Thursday, 3 January 2008

Why Animal and Machine Labour Does Not Produce New Exchange Value

As a starter perhaps for a discussion on this below is a brief discussion I produced a couple of years ago on this question. However, I don't feel it deals with all of the questions raised above in relation, particularly to slave labour.

Why Human Labour Creates Exchange Value and Animal Labour Does Not

Why is human activity value creating labour whilst the activity of say a horse not? Why is human ploughing a field productive of value, whereas a horse ploughing a field is not? Animal labour is productive of value. Cows naturally produce manure in the fields in which they pasture. The manure acts as a fertiliser for the grass, and in doing so it is clearly valuable. But what animals do by such self-activity is produce not exchange-values, but use-values. For economic study what we are interested in is what gives these use values an exchange value. That is the key to the question. It is only humans that engage in conscious exchange. A horse exchanges his activity with its owner in return for food and shelter, but that exchange is not undertaken consciously by the horse on the basis of I will only perform this work if you give me x amount of food and shelter.

Take a situation of a horse in one field and a man in another. The horse is not self-aware. It acts to satisfy basic needs e.g. eating. When it eats grass it does so to meet its need for food. For the horse the grass is value, but it is use-value not exchange value i.e. the horse derives utility, usefulness from the food just as a man does, but the horse does not consider the food something it can exchange. The horse does not think, “If I pull this apple from this tree I can exchange it for a bundle of hay, that I would prefer to have, with someone who prefers the apple.” In short the horse does not consider its actions in respect of the time they take and the benefits they confer. Even less does the horse consider how it can increase its productive capacity. If we go a step further and consider the actions of a machine then even less can its actions be considered equivalent to labour as creating exchange value because there is a complete absence of neurological activity.

Why is this important? Because at root the determination of exchange value by labour-time resolves itself as the individual considering the amount of time they have to give up in order to achieve a given end. If it takes 6 months labour to produce 1cwt. of potatoes, but 2cwt. of carrots and I choose to produce potatoes that reflects the fact I prefer potatoes. If someone wishes to get me to exchange my potatoes for carrots they would have to offer me at least 2cwt. of carrots i.e. equal to the carrots I could have produced for myself in the time it took me to produce the potatoes. At a period in time when the vast majority of production is at this kind of individual level i.e. peasant families producing to meet their own needs, then concern for exact exchange relations may not be important. I might decide if I have an accidental surplus to exchange it for something I want whatever the exchange rate. But this situation changes as soon as trade begins to develop, and merchants arise whose sole business is to know the true values of goods in order to make a profit. A merchant is the perfect person to arbitrage the labour of one individual against another, one village with another etc. If two villages produce cloth and flour but at different levels of efficiency a merchant can make a profit by trading off these variations. If A produces 1 cwt. of flour in 100 hours, and 100 yds. of linen in 120 hours, whilst B produces 1cwt. of flour in 120 hours, and 100 yds. of linen in 100 hours then a merchant can buy 1 cwt of flour from A and exchange it with B for cloth that would take it up to 120 hours to produce (the equivalent amount of time it would need to give up to produce the flour). If the merchant then takes the 120 yds of linen acquired from B he can then exchange it for 1.44 cwts. of flour with A (the equivalent of the 144 hours it would have taken them to produce 120 yds of linen. In short it is this calculation of how much time those doing the exchanging would have to have given up to produce what is acquired which is the basis of the exchange value they place on the goods exchanged. A horse or cow or donkey makes no such calculation and therefore its activity can never be a source of exchange-value, only of use-value.

Once more than two producers enter the equation then A is no longer constrained to exchange with B, and vice versa. Competition between the various parties thereby ensures that the actual rates of exchange between all parties are forced down to the average time required for production of each commodity, so that the comparative advantage situation above out of which the merchant is able to make a profit by arbitrage disappears.

See Also: Labour Power v Horse Power

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