Volume 10, Number 1 (2017)

The Concepts of Devaluation, Valorization and Depreciation in Marx: Towards a Clarification

Neil Smith

The value form is the necessary economic result of the capital-wage labour relation, and Marx devoted most of his life’s work to disentangling the processes involved in the constitution, determination and movement of value. By doing so, he provided a theoretical analysis of the capitalist mode of production since the historical uniqueness of capitalism springs precisely from the fact that the surplus product is extracted and realized as surplus value. This result is predicated upon the appearance and development of the capital-wage labour relation. Ever since Marx, there has been a persistent concern in the Marxist tradition with Marx’s concept of value – its form and substance, structure and development, and its alleged internal inconsistencies. But in all of these discussions, there is a striking omission. In Marx, but even more so in the marxist tradition, a number of different concepts are employed, seemingly interchangeably, to depict the various processes resulting in an accretion or diminution of value. The accretion of value is generally referred to as a process of valorization or appreciation; the diminution of value as devalorization, depreciation, or devaluation. There is little or no distinction made between appreciation and valorization, or between devalorization, depreciation and devaluation in the contemporary Marxist literature. This is particularly puzzling given not only the scrutiny which Marx’s concept of value has otherwise attracted, but given also that in his economic analyses Marx was extremely careful about terminological consistency. In fact, if one examines Marx’s work on the dynamics of the accumulation and circulation of capital, it is clear that while contemporary accounts do not distinguish between different concepts for the accretion and diminution of value, Marx himself makes systematic distinctions between a number of different though related processes.

When different processes are referred to with a single concept, and when the same concept can describe different processes, there is an inevitable confusion about the processes involved. The distinctions between these processes have never been made clear, and that is the purpose of this paper. This is not merely a problem in conceptual clarification, however, although such clarification is valuable in its own right and should help to elucidate certain aspects of the constitution, determination and movement of value in Marx. But like Marx’s own analysis of value, this clarification is ultimately important for what it tells us about the structure and development of the capitalist mode of production. The confusion between the separate processes considered here has systematically blurred a number of issues that are currently being debated in the marxist tradition. Primary among these is probably the theory of crisis. A better understanding of the different processes involved in the accretion and diminution of value provides a firmer basis for explaining the origins of crisis as inherent in the value form itself; the constitution of value implies crisis. Further, this analysis will spread some light on the concept of fixed capital in the overall circulation and reproduction. Finally, the disaggregation of different processes contributing to the accretion and to the diminution of value will have the perhaps surprising result of clarifying the status of capital employed by the capitalist state.


Editors note: This posthumously published essay was edited by Don Mitchell. He explains the origins and significance of the manuscript in an introduction also published in this issue