of analysis is the opposition between the variable part and the constant part of capital, and, on the other hand, what is given within the real production process as the ground of this opposition, namely the opposition between labor-power and its objective conditions.
Now, this modification of the concept of the value-composition of capital, namely the substitution of the opposition between variable capital and constant capital for that between fixed capital and circulating capital, does not startle the reader from one page to the next but constitutes the object of an explicit problematic. In addition, we find that the essential part of the critique addressed to Smith and Ricardo is concentrated and expressed here. Nor does this problematic enter into Marx’s analysis by chance. If, as organic composition, the value-composition of capital reflects its technical composition, namely the real structure of the production process, then what plays a determining role in this process must in fact serve as a guide in determining the true concept of the organic composition of capital; the oppositions inherent in productive praxis must give rise to economic oppositions and account for them. Here again, we must recognize that economic determinations are not explained economically and that the principle of the internal structuring of capital, that is to say, precisely, its value-composition, is comprehensible neither in it nor in the system it develops. If, in fact, we consider the diverse values out of which a capital is formed, these can be grouped together and opposed to one another in various ways, according to the characteristics they present, according to the way in which they are transmitted to the product, their turnover time, etc., and nothing permits us to say, inasmuch as we restrict ourselves to these specific properties, that this or that grouping should prevail or this or that distinction be recognized as essential for the composition of the economic process as a whole. Does the organic composition find its adequate theoretical formulation in the opposition between fixed capital and circulating capital or in that between variable capital and constant capital? There is no reply to this question on the economic level.
However, if we leave the plane of economic analysis and consider the material realities into which values are converted in the movement by which capital is inevitably transformed into the process of production, then we see that a part of these values is transformed into the means of production and the other part into labor-power.8 We see, or rather we know—the entire analysis of the real process of production has shown this—that, regardless of the way in which they transmit their value to the product, the means of production, raw materials, auxiliary materials, and instruments of labor do no more, precisely, than transmit their value to the product, and therefore cannot accord to it more value than they themselves possess, so that the value-composition of capital, its process of realization, and, finally, capital as such remain, in the phenomenon under consideration, unintelligible or rather non-existent. Capital’s powerlessness to be capital, to grow in that part of itself which is converted into the means of production, results in this part of capital’s being called the constant part of capital or constant capital. The entire analysis of the relation between capital and labor has shown, on the contrary, that, since the use-value of labor-power is capable of producing a value greater than its own, the value for which it is exchanged should be found again at the end of the activity of this power in the production process and in the production by it of a new value, in a form that is quantitatively superior to its initial form: it has varied in the course of this process; this variation is the realization of capital and indeed capital itself as such. To the extent that it accounts for the inner possibility of realization and, consequently, for capital, the determination of the organic composition of capital on the basis of its constant and variable parts is the adequate determination of its concept. In this way, we see that the terminology in which this conceptualization is expressed is the pure result of eidetic analysis.9
It has been shown, however, that labor-power’s property of producing a value greater than its own is simply life’s property of outstripping its own conditions. In the production process the analysis traced an essential line of demarcation between, on the one hand, living subjectivity as the power of creation and growth and, on the other hand, the objective elements, which are not only frozen in their objective state but which can, in reality, be maintained only through the activity of this subjectivity, which must never loosen its grasp on them if it is to keep them out of death’s reach: the simple tautological reappearance of the same indeed implies the positive phenomenon of its preservation, which is nothing other than this continuous activity of life. In this way, the material reality of the production process appeared to be split into two elements that were not only different but ontologically heterogeneous: on the one hand, a subjective element which makes the entire process possible because, as living praxis, it is what produces and constitutes the production as such at the same time as it integrates into this production, by making them operative, the material that is worked upon and the instrument of labor; on the other hand, an objective element, namely this material and this instrument which have being only in and through praxis. It is because the opposition between variable capital and constant capital does no more than express on the economic level the ultimate ontological distinction present at the heart of the production process and constituting its reality that it must, in its turn, be understood as the essential economic difference and that it constitutes the distinction internal to capital and the adequate concept of its organic composition. In a text of admirable clarity and density, Marx formulates the fundamental reference of the entire economic analysis at once to its ontological ground and to its ultimate internal distinction: “The same elements of capital which, from the point of view of the labor-process, present themselves respectively as the objective and subjective factors, as means of production and labor-power, present themselves, from the point of view of the process of creating surplus-value, as constant and variable capital.”10
How the definition of the organic composition of capital, as the opposition between variable capital and constant capital, originates in the ontological distinction internal to the production process is a question of sufficient importance for Marx to want to return to it in the manuscripts that have been collected as Book Two of Capital. What is affirmed once more to be essential here is that the enigma of variable capital, that is to say, the very possibility of capitalism, rests upon the subjectivity at work in the production process, upon the existence of a living power which, because it is capable of creating more use-value than its upkeep requires, produces in the same stroke a value greater than its own. Thus the capitalist, when he gives up a fixed value in order to secure this living power, receives for its use a value which reproduces the one that he has expended while producing a new value that is thus acquired without any equivalent. The definition of variable capital is therefore nothing but the repetition of the analysis of the exchange of capital and labor, and, ultimately, of the properties of organic subjectivity. In the following text are concentrated all of Marx’s fundamental theses:
The essential point in the definition of variable capital—and therefore for the conversion of any sum of values into capital—is that the capitalist exchanges a definite, given (and in this sense constant) magnitude of value for value-creating power, a magnitude of value for the production, self-expansion, of value. Whether the capitalist pays the laborer in money or in means of subsistence does not affect this basic definition . . . the creation of surplus-value—and consequently the capitalisation of the advanced sum of values—has its source neither in the money-form of wages nor in the form of wages paid in kind, nor in the capital laid out in the purchase of labor-power. It arises out of the exchange of value for value-creating power, out of the conversion of a constant into a variable magnitude.11
Let us insert a clarification here, for the concept of variable magnitude, and hence that of variable capital, may seem confused. According to the text quoted above, there is, on the one hand, a fixed value, that of wages, and, on the other, the variable magnitude which the capitalist obtains in exchange. But what the capitalist obtains is not variable; it is a new value—that of the product—greater than the value advanced initially but determined just as it is. One can speak of variable capital only to the extent that it is one and the same value that, advanced initially in the form of wages, is found to have increased quantitatively in the product. Now, this is an illusion, since the growth of value is not its own doing but results from this value’s being replaced by a living power: the latter alone creates value and can produce a value greater than its own, than the value of wages. Thus, there is stricto sensu neither variable magnitude nor variable value but the substitution of a power for a fixed magnitude, and then of another magnitude which results from this power and which, at the end of its action, is presented as a magnitude similarly fixed and determined. It happens that the second is greater than the first, and it is only when one places oneself on the economic level of appearance that one thinks that it is a question of one and the same value and that this value has varied. As essential as it may be, and precisely to the extent that it is essential, the concept of variable capital exposes the irrational character of the fundamental determinations of the economy, namely the determinations that relate to realization, that is, to capital as such. And this irrational character of the fundamental economic determinations expresses in its turn nothing other than the lack of autarchy of economic reality, the fact that, unintelligible by itself, it is always founded upon a reality of another order by which it is determined and to which it refers. Thus the variation of value, when no value is capable of varying, is only the comparison of two unequal and distinct values. And Marx thought that the second, as it does not derive from the first but from a power foreign to all economic determination, has to be understood on the basis of this power, that the dynamism of labor-power in action is translated, once this value-creating action has occurred, into a value located in the product and whose magnitude, which is now fixed, is determined by the activity that created it. The following text from the manuscripts collected as Book Two of Capital clears up whatever might remain obscure in the concept of variable capital by reestablishing, under the appearance of a homogeneous variation of magnitude, the continuity of the real process of producing value and the manner in which the latter results from the former. “It follows from the nature of value, which is nothing but materialized labor, and from the nature of active labor-power, which is nothing but labor in process of materialization, that labor-power continually creates value and surplus-value during the time it functions; that what on the part of labor-power appears as motion, as a creation of value, appears on the part of its product in a state of rest, as created value. If the labor-power has performed its function capital no longer consists of labor-power on the one side and means of production on the other. The capital-value that was invested in labor-power is now value which (+ surplus-value) was added to the product.”12
The radical reduction of variable capital to value-creating living subjectivity is made explicit in the same passage, thereby indicating that this power of realization remains internal to the production process whose essence it constitutes and that, consequently, it is not this power but only the value that it has produced which reappears at the end of the process in the form of a value greater than the initial value: “The real substance of capital laid out in wages is labor itself, active, value-creating labor-power, living labor, which the capitalist exchanges for dead, materialized labor and embodies in his capital, by which means, and by which alone, the value in his hands turns into self-expanding value. But this power of self-expansion is not sold by the capitalist. It is always only a constituent part of his productive capital . . . it is never a part of his commodity-capital, as for instance the finished product which he sells.”13
When thought through rigorously, the concept of variable capital splits into two and is found to include two different, although complementary, meanings: on the one hand, the “substance,” as Marx says, of variable capital is the power of living subjectivity; on the other hand, between the value that the capitalist has exchanged for this power and the value he receives after it has been put into motion, there is a difference of magnitude. It is by considering these two values from the standpoint of their magnitude that one comes to see between them merely a difference, precisely, of magnitude, to identify them numerically, to believe that it is the same value which passes through different states or phases, which varies, and hence to speak of variable capital. The latter can be maintained, and accorded the central role that Marx acknowledges for it in the economic problematic, only inasmuch as its fundamental meaning is never for one instant out of sight.
It is this meaning which leads us to dismiss the objection that the difference observed at the end of the production process between the value of its elements and that of the product, a difference which constitutes surplus-value, is not explained—or not, at any rate, explained solely—by variable capital, that is, by putting into motion a power creating a value greater than its own. Is not the value of constant capital, in fact, also capable of varying; can there not also be, and is there not frequently, a change in the price of raw materials or instruments? The price of cotton may well increase as a result of a poor harvest, for example; this change in value is, nonetheless, foreign to the production process in which cotton enters as a raw material, and regardless of the speculation affecting the price of raw materials, each raw material plays in a given production process simply the role of constant capital: in this process its value does not vary. The variation in the value of cotton intervenes in another process, that in which cotton is produced, and this variation in the value of cotton is ontologically homogeneous with that of all variable capital; it is labor-power which constitutes its ultimate possibility.14 The same remark obviously concerns the instruments of labor. Even when this value has changed, fixed capital is no less constant capital for the reason that it functions as such in a specific production process.15 Thus the analysis continues, in its rigorousness, to obey the teleology that secretly animates it: to say that neither the raw material nor the instrument can transfer to the product any more value than they themselves possess, that they are forms of constant capital, means at one and the same time that all surplus-value comes from living subjectivity and from it alone and that it alone produces value. Variable capital, capitalization, is explained only by living subjectivity and in it finds its sole foundation.
The opposition between variable capital and constant capital is the decisive economic opposition because it is not economic, because it distinguishes in a radical manner, in reality itself, between the living element and the dead element, between that which produces change and that which cannot even maintain itself in the tautology of what it is nor subsist by itself, between subjectivity and objectivity. Now, it happens that the economic analysis, conducted in light of this ultimate and, finally, metaphysical opposition (metaphysical, because it provides a definition of being, namely being as life and, as such and as capable of being such, as subjectivity, whereas the object has being only as it is kept within the action of subjectivity—and praxis itself is just this act of keeping the object away from death and in being through the activity of subjectivity, which itself signifies life), to be precise, the distinction between variable capital and constant capital, will itself be brought into question and, in the same stroke, will in turn bring into question the fundamental opposition upon which it rests. For, if it is true that capital is constituted organically by the opposition of its variable and constant forms, and that this opposition must be taken as a guideline for its analysis, then the phenomenon that will dominate its evolution becomes visible—the increasing share in it taken by constant capital, whereas the importance of variable capital will continue to diminish. In light of the philosophical presupposition which placed the opposition between variable capital and constant capital at the center of the economic analysis, the increase of the second and the decrease of the first cannot, and are not intended to, signify anything but the invasion of social life by the inessential and the decline of the essential. This decline, it is true, announces that of capitalism. This is because, in its very concept, capitalism is tied to value. And it is in fact the decline of value and of the world to which this value gave rise that is under way, as is shown in the law of the tendency toward reduced profit.
But what is important to us here is to note that at the very moment when Marx believes that he can read the destiny of capitalism in its organic composition understood as the opposition between constant capital and variable capital, at the very moment when he perceives the increasing share taken by the former at the expense of the latter, he never ceases to affirm their opposition, against the backdrop of the ontological heterogeneity of the realities for which, as values, they are but the ideal expression. Chapter VIII of Capital, entitled “Constant Capital and Variable Capital,” ends with these pathetic lines, for, in the final analysis, they signify that if the share allotted to life never ceases to decrease in the immensity of a dead world, it remains life nonetheless and continues to be that which wrests the world away from sheer annihilation:
. . . a change in the proportion of constant to variable capital does not affect the respective functions of these two kinds of capital. The technical conditions of the labor-process may be revolutionized to such an extent, that where formerly ten men using implements of small value worked up a relatively small quantity of raw material, one may now, with the aid of one expensive machine, work up one hundred times as much raw material. In the latter case we have an enormous increase in the constant capital, that is represented by the total value of the means of production used, and at the same time a great reduction in the variable capital, invested in labor-power. Such a revolution, however, alters only the quantitative relation between the constant and variable, or the proportions in which the total capital is split up into its constant and variable constituents; it has not in the least degree affected the essential difference between the two.16
Just when the role of this force is constantly diminishing in a production process increasingly dominated by the plethora of mechanical means, consequently just when the share of variable capital itself continues to decrease in favor of constant capital, Marx asserts the decisive character of variable capital—or rather of that which ultimately founds it, the power of living subjectivity—in an extraordinary analysis which governs the entire problematic of Capital and which should serve as a guide for any coherent interpretation that might be proposed. Let us consider a capital, C, in light of the essential opposition between constant capital (c) and variable capital (v), and let us call the surplus-value s. We recall that c designates “the value of the means of production actually consumed in the process,”17 and v the sum of money expended for the purchase of labor-power. At the start of the production process, this capital is expressed as C = c + v, for example, £500 = £410 + £90. When the process has ended, we find C = (c + v) + s, so that C has become C’, or, to return to our example, £590 = £410 + 90 + 90. All the preceding analyses permit us to say, along with Marx, that as the value of constant capital simply reappears in the product, the value that is really created in the production process is not the total value of the product, (c + v) + s, £410 + 90 + 90 = £590, but (v + s), or £90 + 90 = £180. The only way to make the value that is really created in the production process evident, that is, the value created by labor-power in action, is to set aside the value of constant capital or to assume that it is zero. Then, indeed, the production process will be reduced to what it has really produced, because production will be reduced to itself, to the efficacity of reality and to its pure essence: to living subjectivity. If it is posited that c = 0, then the initial capital, C, = (0 + v) = v; the capital resulting from the process, Cˊ, = v + s; and the difference between the two, Cˊ — C, gives us the surplus-value, s. Then we have, in figures—the value of constant capital, £410, having been eliminated from all the preceding formulas—C = 0 + 90 = 90; Cˊ = 90 + 90 = 180; Cˊ — C = 90. We then see that the total value produced in the production process, £180, or the sum of the value reproduced (90) and of the surplus-value (90) remains identical, whatever the value of constant capital may be, whether this be equal to £410 or to zero. In other words, if one assumes a production process that is realized without raw materials, without auxiliary materials, and without instruments, one has to admit that it produces the same value as a process in which the means of production would represent an incommensurable value. This is why, once the value produced in the process is made apparent, the value of constant capital, however great it may be, has to be left out of consideration. Pure analysis requires that we “make abstraction from that portion of the value of the product, in which constant capital alone appears, and consequently must equate the constant capital to zero or make c = o.”18
Pure analysis: Marx’s thought is an analytic thought, a thought which decomposes the Whole into its parts, which does not explain the parts by the Whole but, on the contrary, the Whole by its parts. In contrast to the entire structuralist approach, it is thus posited that the totality is not a principle of intelligibility, any more than it is a principle of reality, but an appearance, that which masks the real phenomenon. Thus, it is neither the total capital nor its global movement that enables us to perceive the principle of capitalism; instead, they hide it, and this is why, within this totality, it was appropriate to eliminate the largest part, constant capital, in order to perceive what is essential, the variation of value, variable capital, that which is capable of resolving the enigma of surplus-value. After recalling that “surplus-value is purely the result of a variation in the value of v, of that portion of the capital which is transformed into labor-power,” Marx adds: “But the fact that it is v alone that varies, and the conditions of that variation, are obscured by the circumstance that in consequence of the increase in the variable component of the capital, there is also an increase in the sum total of the advanced capital. It was originally £500 and becomes £590. ”19
Let us add that this “pure analysis” is an essential analysis. For it is not simply a matter of decomposing the Whole into its parts; it is a matter of recognizing among these precisely which one determines all the others and the Whole along with them. How, then, does this recognition take place and, with it, the exclusion of all the elements that will be said to be inessential, all those that could be eliminated without affecting the possibility of the phenomenon considered, that is, without resulting in the cessation of the production of value? In positing c = 0, Marx says that the production of value takes place in the absence of all the values which are those of the means of production, consequently in the absence of these means. He does not say that it takes place despite everything, that it can still take place despite this absence, as in the event of catastrophe or in despair of other means of realization. He says that the production of value takes place completely, fully in the absence of constant capital and its material components. He says that constant capital and its material components are foreign to the production of value, that they in no way share in its nature, that this nature consists wholly in variable capital, which indeed is thus the essential element of capital or, better, its very essence.
However, just as constant capital, variable capital also refers to reality; it is the value of labor-power. It expresses the value of labor-power in the form of an ideal representation; precisely, it represents it, or as Marx rigorously states, it is the “index.”20 The double reference to the “material” reality of constant capital and of variable capital is then formulated as follows: whereas constant capital represents the objective element of the production process, variable capital represents its subjective element. When, in all the calculations which weigh down the text of Capital, the reader in amazement sees Marx posit this equation, c, constant capital, = 0, what this actually means is that in order to grasp the essence of capital, its own nature and its possibility, all that is objective in the production process is to be struck out and what alone is to be retained is the subjective element reduced to itself and understood in its purity, subjectivity alone as such. It is the common attitude that what economic reality involves is the objective world, determinations which are external to man and which force themselves upon him even more harshly than nature and its impassible laws. But this is an illusion, and Marx, who was able to recognize the ever-increasing importance in the production process of instruments and of constant capital, which expresses their value, was not afraid of reducing both the latter and the former to zero and to consider them to be null in the development of the economic process of the modern world. In the history of Western thought there are few philosophies of subjectivity, at least if this is understood in its pure concept not as the power to represent the world to oneself, that is to say, ultimately as objectivity itself, but as the essence, which is irreducible to the world and which exists in itself, of a life as it is someone’s life and as that very thing which is life. At any rate, no philosophy has given to this pure concept of subjectivity such a consistently radical meaning, nor has any, by the reduction of all objectivity, satisfied its most extreme, if not to say wildest, exigencies.21
The presuppositions that guide the present interpretation of Marx’s thought have made the irrational character of the concept of variable capital apparent, inasmuch as, taking its content literally, one would wish to see in it merely an economic concept, that of a value which varies. For an interpretation such as this it is decisive to see that the analysis provided in Capital explicitly concurs with our own conclusions. In the example given in chapter IX, where C = 410 (c) + 90 (v) becomes C’ = 410 (c) + 90 (v) + 90 (s), the variable capital is thus constituted by the £90 given in wages; £90 spent on wages: this amount is fixed just as is the sum defining constant capital. Why is it called variable capital? And if it is fixed, in what way can it vary? The sum paid to the worker, in truth, does not vary; it indeed is fixed, but the capitalist has exchanged it for something that does vary and that is variation itself, that is, for life. “But £90 is a given and therefore a constant quantity; hence it appears absurd to treat it as a variable. . . . But in the process of production the place of the £90 is taken by the labor-power in action, dead labor is replaced by living labor, something stagnant by something flowing, a constant by a variable.”22 The heterogeneity of life and of the ideal discourse that claims to proclaim it, such is the contradiction of variable capital, that is to say, of its truth as well, since by destroying itself it allows, amidst the debris of the economic universe, the great current that carries them to appear. After the elimination of constant capital, which has been reduced to zero, and that of the £90 paid to the worker, that is, the elimination of variable capital itself, a final farewell is bid to numbers and to science. There is room for knowledge. Knowledge is always knowledge of the simplest thing; it is knowledge of life, whose innermost law is, however, that of the world and of its development.
The ultimate theses: the twofold aporia of “the value of labor” and
of ”the value of labor-power ”
The problematic of variable capital paves the way for and makes possible the critique of wages, that is, of the “value of labor,” the irrational character of the latter being simply a new manifestation of the irrational character of variable capital itself, considered as an economic determination. Inasmuch as variable capital does vary, it admits of a double ideal equivalence; two different economic determinations can be made to correspond to it, and this is its paradox. On the one hand, there is a specific and fixed sum of money, that, precisely, which is spent on wages and which figures as such in the capitalist’s accounts. It is precisely in this form that variable capital is presented as a part of circulating capital in the eyes of the economist just as it is in the eyes of the capitalist, as a part of the sum advanced by the latter at the start of the labor process, alongside the sum invested in the materials of production. On the other hand, there is a final value of variable capital, that which it attains at the end, or so it seems, of its variations and which, in reality, is nothing other than the new value produced by labor-power for which it was exchanged, at its initial value, in the form of wages. If it is true that the final value of variable capital does not coincide with its initial value and is actually greater than it, this results from the fact that the value of labor-power, the quantity of labor materialized in it, that is to say, the amount necessary for its subsistence, is indeed less than the quantity of labor that it is capable of producing, less, consequently, than the value produced by its actualization. The connection between the problematic of wages and the problematic of variable capital can be read not only in the very order of the chapters in Capital; it is also contained in this essential text of Book Three:
A very essential distinction is thus to be made in regard to variable capital laid out in wages. Its value as the sum of wages, i.e. as a certain amount of materialized labor, is to be distinguished from its value as a mere index of the mass of living labor which it sets in motion. The latter is always greater than the labor which it [variable capital] incorporates, and is, therefore, represented by a greater value than that of the variable capital [laid out]. This greater value is determined, on the one hand, by the number of laborers set in motion by the variable capital and, on the other, by the quantity of surplus-labor performed by them, [so that] variable capital is not only the index of the labor embodied in it. When the rate of surplus-value is known it is also an index of the amount of labor set in motion over and above that embodied in itself, i.e., of surplus-labor.23
The irrational character of the “value of labor” is thus not only that of every economic determination inasmuch as, by defining a reality, it seems to belong to it and to possess the same nature. In this sense, as Marx remarks, it is just as absurd to speak of the value or of the price of sugar as of the value of labor.24 The irrationality peculiar to the value of labor consists in the fact that this magnitude, not content to be as such ontologically heterogeneous with respect to the reality it claims to define, transgresses the very laws of ideality and, first of all, the laws of identity. Indeed, what does the concept of the value of labor accomplish if not to confuse the initial value and the final value of variable capital and to attempt, thanks to this confusion, to reduce surreptitiously the first to the second? Marx’s entire problematic attempts, on the contrary, to dissociate radically these two values and, with respect to the question of wages, this dissociation now assumes the following form.
Insofar as it designates the initial value of variable capital and inasmuch as its magnitude is identical to the quantity of money laid out for wages, the “value of labor” is, in reality, nothing other than the value of labor-power. It is the use of this power, for a day, a week, a month—by no means the labor or the product of this labor—which the capitalist purchases from the worker. Such is the first result of the analysis of wages, the radical dissociation of the value of labor— with regard to which it will be shown that this value does not exist—from the value of labor-power. If a dissociation such as this required a considerable theoretical labor, this is because it had to be established over and against an illusion, one which is all the more tenacious as it is not simply the illusion of the capitalist but of the worker as well. Since the latter receives his wages only after having done his work, at the end of the week for example, he believes that he is paid for this work and that the wage is precisely its price.25 Consequently, if we assume, to return to the most constant hypothesis of Capital, that the worker has reproduced the value of his labor-power during the first half of his workday and that he then produced a new value, surplus-value, which is taken by the capitalist, one sees how this essential phenomenon manages to be hidden under the appearance that the worker has been paid the “value of his work,” that is, the whole of his day. “Although one part only of the workman’s daily labor is paid, while the other part is unpaid . . . it seems as if the aggregate labor was paid labor.”26 This illusion is what characterizes wage labor in contrast to serfdom, where the distinction between paid labor and unpaid labor is obvious, and to slavery, where labor seems to be entirely unpaid. An illusion such as this is at once the cause and the effect of the theoretical confusion between the value of labor-power and the value of labor, and of the assimilation of the first to the second.
Confusing the value of labor-power and the value of labor is thus the error of the economists as well. However, to the extent that it thematizes the “value of labor,” economics runs up against the problem of its determination in the form of an aporia. For, in accordance with its thesis, if it is labor that determines value, how can the value of labor itself be determined? Marx will shatter the aporia with a blunt assertion. “Labor is the substance, and the immanent measure of value, but has itself no value.”27 It is here that the concept of the “value of labor” allows its fundamental irrationality to appear, an irrationality which no longer consists either in the fact of identifying two different magnitudes, or in the claim to overcome the ontological heterogeneity of the ideal economic determination of reality. A heterogeneity of this nature surely remains the unseen basis for the assertion that labor has no value. But it is not in the same sense as sugar that labor is said to have no value. Sugar, precisely, has a value; this proposition is irrational only insofar as it is interpreted analytically. But it is true that sugar receives a value as a synthetic addition to its material being. And once the theory of this synthesis, of this ideal or categorical determination of reality, has been formulated, a foundation is provided for the economic existence of sugar or of any material reality, that of a tool, for example. Now, the theory of this determination has indeed been supplied; it is the theory of value, which, it has been shown, is only the objectification of abstract labor, that is, the representation of the real labor which has produced an object possessing value. In this way the theory of the origin of value takes its place alongside the foundational philosophies of understanding, that is, of the categorial determination of reality, and entrusts to the latter, that is, to representation, the task of accomplishing this determination, with the restriction that, through a decisive mutation, the categorial operation of determination is now understood as a secondary operation in relation to a more primordial action belonging to a different order, in relation to praxis. For it is only insofar as labor has produced an object that this production can be represented in a representation which is, precisely, that of value; the production of value or the categorial economic determination of reality is thus merely the representation of the original production of being as praxis.
Now, this economic determination of reality which concerns sugar or tools— along with every possible material reality in general inasmuch as it is tied to its source, to the source of being understood as production—precisely, no longer concerns praxis itself. Such is the profound meaning of the assertion that labor has no value. For this is no longer identical to the case of sugar which, although, in its reality, it is of a different nature than any ideal determination, is nevertheless capable of possessing this sort of determination, and not just in an arbitrary manner but insofar as its being is understood on the basis of its source, as the effect of praxis, insofar as it is capable of being represented as such. For this is what it means for sugar “to have a value”: to be the product of labor. Now, not only has labor no value, insofar as in itself it is foreign to the ideality of economic determination, but, in contrast to sugar, it is not capable of receiving a value. This is, first of all, the apodictic meaning of Marx’s thesis. To say that labor has no value means: it cannot have value. Just as labor does not derive from any labor, so production is not the product of any production. If, then, value is the representation of this derivation and of this production, it cannot affect labor, which is not produced. In this way is affirmed, in itself and in its numerous implications, the original character of praxis which, since the “Theses on Feuerbach,” constitutes the underlying presupposition of Marx’s entire thought. This original character has still to be correctly understood. It by no means signifies that praxis, deriving from nothing, produced by nothing, would produce itself. As has been established, the concept of praxis has nothing to do with the Hegelian concept of being as production to the extent that the latter signifies the self-production of being. No doubt the Hegelian concept of being is overdetermined by the incorrect concept of production as objectification. By rejecting the latter, however, Marx rejects in the same stroke self-production and self-positing. This is why the concept of being as production is, in Marx, identical to the concept of life, that is, the concept of an existence which is radically passive in relation to itself and whose essence is, as a result, to experience.28 This is also why this existence, as feeling and experiencing of self, is a Self. It is due to this passive givenness of the individual to himself that his existence as praxis has no value, is the result of no labor, of no production, of no action, and, in particular, of no action that would be his own.
The existence of the individual as praxis is labor-power. We are then in the presence of an aporia which is found in the thought of Marx himself. In order to escape the aporia of classical economics, which claimed to be based on the “value of labor,” Marx substituted for the latter the value of labor-power. But now we are saying that the concept of the value of labor-power is as irrational as that of the value of labor. On the one hand, in fact, labor-power and labor are ontologically homogeneous and, what is more, they are substantively identical, the second being only the actualization of the first, the subjective effectuation of the subjective potentialities of organic subjectivity. This is why, on the other hand, their situation with respect to value is the same, and the fundamental texts of Marx which we have quoted concerning the origin of value ascribe the power of creating value to labor-power more often and more clearly than to labor itself. To recall just one example, which will suffice in this regard: “The place of the value of the labor-power that obtains within the advanced capital is taken in the actually functioning productive capital by living value-creating labor-power itself.”29 Henceforth, is not Marx’s problematic found to be in exactly the same situation as classical economics, and faced with the same aporia? Like labor, and for just the same reasons—because like labor it creates value—labor-power is incapable of receiving a value.
In a more general form, it is indeed the same difficulty as that in which Proudhon was caught when he claimed to determine the value of commodities by the value of the labor required to produce them, thereby confusing the determination of value by the quantity of labor with its determination by the alleged value of this same labor. But if a value could be determined by a value, then labor would lose its metaphysical and ontological privilege as value-creating, and the value of any other commodity could, in this case, serve just as well as a standard for measuring value as the value of labor itself. But it is this determination of a value by a value that is impossible. “The value of labor,” Marx writes, countering Proudhon, “can no more serve as a measure of value than the value of any other commodity.”30 One value, in fact, could determine another value only if it were itself determined, only if the problem of determining value were already solved in its own case. Labor, for example, could determine by its value the value of the object that it produces only if its own value were determined, which, in its turn, could be determined only by the value of another labor, and so on, indefinitely. “It is moving in a vicious circle, it is to determine relative value by a relative value which itself needs to be determined.”31
It is true that this aporia of classical economics had been resolved. Proudhon did no more than recopy the thesis of “A. Smith and others, who fall into the same error regarding value as determined by labor, and value as determined by the price of labor (wages). . . .”32 And Ricardo’s decisive progress in this regard was precisely to have understood that “it is not the value of labor which is the measure of value, but the quantity of labor bestowed on the commodity.”33 Here, unequivocally and through a stroke of genius, the meta-economical character of the foundation of the economy is glimpsed, the fact that the creative power of value and of economic determinations in general, namely labor, is not itself a value but a principle of another order. Here, before Marx, opens up the possibility of a fundamental problematic that is no longer economics but an investigation into the conditions of its possibility, a philosophy of the economy.
The question of wages, however, incontestably ascribes a value to this foundation of the economy and secretly places this ground back within the economy. It matters little, in the final analysis, that it is a question of labor-power rather than of labor itself; once subjectivity is qualified by an economic determination, it is incapable of founding economics. In this way, science—here, economics— claims to replace philosophy, to reduce to itself the principle of value by making of this very principle an economic determination, and in so doing only succeeds in giving rise to an aporia. The economic definition of labor-power in terms of its value does not simply make it incapable of determining another value; it is its own value that remains undetermined. As soon as it is raised, the question of the value of labor-power, like that of labor itself, is a dead end.
Let us therefore ask: when, how, and why does the question of the value of labor-power enter into Marx’s problematic? It then appears that this occurs, precisely, not within the field of his own problematic but within that of classical economics. The latter, like all ideology in general, it is true, is neither gratuitous nor aberrant. The question of the value of labor and of determining it is only the consequence on the level of theory of the emergence of labor as commodity in the market universe of the modern world. Along with the general definition of reality as economic reality (the doctrines which profess a definition such as this, in particular Marxism, are only a form of bourgeois ideology), the alienation of life in the economy implies the systematic effort to confer upon each modality of existence an equivalent or a substitute on the economic level. And it is in this way that labor has value. The dead-end question of the value of labor or of labor-power is the necessary sequel to the great shift which occurs at the end of the eighteenth and at the dawn of the nineteenth century and which marked the entrance of the human world into the world of the economy and the reduction of the former to the latter. It is when a shift such as this has occurred, when human praxis becomes an economic existence, that the value of labor is a question for the theoretical discipline which thematizes this new existence. Only, it happens that a question such as this remains without an answer, and it is by following the effort of bourgeois economics to answer this question, which it does raise, in order to determine the value of labor that, faced with the impossibility of arriving at this determination, Marx substitutes for the concept of the value of labor that of the value of labor-power. Or, rather, this substitution is that made by bourgeois economics itself in an effort to resolve the aporia within which it is enclosed.
This is what Marx says. In its effort to determine the value or the price of labor, classical economics first had recourse to the law of supply and demand, but it was quickly forced to recognize that what Adam Smith said with regard to commodities in general, namely that they “are sold for just what they are worth,” is true of that particular commodity which is labor, and that the fluctuations of prices on the labor market, if they do in fact depend on variations in supply and demand, can by no means fix the value of labor itself: instead, they assume it and are themselves merely variations in value, as can be most clearly seen when supply and demand are balanced. What then appears is something that they no longer determine, since their effects on it cancel one another out, something whose positive character has to be sought elsewhere. And this something is, precisely, the value of labor. This is also apparent if one considers a period of several years. In the series of increases and reductions, one then sees an average price emerge, around which the others are grouped. Classical economics, which moves in this way from “the accidental prices of labor to the value of labor,”34 finds itself confronting this value, confronting the problem of this value. We know how it claims to resolve this particular problem by submitting it to its own general principles, by applying the law of value in general to the value of labor: just as that of any other commodity, the value of labor will be determined by the quantity of labor necessary to produce it. What is the quantity of labor necessary for the production of this commodity called labor? It is that which is necessary for the production of the goods which the worker needs to live. But the value of these goods—the quantity of labor required to produce them—is no longer the value of labor; it is that of labor-power. It is therefore classical economics itself which shifts from the consideration of the value of labor to that of the value of labor-power, which substitutes the second for the first and does so in order to resolve its own problem.
However, Marx says that, by doing this, classical economics entirely changes levels, does not resolve its problem but completely modifies the terms of the problem, in short, that the entire problematic undergoes a decisive modification. This text is frequently quoted:
In this way Political Economy expected to penetrate athwart the accidental prices of labor, to the value of labor. As with other commodities, this value was determined by the cost of production. But what is the cost of production—of the laborer, i.e., the cost of producing or reproducing the laborer himself? This question unconsciously substituted itself in Political Economy for the original one; for the search after the cost of production of labor as such turned in a circle and never left the spot. What economists therefore call value of labor, is in fact the value of labor-power, as it exists in the personality of the laborer, which is as different from its function, labor, as a machine is from the work it performs. Occupied with the difference between the market-price of labor and its so-called value, with the relation of this value to the rate of profit, and to the values of the commodities produced by means of labor, etc., they never discovered that the course of the analysis had led to the resolution of this value of labor itself into the value of labor-power.35
Just what is decisive in this substitution of the value of labor-power for the value of labor, we believe we already know: it dispels the appearance that the worker is paid for the totality of his labor—an appearance that constitutes the very form of wages—whereas he is only paid for that part of the day’s work during which he reproduces the value of the goods required for his subsistence, the other part and the value it produces having been taken over by the capitalist.36 However, if the characteristic distinction of the value of labor-power in its opposition to the alleged value of labor ends the paradox of surplus-value, it in no way eliminates that which concerns us now, the paradox according to which the principle which serves as a ground for value would itself be capable of receiving a value . This paradox is at one and the same time that of the determination of labor as commodity, the paradox of the market economy in general and of its claim to integrate subjectivity into its own field by treating it as an element in this field, to be determined within it and starting from it. Now, it is this second paradox, which forms the basis of the market economy, that Marx unequivocally denounced when, speaking of the twofold usefulness of labor (the first being the satisfaction of need, something it has in common with all commodities), he contrasts the second aspect to the first, that of creating value, which distinguishes it from all other commodities and, as the value-creating element, excludes it from the possibility of having any value.37 This impossibility for the founding principle of value to receive a value, its irreducibility, as the ground of the economy, to the latter, this is what constitutes its “irrationality.” “The irrationality,” states Book Two of Capital, “consists in the fact that labor itself as a value-creating element cannot have any value, nor can therefore any definite amount of labor have any value expressed in its price, in its equivalence to a definite quantity of money.”38
Now, we have shown that the impossibility for labor to be defined in its own being by the economic determination that it itself creates concerns labor-power for the same reason, labor-power which is not only ontologically identical to labor but itself constitutes the essence of which labor is but the actualization. This is why, when Marx in chapter XIX in order to escape the aporia of the value of labor, suddenly concerns himself with opposing, on the contrary, labor and labor-power, one cannot fail to be struck by the ridiculousness of this opposition: “. . . labor-power, as it exists in the personality of the laborer, which is as different from its function, labor, as a machine is from the work it performs.” But the “function” of labor-power itself exists only in the personality of the laborer and after having sold his labor-power, the worker does not thereby sever himself from its actualization in effective labor: he will perform this labor in the factory. Let us recall this essential text on the relation of the worker to his labor: “But could the laborer give it [his labor] an independent objective existence, he would sell a commodity and not labor.”39 As regards the comparison between the relation of labor-power to labor and that of a machine to its operations, its platitude and its uselessness cannot make us forget that it is totally inadequate besides, if it is true that the entire problematic of variable capital rests on the radical opposition, within the production process, between its subjective and objective elements: the relation that exists between the latter in no way helps us to understand the relation existing between the former.
Let us therefore pose the rigorous question: is it indeed to labor-power, that is, to subjectivity, that value is attributed when one speaks of the value of labor-power? By no means: the value at issue is that of the products necessary to maintain this power, the value not of subjectivity but of a certain number of objective realities such as bread, wine, wood, oil, housing, clothes, shoes, books, etc. Such is the decisive mutation that takes place when the problematic of classical economics unconsciously substitutes the value of labor-power for that of labor itself, not the substitution of labor-power for labor, of one subjective element for another which, in reality is consubstantial and identical to it, but the substitution for the value-creating subjective element, one which itself cannot have value, of a set of objective elements whose value is determined according to the general laws of value, starting from the subjective principle of value, from the quantity of labor necessary for their production.
But then, if the substitution of the value of labor-power for the value of labor is nothing other than that of an objectivity for a subjectivity, its meaning is revealed to us along with the unity of Marx’s entire economic problematic. What gives this problematic its fundamental philosophical importance is, as we have seen, that it in no way constitutes one economic theory opposed to another, for example, to that of the English school, but a transcendental reflection on the condition of the possibility of the economy in general and of the market economy in particular. With respect to the market economy and to the concept that serves as its foundation—namely, value—it has been shown that the origin of value in human praxis cannot be transformed into a rigorous determination, nor, for example, can it make exchange possible, unless for the subjectivity of praxis is substituted the quantifiable objective equivalents on the basis of which value will itself be able to be quantified. It is this substitution for the unnamable subjectivity of praxis that the theory of wages performs in its turn. In paying for labor, let us say for the productive activity of the worker, it is indeed a matter of acknowledging that it possesses a value and of assigning one to it. But this is not possible. So a detour is made: what is paid is not this activity but the whole set of things, products and goods which are required by the activity in order that it be realized. And the value of these goods is determinable, or rather has already been determined. By the labor that was necessary for their production? But this labor is itself subjective, and this is why one substituted for it, as units of measurement, the objective divisions of an objective time and, as what was to be measured by these, the ideal standards of complex, simple, etc. labor, which themselves have been substituted for the real substance of praxis. In this way the circle is closed; the transcendental genesis of the economy is realized. The market economy rests on a relation between praxis and value. When value is to be determined on the basis of praxis, an objective quantity of “abstract labor” is substituted for praxis. When the value of praxis itself is to be determined—and by making labor a commodity the market economy cannot escape this aberrant project—for praxis is now substituted the value of the objective goods necessary to set it in motion. The substitution of the value of labor-power for the value of labor is simply the way in which the economy is substituted for life.
In identifying labor and labor-power for ontological reasons, against the backdrop of subjectivity which unites them, are we not abolishing the difference separating the value of the first from that of the second, a difference which affords a place for surplus-value? Is not the theory of surplus-value and, consequently, the very sense of Marx’s problematic thereby lost? Or does not this problematic instead reach a full awareness of its fundamental theses and of their unity? What we have shown is that the value of labor-power is no less irrational than the value of labor, that neither one nor the other designates the value of praxis itself —it has none—but designates instead what is substituted for it, that is to say, in the first case, the value of the goods necessary for its realization, and, in the second, the value of its products. The difference between the “value” of labor-power and the “value” of labor is therefore nothing other than the difference between the quantity of labor necessary to maintain life for a certain time and the quantity of labor that this life can produce during this same time, the difference between the power of life and its conditions. In this way we are carried back to Marx’s fundamental intuition, and this is an obvious way, if the following remark is made. It is said—and Marx concedes this point to classical economics—that the value of labor-power is determined, just as the value of every commodity, by the quantity of labor necessary for its production. “Like all others [commodities] it has a value. How is that value determined? . . . by the labor-time necessary for . . . [its] production.”40 But the “production” of labor-power is only that of the goods it needs. It is true that this production of necessary goods gives them their value. But the quantity of labor necessary for the production of these goods depends first of all on the amount of goods to be produced. Before it is determined by the laws of the economy, the value of necessary goods depends on life and on its needs. Thus it is indeed the difference between what living praxis needs in order to continue to function and what it is capable of producing that founds the difference between the “value of labor-power” and the “value of labor,” a difference by which surplus-value is measured.
One then sees how the problematic of wages repeats that of variable capital and receives its illumination from the latter. For the alleged value of labor-power is nothing other than the initial value of variable capital, the alleged value of labor, its final value. And what the problematic of variable capital has taught us is that, despite what appears to be the case and the mathematical evidence provided, the difference between these two values does not depend on them, on their priorly existing and previously defined magnitudes, of which it would be precisely the simple numerical difference. It depends instead on labor-power, that is, on life and on its own nature: the first value is the index of its needs and of the action it undertakes to satisfy them, the second that of the action it accomplishes over and above the former and which has made the history of men possible.
In this way, the value of labor-power differs completely from the value of another commodity. In the case of any given commodity, its value is produced by the act that produces the commodity itself, so that it receives its value passively from this act and finds itself to be determined economically as it is determined materially by the act. In the case of labor-power, it preexists the definition of its value, and this is so because labor-power is not produced, because the living individual is not the result of any production but a primary given and the prior condition for Marx’s entire problematic. This is also why the value it receives, the value the economy confers upon it when it is placed within the economic universe, is not its own but that of the various commodities, the objects which it needs to a greater or lesser extent and which are defined by it. This distinction and this specificity of labor-power, the fact that the value it receives is not its own, is not produced in the act which would produce it as labor-power, the fact that the problematic of value—that is, economics—is forced to shift from the consideration of this prior reality, the reality of the individual which is presupposed, to that of the “means of subsistence”—all of this is contained in the following text, which, by the essential disjunction of a “but” which must not fail to be heard, forever separates labor-power—inasmuch as it is considered as a value, inasmuch as it has become a commodity—from its primary and, so to speak, absolute reality, that which is presupposed by all the rest. “So far as it has value, it [labor-power] represents no more than a definite quantity of the average labor of society incorporated in it. [But] labor-power exists only as a capacity or power of the living individual. Its production consequently presupposes his existence. Given the individual, the production of labor-power consists in his reproduction of himself or his maintenance. For his maintenance he requires a given quantity of the means of subsistence. Therefore the labor-time requisite for the production of labor-power reduces itself to that necessary for the production of those means of subsistence; in other words, the value of labor-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of the laborer.”41 It is because labor-power is a living power which is presupposed or already given that not only does it not allow itself to be defined passively by a value which is not its own, but, precisely as a power and as a productive force, it is capable of producing objects upon which this productive force confers a value which then merges with them. To resolve the origin of variable capital—the fact that the value of labor-power, which is but an index, or the value of “necessary goods” does not coincide with its final value, that is, indeed, with the value it is capable of producing—is not only to relate it to life’s fundamental property of outstripping its own conditions but also to show the radical heterogeneity of life in relation to the economy, and how it is placed within the economy only by obstructing the interplay of its ideal determinations. The “irrationality” of the value of labor—and of the value of labor-power as well—carries us back to the fundamental presupposition of Marx’s thought.