[OPE-L:4609] Re: Re: Re: Re: reply to Fred (1)

From: Gil Skillman (gskillman@MAIL.WESLEYAN.EDU)
Date: Mon Dec 04 2000 - 22:37:27 EST

Rakesh, you ask

>What is the sleight of hand here? I want to take your criticism 
>seriously because it seems to go to the core of Marx's argument, but 
>I simply cannot understand the point you make here. Marx  bases his 
>thought experiment on the institutional set up of a developed 
>capitalist economy in which labor is indeed performed by those who 
>have sold their labor power to the few who own means of production. 
>As Marx says, he simply confines himself to this fact theoretically, 
>just as the capitalist is confined by it practically (p.273). 

Two levels of response:

First, Marx is (unintentionally) imposing a rather stark analytical double
standard here.  If it were appropriate to "confine oneself theoretically"
to facts that capitalists are "confined by...practically", then Marx would
need to "confine himself theoretically" to a world of price-value
disparities, since there is no capitalist economy that does not feature
these (in contrast, workers *do* sometimes lease capital goods, and pay
surplus value in the form of capital rentals, in real-world capitalist
economies--more on that point below).  

But of course Marx doesn't do this:  he insists, and makes great efforts to
establish, that price-value disparities are "incidental" to the existence
of surplus value, and thus dismissable.  As you know I dispute the validity
of his arguments on this point, but let's accept his conclusion for the
moment.  The methodological claim Marx is making is that for the purpose of
accounting for surplus value, one can and should abstract from phenomena
which are "incidental" to its existence.  Very well, so far as any concrete
analysis Marx has offered through Chapter 6, it is *incidental* to the
existence of surplus value whether workers gain access to the means of
production by selling their labor power or by leasing capital goods.  So if
it is valid, Marx's conclusion should hold in either case.  *But it
doesn't*, as I've shown:  price-value disparities are a *necessary*
condition for the existence of surplus value once one abstracts from the
"incidental" fact that workers gain access to the means of production by
selling their labor power as a commodity.  

Thus Marx's account faces a rather fundamental methodological dilemma:  if
one must proceed from actual capitalist conditions, as Marx asserts in Ch.
6, then one must accept actual price-value disparities as a starting point
for the analysis. 
Once one allows price-value disparities, then there is no logical necessity
to consider the purchase of labor power at its value (and its subsequent
subsumption in capitalist production) as the basis for explaining surplus
value, and his argument at the beginning of Chapter 6 goes down the tubes.
Alternatively, if it's legitimate to abstract from empirical conditions
which are "incidental" to the existence of surplus value, as Marx asserts
in Chapter 5, then we may abstract from the real-world fact that workers
sell their labor power as a commodity, because Marx establishes no grounds
whatsoever for believing this form of the capital-labor exchange
relationship is intrinsic to capitalism. But in that case, Marx's argument
must work *whether or not* workers gain access to the means of production
by selling their labor power as a commodity.  And, again, *it doesn't*.  So
either way his analysis is invalid.

[And on the empirical horn of the dilemma, I note that workers *do* often
lease or otherwise borrow capital goods, even if this isn't the typical
case.  Is there any doubt that the rent or interest charged in these cases
corresponds to surplus value, so long as the capital goods are used in the
production of new value, and the rent or interest payments are made out of
this newly created value?]

But second, Marx's account of surplus value is worse than just invalid:
it's essentially misleading about the systemic basis of surplus value. On
one hand, it obscures the fact that surplus value requires capital
scarcity, which is generically associated with (at least one) price-value
disparity.  On the other, it suggests a spurious connection between surplus
value and the fact that capitalists purchase labor power as a commodity and
extract surplus labor from workers in the context of capitalist controlled
production.   The fact that this is so has nothing central to do with the
connections among prices, values, and surplus value.  For example, if
capitalists could extract the maximum feasible levels of surplus labor from
workers simply by contractual means (say through capital lending or
leasing, or proto-industrial forms like the putting-out system) and could
thus forego the hassle of overseeing the production process, surely they
would do so in an instant, no matter what the consequences for explaining
surplus value on the basis of PVE.

>From my understanding of what a coherent account of surplus value requires,
the above constitutes a fundamental indictment.  I accept the possibility
that this critique might not be so compelling from other vantage points.
But remember, I was criticizing Andrew's specific claim that Marx had *no*
basis for allowing price-value disparities once variations in OCC were
dismissed.  This doesn't follow.  

>on the fantasy credit island workers could just as easily lease means 
>of production. But this is not in fact the institutional set of a 
>capitalist economy (with very  few exceptions of course).

And maybe on some other fantasy island, commodities exchange exactly at
their respective values.  But this is not evidently the case for *any*
capitalist economy.  Any justification you give for studying *this* fantasy
island, I can legitimately invoke for focusing on the "fantasy credit island".

> So then 
>Marx asks us to explain the mystery of surplus value even if do not 
>allow doubly free workers to sell their labor power below its value. 
>He says that the mystery vanishes once we understand what it is 
>exactly that workers have sold.

Yes, he does do that, but not on any valid grounds.  And for reasons given
above, Marx's particular answer perpetuates more important "mysteries" than
it dissolves.  


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