[OPE-L:5671] Response to Fred - 3

From: nicola taylor (n.taylor@student.murdoch.edu.au)
Date: Sun May 27 2001 - 01:17:03 EDT

(3) Value-Form in Marx:

Marx's answer to the 'riddle' of money is presented in the third section of
his opening chapter.  For the first German edition of Capital, Marx wrote a
special Appendix (1867b) on the 'The Value-Form' because - he explained to
Engels - 'the matter is too decisive for the whole book' (cited Arthur,
1979b, p.69).  In this Appendix, Marx made it clear that the decisive
character of the value-form lies in the conceptual movement it inaugurates
- from the double character of commodities and labour to their
determination by social form.  In a crucial passage at the start of the
third section Marx sets out to make this transition, positing the commodity
as a duality of 'natural form and value form'.  Introducing the argument,
he declares enigmatically:

'Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as
values; in this it is the direct opposite of the coarsely sensuous
objectivity of commodities as physical objects.  We may twist and turn a
single commodity as we wish; it remains impossible to grasp it as a thing
possessing value.  However, let us remember that commodities possess an
objective character as values only insofar as they are all expressions of
an identical social substance, human labour, that their objective character
as values is therefore purely social.  From this it follows self-evidently
that it can only appear in the social relation between commodity and
commodity' (Marx, 1867a, p.138-9).

What does this passage mean?  Firstly, Marx further elucidates the double
character of the commodity: (1) it has a material 'natural' existence
(objectively, it is a useful object) and (2) it has a non-material 'social'
existence (objectively it is a value).  This is clearly an elaboration of
the conceptual use-value/value distinction; the material properties of the
commodity are embodied in it and constitute its useful quality, yet it
cannot be grasped in itself as a thing possessing value.  Secondly, diverse
commodities are objectively commensurable - have value - only in so far as
they express a social phenomenon - namely, the equalisation of human
labour.  Moreover, the equalisation is affected not in production but
exchange, when the diverse labours of private dissociated producers are
verified as a relation between commodities.  It follows 'self-evidently'
that value is not a physiological substance but a 'purely social' concept,
referring to the historically specific form that social labour takes when
the products of independent producers are exchanged universally against one

At first sight, this passage appears to verify Rubin's (1928/1972) 'social'
interpretation of the concept of abstract labour as the social form that
private labour assumes in a system of generalised commodity exchange.  On
this reading, Marx explicates the necessity that the value of a commodity
be represented in the bodily form of an equivalent commodity: 'human labour
creates value, but is not itself value.  It becomes value only in its
coagulated state, in objective form' (Marx, 1867a, p.142, also p.149).  The
notion that human labour is value only when it takes on an objective
(equivalent) form underwrites Marx's derivation of money as the universal
equivalent commodity, or unique commodity in whose value that of all other
commodities comes to be expressed.  This leads to an important argument,
introduced in the fourth section: namely that in a system of generalised
production for exchange, a 'reification' takes place such that the social
character of the relationship between private producers appears inverted as
a monetary relationship between the objects they independently produce.
This inversion is a 'social' phenomenon specific to the 'bourgeois mode of
production', as Marx argues:

'The value-form of the product of labour is the most abstract, but also the
most universal form of the bourgeois mode of production; by that fact it
stamps the bourgeois mode of production as a particular kind of social
production of a historical and transitory character.  If then we make the
mistake of treating it as the eternal natural form of social production we
necessarily overlook the specificity of the value-form, and consequently of
the commodity form together with its further developments, the money form,
the capital form, etc (Marx, 1867a, fn.34, p.174)'.

In this footnote, and elsewhere in this section on commodity fetishism,
Marx denounces the classical political economists for their failure to
comprehend the 'specificity of the value form' as a historically unique
form of social domination over value content.  Where value and its
measurement (in labour time) appear in classical value theory with
'self-evident and nature-imposed necessity' as economic 'laws' or external
determinations relevant to any form of productive activity, these
'formulas' are, for Marx, but ideological manifestations of the social form
itself (Marx, 1967a, p.175).  The secret of the structure and development
of the capitalist economy is therefore to be found in the material
abstraction of commodity exchange, and the inverted reality of value-forms
that it creates.  In other words, 'the entire system has to be grasped
(within limits yet to be specified) as form-determined' (Arthur, 1993, p.66). 
Is this 'social' interpretation of Marx's value-form theory convincing?
One difficulty is that Marx retains a reference to value as labour in its
'coagulated state' thereby creating a link to the classical theories that
he explicitly criticised.  The 'objective form' into which socially
equalised 'human labour' necessarily 'coagulates' might then be interpreted
as a physiological labour embodiment (in the body of a particular
commodity, or universally in the money commodity) that takes place
independently of any monetary abstraction from concrete-labour in exchange.
 A physiological interpretation of 'social equalisation' implies a
Ricardian model of reification, in which the 'relation of things' is
constituted as a form of 'appearance' autonomous of the 'real' social
relations hidden behind it (cf Murray, 1993).  In other words, labour as
'essence is defined, in contrast to the form of appearance, in a formal,
logical way as the universal, typical and principal' (Backhaus, 1969/1980,
Given Marx's retention of physiological references - and the possibility
for reading into his first chapter a labour-embodied theory of commodity
money - Backhaus concludes that the social mediation implied by Marx's
theory of value-form 'can only be construed as a pseudo-dialectical
movement of pseudo-dialectical contradiction' (p.101).  Moreover, to the
extent that the theory of commodity fetishism retains a Ricardian essence
and appearance model, it severs the essential interconnectedness of form
and essence demanded by a systematic dialectical theory, rendering the
'phenomenon of reification unfathomable' (pp.101-4).  Unfathomable because
a theory of inverted reality can be compatible with a social science only
to the extent that essence and its appearance are unified and systemically
determined (Coletti, incidentally, came to the same conclusion from a
different perspective).  Marx's failure is precisely that he failed to
explicate the double character of labour as the essential opposition of
capitalist production, grounded in the internal social structures that
constitute labour in this double form.  Thus, the value-form appears not as
an abstract-universal 'mode of association' determining the social form of
private productive activity in capitalism, but more ambiguously as a theory
of 'commodity money' derived from the exchange relation.... 

Nicola Mostyn (Taylor)
Faculty of Economics
Murdoch University
Telephone: 61-8-9385 1130

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