[OPE-L:106] Re: Laws and Levels of Abstraction

James Devine (JDevine@lmumail.lmu.edu)
Thu, 21 Sep 1995 17:38:56 -0700

[ show plain text ]

Jerry writes: >>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.<<

I am struck that this list also applies to the "law of supply and
demand." That "law" is historically specific in its application (and
does not apply without the social conditions called competitive
markets), is a logical construction abstracting from real-world,
complications, etc.

On one level, the "law of value" can be seen as a heuristic like the "law
of S & D": the latter does not tell us what prices will actually be but
is instead a guide that helps us investigate how prices will change under
specific conditions that are not part of the law of S & D. the "law of
value," on the other hand, is not a theory of price determination (as
Paul Z points out). Rather, it is a heuristic for understanding, for
revealing, the societal (i.e., socio-economic) nature of capitalism and
its system of exploitation. Marx's assumption in K1 and K2 that
commodities exchange "at value" is an abstraction that allows him to
break through the fetishism of commodities, to break through the
distortions that appear when competition is introduced.

On another, more fundamental, level these "laws" are good abstractions
because they reflect the real world. The "law of S & D" is a good
abstraction because it does saying something about how markets work (and
I don't think Marx ever rejected S & D). The "law of value" is a good
abstraction because is fits the nature of capitalism as a societal
exploitative system.

in ope-l solidarity,

Jim Devine jdevine@lmumail.lmu.edu
Econ. Dept., Loyola Marymount Univ., Los Angeles, CA 90045-2699 USA
310/338-2948 (daytime, during workweek); FAX: 310/338-1950
"It takes a busload of faith to get by." -- Lou Reed.