[OPE-L:2905] Re: starting point and capital

From: C. J. Arthur (cjarthur@pavilion.co.uk)
Date: Tue Apr 25 2000 - 20:05:06 EDT

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>(1) I do not understand Banaji's argument that there is a double
>starting-point in Capital. Chris Arthur, Tony Smith, Reuten & Williams and
>others have argued forcefully that systematic dialectics can reconstruct the
>main categories of Marx's analysis from a *single* starting point which, as I
>understand it, is the commodity *as the product of capital*.

I am sorry that I have not been able to study this interesting exchange
properly. But since Alfredo cites me, may I state that I accepted Banaji's
two starting points in my paper 'Against the logical-Historical Method:
Dialectical Derivation v Linear Logic' in *New Investigations of marx's
Method* eds F. Moseley and M. Campbell (Humanities 1997). For those
interested I extract below the relevant relflections.
Chris A

" Marx asserted in his 1857 Introduction (and reasserted in the very title
of his big book) that the whole contains within it industrial capital as
its 'overriding moment'. This leaves the problem of how to start the first
volume given that capital is a complex concept, even in its most abstract
form as self-valorization. As Marx said, it is necessary to employ 'the
power of abstraction' to arrive at the 'cell-form' equivalent of the body
of the capitalist totality. The sequence of thought in carrying through
this abstraction must be such that it arrives at a starting point which is
sufficiently simple to be grasped immediately by thought and yet
sufficiently historically determinate to lead to the other categories that
structure this specific society, i.e. bourgeois society based on the
capitalist mode of production. While Marx said in the 1857 Introduction...
that the scientific method of exposition starts with something abstract he
also pointed out that generic abstractions of an ahistorical type would
tell us nothing of any importance (there is no 'production in general' for
What is required, then, is that the movement of abstraction retain in the
proposed immediacy of the beginning some sign of its origin in a
historically determinate set of relations of production. It must seize upon
some particular aspect of the whole under consideration which, while
simple, is also so implicated in the whole from which it is separated out
that it still bears this trace of its origin.
Bearing these considerations in mind, let us now reconstruct the sequence
of Marx's thought. He is faced with capital; he cannot start with that
because even if its concept is stripped to its bare essentials it still has
the complexity of self-valorization, whose immediate appearance is an
increment in the reflux of money. So he abstracts from this complex
relation the figure of money. But what is money? The fact that this is no
simple matter, and that any show of immediacy that might be given by the
tangible quality of coins in the pocket is illusory, may be demonstrated by
reviewing the weird and wonderful ideas of it that have been advanced, both
by the vulgar and by the theorists; furthermore it seems to have a
bewildering variety of functions. It is not a suitably simple beginning.
(Although it is interesting to note that it seems to have formed the
beginning of Marx's first serious draft of his economics in 1857.) It is
also clear that money is essentially an incomplete idea, having no sense
except in its various relations with commodities, such as medium of their
circulation. In a way it is clear that the commodity is, as he himself
stated, the 'cell-form' Marx needed. The research program therefore took
the form of deriving from the commodity first money and then capital.
But what more precisely are we starting from? -and how do we advance? To
begin with, it may very well seem to be the case that the commodity cannot
be a suitable starting point because it is disqualified for failing to meet
both the criteria earlier established, namely simplicity and historical
-The first because, upon analysis, it turns out the commodity itself
embodies a puzzling dichotomy: it is a good in that it serves as a
use-value, and on the other hand a different, even contrary, determination
is found in it, that of exchangeableness.
-The second because this commodity form attaches to things that are not
even products of labor, and, even if these are excluded by fiat#, it is
still obvious enough that commodity exchange appears in a whole set of
epochs of history, possibly including Engels's 'simple commodity
production'. It seems then Sweezy may be right in saying Marx's starting
point was the general class of exchange relations, not the specifically
capitalist, and that the theory of value antedates that of capital in the
However, to deal with the second point first, when we examine Marx's work
more closely we see that in Chapter One implicitly, and in other writings
explicitly, Marx so determines the commodity taken as the starting point as
to exclude any such pre-capitalist formations. The key point to grasp is
that the simple category of universality is built into the starting point.
Over and over again he explicitly excludes as relevant to the theory social
formations in which only surpluses appear on the market. The key point
about choosing a sufficiently simple start is that 'simple' here means
logically simple, i.e. pure and universal; but if this sort of abstraction
is produced by the historical development of a concrete whole to maturity
it is really, although in the logic a beginning, in the history a result,
as Marx said (in his 1857 Introduction) was the case with the general
category of labor. This requirement of simple universality is implicit in
the first line of Capital where it is specified that wealth takes the form
of commodities in bourgeois society.
Thus the starting point is not some vague notion of 'commodity', but the
commodity taken in the characteristic form in which it appears in
capitalism. Then the way is open to derive capitalism; for, in Marx's own
words: 'a highly developed commodity exchange and the form of the commodity
as the universal necessary social form of the product can only emerge as
the consequence of the capitalist mode of production'#. The phrase
underlined (by me) is the historically determinate beginning of Capital,
therefore. But only in one sense.
Certainly the question to be asked is: how could it possibly be the case
that the commodity form be universal and necessarily so? And the ground for
this can be demonstrated to be capitalist production. But, to answer this
question thus, it turns out that one needs to focus on that aspect of the
commodity that betrays its social origin, namely exchange value. It will be
recalled that a moment ago we pointed out that the commodity was itself a
unity of use-value and exchange value. Should it not therefore be stated
that Marx's true starting point was value, something suitably simple and
universal which we can show to be grounded in capitalism? (Indeed it is
interesting to note that in the various plans of the period Marx changed
his characterization of his starting point in the process of publishing his
1859 Critique. Throughout 1858 his plan began: Value-Money-Capital# but his
publications in 1859 and 1867 use the titles 'Commodity-Money-Capital.)
However, while simplicity and universality are certainly advantages for a
starting point, another still more important is lacking, namely immediacy.
How do we know that we are dealing with value? Value is in truth something
posited (though not yet grounded) only through the mediation of the
totality of relationships of the commodities exchanged one with another.
Faced with this ceaseless movement of exchange, the idea arises that some
identity in essence is present behind the heterogeneous appearances of
commodities. Such an analytical reduction of the observed phenomena may be
mistaken, but it suggests the following research program: on what
conditions of existence can value be shown to ground itself, so as to
validate itself as this universal property of commodities? As we shall see
shortly, a dialectical derivation of the necessity of money and capital may
be undertaken to answer this. This upshot establishes that if the commodity
is the product of capital it instantiates value.
So what is the starting point? The commodity has immediacy in our
experience (popular consciousness is aware that in this society practically
everything is bought and sold) yet it is susceptible of further analysis.
Value is a simple universal but, while an immediacy for thought is so only
as a mediated immediacy, a thought arising from the contemplation of a
systematic regular, reproduced set of exchanges. But on the other hand, it
is clearly something which in virtue of its problematic status as an
abstraction cries out for a grounding movement.
In these circumstances we may gratefully accept Banaji's ingenious
suggestion that Capital has a double starting point: the commodity forms
the analytical starting point, from which we separate out value; while this
value forms the synthetic point of departure for deriving more complex
relationships in the course of seeking how to ground it as the pure
universal essence of the commodity.# Once the commodity has been
established as a form of value necessarily linked to money and capital, we
have a very different commodity under discussion than that originally
grasped in the immediacy of experience as a mere aspect of an
uncomprehended totality.
It is perhaps worth noting that in Capital Marx himself supplied a somewhat
ambiguous characterization of his starting point: he stated that just as
biology got properly underway when the microscope resolved the body into
cells so 'the power of abstraction' reveals that 'for bourgeois society the
commodity-form of the product of labour [die Waarenform des
Arbeitsproduckts] or the value-form of the commodity [die Werthform der
Waare] is the economic cell-form'.# Is the 'or' asserting an identity or
disjunction? What is clear is that in the first case Marx is interested in
the fact that in bourgeois society products take the form of commodities
whereas in the second case he is interested in the fact that commodities
have values. This seems to fit Banaji's suggestion that there is a double
point of departure.
Furthermore, in the original draft of Marx's 1859 Critique there are some
interesting passages on the nature of his dialectical derivation of
capital. If we begin with commodities and their circulation we see that:
'In the C-M-C movement, the physical matter appears as the actual content
of the movement; the social movement, only as a fleeting mediation for the
satisfaction of individual wants.'# Therefore it is exchange value that is
'the social form as such'; its further analysis, therefore, leads us into
'the social process which throws the commodity onto its surface'; thus we
now 'proceed from exchange value as such, as we earlier proceeded from the
commodity'.# Notice that in this passage Marx in effect provides evidence
supporting Banaji's suggestion that there are two starting points in Marx's

P. S. Please note that I have a new Email address,
but the old one will also run until the summer. (To be doubly sure load both!)

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