[OPE] Misunderstanding value (reply)

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@telfort.nl>
Date: Thu May 07 2009 - 06:38:26 EDT


As you well know, in Marx's evolutionary view, there is no absolutized
separation of animals and humans since humans evolved out of animal
existence. In fact, you yourself have emphasized this many times.

If the phenomena of value have their anthropological "origin" in the ability
to prioritize one's own behaviours acording to consciously chosen options,
as I have argued, in other words, the "ability to evaluate" with
consciousness, this does not mean automatically that the first monkey who
knocked a banana out of a tree had a labour theory of value, and that,
because the banana fell out of the tree, the law of value existed at that
time. That would be ridiculous.

All I am arguing for is an anti-myopic, anti-mystical and anti-liturgical
understanding of the phenomena of value, which is well-supported by the
historical, archaeological and anthropological facts. This requires that you
think the argument through till the end, going beyond Marxist sloganizing,
and are prepared to study the evidence.

Marx certainly tries to do that - let me just quote again, as example, his
comment on the origin of surplus labour in the course of human evolution:

"If the labourer wants all his time to produce the necessary means of
subsistence for himself and his race, he has no time left in which to work
gratis for others. Without a certain degree of productiveness in his labour,
he has no such superfluous time at his disposal; without such superfluous
time, no surplus-labour, and therefore no capitalists, no slave-owners, no
feudal lords, in one word, no class of large proprietors. Thus we may say
that surplus-value rests on a natural basis; but this is permissible only in
the very general sense, that there is no natural obstacle absolutely
preventing one man from disburdening himself of the labour requisite for his
own existence, and burdening another with it, any more, for instance, than
unconquerable natural obstacles prevent one man from eating the flesh of
another. No mystical ideas must in any way be connected, as sometimes
happens, with this historically developed productiveness of labour. It is
only after people have raised themselves above the rank of animals, when
therefore their labour has been to some extent socialised, that a state of
things arises in which the surplus-labour of the one becomes a condition of
existence for the other. At the dawn of civilisation the productiveness
acquired by labour is small, but so too are the wants which develop with and
by the means of satisfying them. Further, at that early period, the portion
of society that lives on the labour of others is infinitely small compared
with the mass of direct producers. Along with the progress in the
productiveness of labour, that small portion of society increases both
absolutely and relatively. Besides, capital with its accompanying relations
springs up from an economic soil that is the product of a long process of
development. The productiveness of labour that serves as its foundation and
starting-point, is a gift, not of nature, but of a history embracing
thousands of centuries."

In exactly the same way, with exactly the same qualifications, economic
value as such has a "natural basis", even if Jerry Levy denies it, since
objectified value could never exist without human evaluations and the
ability to recognize value, and the ability to evaluate is itself an
evolutionary result from a very lengthy development out of pre-conscious
patterned responses. Jean Piaget (among others) studied this process as
truncated in the development of infants.

Obviously, nothing is then easier for vulgar minds to naturalise and
eternalise the notion of value, but that is obviously not what I have in
mind, what I have in mind is understanding the historical evolution of
economic valuations as a whole.

I am very well aware that, in the course of the historical evolution of
human valuations, the phenomena of value successively take on many different
forms, and that, viewed as a transhistorical category, the concept of value
becomes so abstract, that it has not very much more meaningful content than
a mathematical number. Being interested in the historical sciences, I am
also well aware, probably more so than you are, of the specificity of the
forms of value in capitalist society, but the point is that your valueform
theory does not even specify correctly (in a scientifically acceptable
manner) what that specificity is!

The reason for that, I think, is, that you and the Marxist/autonomist
valueform theorists wrongly believe that value and commodities are specific
only to capitalism. When I point out this is simply false, and has nothing
to do with Marx, then you effectively argue that "specifically capitalist
commodities and specifically capitalist value are specific to capitalist
society". But this is just a massive, meaningless tautology, which fails to
identify the historical specificity of capitalist relations. All it says
that "specificity is specific" and that doesn't tell us very much.

If the truth be told, logically one cannot define specificity, other than by
defining the relationship between the specific and the general, the part and
the whole. Valueform theory in this respect reaches only the intellectual
level of Franz Boas's bourgeois cultural relativism: each society is
specific and one cannot generalise about specific societies. This leaves us
only with a mystical and mysticized concept of "value" which means anything
you like, depending on how you feel at any moment.

I have never argued for a theory of "embodied labour" in all the time I
have been on OPE-L, I have argued that the economic "value" of a newly
produced commodity in capitalist society is the average amount of living
labourtime currently socially necessary to replace it. This Volume 3
interpretation is irreconcilable with an embodied labour theory. The
embodied labour interpretation is used by Marx mainly as a pedagogic device;
it may have some explanatory power in specific situations, but, in general,
as Marx already indicates in Captal Vol. 1, it is not literally true.

The problem with the value-form theory approach is that it is an
intellectual fraud, perpetrated by people who could not find a satisfactory
Marxian reply to von Bortciewicz, von Bohn Bawerk, Steedman and Sraffa.

Valueform theorists argue that even if Marx's theory of value cannot explain
anything about prices, it nevertheless provides an important
Hegelian-phenomenological critique of commercialism. But in the process of
this moralistic philosophical critique, the valueform theorists throw out
the whole content of Marx's theory, retaining only the rhetorical "language"
of Marx's theory. When we examine critically the language they use, however,
it becomes evident that they really haven't understood anything about what
these concepts signify. No wonder then that they only sow political
confusion everywhere.

So let's drop the distraction of the reified valueform babble, and get back
to Marx!


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