[OPE] Value form theory 101

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date: Fri Dec 19 2008 - 16:23:01 EST


Chris Arthur, Tony Smith, Geert Reuten and Michael Williams are very well acquainted with Marx's theory, I don't disparage their scholarship at all, indeed I benefit from it, but they adopt certain scholarly positions which I absolutely disagree with. As I am not a Stalinist, I am quite able to respect them and their work, without agreeing with them about certain matters of theory. I don't need to assasinate them or their character if I disagree, we could argue it out or agree to think differently.

Let's go back to where value form theory came from in the first place.

Originally, the Austrian Herr Bohm-Bawerk had given an argument that Marx could not derive prices from values. Then von Bortciewicz provided an equilibrium model which seemed to solve the problem, but really didn't. Then you get a Sraffian-type reading of value as a technical coefficient of direct and indirect labour inputs. Then scholars explored mathematically what happens to the equilibrium model, if you allow the variables to vary in certain sorts of ways. Logical paradoxes recur however, and it turns out that no matter what you do, you simultaneously need to make assumptions both about value quantities and about price quantities to make the model work and thus you cannot really say that prices can be "derived" from values via some quantative procedure.

Then scholars like Rosdolsky and more particularly Rubin are rediscovered, and the suggestion then is that the problem all along was that all the basic concepts involved in Marx's theory were inadequately specified. This then leads to a respecification of the concepts, in which different scholars opt for different sorts of interpretations, including value-form interpretations, starting perhaps with Backhaus's article in Thesis Eleven. For example, Negri-Hardt reject the contemporary relevance of the law of value. Reuten-Williams adopt a kind of "circulationist" approach of the type I already referred to. One theme is that abstract labour is something historically specific to capitalist society, something which Chris Arthur also agrees with, hence his vehement denial that a society of petty commodity producers ever existed.

The internal logic of this discourse is already provided by Rubin, who himself argues:

... the product of abstract labour has the ability to be assimilated with all the other products only in the form that it appears as universal equivalent or can potentially be exchanged for a universal equivalent. One can see particularly clearly in the 'Critique of Political Economy' that the concept of abstract labour is inseparably tied to that of the universal equivalent for Marx. (...) Marx distinctly says that without exchange there is neither abstract labour nor value, that labour only assumes the character of abstract labour with the development of exchange. (...) Marx analyses the 'form of value' separately from exchange value. (...) physiologically equal labour... is the same in all historical epochs http://marxists.catbull.com/archive/rubin/abstract-labour.htm (etc.)

Marx says no such thing, but anyway that is the real Ansatz for value-form theory. If you read Marx's books, I think it's quite clear that his concepts are actually somewhat different from Rubin's, as I explained before. The general implication of the value-form theory is that whereas there is no necessary relationship between product-values and product-prices, nevertheless value theory is valuable because it explicates the social relations in and around the exchange process. The transformation problem is resolved, because there is no transformation problem, there are just various co-existing forms of value which are dialectically rather than quantitatively related, a sort of qualitative theory. And it is believed that direct political conclusions can be drawn from the abstract theorems about value.

Well everyone is entitled to his own interpretation, but I disagree with this approach, and that sense I am closer to the interpretations of Anwar Shaikh, Willi Semmler, Paul Cockshott, Philip Dunn and Ian Wright, with some provisos, such as that I think we should get much clearer about Marx's concept of "production prices" (I don't share Fred Moseley's idea, that it's simply another word for the "natural prices" of classical political economy). In this case, there is a real, empirical relationship between quantities of labour-time and regulating price-levels for labour-products, and value theory explains how they are related. Hence, Marx does have a theory of what determines product-prices, and isn't simply talking about the social relations of exchange.

Actually, Rubin's 1927 article, though it still attempts honestly to pursue the implications of the argument in an increasingly Stalinist environment, is a bit of a weasel article, in the sense that he advances conceptual distinctions which will cover every possible interpretation. But he ends up with a paradox anyway, which, to his credit, he acknowledges explicitly: "So we have reached the paradoxical conclusion that at one point Marx acknowledges socially equalised labour as the content of value, and at another he acknowledges abstract labour as this content. How can we resolve this contradiction? It seems to me that the contradiction disappears if we remember the distinction between the two methods, the analytical and the dialectical".

In which case, the logical problem is dissolved in a methodological problem.

His argument is, that if we proceed from content to form ("dialectical method"), the one definition is true, and if we proceed from form to content ("analytical method"), the other definition is true; he says Marx does both. The problem there is that the two definitions cannot be true at the same time, and it's not clear why we should proceed from content to form (dialectical method), or from form to content (analytical method), or why indeed only one approach is necessarily "dialectical" and the other "analytical". Hence, Rubin's concept of value is at the very core self-contradictory, with the result that anything can follow from it. Maybe it is not outright sophistry, but it borders on it. Then you could for example combine a Marxian theory of social relations with a post-Keynesian theory of money. Well, you could do that, but scientifically speaking it is not really consistent.

The wonderful thing about "dialectical method" in general, if the truth be told, is that we can dialectically deduce every set of categories from every other set of categories - Marx could have started and finished his books in many different ways, with equal dialectical persuasiveness - but this gives rise to analytical Marxism, the argument being that this sort of "dialectical reasoning" is not compelling, and leads to a situation where anything can mean almost anything you please. On that issue, I side with the analytical approach, since I think that it is a requirement of science that anything cannot just mean anything. The real contrast is not between analytical and dialectical methods, as Rubin claims, but between analysis and synthesis.

More substantively, I think Marx's real argument is that human history itself rules out and rules in certain things, opening up certain possibilities and excluding others - although dialectical reasoning is never conclusive in terms of formal inference, it is nevertheless not "arbitrary" in importing its premises, and not just anything is entailed, for that reason. But obviously that requires that we do study the historical process, rather than simply philosophize.


We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have you found? The same old fears.

- Pink Floyd


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Received on Fri Dec 19 16:24:59 2008

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