[OPE-L:5282] Re: (Response to Rakesh)

From: Gil Skillman (gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu)
Date: Wed Mar 28 2001 - 18:50:41 EST

Hello, Rakesh.  You ask:

>do you agree that
>(1) the generalization of commodity production depends on the general 
>(though not universal) commodification of labor power as alienated by 
>doubly free proletarians in the role of juridical subjects?

Interesting question.  It's obvious that the two trends overlapped
historically, but which way did the "dependence" go?  It is a plausible
conjecture that the generalization of commodity production depended in some
sense on the generalization of wage labor (commodification of labor power).
 But I'd say that the reverse is at least equally plausible:  the
commodification of labor power was driven by the expansion of commodity
production.  I'd say the actual historical sequence of events favors the
latter interpretation (since expanded commodity production was first
pursued on the basis of proto-industrial forms such as artisan and
putting-out systems that did not exchanges for wage labor), and there are
at least two plausible theoretical linkages:

(1)  Expanding commodity production corresponds to expansion of monetized
market activities; leading to increased need for liquidity by peasants
engaged in traditional forms of production; leading to increased demand for
usury capital, which, following Marx, lead to increased expropriation and
consequent forcing of small commodity producers into urban labor-power
markets, raising the supply of wage labor; 

(2)  The need to respond to rising commodity market demand induced
putting-out and other forms of merchant capitalists to exert greater direct
control over the production process, leading to rising demand for wage labor.

To put this point another way:  as I've mentioned again recently, the fact
that workers are "free in the double sense" is not of itself sufficient to
account for the fact that they gain access to the physical means of
production primarily by selling their labor power--their simple capacity to
work--as a commodity.  They could instead rent or lease capital or else
offer solely their labor *services* for sale, as in the putting-out system.
To explain the rise of markets for labor *power*, you need to introduce
theoretical considerations not raised by Marx in Volume I, Part 2 of
Capital (but suggested elsewhere in his historical analysis).  Absent these
additional theoretical considerations, there's no plausible connection
whatever between the rise of commodity production and the commodification
of labor power.  Add these considerations, and the reverse linkage of
dependence mentioned above is at least equally plausible. 

>(2) that interest bearing capital and merchants capital (considered 
>only its role of circulating commodities) cannot systematically 
>increase the *value in circulation* (given how Marx defines value), 
>though both interest bearing and merchants capital can indeed result 
>in surplus value  and merchants capital (as narrowly considered) can 
>increase the use value (again as defined by Marx) of commodities to 
>their owners?

By Marx's definition, exchange alone cannot create value, no matter whether
the exchanges in question involve circuits of usury or merchant capital.
However, as a historical matter circuits of usury and merchant capital that
financed direct commodity production (as in the putting-out system) did
result, as you say, in the creation of surplus value.  Note, in
anticipation of your next question, that these latter circuits necessarily
led to an *increase* in the total value in circulation; they did not simply
redistribute the value that existed prior to initiation of these circuits.
This is a necessary implication of Marx's, and your, use of the term
"surplus value" in describing these relations.  

>(3) do you agree that it is reasonable to understand Marx as 
>suggesting this kind of historical dialectic: only through the new 
>circuit of industrial capital do we have not only the result of 
>surplus value but also the systematic increase of the the value in 
>circulation; and  merchants and interest bearing capital, though 
>older forms of capital,  now usually (but not always) derive from the 
>value newly added in and through the newer circuit of industrial 
>capital and are themselves thereby changed in character?

I don't know whether the progression is "dialectical" in any useful sense,
but I do read Marx as making the following historically contingent
materialist argument:

A)  Immediately prior to the capitalist mode of production, there were
circuits of capital--usury and merchant capital--and a class of direct
commodity producers who owned some of their own means of production.  The
subset of usury and merchant capital circuits that financed the creation of
new value (rather than, say, the mere redistribution of existing value on
the basis of consumption loans) also allowed for the direct appropriation
of surplus value by usury and merchant capitalists.  Of course, by Marx's
definition the creation of surplus value implied an increase of the total
value in circulation.

B)  This system gave rise to, or at least did not prevent, its own demise
via the general expropriation of small commodity producers, who
tendentially became "free in the double sense." 

C)  The creation of this class of "doubly free" workers was the necessary
basis for the onset of the capitalist mode of production.  Despite the fact
that usury and merchant's capital extended to small producers were
*independently* productive of surplus value prior to this onset, they lost
this independent capacity subsequent to it and became, as you suggest,
subsidiary to the industrial circuit of capital as the primary engine for
generating surplus value.

>"Industrial capital gives to production its capitalist character. Its 
>existence includes that of class antagonism between capitalists and 
>labourers. To the extent it assumes control over social production, 
>the technique and social organization of the labor process are 
>revolutionized and with the economic and historical type of society. 
>The other kinds of capital, which appear before the industrial 
>capital amid past or declining conditions of social production, are 
>not only subordinated to it and suffer changes in mechanism of their 
>functions corresponding with it, but move on it as a basis; they live 
>and die, stand and fall, as this, their basis, lives and dies, stands 
>and falls. Money capital and commodity capital, in so far as they 
>appear and function as bearers of their own peculiar branches of 
>business alongside industrial capital, are now only modes of 
>existence of the various functional forms that industrial capital 
>constantly assumes and discards within the circulation sphere"
>Marx, Capital, vol II, p. 136 (penguin, though I mixed in Korsch's 

[Yeah, for what it's worth I quote this passage myself in my paper on "The
Role of Production Relations in Marx's Theory of Capitalist Exploitation",
available on my web site.  It's consistent with the reading of Marx I give

>I understand Marx here to be arguing that merchants capital or 
>interest bearing capital (or rent) cannot simply be isolated and 
>compared across social systems; rather while these elements share 
>formal resemblances across social systems,  they have radically 
>different implications when parts of different 'totalities'. So here 
>Marx would be more like Radcliffe Brown than Frazer in social 
>anthropology (given Edmund Leach's summary). Again, this kind of 
>theorizing has to be part of an inductive-historical approach of the 
>sort Marx commended in Richard Jones whose contribution to Marx's 
>method has simply been expunged in contemporary scholarship.

I agree with the first sentence of this passage, but don't see that it
necessarily implies the specific and idiosyncratic methodological claim
that follows it.  The onset of the capitalist mode of production was
associated historically with a fundamental change in class conditions that
arguably made it difficult if not impossible for circuits of usury and
merchant capital to proceed as they had before.  I suspect that inductive
argument (historically or otherwise based) of itself provides insufficient
grounds for useful social science; on this point see Gregory Bateson in the
preface to his _Steps to An Ecology of Mind_.

>I should also add this unrelated point: note how Marx emphasizes the 
>importance of industrialization of production and the continuous 
>revolution in productive technique to the character of bourgeois 
>society; how can this aspect receive the attention it deserves if one 
>is focused on the simple ownership of assets and the possibility of 
>exploitation in and through exchange (or even the exogeneity of the 
>distributional struggle to price and profit determination)? Wouldn't 
>Marxists be better off thinking through Veblen on the character of 
>industrial society?

The issue isn't "focusing on" the simple ownership of assets (and I'm
certainly not suggesting that distributional struggle is "exogenous" to
price and profit determination!  Where in the world did you get that
idea?), it's insisting on including this consideration as a necessary part
of a coherent political economic account.  I only emphasize this
consideration because it is, in my reading, inappropriately neglected in
standard Marxian accounts.  

I'll put it another way.  I suspect from frequent experience that my
particular mode of social explanation seems weird to you, i.e. mechanistic
and ahistorical.  But I don't in any way mean to impose mechanistic
theoretical explanations or oppose historical analysis.  I'm saying that
the received "inductive-historical" accounts leave out concrete--call them
micro-theoretic-- considerations that render them (at best) plausible non
sequiturs.  I'm only insisting on the recognition and inclusion of these
micro-theoretic considerations.  I don't think it's implausible to imagine
a coherent deductively microfounded historical account of capitalism.  The
history is necessary to indicate the grounds on which deductive analysis
might proceed; the deductive analysis is necessary to provide a basis for
connecting the historical materials in other than journalistic fashion.  

I have a mixed opinion about the relevance of Veblen.  He is sometimes
hilarious, often insightful, always pungent.  But I don't think he offered
a workable analytical *system* in the same sense that Marx did.


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