[OPE-L:3079] Re: Re: Re: Re: re:starting points

From: Gil Skillman (gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu)
Date: Tue May 09 2000 - 22:56:34 EDT

[ show plain text ]

Hello, Fred, and welcome. I am certainly prepared to agree that Marx's
starting point in Volume 1 is the commodity understood as a product of the
"capitalist mode of production," as per the first sentence in the 1st
chapter. But I don't at all see the conclusions you draw from identifying
this starting point, for the simple reason that acknowledging a given
context cannot get rid of the logical problem that I identify in Marx's
Chapter 5 argument (and with which your argument still does not come
directly to terms). The single exception to this judgment isn't really an
exception: one can certainly argue, as you appear to do, that Marx's focus
on the purchase and subsumption of labor power (that is, capitalist
production) as the basis of capitalist exploitation is legitimate, simply
because he *assumed* this focus from the beginning. But in that case,
Marx's entire argument in Chapter 5, to the effect of establishing
price-value equivalence as a necessary starting point for capitalist
production, is (at best) *entirely irrelevant*, in which case one horn of
the dilemma I've argued all along is established. And if the
interpretation doesn't render the Ch. 5 argument entirely irrelevant, then
my earlier critique remains valid: there is no useful sense in which
price-value equivalence constitutes a necessary, or even economically
relevant, starting point for the analysis of capitalist exploitation.
**Furthermore, to assume otherwise is to risk fundamentally
mischaracterizing the fundamental basis of capitalist exploitation, which
depends on capitalist production only as a matter of degree (though
possibly a *large* degree) rather than a matter of kind.**

But let's look at the details. Fred writes:

>Nicky, I am glad that we agree on this important point that Marcx's
>commodity in Chapter 1 is a product of CAPITALIST PRODUCTION.
>If others disagree, I don't think that this means that Marx's concept of
>the commodity is "not adequate to its subject matter" or "ambiguous".
>I think it just means that others do not understand Marx's logical method
>and his starting-point in particular. Marx's starting point is one
>abstract element of a concrete, historically-specific totality: capitalist
>production. Maybe Marx is not clear enough in explaining this starting
>point, but there are many more passages like the ones that Banaji
>quotes. I think the textual evidence on this point is very strong.
>There appears to be a growing consensus on this important point.
>Alfredo has also said that he agrees with this interpretation; Andy and
>Chris also. I wonder who are the remaining dissenters on this point?
>I think this emerging interpretation is a significant step forward in
>Marxian scholarship. The old interpretation of Part 1 presented by Engels
>and Sweezy and Meek and Mandel is now understood to be mistaken. Marx did
>not start with simple commodity production. Marx started with the most
>abstract element of capitalist production.
>If this interpretation is accepted (as the textual evidence suggests that
>it should be), then it clears up many puzzles, including Gil's critique of
>"Marx's failure" (once again!) to explain the necessity of wage-labor in
>Part 2 of Volume 1.

As mentioned above, I don't see that it clears up anything at all about my
critique. For one thing, it's not *me* who's insisting on "the necessity
of wage labor" as the primary basis of capitalist exploitation; it's a
valid implication of Marx's (invalid) insistence on price-value equivalence
as a relevant, even in some sense analytically necessary starting point for
the analysis of capital. And by the way, if the parenthetical "(once
again!)" in Fred's comment here is meant to suggest that I'm repeating
myself, I can only reply it's because some people haven't seen the point
yet. As Mike L's survey established when we argued this on OPE-L long ago,
though, many have.

> Gil's argument assumes that Marx's concept of capital
>in Part 2 is a GENERAL AHISTORICAL CONCEPT of capital that could apply to
>non-capitalist modes of production. Gil's critique is that Marx's
>argument fails to prove that capital (i.e. surplus-value) is possible only
>in capitalism, i.e. only with wage-labor.

No. This *isn't* the basis of my critique, and that critique *does not*
depend on any "general ahistorical concept" of capital, contrary to Fred's
claim. Fred here *repeats* the error of assuming that I *impose* an
argument that Marx did not make. But I don't: I take up the arguments
that Marx himself presents in Chs 4-6, together with the implications that
Marx draws from those arguments, and critically assess them.

Here, I think, is the basis of the confusion. It is manifestly the case
that *if* one assumes that all commodities exchange at their respective
values (and one does not regard the exchange for the money commodity in its
guise as usury capital as an instance of commodity exchange), then the
*only way* one can account for the "general formula" M-C-M', with M'>M, is
by positing the purchase at its value of a commodity, i.e. labor power,
whose use value is the creation of value itself, and potentially more value
than represented in its exchange value.

It's *also* manifestly the case that at the beginning of Chapter 6 Marx
explicitly advances the condition of price-value equivalence as the
*logical justification* for his subsequent focus on the purchase and
subsumption of labor power: "The change [from M to M'] *therefore*
{emphasis on logical connective-GS} take place in the commodity which is
bought in the first act of circulation, ...but not in its value, *for it is
equivalents which are being exchanged, and the commodity is paid for at its
full value.* The change can therefore originate only in the actual use
value of the commodity....our friend the money-owner *must* {note again the
indication of logical necessity} be lucky enough to find within the sphere
of circulation... a commodity whose use value possesses the peculiar
property of being a source of value...The possessor of money does find such
a special commodity on the market: the capacity for labour, in other words
labour-power." [I, p. 270, Penguin ed.]

Conclusion: Marx is here self-consciously advancing as a logical deduction
that if one is to explain M-C-M' on the basis that all commodities exchange
at their respective values, then one *must* focus on the extraction of
surplus labor from the commodity labor power purchased at its value. Thus
*I'm* not imposing an argument about the logical necessity of focusing on
wage labor; *Marx* is manifestly the one advancing this claim.

*My* point, contrary to Fred's suggestion, is that this focus is a valid
implication, but from an invalid starting point. Specifically, Marx's Ch.
5 arguments do not suffice to establish the necessity, let alone the
relevance, of price-value equivalence as a basis for explaining surplus
value. Since Fred does not take up my specific criticisms of Marx's
chapter 5 argument, I don't need to reassert them here. He does, however,
assert passages which *presume* the validity of the arguments I indict; see

But let me pause to recognize a point of potential agreement: of the force
of Fred's interpretation of Marx's "starting point" is to render Marx's
Chapter 5 argument *entirely irrelevant* to the argument that succeeds it,
I agree that's one way of resolving the issue. It's not what Marx thought
he was doing, of course--manifestly he thought he was developing a valid
deductive argument that *justified* his subsequent focus on the purchase
and subsumption of wage labor. But it is a way out of the problem, and it
certainly is consistent with my conclusion that marx's Chapter 5 analysis
should be thrown out.

>However, if Marx assumes capitalism from the very beginning (as there
>appears to be a growing consensus), then Gil's interpretation cannot be

Not so--see above.

 Just like the commodity in Part 1 is not a general ahistorical
>concept, so also capital in Part 2 is not a general ahistorical concept,
>that could also apply to non-capitalist modes of production. The concept
>of capital in Part 2 is CAPITAL IN CAPITALISM, just like the commodity in
>Part 1 is the commodity in capitalism. Marx did not suddenly broaden the
>object of his analysis in Part 2 from specifically capitalist production
>to include non-capitalist modes of production.

No, but here's what he *does* do in Ch. 5: he advances categorical logical
claims that do not hold. I invoke the cases of usury capital and
merchant's capital extended to small producers primarily as illustrations
that Marx's categorical claims do not hold. Specifically, the case that
all commodities exchange at their value *does not* constitute the "pure
case" of commodity exchange in any economically relevant or even meaningful
sense, contrary to Marx's Ch. 5 claim, *especially* for a world in which
surplus value exists, and *especially* in a world in which capitalist
production prevails. Second, and again contrary to Marx's claim, the fact
that surplus value cannot be explained on the basis of price-value
disparities *taken alone* *does not* logically establish that the
explanation of surplus value must be carried out on the basis of
price-value equivalence.

The latter claim is like saying that, because the horrors of war cannot be
conveyed by color TV broadcasts alone, then the horrors of war *must* be
conveyed on the basis of black-and-white TV broadcasts. Nonsense.

These are the two arguments Marx advances to justify invoking the condition
that all commodities exchange at their values, and their both invalid, as
I've argued before and Fred does not dispute.

> The object of Marx's
>analysis remains capitalist production throughout. Capital in Part 2 is a
>more concrete element (although still very abstract!) of the same totality
>of capitalist production with which Marx began in Part 1.

And again, unless this means that Marx is invoking a tautology that renders
Ch. 5 completely irrelevant (which would support my conclusion in any
case), it doesn't address my criticisms advanced earlier.

>Indeed, Marx tells us explicitly in Chapter 5, not only that the capital
>he is analyzing is capital in capitalism, but even more precisely that the
>capital he is analyzing the PRIMARY FORM of capital in capitalism,
>i.e. capital invested in capitalist production. Marx stated explicitly
>that merchants' capital and usurers' capital are ABSTRACTED from at this
>stage of the analysis.
>"... in our analysis of the PRIMARY FORM of capital, the form in which it
>determines the economic organization of modern society, WE HAVE LEFT
>ENTIRELY OUT OF CONSIDERATION its well-known and so to speak antediluvian
>form, merchants' capital and usurers capital." (C.I. 266; emphasis added)

Yes, but this and the passage Fred quotes below are understood by Marx as
*implications* of the arguments I've criticized earlier! The phrase
ellipsed out in the above passage is "It can be understood, therefore {that
word again!}, why...." But since the premises on which these *conclusions*
are based are invalidly derived, the conclusions themselves have not been
established. Invoking these passages thus *begs the central question at

>"In the course of our investigation, we shall find that both merchants's
>capital and interest-bearing capital are DERIVATIVE FORMS, and at the same
>time it will become clear why, historically, these two forms appear before
>the modern PRIMARY FORM of capital." (C.I. 267; emphasis added)
>When Marx later analyzed commercial capital and interest-bearing capital
>in Parts 4 and 5 of Volume 3 of Capital, he analyzed these forms of
>capital as "DERIVATIVE FORMS", i.e. forms of capital DERIVED FROM the
>primary form of productive or industrial capital, not commercial capital
>and interest-bearing capital as general ahistorical concepts that could
>also be related to non-capitalist modes of production.

The sense of "derivative form" is necessarily somewhat special, since usury
capital and merchant's capital preceded the circuit of industrial capital.
In any case, it's irrelevant to the logic of the point at hand: in Ch. 5,
Marx understands the exclusion of usury and merchant capital as a logical
implication of the arguments he's advanced in the preceding pages (i.e. pp.
262-266 in the Penguin edition). But these arguments are invalid.

>This point is made clear in an important letter in 1868 from Marx to
>Engels, in which Marx outlined for Engels the contents of Volume 3.
>When Marx got to Part 4 of his outline, he said:
>"Previously we have dealt only with PRODUCTIVE CAPITAL. Now modifications
>occur caused by MERCHANT CAPITAL." (Selected Correspondence,
>p. 194; emphasis in the original)

Beside the immediate point. See above.

>In other words, the capital Marx is analyzing in all three volumes of
>Capital, up until Part 4 of Volume 3, is productive capital in capitalism.
>Which means that the capital Marx is analyzing in Part 2 of Volume 1 is
>not a general ahistorical concept, that could also apply to non-capitalist
>modes of production. Rather, the capital Marx is analyzing in Part 2 is
>productive capital in capitalism, just like the commodity Marx analyzes in
>Part 1 is the product of capitalist production.

Beside the point. See above.

>So, Gil is criticizing Marx for failing to do something that he did not
>attempt: to prove that capital and surplus-value are possible only as a
>result of wage-labor in capitalism. Capitalist production is assumed from
>the very beginning and the object of Marx's analysis is to explain how
>surplus-value is produced in capitalism, not to argue that surplus-value
>can only be produced in capitalism.

Not so, as demonstrated above. I take Marx's manifestly developed argument
on its own terms and show that his Ch. 6 focus on wage labor, manifestly
and validly *derived* from the postulate of price-value equivalence, fails
because his Ch. 5 arguments do not validly establish the relevance, or even
economic meaning, of the latter condition.

  That would be a ridiculous argument,
>that Marx knew was untrue.

It would also be ridiculous to spend an entire Chapter making arguments
that, on Fred's interpretation, are essentially irrelevant to the task at
hand--wouldn't it?

  Marx was certainly aware of non-capitalist
>modes of appropriating surplus-value (as Gil points out). But these
>non-capitalist modes of production are irrelevant to Marx's theory of how
>surplus-value is produced IN CAPITALISM.

But, as argued above, they are not irrelevant to demonstrate that certain
claims Marx advances as categorical in Ch. 5 are not validly so.

There is, in the end, much for Fred and me to agree on. It's true Marx is
talking about capitalist production in vol. I. It is true that under
certain conditions capitalist production is at least consistent with the
existence of surplus labor. Of course, deleting the Ch. 5 arguments that I
criticize (without dispute from Fred), there is no basis whatsoever to
believe that there's *any stronger* connection between capitalist
production and capitalist exploitation; in particular, the former could, on
the basis of *valid* arguments found in V.I., be entirely incidental to the
latter. If that's OK with everyone, then so be it. We can go on from
there, as there will also probably be considerable agreement in substance
as to the basis for a more fundamental, historically contingent connection
between capitalist production and capitalist exploitation.

Let me depict the point by way of a comparison. Marx recognizes (see the
last footnote to Ch. 5) that price-value disparities prevail under
capitalism, yet argues (invalidly, as it turns out) that despite their
prevalence these disparities are incidental to the phenomenon under
discussion. Very well. The circuit of industrial capital, based on
capitalist production, is certainly the prevalent mode of extracting
surplus value (though in Marx's time the forms of usury and merchant
capital I spoke of were still fairly common). However, there is no valid
basis as of V. I Ch. 6 (and even, arguably, the rest of Vol. I) for
thinking that capitalist production is anything more than incidental to the
existence of capitalist exploitation. If that troubles you, you'll see the
point of my Ch. 5 critique.


This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Wed May 31 2000 - 00:00:08 EDT