[OPE] The problem with Ian Wright's example: no equilibrium

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@telfort.nl>
Date: Sat Oct 03 2009 - 15:30:03 EDT

So I am a pugilist fighting a shadow?

Ian Wright - whom I admire as a scientific thinker, but disagree with in
some essential points, quotes Marx again, to bolster his Marxist equilibrium

"The exchange of commodities cannot, as one has seen, take place without
fulfilling contradictory conditions, which exclude one other. Its
development which makes commodities appear as something with two aspects,
use value and ex-change value, does not make these contradictions disappear,
but creates the form in which they can move themselves. This is in any case
the only method for resolving real contradictions. It is, for example, a
contradiction that a body fall constantly toward another, and also
constantly fly away from it. The ellipse is one of the forms of movement by
which this contradiction realizes itself and resolves itself at the same
time." Marx, Capital Vol 1."

This is actually a passage from Capital Vol. 1, Chaper 3, section 2 a).

There are both problems of form and content with Ian Wright's idea.

Actually, the translation he quotes is pretty bad - see post scriptum below
(I've separated out this bit, for specialists to look at, if they wish).

But the more substantive point is this:

whereas we might like to stay up all the time, the laws of physics tell us
that what goes up, must come down. As so it is with the body suspended in
its elliptical orbit: in reality, the body does fall slowly to the earth in
a spiralling movement, and therefore THE IDEA THAT THERE REALLY EXISTS AN

The "equilibrium point" of the suspended body is only a mathematical idea,
never to be found in reality, and therefore, the equilibrium point HAS NO

If this is so, the "tendency towards equilibrium" CANNOT BE A "FORCE"
equilibrium point idea in science only to calculate what it would require to
keep the body in its orbit or alter it.

It is moreover completely false to equate "equilibrium" with "stability"
because a stable condition is not necessarily equivalent to a balanced

The only thing that could cancel out the earth's gravitational force, is if
the body itself could compensate for this pull by accelerating itself, for
example, using a booster rocket, in other words, if the body was
"self-regulating" in that sense - or, if the speed of the body was
accelerated, by means of the intervention of some other external force.

This alerts us to something important:

Unfortunately Ian Wright nice story of Newtonian mechanics, delivered at an
astronomic, super-abstract level of Althusserian abstraction, has the
consequence of DESTROYING HUMAN AGENCY, i.e. the efficacy of active human
subjects in history-making (BTW Althusser literally murdered his own wife,
and then claimed he did not know what he was doing "at a more specific level
of abstraction").

Just as in Stalin's inevitable and brutal laws of bureaucratic motion, human
beings do nothing anymore in Ian Wright's and Paul Cockshott's models, they
are merely the passive conduits of abstract laws which produce stochastic

"Levels of abstraction" are referred to, but just as in Althusserian,
Wolffite and Levyite ideology, it never becomes clear how exactly (exact, in
the scientific sense) the level of abstraction relates to observable

The problem with this, is not only the reifications involved, but also, that
the way in which social laws assert themselves through human agency, is not
explained at all.

As I have argued before, Marx never truly believed in "natural prices" - he
believed rather that "natural prices" were the way in which the political
economists PERCEIVED the adjustment of supply and demand, but this was just
an ideology. Marx's prices of production could exist, regardless of whether
supply and demand were in balance or not.

The deeper problem with Ian's "Newtonian mechanics" interpretation of the
law of value regulating commodity exchange (mimicking the bourgeois
political economists) is, that it is not clear at all how the abstract law
then relates to observable reality. This problem is solved by Ian Wright and
Paul Cockshott only by recasting the law as a predictor of statistical price

As I have shown already in a previous post, Marx anticipated all this stuff
already, when he wrote his Theories of Surplus Value, but he did not believe
society could be explained by Newtonian mechanics, he argued rather the
challenge is to explain the social process behind the statistical effect:
how the law-governed nature of competition in product markets (which
"political economy has never explained") is constrained and regulated by the
law of value.

In reality, if you like to put it this way, the law of value refers to the
"passive" part in the equation: the body falling to earth slowly, in
accordance with the law of gravity. The "active" part is competition among
economic subjects: Marx argues it is through the competitive process, that
the law of value asserts itself as a regulator, since the accumulation of
additional capital is contingent on the extraction of surplus labour and its
realisation as profit.

"Where science comes in is to show how the law of value asserts itself. So,
if one wanted to 'explain' from the outset all phenomena that apparently
contradict the law, one would have to provide the science before the
science. It is precisely Ricardo's mistake that in his first chapter, on
value, all sorts of categories that still have to be arrived at are assumed
as given, in order to prove their harmony with the law of value."

The "Ricardian-Marxist" theories of Ian Wright and Paul Cockshott suffer
from exactly the same defects as Ricardo's, and similarly they promote a
harmonicist interpretation of the law of value.

When Ian Wright then plumps for Roy Bhaskar, this is odd but explicable,
because Bhaskar is a philosophical "transcendental realist", in the Kantian
philosophical tradition of trancendentalism. Bhaskar wants to say that it is
reasonable to hypothesize "hidden causal mechanisms", even if we cannot
prove that they are actually there. But this has nothing to do per se with

Sure, Marx says, repeatedly, that we cannot directly observe economic value
itself, as such, we can only observe it through its observable forms of
appearance. But actually Marx says something quite different from Bhaskar:
Marx says, I infer the existence and nature of economic value from analyzing
the meaning of its empirically observable forms. The "reasonability" of this
procedure does not derive from an abstract, general transcendental
principle, but it is justified by the specific analysis of specific facts
pertaining to the case. Hence, Marx was furious about Adolph Wagner's
misreading, and noted "I do not proceed from concepts...".

Paul Mattick has an inkling of the scientifically correct interpretation,
when he writes that:

There can be no "equilibrium" between production and consumption, at any
particular time or in the long-run, because progressive capital expansion
means widening the gap between the two.
"Market "equilibrium" can exist only in abstract value terms: it exists when
the market demand is one that will assure the realization of surplus-value
by way of capital expansion. The semblance of a supply-and-demand
"equilibrium" exists only within the process of capital accumulation. It is
only in this sense that the law of value "maintains the social equilibrium
of production in the turmoil of its accidental fluctuations." Even so, in
maintaining the "social equilibrium of production," the law of value asserts
itself just "as the law of gravity does when a house falls upon our ears."
It asserts itself by way of crises, which restore, not a lost balance
between supply and demand in terms of production and consumption, but a
temporarily lost but necessary "equilibrium" between the material production
process and the value expansion process. It is not the market mechanism
which explains an apparent "equilibrium" of supply and demand but the
accumulation of capital which allows the market mechanism to appear, at
times, as an equilibrium mechanism.

We improve the scientific discussion not by means of analogies with
Newtonian mechanics and philosophical generalities, but by analyzing the
process of capitalist competition and the forms of prices.



The original of the quote reads:
Man sah, daß der Austauschprozeß der Waren widersprechende und einander
ausschließende Beziehungen einschließt. Die Entwicklung der Ware hebt diese
Widersprüche nicht auf, schafft aber die Form, worin sie sich bewegen
können. Dies ist überhaupt die Methode, wodurch sich wirkliche Widersprüche
lösen. Es ist z.B. ein Widerspruch, daß ein Körper beständig in einen andren
fällt und ebenso beständig von ihm wegflieht. Die Ellipse ist eine der
Bewegungsformen, worin dieser Widerspruch sich ebensosehr verwirklicht als
löst. http://www.mlwerke.de/me/me23/me23_109.htm

More literal English translation from the German:

We saw, that the exchange process of commodities includes relations that
contradict and exclude one another. The development of the commodity does
not transcend these contradictions, but creates a form within which they can
move themselves. This is anyway the method through which real contradictions
solve themselves. It is e.g. a contradiction that one body continuously
falls into another, and just as constantly flies away from it. The ellipse
is one of the forms of movement in which this contradiction realizes itself
just as much as it solves itself.

The French version, edited by Marx:

L'échange des marchandises ne peut, comme on l'a vu, s'effectuer qu'en
remplissant des conditions contradictoires, exclusives les unes des autres.
Son développement qui fait apparaître la marchandise comme chose à double
face, valeur d'usage et valeur d'échange, ne fait pas disparaître ces
contradictions, mais crée la forme dans laquelle elles peuvent se mouvoir.
C'est d'ailleurs la seule méthode pour résoudre des contradictions réelles.
C'est par exemple une contradiction qu'un corps tombe constamment sur un
autre et cependant le fuie constamment. L'ellipse est une des formes de
mouvement par lesquelles cette contradiction se réalise et se résout à la

Retranslation from the French:

The exchange of commodities cannot, as we have seen, take place without
fulfilling contradictory conditions, which exclude one other. Its
development which makes commercial wares appear as
something with a double face, use value and exchange value, does not make
these contradictions disappear, but creates the form in which they can move
themselves. This is in any case
the only method for resolving real contradictions. It is, for example, a
contradiction that a body falls constantly toward another, and also
constantly flies away from it. The ellipse is one of the forms of movement
by which this contradiction realizes itself and resolves itself at the same
time. (cf. Marx, Le Capital, J. Roy, translator, Livre I, Paris: Flammarion,
1985, p. 89).

Some philological implications of the various (mis-)translations are
discussed more here on page 6 http://marxistphilosophy.org/DialContMarx.pdf


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Received on Sat Oct 3 15:32:10 2009

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