[OPE-L:7539] Chris A on VF theory

From: Christopher Arthur (cjarthur@waitrose.com)
Date: Sat Aug 24 2002 - 16:32:21 EDT

Alfredo's brief characterisation of VF theory is in the public domain, and
I am posting a critique. It is only fair then for me to put up publicly a
similar brief account. Below is a section from the Introduction to my book
The New Dialectic and Marx's Capital (Brill 2002). This should be out in a
couple of months. Unfortunately it was the day after I returned the proofs
that I received Alfredo's work so no account could be taken of it.
Chris Arthur

In this book, where the appropriation of Marx¹s Capital is concerned, we
draw upon a relatively new tendency in Marxian theory, which puts at the
centre of its critique Marx¹s notion of Œvalue form¹.  It is necessary then
to say something briefly now on value form theory. In value form theory it
is the development of the forms of exchange  that is seen as the prime
determinant of the capitalist economy rather than the content regulated by
it; thus some theorists postpone consideration of the labour theory of
value until the value form itself has been fully developed.  Hegel is an
important reference for value form theorists because his logic of
categories is well suited to a theory of form and of form-determination.
Moreover Hegel¹s systematic dialectical development of categories is
directed towards articulating the structure of a totality, showing how it
supports itself in and through the interchanges of its inner moments. I
argue capital is just such a totality.
The most important single influence on the value form approach to Capital
was the rediscovery of the masterly exegesis of Marx¹s value theory by I.
I. Rubin, namely his Essays on Marx¹s Theory of Value (1923/28).# Rubin
stresses that all the material and technical economic processes are
accomplished within definite historically specific social forms. Things,
such as commodities, are assigned a social role as mediators of production
relations. This is how a category such as value must be understood. The
value form is the characteristic social form of commodity capitalist
relations. He shows that the category of form-determination is often used
by Marx  to refer to the way things acquire definite social functions. Marx
develops increasingly complex form-determinations corresponding to
increasingly complex production relations.
Closer to the present is a seminal figure in current value form theory
namely H.-G. Backhaus. (Unfortunately not much of his work is in English.)
The interesting thing about Backhaus is that he came out of Frankfurt
school critical theory. So for him the relevance of Marx for empirical
research takes second place to the systematic demystification of the
objective irrationality of the value form. For him the theory of value is
not about deriving prices - a waste of time - but criticising this value
form as an inverted crazy apparatus of alienation and fetishism. Much of
this book develops such insights.
To come right up to date, what is striking about current value form theory
is the enormous importance assigned to money. This is especially evident in
the work of Reuten and Williams. This is the value form par excellence for
them. Because they see it as Œpure transcendental form¹ as they put it,
which is imposed on the material side of the economy, they argue that money
need have no material bearer, electronic dots will do; they argue that
money is the only measure of value, albeit that they continue to regard
labour as its source.
Both neo-Sraffian theory, and neo-classical theory, fail to grasp the fact
that capitalist social relations appear as monetary relations in the first
place. It is an essentially monetary system; hence this form must be
central to any adequate theory of capital.
Now as to my own work presented here. One thing which I see as consequent
on value form theory is that, if it is predicated on analysis of exchange
forms in the first place, it should not be in too much of a hurry to
address the content. It is notorious that Marx dives down from the
phenomena of exchange value to labour as the substance of value in the
first three pages of Capital and people rightly complain they do not find
any proof there. So I argue in several places here that we must first study
the development of the value form and only address the labour content when
the dialectic of the forms itself requires us to do so (e.g. chapter 5).
Finally, let us pre-empt some more or less misplaced criticisms that may be
addressed to value form theory.
(i) The claim that if value is constituted in exchange,  and measured in
money, then it cannot be distinguished from price is a common criticism.
(These critics do not grasp value as mediator between labour and price, so,
when they notice value form theory distances value from labour, they of
course jump to the conclusion value is intended to be identical with price.)
(ii) Moreover, similar complaints are also made with respect to abstract
labour. If this is predicated on the exchange abstraction then how can it
be a category of production?
(iii) Finally, since the theory necessarily pays most attention to forms,
then it is a qualitative analysis. So the complaint is that it cannot
handle the problems associated with determining the magnitude of value.
Our response to these  criticisms is as follows.
First of all, when it is said that value is predicated on exchange, it is
important to distinguish two sense which might be meant. 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: ŒWe 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.¹ So what Rubin
emphasises is that, if production is production for exchange, this Œleaves
its imprint on the course of the process of production itself¹.# 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
Œprecommensurate¹ (to borrow a term from Reuten), assigning an Œideal
value¹ 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.
In Chapter 3 I argue for a new concept of abstract labour that gives a more
definite sense to this idea that production for exchange is form-determined
by exchange.  I argue that, if production is orientated to value and
surplus-value, then the material character of production, and the various
concrete labours, are teleologically subsumed by this goal; hence capital
counts as an abstract totality, not as the heterogeneous mass of use values
in which it happens to embody itself  at any given moment, and labours too
count as abstract insofar as capital exploits all indifferently. So
abstract labour is constituted in the capital relation as well as in
commodity exchange.
The next accusation is that, simply because the theory stresses that value
is actual only under the money-form, therefore no distinction can be drawn
between value and empirically given prices. This does not hold water at
all. Rubin and the other form theorists insist, not only on the importance
of the social form of production generally, but on a careful accounting of
the specifically different social forms that interlock in the bourgeois
economy, the need to sort them out, and to present them in a definite
order. In this approach there is no difficulty in principle  in assigning
the value category to the most fundamental of these social forms, the
capital relation, while allowing that relations between capitals, and with
landed property etc., come on the scene subsequently in the chain of
relations that are finally embodied in price. Price is a hugely
over-determined phenomenon. That should go without saying.
Finally, since form is a qualitative notion, is it going to occlude the
quantitative problem of assigning magnitudes and the tendencies of these
magnitudes to change? It must be admitted that the ŒKonstanz-Sydney¹ group
of value form theorists (e.g. M. Eldred, M. Hanlon, L. Klieber, M. Roth)
did end up being very skeptical of Œeconomic science¹ if this was supposed
to be quantitative. These people  cheerfully accept the value form is
purely qualitative, because it analyses pure forms, and furthermore just
because these forms are pure, any old conjunctural contents are capable of
being inscribed within them. So there may be skepticism that any
quantitative correlations are feasible. But it can be argued that, while
the forms impose themselves  on the content, they in turn necessarily have
to reflect in their quantitative dimension changes in the content. Rubin
argued as follows: ŒThe social equality of labour expenditures  in the form
of abstract labour is established through the process of exchange.  But
this does not prevent us from ascertaining a series of quantitative
properties, which distinguish labour in terms of its material-technical and
its physiological aspects, and which causally influence the quantitative
determination of abstract labour before the act of exchange and independent
of it.¹#

Chris A

17 Bristol Road, Brighton, BN2 1AP, England

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