Re: [OPE-L:8609] From Ian Wright on Weeks and Simple Commodity Production

From: Ian Wright (ian_paul_wright@HOTMAIL.COM)
Date: Thu May 15 2003 - 14:50:54 EDT

Hello Rakesh,

Your raise three issues:
(a) the historical existence of something like a simple commodity economy,
(b) the logical coherence of a simple commodity economy, and
(c) some remarks on innovation of the relations of production.

My quick answer is:
(a) I think it probable that the conditions for the law of value to be
causally efficacious were (weakly) satisfied prior to modern capitalism;
(b) the simple commodity economy is logically coherent.

The longer reply:

(a) Historical existence of a simple commodity economy

>One could say (as Cohen does) that generalized simple commodity production
>is not a viable social form as it would soon break down into a two class

It would break-down if there were a pool of workers to employ.
But that doesn't imply that it would break-down "soon". For example,
the guilds of the middle-ages tried to limit the number of labourers
employed by rich masters. Such superstructural brakes on the emergence
of a new class may cause the process of transformation to be extended.
So I do not agree with Cohen if he is really saying that an SCE could
not have existed for any appreciable length of time.

>Or, one could say that it would never have been rational to become
>dependent on the production of commodities unless the market had the depth
>which only results from  workers having to buy commodities for their
>subsistence, i.e., unless workers are not independent proprietors
>or peasants or, in other words, unless they are alienated from the
>objective conditions of production.

Prior to generalised wage-capital relations there have been local situations
characterised by mutual interdependence and commerce, with money, markets
and goods, particularly in big cities. In such instances there is a local
social division of labour. For the law of value to be causally efficacious
(i.e., influence or regulate, although of course not determine, the division
of labour) a small number of weak conditions need be met, basically
a market, frequent exchange activity, and an ability to adapt supply to
These conditions have been met prior to capitalism. I do not think whether
the market participants are wholly dependent on the labour of others is
decisive. The dependence can be partial. Conversely, these conditions
are more fully met in developed capitalism, particularly in terms of
complete dependence on the labour of others, the existence of a pool
of wage-labourers, the complete monetization of social relations etc. So I
concur that the law of value has developed furthest under capitalist
conditions, and prior emergences have probably been partial, weak,
temporary etc.

But I am not an expert in the history of economic formations, so I am
all ears. All I can contribute here is the identification of sufficient
conditions for the law of value to operate.

(b) Logical coherence of the simple commodity economy

>I follow OPE-L'er Martha Campbell in believing that Marx's focus was from
>the begininning not on the commodity as an independent existent alienated
>from any particular whole or social formation and certainly not on the
>commodity as a product in a system of generalized simple commodity
>production but on the commodity as a part of the totality of generalized
>commodity production based on proletarian labor.

Yes, his object of study was capitalism. But, irrespective of the historical
status of the SCE, Marx does employ abstract models of capitalism, determine
their limitations, and then extend them. For example, in Capital he
considers a situation of private commodity producers, without workers or
capitalists. He deduces that if total money is fixed and exchange is money
conserving then total profits are zero and therefore cannot arise from
circulation. This deduction motivates the introduction of an extended model
with a new social relationship, that between workers and capitalists.
To make such a deduction Marx must have thought that a SCE was a logically
coherent concept.

I follow this approach: I initially consider a simple model, the SCE,
deduce its properties, and then (when opportunity allows) extend it.
The abstraction of the SCE is a necessary part of a process of scientific
modelling, just as the theory of a perfect gas serves as a foundation for
the theory of actual gases. Telling physicists that no actual gas is
composed of homogenous molecules with perfect elasticity is redundant --
they already know that.

(c) Remarks on innovation of the relations of production

My apologies for not responding to all your observations (I of course
agree that capitalist social relations introduce ontological novelty,
or put more simply, new things happen).

>Also, to the extent that Marx is studying the properties of a pure
>bourgeois society, this raises the quasi Althusserian question of the
>nature of the object Marx has brought into being through his theoretical

The object Marx has brought into being is a natural language specification
of a causal structure, and various deductions from that. Basically he wrote
a book. That specification is intended to refer to real casual mechanisms
at work in society, mechanisms that are not immediately apparent to the
and require further scientific work to fully comprehend.

I must confess to ignorance about the authors you mention in relation to
Cohen. If you could tell me in a sentence or two who I should read and why
that would be a great help to me.


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