[OPE-L:5603] RE: Ockam's Razor

From: Michael Williams (michael@williamsmj.worldonline.co.uk)
Date: Thu May 17 2001 - 05:35:07 EDT

I realise that Howard is engaged in a particular debate with Geert, into
whose mouth I have no wish to put words. Nevertheless, Howard's comments
indicate such an ignorance of the value-form perspective, that I feel
constrained to chip in a few pennyworth of my own:

> -----Original Message-----
> From: owner-ope-l@galaxy.csuchico.edu
> [mailto:owner-ope-l@galaxy.csuchico.edu]On Behalf Of howard
> engelskirchen
> Sent: Wednesday, May 16, 2001 4:23 PM
> To: ope-l@galaxy.csuchico.edu
> Subject: [OPE-L:5594] Re: Ockam's Razor
> Re Geert's 5577
> Geert argues that there are two strands in Marx's thought, one pointing to
> a labor embodied theory and the other pointing to a value form theory, but
> that the amiguities are unresolved in his work.  The problem I have with
> this critique is that when it comes down to examples I always wonder
> whether we aren't faced with what Hegel somewhere referred to as
> mechanical
> or one-sided dialectics.  One takes a contradiction, and instead of
> grasping it as a unity of opposites that interpenetrate, the two poles are
> separated and held apart and treated as if they are only
> externally related.

The unpacking of the complex structure of interconnected 'unities of
opposites' is a central motivator of the systematic dialectical presentation
deployed by the value form approach. (See, e.g., Reuten and Williams 1989
for a, no doubt imperfect, example.)
> Take for example the question of whether value exists before exchange or
> exists only in exchange.  This becomes a line in the sand.  One is allowed
> one position or the other.  Marx is read to lend support to either
> position, but irreconcilably so.  So to get beyond the confusion, we have
> to reconstruct Marx -- in this particular case, if I understand correctly,
> by saying that although some texts point toward an analysis that value
> exists only in exchange, these insights are never fully
> disengaged from the
> persistence of embodied labor ideas of either the physiological
> or abstract
> labor sort.

The value form perspective is motivated precisely to transcend this
'line-in-the sand' mentality. In general, it emphasises synthesis as well as
analysis, and in particular it argues that value emerges necessarily in the
intersection of production and exchange. This is the basis of its critique
of LET's as precisely one-sided. What does emerge, logically, only through
exchange is the quantitative determination of exchange value. Of course,
through a process that Geert christened 'pre-commensuration', in practice
the capitalist labour process is informed by usually adequate pre-estimates
of this quantitative determination. What value-form perspectives argue
against is the notion that measurement of value by measuring heterogeneous
labour time is meaningful. Value emerges from the expenditure of labour
under capitalist relations of production for the production of commodities
(i.e. goods or services intended for sale into a developed system of

More generally, the value-form take on capitalist macrodynamics also argues
strongly against the kind of mapping of isolated tendencies of accumulation
onto antagonistic schools of thought (trpf, profits-squeeze,
under-consumption, over-accumulation, etc..) that we all lived through in
the 1970s). Again, what is offered is a synthetic reconstruction of the
development of these various tendencies as the conditions of existence of
the fundamental contradictions of capital accumulation, and the more
concrete articulation of these different tendencies over the cycle. As Geert
was primarily responsible for this part of Reuten & Williams (1989), I can
perhaps say without immodesty that there is a brilliant attempt at such a
development and articulation, complete with diagrams, in the first half of
the book.

> But this seems a classic example of interpenetrating opposites being
> forcibly ripped apart.  Value exists meaningfully, though
> differently, both
> before exchange and, as it is actualized, in exchange, and much is lost by
> plumping for either solution without the other.  To say that value only
> exists in the act of exchange seems a retreat to the economic
> equivalent of
> the contractarian view that before two wills meet in exchange there is no
> society but only the unruly chaos of the state of nature.  In
> fact, Marx is
> quite clear that commodity production is, in the original disposition of
> agents of production to the means of production and to each other, a form
> of social production.  This is an essential contribution of Marxism to
> social analysis still not fully exploited.

No value-form approach that I know of would dispute any of this.

> But then we must actually look at the original disposition of agents of
> production to the means of production and to each other (and this, not the
> product as a commodity, is the analytical starting point of Capital, as
> Marx makes clear in Notes on Wagner).

The starting point of Capital is an interesting controversy. Geert and I
argue that it is the value-form, generally it is considered to be the
commodity form, but there are other serious contenders. The test always is
whether from the putative starting point, a systematic dialectic
presentation of the object-totality can be developed.

> Because the agents of production
> produce independently use values that are useless to them, exchange is
> generated necessarily , and their labor is necessarily social production.
> In other words, if we deal not with historical origins but with an ongoing
> system, then the structure reproduces itself and the structure of
> production cannot be divorced from the structure of exchange:  production
> generates necessarily exchange [the disposition of agents of production is
> causally efficacious] and exchange reproduces the original disposition of
> the agents of production to the means of production and to each
> other.

None of this conflicts with the value-form perspective. In particular, the
expression of the inter-penetration of production and exchange in the
ongoing process of reproduction of the capitalist economy is central to this
set of approaches.

> Now
> how is aggregate social labor distributed to need in this form?  It is
> produced as concrete labor in the form of private labor, but in fact
> embodies also different aliquot portions of the aggregate labor available.

'in fact'? The value-form argument is that it is the interpenetration of
production and exchange in commodity circulation that determines, reproduces
and transforms these 'proportions'. The one-sided LET has no explanation of
how this occurs.

> Do these expended portions of aggregate social labor constitute value?
> Except for those that never make it to market at all -- in which case they
> are not any proportionate part of a market society's aggregate
> social labor
> and thus do not fit the terms of the problem -- yes.  Can we
> specify before
> the act of exchange the *quantity* (as distinct from quality) of value?
> No.  In the value form hours and minutes of labor are measured by
> ounces of
> gold, not hands of a clock.

Give or take a debate about the apparent conflation of the category Money
with 'gold', I cannot see that the value-form view would have any problem
with this.

> In general the whole idea that value exists only in exchange

This is not the value form position

> ignores the
> distinction between what is real potential, and has the ontological status
> of real, and the kind of potential we speak of when we say "anything is
> possible."  It is akin to our tendency to ignore the distinctoin between
> the existence of powers and their exercise.  Hydrogen burns.  If I keep
> hydrogen in a test tube it has the power to burn, but it is not burning.
> We don't say it is hydrogen only when its powers are being actualized.  We
> say it is hydrogen because of its atomic structure whether it is
> burning or
> not.  Similarly we say of labor that when it is the product of a
> particular
> economic structure, it is value, whether value is actualized or not.
> Labor's existence inthe value form exists as a qualitative matter prior to
> exchange, a fact shown by its nominal price -- and everything has a price
> -- but because the distribution of aggregate labor to need is an ever
> shifting process, its quantity can be measured only in exchange.

Just so,

> To say that value exists only in exchange

I know of no contributor to any value-form perspective who claims any such

>would seem to obliterate a key
> acquisition of Marx's analysis -- that value is in fact a form of labor
> whereby relations of producers in their reciprocal activities are
> represented or become manifest as relations of objects.  Bailey's
> error was
> to miss this.  He saw only the relation of objects and did not investigate
> the social relations underlying those object connections.  Thus while
> Ricardo located labor as the common element of commodities but
> neglected to
> investigate the specific form in which labor manifested itself as that
> common element, Bailey, according to Marx, made the opposite error of
> emphasizing only the form in which the exchange value of the commodity
> showed itself.  Marx showed the unity of the common element and its
> specific form.

Just so.

Come on, Howard, informal e-mail discussions are immensely valuable, and we
cannot expect all participants to be well-versed in all the relevant
literature. Nevertheless, it behoves each of us to read messages in the
light of their authors main well-known published views on the relevant

comradely greetings,


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