From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Wed Feb 28 2007 - 13:34:36 EST
Hi Ian, I included this in the appendix to my dissertation. These short reflections obviously arose out of OPE-L exchanges. Characteristic of social labor in capitalism, as Paul Mattick, Jr., has put it, is that the transformation of quantities of various forms of concrete labor into homogeneous, abstract labor or value (as Marx defined it) occurs precisely through market exchange: value does not pre-exist it. Though the work of production is in fact social labor, "it is exercised under the control and to account of individual enterprises; the social character of production is thus undefined until the products are sold. Only then can the piece of work in social production be measured-for only then does it have such a place." In other words, value and abstract labor can only be undefined except in relation to the system of prices just as a beam of atoms is undefined except after it has been passed through a Stern- Gerlach magnet. There is in fact an interesting analogy between value and quantum measurements in terms of the exact meaningless of what is being measured except as it is defined by the process of measuring it. Consider David Lindley's comments on measurement in quantum mechanics: In classical physics, we are accustomed to thinking of physical properties as having definite values, which we can try to apprehend by measurement. But in quantum physics, it is only the process of measurement that yields any definite number for a physical quantity, and the nature of quantum measurements is such that it is no longer possible to think of the underlying physical property (magnetic orientation of atoms, for example) as having any definite or reliable reality before the measurement takes place...[I]n quantum physics, it is only the conjunction of a system with a measuring device that yields definite results, and because different measurements (applying a Stern-Gerlach magnet with either up down or left or right orientation, for example) produce results that, taken together, are incompatible with the preexistence of some definite state, we cannot usefully define any sort of physical reality unless we describe not only the physical system under scrutiny but, also and with equal importance, the measurements we are making of it. This is no doubt baffling. We are through long familiarity grounded in the assumption of an external, objective, and definite reality, regardless of how much or how little we know about it. It is hard to find the language or the concepts to deal with a 'reality' that only becomes real when it is measured. There is no easy way to grasp this change of perspective, but persistence and patience allow a certain new familiarity to supplant the old. The analogy here would be that value, like magnetic orientation, does not seem to be a property of things unless measured. We should not attribute any reality or credibility to them before the measurement. Strictly speaking, we cannot even claim they (value, magnetic orientation) are indeterminate or indefinite before measurement. In short, at what point do commodities acquire value? If commodities are not values before they have, and are sold for, money price, then there can be temporal or causal sense in which values can be transformed into prices. In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx pinpointed the difficulty: But the different kinds of individual labour represented in these particular use values, in fact, becomeŠsocial labour only by being actually ex-changed for one anotherŠSocial labour-time exists in these commodities in a latent state, so to speak, and becomes evident only in the course of their ex-change. The point of departure is not the labour of individuals considered as social labour, but on the contrary the particular kinds of labour of private individuals, i.e., labour which proves that it is universal social labour only by supersession of its original character in the exchange process. Universal social labour is consequently not a ready made prerequisite, but an emerging result. Thus a new difficulty arises: on the one hand, commodities must enter the exchange process as materialized universal human labor, on the other hand, the labour time of individuals becomes materialized universal human labour time only as the result of the exchange process. In trying to understand how the propensity of a quantum system was drawn out in different ways according to how it was surrounded by measuring devices, Werner Heisenberg was led to think of the system's potential as a "quantitative version of the old idea of 'potentia' in Aristotelian philosophy. It introduced something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality." For Marx, value also seems to exist in potentia; money measurement is thus more than the passive ascertainment of a pre-existing property but rather the production of a datum (value) through the active involvement of measurer and thing measured. In other words, value seems to describe a system--the thing being measured and the measurement being made--rather than being an independent description of the thing being measured. Value, in short, may not exist as an independent thing that can be transformed into price. It would seem then that value is best understood not in terms of the now outmoded distinction between primary and secondary qualities but rather in terms of the contrast between possessed and latent ones. Until the impact of relativity theory and quantum mechanics, it was tenable to categorize attributes as primary and secondary (so thought Anaxagoras, Galileo, Descartes, Locke); the former was supposed to be a feature which an object possesses independent of an observer. Classic examples were supposed to be mass, position or size. Primary qualities, that is, were thought to be resident within their object; inalienable from it and make up their essence. An observer simply measured or read a primary quality, but the quality is in no sense dependent upon the observer. Secondary qualities arise from the interaction between the object and an observer. Taste and color are typical of this type. That distinction has broken down since with relativity theory: mass for example does vary with the relative speed of the object and observer. In short, if every quality is secondary, then the distinction between primary and secondary is simply uninformative.As already noted, Heisenberg tried to replace the old distinction of primary and secondary attributes with the idea that qualities of an object are either essential or potential; possessed or latent. With the uncertainty principle latent qualities manifest themselves as clearly present only upon measurement; that is, position and momentum appear as latent qualities. This conceptual innovation is helpful in understanding Marx for whom value is a kind of latent quality of commodities which manifests itself as clearly present only upon successful monetary ex-change or "collapse" onto the money price "vector" (of course not everything which has assumed the commodity form and sold for a price possess the quality of value, but no commodity which has not sold for a price is a--or possesses--value). To extend the analogy: Monetary measurement forces a collapse of commodities into one of two eigenstates: value or no value. That is, a commodity undergoes a change from one state to another in the process of measurement. There are of course at least two places where the analogy breaks down: (1) In quantum mechanics, measurement supplies a determinate value for the observable while we are not supplied with such a determinate value by money measurement. That is, we cannot go from the price at which a commodity sells to its value. (2) In quantum mechanics, we have definite probabilities for the values measurement will return. I have explored this analogy only to weaken our intuition that the thing being measured must pre-exist or exist independently of the measurement. It should not simply be assumed that if money price measures or represents value that value pre-exists the measurement and can itself be represented in a transparent way. Once this assumption is relaxed, the whole problem of transforming a transparent value scheme into price scheme disappears. Rather all we have are money prices and money profits (as well as money rents and interest), the necessary forms of appearance of value and surplus value. We can infer from a price scheme what the underlying value magnitudes, e.g. s/v, may be. And more importantly we may infer from the differences in price schema over time how labor time relations must have changed or be changing and to what future consequence. We may indeed find explanatorily powerful an account of significant secular changes in prices and money profit, as well as morphological features such as the centralization of capital, the crisis cycle, an uneven division of labor, in terms of changes in labor time relations. But there is always inference to changes in the underlying labor value magnitudes in a fetishistic economy, never a transformation from transparent pre-existing value magnitudes to price ones. Paul Samuelson said in regards to just such a point: One common misunderstanding of the inverse transformation problem needs to be cleared up. It is commonŠ[to] argue that only profits and prices have a reality and that Marx in beginning with values and rates of surplus value had already performed the inverse transformation ; thus the direct transformation merely brings him back to his starting placeŠThis is simply incorrectŠ[With] the Sraffa apparatus, or the equivalent Leontief apparatusŠone can go from an undiluted labor theory of value, in which the direct plus indirect labor-hour requirement of each goods and the subsistence can be reckoned in physical terms to Marx's tableau of values. (237) But this is simply incorrect. One cannot begin with or "go from" knowledge of the technical or physical norms of social production: these norms are discovered exactly in and through sale at money price. Monetary magnitudes are logically and causally antecedent to physical production data. Samuelson simply does not understand Marx's most basic idea about commodity fetishism which cannot be formalized after all in high faluting algebra. In a fetishistic economy, i.e. an economy in which social relations are mediated only through commodities, it is only through sale at money price that there is social validation of private labor time and social determination of what the modal techniques are. As de Vroey has underlined, these are not known before the establishment of prices: socially necessary labor time exists only at the articulation between value and price. We can thus no more start with the technical conditions as specified in a Sraffian framework than we can with values as specified in von Bortkiewicz's equations. The transformation problem is simply alien to the Marxian conception of value as a category for the understanding or more specifically as causal mechanism retroduced for the purposes of explaining changes, above all, in the average rate of profit over time in the long run.
This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Fri Mar 02 2007 - 00:00:10 EST