[OPE] Value form theory 101

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date: Fri Dec 12 2008 - 21:29:42 EST


Your formulation: "for a commodity to represent value it must have use-value and its value must come to be expressed through the value-form." is still wrong. For Marx, a commodity does not "represent" value, it HAS a value, and it has that value because it is a product of social labour, irrespective of whether it is traded or not. The value-form IS exchange-value, but exchange-value IS NOT the same thing as money-price. It is not that "its value must come to be expressed through the value-form", but that its value can in the economic sense only be objectively expressed in labour-time, trading-ratios with other commodities, or money-prices of various sorts (possibly I could add, "or observable behavioural results"). Subjectively it can be expressed in all sorts of ways, but in the end people want to see real cash, not the "image" of cash. They're not at all "subjective" about their own bank accounts, they want their money to be there, irrespective of anybody's "subjective preferences", as we now know.

The use of Marx's value-form discussion - partly a stab at men of learning flaunting their erudition by pontificating about the dialectics of economic categories - is mainly just to demonstrate how money necessarily evolves out of the logic of the trading process itself, once it has achieved a certain sophistication, and that if one type of tokens is useless, another one will take its place, whether formally sanctioned or not. In prisons, for example, cigarettes often function as money. The implication of the "form analysis" is also that value can take on many different evolving forms, and that Marx's analysis is not necessarily complete. In fact of course it isn't complete, he admitted that. But a depiction of social forms is meaningless in science, unless there is a content or substance which the forms express, in a determinate way. By the time you start saying that the content of a social form IS a social form, that's artistic metaphor, not science. You can of course make another move, and say the "form" expresses a "relation", but if it turns out that the relation cannot be specified except in terms of the form it takes, and that the relation is really only a relation between different forms, it borders on sophistry.

The thrust of the value-form theory proper is to say that (1) labor is rendered abstract by the capitalist exchange relation, and does not exist independently of it - the abstraction of labour is achieved by the capitalist exchange relation, and (2) value is constituted by the capitalist exchange relation, and doesn't exist without it. One of the ancillary ideas is that "value" and the "value form" exist only in capitalist society, in which case it becomes a mystery how they originated, how one might get rid of them, and how human societies for most of history got by without any notion of economic value. Another ancillary idea is that the value form is evil, so that we should get rid of it, but that raises the question of how you can abolish all trade. The most rigorous attempt to do this, in my generation, was that of Pol Pot, but compared to that, I think the value form is definitely the lesser evil.

Not only does value-form theory not convey Marx's own stated view correctly, I think it is also theoretically incoherent, and it conflicts with real experience. For thousands of years, producers estimated comparative work efforts without the aid of clocks, and economized on that basis. They did so because they had to, if they didn't they could die. And if the choice is between economizing your labour-time by utilizing abstract inference, and dying, most people will think abstractly about work in a hell of a hurry. All that clocks and money achieve is, that you can make the whole thing more precise, though often the "precision" is really rather spurious, insofar as it is not clear what labour-effort is really being measured, that was FW Taylor's point already.

The value form theorists really want to say that Marx provides an excellent sociological "characterology" of capitalist social relations, which is very insightful and has heuristic value, but that as a scientific economic theory Marx's effort doesn't really work, because as a matter of fact "the trend in product price movements cannot be explained by labour-quanta", and the economy doesn't really work like he says it does. Thus, Marx's analysis is essentially a phenomenological analysis of capitalism, a hermeneutic analysis of political economy with a certain moral concern, but not a scientifically solid explanation of economic reality. It tells us something about the "social meaning" of trading practices, but it does not scientifically explain real commercial processes.

In this way, the value form theorists want to rescue the validity of various insights Marx had, but also include modern economics to do the real work of "scientific" explanation of empirical price movements. But to me it seems that this halfway house must cave in, upon logical inspection. If Marx doesn't provide even the basis or outline for a scientifically solid explanation of economic reality, I think his characterology ought to be rejected, it's just an ideosyncratic distraction in that case.

The question is then raised, what is the alternative explanation, and is that a better one (better in the sense of having greater heuristic power, explanatory power using the criteria of correspondence and coherence, predictive power, and practical use). After all, people are unlikely to drop a theory until they have found a better one, at least not if they're serious. So what's the alternative? Cock and pussy capitalism? Noetic capitalism? Post-capitalism? Business collectivism?

I am sure that "value form theory" is a nice sexy topic for students, with an aura of mystique, mystical deep-truth utterances and mystery, but really I think it amounts exactly to what it imputes to Marx itself - a phenomenological characterology of capitalism. It boils down to no more than what Leontief already said, that Marx was the "great character reader of the capitalist system", and that now his honour has been duly acknowledged, we can get on with other things, as we have to (in the case of Leontief, devising an input-output accounting matrix in which the value of inputs exactly equal the value of outputs).

If I try to fathom what Marx meant and what it commits him to in the field of theory, that does not make me a "Marxist". At most, it commits me to taking up the story where Marx left off, but that is my own story. If I say that I am not a Marxist, that is not a quip, but very seriously meant. For instance, I didn't want Michael Williams to leave the list! We are fellow socialists, for heavens sake!


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Received on Fri Dec 12 21:35:14 2008

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