[OPE] Recent serious theoretical discussions: reply to Dogan

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@tiscali.nl)
Date: Thu Apr 03 2008 - 15:10:20 EDT

Well OK then just to finish
this dispute (I have to get on with other things): Dogan's idea about
the "fundamental contradiction between use-value and exchange-value"
might have some validity if Marx's Das Kapital was simply a study of
the circulation of commodities. But as Marx himself says, it is not
simply a study of circulation of commodities, or of simple commodity
production, but rather a study of the capitalist mode of production, in
which the central contradiction (however much obscured) is between
Capital and Labour. 

Marx's own argument was that authors such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo often confused the characteristics of simple commodity exchange with capitalist commodity exchange, thereby overlooking what is historically specific to capitalism. This difference could be understood only by referring to the specific "social relations of production" defining each of the two.

This central contradiction between Capital and Labour is "dialectical" according to Marx, in the precise sense that capital and wage labour depend on each other for their existence, yet they also have conflicting interests which, consequently, have to be mediated continuously, with a whole apparatus of carrots and sticks. Behind the exchange relation between commodities is a social relation between people.

But in dialectical thought it is not usually possible to "reduce" all contradictions to one fundamental contradiction, because thinking in terms of a dialectical whole means precisely to reject methodological reductionism. A contradiction is "fundamental" only from a certain point of view, i.e. we cannot completely understand all the other contradictions and the way they are mediated without understanding that one. True, "the commodity" may be regarded as the "cell form" of the bourgeois economy, but what animates the body as a whole cannot be "reduced" to this cell-form, anymore than I can understand e.g. the dynamics and function of a car, simply by inspecting a cylinder.

In neoclassical economics, the above type of insight is not really possible, precisely because the ownership relations which create the power to command capital assets and wage labour are abstracted from.

J. Sheahan points out in this regard for example that:

"It is possible to study a great deal of economics without ever encountering a serious question about ownership. The core of the subject is a logical system that treats capital and land as factors of production to be analyzed by universally applicable techniques without regard to who owns them." (J. Sheahan, Patterns of Development in Latin America: poverty, repression and economic strategy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987 p.130).

In other words, neoclassical economics studies markets in abstraction from the mode of production on which they are based. The corrollary of that neoclassical "factors of production theory" (which Marx sarcastically calls the "holy trinity" of capital, labour and land) is, that neoclassical economics experiences great theoretical difficulties when it has to explain how new markets are to be created, expanded and maintained in areas where previously there existed no (monetised) markets at all. If it is claimed that markets always existed, how then can they emerge where they observably don't exist?

Eventually some modern academics (such as Hernando De Soto) rediscover that capitalist markets always presuppose a stable system ("infrastructure") of property rights plus the behaviours that go along with that, and that you need an upwardly-mobile middle class to promote those property relations culturally with an ethos of "possessive individualism" (C.B. Macpherson's term) and a "work ethic" (Weber's concept). This recalls Marx's ironic observation in Das Kapital Vol. 1 about the English lord who emigrated to colonial Australia with an entourage of servants, only to find that his servants ran away, because the English property relations which bound them to their lord did not exist in Australia at the time. Capitalism could not be aristocratically willed into existence.

For another modern example, we can witness in Iraq how the Anglo-American occupying forces have devoted a lot of energy and time overthrowing and re-establishing property relations, so that certain business interests can claim assets, and others are shut out from owning them, because these occupying forces understand practically that this is the real basis of a viable bourgeois society, in which workers are forced to work for a boss who can claim part of the value-added which they produce with their labour, as profit. This is justified with all kinds of arguments about "creating civilisation", "liberal democracy" and "human progress" etc. but of course they wouldn't go into all that trouble and strife simply out of the goodness of their christian hearts, unless they had something very tangible to gain - such as a plentiful oil supply which has a positive effect on world markets, and plentiful income from taxpayer's funds.

Marx famously said that, historically speaking, capital arrives into the world violently, "dripping with blood and gore from every pore" (the reference is not to menstruation, but warfare). Why? As Rosa Luxemburg explained in her book "The Accumulation of Capital", because the property relations which its existence presupposes do not emerge just naturally out of commodity trade - the possession by some of a source of capital accumulation is predicated on the dispossession of others, which necessarily involves a power conflict between different interests. Hence, the quest for market expansion is inextricably bound up with the overthrow of previous social structures and property rights, through a continuous series of wars which enrich some and impoverish others. But Marx himself did not arrive at such an insight through a "philosophy of dialectics" - he gained that insight through studying historical facts.

In his writings on the "philosophical tendencies of bureaucratism", Leon Trotsky explained how, after riding to power and privilege over the backs of the workers, the Marxist-Leninist bureaucrats develop a certain fondness and propensity for discoursing about "dialectics".  In this respect,  dialectics offers the advantage that any premise can be flexibly deduced from any other premise to suit one's purpose; any idea can be connected "dialectically" to any other. However, Trotsky recognized this kind of dialectics is totalitarian. Why? Because the bureaucrat defines his vision of the totality in advance, so that his inferiors may be cajoled to conform to it and think accordingly - the whole purpose is to impose that totality on the workers, like it or not. Thus, this "dialectical totality" is merely the philosophical justification and rationalization of bureaucratic power. It is a sad thing when modern Marxists succumb to the same nonsense - and I say this as someone with a lengthy experience of bureaucratic absurdities.

ope mailing list

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Wed Apr 30 2008 - 00:00:18 EDT