[OPE-L:6986] surplus value discussion

From: gerald_a_levy (gerald_a_levy@msn.com)
Date: Sun Apr 14 2002 - 08:34:04 EDT

Re Ian's [6984-5]:

[From 6985]:
> However, I think it is a bit rigid to say that the only form of
> 'surplus-value' in a broad sense that can exist is a surplus of exchange
> value on variable capital. This is certainly the most dynamic form of
> surplus value, the only kind that is part of a system of self-valorising
> value. Merchant capital and slave-owner's capital don't have the same
> dynamic role: they depend on differentials in costs of production which
> globalising capital tends to reduce. As long as we are clear about the
> respective forms of 'surplus-value' it may be less confusing to accept
> alongside the capitalist variety.
>  Alternatively, we could try to reserve value for surplus labour in the
> form of exchange value derived from employment of (formally) free wage
> labour, and talk of monetary profits in the case of merchants and slave
> owners. The advantage of this wouls be to emphasise the unique properties
> of capitalism proper, prefigured but not realised in earlier forms (or
> contemporary 'backward' forms such as US plantation capital in the
> ante-bellum south). The advantage of the other formulation is that it
> highlights the analogies between capitalism and other modes of production
> (and even modes of profit making such as usury and merchant trade that
> on appropriating surplus labour from inferior methods of production or
> shortages or lack of liquidity) in the way Marx does when he compares
> slavery, feudalism and capitalism as modes of extracting surplus labour
> from a labouring population in Vol 1 of Capital. Here he says that under
> capitalism it APPEARS that there is no unpaid labour, whereas in slavery
> APPEARS that there is no paid labour. Talking of 'surplus-value' in slave
> commodity production is one way of going beneath those appearances. of
> course, you have also to recognise the difference, as the appearances have
> some reality (highlighted, for example, when slaves are worked to death)

Well, of course, we could use 's' in contrast to 'S' or 'v' (for value, not
variable capital) as distinct from 'V' (which you suggest in your 6984 reply
to Chris).  It would be a confusing use of terms but that is a secondary
question: the primary question should be how we are to conceive of what
Paul B called "anachronisms"  within our overall comprehension of capitalism
(unless we want also to have  a discussion about pre-capitalist modes of
production.)  Again you have referred [84-85] to monetary profits received
by merchant capitalists who buy low and sell high.  How are we to understand
these processes more concretely in terms of whether s or S is created,
whether it represents a redistribution of  S internationally, or whether
other causal forces or at work? Let us look  more concretely at this issue
so that we can distinguish separate historical forms for how this happens:

A.   There are well-established markets, e.g. futures markets, where the aim
of the market participants is to buy at one price and resell -- often in
very short order -- to others on that market at a higher price.   Whether
pork rinds, or or comic books, or baseball cards are purchased, in these
markets,  this is clearly _not_ an example of the production of surplus
value.  Rather, we can comprehend this as a form of  *speculation* and,
thereby, a *redistribution* of surplus value in the form of  a reallocation
of profit. In these markets,  some gain and some lose but there is no net
creation of S (or even s?).

B.  There are other less formal markets where there is a trade of goods
produced  prior to the advent of capitalism: e.g. the ongoing trade in
'antiquities'.  In some cases there is even no money exchanged: e.g. where
there is grave-robbing by those who then sell the goods that may never
have been produced as commodities to begin with.   Even though Marx
claimed that "The chapter on primitive accumulation claims no more than to
trace the path by which, in Western Europe, the capitalist economic order
emerged from the womb of the feudal economic order"  ("A letter to the
Editorial Board  of Otechestvennye Zapiski" in Teodor Shanin ed. _Late
Marx and the Russian Road_, p. 135), I think that the concept of  the
*primitive accumulation of capital*  does have ongoing meaning for how
we interpret this form of profit-gaining.  (What role, if any, there is for
applying this concept to the analysis of contemporary social formations has
been debated recently in the online journal  _Commons_ by Werner
Bonefeld, Paul Z and others.)  In this case as  well, there is no net
creation of S (or even s?), but there is certainly a potential gain (profit)
to be made by the merchants who sell these goods.

C. There is theft and plunder in items or goods that were more recently
created or produced.  E.g. there may be the theft and plunder of items
from land either privately owned or owned by the state.   Thus,  much of
the world's ivory comes from elephants which are slaughtered illegally
on state-owned lands.   There are many other instances as well, of
course.  In many of these cases, the object being stolen had never been
a commodity. In other cases (e.g. the theft of armaments from the
state), the good being stolen may have been previously produced as
a commodity.  Depending on the characteristics of which instances we
are talking about, we could conceptualize this as either part of the
(ongoing) *primitive accumulation of capital*   or the illegal re-sale of
commodities.  in either case, there is a redistribution of wealth
monetized in the form of profit rather than the creation of S (or even

D. There is also the more common practice  of merchants attempting to
obtain products produced on local markets in  less developed capitalist
economies for re-sale at much higher prices in markets in advanced
capitalist nations.  E.g. the purchase of "primitive art" and crafts
produced in more traditional societies for re-sale in art galleries in
New York, London, Paris, etc.   There is _clearly_ a form of
exploitation going on here (although it may be confusing for Marxists
to use that word in this context).  Yet, again, I don't think this buying
low and selling high can be thought of as the production of S (or even s?)
even though the merchants obviously profit from this activity.  It should
be noted, though, that as this process continues, the opportunities for
excess profiting in this manner tend to disappear as local sellers learn
the market price of the goods that they sell and insist on higher prices
(this, for example, has happened on many Polynesian islands) and the
'excess profit-taking' could thus be seen as transitory.

E.  There is also the more systematic purchase of goods below their
value for sale to (other) petty-producers (as inputs) or to workers
or other classes (as subsistence goods).   Due to the mass poverty and
the huge size of the relative surplus population in many less developed
economies, the poor have been forced into non-traditional and non-waged
ways of supporting themselves. Here I refer to the petty commodity
sector -- called by others the "informal sector"  -- in many contemporary
capitalist formations. While this sector might be seen as being a
manifestation of a social crisis brought about by capitalism, this sector
seems to show  no signs of being a merely transitory condition (although,
this of course does not necessarily mean that they are permanent.)  Again,
I think it would be  misleading to refer to the production of S by
producers in this sector.  I  would suggest, rather, that in these markets
there  is a *redistribution of  value*, including from wage-earners to those
employed in the petty commodity sector.

I think _everyone_ in  this discussion will agree that in the analysis of
particular capitalist social formations the existence of  all of the above
(as well as slavery and other forms of bonded labor) can not be "swept
under the rug" (i.e. hidden; ignored) since they may be important for
comprehending the social formation in question even though they are
not essential to a _theory_ of capitalism.   So, the issue has _never_
been whether these subjects are significant and real -- rather the issue
is _how_ they should be comprehended.  I would like to see more
discussion on whether your proposed distinctions between s and S and
v and V are analytically useful and/or whether there are other concepts
(such as  speculation, the primitive accumulation of capital,  and the
redistribution of V and S internationally) which have greater explanatory

In solidarity, Jerry

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