Thursday, December 5, 2019

The Spiritual Science of Economics. Lecture 2: Nature, Labor, and Spirit

Lecture 2 of 14.

Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, Switzerland, July 25, 1922:

Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is precisely in this sphere of Political Economy that the first conceptions and ideas which we have to develop cannot but be a little complicated — and for a perfectly genuine reason. For you must imagine the economic process, considered even as a world-economy, as a thing of perpetual movement. As the blood flows through the human being, so do goods, as merchandise or commodities, flow by every conceivable channel through the whole economic body. And we must conceive, as the most important thing within this economic process, all that takes place in buying and selling. That, at least, is true of the economic life of today. Whatever else there may be — and we shall of course have to consider the most varied impulses contained in the economic life — whatever else there may be, the subject of economics comes home to a man directly when he has anything to buy or sell. In the last resort the instinctive thinking of every naive man on economic matters culminates in the process taking place between buyer and seller. Fundamentally, this is what it all comes to.
Consider now: What is it that counts when buying and selling are considered in the economic process? The thing that a man cares about will always be the price of a commodity, the price of the piece of goods concerned. In the last resort all the most important economic considerations really merge in this question of Price. All the impulses and forces that are at work in economics culminate at length in Price. We shall, therefore, first have to consider the problem of Price, but it is by no means a simple problem. You need only consider the most simple case: At a given place, A, we have a certain commodity: at place A it has a certain price. But suppose it is not bought there but is first transported to another place, B. Our endeavor will then be to add to the price whatever transport charges had to be paid from A to B. Thus the Price changes in the process of circulation. There we have the simplest — if I may put it so, the flattest — instance: but of course there are far more complex cases.
Assume, for instance, that at a given date a house in a large town costs so much. Fifteen years later the same house may perhaps cost six times as much: nor need we imagine that the main cause of the rise in price lies in the devaluation of money. On the contrary, let us assume that this is not the case. The rise in price may simply lie in this: that in the meantime many other houses have been built around it: the other buildings, now situated in its neighborhood, greatly increase the value of the house. Nay, there may be ten or fifteen other circumstances accounting for the rise in price. Truth to tell, we are never in a position to apply some general statement to the single case — to say, for instance: The price of houses, or railways, or cereals can he uniquely determined, at a given place, from certain specified conditions. To begin with, we can say little more than this: that we must observe how the price fluctuates with place and time. Then, perhaps, we can trace some of the conditions whereby at a given place a given price actually emerges. But there can be no such thing as a general definition stating how the price of a thing is composed: that is an impossibility. Again and again one is astonished to find Price discussed in the ordinary works on economics, as though it were possible to define it. We simply cannot define it, for a price is always concrete and specific. Altogether, in economic matters, it is impossible to get anywhere near the realities by definitions.
I once witnessed the following case: In a certain district land is comparatively cheap. There is a Society with a more or less famous man in its midst. The Society buys up all the cheap plots of land, and prevails upon the famous man to build himself a house there. Then the plots of land are offered for sale. They can be offered at a considerably higher price than they were bought for, for the simple reason that the famous man has been persuaded to build himself a house there.
Such instances will show you how indeterminate are the conditions on which the price of a thing depends in the economic process. Of course, you may say, such developments must be counteracted. Land reformers and people with similar aims try to resist these things. Through various artificial measures they desire to establish a kind of just price for all things. Of course one can do so: but, economically considered, the price is not changed thereby. In the above instance, for example, when the plots of land are sold at a higher price, we can take the money away again, in the form of a high property-tax. Then the State will pocket the difference: but the reality remains as before. In reality the increase in price has taken place just the same. You can take preventive measures
— they will but obscure the issue. The price will still be what it would have been without them. You only bring about a redistribution: and it is no true economic thinking to say that the land has not increased in price during the last ten years, simply because you have obscured the matter by artificial measures. Economic Science must stand firmly on its feet, on a basis of reality. In Economics we can only speak of the conditions obtaining at a given time and at the actual place to which we are referring. Needless to say, anyone who desires the progress of mankind will still come to the conclusion that such and such things are to be changed. But, to begin with, things must be observed in their immediate reality at the particular moment. From all this you will see how impossible it is to approach such a concept as this — the most important in Economics (I mean the concept of Price) — by seeking to grasp it with sharply defined notions. In the science of Economics we can make no progress by this means: quite other ways must be adopted. We must observe the economic process itself.
Yet the problem of Price is of cardinal importance: all our efforts must be directed to this. We must observe the economic process, and try, as it were, to catch the point where (at any given place and time) the actual price of a given thing results from all the underlying economic causes.
Now if you take the ordinary economic doctrines you will generally find three factors mentioned — three factors, through the interplay of which the whole economic process is supposed to take its course. They are: Nature, human Labor, and Capital. It is true that we can say to begin with: Tracing the economic process, we find these three: that which comes from Nature, that which is achieved by human Labor, and that which is derived from, or directed by means of, Capital. But if we take Nature, Labor, and Capital simply side by side in this way, we shall not grasp the economic process in a living way. On the contrary, we shall be led to many one-sided points of view — a fact to which the history of economic theory bears eloquent witness. Some say that all Value is inherent in Nature and that no especial value is added to the substance of natural objects by human Labor. Others believe that all true economic Value is really impressed on a piece of goods, on a commodity, by the Labor which, as they sometimes say, is crystallized in the commodity. Or again, the moment you place Capital and Labor merely side by side, you will find persons saying on the one hand: In reality it is Capital which alone makes Labor possible, and the wages of Labor are paid out of the accumulated Capital. On the other side it is said: No, the only thing that produces real Value is Labor, and all that Capital obtains for itself is the surplus value abstracted from the yield of Labor.
Ladies and gentlemen, the fact is this: Consider the things from the one point of view, and the one is right; consider them from the other point of view, and the other is right. Over against the reality, such ways of thinking remind one of many a method in bookkeeping — put the item here and this will be the result: put it there, and that will. One can speak with strong apparent reasons of surplus value, saying that this is abstracted from the wages of Labor and appropriated by the capitalist to himself. But one can say with equally good reasons that, in the whole connection of economic life, everything is due in the first place to the capitalist, who can only pay his workers from what he has available for the wages of Labor. For both these points of view there are very good and very bad reasons. In fact, none of these ways of thinking comes near the reality of economics. Excellent as a basis for agitations, they are of no importance in a serious economic science. Quite other foundations must be found if we would hope for progress in economic life.
Up to a certain point, of course, all these systems have their justification. Adam Smith, for instance, sees the real, original value-forming factor in the work or labor that is expended on things. Here again, excellent reasons can be brought forward in support of this view. Such a man as Adam Smith certainly did not think in a stupid or nonsensical way. Nevertheless, here again there is the underlying idea of taking hold of something static and giving it a definition, whereas in the real economic process things are in perpetual movement. It is comparatively simple to form concepts of the phenomena of Nature — even the most complicated — as compared with the ideas which we require for a science of Economics. Infinitely more complicated, variable, and unstable are the phenomena in Economics than in Nature — more fluctuating, less capable of being grasped with any defined or hard and fast concepts. In effect, an altogether different method must be adopted. You will only find this method difficult in the first lessons: but as a result of it — you will presently see — we shall discover the only real and possible foundation for a science of Economics.
To begin with, we may say that to this economic process, which we must now consider, three things contribute: Nature, human Labor, and (thinking, to begin with, of the purely external economic aspect) Capital. To begin with, ladies and gentlemen!
But let us consider at once the middle one of these three, namely, human Labor. Let us try to form a conception of it by going down, as I indicated yesterday, into the sphere of animal life. Let us observe, instead of the economy of peoples, the economy of sparrows, the economy of swallows.
Here, you see at once, Nature is the basis of economy. True, even the sparrow has to do a kind of work: at the very least, he must hop about to find his food. Sometimes he has to hop about a very great deal in the course of a day to find what he requires. The swallow building her nest also has to do a kind of work, and she again has much to do to build it. Nevertheless, in the true economic sense, we cannot call this “work,” we cannot call it “Labor.” We shall make no progress in economic ideas if we call this labor. For if we observe more closely, we shall have to admit: The sparrow and the swallow are organized precisely in such a way as to do the very things — fulfill the very functions — which they fulfill in finding their food, etc. They simply could not be healthy if they had no opportunity to move about in this way. It is part and parcel of their organization: it belongs to them, no less than their legs and wings. In seeking to build up economic concepts, we can therefore leave out of account what we might here call a mere “apparent Labor,” a “semblance of Labor.” In such cases Nature is taken just as she is, and the single creature, merely to satisfy its own needs or those of its nearest kin, carries out the corresponding “semblance of Labor.” If, however, we wish to determine what is “Value” or “a Value” in the true economic sense, we must disregard this apparent Labor. And this must be our first object — to approach a true concept of “economic value.”
Consider the animal economy once more. There we may say: Nature alone is the value-forming factor. If we now ascend to man, that is, to political economy, it is true we still have — from the side of Nature — the same starting-point of “Nature Value.” But the moment human beings no longer provide merely for themselves or for their nearest kindred, but for one another, “human Labor,” properly so called, comes into account. Indeed, the moment a man no longer uses the Nature-products for himself, but stands in some relation to other human beings — if only to the extent of bartering his goods with theirs — what he then does becomes, in relation to Nature, “human Labor.” Here we arrive at the one aspect of Value in Political Economy. It arises thus: Human Labor is expended on the products of Nature, and we have before us in economic circulation Nature-products transformed by human Labor. It is only here that a true economic value first arises. So long as the Nature-product is untouched, at the place where it is found in Nature, it has no other value than it has, for instance, for the animals. But the moment you take the very first steps to put the Nature-product into the process of economic circulation, the Nature-product so transformed begins to have economic value. We may therefore characterize this economic value as follows: “An economic value, seen from this one aspect, is a Nature-product transformed by human Labor.” Whether the human Labor consists in digging or chopping, or merely moving a product of Nature from one place to another, is irrelevant. If we are seeking the determination of Value in general, then we must simply say: “One value-forming factor is human Labor, transforming a Nature-product so as to pass it into the economic process of circulation.”
If you consider this, you will see at once how very fluctuating is the value of a piece of goods circulating in the economic life. For Labor is something always present, perpetually being expended on the goods. You cannot really say what Value is — you can only say: Value appears in a given place and at a given time, inasmuch as human Labor is transforming some product of Nature. That is where Value emerges. To begin with, we cannot and will not try to define Value: We simply point out the place where it appears. I will put this down diagrammatically. (see Diagram 2) Here on the left side of the drawing we have Nature as it were in the background. Human Labor approaches Nature: what then becomes visible — appearing, as it were, through the interplay of Nature and human Labor — that is the one aspect of economic value? It is by no means a faulty image if we say, for instance: Look at a black surface or at anything black through a luminous medium and you will see it blue. According as the luminous medium is thick or thin, you will see various shades of blue: according as you shift it, its density will vary: it is for ever fluctuating. So it is
World Economy: Diagram 2
with Value in the economic life, it is really none other than the appearance of Nature through human Labor. And that, too, is always fluctuating.
To begin with, we are gaining a few abstract indications and little more: but these will give us our bearings during the next few days and help us to reach more concrete things. After all, you are accustomed to this: for in all sciences one takes what is most simple to begin with.
You see, labor as such has no purpose at all in Economics. A man may chop wood, or he may get up on to a wheel like this. (There are such wheels for the benefit of fat people who go on climbing from step to step; the wheel goes round under them, and so they hope to get thinner.) The man who treads this wheel may be doing just as much work as the one who chops wood. To consider Labor as Marx did, when he said that we should look for its equivalent in the amount that is consumed in the human organism by the Labor, is a colossal piece of nonsense. For the same amount is consumed whether a man chops wood or dances about on this wheel. How much is done in the human being is not the point in Economics. We have already seen how the subject of Economics borders on uneconomic matters. Purely economically speaking, it is quite unjustifiable to point to the fact that Labor uses up the human being's forces. I mean it is unjustifiable in this connection, where, to begin with, we wish to establish a concept of Labor in the sense of Economics. Indirectly it is of great significance, for on the other side the needs of men have to be cared for. But Marx's way of thinking at this point is a colossal piece of nonsense.
What do we need in order to take hold of “Labor” in the economic process? It is necessary, to begin with — quite apart from the human being — to observe how Labor enters into the economic process. This labor (of the man on the wheel) does not enter it at all: it simply adheres to the man himself. The chopping of wood, on the other hand, does enter the economic process. The one thing that matters is: How does Labor enter the economic process? The answer is this: Nature is everywhere transformed by human Labor, and only in so far as Nature is transformed by human Labor do we create real economic values on this one side. If, for instance, we find it necessary for our bodily health, having worked upon Nature in some way, to dance a little or to do Eurythmy in the intervals, all this may of course be judged from another standpoint: but what we do in the intervals cannot be described as work or Labor in the economic sense, nor can it be regarded as in any way a factor creating economic values. Seen from another side, it may well be creating values, but we must first get our concepts pure and clear concerning economic values as such.
Now there is a second, altogether different, possibility for economic values to arise. It is this: We turn our attention to labor as such: we take labor as the given thing. To begin with, as you have seen just now, labor, economically speaking, is something neutral and irrelevant. But it becomes an economic value-creating factor the moment we let it be directed by the intelligence of man. I must now speak in a somewhat different sense from before. Even in the most far-fetched cases, you can imagine something that would otherwise not be Labor at all being transformed into real Labor by human intelligence. If it occurs to a man, in order to get thinner, to set up that apparatus which we spoke of in his bedroom and practice on it, there will be no economic value in it. But, if somebody winds a rope round the wheel and uses it to drive some machine, the moment this is done, that which would not otherwise be Labor at all, in the economic sense, is turned to good account by the Spirit. Incidentally the fellow who treads the wheel will get thinner just the same, but the essential point is this: Through the Spirit — by intelligence, reflection, perhaps even speculation — Labor is given a certain direction: the various units of Labor are brought into certain mutual relations, and so on.
Thus, we may say: Here we have the second aspect of the value-forming factors in Economics. Here Labor stands in the background, and before it is the Spirit which directs the Labor. Labor shines through the Spirit, and this creates once more an economic value. As you will soon see, these two aspects are present everywhere. Having shown in this diagram (left) how an economic value emerges when we have Nature appearing through Labor — if we now wish to represent diagrammatically what we have just explained, we shall have to put Labor in the background and in the front of it the spiritual, which gives it a certain modification (right).
These are the two essential poles of the economic process. There are indeed no other ways in which economic values are created. Either Nature is modified by Labor, or Labor is modified by Spirit (human intelligence). The outer expression of the Spirit, in this connection, is in the manifold formations of Capital. Economically, the Spirit must be looked for in the configurations of Capital: these at any rate are its outward expression. We shall realize the facts more clearly when we come to consider Capital as such, and then Capital as a monetary medium.
So you see there can be no question of arriving at a definition of economic value. Once more you need only consider on how many circumstances — on the cleverness or stupidity of how many different people — the modification of Labor by the Spirit in any given instance will depend. There is every kind of fluctuating condition. Nevertheless, this fact will always be in evidence: The value-creating factors in the economic process will always be found at these two opposite poles.
Suppose now we find ourselves at any given point within the economic process. The economic process takes its course in the activities of buying and selling. Buying and selling are essentially an exchange of values: there is, in fact, no other exchange than that of values. Properly speaking, it is wrong to speak of an exchange of goods. The “goods ” that play a part in the economic process — whether they appear as modified products of Nature or modified Labor — are always values. It is always the values that are exchanged. Whenever a process of buying and selling takes place, values are exchanged. Now what is it that emerges in the economic process when value and value, as it were, impinge on one another in the process of exchange? It is Price. Wherever Price emerges, it is always through the impact of value on value in the economic process. For this reason you cannot think truly about Price if you have in mind the exchange of mere goods. If you buy an apple for a penny, you may say that you are exchanging one piece of goods for another — the apple for the penny. But you will make no progress in economic thinking along these lines. For the apple has been picked somewhere and then transported, and it may well be that various other things have been done around it. All this is Labor which has modified it. What you are dealing with is not an apple but a Nature-product transformed by human Labor, representing an economic value. In Economics we must always take our start from values. Similarly, the penny represents not a piece of goods but a value, for after all (or so at any rate we must suppose) the penny is but the sign for the fact that there is present, in the man who has to buy the apple, another value which he exchanges for it.
Today I am anxious for you to get a clear insight into this fact: In Economics we must not speak of “goods ” but of “values” as the elementary thing. It is wrong to try to consider Price in any other way than by envisaging the interplay of values. Value set against value gives you Price. And if, as we saw, value itself is a fluctuating thing, incapable of definition, may we not say that when you exchange value for value, Price which arises in the process of exchange is a fluctuating thing raised to the second power?
From all these things you may see how futile it is to try to take hold of values and prices with the idea of finding a firm and fixed ground in Economics: and it is still more futile, if your object is to influence the economic process in practice. Something altogether different is needful — something that lies behind all these things. You may see this from a very simple consideration.
Consider this for a moment: Nature appears to us through human Labor. Suppose we obtain iron at a given place under extraordinarily difficult conditions. The value that is thus produced through human Labor is a modified object of Nature. If at a different place iron is to be produced under far easier conditions, it may happen that an altogether different value will result. You see, therefore, that we cannot grasp the reality in the value itself: we must go behind the value. We must go back to that which creates the value: here alone can we gradually find our way to the more constant conditions on which we can exercise a direct influence. The moment you have brought the value into economic circulation, you must let it fluctuate with the economic organism as a whole. Consider the finer constitution of a blood corpuscle: it is different in the head and in the heart and in the liver. You cannot say: We will now seek the true definition of blood. The most you can do is to consider what are the more favorable foodstuffs in the one case and in the other. Likewise there is no point in talking round and round about Value and Price. The important thing is to go back to the primary factors, back to that which, if rightly formed, will actually bring forth the proper price. The proper price will then emerge of its own accord.
In the study of Economics it is quite impossible to stop short at definitions of Value and Price. We must always go back to the real origins whence the economic process is nourished, on the one hand, and by which, on the other hand, it is regulated — Nature on the one hand, Spirit on the other.
In all economic theories of modern time, this has been the difficulty: they have always tried to hold fast at the outset that which is really fluctuating. As a result, one who can see through these things finds himself confronted not with wrong definitions — scarcely any of them are wrong: they are generally quite right! (Though, it is true, one must make an exceedingly bad shot to say: The amount of Labor corresponds to that which has been expended and has to be restored in the human body: it corresponds, therefore, to the expenditure of substance. Such a statement is really a howler, and he who makes it has failed to see the simplest things.) No, the point is that even men of considerable insight, in developing their theory of Economics, have stumbled again and again over this obstacle: They have tried to observe at rest things that are always in a state of flux. For the things of Nature one can and must often do so: there, however, it suffices to observe the state of rest in a quite different way: and if we have to observe a state of movement, all we have come to do in the modern science of Nature is to regard it as though it were composed of a multitude of tiny states of rest and jump from one to the other. For when we integrate, we regard even movement as if it were composed of states of rest.
On the model of such a science we cannot study the economic process. This, therefore, must be said: The first thing needful in grappling with the science of Economics is to consider how, on the one hand, Value appears inasmuch as Nature is transformed by human Labor — Nature is seen through human Labor — while, on the other hand, Value appears inasmuch as Labor is seen through the Spirit. These two origins of Value are the real polar opposites: they differ as, in the spectrum, the one — the luminous or yellow pole — differs from the other — the blue or violet. You may well hold fast this picture: As in the spectrum the warm colors appear on the one side, so on the one side there appears the Nature-value which will show itself more in the formation of rents. On this side we perceive Nature transformed by Labor. On the other side there appear to us instead those values which are translated into Capital: here we see Labor transformed by the Spirit. Then, indeed, Price can arise, inasmuch as values of the one pole impinge on values of the other. Or again, the several values within the one pole come into mutual interaction. The point is that every time, wherever it is a question of price-formation, there will be a mutual interaction of value and value. We must therefore disregard everything to do with the substances and materials themselves; we must look away from all this and begin by seeing how values are formed, on the one side and on the other. Then we shall be able to press forward to the problem of Price.



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