[OPE-L] What a whacky debate

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Sat Oct 27 2007 - 06:48:42 EDT

A few thoughts...

The point is really that you cannot have a theory of prices without
assuming, however implicitly, a theory of economic value which itself is
ultimately irreducible to price relations, and the consistency of your
theory of prices will depend on the consistency of your assumptions about
economic value. It is just that it is impossible, or rarely possible, to
prove any concept of economic value is the correct or true one, at best you
can say that it "fits the facts" best, that the theories based on it have
greater explanatory, heuristic or predictive power.

Of course exploitation has a quantitative dimension, insofar as you can be
more or less exploited. But in order to "measure" that in quantities, you
require a conceptualisation of exploitation, i.e. the "more or less" has to
be more or less of something. Measuring exploitation is useful, if e.g, you
want to understand the changing positions of social classes, or in disputes
about labour-compensation.

Marxists thought it was radical to prove that the workers are exploited as
such. After all, Marx had aimed to show that the profit-based trading proces
in capitalist society is ultimately based on getting something for nothing,
and traced that unequal exchange to its roots, with the idea of making the
working class conscious of its real position in society, and explaining what
the emancipation of this class would mean (the abolition of "wage slavery"),
and what the preconditions for it would be.

But actually most workers know very well that they are exploited, at the
very least in the sense that that market actors have unequal bargaining
power and consequently obtain unequal compensation for equal amounts of
labour effort. The only way they have to counteract it in capitalist
society, is either by reducing their exploitation somehow through
strengthening their bargaining position, or opt out of trade in their labour
if they can.

In fact, as I noted previously, exploitation of wage labour is only one form
of exploitation in class societies, and by no means the only one, nor is it
necessarily the worst form. On the one side, worse forms of exploitation are
possible than capitalist exploitation, and on the other, so long as it is
feasible to improve one's position within capitalist society during one's
lifetime, abstract proof of exploitation has little utility for most people.
It turns out that proving general, abstract truths to the effect that
workers are exploited just isn't very radical, and it might even be
counterproductive to improving one's position.

I think, somewhat heretically, the main problem with Marx's theory is
Marxism, because careful reading shows that even the most basic concepts of
Marx himself are frequently misrepresented or distorted in Marxist thought.

I have given a few examples of this already on OPE-L, for example,
"value", "abstract labour", "valorisation", "human nature" etc. All sorts of
ideas - moral, political, economic - are falsely imputed to Marx.

Marx's own economic concepts were concepts grounded in a reading of economic
history, and intended to make sense of the whole history of trade hitherto,
not just the capitalist mode of production. Marx's theory in Das Kapital
aimed to depict the workings of capitalism in their "ideal average", but
Marxists typically interpret it as a direct representation of empirical
reality, and that never succeeds, especially if they don't even bother to
study empirical reality. It leads to reasoning by analogies, the pitfalls of
which any genuine historian is very aware.

Modern "surplus economics" had its origin in the work of the New Zealander
Ronald Meek and the Italian Piero Sraffa, but more specifically in the
Russian-American Paul Baran's more accessible The Political Economy of
Growth (1957). Baran's primary interest was not in the exploitation of
wage-labour per se, but in how the surplus was used, and who claimed it.


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