Re: [OPE] Value form theory 101

From: Paul Cockshott <>
Date: Thu Dec 11 2008 - 04:23:55 EST

That is an excellent summary Jurriaan!

Jurriaan Bendien wrote:
> I'm sorry Jerry, with due respect, whereas I think you are perfectly
> entitled to your 101 value-form theory, this is not at all what Marx
> himself argues, and I can prove that very easily with chapter & verse.
> In brief, Marx never argued at all that "that for a commodity to
> represent value it must have use-value and exchange-value".
> This is also not what Geert Reuten argues in his "value form theory"
> either, he argues that value and the labour-abstraction is constituted
> by the exchange-relation, and he rejects a Ricardian "labour-embodied
> theory of value". In this case, labour "takes on the form" of
> exchangeable value within specific relations of human association
> (Reuten uses a complicated language of "sociation" and
> "dissociation"), but labour is not the "substance" of value in this
> theory because there is no substance.
> Marx himself says explicitly and specifically that a commodity has a
> value and a use-value (utility), but for the value quality (the value
> substance) of this commodity to become clearly and quantitatively
> manifest, its magntiude is expressed in a specific relative "form",
> and that form is one or another expression of exchange-value, in the
> most developed sense, a relatively stable money-price (however,
> although he mentions it, Marx himself does not theoretically develop
> the "price-form" in any detail, anymore than bourgeois price theory
> does this).
> Marx then says "everybody knows that commodities have a common
> money-form" but "we have to perform a task never even attempted by
> bourgeois economics... to show the origin of [the] money-form, we have
> to trace the development of the expression of value from its simplest,
> almost imperceptible outline". The purpose of his digression about the
> forms of value is to demonstrate how money originates through the
> development of trade and is necessitated by that development. It would
> be easy to call this a "commodity theory of money" but it isn't, it is
> only a brief theoretical explanation of the origin of money.
> See further on this his discussion of the "value form" in Cap. 1,
> Chapter 1, section 3 et seq. The "dual nature" of commodities is,
> according to Marx, that they are simultaneously "objects of utility
> and bearers of value", NOT that they observably have a use-value and
> exchange-value - this is what Marx himself says if you care to read
> it. In fact the very title of the ch. 1 section 1 refers
> specifically to the "two factors of the commodity: use-value and
> value" (NOT use-value and exchange-value, as in Marxist
> vulgarisations). In section 2, he then shows how this duality maps
> onto the dual character of social labour, which he regarded as one of
> his main innovations in economic thought.
> This whole Marxian argument however applies only if the commodity is a
> reproducible labour-product, the value magnitude of which will
> then get a stable form through regularised trade in it. It does not
> apply to all assets or products, nor to all prices, and consequently
> the "law of value" cannot be considered to rule the whole economy
> either, that was just a fiction propagated by some Marxists poets.
> Marx argued already explicitly in his book "A contribution to the
> Critique of Political Economy" (1859) that "This abstraction, human
> labour in general, exists in the form of average labour which, in a
> given society, the average person can perform, productive expenditure
> of a certain amount of human muscles, nerves, brain, etc. It is simple
> labour (English economists call it "unskilled labour") which any
> average individual can be trained to do and which in one way or
> another he has to perform. The characteristics of this average labour
> are different in different countries and different historical epochs,
> but in any particular society it appears as something given." In
> Capital he repeats this exact argument, and he never changed his mind
> about that (however he never developed any critique of the political
> economy of skills, anymore than a comprehensive critique of the forms
> of wage-labour or the labour market).
> In other words, Marx's argument is that in ANY society, an economy of
> social labour-time effectively exists, shaped up by customary
> practice, techniques & organisation, and a certain average level of
> labour-productivity, which determines the "normal" expectations of
> labour-effort.
> By implication, the equation of different quantities of labour-time
> through economic exchange is NOT in fact the historical or practical
> prerequisite for the abstract treatment of labour-time; all that is
> required is that the magnitudes of different labour-efforts in society
> are known, comparable and compared, yielding averages indicating the
> known "normal" labour-time associated with a task. The real
> prerequisite is not exchange, but social labour, i.e.
> labour-cooperation. Exchange only validates and renders more exact
> something which already existed prior to exchange. That is where the
> so-called "value-form theory" goes wrong, and in fact it makes
> socialist economic organisation impossible to understand, other
> than as state-directed economic organisation. That is where I part
> company with the Marxists.
> If, for example, we study the historical records of the Roman
> latifundia, we discover that a sophisticated economizing and calculus
> of labour-time existed, even quite independently of the economies of
> trade. The Roman overseers were able to calculate the average
> labour-time associated with different tasks with considerable
> accuracy, and consequently they could estimate that you needed X
> number of slaves of a certain strength and skill level per actus
> quadratus or centurium, to work the land for a certain number of hours
> per day, at a certain maintenance cost, to obtain a certain yield,
> assuming no unfavourable weather.
> It is just that capitalism universalizes the abstract treatment of
> labour-time, clearly separating out paid work from other, unpaid
> activities; through the universal use of money and the general
> exchangeability of labour, all forms of labour become comparable in
> value, and can be economised on that basis. Thus, through the growing
> sophistication of trade, an increasingly close connection between the
> economy of labour-time and the economy of trade in labour-products is
> achieved, enabling a fairly precise calculation of unit labour-costs
> in money terms.
> It is obviously possible for labour product-values and their product
> prices to diverge, due to all sorts of causes (i.e. the economy of
> labour-time and the economy of trade can attain a relative autonomy
> from each other) but this according to Marx occurs within definite
> quantitative limits, and definite modal proportions nevertheless
> exist, for the simple reason that extreme price fluctuations
> are irreconcilable with the social economy of labour-time, manifested
> in the cost structure of production. For example, speculation may
> cause the price of a barrel of oil to vary between $30 and $140 or so,
> but if oil trades at $5 a barrel long-term, the oil mining industry is
> likely to close down, and if it costs $1000 then the world economy is
> likewise practically wrecked.
> It is this sort of analysis which also helps explain how
> multinationals can profit from international differentials in the
> formation of social labour, and why those differentials will gradually
> disappear with greater international market integration.
> Why I refer to "bourgeois Marxism" is not primarily because of some
> pejorative intent, but for the scientific reason that in such
> theories, value is formed, created and constituted by exchange
> transactions.
> Simply put, trading activity generates new value, and that is also
> exactly how it is presented in national accounts and in the
> textbooks. But that is precisely what Marx himself denied, he says
> this is the prime illusion of the market, his whole argument is that
> product-values are formed and exist prior to exchange, and
> even irrespective of exchange, and that is how it is possible for
> labour-exploitation in production to be profitable, even regardless of
> all sorts of market fluctuations to which the price-form is "admirably
> adapted" as he says. If that wasn't the case, Marx's transformation
> procedure would indeed become a nonsense, since it is predicated on
> the idea that a flow of new surplus value exists and is produced prior
> to its distribution as profit, interest, rent, tax, and fees.
> Jurriaan
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Received on Thu Dec 11 04:25:44 2008

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