George Monbiot tells us all today that capitalism is destroying the Earth and that’s just terrible. The problem with this being that it’s not actually capitalism that he’s railing against, rather, the Labour Theory of Value. You know, that essential underpinning of Karl Marx’s thought. It is human labour and only human labour which produces value in things. The value of something is the value of the labour that has gone into its creation that is.
This is a fairly large hole in George’s argument to be honest.
At the heart of capitalism is a vast and scarcely examined assumption: you are entitled to as great a share of the world’s resources as your money can buy. You can purchase as much land, as much atmospheric space, as many minerals, as much meat and fish as you can afford, regardless of who might be deprived. If you can pay for them, you can own entire mountain ranges and fertile plains. You can burn as much fuel as you like. Every pound or dollar secures a certain right over the world’s natural wealth.
Well, no, not really. Money purchases you the labour and or property – which is the labour once removed – of another. But perhaps that’s being a bit complex.
But why? What just principle equates the numbers in your bank account with a right to own the fabric of the Earth? Most people I ask are completely stumped by this question. The standard justification goes back to John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, published in 1689. He claimed that you acquire a right to own natural wealth by mixing your labour with it: the fruit you pick, the minerals you dig and the land you till become your exclusive property, because you put the work in. This argument was developed by the jurist William Blackstone in the 18th century, whose books were immensely influential in England, America and elsewhere. He contended that a man’s right to “sole and despotic dominion” over land was established by the person who first occupied it, to produce food. This right could then be exchanged for money. This is the underlying rationale for the great pyramid scheme. And it makes no sense.
And that’s the Labour Theory of Value. It is labour which creates value and only labour which does so. And as above that’s the heart of the matter about Marxism. If it weren’t true then the capitalist gaining a slice of the output wouldn’t be that expropriation which it is in the theory now, would it?
For a start, it assumes a Year Zero. At this arbitrary point, a person could step on to a piece of land, mix their labour with it, and claim it as theirs.
Yes, this is the concept of terra nullius. Sure, it was misapplied with us Europeans turning up in Oz, NZ and the US etc. But the logic still works for those who came across Bering 11,000 years ago, for the Aborigines 40,000 years ago, to the Maori arriving in what, 1100 AD? There ain’t no humans here. So, to the extent that the place belongs to humans it belongs to those who first turned up to a place with no humans.
And just to be mischievous, what is the Bantu – no, not an insult, it’s the technical term for those derived from the West African expansion and includes near all sub-Saharan Africans these days other than the pygmies and the Khoi San – claim to southern Africa? There were people there before them after all, people who were marginalised and largely killed off….
Even if objections to this could somehow be dismissed, what is it about labour that magically turns anything it touches into private property?
Well, Karl tried to produce an answer to this in Das Kapital. Might be worth a read? It is, after all, the underpinning of an awful lot of 20th century history and far too much shallow political thought today. Now, if you want to say that Marx was wrong, that Adam Smith had it right with value being solely in the eye of the beholder, then that’s just toodle pip. It’s just that if we do so we get to write off near the entirety of left wing political and economic non-thought. Fine by me of course but…