Edward Carpenter in To-day June 1889

The Value of Value Theory

Source: To-day, June 1889, pp. 179-182;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

ONE word more on this ever interesting subject. That Karl Marx had, metaphorically speaking, his tongue in his cheek when he propounded his statement of the theory of value is, I should say, more than probable. It seems hardly possible that its defects (for I take it they are more than one) were not patent to his shrewd untiring mind; but for his purpose – namely, the substitution of a society founded on a basis of labour for the old order or disorder of mere laissez-faire – it seemed obviously necessary to make labour the measure of value. Probably (pace Shaw and the rest) it is the most important element in value – though, of course, there are other elements. Marx however made it the sole determinant of value. But whose labour? What labour? Clearly not the labour of this or that individual. A brief but carefully steered analysis answered this question, and Marx returned with an abstraction “socially necessary labour,” and offered this as the test and measure of value. The Socialist party naturally accepted, without question, from their Aristotle a dictum so exactly suited to their wants, nor stopped to enquire too closely whether it had any meaning or not.

That was all right enough. We can understand the position of Marx. He had to provide a theory for a particular purpose, and he provided it. But what is the position of Hyndman? Here we are puzzled. There are two alternatives. Either – as Shaw appears to believe – he really thinks Marx had no reserve in his own mind about the theory, and his, Hyndman’s, attempted re-statement of it in the April No. of To-DAY is perfectly frank and guile-less; or else – and I incline to this view – he deems the pious fraud of Marx still necessary, and believes that even at this late hour an enlightened public may by mock thunders and ex-Cathedra threats be made to accept it. Neither supposition is, I fear, altogether creditable to the Hyndmanic intelligence, though the latter is perhaps the most creditable – and that is why I am disposed to adopt it.

Now to come to our friend Shaw. Sadly near the conclusion of his entertaining article, he unfolds in a few words his (plus Wicksteed and Jevons) theory of value. He says – what is perfectly true – that Marx, in generalising the specific labour involved in making such commodities as boots and tables into a common element, “abstract human labour,” which he regarded as the measure of value of these commodities, neglected the fact that the same process might be applied to the specific utilities of boots and tables – which might thus be generalised into a common “abstract desirability.” And he then and there maintains; that “this abstract desirability is the true basis, ground, substance, final cause, efficient cause – what you please – of value.”

And it is here that I am reluctantly compelled to conclude that Shaw, like Marx and Hyndman before him, is playing a little game with us. Apart from the suspicious appearance of such words as “substance,” “final cause,” and “what you please,” in a scientific treatise by a Fabian philosopher – there remains the obvious and indelible fact that the phrase “abstract desirability” itself has absolutely no meaning. It has no meaning which can in any way be defined, measured, or made clearly intelligible. It has no more meaning than Marx’s “abstract human labour” or “socially necessary labour” and those phrases are incapable of any clear definition. The only attempt, as far as I know, at an exact definition of them that Marx makes is in the following passage of “Capital” (I have only the French edition) “Le temps socialement nécessaire à la production des marchandises est celui qu’exige tout travail, exécuté avec le degré moyen d’habileté et d’intensité et dans les conditions qui, par rapport au milieu social donné, sont normales.” The more you think about such a sentence the more clearly you see that it raises greater difficulties than it disposes of; and if Hyndman’s efforts to attach an exact meaning to it and the other phrases are the efforts of an intelligent human being, those efforts only show that no such meaning can be attached to them. The same with Shaw’s “abstract desirability”; only he wisely, in the present article, does not attempt to indicate what he means by the phrase. The only remark he ventures is this:- “And whilst it (i.e. the abstract desirability) remains constant, no alteration of the labour-time socially necessary to produce the commodity can alter its exchange-value one jot.” Now what does that mean? Whilst the abstract desirability remains constant. Just think for a moment. What is the abstract desirability of your boot for instance? and what is meant by the abstract desirability of a boot or boots remaining constant? Say, Shaw, what do you mean?

Abstract desirability, mark you! Desirability to myself I can understand. Every hour I compare the desirability of objects to myself. I choose (a concrete act). But abstract desirability, as among millions of people? Here we come to a full stop. So of labour-cost. Any individual can say whether of two objects costs him most labour to make, but which contains most abstract human labour, and in what proportions. . ? All this is only a return, under modern guise, to the quiddities of the Schoolmen. That this object is desired by, and has a specific value to me, because of the abstract desirability residing in it, is just the same as saying that water drowns me because of its aquosity. It is either stating an individual and measurable concrete fact over again in a vaguer and more general, but less measurable, form, or it is nonsense. There is no means of measuring these abstractions except by the concrete cases they profess to explain. “Why do these two commodities exchange for each other?” answer, “Because of a certain relation between – their abstract deslrabilities.” “How do you know that this relation exists between their abstract desirabilities?” “Because they exchange for each other.” There is no other way. Naturally Shaw does not put his argument in this form, but it is implied in the statements he does make. Of course if there were any a priori method of measuring the abstract desirabilities of Shaw or the final utilities[1] of Jevons these remarks would not apply – but is there? The Jevonian theory, though more logical in form than the Marxian, is less satisfactory in content, It is conceivable, as Hyndman suggests, that in some future state of Society the labour-cost of a commodity may be calculable independently of its actual exchange value, and so become a real basis for its exchange with other commodities (only this would not probably be of much use, as by that time exchange generally would have ceased to exist); but it is hardly conceivable that the final utilities of commodities can ever be calculated beforehand. Notwithstanding hopes to the contrary somewhat faintly expressed by Jevons himself, his phi’s and psi’s will I fear remain psi’s and phi’s to all eternity. On p.148 – a few pages after the article in To-Day to which we are referring – we are told by a writer, apparently representing the Fabian society, that a phrase like “in the abstract is wholly unmeaning and belongs to the pre-Fabian era.” Surely this writer does not look upon our friend Shaw as a sort of economic pterodactyle.

And now to come to Carpenter – I confess the conclusion is unsatisfactory. It is this. There is no theory in these matters which will permanently hold water. (For every theory has to be got at through methods of generalisation similar to the above, by which concrete particulars are abstracted into large but unmeaning concepts – and therefore condemns itself to leakage beforehand – as will be seen perhaps in post-Fabian ages.) In any concrete case of exchange the individuals concerned can and do measure and compare the desirabilities (to them) and the labour-costs (to them), and other attributes besides, of the articles concerned, and do so contribute towards the determination of the relative values of the articles. And, doubtless, all these individual forces over large areas of society do have general resultants which though constantly fluctuating may be said at any one time to tend towards fixed determinations or values. More than that we cannot say for certain. We naturally form theories as to what forces are most important in producing such determinations, but the problem obviously involves endless elements of human nature and is remote from solution. A theory is necessary to think by. We must have generalisations for daily use; sometimes it is convenient to generalise the facts of exchange on a basis of labour, sometimes on a basis of utility (final or other), sometimes on a basis of custom, and so on. These different aspects of the problem vary in relative importance at different times and places, and according to the facts envisaged; and one theory may involve fewer untenable positions than another, but it is certain that none is, or can be, impregnable.

The moral of it all is that a doctrine of economics – like a Queen Bess musket – is a very useful thing provided you can make your opponent believe it is dangerous. If Hyndman and Shaw, with their “scientific Socialisms” and other blunderbusses, have succeeded in frightening the bourgeois multitude in the direction in which we wish it to go – what is that but matter of rejoicing to us. Probably none know better than the bearers of these weapons that they are weak in the breach; but if they look deadly that is all that is required. Let us congratulate our friends that they have done such valiant service in the cause without having, on the whole, been seriously injured by their own firearms.


1. Jevons, in fixing our attention on the final moment in the act of exchange, did I take it do a vast service, but this was really independent of his use of the term utility.