"Exactly a year before Nassau W. Senior discovered at Manchester, that the profit (including interest) of capital is the product of the last hour of the twelve, he had announced to the world another discovery. 'I substitute,' he proudly says, 'for the word capital, considered as an instrument of production, the word abstinence.'"
[In a footnote:] "It has never occurred to the vulgar economist to make the simple reflexion, that every human action may be viewed, as 'abstinence' from its opposite. Eating is abstinence from fasting, walking, abstinence from standing still, working, abstinence from idling, idling, abstinence from working, &c." -- K. Marx, CapitalMarx's footnote casually suggests a fertile potential that he didn't follow up on. I propose to use Veblen's notion of "conscientious withdrawal of efficiency" (or sabotage) and Robert Hale's "coercion" to outline what might be termed a "labour/abstinence theory of value" that avoids the pitfalls both of the misplaced concreteness of "embodied" labour and the unreal passivity of the equilibrium view of supply and demand.
Living labour-power is the consummate numéraire good because it is definitively limited by population and physiology at any given time while still being flexibly expandable. Keynes suggested as much in arguing that "we have been able to take the unit of labour as the sole physical unit which we require in our economic system, apart from units of money and of time."
By contrast, there are no such limits on the quantity of labour "embodied" in commodities, including physical capital. However, the value of such embodied labour is subject to depreciation due to obsolescence, wear and tear and over-accumulation (or excess capacity). So the first contrast between living labour power and labour embodied in capital goods is that the former is relatively fixed and the latter is indefinitely expandable -- at least in principle.
But there is also a second contrast, having to do with the perishability of living labour power. The worker who is unable to dispose of his or her capacity to work today can't put "yesterday's labour power" on the market tomorrow. It's gone. The penalty for not being able to immediately sell goods is not as final and can even sometimes result in a windfall. The same distinction applies equally to the conscientious withdrawal from the market.
Thus living labour power is a more or less definitive quantity that is disciplined by its perishability for a temporary withdrawal from the market, while labour embodied in capital goods is, in principle, indefinitely expandable and potentially rewarded by temporary withdrawal (abstinence) from the market. "Abstinence," then, makes its re-entry not in the form of a pious moral justification for profit but of a strategy for leveraging profitability by regulating the "scarcity" of capital relative to labour power.
"Value," in this account is not some mechanical adding up of units of labour power expended and/or embodied. Nor is it the passive intersection of complementary subjective utility functions. Instead it is the outcome of a "higgling of the market," to use Thornton's phrase, constrained by the properties of the labour-power numéraire. Thus it is constituted, in part, by labour-power and embodied labour but alternatively by the withholding of labour-power and embodied labour -- that is by abstinence of production, not in consumption.
The case for such a labour/abstinence theory of value can best be explained by arguing against competing interpretations that address elements of this argument but come to different conclusions. My foils will be Ludwig von Mises and John Roemer, for reasons which should become readily apparent.
Abstinence II: Beware of Pity
Stefan Zweig was a master of the nested narrative. His novel, Beware of Pity was one of his works that inspired the film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. The narrator's introduction from the novel will be familiar to those who have enjoyed the movie:
Nothing is further from the truth than the only too common notion that the author's fantasy is incessantly at work within him, that his invention has an inexhaustible and continuous fund of stories and incidents upon which to draw. In reality he need only, instead of setting out to find, let himself be found by, characters and happenings, which, in so far as he has preserved the heightened capacity for observing and listening, unceasingly seek him out as their instrument of communication. To the person who has over and over again tried to trace human destinies, many tell their own story.The Austrian war hero, Captain Hofmiller tells the first of these stories to the narrator, inside of which he relates the story told to him by Dr. Condor, who in turn recounts the confession of the Hungarian nobleman, Herr von Kekesfalva, who was formerly "the narrow-chested little Jewish lad called Leopold Kanitz." Kanitz transforms himself into von Kekesfalva through an audacious swindle that is, in its ultimate consummation, sentimentally touching.
One can only fully appreciate the banality of Ludwig von Mises's The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality through the prism of Zweig's subtle psychological study of self-denial. There is nothing subtle about von Mises's aggressive vindication of the "three progressive classes." The mawkish vehemence of his manichaean hypothesis virtually parodies itself:
Saving—capital accumulation—is the agency that has transformed step by step the awkward search for food on the part of savage cave dwellers into the modern ways of industry. The pacemakers of this evolution were the ideas that created the institutional framework within which capital accumulation was rendered safe by the principle of private ownership of the means of production. Every step forward on the way toward prosperity is the effect of saving. The most ingenious technological inventions would be practically useless if the capital goods required for their utilization had not been accumulated by saving.
The entrepreneurs employ the capital goods made available by the savers for the most economical satisfaction of the most urgent among the not-yet-satisfied wants of the consumers. Together with the technologists, intent upon perfecting the methods of processing, they play, next to the savers themselves, an active part in the course of events that is called economic progress. The rest of mankind profit from the activities of these three classes of pioneers. But whatever their own doings may be, they are only beneficiaries of changes to the emergence of which they did not contribute anything.
The characteristic feature of the market economy is the fact that it allots the greater part of the improvements brought about by the endeavors of the three progressive classes—those saving, those investing the capital goods, and those elaborating new methods for the employment of capital goods—to the non-progressive majority of people. Capital accumulation exceeding the increase in population raises, on the one hand, the marginal productivity of labor and, on the other hand, cheapens the products. The market process provides the common man with the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of other peoples’ achievements. It forces the three progressive classes to serve the non-progressive majority in the best possible way.