[OPE-L] Re [OPE-L] [Jurriaan on] Ricardo and Marx on embodiment

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Mon Oct 03 2005 - 21:07:15 EDT

---------------------------- Original Message ------------------------
Subject: Re: [OPE-L] Ricardo and Marx on embodiment
From:    "Jurriaan Bendien" <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date:    Mon, October 3, 2005 5:15 pm


The German term Marx typically uses is "dargestellte Arbeit". If you
consult a comprehensive German-English dictionary, you will see that
"darstellen" can have at least 75 different shades of meanings, in
different contexts within German language. "Darstellen" has the
connotation of "representing", but also of "fixing or putting into place,
or positioning". Literally, "to put there". But this "putting there"
could be a logical, symbolic, practical or another kind of "putting
there", it depends on the context. You can imagine the problems Mr
Schroeder and Mrs Merkel might have in their political marriage :-).

Thus, for example, Marx writes:

Mit dem nützlichen Charakter der Arbeitsprodukte verschwindet der
nützlicher Charakter der in ihnen dargestellten Arbeiten, es verschwinden
also auch die verschiedenen konkreten Formen dieser Arbeiten, sie
unterscheiden sich nicht länger, sondern sind allzusamt reduziert auf
gleiche menschliche Arbeit, abstrakt menschliche Arbeit.

Official translation:

Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of
sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied
in them, and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but
what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of
labour, human labour in the abstract.

A more literal translation would be:

Along with the useful characters of labour products, the useful characters
of the various kinds of labour efforts they represent are effaced, and
thus vanish also the various concrete forms of these labour efforts, they
can no longer be distinguished, but are all together reduced to equal
human labour, abstract human labour.

However, Marx also writes for example:

Und im Wertverhältnis der Leinwand gilt er nur nach dieser Seite, daher
als verkörperter Wert, als Wertkörper.

Official translation:

And as equivalent of the linen in the value equation, it [i.e. the coat]
exists under this aspect alone, counts therefore as embodied value, as a
body that is value.

More literal translation:

And in the value-relationship of the linen, it counts only according to
this aspect, namely as embodied value, as value-bodies.

Thus, it is fair to say Marx in different contexts uses both
"representation" and "embodiment" to describe value in the exchange
relation he discusses.

I think though the general meaning Marx tends to convey, is simply that a
commodity as labour-product represents a definite quantity of society's
labour time. Yet, it is practically not really feasible to account for
their value in these terms, precisely because a *social* evaluation is
involved, i.e. an average quantity of social labour. It is not the
specific individual labour that counts here, but a social average, and
that may not even be known, other than in approximate terms. Hence, Marx
also ridiculed the idea of "labour tokens" as a method of exchange.
Labour-products have a value, but what that value is, becomes manifest
only by comparing different labour-products, and that comparison occurs
mainly in terms of their exchange values, because no other generally
accepted method exists for equating the specific labour efforts involved,
beyond simple cases, and legal-type stipulations.

The exchange relation brings into relation a labour effort and a socially
expressed need, want or requirement, but it is obviously difficult to
establish *objectively* that satisfying a need is "worth" a definite
quantity of society's labour, or that a definite quantity of society's
labour is "worth" the satisfaction of a need. That is perpetually
disputable and negotiable in human culture, and in fact for the purpose
of a price negotiation, it is not even a necessary condition, that either
party to the exchange knows what the commodity is "really worth",
socially or economically speaking. Hence, the practical solution devised
for the purpose of trade is that of money-prices, which bring each
commodity into relation with every other tradeable product, and thus
provides a general calculus for value comparison that will succeed in
most places. Using this calculus, the price differentials that are
negotiable are quantitatively limited and predictable.

The problem though is - although this bit is not very well developed in
most of the literature on this topic - that these money-prices may not
accurately reflect quantities of social labour expended *either*, prices
may be contingently be higher here, or lower there for all sorts of
reasons, and there is no perfect price knowledge; in a system where many
market participants interact and mutually affect each other's results,
there cannot be. There are usually no "perfect" markets, anymore than
there is "perfect" competition. Hence the need for ideal or notional
prices beyond actual prices.

Yet, it is also known that prices will fluctuate for the most part only
within a specifiable range, within certain upper and lower limits, beyond
which trading parties refuse to trade.  And thus, the law of value can
express only a general "law of averages", an ultimate regulative
principle, referring to an ongoing trading *process* in which expenditures
of society's labour-time, exchange-values, and magnitudes of social needs
are constantly adjusting to each other, without necessarily *meshing* with
each other completely at any time, except in special cases, but
nevertheless yielding broad price averages, which are used for comparative

If I understand Marx correctly, the "definite quantity of social labour"
which the commodity represents, and which constitutes its value, is a
generalisation which refers to a *current* social average for a given
product, i.e. that which is currently the norm, or the modal quantity, in
a given society ("the state of the market"), combining the direct and
indirect labour involved. The actual total labour which the specific
commodity being traded took to make, might be above or below that social
norm. This is an *interpretation* of trading activity, just as equilibrium
theory is an interpretation of it.

If however we say that the exchange relation between products brings into
relation a labour effort and a socially expressed need, want or
requirement, then it is also possible to see this as a *power*
relationship, in which market position or bargaining position counts for a
lot. Thus, commodities might trade above or below their value, depending
on the position of power of the different parties to the trade, e.g. the
bargaining positions of different social classes, groups and nations.

I regard equilibrium theory just as much as an idealisation, referring to
both actual and ideal prices, used to inquire into the complicated overall
effects of trade, in which we can empirically establish e.g. that a
movement in trade-variables p,q and r of a certain magnitude,
correlates strongly with a movement in trade-variables x, y and z of a
certain magnitude. It may be called an equilibrium theory, but in reality,
it is an empirical theory of observed trading *behaviour* as reflected in
price aggregates, referring to a *process* in which we never really know
that an equilibrium price has truly been reached, other than that a price
observably stays relatively constant over time ("price stability").
Politicians rarely talk about "equilibrium", they talk about "price

Marx then argues that what you have to explain is why that price stability
is reached at a certain price-level, and not any other, and he thinks that
this price-level is ultimately traceable to a specific cost-structure of
production, ultimately reducible to quantities of labour-time. But there
exists no definitive *logical* proof of that argument, it's a hypothesis,
which may or may not have explanatory power when faced with the facts.

But equilibrium prices are likewise a theory. Observable monetarily
effective demand may have little to do with real social needs, or actual
satiation. Hence the concept of "market potential", i.e. the supply-demand
relationship is partly contingent on the ability to supply products, and
the ability to rustle up sales, in the future. The precise reason why a
price-level stays constant, may in fact have very little to do with an
equilibrium, that's only an interpretation, implying some kind of balance.

You might find, for example, that the consumer demand for meats in society
is fairly constant, and changes little in magnitude, suggesting equilibrium
exists, yet if they could, part of the population would eat much more meat,
or, if e.g. they were more aware of certain health effects of eating it,
they might eat significantly less meats. In what sense, then, does an
"equilibrium price" for meats truly exist, and how would we know that a
balance has been reached? Germany may have 5 million unemployed, as well as
price stability. Is this equilibrium? In what sense?

From the evidence I have, it appears that Marx wrote and rewrote the
initial chapters on value in part specifically to jibe at the learned
German professors who pontificated about economic value, and thought they
were saying something very profound, when a moment's reflection would
reveal the relationship between economic value and work-effort or
labour-time to be rather obvious (cf. also his notes on Adolph Wagner).
Hence the peculiar combination of Hegelian coquetry with very mundane
examples ("linen", "coat", etc.). Possibly, the specific literary approach
and examples taken by Marx also owed something to the circumstance that
Marx didn't gain an academic position in Germany, and to what he thought
reading workers making their come-uppance in society would understand.

Francis Wheen seems to take the view that it is a kind of mad poetry ("the
absurdities to be found in Capital", "a picaresque odyssey through the
realms of higher nonsense"), and suggests Das Kapital can be read as "a
work of the imagination". That however bends the stick too far the other
way. There is obvious satire and irony, it's a critique of the political
economists, but beyond that, is a substantive argument. As Wheen himself
admits, Marx could have produced a "straightforward text of classical
economics", and in fact did provide one, in his1865 lectures - drafted in
English, not German, and edited by Eleanor and Edward Aveling - on "Value,
price and profit".
Furthermore, the drafts of the second and third volume of Das Kapital
mostly lack the literary embellishment of the first; Marx obviously
intended to enliven the otherwise dry subjectmatter of his text with
literary devices that would challenge the reader.

But I have a lot of other stuff to do just now, will leave it at that!
Hope this helps,


This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Wed Oct 05 2005 - 00:00:01 EDT