[OPE-L:2859] re:starting points

From: nicola taylor (nmtaylor@carmen.murdoch.edu.au)
Date: Sun Apr 16 2000 - 11:35:55 EDT

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Re: Jerry's [OPE-L:2858], Marx not only begins with different categories to
those of the classicals, but develops them differently:

(1) We know that Marx's criticised Ricardo, whose failure to address the
'essential character of capitalism' Marx attributes to a misplaced focus on
the determination of relative values, without regard to 'the form - the
peculiar characteristic of labour that creates exchange value or manifests
itself in exchange values^'(Marx, TSVII, p.164). Because he pays no
attention to the historical specificity of the form of labour that creates
value, Ricardo never addresses the critical question of why it is that
labour-values must appear as relative prices. In Capital, he says that the
'best' of the classical economists were unable to solve the 'riddle of
money' because they treated the form of value as 'something external to the
nature of the commodity itself' (1976).

I see Marx's riposte to Ricardo like this. Labour is not the source of all
wealth; nor is it a concept expressing some eternal relation of the
individual to nature. On the contrary, labour is a 'definite social mode
of existence of human activity' (Marx, 1963, p.46). In societies where
production and consumption are directly associated, labour is immediately
social in that it directly produces useful objects, use-values, wealth. In
societies where the organisation of labour is predominantly based upon the
production of use-values for exchange, the social usefulness of private
labour must be verified indirectly within a social system regulating
commodity production for exchange. Value is an expression of this social
dimension underlying the commensurability of commodities. It follows that
the form of labour that creates value is a historical phenomenon, as are
the concepts of measure, time and equality that are used to describe the
relationship. These concepts might be thought of as reflections in thought
of the real relations that obtain in capitalist societies (Marx, 1857).

I'm saying, Marx sets out to determine the social character of the labour
that creates **capitalist commodities, values**. As a determinate 'social
substance' arising in the actual process of production for exchange,
value-producing labour must clearly be something quite distinct from the
'generic' or indeterminate labour that contributes to wealth (an abundance
of use-values in general). Essentially, the problem of a theory of social
value is then to interrogate the content of this difference:

"It is not a question here of definitions, which things must be made to
fit. We are dealing here with definite functions, which must be expressed,
in definite categories" (Karl Marx, Capital, 2 - Sorry, I can't find the
original page no, but the quote is cited at beginning of Sayer, 1980).

Anyway, I take this quote to mean that Marx intended his categories in the
opening chapter of Capital to embrace the realities - the 'definite
functions' - of the capitalist form of social and economic organisation.
Marx's categories try to do that. But does he do so successfully? Does
the commodity, for example, epitomise the product of labour in capitalist
form? Or is it better understood as a 'generic' concept applicable to all
modes of production (including socialism) in which there is a complex
division of labour, and the production of useful objects for exchange? [see
the recent debate on slave labour]!

(2) I don't think that the commodity is in fact a very good starting point.

(2.1)The conceptual distinction between use-value (material basis of all
production) and value (social form) is questionable. Given a form of
economic organisation where the production and consumption of use-values is
disassociated and mediated by exchange, the concept of use-value must
surely undergo a transformation; it can no longer allude to the natural
properties of the product alone. In capitalism "use-value itself - as the
use-value of the 'commodity' - possesses an *historically specific
character*" (Marx, 1979-80, p.199; Marx's italics).

As Marx said of Wagner, 'only an obscurantist' could fail to recognise that
the commodity is an 'historically specific' form of use-value, 'the
simplest social form in which the labour product is presented in
contemporary society' (1879-80, p.198). Yet in Capital, use-value is
clearly presented as a natural quality of 'usefulness' constituting the
'content of wealth, whatever its social form may be'(1976, p.126). In
positing exchange-value immediately, Marx leaves dangling an unqualified
opposition between the material (trans-historical) and social (historical)
aspects of use-value. The character of the transformation from the natural
form of use-value to the social (commodity-form) of use-value is posited,
but not explained.

(2.2) In Capital, Marx delays his analysis of value-form (the feature that
most distinguishes his value theory from that of Ricardo) to consider the
older classical question of what determines commodity values, and hence the
wealth of capitalist societies. Here the difficulties begin, for Marx
seems to derive the important concepts of value and abstract labour from a
'generic' concept of labour in general: 'if we disregard the use-value of
commodities, only one [common] property remains, that of being products of
labour' (1976, p.128). Again, the derivation occurs by way of a
'transformation' of some sort - "But even the product of labour is already
transformed in our hands. If we make abstraction from [the commodity's]
use-value, we abstract also from the material constituents and forms that
make it a use-value" - But what sort of a transformation is this?

The equalising principle that enables the quantitative commensuration of
diverse commodities is posited via a double reduction from the useful
characteristics of products and labour. Value is what is common in
commodities when the useful qualities of the commodity have been dispensed
with; abstract labour, is what is equal in labour when the useful qualities
of labour have been dispensed with. Value has a ghostly objectivity, in
the sense that it is both independent of the bodily form of the commodity,
and independent of the heterogenous skills and energies that go into
producing it. Yet, the character of the distinction made here is very
unclear - this because Marx pays no attention at all to the sense in which
he considers the ephemeral substance of value to be a 'social substance'?
So, is the double dissolution to be read as a transformation of dissociated
private labour into social labour, the basis of a theory of social value?
Or is the equalisation to be read as a simplifying assumption, the missing
piece in a Ricardian 'labour-value' puzzle?

I think that these problems in Marx's exposition anticipate many of the
debates on this list about the ontological character of abstract labour,
and whether (or not) Marx's "commodity" is a category to do with all
systems of production for exchange, and whether (or not) his value theory
is intended to be a specific theory of capitalist production. The
preference for one interpretation over another seems to depend upon the
extent to which one wants to reject a Ricardian 'labour-embodied' reading
of Capital. The extent to which one wants to reject a simple positing
value as a homogenous 'substance' common to commodities...

(3)When Marx finally gets around to the puzzle the classicals never
addressed, he says that:

"The value-form of the product of labour is the most abstract, but also the
most universal form of the bourgeois mode of production; by that fact, it
stamps the bourgeois mode of production as a particular kind of social
production of a historical and transitory character. If then we make the
mistake of treating it as the eternal natural form of social production, we
necessarily overlook the specificity of the value-form, and consequently of
the commodity-form together with its further developments, the money-form,
the capital-form, etc" (Marx, 1976, p.174, fn.34).

As Murray, 1993, in Moseley, 1993) puts it, 'value-form is a social magnet'
in so far as '[v]alue recognises itself only in its reflection in another
object' (p.52). In production governed by value, the labour that produces
value (abstract labour) is 'alienated' labour in the sense that private
concrete labour can no longer recognise itself in its product, but only in
reflected form in the equivalent value of other people's products
(i.e.'commodity fetishism').

As an expression of alienated labour, the value dimension is constituted as
a social relation along with its measure - in the relative form of value,
the commodity is an entity that *does exist only in a totality of

As the existent appearance of the equalising principle common to
commodities, money solves the qualitative problem posed by the production
of 'use-values for others' by private dissociated producers. The price
system wrenches together dissociated products and equalises diverse
individual private labours. Does it also solve the problem of what money
actually measures?

Value, in fact, has in no immediate measure - and cannot have one. In
this, the logic of the value-form differs fundamentally from the logic of
all previous expositions of value theory. Money in Marx's system measures
not value, but exchangeability - the reflected existence of value, itself.
Moreover, the reality of value is established not in the money form, but
only in the fully developed capital-form, when capital posits value as its
own end (analysed in Capital from Chapter 4 onwards). In capital-form,
money becomes the dynamic unifying and initiating force, the motive for
production itself:

"The simple circulation of commodities [C-M-C] - selling in order to buy -
is a means to a final goal which lies outside circulation, namely the
appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of needs. As against this,
the circulation of money as capital [M-C-M] is an end in itself, for the
valorization of value takes place only within this constantly renewed
movement. The movement of capital is therefore limitless" (Marx, 1976,

In my view, the crucial point of Marx's exposition is to be found in the
metamorphosis of the commodity-form through the money-form to the fully
CAPITALIST VALUE. As pure, or 'ideal', form capital revolves through
circulation and production in a void presupposing limitless accumulation.
Yet, if accumulation is to achieve actuality, it must be grounded in a
material reality where workers produce more value than they consume. It is
here, in production, that 'labour' confronts 'capital' as subject. In a
brilliant inversion of Hegel's ontology, Marx shows that the logic of
capital does not in actuality reflect a self-development of The Concept
towards unity. On the contrary, material and ideal elements of the economy
remain estranged to the extent that the material process of
value-production (essential to the reproduction of capital) lies outside
the reach of capital, and is contested. This is so irrespective of how
well the mediating mechanisms of the market secure 'room to move' for the
contradiction that Marx perceived.

Btw. the theory of value-form posits the capital-labour relation as central
to Marx's value theory. In the movement of the value-form through the
moments of the circuit of capital, Marx elaborates the elements of a value
theory in which the creation of useful objects is driven not by the needs
of individual producers, but by the need for money profits. The
imperatives of valorisation reconstitute commodities, such that only those
products produced by capital are values; production itself is now
determined by the reflections, the forms of value. In this inverted
reality, money is not value - yet money proves necessary not only for the
existence of value, but for the existence of capitalist production. Read
as a proof of this assertion the dialectic of Marx's presentation is

Sorry about the length of this post, and thanks in advance for you time.

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