[OPE-L:8128] Re: philosophy and political economy

From: Andrew Brown (Andrew@lubs.leeds.ac.uk)
Date: Thu Dec 05 2002 - 10:03:50 EST

Hi Michael,

In 8117 you write:

>  There may not be any
> unifying principle to a way in which the world presents itself to
> human understanding. 

and also

> How do we know that 'known' forms will have any stability through
> time and space? We don't. "Stability" is a conception of being which
> has long been with us (since the Greeks). E.g. we do not know for how
> long physical beings will present themselves to our understanding as
> bodies moving uniformly and persevering in their motion through
> mathematically conceived dimensions of homogeneous time and space
> (Newton's First Law of Motion).

Do think that your view here bears any relation to Humean 
scepticism? From my point of view your view seems to succomb to 
something like Hume's sceptical argument: we do not, within your 
schema, know that the past will be like the future. From my 
perspective your view therefore seems to be self-contradictory.

> I agree that Marx has a sophisticated approach to the quantitative
> so-called law of value. This approach is still within Descartes' Rules
> which specify only that, for the purpose of scientific knowing, all
> phenomena be approached from the quantitative aspect and ultimately be
> reduced to some sort of equations. If one is aware of this Cartesian
> heirloom in Marx's thinking, it may make one aware of other aspects of
> the phenomena under investigation, e.g. commodity exchange.

I was trying to suggest that it is not just a question of being 
quantitatively 'sophisticated'; rather it is a question of *superseding* 
Descartes entire philosophy and hence his conception of 'law'. You 
seem to interpret Marx's law of value as an attempt to *reduce* all 
phenomena to quantity. I disagree with this interpretation. Value 
has magnitude. Marx attempts to theorise this magnitude. This 
isn't to *reduce* all phenomena to magnitude. The law of value has 
a quantitative *aspect* but it also, and crucially, embraces the 
substance and form of value. It so happens that the theory of the 
magnitude of value requires some equations. But if the nature of 
value magnitude is such that equations are required to grasp it then 
so be it. Marx's equations are not due to Marx being stuck in a 
Cartesian problematic. Rather, they are due to the nature of the 
object that Marx is studying.  

> The other thing to mention here is whether a quantitatively conceived
> law of labour value works at all. E.g. the so-called transformation
> problem has been raging, or at least smouldering, ever since the
> publication of the third volume of Das Kapital in the 1890s.

Well, from a Cartesian perspective (and from many other 
perspectives) it doesn't: prices and labour times are not 
proportional. From a materialist and dialectical perspective it does: 
prices and labour times are not required to be proportional. For 
materialist dialectics, as I understand it, the main *quantitative* 
requirement is that a systematic relationship between the two is 
uncovered. Marx adequately achieves this in Vol 3. Debate re the 
TP has in general failed to grasp Marx's method. 

> In commodity exchange I do not only see the sociation of labour under
> an abstract form of the products of labour, but also the sociation of
> various concrete use-values under an abstract form.
> The
> phenomenon of use-value _itself_ (and not some explanation of why
> something is useful, say, because it has certain physical properties)
> is that things show themselves to humans as useful-for-such-and-such
> within a social usage. E.g. we don't eat grasshoppers in Western
> Europe. In Africa they do. The use-value of the grasshopper depends
> not on its "natural material properties" (which are presumably similar
> in both Europe and Africa) but on the way in which grasshoppers are
> disclosed within the context of a social usage (eating, in this case).

Yes but in neither society do people in general eat deadly poison 
(so long as those societies survive) and this is because of the 
material properties of poison (and humans). This shows that use-
values are *conditioned* (delimited, determined) by their material 
properties. I don't think anyone would suggest that the material 
properties of a thing are *irrelevant* to its use-value. They are of 
course relevant, your point is simply that use-value is further 
conditioned by society. Of course I agree with this. But without 
some determinate material thing to begin with then there is nothing 
for society to further determine. In other words, social 
determination of use-value obviously cannot occur where there is 
no initial material determination, i.e. nothing, to be further 
determined. And the material determination sets fundamental limits 
on the social determination. Poison will never be food.

> The social practice of the exchange of commodities "sets equal"
> (gleichsetzt Marx; _isasthaenai_ Aristotle) very different concrete
> use-values, thus abstracting from them, literally, thus 'drawing off'
> their concreteness. What's left is their abstract usefulness (they
> must be useful for something or other in a social usage for them to be
> worth anything at all).

The usefulness of a thing is determined by its natural material 
properties, in the sense discussed above. Yet these natural 
material properties are entirely abstracted from in exchange. In 
other words, there is clearly no systematic relationship between 
the natural material properties of commodities (height, weight, etc.) 
and exchange value.  Value abstracts entirely from use-value, in 
this sense. What determinate material property, one might ask, is 
left after abstraction from use-value? The answer is socially 
necessary labour. Exchange value does not palpably abstract 
entirely from (i.e. have a non-systematic relationship with) SNLT. 
Therefore abstract SNL must be the substance of value. This is the 
opening argument of 'Capital', as I interpret it.

> >
> > > Let me put it this way: To understand commodity value in its
> > > primordial sense, the determination of commodity-producing labour
> > > as specifically wage-labour plays no role.
> >
> > If 'primordeal' refers to historical origins then I disagree. Value
> > is only properly constituted within capitalism.
> No, I mean primordial in the sense of how thinking can grasp the
> phenomenon. Philosophical thinking's peculiar strength lies in its
> abstractness, i.e. in its power to leave aside the concrete empirical
> details and move within the abstract determinations themselves. As I
> read Marx's Kapital (Marx being a pupil of Hegel), the presentation
> first moves through abstract determinations of the phenomenon of
> commodity exchagne, and it is important to respect this abstractness
> -- and not mix in more concrete determinations before they have been
> thought through.

It is important not to confuse different levels of abstraction, yes. 
But once we *have* reached the level where wage labour exists 
then we realise that the labour that creates value is, in general, 
wage labour. I think we are agreeing here.

> As I see it, the social practice of commodity exchange abstracts from
> both the concrete use-values of the commodities and also the
> concreteness of the labours which produced them. Under the sway of
> this practical, sociating abstraction, commodities are abstractly
> useful. One phenomenal indication of this is that a merchant can be a
> trader in many different commodities with innumerable useful
> applications without regard to this concreteness. It makes no
> difference whether he is trading in pig's bellies in the morning and
> LCD displays in the afternoon -- it's all the same to him, i.e. he is
> trading abstractly in commodities. Nevertheless, they all have to have
> some use or other (i.e. be abstractly useful); otherwise, they would
> be worthless (i.e. unsaleable).

Yes this is true. Usefulness is a condition for value. But, the 
general natural material properties that determine usefulness 
(extension, age, etc.) are abstracted from in exchange, hence 
abstract usefulness cannot be the substance of value. Labour, by 
contrast, has the determinate quantity of SNLT, and this quantity is 
not palpably abstracted from in exchange. This is why abstract 
socially necessary labour is the only possible substance of value. 
Do you see what I am getting at?  

Many thanks,


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