Re: 'accumulation' proper v. 'primitive' or 'primary' or 'by dispossession'

From: Jurriaan Bendien (andromeda246@HETNET.NL)
Date: Tue May 11 2004 - 02:20:22 EDT

Hi Paul,

You objected that:

> No need for me to go further.  "Capital" -- Marx's title -- concerns the
> social relation between capitalists and wage-laborers, i.e., the class
> relation; it is not about 'value lodged in tradeable objects or money'.
> (You are guilty of what Marx wrote concerning "the economists": "they
> transform capital from a relationship into a thing" -- T.S.V., III, Chp.
> XXI, p. 272.)

In fact, what Marxists ignore is that Marx's own text proves beyond any
doubt, that he talks alternately about capital as a thing, a sum of money,
an asset, an objective value, a social relation and a social power. I will
not bore you with quotes here, but you can read the book and see for
yourself. The basic meaning Marx has for "capital" is that of an instrument
(a means) of value-accretion, and he seeks to explain

(1) how/why it becomes a means of value-accretion, and what the implications
are, and
(2) how/why human beings become a means (a tool) for value-augmentation,
instead of economic resources being a means for enriching human beings as
human beings.

In his dialectical exposition, he aims to define capital in motion, because
he argues it can only be understood in motion, but this means he actually
must apply several related definitions, in order to explain what it means,
that capital becomes a social power, the "Kommandogewalt" over human labor.
Replying to complaints that Marx used multiple definitions, Engels replied
that one must bear in mind the utility of definitions, that all definitions
are relative and limited in their application, you cannot define a
developing object with a fixed definition, and so forth. Harry Braverman
remarked that Marx's whole book was his "definition of capital".

I had this dispute before with the late Mark Jones, who argued the same way
as you do. And I agree, it sounds very profound, very radical and
revolutionary to say that "capital is a social relation". But my view has
been, and still is, that capital is a thing by virtue of a social relation,
that is, the social relation (what Marx calls specifically the
capital-relation, Kapitalverhaltnis) permits privately owned assets
(physical or ideational) to have a power over people, and regulate their

Marx expresses this idea, for example, with the phrase that "Capital buys
labor" (in the manuscript "The Immediate process of production"), but this
expression makes little sense other than very abstractly, if capital is
defined as a social relation. It is not in fact the "social relation" that
buys labor, but money owned by people that buys labor-capacity owned by
other people, under the condition of a social relation which permits it to
be bought, a social relation normally enshrined in law. It is some kind of
tangible, alienable wealth or asset for which labor must exchange, within an
accepted social relation (and a power relation) which makes that possible,
and which enforces the exchange. That social relation is itself founded upon
the ownership of assets by some, and the non-ownership of assets by others,
forcing the trade.

In truth, Marx's substantive point in saying that "capital is a social
relation" is, that

(1)  things in and by themselves ("an sich") are not capital. Otherwise, the
first monkey that hit a banana out of a tree would be a "capitalist".
Instead, Marx argues that things become capital only in virtue of social
relations, within the framework of which exchange and production take place,
and which confer the power on things to increase their value and determine
human behaviour.
(2) that this social relation, whatever form it takes, is a power-relation
between social classes, a relation between people who are producers and
people who command their product.

We can of course talk about "value" as a social relation (as e.g. John Weeks
does), but what does that mean ? It would be a relation between people who
make valuations in regard to labor-time and traded objects, and this sounds
very revolutionary and profound and so on. The fact of the matter though
is - let me emphasise this -  that a relation between things, or a relation
between things and people, cannot be itself a social relation, because a
social relation is exclusively a relation between people. At most, one could
intelligibly say that a relation between things, or between things and
people, "expresses" a social relation.

The real point is that, for Marx at least, value itself becomes lodged in
material objects which exist independently from the consciousness of
particular people, i.e. it is the objects themselves which have an objective
value in society, regardless of how they happen to be valued by particular
people, but they have and retain that value, only given the existence of
specific social relations and social rules governing the disposition of
resources. Economic value as labor-time in fact pre-exists economic
exchange, but it is only in the relation of labor-time to its products, that
value is established and expressed. That is the ABC of the law of value,
which Marx explicitly refers to. Thomas Sekine presents a delightful
illustration of this, in his article on the necessity of the law of value,
with reference to "silent barter".

It is this basic human reality, which practically permits value to become
objectified in the first place, and to exist mind-independently as an
objective social fact. If value could not be lodged in objects such that
value gained an objective existence independent of the consciousness of
particular people, and independently of prices even, then value could not be
objectified, and a capital value could not assert itself as an objective
social power over people. As soon as this premiss is abandoned, we're stuck
with a subjective utility theory of value, which has set back economic
science for so long (even although in real business practice nobody uses
that subjective utility theory of value for the purpose of trade).

Supposing that capital itself is defined as a social relation (the
capital-relation, effectively a class relation), how could a social relation
then exist objectively and mind-independently ? In my experience, most
Marxists cannot explain this, and in fact they cannot actually clearly and
precisely explain what a "social relation" is either, in a scientific sense.
My own view, as I have expounded at various times, is that a social relation
must be understood as distinct from an interpersonal relation, and that
Marx's own idea of what a social relation is, evolved over time and became
more sophisticated. Initially, Marx defined it as a "relation of
co-operation" (at the time he wrote Die Deutsche Ideologie) but subsequently
his concept becomes much more developed, because it then includes ownership
relations and the articulation of class relations. Correctly defined, a
social relation is:

(1) a relation between individuals, insofar as they are members of a larger
social group
(2) a relation between social groups (kinship groups, genders, institutions,
ethnic groups, social classes etc.)
(3) a relation between an individual and a social group.

We can illustrate this concept of "social relation" with a simple example.
Let's say Jack is an employer and Jill is a worker, and Jack and Jill are in
love. The love relation between Jack and Jill is intersubjective,
interpersonal, but the fact that Jack is a member of the class of bosses and
Jill is a member of a class of workers is an objective relation. So they
have this relation, which is simultaneously a co-operative relation, an
interpersonal relation, and a relation founded on property ownership and
social function. The fact that Jill at some point might say "now I'm the
boss" and acts as though she is, doesn't of itself alter the objective
relation, which exists whether or not Jill is aware of her objective social
status or not, and irrespective of whether she rebels against that objective
social status. Of course, simultaneously Jack and Jill are subject to many
other social relations, such as gender relations, legal relations and so
forth. Marx never denies this fact, but argues that, historically, the
evolving class relations (determined by asset ownership and income source)
are the decisive social force shaping the direction of the development of
society as a whole, both because the dynamic of social development is
created by the power-relations between social classes, and because class
relations structure or "overdetermine" all other social relations.

This view of the question has, I think, the advantage that it permits us to

(1) how a social relation can be both intersubjective, and objective.
(2) how the subjective or intersubjective awareness of a social relation may
differ from the objective social relation that really exists.
(3) how classes may exist "in themselves" and "for themselves"
(4) what "commodity fetishism" means and what its source is.
(5) what "socialisation" means.
(6) what "socialism" means.
(7) how class consciousness is formed.
(8) how the inversion of subject and object involved in the capital-relation
can be overcome, so that human subjects are no longer treated as, or
experience themselves as, objects in a game beyond their common control.
(9) Why theories of state capitalism are false.
(10) What the transition from socialism to communism means.

To sum up then, capital is "a thing which exists by virtue of a social

Your second objection is that, when I say:
> > The rate of accumulation can be measured as the net increase in real
> > stock, or as the rate of re-investment of realised capital assets.


> Thus, capital as a thing leads to this neoclassical expression.

In fact that is not the case at all, but maybe you are talking about
something else than Marx's theory, maybe "a-cue-mull-lay-shun" or something
like that. That's I think quite a good notion for a young radical, but if
you want to tackle real problems of economic policy and real problems of
socialist transition, you really do have to look at asset values and
investment, and not just at "a-cue-mull-lay-shun". Sraffa proves quite
clearly that neoclassical (marginalist) theory cannot consistently define
capital. If you follow Marx, who sought himself to measure capital and the
growth of capital, and indeed tried to extrapolate mathematical laws for
that, in some of his manuscripts (which depend on measurement, and assume
capital is "a thing which can be measured"), then you would argue that it is
not the measurement itself that is a fetishism, but the use of the
measurement, and the context in which it is used. In other words, there is
scientific and unscientific measurement, and then there is the ideological
use of measurement.

But for postmodernist Marxists anything can of course mean anything,
depending on what you feel like or what makes money; if so, there is not
much point in discussing scientific definitions, and I am better off writing
a novel.


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