[OPE-L:5869] RE: : Reply to fred - A & B -> The Value-Form

From: Michael Williams (michael@williamsmj.worldonline.co.uk)
Date: Tue Jun 26 2001 - 07:11:27 EDT

Once again Howard has given a careful and well-argued interpretation of Marx
on Value etc. Where I want to take issue with him is that most of what he
says is compatible with a Value-form interpretation; and where it is not
this arises from a somewhat analytical linear (i.e. insufficiently synthetic
and dialectical) interpretation of Marx. His very careful presentation of
his interpretation of Marx's arguments is, at key points, confronted only
with a simplistic caricature of the VF position.

(I do not, of course, claim to speak for either Fred or Chris, who I hope
will excuse me barging in!)

So let me try to respond directly to those links in Howard's message that
fall into these traps:

> -----Original Message-----
> From: owner-ope-l@galaxy.csuchico.edu
> [mailto:owner-ope-l@galaxy.csuchico.edu]On Behalf Of howard
> engelskirchen
> Sent: Tuesday, June 26, 2001 8:35 AM
> To: ope-l@galaxy.csuchico.edu
> Subject: [OPE-L:5868] Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Reply to fred - A & B
> Re Fred's 5867:
> I have been tearing my hair at my inability to keep pace with this debate
> as it has unfolded.  Jerry said a good some time ago he hoped I was
> enjoying OPEL and I can say for sure that I would enjoy it a lot more if
> life did not interfere!
> Chris argues that for value form theory "It is the form of
> exchange that is seen as the prime determinant of the capitalist economy
rather than the
> content regulated by it." [The Spectral Ontology of Value]

imo, It is crucial to note that the 'content' is transhistorical (as Howard
makes clear below), from which it follows immediately that an account of the
specifically CAPITALIST economy will indeed focus on capitalist social

> This has long been a basic question for Marxist social science
> and one that
> has appeared in many forms -- do we start with social relations of
> production or social relations of exchange.

The Value-form position is that under capitalism production is determined by
the fact that it is generalised Commodity production: that is, capitalist
production is driven by the imperative to produce products with a view to
exchanging them for a price that covers their costs and generates profit
> I think the question of form determination is first of all a question of
> the forms of production, not the form of exchange.

Yes - production is determined to be necessarily in the form of Commodity
production - that is to enter into generalised exchange. Howard here is
implying an unhelpful dichotomy between production and exchange.
> The question can be approached this way:  what is value as a social
> relation?  What is value as a social relation of *production*?  I take it
> for Chris (and for value form theory generally?) the question is
> nonsensical because it is exchange that brings about value as a form
> without any given content.

There has been any number of logical abominations perpetuated by casual use
of the phrases such as 'value (or capital, or whatever) IS a social
relation'. These expressions conceal a complex web of interconnected
determinations. In everyday discourse value is not a social relation, it is
a predicate of a commodity and of entities more generally. It is the task of
critical political economy to critically construct the social
interconnections that determine the meaning of this predicate under
capitalism; to capture the details that determine that under capitalism the
richness of everyday 'value' is tendentially reduced to the one-dimensional
economic category of Value, expressed in Money. The value-form systematic
presentation claims to have shown that this arid capitalist 'mode of
valuation' is constituted in part by the allocation of social resources
under capitalism being indifferent to the (social usefulness of the)
content. It is a caricature for Howard to render this as 'exchange ...
brings about value as a form without any given content'.

> It is the fact of being exchanged that unites
> things exchanged generically, not anything specific to what they are.

More precisely, it is the fact of being produced as Commodity - that is,
WITH A VIEW to being systemically exchanged - that determines 'what they
are' in terms of their systemic location within capitalism: a potato is not
in the first instance a source of sustenance, but a link in the valorisation
chain. (Of course, to be a successful Commodity it must have a use-value for
someone, presumably derived from its sustaining usefulness. But if it is
threatened with failure as a Commodity, its usefulness will be ignored - as
when crops are ploughed in during a glut, even in the face of local
under-nourishment.) What a commodity specifically is for capital is Value.

> So
> the problem Fred has with understanding Chris's use of Rubin is that for
> Fred there is a content, labor, given form, whereas for Chris there is a
> form which imposes itself upon things by virtue of their being subject to
> exchange.  There is content, and it can be characterized as
> abstract labor,
> but it is determined in the end by mere exchangeability, a form without
> content.

Yes - but this is a consequent of the absurd logic of capitalism:
labour-power is systematically allocated in accordance with the imperatives
of valorisation, not iaw the logic of real social need. It is the social
processes by which this systemic allocation is reproduced that generate
abstract labour. (Of course, it is orthodox economics' ideological role to
demonstrate that free competitive/contestable markets and instrumentally
rational agents successfully mediate value and use-value and so the
allocation of resources iaw consumers' own translation of idiosyncratic
marginal utility into money price in the course of their on-going purchasing
decisions. I submit that a Marxist theory that deals at best inadequately
with the internal relation between production and exchange will be able to
critique such accounts only externally; will fail as a 21st century
'Critique of Political Economy'.)

> In Notes on Wagner Marx presents his method as one that proceeds with
> constant attention to form:  (1) he starts not with a concept of
> value, but
> with the labor product in the *form* in which it appears in the historical
> present; (2) he finds it to be in the *form* of a useful thing

As a useful object, the product of labour (more precisely of humankind's
collective interaction with nature best called 'work') is here conceived

> and a bearer
> of exchange value;

This reports the grasping of useful products by the value-form - that is the
specifically capitalist mode of allocation of labour

> (3) he finds that exchange value is only a *form* for
> the appearance of value;

I submit that Marx has 'found' this by a process consisting of the following
steps: unmediated (more realistically partially mediated) empirical
investigation (primary and secondary), abstraction, and systematic
conceptual development that precisely enables him to grasp the empirical as
the concrete. That is, these things are not empirical givens; they have had
to be discovered by dialectical investigation. (btw, I doubt that Marx
anywhere uses seriously a phrase like 'ONLY a form' in this context. And if
he does, it is an error.)

> (4) he finds that value is a particular
> historically given *form* of the social character of labor, a form which
> may be compared with the historically determined forms in which labor
> appeared in other historical periods.

Similar comments apply: it is only concretely, and thence only after the
identification and articulation of abstract determinants that we can
recognise Value as the historically specific social form of labour. And this
is entirely of a piece with the VF insight that the Value form is, under
capitalism, systemically imposed upon labour to reproduce it as social.

> He writes:  "Hence he [Rodbertus]
> would have found that the 'value' of a commodity only expresses in a
> historically developed form, what exists in all other historical forms of
> society as well, even if *in another form, namely, the social character of
> labour,* so far as it exists as the *expenditure of
> 'social'labour power*."
> (Carver, Texts, p. 207). I take it value form theory rejects this because
> it is incompatible with the notion of value as pure form.

No it does not. I have explained in an earlier response to Howard that the
concept of Value as pure form captures not the physical non-existence of
content, but the social indifference of capitalism to the content. The
specifically capitalist social character of labour is the focus on its
abstract moment (the motor of valorisation) at the expense of its specific
character as the producer of useful products

> What is the form of social labor that takes the value form?  What is value
> as a social relation?  This is explained in the first dozen pages of
> Capital, in the Contribution to the Critique, in the Grundrisse, in Notes
> on Wagner, the letter to Kugelmann, etc.:  wenever production takes place
> separately (privately, autonomously) and produces use values
> useless to the
> producers, then the value form of production emerges.

OK - but Value becomes fully developed only when Commodity production has
become Capitalist Commodity production

> This is value as a
> social relation:

OK - but see above about the caution needed with this much abused

> value is the form social labor takes when it is produced
> by producers who produce independently, but for others, not for
> themselves.
>  This is form determination as a form of production rather than exchange.

Just so - production is determined by the form it is socially impelled to
take: viz capitalist commodity production, so that production is driven by
the imperatives of Commodity production - the requirement to produce
products as successful commodities (see above). Marx sees this determining
form as being the Commodity form. (For various reasons, the Reuten &
Williams version of the VF sees the essential character of the capitalist
system as being best captured by taking the Value-form as the abstract
starting point. But this need not detain us now: Howard's insistence on
dichotomising production and exchange and insisting on a one-sided
productivist, linearly causal interpretation of Marx can be as well
countered by reference to the Commodity form.)

> This is a form of the distribution of working persons (remember human
> beings?) to nature and to each other.

Just so. It is part of the inhumanity of Capitalism that 'the distribution
of working persons (remember human beings [-with subjectivity?]?)' is driven
by the abstract, inhuman, imperatives of the Value-form, rather than by the
pursuit of the satisfaction of social needs and wants whether in consumption
or production. (Incidentally, it is VFT that is first radically humanist and
second that takes the integration of socially determined subjectivity
seriously in its conceptualisation of the social dynamics of capitalism.)

> The form determination that Marx
> uses in the first Chapter of Capital is that which he describes in Pre
> Capitalist Economic Formations:  he studies the historically
> specific forms
> of working persons in relation to nature and to each other.  If producers
> are related to one another in this form of (reciprocally dependent)
> autonomy, then they are causally (not conceptually!) driven by the nature
> of their relationship with one another to market.

Yup - and what we are discussing is how best to conceptualise this
form-determination. (Incidentally, it is an indication of a lack of
understanding of the problems of subjectivity and structure that to choose
to emphasise a dichotomy between 'causation' and 'conceptualisation' here:
people make things happen, but in conditions not of their own choosing (to
which I would add that how they interact with the conditions they find
themselves in so as to reproduce and transform them is determined by how
they systematically conceptualise those conditions - which is in turn
conditioned by their (more or less theoretically informed) practice.)

> Once there they have to
> figure out how to exchange the products of their labor.  They find (in
> practice, not theoretically) that they can equate one thing with another
> and exchange on that basis.

This yo-yo's up and down between levels of abstraction. Real live humans do
not systematically equate anything with anything else. Rather they hire out
their labour for as much money as they can get (abstracting here from
conditions of work etc) and use the money so obtained to buy the products
they want and need. Even this basic description is already
conceptually-laden. Your formulation assumes some kind of sophisticated
intuitive understanding of the social conditions that enable production and
exchange to reproduce themselves, and so allow all this buying and selling
to work as a coherent system. It is the inadequacy of such everyday
understanding by the agents that for Marx motivates the need for a
scientific critical political economy that would otherwise be otiose.

> Analysis notices that if two things are equal
> it must be in terms of some thing common to them.

yea - and SYNTHESIS 'notices' that what is common is not something
pre-existent, but something (abstract labour) that is reproduced only by the
circulation of value that is the unity of production and exchange, and that
this circulation is driven by the imperatives of valorisation and

> What is common is that
> they are products of labor.

Well - once the Value-form capitalist system is up and running, it grasps
things that are not the products of labour. But more importantly it is, I
think, widely accepted that Marx's argument by reduction in Chapter 1 (if
that is what it is) does not validly lead to the conclusion that labour is
the sole source of valorisation. So either this is just assumed (as it was
in one form or another by virtually all political economists of the time);
or it is only established much later in the development of Marx's
presentation (as, inter alia, Chris Arthur has argued).

> Much more careful analysis shows that one
> thing can be used as a form of appearance of the existence of another as a
> product of labor and in fact give expression to the other's "density" as a
> product of labor.

Value as a determining form is not merely a form OF APPEARANCE.

> ...  Value is the historically specific form in which
> the social character of labor appears when production takes a particularly
> determined form.

Yup! The form of capitalist commodity production that is incoherent without
the linkage between production and exchange provided by Commodity as a
product produced with a view to being sold onto a generalised market system.
> If value is taken as pure form, and money is simply a socially imputed
> power, then, as far as I can tell, we are back to the Aristotle
> of Chap. 1,
> sec. 3.  This was essentially how he explained the exchange of beds and
> houses.

I have already explained - again - the import of Value as 'contentless'
form. Money is the sole actualisation of Value autonomous from use-value.
But there is nothing 'simple' about its socially imputed power. Rather it is
the micro-dynamics of generalised capitalist commodity production and
exchange that reproduces power over the social allocation of labour. Money,
of course, is an important link in this dynamic, especially in terms of
locating the subject/structure interaction that is key to it.

Overall, the general problem I have with the thrust of Howard's argument
against VF is that it relies on a number of dichotomies: production and
exchange, underlying reality and forms of appearance, theory and practice,
being and consciousness, cause and concept, and so on. In that sense, it
loses the richness of a more dialectical account. Since the VF approach(es))
claims to re-instate the significance of the post-Hegelian dialectic in
interpretations of Marx, then its neglect by Howard in criticising the VF
approach tends inevitably to one-sided caricature.

Comradely greetings,


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