[OPE-L:85] Laws and Levels of Abstraction

glevy@acnet.pratt.edu (glevy@acnet.pratt.edu)
Wed, 20 Sep 1995 20:00:36 -0700

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Jim, Paul C, and Gil all raise questions about the meaning of laws in
political economy. I won't attempt to deal with this question in its
entirety here, but I do want to make a few general points:

Jim says (and Gil agrees) that "a key question is what Marx meant by the
word "law." I would say, in general, that Marx stated laws conditionally
-- more as "tendencies" than as "laws." (although this can get rather
confusing because Marx speaks of the "law of the tendency for the general
rate of profit to decline" in V3). In any event, I think *we* can agree
that laws in p.e. should not have the same meaning as they do in the
natural sciences (although, Marx sometimes confuses this point since he
talks about "iron necessity" [Preface to the First Edition", Penguin, p.
91] and "natural history" [Ibid, p.92], etc.).

To the extent that it is valid to speak of laws in p.e., we might add that:

-- laws are socially and historically specific (rather than natural or

-- laws are logical constructions created to impose order on reality. For
laws to have meaning, they must reflect real historical processes and not
be merely abstract concepts.

-- laws are conditional and are modified at other levels of abstraction.
For instance, we would (I think) all agree that the "general law of
capitalist accumulation" can not be understood to be a statement about
what actually does happen (because of both its level of abstraction and,
of course, we know that it *has not* manifested itself in the manner
suggested in Ch. 25, V1).

-- laws can not be assumed but must be demonstrated logically and
explained historically and empirically.

-- the "law of value" or any law in p.e. can not be expressed simply as a
definition but must be understood as a social process which must be
explained and modified at subsequent stages of abstraction if it is to
have meaning. The real question here isn't "what is the law of value?",
but what are the underlying dynamics which drive a capitalist economy.

-- I would agree with Paul C. that "possibly Marx [and we, JL]felt that
laws at the most abstract level were not invalidated at the more
concrete level." But, how do we get to the point where we can understand
the more concrete level? I would suggest that we must consider in
succession all of the determinations from the most abstract to the most
concrete that can affect a specific topic. Until we have examined each
topic which affects and modifies material reality, we are just blowing
smoke and using mirrors.

How might we do this? Let's consider a specific example and tie it in to
the 6 book plan. The example I will choose will be wages for skilled labor.

Let's begin by asking: what are all of the factors that do, in fact, have
an effect on the wages for skilled laborers? [list them]

We already know how Marx presents this question in V1. At that level of
abstraction, it was both a simplifying assumption [appropriate for that
level of analysis] and a reflection of a historical process.

Yet, we all know that this is not the end of the story {since it *can't*
be until we have accounted for all of the more concrete variables that
determine wages for skilled workers}.

We might go on to ask:

-- how are skilled wages affected by the process of competition and

--how are skilled wages affected by labor markets, education and
training, discrimination, trade unions, class consciousness, etc.?

-- how are wages for skilled workers affected by the state?

-- how are wages modified by international trade?

-- how are they modified by the functioning of world markets and
international crisis?

(these are just *some* of the subjects that we would have to consider to
understand the concrete determination of skilled workers wages).

If we were to suggest a "law" regarding these wages at one level of
analysis, it might only mean that that law was valid at the level of
abstraction that it is presented. We would then have to consider how such
a law would be modified (or overturned)at other levels of analysis. When
all is said and done, we will not be able to answer the very concrete
question of why specific workers receive specific wages until we account
for and understand all of the variables that determine this subject in
actuality. Even then, we will not (I suspect) be able to make meaningful
predictions about what will happen with these wages in the future unless
we hold some of these variables constant, and in so doing, abstract from
some of the very processes which determine material reality.

This is a result that I think Marx would have felt comfortable with. He
was not in the prediction business. Despite occasional references to
"iron necessity" and the like, it was important for both his theory and
his revolutionary politics that material reality could be changed by the
conscious effort of workers. It is not a question of what will be, but of
identifying all of the variables that will determine what might be.
Skilled workers are not merely a subject of study, they like other
workers, can be an agent of change. To understand, though, the
possibilities for change, one must put this topic in the context of
analysing all of the factors that together will affect what will happen.

I agree with Gil that "we can [not] simply take up where he [Marx] left
off." For one thing, we have to critically consider the extent to which
the theory is inadequate as presented. We also have to remember that what
became Volumes 2 and 3 were essentially fragmented drafts which were
pieced together by Engels. We have to ask, though, not where Marx left
off but where should we start and what are the remaining levels of
abstraction that need to be addressed in greater detail and what should
be the order in which we consider different subjects. The real value of
looking at Marx's plans is that it forces us to consider how we should go
about understanding capitalist reality. Surely, Marx would have wanted
this. He would not have wanted others to simply take his unfinished
manuscripts and complete them. He, I think, would have *demanded* that we
use our own brains to understand capitalism and its historical
development and changing nature.

It's getting late and I'm tired. If there is anyone who objects to the
above formulations or wishes to expand upon them, please do so. I'm
pleased to see more people participating today.

In OPE-L solidarity,