[OPE] Value form theory 101

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date: Thu Dec 18 2008 - 14:41:09 EST


It is unfair to argue that referring to Marx cuts no ice, because the value-form theorists themselves refer to Marx as the source of their theories. But what they borrow from Marx effectively denies the core theses of Marx's own argument. That is all I tried to say.

No doubt there are also important insights to be had in value form theory, I don't deny that at all. If Marx is not put on a pedestal, that's good, and if Marx and the important lacunae in his work can be criticized, that is also good, because then at least we can move on to real analysis, without the fear of being unorthodox, and without quasi religious veneration of a man who never claimed to have the whole truth anyway.

One of the problems I have with this sort of theory is that it is really about a moral critique of the harmful effects of commercial trade for human life, without making any alternative positive morality theoretically explicit. That seems to me to be one-sided and lacking in integrity. I think capitalist development is a human development involving both progress and regress, or if you like, progress has its costs and benefits. If you cannot appreciate the progress, it is difficult to see how any better society could arise out of capitalism. I tend to think that if these value-form people were really serious about their idea, they should go an live in a little hut in the Himalayas, and live of their yak's milk and home-made bean curd from the garden, contemplating the world below them. Of course they do not do that, and gratefully accept the results of business innovations, without which, actually, many of them would be dead as a doornail.

The central theorem of value form theory is that abstract labor and value are constituted by exchange. That is a thesis which Marx spent his whole adult life trying to refute; it was always characteristic of the theories of the bourgeoisie from its very origins that "value was generated by trade", and in adopting that idea, value form theorists say nothing different, except that they draw the conclusion that this is a bad thing.

Should we then stop trading? Surely this is ridiculous. A more sane view is that some kinds of trade are progressive, others are not; indeed, Marx himself notes in the Grundrisse that economic exchange can also have egalitarian and libertarian effects, to the extent that trade is predicated on mutually accepted trading rights.

The delusions about trading activity arise precisely because it can have both progressive and negative effects in various admixtures. People would not trade unless they had something to gain from it, but they might gain in unequal amounts, and trade maybe coerced or voluntary in various admixtures, that's the point. But Marx at least aimed to uncover the hidden realm behind the hustle and bustle of the market place, how relations of production shaped and determined economic exchange.

In my youth I confronted environmentalist arguments about how Marx was wrong to think that non-reproducible goods and unimproved land had no value. But what Marx was talking about was the valuation of assets in bourgeois society, and I would say that Marx wasn't so wrong, since (1) attempts are made to "impute" a price to them, and (2) "free" or near-free natural resources have been systemically plundered and depleted, without regard for future generations, rather than economized, in the last four centuries.

All very well to abandon a theory, but one ought to do so for the best reasons. Marx never claimed to have provided a theory of all market prices, but only of production prices and cost prices, he sought to reduce interest, profit and rent to surplus-value (Mehrwert) which was produced prior to its exchange. If value form theorists want to drop that idea on the ground that value only emerges in exchange, well good luck to them, but in that case all they have left is a critical sociology of the marketplace and a lot of people whining about how unfair the distribution of resources is.

Dropping Marx's LTV is fine, but I think at least you should acquaint yourself with what it does and does not commit you to, before you do so.


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Received on Thu Dec 18 14:43:12 2008

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