Marx’s Theory of Value and Ecological Socialism: Points Missed or Points Rejected?

In “Marx’s Labor Theory of Value: Bad Science and Bad for Ecological Socialism,”1 I argued that Marx’s theory is unscientific and incompatible with the task of building ecological socialism. Robin Cox objected to these views in “The LTV: A Bad Criticism of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value.”2 The present article is my response to Cox’s critique. I will show that his ignorance of Marxism and scientific method, and his polemical approach to the subject, which is full of fallacies and misrepresentations of my views, renders his arguments inept and unconvincing. Nonetheless, his attacks present an opportunity to correct his errors and advance the discussion of complex issues related to capitalism, socialism, value theory, and the ecological crisis that are of paramount importance to the future of this planet.

(1)  Marx’s labor theory of value fails as a scientific theory;

(2) A scientific theory of exchange value must account for quantities of energy consumed in the production process;

(3) Marx’s theory promotes unlimited economic growth and a hierarchical society that undermines socialism while causing ecological disaster; and,

(4) Ecological socialism must reject Marx’s conception of socialism and the theory of value on which it is based.

Marx on Value Creation: Logically Nonsensical and Empirically Meaningless

In Capital, v.1, Marx stated that two commodities with equal exchange values must share a common element that is present in both in the same amount.

Let us now take two commodities; for example, corn and iron. Whatever their exchange relation may be, it can always be represented by an equation in which a given quantity of corn is equated to some quantity of iron; for instance, 1 quarter of corn = x cwt of iron. What does this equation signify? It signifies that a common element of identical magnitude exists in two different things, in one quarter of corn and similarly in x cwt of iron. Both are therefore equal to a third thing, which is neither the one nor the other. Each of them, so far as it is exchange-value, must therefore be reducible to this third thing.3

Marx speaks of a common element and its magnitudes. Given his use of physicalist language, his reputation as a materialist, and the examples of corn and iron, one would expect this common element to be natural property. According to Marx, however, it is nothing of the kind.

This common element cannot be a geometrical, physical, chemical, or other natural property of the commodities.4

It cannot be a natural property, Marx confidently asserts. The common, non-natural element is “abstract human labour” measured in units of time:

A use-value, or useful article, therefore, has value only because abstract human labour is objectified or materialized in it. How, then, is the magnitude of this value to be measured? By means of the quantity of the ‘value forming substance’, the labour contained in the article. This quantity is measured by its duration, and the labour-time is itself measured on the particular scale of hours, days, etc.5

He also uses the expression “congealed labor-time,” to describe the element:

As exchange-values, all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour-time. 6

This is Marx’s Law of Value: the exchange value of a commodity is determined by the amount of abstract human labor time or congealed labor time contained in it. The question about the value of the corn and iron can be answered thus: A quantity of corn will have an equal exchange value with a quantity of iron, if both quantities contain the same amount of congealed labor time. This is not the same as saying that the value is determined by the amount of labor time spent producing the commodities in any ordinary language sense of the words “labor” and “time.” The theory depends on the apparent contradiction that an abstraction is the substance that is present in commodities.

Among the most problematic questions raised by this theory are:

  • What did Marx mean by a non-physical element or non-natural property? These notions appear to be contradictions in terms. Before spinning a theory from these concepts, Marx was obliged to show that they are internally consistent and meaningful rather than self-contradictory and meaningless, but he did not bother to do this. Marx never offered a cogent explanation of how an immaterial element can be a property of a commodity. He merely proclaimed it, as if it were a self-evident truth.
  • How does one detect the presence of a non-natural property and thereby justify belief in its existence, not to mention its purported role in creating value? If Marx cannot explain the method of verifying the existence of said property, then he is engaging in empirically empty talk that has no place in a scientific theory. Unsurprisingly, he does not and cannot do this because it is logically impossible to empirically verify the existence of a non-material property. Therefore, his theory is scientifically meaningless.
  • What does it mean to say that a non-physical substance or property can be measured on a timescale such as hours or days? Natural substances and properties are extended in space and time (“spacetime” if one prefers) and can be measured with various units such as days, hours, etc. How can these units be meaningfully applied to something non-physical?
  • What is abstract human labor? Marx has an answer of sorts: It is socially necessary labor time.

The value of a commodity is certainly determined by the quantity of labor contained in it, but this quantity is itself socially determined . . . and their value at any given time is measured by the labor socially necessary to produce them.7

But this quantity of socially necessary labor time can be nothing but a statistical average. The figure representing this average is empirically meaningful and scientifically useful if it is calculated using a random sample of appropriate size and scope. It is the only sense in which the quantity can be “socially determined.” An average is just an abstraction, however, a mathematical generalization of some quantifiable characteristic of physical objects or processes; it is not a substance created by a physical process and congealed into objects, nor can it affect objects. It is precisely the other way around: the characteristics of the objects and the processes that produce them; i.e., actual labor times spent producing commodities, determine the outcome of the calculation; the figure is the result of, not an effect upon, the characteristics of the objects. Thus, the value of a commodity is not and cannot be determined by socially necessary labor time.

What can “congealed” as a component of Marx’s unfortunate expression “congealed labor-time” possibly mean? “Congealability” is perfectly understandable when applied to physical objects, but it is meaningless when used to denote a property of an abstraction. We all know that melted fat, for example, congeals at the top of chicken soup as it cools, and blood congeals or coagulates into a scab; both are examples of matter changing state from liquid to solid. Time spent laboring or otherwise cannot change from a liquid or gaseous state to a solid, for example, because time is not a state of matter; it is a dimension in which matter exists. This dimension is a necessary pre-condition of matter undergoing any kind change at all. Furthermore, time cannot congeal into anything, let alone a commodity. When Marx says this, he is uttering nonsense. In sum, Marx did not develop a scientific theory of value at all. He produced a metaphysical theory of value; that is, a theory which purports to explain how an undetectable, immaterial element interacts with physical objects (commodities) and causes them to have value. The theory is logically confused and empirically unverifiable. It is a pseudo-explanation and pseudoscience.

With the Wave of a Hand

Cox writes as though these problems can be dismissed with the wave of a hand, four of them to be precise.

The first wave dismisses my charge that Marx formulated a pseudo-scientific theory by confusing categories and giving physical qualities to abstractions. Cox responds with a classic he’s-making-mountains-out-of-molehills defense:

This is making rather heavy weather over what is, after all, just a metaphor. That Marx saw value as something immaterial is quite true (even if he used a ‘material’ metaphor like ‘substance’).8

Apparently, Cox thinks everything Marx said is all right because it is “just a metaphor.” I do not understand why he thinks this refutes my position. My point was that Marx failed to create a scientific theory of value. A metaphor is not a scientific theory. Cox was probably oblivious to the implications of his own statement, but perhaps he thinks Marx’s reliance on metaphor (which I dignify with the term “metaphysics”) was casual, infrequent, or otherwise insignificant, and Marx’s defensible theory can be found elsewhere. If so, Cox is incorrect. Marx’s discussions of value throughout Capital unleash a veritable torrent of pseudo-scientific references to the occult activities of immaterial entities such as: value forming substances, abstract human labor time, objectified labor, socially necessary labor, and the crowning glory of them all, congealed labor time. It is easy enough to consult the indexes to the numerous editions of Capital and look up the references oneself. “Heavy weather,” indeed. It would be another matter if the metaphors eventually gave way to a scientific theory, but for Marx metaphors are the theory.

My charge of inconsistency is the target of Cox’s second wave. In my view, Marx’s many reifications, “congealed labor”, for example, show confusion of the immaterial with the material, and consequently that Marx was not a consistent materialist, and certainly not one regarding exchange value. Marx (and Engels) constantly touted themselves as materialists and formulators of an empirical science of society, so their materialist aspirations are not in doubt. Cox thinks my charge of inconsistency can be dismissed rather than refuted:

For Pena, however, this smacks of a contradiction. How can something as immaterial and abstract as value become ‘congealed” in (and thus, according to him, be transformed into) a material substance? Labour is a process not a substance.

Granted, it might be possible to reconcile Marx’s claimed materialism with the his immaterialist language. But the burden of proof is on Marx and his partisans to show that apparently self-contradictory terms and statements are, in fact, internally consistent, and that an immaterialist theory of value is logically compatible with Marx’s much trumpeted “historical materialism.” Neither Marx nor Cox offers any help in that regard. Cox cannot get away with “it’s just a metaphor” because that helps my case, not his. Absent the needed proof, Cox’s empty denial of the contradiction achieves nothing.

Cox’s third wave is a jumble of misconceptions and risible non-sequiturs, which I quote in full:

For Marx’s theory to be ‘scientific’, claims Pena, it needs to identify ‘an empirically detectable and measurable property that gives value to commodities, and a theory that is consistent with fundamental propositions of other relevant sciences, such as physics and chemistry’. But since abstract labour is not something physical and therefore not empirically detectable and measurable, it follows that Marx’s theory cannot be materialist or scientific.

Oddly enough, until recently there was no empirical evidence for the existence of black holes in outer space. Were the astrophysicists inferring the existence of such phenomena being ‘unscientific’ in doing so? The value of a scientific theory lives [sic] in its predictive power and this is the basis on which Marx’s theory must be judged.

This amounts to claiming that I think Marx unscientific because I do not understand science. Cox makes the preposterous suggestion that Marx’s appeals to immaterial substances are scientific predictions that have not panned out yet, like black holes before they were confirmed.

The question of prediction is irrelevant because Marx’s theory of value is obviously not predictive. Furthermore, I did not make the fatuous claim that astrophysicists were being unscientific when they hypothesized the existence of black holes. It is not unscientific to infer the existence of unobserved objects, provided the inference is cogent and the theorized object is not an obvious contradiction in terms or an empirically empty metaphor, like those in Marx’s theory.

Unlike black hole theory, Marx’s labor theory of value is a different creature altogether; it is unverifiable in principle. Metaphors and contradictions cannot be verified. This should be obvious to anyone who understands basic logic and scientific prediction. The problem lies in treating an abstraction, such as abstract human labor, like a substance that can act on and give value to commodities.

Additionally, I do not understand why Cox faults me for stressing empirical detection and measurement, except that it is not helpful to his case. Hypotheses cannot be tested without these methods, and the failure to employ them would make science impossible. Does he not understand that claims to scientific knowledge, even Marx’s, must be empirically tested? He seems to think my emphasis on verification means I do not understand that science is predictive, but that does not follow; my point is that predictions must undergo empirical confirmation.

Furthermore, Cox’s claim that Marx’s theory, and by implication all science, lies exclusively in predictive power is obviously false. Many sciences are explanatory, not predictive. Two examples will suffice: evolutionary theory explains speciation; it does not predict which new species will evolve; archeology uses physical evidence to explain the past, not predict the future. Marx’s labor theory is clearly explanatory. It tries to explain how exchange value is created, not predict how value will be created in some future mode of production. Cox admitted as much in the concluding section of his article when he said, “Marx’s labour theory of value is an explanation of the modus operandi of a system socialists want to get rid of, not perpetuate.” This is not to say Marx never made statements that can be construed as empirically testable predictions. He did – I remember some talk about the proletariat leading socialist revolutions in advanced capitalist countries – but a review of the decidedly mixed results of his predictions would take us far beyond the scope of this paper.

Finally, I am surprised Cox did not upbraid me for saying Marxism must be consistent with fundamental sciences such as physics and chemistry, as if Marxism were the supreme science to which all others must conform. Perhaps he thinks all the uncomfortable talk about science can be squelched by his fourth wave, the charge of naïve empiricism.

“Naïve empiricism” is splattered around Cox’s article in sweeping condemnation of my entire outlook.

It is precisely the kind of naïve empiricism Pena espouses which focuses only on the outer appearance of phenomena that Marx criticized in his analysis of capital. Capital is not a thing but a social relationship.

The word “precisely” belies the fact that Cox is not one to rigorously define terms; naïve empiricism is no exception. Not content with “focusing on outer appearances” he quickly broadens its scope to include such epithets as “ahistorical,” naturalizing capitalism,” and “oblivious to social relationships”; it becomes a round hole into which Cox shoves any square peg he pleases.

My naïve empiricism is akin to E.F. Schumacher’s, says Cox. Schumacher had the temerity to suggest that Earth’s natural resources constitute “natural capital.”9  For this he is deemed guilty of “naturalizing capitalism, rendering its categories timeless and ahistorical.” It is not clear how any of this gets Marx’s theory off the hook, but by Cox’s lights, it is just the sort of mischief that naïve empiricists are up to, and he quotes me to show that I commit the same transgression:

Value in its original and grounding manifestation, the dual form of matter and energy, pre-exists human and all other life forms. The worker is an arranger and discoverer of values, but not a creator. Nature is the source of all values, not only use values, as Marx erroneously believed.

This is supposed to reveal my obliviousness to history. It makes no difference to Cox that the passage cites the historical fact that the existence of matter and energy predate the evolution of life. He is not one to sweat such petty details, for he has more important matters to attend to, like knocking down strawmen.

From his caricature-reliant viewpoint, minds clouded by naïve empiricism, like Schumacher’s and mine, are incapable of appreciating profound truths of political economy such as: capital is a “social relationship” and not a “thing” – relationships are also “things,” but I get the drift –  as well as this priceless cluster of tautologies that Marx bestowed on the world in 1847, which Cox dutifully quotes:

A Negro is a Negro. Only under certain conditions does he become a slave. A cotton-spinning machine is a machine for spinning cotton. Only under certain conditions does it become capital. Torn away from these conditions, it is as little capital as gold is itself money, or sugar is the price of sugar.10

Thus, naïve empiricists are the kind of miscreants who deny the identity relation, who believe people can be enslaved under any conditions instead of “certain conditions,” who do not understand that spinning machines become capital under “certain conditions,” who think the terms “gold” and “money” are coextensive and the price of sugar can be used to sweeten one’s tea. Very convincing.

Are Schumacher and I that superficial? Well, I can tell the difference between sugar and its price, and I bet Schumacher could too. The smears are so puerile one has to wonder why this silly brouhaha over naïve empiricism in the first place. After all, it is not an especially well-defined or useful notion in Cox’s clumsy hands. What it amounts to is the sophomoric jibe that people like Schumacher and me say un-Marxist things because we are superficial thinkers who fail to echo the usual Marxist profundities on history, social relationships, the law of value, etc.

Serious epistemologists – and Cox definitely is not one – use “naïve empiricist” for those who think immediate sense perceptions provide justification for truth claims and a firm basis for theories founded on these claims. For example, a naïve empiricist might infer that the moon and sun are flat discs just because they appear that way to the naked eye. There are not many people who think this way in reality, at least among those who discuss political economy. Cox’s careless use of the term reveals the emptiness of his claim that Schumacher and I are as naively empirical as he claims. The charge is a convenient, but insubstantial, bogeyman, which does nothing to refute my original claim that Marx’s labor theory of value is pseudo-science.

Who Owns the Language?

Strawman tactics and generally inept argumentation are just part of the problem with Cox’s approach. He exhibits a disabling superficiality by never making the effort to show things are the way he says they are. His treatment of Schumacher is a case in point. The fact that Schumacher gave the term “capital” a wider scope than Marx is completely irrelevant to the soundness of the arguments for doing so. If Cox wanted to show that Schumacher’s view rests on faulty premises, he should have done so, but he did not bother with that. Ditto regarding my conclusions about value.

Refutation requires argument. Instead he attacks strawmen, hurls epithets and non-sequiturs, and repeatedly commits the fallacy of refutation by quotation. He thinks he can parrot Marx’s use of some disputed term like “value” or “capital,” show that an opponent used the term differently, point at his naïve empiricist strawman and shout: “See, they’re all like that!” Cox’s attitude to language is akin to Humpty Dumpty’s in his notorious exchange with Alice:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’11

Like Humpty Dumpty, Cox behaves like a Master of Language, who in this case receives his authority from the Supreme Master, Karl Marx. Woe unto him who deviates! I suspect Cox’s primary concern lies not with his threadbare notions of naïve empiricism, social relationships, and the like. The real issue, I suggest, is Cox cannot abide anyone using language differently, and thereby thinking differently, than his guru, Karl Marx. Does he think terminological independence from Marx is wrong by definition? Is that why he puts so little effort into constructing arguments and so much into selecting quotations and letting his master, and a few others, do his thinking for him?

Language has no gods and no masters. Marxists do not own the language of political economy. Obeisance to an intellectual overlord is not incumbent upon any theorist. What theory requires is clearly defined terms and concepts used consistently in the attempt to construct arguments, the cogency of which must be judged solely on the merits. This applies to Marxists, too.

A Ridiculous View of Value?

Strawmen are meant to be knocked down, and the big shove is aimed at my “naïve empiricist” (surprise!) view that nature creates value, not labor, and that quanta of energy are fundamental determinants of value. I use these terms in senses much different than Marx’s, but Cox devotes not a whit to understanding them. He insinuates that if my theory were true, the worker would offer the capitalist “a particular bundle of energy (measured in joules) in exchange for a wage.” This ridiculous distortion is beneath mentioning, except to illustrate the level at which Cox plays his game. Again, I think Cox’s problem is exceedingly simple: I am critical of Marx and my views are contrary to his, so they must be attacked with whatever tools are available. All Cox had were the tools of a polemicist. True to form, he resorts to refutation by quotation, but not from Marx, surprisingly. This time the tedious procession of quotes is enlivened by the effusions of a newcomer, J.R. McCulloch, whose “rather colorful” observations, Cox gleefully announces, provide the “perfect riposte” to my views:

When a fish is caught, or a tree is felled, do the nereids or wood-nymphs make their appearance, and stipulate that the labour of nature in its production should be paid for before it is carried off and made use of? When the miner has dug his way down to the ore, does Plutus hinder its appropriation? Nature is not, as so many would have us to suppose, frugal and grudging. Her rude products, and her various capacities and powers, are all freely offered to man. She neither demands nor receives a return for her favours. Her services are of inestimable utility; but being granted freely and unconditionally, they are wholly destitute of value, and are consequently without the power of communicating that quality to any thing.12

A fine specimen of Victorian prose, this! Too bad Cox used it in a blatant appeal to authority that is worthless as a refutation. Can he not understand that merely quoting a statement one agrees with has no bearing on the truth status of other statements with which one disagrees? It is a mystery why Cox is so impressed with this passage in the first place. That nature is not a laborer who demands cash payment for its products is too obvious to mention; and it is irrelevant because I never said it. McCulloch’s description of the human relationship with nature is also misleading because it exaggerates the ease with which humans appropriate natural products. Does Cox really endorse McCulloch’s minimizing of the natural obstacles that humans face, the untold quantities of “blood, sweat, and tears” that it takes to wrest a living from nature?

Even Cox reveals a disagreement with the quotation he called a “perfect riposte.” Nature is a source of use values, he says, correcting McCulloch with a paraphrase of Marx. Did he consciously point out the imperfection in his perfect passage, or did he reflexively insert the comment, merely because he remembered it was something his master had said?

Cox tries to close his article with an argument of sorts, which is to his credit. He thinks my crucial naïve empiricist error is the failure to “grasp that value is essentially a social relationship based on economic exchange.” Again, this does nothing to address the scientific shortcomings of Marx’s theory, but it is a little better than the usual empty phrases. He adds a new charge of physical reductionism – back to undefined phrases, but maybe he thinks it is self-explanatory – which he reckons is the basis of my view that the labor theory of value promotes ecocide and is therefore fatal to ecological socialism, a claim he finds ridiculous:

His physical reductionist approach to the whole subject also informs his absurd claim that Marx’s labour theory is ‘bad for ecological socialism’. Since the theory posits only labour as the source of value it overlooks and devalues, he supposes, the contribution of Mother Nature to our material well-being.

The comment is aimed at my view that values must be reckoned in terms of consumed energy. This will be discussed in the conclusion of this article. Suffice it to note that I fully understand that human beings use energy in a social context. He further argues that I “totally miss the point” that the labor theory of value is an explanation of how capitalism works, not socialism. This is related to an earlier insinuation that I do not understand that the law of value applies only to capitalism. Since capitalism is the only sphere in which the law operates, Cox reasons, it is impossible for Marx’s labor theory to have any ill effects on socialism. Therefore, in addition to my ridiculous physical reductionism, my claim that the labor theory is bad for ecological socialism is false and patently absurd.

I also argued that the Communist Manifesto and Critique of the Gotha Program  advocate colossal development of the productive forces, which spells destruction of the environment under socialism. This holds regardless of whether the point is linked to my views on the labor theory of value. Cox thinks I am all wet because Marx only wanted production developed to the point where human needs could be adequately met. This sounds completely benign from an ecological standpoint, but it is disputable, too say the least.

Now the coupe de grâce: Cox believes my theory promotes capitalism because it retains exchange value, which, as he previously said, can exist only in a capitalist system – again the assumption that the law of value applies only in capitalism. This makes me an unwitting dupe, an advocate for retaining a mode of production that destroys the ecosystem I wish to preserve, making my theory the one that is self-contradictory. It just goes to show that naïve empiricism and failing to cleave to Marx will put you right back in the clutches of Wall Street – and thus the circle is complete.

The engagement with Cox has reached the point of diminishing returns. What is needed is an explanation of my views unclouded by the fog of his polemical distortions. At this point, I will say in my defense only that I have criticized Marx not because of points missed, as Cox charges, but on points rejected in the search for a better socialism, one that free and intellectually honest people can respect and hope for, and one that can help create an enduring balance between human need and the demands of ecology.

Scope of the Law of Value

A final error of Cox’s requires refutation because it is prevalent among Marxists and its correction is vital to my defense. Contrary to Cox’s overconfident assertions, it is not settled fact that the law of value applies only to capitalism. The evidence is in the first chapter of Capital, volume 1, which contains, in addition to Marx’s analysis of the commodity, a revealing digression on Aristotle’s analysis of value in the Nicomachean Ethics.13  I will provide my own explication of Aristotle before discussing Marx’s interpretation.

Aristotle’s subject is justice as reciprocity, his example, economic exchange. Reciprocity requires “proportionate return,” he says. Therefore, an endless array of diverse products such as food, shoes, houses, and beds must be rendered commensurable; i.e., measurable by the same standard. “All goods must therefore be measured by some one thing” so that such questions as “how many shoes are equal to a house or to a given amount of food?” can be settled. This parallels Marx’s discussion of the corn and iron, in which a quarter of corn equals x cwt of iron provided the commodities share a common element, which Marx identified as congealed labor time measured in units such as hours. Aristotle’s standard is of a different nature, however.

“This unit is in truth “demand” and “money has become by convention a sort of representative of demand,” says Aristotle. Money serves as the social convention for measuring demand and assigning a price, thereby making the value of products comparable and facilitating exchange. Thus:

Let A be a house, B ten minae, C a bed. A is half of B, if the house is worth five minae or equal to them; the bed, C, is a tenth of B; it is plain, then, how many beds are equal to a house, viz. five. That exchange took place thus because there was money is plain; for it makes no difference whether it is five beds that exchange for a house, or the money value of five beds.14

In the example, a unit of Aristotle’s currency, the “mina,” represents a level or degree of demand.  Neither demand, nor its representative, the money price, is a property of the goods, however. Thus, the commensurability of goods is an appearance, not the reality. The truth, Aristotle says, is goods are not really commensurable because they share no common property sufficient to the purpose.

Now in truth it is impossible that things differing so much should become commensurate, but with reference to demand they may become so sufficiently.15

For Aristotle, the value of a product is the result of social agreement, a convenience that facilitates exchange by making the incommensurable appear commensurate. Value has no basis in real properties of exchanged goods, which is obviously different from Marx’s view.

Marx said that Aristotle came tantalizingly close to discovering the law of value; and he considered this a testament to the philosopher’s genius. The respect in which Marx claimed to hold the great thinker did not deter him from imposing his own dubious interpretation on Aristotle’s theory, however.

Aristotle therefore himself tells us what prevented any further analysis: the lack of a concept of value. What is the homogeneous element; i.e., the common substance, which the house represents from the point of view of the bed, in the value expression for the bed? Such a thing in truth cannot exist says Aristotle. But why not? Toward the bed, the house represents something equal, both in the bed and the house. And that is – human labour.16

Marx’s explanation is speculative and self-serving. As if poor Aristotle had to throw up his hands, abandon the analysis of value, and leave the world to suffer in ignorance for over 2000 years until Marx arrived on the scene to set things right with his “law of value.” We know for certain that Aristotle had a concept of value; it was not Marx’s concept, that is all. Evidently, Aristotle would have told Marx that exchange value is a convention, not a substance. Whether Marx would have been able to convince him otherwise is, again, speculative.

Marx offers this consolation: social conditions alone are to blame for Aristotle’s failure to do what Marx had done; i.e., discover the “the secret of the expression of value.”

However, Aristotle himself was unable to extract this fact, that, in the form of commodity-values, all labour is expressed as equal human labor and therefore as labor of equal quality, by inspection from the form of value, because Greek society was founded on the labour of slaves, hence had as its natural basis the inequality of man and of their labour-powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely the equality and equivalence of all kinds of labour because and in so far as they are human labour in general, could not be deciphered until the concept of human equality had already acquired the permanence of a fixed popular opinion. This however becomes possible only in a society where the commodity-form is the universal form of the product of labour, hence the dominant social relation is the relation between men as possessors of  commodities. Aristotle’s genius is displayed precisely by his discovery of a relation of equality in the value-expression of commodities. Only the historical limitation inherent in the society in which he lived prevented him from finding out what ‘in reality’ this relation of equality consisted of.17

The condescension of this passage is astonishing. “The secret of the expression of value,” indeed! Aristotle was capable of both rigorous empiricism and subtle abstraction, as anyone familiar with his wide-ranging work would know, and Marx was likely familiar enough. Aristotle was certainly able to observe the contribution of workers, whether slave or free, to production and of formulating a concept of labor in the abstract, had he found it warranted. Marx’s blithe assertion that Aristotle could not discover the true basis of value because his insight was limited by slavery and the lack of generalized commodity production is far-fetched at best. Be that as it may, the crucial point is Marx assumed the law of value applied in ancient Greece, which was a pre-capitalist society. This is contrary to Cox’s view that the law applies only to capitalism.

The assumption is not an aberration on the part of Marx. He takes the same position in Capital, volume III:

Apart from the way in which the law of value governs prices and their movement, it is also quite apposite to view the values of commodities not only as theoretically prior to the prices of production, but also historically prior to them. This applies to those conditions in which the means of production belong to the worker, and this condition is to be found, in both the ancient and modern world, among peasant proprietors and handicraftsmen who work for themselves.18

Marx’s position in Capital, volume III is the same as volume I:  the law of value applies to societies in which the means of production are owned by farmers and craftsmen, rather than capitalists. Engels, characteristically, grabs this theoretical baton and runs with it, so to speak, in his supplement to Capital, volume III:

Thus the Marxian law of value has a universal economic validity for an era lasting from the beginning of the exchange that transforms products into commodities down to the fifteenth century of our epoch. But commodity exchange dates from a time before any written history, going back to at least 3500 B.C. in Egypt, and 4000 B.C. or maybe even 6000 B.C. in Babylon; thus the law of value prevailed for a period of some five to seven millennia.19

So much for Cox’s claim that exchange value is the product of “only a very particular and recent form of human society called capitalism in which alone the law of value applies.” Cox is certainly wrong if he thinks this is the settled opinion of Marx and Engels; though I salute him for showing signs of intellectual independence if he intended to take a contrary position.

If Marx had firmly believed that the law of value was inapplicable to ancient Greece’s pre-capitalist economy, he would have said there was nothing for Aristotle to discover. He did not say that. According to Marx the law operated in the interstices of ancient slave economies, waiting to be discovered in the non-dominant sector of wage-laborers and free craftsmen. Thus, I would argue there is nothing in Marx to prevent the law functioning under any conditions in which workers own the means of production, including socialism. Therefore, my point that it is possible for the law to prevent the construction of ecological socialism stands, despite Cox calling it absurd, because the law’s applicability to socialism also means that the anti-ecological effects of the law apply to that system.

My position, minus the caricature, requires this caveat: I do not believe Marx’s law of value has functioned in any society because the labor theory of value is a metaphysical fantasy. The ideological, as opposed to economic, effects of the “theory” and its law indeed prevail among socialists who are under Marx’s influence, however, and this is what hinders the construction of ecological socialism. This is the only sense in which the law of value “applies” to socialism or any system. More on this in the next section.

Marx’s Theory of Value: Anti-Socialist and Anti-Ecology

A viable ecological socialism must build a classless society that meets fundamental human needs without destroying the environment. To accomplish this, we must discover theoretical and practical approaches to value that bring human society into harmony with the requirements of a thriving ecology. Human beings can reassess value in this way because value is indeed a human construct. So-called ecological Marxism cannot accomplish this if it remains wedded to Marx’s labor theory of value. There is no choice but to reject the theory on scientific grounds because it is simply meaningless in those terms. It also promotes anti-socialist hierarchies and an anti-ecological economy within socialist society. To explain this, we must return once more to Capital, volume I to examine Marx’s distinction between simple and complex labor.

Simple labor, according to Marx, “is the expenditure of simple labour-power, i.e., of the labour-power possessed in his bodily organism by every ordinary man, on the average, without being developed in any special way.”20 Complex labor, by contrast, has an above average value-creating power that “counts only as intensified, or rather multiplied simple labour, so that a smaller quantity of complex labour is considered equal to a larger quantity of simple labour.”21 For example, if simple and complex labor are both performed for one hour, the latter must produce a higher quantity of value than the former. No trivial distinction, this, for its consequences are far-reaching.

Marx gave examples in Capital, volume III, which classified day labor as simple labor and goldsmithing as complex.22  He also considered commercial operatives complex laborers due to their specialized knowledge of business processes and foreign languages: “The commercial worker proper belongs to the better-paid class of wage laborer; he is one of those whose labour is skilled labour, above-average labour”.23  Skilled mechanics were also considered complex labor.24  Evidently, Marx considered the higher levels of training and education possessed by skilled workers the source of complex labor’s higher value productivity. To put it in terms of the labor theory of value, complex labor creates more value substance than simple labor in the same amount of time.

Marx and Engels’ position on the applicability of the law of value to non-capitalist societies suggests the labor theory of value, with its distinction between simple and complex labor, applies to post-capitalist society as well, including what Marx called the “first phase” of communism.25  The distinction between simple and complex labor colors Marx’s vision of socialism.26  This is dangerous to socialism because it lays the foundation for a hierarchical post-capitalist society in which individual social position and access to goods and services is determined by one’s status as a simple or complex worker, which is in turn decided by the worker’s level of education and training. Marx’s labor theory of value is the basis of a social hierarchy in the Marxist conception of socialism that undermines both socialism and ecology.

The hierarchical structure of Marx’s communism is outlined in Critique of Gotha Program, which envisions a first phase of communist society in which the worker receives:

a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such an amount of labour (after deducting his labour for the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as costs the same amount of labour.27

In nascent communism, workers exchange labor for certificates which permit them to consume quantities of goods equivalent to the quantities of labor they contribute to society, minus necessary deductions for public purposes which might include investment, administrative costs, education, health services, support for the aged and disabled, etc. This scheme presupposes the ability to measure quantities of labor and the value produced.

Marx provided no other way to measure value than his labor theory. When the theory is applied to the first phase of communism, the hierarchical implications are clear. The labor certificate will function like a wage by giving workers the right to consume in amounts determined by the kind of work they do and its duration. Their consumption will be subject to the skilled-unskilled labor hierarchy and the numerous sub-distinctions that must inevitably appear; taxes will be paid in the form of required deductions. There will be a distinction between rich and poor, as well as social and political inequality between lower and higher earners.

This is no idle assumption. Marx confirmed that the compensation differential in the first phase results in a division between rich and poor:

The right of the producers is proportional to the labour they supply . . . But one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labor in the same time. . . . This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labour. . . . Further, one worker is married, another not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. . . . But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society . . .28

The inevitability of this disappointing vision of the first phase of communism is debatable, but it illustrates the anti-socialist results of Marx’s faulty theory of value, which in his imagination described the inescapable laws of value creation. The society Marx envisioned resembles the “social democratic” welfare state, which is a form of capitalism, not socialism. Social democracy is anti-socialist in that its concessions to human needs are part of a strategy to preserve capitalist class privilege by mitigating its most pernicious effects rather than abolishing the privileges altogether. That social democracy uses money instead of labor certificates is a minor difference; both societies are divided between rich and poor due to compensation differentials; climbing the hierarchy of work and consumption will be preoccupations in both societies because they have similar approaches to compensation.

In Marx’s scheme, the worker is paid a wage, represented by the labor certificate, which reflects the value of the work performed; public services are funded by deductions from the certificates; the value of the certificate is subject to the division between simple and complex labor; and the society ends up divided between rich and poor. Marx makes the state the exclusive appropriator and distributor of value. This differs from the alliance of the state, private capital, and opportunistic labor unions that characterizes social democracy. Nevertheless, the old bourgeois divisions between intellectual and manual workers, skilled and unskilled, educated and uneducated, rich and poor persist in the first phase of Marx’s communism. The rich receive more income than they need. This encourages accumulation, conspicuous consumption, and the restoration of money; it increases pressure to restore private investment, production for profit rather than use, and the dismantling of public services.

In these conditions, the difference between a publicly run economy and private capitalism will become increasingly superficial, and the political will to suppress the reemergence of undisguised capitalism will likely not last long. Presumably, the first phase of communism has democratic mechanisms for workers of all statuses to have a voice in state policy, but how effectively and for how long can these features afford meaningful influence to revolutionary workers when the society is divided at its inception by the hierarchies of education, wealth, and social position that are inherited from capitalism and allowed to continue under communism because they are sanctioned by Marx’s labor theory of value?

Although Marx acknowledged some of the defects of the first phase, he soft-pedaled the reactionary nature of a “communist” society in which bourgeois ideological constructs serve as foundational principles of the social structure. Marx believed this defective phase would evolve into a far better society. Evidently, he could not imagine that first phase communism was more likely to revert to undisguised capitalism than advance to full communism.

According to Marx, the first phase will be superseded by a marvelous second phase of communism that overcomes all defects:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banner: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!29

He predicts the arrival of a society to which the labor theory of value does not apply. Many have mistaken this bombastic expression of wishful thinking for an inspiring vision of a communist future, but it yields not a clue to how the ideological influence of the law of value will be removed from human minds, its anti-communist social defects overcome, and limitless abundance has been achieved. We are left with the blithe assumption that early communism, riven by inequality, will simply evolve into its higher self. Perhaps Marx was naïve enough to think the lower phase would simply produce itself into the higher phase, as if a society organized on a mistaken theory of value with all the resulting hierarchies is guaranteed to dissolve by force of the ever-increasing productivity and consumption levels promised by this vision.

This brings us to the problem of ecological socialism. Marx’s higher communism, mired in new class divisions and an endless cycle of production and consumption, is chimerical at the outset. The reason is obvious: When the degree of complexity of work determines the worker’s compensation packet and social status, society becomes a ladder of consumption in which ever more sophisticated and decadent forms of conspicuous production, consumption, and waste are incentivized, thus making a transition to full communism impossible, let alone an ecological communism. This society is much like naked capitalism because it has not overcome the nonsensical assumptions about value which lie at the basis of capitalism; i.e., the labor theory of value. They are the same assumptions of Marx’s theory of value. The theory is a recipe for a “socialism” that has too much in common with capitalism to be convincingly or sustainably socialist, and it is antithetical to the goal of a thriving natural environment.

Ecological socialism is impossible unless productionism and consumerism are repudiated. This requires rejection of Marx’s labor theory of value, which is the theoretical underpinning of these twin maladies of Marxism. They are the same afflictions that plague contemporary capitalism. A hierarchy of skilled and unskilled laborers will result in a productionist and consumerist society regardless of whether the ruling class subscribes to capitalist or socialist ideology. When we persist in the illusion that human beings are demigod-like “creators” of value, rather than mere users of, and dependents, on pre-existing matter and energy, we become all the more susceptible to the delusion that the creative subjugation of nature is the most important aspect, perhaps the entire point, of life on this planet, and the development of human powers is granted precedence over the flourishing of all other beings. This leads to the kind of ecological catastrophe the world is now experiencing.

Implications: Toward a Genuinely Ecological Society

(1) Marx’s labor theory of value gives false status to human labor by erroneously making it the creator of a potentially infinite expansion of value. This is based on Marx’s nonsensical theory that labor creates a value substance, which entails that human beings add a substance to the universe that, unlike mass and energy, was not present from the beginning, in obvious contradiction of conservation laws. The view has sweeping ramifications because it is an easy jump from value substance in an economic sense to value as personal and social worthiness, and from there to value as the basis of social hierarchy: the more substance created the more valuable are the workers who create it and the societies to which they belong. Intellectual, skilled, or complex labor, and the workers who perform these tasks, are rendered more worthy and valuable as human beings than their simple or manual laboring counterparts; likewise, industrialized societies are judged more worthy than non-industrialized. Since only human labor can create this value substance, the value of human beings and their social formations, particularly societies of complex workers, is exalted above all other beings, as the expansion of artificial environments at the expense of the biosphere becomes identified with morally desirable qualities such as justice and progress.

(2) The reality of human labor is far more mundane than Marx’s metaphysical fantasies suggest. What work accomplishes, be it human or otherwise, is consumption and manipulation of quantities of matter and energy. These quantities can be identified with value, while abandoning the view that labor is an act of creation in the sense of generating a metaphysical value substance and bestowing it on objects. This is not to underestimate the importance to human well-being of labor’s matter manipulating power. Nevertheless, economic value is not a substance in and of itself. Therefore, value hierarchies and judgments of social priorities based on a metaphysics of value, rather than grounded in the determination of the real material characteristics and ecological implications of production, should be viewed skeptically by ecological socialists.

Although “value” is not an independently existing substance, it is not purely fictitious. It is an epiphenomenon of the utilization of natural substances and processes for human purposes. This always involves rationally directed use of matter and energy. This epiphenomenon, in its original and grounding manifestation, the dual matter-energy form, pre-exists human and all other life forms. The worker discovers and arranges values but does not create them. Nature is the source of all values; it is not just a source of use values, as Marx erroneously believed.30

(3) The demotion of humankind from the unmerited status of “creator” divorces social life from the notion that its primary purpose is to honor and reward acts of pure and potentially infinite creativity, to make the highest value creators “rich,” to put it in capitalist terms, or in the Marxist vision, to reward workers according to the quantity and quality of their labor until the resulting development of the productive forces enables limitless consumption in satisfaction of some vague, self-defined notion of human “need.” When human beings cease viewing themselves as creators of value and begin to understand that they are dependent creatures who need and make use of value, they abandon the bogus, quasi-divine status conferred on them by the more Promethean strains of Enlightenment thought – the innumerable variants of capitalism and Marxist socialism – for the less pompous, but more realistic, intellectually honest status of normal living beings, not unlike the other creatures of the biosphere. Humans may then understand themselves as beings with needs that are worthy of respect, consideration, and accommodation, but not satisfaction of any need or want whatsoever, in any amount desired, nor the infinite satisfaction of an ever-expanding ensemble of needs and desires. Human beings, by this reckoning, have no right to elevate their needs and wants above the soundness of the entire system of terrestrial life.

(4) Labor does not “create” value. It reconfigures pre-existing quantities of matter and energy to serve useful purposes. These purposes are not class neutral. In capitalism they serve the capitalist class’ interest in profit maximization; whereas, in actually existing, so-called “socialism” they serve the goals of the ruling class, bureaucrats, or nomenklatura (call them whatever you like); in ecological socialism they must satisfy the material and cultural needs of the people within ecological limits. The primary concern of ecological society is the harmonization of human endeavor with the health of the biosphere, not the glorification of human powers and desires.

(5) An ecological society, “ecological socialism” if one prefers, begins with the principle that preservation of the biosphere takes precedence over all other social concerns. Once that is established, it must be determined which matter/energy resources are available to the society, what conditions the surrounding ecosystem requires to thrive, and the quantities and methods by which resources may be used to meet human needs without causing irreversible damage to the environment. Before a human need or desire can be judged legitimate or satisfiable, it must meet the standard of balance and limitation against the objective requirements of maintaining the environment’s capacity to support human and non-human life. Judgments of economic value and social priorities must be made with reference to these conditions. Since ecological requirements are logically and temporally prior to all societies, the principles apply whether the owners and controllers are capitalists, the working class, bureaucrats, an alliance of classes, a state, a free association of workers, etc. No society is ecological if it violates these principles, whether wittingly or unwittingly.

(6) Labor is the alteration of matter through the rationally governed consumption of energy. Thus, the labor process requires aptitude and skill in addition to energy and matter. Matter and energy are equivalent (E = mc2 after all); therefore, we can reduce this to the statement that production requires the skillful use or consumption of energy (or matter if one prefers). Since conservation laws apply, we will understand “consumption” to mean the transformation of energy from one state into another, with no net gain or loss and, correspondingly, the consumption or transformation of matter, again with neither gain or loss. Movement, changes of state, acquisition of skill, are all forms of consumption that may be counted among labor’s accomplishments; this excludes creation in the sense of bringing substances into being out of nothingness and annihilation in the sense of transforming substances from the state of being to nothingness.<

(7) We may reduce the statement that production of material products, services, and skills requires matter, energy, and rational direction, to the statement that it requires energy and skill. We can further shorten this to the statement that production requires energy consumption, due to the matter energy equivalence and the fact that all forms of effort, including mental effort, are energy consuming activities. Rationally governed energy consumption contrasts with the non-rational consumption that occurs in nature – in the Sun, for example.

Consumption of energy is the common component of all animal activities and natural processes. When we determine the forms and amounts of energy required to provide specific goods and services and understand the social and ecological effects of production, we can ascertain the socio-ecological desirability and worthiness of productive activities. Energy costs plus socio-ecological effects equal ecological value in the sense of the term “value” that must prevail in an ecological society. If expended energy can be considered the common physical element of products, and socio-ecological effects their common byproduct, then rational understanding of these facts and their use in policy-making is the common element of ecological societies. Rationality in this sense means more than just “know-how”; it includes the capacity to judge the socio-ecological consequences and thus the worthiness of all human energy expenditures in relation to ecological prerequisites.

(8) The distribution scenario for the primary stage of communism that Marx sketched in “Critique of the Gotha Program” may be rewritten from an ecological perspective:

He receives a certificate from society that he has consumed such and such an amount of energy (after deducting part of this amount for the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as costs the same expenditure of energy. The same amount of energy which he has given to society in one form he receives back in another. All energy expenditures must occur within quantifiable ecological limits.

The principle for the higher phase of communism is reworded:

From each according to his ability to each according to his need, within the limits of nature’s capacities!

(The expression: “From each for the achievement of socio-ecologically worthy purposes, to each for their continued contribution to these purposes” is more accurate but not as eloquent.)

From a worker’s standpoint, replacement of the sum of energy consumed while working, in the form of calories and additional amounts of energy expenditure required to maintain oneself as a worker – clothing, housing, healthcare, education, etc. – constitute the worker’s legitimate expectations of society. The manner of meeting them is determined by ecological limits and the concept of socio-ecological worthiness, which in turn sets the limits on permissible resources and production methods, as well as the quanta of matter and energy that may be used to meet  legitimate expectations. Expectations become illegitimate when they cross socio-ecological limits.

(10) Quanta of energy may be expressed in any units one wishes – gram calories, kilogram calories, joules, British thermal units, etc. – provided we have a technique for measuring in terms of the unit in question and a method for converting into other commonly used units. In-depth treatment of the practical problems entailed by this theory are beyond the scope of this paper; however, it should be noted that measurement of human energy expenditure is a developed science with a history reaching back to 1919 with the formulation of the Harris-Benedict equation for estimating an individual’s basal metabolic rate.31

(11) The science of human energy expenditure shows without question that manual or simple labor, requiring lower levels of training and education, expends higher amounts of energy than intellectual or complex labor with its higher education and training. Thus, there is no justification for discrimination against simple labor in terms of compensation for calories expended. Rather it provides justification for higher expectations by manual laborers regarding rest, healthcare, and calories due to the higher physical demands.32 Justification of differences in compensation among workers must cite measurable differences in energy expenditure during the labor process or in legitimate needs, such as medical condition, size of family, etc. This replaces Marx’s standard of labor time and the hierarchy of complex over simple labor. Compensation hierarchies based on differences in the quality or complexity of different forms of work are unjustified in these terms of energy expenditure or legitimate individual need. Societies might be tempted to use compensation differences to encourage quality improvements or the acquisition of complex skills, but the principle of socio-ecological worthiness must take precedence over perceived utility. In an ecological society, the priority of distribution is to return to individuals the amount of energy they have invested in society, minus unavoidable deductions for social purposes, and to meet legitimate, basic needs in a manner that is socio-ecologically sound. Adherence to these principles is incompatible with hierarchical distribution regimes that promote poverty and wealth by returning to workers either less or more than the amount of energy they contribute plus or by denying fundamental needs.

(12) That some forms of work involve manipulation of higher quantities of energy than others does not entail that workers in these fields expend more of their own metabolic energy during their work or as part of their labor in acquiring and maintaining their skills; nor does it entitle them to more abundant and higher quality material expectations. The view that they “create” or manipulate higher energy fields is not a badge of entitlement. The worker is not a creator. Energy and matter, in conformity to their respective conservation laws, are neither created nor destroyed. These fundamental constituents of material reality may be transferred or transformed from one state into another by the worker, but unlike Shiva, human workers, whether of hand or brain, neither create nor annihilate matter and energy. Since value is reducible to quantities of energy, the conservation laws also apply to value. Strictly speaking, the view that labor creates value is erroneous because the pre-existing quantity of matter and energy in the universe is immutable. New methods of manipulating value are discovered during the labor process, but human beings do not possess the power of creating matter, energy, or value beyond the pre-established quantity.

(13) Ecosocialism aims to meet each person’s material needs by using practices that allow society to function within known ecological limits. Anything beyond this, satisfying wants in contrast to needs, may be pursued only if meets the criterion of socio-ecological worthiness. Deviations from ecological limits that favor intellectual workers, or other social strata, on the erroneous assumption that they contribute more labor or “create” more value than others are unjustified. An ecosocialist society must respect objective energy values and the dialectic of needs and limits. It cannot shirk its responsibility to meet fundamental material needs, but it cannot defy ecological constraints just to provide so called elite social strata, or privileged populations in North America or Western Europe, with extravagant consumption levels which they are mistakenly judged to deserve under the old labor theory of value and its accompanying prejudices.

(14) Overconsumption is discouraged by limiting social expectations to basic needs and compensation to the quantity of energy contributed by the worker. This does not preclude the possibility of additional regulatory limits on the use of specific forms of energy, such as fossil fuels, due to ecological priorities. Socialist society must provide for a living for workers, but it is madness to allow so much consumption that the underpinning of life is destroyed. The point is for socialism to fill basic needs, not unlimited wants.

(15) The primary concern of ecological socialism cannot be to provide human beings with limitless material abundance. It must strike a balance between material needs and ecological limits, and the understanding of need must evolve with changes in our knowledge of ecology. Socialism must meet basic needs and recompense workers for the energy they contribute to the common good, but whether this results in material abundance is a secondary concern. It must be determined how much growth, if any, is compatible with a thriving environment. As far as we know, the material world is ultimately entropic (as expressed by the Boltzmann entropy equation (S = k log W), thus life’s flourishing requires temporarily decreasing entropy through matter/energy inputs, both natural and rationally directed; consequently, there must be a sense of limits to disruptive growth, a preference for permitting nature to exist undisturbed, and recognition of the importance of letting things be.

(16) Consumption must be understood as permissible satisfaction of one’s eco-compatible needs and as compensation for one’s energy expenditures, not as a reward for superiority or virtue of any kind (which must be its own reward if it is to remain virtuous); otherwise, talented workers, and this includes those who are talented at self-promotion, fraud, deception, theft, violence, and gluttony, will take the vast bulk of social goods for themselves and condemn others to second class status as the supposedly deserved outcome of their inferiority, while the chosen few destroy the biosphere with their voracious consumption, which they view as “just” reward for their limitless excellence. Capitalism and the old productivist/consumerist socialism, with their groundless distinctions between work deserving of high and low rewards, must be rejected. A scientific socialism, scientific in the sense that it takes other sciences seriously (including climatology and ecology) must focus on limiting human consumption, not unleashing it. Consumption must be within the limits defined by climatology and ecology, rather than the Promethean consumerist aspirations of classical liberalism, nineteenth-century Marxism, twentieth-century Marxism-Leninism, market-oriented socialism, and all forms of productionist/consumerist Marxism.

(17) The idea that a scientific ecosocialism must be compatible with other sciences requires clarification. It does not mean that socialists must acknowledge the established assumptions and findings of all sciences and explicitly agree with them. (Does it matter whether socialists know and accept the latest findings of actinology, otology, tribology, etc.?) It is enough for socialists to take account of established theoretical principles and empirical findings in all sciences that bear directly upon their project, unless they can show that established principle is incorrect. I mean by “established” principles and findings those that have withstood scrutiny so far and have not been refuted by other sciences, including Marxism. Marx should be criticized, for example, when he talks about labor time as a congealable ingredient that the labor process adds to the material substance of the commodity. This conflicts with a fundamental proposition of modern physics which views time as an immaterial dimension of reality, not an ingredient that can be added to things by some process or other, such as labor. If Marxists cannot provide convincing reasons to prefer their assumptions about time to those of modern physics, then the traditional Marxist theory of value should be reformulated in terms compatible with physics. On the other hand, if Marxists can refute standard physics by rigorously demonstrating that time should be regarded as a substance (the substance of value as Marx called it) then physics should adapt to Marxism, but this does not seem likely.

(18) Socialists must abandon the labor theory of value and its metaphysical pretensions if it is going to be relevant in the newly named Anthropocene epoch. This term denotes the present age of planetary environmental crisis. It is now clear that the intractable environmental problems facing humankind are the result of human activities, especially the complementary economic and scientific developments that have taken place since the Industrial Revolution (at the very latest). A terrifying increase in human power to devour the environment has occurred, causing a constellation of problems that includes, but is not limited to: air, water, and soil pollution; global warming and climate change; human overpopulation; resource depletion; over-development; global destruction of habitats; and mass extinctions. The stress on the material bases of life has killed vast numbers of organisms in what is called the Sixth Great Extinction33; there is even some concern that Homo sapiens may not survive the Anthropocene. Furthermore, it is not certain whether life itself can survive if industrial civilization continues its trajectory toward unlimited economic growth, or whether humans, if they do persist, will be forced to revert to the lower consumption levels that characterized early- or pre-industrial eras. If ecosocialists can develop a theoretical and practical program for dealing with the problems of the Anthropocene, the world will flock to it; otherwise the world will look to capitalist solutions such as liberalism, neoliberalism, social democracy, fascism, or a phony hierarchical socialism for solutions. All of these ideologies offer little more than the delusion that humankind can produce and consume its way out of any crisis.

(19) A scientific theory of value is necessary not only to bring socialism in communion with the other empirical sciences, it is also a prerequisite of an ecological society, which is in turn crucial to socialism’s relevance in the Anthropocene. It must replace Marx’s “labor mixing” theory, which is a holdover from natural rights-based, labor-mixing theories of bourgeois political economy.34  It is a scientifically sound approach to replace these ideological mystifications with empirically verifiable propositions; it is also a wise political strategy, because science-based political strategies, like all human endeavors informed by the relevant disciplines, actually stand a reasonable chance of achieving the desired results.

  1. Pena, David. “Marx’s Labor theory of Value: Bad Science and Bad for Ecological Socialism.” Dissident Voice, January 12, 2020. []
  2. Cox, Robin. “The LTV: A Bad Criticism of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value.” Socialist Standard, March 2020. []
  3. Marx, Karl. Capital, v. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 1977 (1867), p. 127; cwt = hundredweight. []
  4. Ibid., p. 127. []
  5. Ibid., p. 129. []
  6. Ibid., p. 130. []
  7. Ibid., p. 318. []
  8. All quotes and paraphrases of Cox are from: Cox, Robin. “The LTV: A Bad Criticism of  Marx’s Labour Theory of Value,” Socialist Standard (March 2020). []
  9. Schumacher. E.F. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, New York: Vintage, 1973, p. 4. []
  10. Marx, Karl. Wage Labor and Capital and Value, Price and Profit. New York: International Publishers, 1976, p. 28. []
  11. Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. In Alice’s  Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. New York: Signet Classic, 2000 1871), p. 188. []
  12. McCulloch, J.R. The Principles of Political Economy. Cambridge University Press, 2006 (1830), p. 73. []
  13. Marx. Capital, volume I, p. 151-152 and Bk. V, ch. V of: Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. In vol. 2 of The Complete Works of Aristotle. Princeton University Press, p. 1729–1867. []
  14. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, p. 1788. []
  15. Ibid., p. 1789. []
  16. Marx. Capital, v. 1, p. 151. []
  17. bid, p. 151–152. []
  18. Marx, Karl. Capital: Volume III. London: Penguin Books, 1991 (1894), p. 277. []
  19. Page 1037 of “Frederick Engels: Supplement and Addendum to Volume Three of Capital.” In Marx. Capital: Volume III., p. 1027–1047. []
  20. Marx. Capital, vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 1977 (1867), p. 135. []
  21. Ibid., p. 135. []
  22. Marx. Capital: Volume III, p. 241. []
  23. Ibid., p. 414. []
  24. Ibid. p. 415, n. 39[a]. []
  25. Marx, Karl. “Critique of the Gotha Program.” In Robert Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. p. 525–541. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978 (1875), 531. []
  26. Using “socialism” and “communism” interchangeably here and following. []
  27. Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” p. 530. []
  28. Ibid., p. 530–531. []
  29. Ibid., p. 531. []
  30. Ibid., p. 525. “Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use       values  . . . as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor  power.” []
  31. Harris, J. Arthur and Francis G. Benedict. A Biometric Study of Basal Metabolism in  Man. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution, 1919. There is an extensive literature  on human energy consumption in daily life, work, and recreational activities. A small sample includes: R. Passmore &  J. Durnin. “Human Energy Expenditure.” Physiol  Rev. 1955 October, 35(4) 801–840; T. Church et al. “Trends over 5 Decades in U.S. Occupation-Related Physical Activity and Their Associations with Obesity.” PLoS ONE.     2011 May; 6(5) 1–7; M. Mansoubi et al. “Energy Expenditure during Common Sitting and Standing Tasks: Examining the 1.5 MET Definition of Sedentary Behavior.” BMC Public Health. 2015: Article number 516; S. Bilici et al.  “Energy Expenditure and Nutritional Status of Coal Miners: A Cross-Sectional Study.” Archives of       Environmental & Occupational Health. 2016; 71(5) 293–299; R. Griffin, et al. “Gluttony and Sloth? Calories, Labor Market Activity, and the Rise of Obesity.”  Journal of the European Economic Association. 2016; 14(6) 1253–1286; J. Deyaert et al. “Attaching Metabolic Expenditures to Standard Occupational Classification Systems: Perspectives from Time-Use Research.” BMC Public Health. 2017; Article number 620. []
  32. Calories burned by a 185 lb person in 30 minutes in the following occupational activities: computer work – 61; light office work – 67; sitting in meetings – 72; desk work –  78; bartending/serving – 173; general construction – 244; coal mining – 266; masonry – 311; general steel mill – 355. From: Harvard Health Publishing. “Calories Burned in  30 Minutes by People of Three Different Weights.” []
  33. Cf. Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Great Extinction. New York: Henry Holt and Company 2014. []
  34. For an early labor-mixing theory see John Locke’s discussion of property in chapter 5 of The Second Treatise of Civil Government. []
David S. Pena is an independent scholar, librarian, and sometime adjunct professor whose research interests include Marxist philosophy Read other articles by David S..