[OPE] Reply to Geert Reuten

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date: Mon Mar 09 2009 - 01:16:20 EDT

Geert asked, well how do you know what the "essence" of anything is?

I should explain that I do not share the academic-philosophical Kantian, Popperian or Platonic theories of "essentialism", or Roy Bhaskar's "transcendental realism" where surface appearances hide essences which are never observable.

Richard Rorty's critique of that sort of gambit is quite good I think. Marxists believe they have instant access to the totality of things, because Marx revealed it all in advance, but I do not believe this arrogation, I believe it takes a lot of research work to understand the totality of things. If I had been able to do my own thing freely, I would have done more research than I have done.

My argument is that the essence is normally not directly observable or directly manifest (it takes theory to be able to recognise it) but sometimes, at critical moments or junctures, it IS observable. As our understanding improves, our ability to discover the essence of things also improves. Thus, if we study an historical course of events thoroughly, we can discover observable evidence of the essential reality of things and indeed prove beyond doubt, that this is how it really was, and that it cannot have been something else. This is a completely different approach, than the speculative-philosophical approach of the Marxist philosophes.

My argument would be that things develop in a way, such that "at some point" their essence is observably revealed or unfolds, and if that wasn't the case, we would never be able to know truly about the essence in any shape or form, other than as an unverifiable subjective interpretation. I am not saying we "will" necessarily discover the essence, but that "yes, we can" if we are prepared to do the work.

Analogously, the procedures available to a court of law do not themselves guarantee that guilt or innocence will be proved, but it is at least possible in most cases, if appropriate inquiries and investigations are made.

An essence which can never be observed in any way (a la Roy Bhaskar) is a metaphysical essence, not a scientifically plausible concept - such an essence is only an interpretation. We can for example describe purely spiritual phenomena in essentialist terms, like Hans Küng might, but we cannot "prove" very much scientifically about those things in themselves. A scientifically understood essence is a testable matter. A mathematics teacher can prove whether the student understands the essence of a mathematical concept, for example.

I think Marx had no truck at all with the weird epistemological and ontological speculations of Marxist philosophes ("If that is Marxism, I'm not a Marxist") - how we can obtain real knowledge becomes for him a practical, active, scientific issue. Ludwig Feuerbach heralded "the end of classical German philosophy", vacating most of its previous intellectual territory to the sciences.

Hegel overcame Kant's chasm between phenomena and noumena by postulating they are related parts of the same totality, and emerge one out of the other - mind and world are part of the same whole. But as William Ash reminds us, for Marx: "The question of how we can know the world around us is not entirely unlike the question of how it is that the food our environment provides happens to agree with out stomachs. Either can become a mystery if we forget that minds, like stomachs, originated and have been conditioned by a pre-existent natural order." (Marxism and moral concepts, p. 4-5).

In his remarks on Adolph Wagner, Marx writes very clearly: "I do not start from "concepts", as Wagner claims, I start from the palpable, empirically observable form that a commodity takes, and I analyse that". Indeed, in Marx's theory, there is nothing that is not "in principle" testable against observables and human experience.

Why "in principle"? Marx himself for example wanted to model the ups and downs of the business cycle mathematically, but Samuel Moore convinced him that the data to do it did not exist yet. So, that illustrates that something may be testable, but you are practically unable to test it yet, because you lack the techniques and the data to do it. The same thing occurs e.g. in astronomy, theoretical physics and astrophysics.

Marx aims to define the essence and social meaning of money, what it really is, by showing how it necessarily originates and evolves out of the exchange of products and services, and what determines its nature. But commodity money is only a "form" of money, and Marx does not provide a complete theory of money. Money could take all sorts of forms, and Marx describes only some of those forms. In Das Kapital, he adopts a gold standard as an assumption, making it very clear that it is an "assumption".

Marx knew very well that he hadn't given a full monetary theory. His point is, that it does not even matter for his analysis of the capitalist mode of production, at least initially, just exactly what specific forms money takes. Just exactly who issues the money-tokens (a voluntary association, a state, a corporation, a clergy, or whatever) is not part of the definition of the essence of money, it's a contingent, superstructural matter, though it may be politically and socially very important, nobody denies that. Once launched into orbit, money circulation develops dynamics of its own.

Geert Reuten claims that "economic value has no existence without money". That is where we disagree, and I side with Marx. For Marx, as he emphasizes again in his notes on Wagner, the formation of value and the formation of exchange value are two separate things. Products have value, because it took social labour effort to produce them, and it takes social labour effort to replace them. That is why products have value.

The Sumerians knew that. The Greeks knew that. The Romans knew that. The Feudal princes knew that. Maybe it is not obvious to academics, because they don't produce anything except a flow of ideas, valued according to quality (utility) rather than according to the work effort it took to present them. Picasso used to draw e.g. a bird on a piece of paper in ten minutes, and sell it for 10,000 dollars.

That labour-value exists, if Marx's theory is coherently interpreted, regardless of whether the products are being traded, regardless of whether they are priced, regardless of whether money exists, regardless of price fluctuations, and regardless even of whether the products are commodities. It is just that when products are traded as commodities, their values must be expressed quantitatively and fixed in a specific form - the value-form and the price form, i.e. various expressions of exchange-value. In that case, the labor content is important only insofar as it affects the trading value.

Where I do agree with Geert Reuten is that in a society based on "generalised commodity production" (where all inputs and outputs are traded commodities), the phenomena of value gain a new and bigger significance, which they simply did not have in precapitalist societies - because they begin to pervade and reshape every aspect of life in terms of the exchangability and tradeability of things (commodification).

So, capitalistic value and capitalistic abstract labour are not completely the same thing as value and abstract labour in precapitalist societies - they don't have quite the same practical consequence or social meaning. That is true, and it would be foolish to deny it.

Nevertheless, the capitalist and precapitalist definition of these concepts are not unrelated, and Marx explains very clearly what the link is, in his 1859 Critique of Political Economy:

"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." (my stress).

He repeats the same idea in Das Kapital. For Marx, these kinds of "labour and productivity norms" exist, are known, and accepted, in ANY society, and they form the tangible basis for the abstract comparability of different labour efforts. If a boss calculates that "this job costs 10 minutes of work to do" he is assuming and expecting a "normal labour effort" and that is the basis for his abstraction.

As a socialist, I do not think that "This abstraction, human labour in general" arises out of the fact that "I can use money to buy any product I like".

I regard that as the classical bourgeois-mercantile interpretation which Marx criticizes in detail already in his 1844 manuscripts. That is how the bourgeois or man of property views the matter, or how Moishe Postone might see it.

I think instead, that it arises in the first instance "out of the internal experience of social labour" preceding the exchange of its products, which is the classical workingclass interpretation, and which is historically confirmed by historians, anthropologists and archaeologists, who discover evidence of abstract thinking about work even if no commodity trade is present at all.

But I would not deny that capitalism universalizes the abstract treatment of labour-time, clearly separating paid work from other activities; and that, through the universal use of money, all forms of labour become comparable in value, and can be economised or exchanged on that basis.


My wiki article is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abstract_labour_and_concrete_labour

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Received on Mon Mar 9 01:18:42 2009

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