[OPE-L:7529] Alfredo SF on VF theory I

From: Christopher Arthur (cjarthur@waitrose.com)
Date: Wed Aug 21 2002 - 16:16:18 EDT

People are probably aware that Alfredo SF has a book out (The Value of
Marx: Routledge). This has the merit of treating value-form theory as of
major importance among current trends; but the treatment is a little
cursory (pp. 26-29). Nonetheless, I think it is illuminating to discuss the
issues raised: so here goes with a first installment.
One of the difficulties Alfredo, or anyone else, faces is that VF theorists
share only a family resemblance; there are different versions; here
naturally I speak largely for myself.
In order to simplify his task Alfredo takes I. Rubin as paradigmatic, even
though references in the notes show his familiarities with current VFT. But
although Rubin is an important predecessor it does not follow that
criticisms of him disposes of current VFT. But he simply takes Rubin as the
gold standard and thinks if he refutes Rubin he has refuted the whole
school. But this is not true. There are three major problems about value of
which R dealt only with one (and because of this distorted even that);
these are the nature of the form assumed by the product; the necessity of
money; the form determination of production. R deals with how the product
of labour becomes a value; here he says some correct things about abstract
labour in polemicising against 'labour-embodied' interpretations and
insisting on the social determination of AL ('This equalisation of labour
may take place, but only mentally and anticipated, in the process of
production. But in reality it takes place through the act of exchange
through the equalisation of the product with a definite sum of money.'
p.142); but he fails completely to deal with the development of the value
form to money, which of course is a key thing for all of us; still worse he
thinks  that value and abstract labour are real only at the moment of
exchange, as the above passage indicates. Alfredo moans about this but he
does not tell people that Reuten and Williams start from production, and
that I have made very clear, e.g. in my C&C 73 (2001) piece, that the VF
must penetrate production such that it too is value in motion, and that
'abstract labour' has a reality at the level of the capital relation.
ALfredo likes that piece but does not notice it is relevant when he thinks
he has refuted VF theory.
Central to Alfredo's critique is that VFT wrongly prioritises the private
over the social. He crits Rubin because the stress on the social form of
exchange goes along with a relative neglect of that other key social form,
the capital relation. This leads to a somewhat misleading characterisation
of production as 'private' as if it were like simple commodity production.
But it is clear VF can extend its form approach to the capitalist factory
(R&W start there, and see my piece in C&C). The circuit of capital includes
the production process, as a movement 'of' value, not just 'for' value.
Hence abstract labour exists in the factory.
Alf rightly says that VFT 'starts from the social division of labour' (26)
but then very curiously has a criticism that 'focus on the value relation
implies that ... producers do not belong to the social division of labour'.
(27) He goes on to say that because the theory stresses 'separation' it
assumes 'production is essentially for consumption, and private and
concrete labour is analytically prior to social and abstract labour which
exist only ideally before sale.' (27).
Let us try to sort this out. Following R&W let us consider sociation,
dissociation ; and association. By sociation is meant the universal,
ahistorical reality that in order to be active economically, people engage
in social relationships and social practices. Outside of a Robinson Crusoe
situation, production and consumption are immediately, or mediatedly,
socially contextualised.
By dissociation (the negation of sociation) is meant the historically
specific reality of the separation between economic agents predominant in
the bourgeois epoch; 'separation' here does not mean a geographical
distance of course, but a social barrier. Dissociation has three
dimensions: first that useful objects are held by persons as their private
property and hence are not immediately available for satisfying the needs
of others; second that production is carried out in enterprises likewise in
the hands of private owners; third that labour-power is separated from its
object in that the most important means of production are held as the
property of members of the capitalist class.
By association  is meant that the opposition of sociation and dissociation
is mediated in the form of exchange whereby consumers acquire the objects
they require, production units acquire inputs and dispose of outputs, and
through contracts of labour people find work and capitalist enterprises
find workers. It is important to understand that when dissociation is
negated through association this is on the same ground; that is to say, the
basic element of privatised appropriation of goods is retained, but a form
of mediation (properly called here sublation - Aufhebung) is found. Thus
association does not replace dissociation; rather it replicates it through
developing its conditions of existence; sociation now takes the
contradictory form of their unity. I agree with Reuten and Williams that
dissociation is the conceptual starting point of the presentation of the
bourgeois epoch; and that the exchange relation provides the first moment
of association.
For VFT production is private and social at the same time but
expositionally we begin with dissociation to see how it is sublated by
association. If that is whatis meant by 'analytically prior' we plead
guilty. However the aim is to show how private concrete labour becomes
socially abstract labour, not merely at themoment of exchange but prior to
This is the way Rubin tackles the issue. He points out that in some places
Marx seems to assume value and abstract labour must already be given to
exchange; and in other places Marx says they presuppose exchange. In
resolving this conundrum he says: îWe must distinguish exchange as a social
form of the process of reproduction from exchange  as a particular phase of
this process ... alternating with the phase of direct production.╣ So what
Rubin emphasises is that, if production is production for exchange, this
îleaves its imprint on the course of the process of production itself╣.#
This is why value and abstract labour are forms arising from a process of
production oriented to exchange; but if exchange is taken narrowly, in
opposition to production, they may be posited as prior to it. This is at
one level very obvious. If value and labour are commensurated in exchange,
then anyone organising production for exchange is forced to
îprecommensurate╣ (to borrow a term from Reuten), assigning an îideal
value╣ to be tested against actuality in exchange and competition. Of
course the producer may not be aware that socially necessary labour time
has just changed, but in the long run exchange mediates supposedly
autonomous production units so as to constrain them accordingly.
Alfredo says without explanation this is 'invalid' (n.32 p. 122) but it
seems the way in to the solution to me. The problem with Rubin is that the
notion of 'imprint' is vague. There are two possible readings: to preexist
'ideally' is ambiguous; in one sense value is always ideal in the sense of
not empirically observable; yet ideal forms are as real and effective as
material shapes: another sense is mental. One is that there is a mental
picture in the head of the capitalist about the value he hopes to realise
and the methods available to him to meet his target. Secondly is that the
whole circuit of capital, including the phase of production, is
FORM-DETERMINED. This last notion does not appear in Alfredo but it is a
significant noption in VFT. The effectivity of the VF on that which takes
VF is suchthat all phases are posited as imbued with value, which is now
presupposed as produced before being exchanged for the purpose of realising
A makes an interesting point (28) when he says failure to sell on a VF
theory must mean no value was created whereas on his view it was created
but then destroyed as the goods rusted in the warehouse. Usually one would
take the latter view as a vulgar metaphysical labour-embodied notion. But,
as I say, situated in a circuit of capital that is form-determined as value
in motion one could accept it.
Alf (27-8) says 'the essential separation is between wage workers and the
means of production'. But a) this is no more essential than the other two
separations listed above b) well within the problematic of VFT.
The Weeks quotation about the collective laborer is  beside the point
because this labour still requires social validation in exchange. There is
a sense in which labour is immediately social *within* the factory; but
when embodied in a C it is private *with respect to the factory's external
p. 29 VFT 'conflates money with the substance of value'. This is very
obscure. What is meant?
Labour is the source of value; the term 'substance' is treated with
suspicion by Reuten because he conflates it with material stuff and hence a
embodied labour theory. But 'immaterial substance' is metaphysically
kosher; for me value is such a substance which is  phenomenally represented
in money, and has no reality unless itis so representable. (I have a
forthcoming paper on 'Money as the Form of Value').

Chris A

17 Bristol Road, Brighton, BN2 1AP, England

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