(OPE-L) Re: the economic cell-form and form-analysis

From: OPE-L Administrator (ope-admin@ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu)
Date: Sat Apr 10 2004 - 22:02:22 EDT

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: (OPE-L) Re: the economic cell-form and form-analysis
From: Jurriaan Bendien <jurriaanbendien@yahoo.com>
Date: Sat, April 10, 2004 10:58 am

Hi Jerry,

You asked: "Why does Marx identify the 'commodity-form of the product of
labour' with the 'value-form of the commodity'?"
That is quite a good question. And Marx was then also cited as saying:

> Every product of labour is, in all states of society, a
> use-value; but it is only at a definite historical epoch
> in a society's development that such a product becomes a
> commodity, viz., at the epoch when the labour spent on the
> production of a useful article becomes expressed as one of
> the objective qualities of that article.

I think that is also a pertinent quotation, because it explains that the
"use-value" or "the useful value" or ""utility" or "value in using", is
an attribute of the products of human work as such, and therefore is an
absolutely central category of economic science, as Rosdolsky
acknowledged. It means specifically:

 (1) that "use-value" is a human attribution to the objects which,
of their intrinsic characteristics, can satisfÿ human needs, which human
beings must appropriate from nature in some way and expend energy in so
(2) that the category of use-value pre-exists the category of
exchange-value in human consciousness, because it pressuposes the
conscious recognition of a human need;
(3) that the use-value and exchange-value of objects may exist
autonomously of each other in highly contradictory ways,
(4) that the objectification of value, and the abstraction of labor, is
an inherent characteristic of the transformation of use-values into

You then comment: "In this long sentence, Marx says (without putting
sufficient emphasis on it) that the historical conversion of the product
of labor into a commodity is driven by the exchange." I do agree that
Marx implies that, i.e. his text shows he was aware that more
sophisticated trading historically developed at the boundaries of
otherwise selfsufficient communities, who then exchanged different sorts
of use-values. But really for a real economist, this is only just one
simple factor involved in the transformation of a use-value into a
commodity, because the other "driving factors" happen to be:

(1) absolute and relative "scarcity" of supply,
(2) absolute and relative "surplus" of supply,
(3) "ownership relations" which permit exchange and appropriation
(4) social validation of expression and satisfaction of "human needs"
(including through exchange) within a context of socio-economic

We do not have to conceptualise these factors in the ordinary stupid,
ahistorical "neoclassical economics" (Hicksian) way of course, but their
existence is nevertheless essential to the transformation of use-values
into commodities (of course the category of "surplus" implies also the
category of "productiveness" of human work). Ignoring this reality, is
the effect of a fetishistic, reified economism by Marxists, which is
incapable of theorising exchange-relations as human relations. You then

First, people exchange their goods, and then they modify
their production relations in order to produce for the
exchange.  I.e., those relations on the surface, which the
whole section 3 has identified as the form of value,
historically precede and stimulate the creation of that of
which they are the form.

With due respect, I don't think this is necessarily correct at all. It
may be a change in production relations, that impell the necessity for
exchange in order to cope with that change, or to sustain those
production relations. So, dropping the scholastic, schematic
petty-bourgeois Hegelianism of Marxist theorists, what socialists need
to understand is that exchange doesn't simply mean "having something to
exchange and then swapping it", but that it also presupposes the
existence of socially recognised human needs, ownership relations,
scarcities and surpluses. Marx's careful dialectical derivation of the
objective value form summarises the value relations involved in trade,
only in their purest expression.

Ronald Meek's concept of Marx's "logical-historical" method is in some
ways appropriate, but Meek does not really understand that dialectics
refers to the "logic of change", which can only be understood
historically, and that therefore dialectics aims to explicate a
non-arbitrary form of reasoning, which includes variation in qualities,
and not just variation in quantities as mathematics does. Therefore
Prof. Meek really rejects the possibility of understanding the necessity
of a developing human practice in dialectical terms, and so he reduces
dialectics to "an ideosyncratic approach to formalisation" which aims to
do justice to "an historical sequence of events". Of course, Marx could
have discussed all the types of commodity trade there have been in the
last ten thousand years or so, but in that case he would not have
formulated an economic theory about that trade. The difference between a
typology and a theory is like the difference between (1) throwing
objects into the air and watching them fall down, and (2) formulating
the law of gravity.

It is a trite verity to say that "It is true the evolution of the
product of labor into a commodity and the development of the form of
value of that commodity went hand in hand" but it does not explain the
original question, of why Marx identifies the 'commodity-form of the
product of labor' with the 'value-form of the commodity'?". The value
form exists because specific social relations exist, that is the whole
point of Marx's analysis.

The real answer to the problem is, in truth, as follows: for Marx,
economic "value" refers to valuations made in the performance or
expenditure of human work to satisfy human needs, and as far as Marx was
concerned, human valuations about "economic value" are concerned with
the relation of human work to human needs. This means, that in Marx's
critique of economic science, the category of "economic value" therefore
from the outset exists separately and independently from exchange
processes, because it refers to the allocation of human worktime
vis-a-vis the satisfaction of human needs.

As is acknowledged by the Japanese Marxian scholars, the substance of
value ("value" as such) is not the same as the form of value ("exchange
value"). The value-form refers to the way that human beings confer a
"form" on economic value (labor-time), with symbols and objects, in
order to express the economic value relations in a socially understood
and accepted way, for the purpose of exchange. The more purely this form
is expressed, in an objectified way, through money-prices, the better
able economists are able to define that form theoretically.

It is important to emphasise, that Marx's idea about value is not an
obscurantist Platonist view, or schematic, scholasticist pseudo-Hegelian
derivation, but refers to a definite material and social process. It is
a process in which:
(1) the economising (saving) of human work-time and expenditure of
energy becomes more and more influenced by exchange processes and
exchange relations;
(2) the valuation of work-time becomes influenced by the objectification
of value relations which it accomplishes, and
(3) the "distinctively economic" valuation of human work-time becomes
increasingly clarified, in terms of technical requirements for
efficiency and effectiveness, in contrast with other sorts of valuations
of human work-time, and separately from other valuations, because it
becomes known that a task takes simply "so many hours of work".

So it is not at all necessarily the case that "that the agents on the
surface of the economy consider the labor in these commodities as
objective properties of these commodities", as in a primitive Dobbsian
theory of value, it is rather that through exchange processes,
commodities acquire an objective value which exists regardless of
particular labour expenditures and particular human needs. This is the
essential premiss of Marx's concept of abstract labor, and not some kind
of scholastic, obscurantist
pseudo-Hegelianism. It is this fact, that validates the abstraction that
"a commodity represents such-and-such amount of human labour", which
Marx uses for his exposition as a pedagogic device.

The actual process of "objectification" itself is rooted in the
experiential fact that the same object being traded, which is useful for
me, has only an exchange-value for you, and the object which is useful
for you, has only exchange-value for me. That is, use-value and
exchange-value are mutually exclusive, even although they presuppose
each other, and to mediate this contradiction, practically requires a
subject-object (ontological) inversion and a a means-ends (teleological)
inversion. This is regrettably not recognised by Istvan Meszaros, who
therefore proposed a theory of alienation which, however insightful it
may be, makes it impossible to understand how alienation can be
transcended. If the inversions which really occur are not theorised
correctly in a dialectical way, then it is also not possible to
understand what must be revolutionised to enable human progress.

Paul Bullock for his part writes: "The  'cell form'  is necessary for
the existence of capitalism, but in the form of a  product it is not
itself sufficient to transform into capital, what is necessary for this
is that labour power itself  be forced to take on the commodity form as
well." But actually Marx's own text shows very explicitly that for Marx
at least, this is not true. The transformation of the commodity into
capital requires only the existence of money and the ability to trade in
it, so that more money is obtained from the trade. The transformation of
capital into capitalism, does not necessarily require that labour-power
becomes a tradeable commodity either, because it requires only that the
surplus-product of that
labour-power can be appropriated and traded (i.e. the double
appropriation involved in capitalist accumulation can occur, that is,
the appropriation of use-value and the appropriation of exchange-value
as capital - this is explained more in my essay "Rescuing Marx from
Marxist self-activity"). This quote is then mentioned in the discussion:

> Every product of labour is, in all states of society, a
> use-value; but it is only at a definite historical epoch
> in a society's development that such a product becomes a
> commodity, viz., at the epoch when the labour spent on the
> production of a useful article becomes expressed as one of
> the objective qualities of that article.

In this passage Marx already shows why the Dobbsian theory of value is
wrong: the labor "becomes expressed" as an objective quality, but this
does not mean the labor actually is "embodied" or "corporealised" in the
commodity. That is just a very odd idea. Because the Marxists do not
understand the centrality of use-value in political economy, to which
Roman Rosdolsky referred, and just keeping talking about "forms" like
leftist Hegelians, they made eight big mistakes:

(1) The Marxists could not make any sense out of real business practice,
in which businesspeople are very concerned with the use-value of the
inputs and outputs in which they trade, and not at all "indifferent" to
them, and consequently they could not make sense out of the dynamics and
modalities of capitalist competition;
(2) The Marxists could not understand the economic reproduction of total
social capital and they believed "the economy" consisted just of
production and circulation;
(3) The Marxists ignored completely the decisive conclusion which Marx,
in appraising the economic ideas of Rodbertus and John Locke, reaches in
drawing a dialectical distinction between "individual use-value" and
"social use-value", namely that the abstraction/objectification of labor
is accompanied also by the abstraction/objectification of use-value,
depicted abstractly in neoclassical economics as "demand" and "supply".
(4) The Marxists ignored that the objectification/reification of
use-value has truly devastating implications for the connection between
the "law of value" and the "law of entropy", and they ruled out climate
from economic science, even though Marx himself recognised the impact of
soil fertility, physical catastrophes and bad harvests on prices and
economic values; (5) The Marxists could not understand Marx's critique
of the political economy of consumption (this is explained more in my
essay "Consumption: a critique of political economy") and they cannot
make a Marxian critique of ecology (the "green factor" is just an
"add-on" but it is not developed consistently out of the critique of
capitalist economy and Marx's value theory - see e.g. Elmar Alvater, The
Future of the Market, p. 188). (6) The Marxists ignored (except for a
few authors like Rubin, Rosdolsky, Mandel, Itoh, Giussani, and Shaikh)
Marx's category of "market-value" as distinct from market-price and
regulating production-price, and so therefore they cannot correctly show
what the links between values and prices really are and what their
importance is;
(7) The Marxists had reduced political economy to an obscurantist,
scholastic schematism, which is unable to create analyses which could
inspire real economic strategy, guide revolutionary politics, or show
how the socialist society can be formed (see my essay "The
transformation of capitalism into socialism, from Sraffa to Marx"). (8)
They could not provide a Marxian explanation for "postmodernist"
culture, beyond talking endlessly about "commodification" (see my essay,
"The use-value of post-modernism and the post-modernism of use-value").

In Marx's own text, which I will translate rather literally, he actually
says "The usefulness (Nutzlichkeit) of a thing makes it a use-value
(Gebrauchswert). But this usefulness itself does not float in the air.
Being determined by the properties of the physical goods [literally
"commodity-bodies"], they do not exist apart from themselves. The
physical commodities themselves, like iron, wheat, diamonds etc., are
therefore a value in use or a good. Their character does not depend on
whether the appropriation of its physical attributes by people costs a
lot or work or little work. In appraising their use-value, their
quantitative determination is always presupposed, as in a dozen clocks,
an ell of canvas, a ton of iron etc.. The use-value of the goods supply
the material with its own
discipline, the science of commodities  [Marx remarks in a note, about
the bourgeois doctrine of consumer sovereignity, that "in the bourgeois
society, the juridical fiction reigns that every person as commodity
buyer has an encyclopedic knowledge of commodities"].  Use-values
realise themselves only in being used, or in being consumed. Use-values
form the material content of wealth, whatever be its social form. In the
social form we that have to consider, they form at the same time the
material bearers of exchange value. The exchange value appears first as
the quantitative relationship, the proportion, in which use-value of one
type exchange against use-values of another type, a relationship which
changes constantly according to time and place. The exchange value seems
to be something coincidental therefore and purely relative, an exchange
value which is intrinsic and immanent in the commodity (valeur
intrinsèque) and thus a contradictio in adjecto. Let us look at the
business more closely."

This passage actually clarifies that Marx himself was very well aware of
the subjective theories of value and the marginal utility-type arguments
(which had already been discovered centuries before Jevons, Walras and
Menger), but it also gives us clue about the real secret which creates
the difficulty about understanding economic value. Commodities are at
the same time use-values and exchange-values, but

(1) they cannot realise themselves at the same time as use-values and
(2) they cannot realise themselves as use-value other than by negating
their exchange-value, and vice versa.

Elmar Alvater therefore states that, for the market to exist at all, it
requires "a cultural and natural substructure" without which autonomous
individuals acting as economic agents could not even relate as social
beings at all. It is this "cultural and natural substructure" that is
precisely the target of the critique of the political economy of
consumption, which explains amongst other things why the neo-liberal
theories are
gobbledygook - being neither "neo" nor "liberal".



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