[OPE-L] What a whacky debate

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Mon Oct 29 2007 - 17:29:18 EDT


I can't answer that, because I do not know what you mean. I suppose it depends on "what kind of labour" you have in mind :-) 

You don't mention the amount of the wage or if it is totally spent (do you mean the equivalent of 50 hours, i.e. s/v = 100% ?), nor which transactions you have in mind. But if you exchange say 100 hours of labour for the monetary equivalent of 50 hours of labour, I think that could be considered, from an economic point of view, a trade of unequal values, if indeed the value of those 100 hours is realised. 

It may be a "formally equal" exchange of unequal values (Mandel's formula), i.e. the owners of capital and labour have juridical equality in the market place, although their bargaining position is structurally unequal (though in a buoyant labour market, a worker may think he can reap more of the benefits of capitalism, and less of the costs, than an employer can; the employer in that case may feel that really unequal exchange occurs, to his disadvantage).

As I've said, I think Marx never denied the existence of unequal exchange in trade, and indeed he notes repeatedly that labour-power may not trade at its value, although he often assumes that it does. It is just that the law of value, as I interpret it, constrains or limits the magnitude of unequal exchange in the normal situation (assuming relatively open, competitive markets, in which the mobility of labour and capital is possible). Market "fluctuations" imply unequal exchange.

In a competitive situation, a firm may e.g. sell more product at prices below those of all competitors, still realising an average profit rate or even a surplus profit, and this may mean in fact selling products below their socially average value, a possibility which Marx explicitly notes. Thus unequal exchanges are implied all the time, in intercapitalist competition, quite apart from the exchanges between capital and labour, or between workers among themselves. 

It is of course one thing to simply note they are unequal, as a matter of fact, another to say they are good or bad, fair or unfair. If the choice is between obtaining a product bought above its value, and obtaining no product at all, you might buy a product above its value anyhow. The same with selling. In the modern corporate world, this becomes very important. Access is everything.

Unequal exchange - the trade of unequal values - can I think be regarded as one main historical origin of capital accumulation (predating primitive accumulation by centuries), but Marx argues that in principle it does not matter (within certain normal limits) whether economic exchange is equal or unequal, for the purpose of accumulating capital from investments in production, provided a surplus value from surplus labour performed can be realised. In practice, of course, the owner of capital would at least aim for the mode of exchange that is most advantageous to him, i.e. an unequal exchange in his own favour, in exactly the same way as a worker shops for a bargain. 

I realise that Marx says that his production prices are analogous to Ricardo and Smith's observations about natural "centre-of-gravity" prices but Marx's production prices are established in quite a different way and do not refer to quite the same thing. In Ricardo and Smith, still you have the equilibrium-tendency idea, in Marx it's more a force-field of economic power. To understand this, I think we should not confuse the ongoing competitive process, with the outcome (the result) Marx describes. And Marx has a very specific view about what the competition is ultimately all about.

I have it on authority from Michael Porter that "Competition has intensified dramatically over the last decades, in virtually all parts of the world" (On Competition, Harvard 1998, p. 1). An extremely significant social phenomenon, you would think, and a source of social conflict. But as regards profound social theorising about what this competition is really all about, well, I am not so sure about all that. Mostly the focus is on one or another form of competition, unconnected with each other. The more competition there is, the more unsure the bourgeois politicians seem to become, and the more ruthless the proletariat becomes, causing intellectuals to bewail a decline of cultural and moral standards. In general, intensified competition reduces social solidarity, of concern to wellmeaning social democrats and leading to new theories of punishment and reward.

Competition can be adequately theorised however only vis-a-vis co-operation (its dialectical opposite), but the number of profound theoretical treatises on co-operation is very small (cf. e.g. Samuel Bowles's efforts). I do not know of any profound and comprehensive theoretical treatment of cooperation as such, by any Marxist. Perhaps that explains their problems. Co-operation these days is more the stuff of game theorists and management wisdoms "and you cannot generalise too much about it". We live in a world of small theories, not big theories, leaving aside the odd neocon etc. Pomo is the grand narrative that there are no longer any grand narratives. Somebody gets a Nobel for the relative merits of an auction strategy.

Yet one of the most important problems in the world is: "how do you get people to co-operate, to make a better world?". It seems stupid and naive to pose such a question, I know, but that is how it is. Of course, if you say you want to make a better world for all, and your real interest is partisan or self-interested, your theory is going to be distorted accordingly. And if there is more and more competition, this reduces the margins for cooperation.   

Dialectically considered, however, intensified competition may also bring about, or force through, new forms of co-operation. Plotting competition on the Y axis and cooperation on the X axis, we might just get a U curve. Or a C curve.


PS - for an interesting movie experience about all this, watch "Sleeping Dogs" (1977) starring Sam Neill, based on the book "Smith's Dream" and filmed largely in the Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand.

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