[OPE-L] empirical research on labor and value

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Wed Feb 22 2006 - 13:40:04 EST

Jerry wrote:

"As stated, this doesn't even come close to being true."

You are certainly correct, in the sense that there are now some hundreds of
studies empirically estimating S/V, C/V, S/(C+V) etc. in perhaps about 50
countries or so, shedding important new light on the classical arguments.
You are also correct in believing I meant something more.

Economic life consists of the processes of production, circulation,
distribution and consumption, which we can analyse into their various
aspects (we might add nowadays the stewardship or economical use of the
biosphere). Conventional economics focused primarily on circulation, or on
"the markets", i.e. the trading process, but in heterodox economics such a
focus is obviously a bit myopic. Most social scientists have a hobby horse,
and my own hobbyhorse in this context has been - for better or worse -
typically that the data on this is often not "mined" very well at all,
whereas it is so useful, for the purpose of showing the true proportions of
scientific problems and public issues. Increasingly it is becoming available
online. Normally you would think, there are more theories than data to test
them, to test even a small theory can take a lot of work, but often there's
plenty data that would put many theories "out of business" and others "in

It's possible now to compile global data sets showing estimates of hours
worked, characteristics of workers employed, value produced, value
circulated, value distributed and value consumed. One can trace this whole
thing through. For a select range of products, there is also data on how
many physical units are produced or consumed globally. There's also more and
more data on "stocks" of natural resources, and we're getting better at
storing/retrieving data in useful ways.

Marx's law of value was a broad generalisation about how the allocation of
labour and resources would be accomplished by the circulation of capital.
Point is, we are able nowadays to verify empirically how all that works out
in reality, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, or at least showing the
broad proportions.

Okay, somebody might say to me, what is the point of finding this stuff out
anyway, isn't it a lot of academic ****? I would reply along the following
six lines:

1) A task of social science is to study the aggregate effects of the
interactions of individuals in society, and human work (paid or unpaid)
occupies 30, 40 or 50 years or more of a human life, depending on the
mortality rate and the incidence of child labor etc. Isn't it time to pay
more scientific attention to this, as a global phenomenon, if we are talking
such things as  "globalisation"? Many organisations, such as the ILO, the
Braudel Institute, the IISH and WorldWatch, appear to think so.

2) All manner of arguments are tossed about in public discourse about the
state of the world, globalisation, the trend of the future and so forth - we
ought to muster the empirical evidence, to support, relativise or discipline
the arguments with valid facts grouped in useful ways.

3) We can read all sorts of learned disquisitions about the theory of value,
but what is the true proportion of the problems to which they refer in
global reality? And really it is not so inordinately difficult to glean an
idea about the proportions involved, and once you have an idea about those,
you are better placed to see which problems ought to command more attention
or where the discussion is really leading.

4) Productive work is one of the mainsprings of all global wealth, and any
serious student of the economy has got to be concerned with how that work is
in fact allocated, and performed globally, and by whom - not simply as an
organisational/management issue at the level of the enterprise, but in
society as a whole.

5) If "global socialism" still means something substantive in the economic
sense, it has to involve a transformation of the world division of labour,
i.e. a re-allocation of work that fits better with people, and makes more
economic sense. How can we even talk about this, if we don't know what the
global situation really is, if we cannot put this in perspective?

6) Work is important to most people (cf. Michael Yates), because, like it or
not, they have to do it anyhow, but the catch is that because they are
occupied with it, they aren't necessarily wellplaced to reach a broader
perspective on the global situation as regards work, or evaluate
objectively, what all sorts of cognoscenti say about it.

The Greens will say, "think globally, act locally" and a student mate of
mine would say "it's a small world, might as well think big". Perhaps I am
running far ahead of myself here, in terms of what I can personally
accomplish, maybe it's a task for the next generation of researchers - a
challenge, friends! -, but anyway, they cannot say, it didn't cross my mind
(it crossed my mind in June 1984 matter of fact, when I discovered that
Pierre Frank - who had just died - actually tried to estimate the size of
the world working class for various years).

Somebody might say to me, "lies, damn lies and statistics" but surely the
value of this data is to shed light on the objective proportions of social
phenomena? If we are going to talk about problems, the first question you
normally ask is "Is it a problem (if it ain't broke, don't fix it)?" but one
of the next questions is, "how big is the problem?". And we simply don't
know, until we "count the horse's teeth". I'm not a paid academic nowadays,
failed to "make the grade" as it were, but as/when I get the opportunity in
future, I intend to delve into it more, in my own time. If these arguments
about the "workers of the world" come up, I'd like to be able to reply with
some pertinent facts.


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