[OPE-L:7711] Chris Arthur's "Alfredo on VFT"

From: Asfilho@aol.com
Date: Thu Sep 26 2002 - 08:45:44 EDT

My apologies for the delay in replying to Chris Arthur's OPE-L 7527. In this 
message, Chris queries the critique of VFT in my book, "The Value of Marx" 
(Routledge 2002).

I find it difficult to reply to Chris, because his queries are misplaced - in 
two senses.

First, as Chris acknowledges, I had no intention of writing a critical survey 
of VFT. The objective of chapter 2 of my book is to present a *brief* 
panorama of *several* important interpretations of value theory, with 
criticisms where appropriate: "This chapter does not include a comprehensive 
survey of interpretations of Marx's theory of value. Its aim is merely to 
outline the two most influential interpretations [embodied labour approaches 
and value-form theories], and their best-known offshoots ['traditional 
Marxism', Sraffian analyses of Marx, the Rubin tradition and the New 
Interpretation], and critically examine their contribution for the 
development of Marxian political economy" (p.21).

Therefore, the section Chris refers to (pp.26-29) does *not* purport to 
survey VFT in all its variations, ramifications and implications (which Chris 
laments) - its objective is merely to review (briefly) the main source of VFT 
insights: the works of Rubin (limited to those translated into English and in 
the public domain: Rubin 1975, 1978). 

Had I set out to review modern VFT, I would have written something else (but 
the extent to which the conclusions would have been different is open to 

Second, Chris and I define the subject of analysis differently. I look at the 
"Rubin School" of VFT - the "classical" form of VFT - only. This is the only 
way to proceed, in a short presentation. My analysis looks at Rubin's work, 
and at the work of those whom I consider his closest followers (even though 
there may be important differences between them): Backhaus (1974) de Brunhoff 
(1973a, 1978c, 1976), Eldred (1984), Eldred and Hanlon (1981), Lipietz 
(1985a), Reuten (1993), Reuten and Williams (1989) and de Vroey (1981, 1982, 
1985). Note that Chris's work is not included here, even though I cite nearly 
a dozen of his papers elsewhere in my book.

In his work (especially his recent publications), Chris offers an 
interpretation of value theory that is not at all similar to "classical" VFT 
- in fact, it may be argued that it does not belong within the main body of 
VFT. This is one of the reasons why I *like* Chris's stuff so much, and cite 
his work so often.

Chris (in 7529) says:

>He [ASF] 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.

I agree with Chris's conclusion. This is, for me, a critical issue for value 
theory, and "classical" VFT fails this test. Abstract labour does exist in 
the factory (and in the farm, office, etc) *before* sale. In contrast, the 
assumption that labour becomes abstract only *on sale*, and the argument that 
individual production is *not* recognised as being part of the social 
division of labour prior to sale, are two of the defining features of 
"classical" VFT. 

Chris also states (in 7529) that:

>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).

I was hoping that readers would find the argument clear. VFT (in my 
interpretation) starts from the "separation" of independent producers of 
commodities - the division of labour across society. However, independent 
producers are not *a priori* part of the whole (in economic terms, they do 
not belong to society simply because they "are there", alive, etc.); their 
goods ought to be sold first. In this interpretation, VFT starts from the 
contradiction between the freedom of the individual to produce whatever s/he 
wants, but subject to validation by the market (the so-called "monetary 
constraint" in, e.g., de Brunhoff and Aglietta).

Further down, Chris says:

> 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 it.

This may be *Chris's* own project, but it is *not* the project of all VFT - 
and I would argue that this project is *incompatible* with the basic 
principles of "classical" VFT - which, for me, are embodied in Rubin and in 
those who follow him and develop his analysis systematically. Chris is not 
one of them; Chris does something else, which I think is more insightful and 
much more interesting.

Chris also states that:

>If value and labour are commensurated in exchange, then anyone organising 
production for exchange is forced to 'precommensurate' (to borrow a term from 
Reuten), assigning an 'ideal 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.

Two observations. First, the 'invalid' is out of context. What I say in that 
footnote is the following:

"Rubin realised that [his] argument is untenable: 'Some critics say that our 
conception may lead to the conclusion that abstract labour originates only in 
the act of exchange, from which it follows that value also originates only in 
exchange' (Rubin 1975, p.147; see also 1978, p.121). He attempts to evade 
this difficulty through the distinction between exchange as the social form 
of the process of production, and exchange as one phase of reproduction, 
alternating with production. Rubin (1975, pp.95, 100-101, 144-151; 1978, 
pp.122-124) claims that his argument that value is determined in exchange 
refers to the first meaning of the term, rather than the second. However, 
this distinction is invalid, and Rubin himself states that the relationship 
between the producers is established through the act, rather than the social 
structure, of exchange (see Rubin 1975, pp.7-9, 61, 64, 70, 80-88, 143; 1978, 

This note needs no further explanation. What is "invalid" is Rubin's 
distinction, which, by the way, Rubin is unable to maintain consistently 
throughout his work.

Second observation: Chris must decide whether or not there is value prior to 
sale. If there is (as Chris seems to have stated, see above: "Hence abstract 
labour exists in the factory"), then there is no scope for "ideal value", and 
no useful meaning can be attached to "precommensuration". 

This is an important issue for me, as can be seen throughout the book. I 
think that, in capitalist production, value exists prior to, and 
independently of, sale. Value is created by the *relations of production*, 
rather than by the act of sale. I admire Chris's effort to substantiate a 
similar view (e.g., in his C&C 2001 article). But I think Chris's writings 
are sometimes unclear about this critical issue.

On this issue, Chris says:

>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 

This is certainly an important notion in certain interpretations of VFT. It 
is not included in my brief survey because it does not belong there. 

Note: I think that it is equivocal to say that value is 'presupposed as 
produced before being exchanged'. This is not an issue of (pre)supposition. 
Value *is there*, by virtue of the wage/capital relation. This is not a 
logical/dialectical point; it is a material fact of social (re)production.

Below, Chris says:

> 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.

I don't think that my point has anything to do with a "vulgar metaphysical 
labour-embodied notion" - which I criticise carefully in the same chapter of 
my book in which I criticise VFT. And Chris's view is not the only 
interpretation that allows one to "accept it". I would hope that my 
interpretation of value theory does this, more cogently.

Finally, in an attempt to resolve the ambiguity identified above, about the 
existence of value prior to sale (I say it does exist; "classical" VFT says 
it does not; and Chris - in my view - tries to bridge the gap, using VFT to 
claim that it does - even though this project is, in my view, ultimately 
unfeasible - depending, of course, on one's definition of VFT), Chris says:

>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 relations*.

I would say that labour is immediately social within the factory (a) because 
it is wage labour - extensive discussion of this in chapters 3 and 5 of my 
book; and (b) because the capitalist labour process is such that work exists 
only as collective labour, subject to the discipline of capital, and averaged 
out and abstracted in production. The capitalist's individual property over 
the product of labour, and her/his need to sell this product, does not revoke 
the social determinations of the labour process.

I hope to be able to comment on Chris's "methodological" points at a later 


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