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“Financialisation, the Value of Labour Power, the Degree of Separation, and Exploitation by Banking”: Ben Fine

Introduction

The emergence to some prominence of radical political economy from the mid-1960s for a decade or more witnessed significant debate over Marx’s value theory across committed Marxist economists, more sceptical but sympathetic heterodox economists, and also orthodox economists who tended to be dismissive if occasionally offering some admiration from the perspective of their own concerns (Marx as general equilibrium, growth or duality theorist). As a result, debate involved the nature and validity of value theory and its position within Marx’s and Marxist political economy as a whole. Over the past two decades, contributions from non- Marxists to value theory have fallen away considerably. This reflects both bad news and good news. The bad news is, of course, that the influence and presence of Marxist political economy has been in decline. The good news is that current debate itself is richer for having moved beyond, if not universally, whether Marx’s value theory is valid and to address how it is to be interpreted by those who have both knowledge of its finer points and wish to apply them to theoretical and empirical questions.

I have been extensively engaged in these debates. For the earlier period, this involvement reached its peak over the period between the publishing of Fine and Harris (1979) and Fine (ed) (1986). After this, I was more inclined not to engage any further in debate as my position on the issues concerned had been aired more than enough times, and I felt that I had nothing new to say. And a new generation of scholars sympathetic to my approach had the opportunity to take it forward.1 This is not to deny the need to renew exposition for those encountering value theory for the first time, but this was accounted for by my introductory text, Marx’s Capital, first published in 1975, with a third edition in 1989, before being revised twice more with Alfredo Saad-Filho as co-author, with latest edition forthcoming.2 However, the latest round of debate within Marxist value theory has induced me to become involved again, not least initially with critique of new interpretations of the so-called transformation problem, Fine et al (2004).

More recently, I have been engaged in at least three different debates with each, as already explained, based upon much common ground, including commitment to value theory as opposed to disputing its validity and/or relevance. The debate with Jim Kincaid has run, possibly more than run, its course, Kincaid (2007, 2008 and 2009), Fine and Saad-Filho (2003, 2008 and 2009) and Saad-Filho (2002). The debate with Mike Lebowitz has been abbreviated, even brought to an abrupt halt, with his response to me,3 Lebowitz (2003, 2006 and 2009) and Fine (2008). By contrast, the debate with dos Santos and Lapavitsas, around how to locate finance in light of the current crisis, has scarcely begun. Indeed, their most recent publications apart, dos Santos (2009) and Lapavitsas (2009a and b), the discussion has been confined to an extensive personal exchange over a two week period or so in March 2009.

It was, however, towards the end of this exchange that I perceived an important connection between the debate previously engaged with Lebowitz and the one that was underway on finance. The connection sheds light on both debates and not just over method. For the latter, though, to reiterate and refine, what is at issue is not whether value theory is valid or not but how to locate more complex phenomenon in relation to value theory. With Lebowitz, in this respect, the differences have been more or less completely clarified. But, as will be seen, their nature and origins might best be understood by reference to different motivations and objectives in our respective works that have, nonetheless, brought us into conflict.

This paper begins, then, in the next section with the lessons I would draw from the debate with Lebowitz. These are that, at a more complex level of analysis, for both labour markets and the value of labour power, each is fragmented and determined in distinct ways, across segments of wage labour and items of consumption, respectively. Such a stance is not at the expense of emphasis upon class relations and struggle, nor the determining role of production (properly understood) as Lebowitz would interpret my position. Rather it concerns how to locate class struggle and production when addressing different segments of the labour market and how the socalled moral and historical elements in the value of labour power are to be understood and explained in moving from the abstract to the concrete. At the core of the dispute with dos Santos and Lapavitsas would appear to be a different set of issues. This is whether “financial expropriation”, as they term it, is a legitimate way of addressing the rise of (abnormal) profitability through provision of financial services (to the working class). In contrast to them, I suggest not, and that, as an aspect of financialisation, the contemporary provision of financial services is better understood as the integration of such services with interest bearing capital (for which the rate of profit is not equalised). Significantly, this opposing view draws in part upon the insights gained from the debate with Lebowitz.

There is some satisfaction, from the point of view of undertaking research, in seeing these two debates come and fit together like pieces of a political economy jigsaw. And this is a product of being in dispute with those with whom more is shared than contested. In this light, the paper concludes with an appeal for open debate over these issues. We need to draw critically upon past contributions, neither unduly politicising intellectual endeavours nor neglecting their relevance for addressing the nature of contemporary capitalism. At a time when neo-liberalism is demonstrably in crisis materially and ideologically, and working people come under assault as recession takes hold, sympathy for them and contempt for the exploitation attached to finance can, to a great extent, be taken for granted from a variety of perspectives. It is inevitable, and desirable, that these perspectives should be contested amongst one another, if not at the expense of common goals.

Financialisation, the Value of Labour Power, the Degree of Separation, and Exploitation by Banking

Ben Fine, SOAS
Research Students, Summer Seminar Series, April 30th, 2009

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