[OPE-L:5522] Re: Re: Re: Re: William of Ockam's Razor and Political Economy

From: Rakesh Narpat Bhandari (rakeshb@Stanford.EDU)
Date: Wed May 09 2001 - 01:34:41 EDT

re Howard's 5521

>One of the hares I noticed loose, Michael, was the idea of "living in an
>epoch driven by pure form."
>I wonder what that could mean as a matter of social science?  Social
>science, like natural science, is about explaining causal mechanisms.  If
>it were a matter of saying that understanding the causal mechanisms of
>society depended above all on something pretty much like what Aristotle
>meant by formal causality, that this was key, then I could follow.
>  But
>this kind of causality would not be referred to as "pure form," and
>although Marx's analysis of capitalism is certainly the first example in
>social science demonstrating its significance, I don't know why formal
cause in this sense would be specific to the capitalist mode of production.

Howard, i argue here that formal causality can be salvaged in a semantic sense:

In the previous section I have reprised Marx's argument that the 
properties of the gold commodity as money cannot be explained, to use 
Aristotelian terms, by the material substance (causa materialis) of 
gold but rather by its form (causa formalis) as the universal 
equivalent in the exchange relation. It would indeed be as misleading 
to explain certain attributes of gold in terms of its material 
substance as it would be to account for the most striking properties 
of an exquisite statue in terms of its metallic content, rather than 
its form .  The puzzling attributes of gold obtain by the imposition 
of the specific form of the universal equivalent on the determinate 
substance of abstract labor. Marx's meta-science then seems to assume 
at least at the semantic level the possibility of Aristotelian formal 
causality; in other words, causality is not reduced to event 
generation by the transfer of  energy from one entity to another : 
"The general relative form of value imposes the character of 
universal equivalent on the linen, which is the commodity excluded, 
from the whole world of commodities." (I, 159)  Marx has replaced 
gold with linen as a reductio ad absurdum criticism of the common 
sense notion that the dazzling properties of money, viz., its 
monopoly over direct exchangeability, derive from the metallic nature 
of the money commodity rather than the form of the universal 
If I state that coats or boots stand in a relation to linen because 
the latter is the universal incarnation of abstract human labour, the 
absurdity of the statement is self-evident. Nevertheless, when the 
producers of coats and boots bring these commodities into a relation 
with linen, or with gold or silver (and this makes no difference 
here), as the universal equivalent, the relation between their own 
private labour and the collective labour of society appears to them 
in exactly this absurd form. (I,169)

>And, to think the unthinkable, Rakesh, I wonder if the point can be right
>that abstract labor "should only exist in the act of mentally abstracting
>from various kinds of concrete labor."
>  I understand you to be asserting
this proposition as correct -- if I have misread, forgive me.

yes like fruit exists only in and through the mental act of 
abstracting from organes, apples, mangoes, etc.

>   But surely
>for the Marx of Chapter 2 abstract labor is a real abstraction, practically
>made by acts of exchange in the market.

agreed. abstract labor is not only a real abstraction, we treat the 
the money commodity (assuming a commodity theory of money) as if 
itself incarnated abstract labor. But abstract labor should not be 
incarnated in a thing, much like it would be mystical to say the real 
abstraction Fruit itself took the form of mangoes (this would seem to 
be similar to the realist position of Ockham's time). If we 
understood Fruit this way, we would be led into a mistaken 
ontological commitment--what Marx calls a mystical interconnection:

"This inversion (Verkehrung) by which the sensibly-concrete counts 
only as the form of appearance of the abstractly general and, not on 
the contrary, the abstractly general as property of the concrete, 
characterizes the expression of value. At the same time, it makes 
understanding it difficult. If I say: Roman Law and German Law are 
both laws, that is obvious. But if I say Law (Das Recht), this 
abstraction (Abstraktum) realises itself in Roman Law or in German 
Law, in these concrete laws, the interconnection becomes mystical. "

While there are category mistakes at work here, Marx audaciously 
argues that these logical inversions by which one commodity is 
transubstantiated into value itself are not non-sense to those 
immersed in everyday monetary exchanges. Religious experience 
provides an analogue to what can be called a practical non-logic. 
Here the three signs of God as Father and Son and Spirit are brought 
into metonymic relation and thought to be not only true but also 
simultaneously true; while this conflicts with the logical rules of 
physical experience by implying that God is son and father to 
himself, such mytho-logical statements nonetheless make sense 'in the 
mind' so long as the speaker and his listener, or the actor and his 
audience, share the same conventional ideas about the metaphysical 

For Marx, modern humankind is entangled in mytho-logical beliefs 
about money in its commercial life. In his remarkable expression this 
ideological and practical world is revealed to be the religion of 
everyday life. In the painstaking derivation of money in the first 
part of Das Kapital, Marx has attempted to demonstrate how gold as 
money is qualitatively different from commodities as commodities; yet 
gold is born as a commodity,  and only under the pressure of the 
exchange of great quantities of commodities does gold ascend from 
earth to the economic heaven to become not merely a measure of value 
and a standard of price, but in virtue of its functions of universal 
equivalent and exchange medium, Value or Abstract Labor  Incarnate. 

>  Then what is the ontological
>status of a "real abstraction"?  Why isn't it just the same embodied labor
>(no metaphor), differently grasped or seized (metaphor) and differently
>measured?  Concrete labor gets measured by a clock and any particular
>instance is incommensurable with any other.  But the same labor, taken as
>an aliquot part of all the market's labor, and measured, as to time, in
>weights of gold (no clock fetishes allowed), is abstract labor.  Suppose I
>have to bend a sword into a plowshare (no metaphor).  Then putting a bend
>in a piece of metal can be a way to measure time:  "it took me 20 minutes
>to do that."  Time objectified in a bend.  Embended time.  And whether an
>identical object counts as one thing or another often depends on relational
>context;  this is not just true of commodities.  I remember an early modern
>drawing of an Inca pouring molten gold down the throat of a conquistador.

Let me think about this.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Sat Jun 02 2001 - 00:00:06 EDT