[OPE-L:357] Where are we going? A strategy for cross-paradigm discussion

Alan Freeman (100042.617@compuserve.com)
Sat, 28 Oct 1995 15:54:57 -0700

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I haven't contributed to OPE except for a large post and a
couple of interjections. This is an attempted correction.

My basic point is that I am less sure than ever what OPE is
*not* supposed to do, and I think the list will advance if
we can clarify this. That is what I want to do.

It will certainly help *me*: I've been religiously reading
the posts, working out what everyone is saying, chasing up
the references - and I'm still seven days behind the
discussion. And every time I feel I might have a
contribution to make, the topic changes.

Either other people are spending much more time on OPE than
I, or they aren't paying so much attention to the other
contributors. I think either of these options is bad for
OPE. I don't think OPE will work if its demands on time are
unreasonable, and I don't think it will work unless its
members make a greater than normal attempt to understand
each other.

When I first raised the question of limits, a couple of
people said they felt my own proposals were more grandiose
than the original. I think this arises from a
misunderstanding and I'm going to use this post to re-
propose a modified version of my original suggestion which
makes its own limits clearer. It is not out of line with
Gerry's current proposal on what to do next; rather, it is a
contribution on strategy, or where to end.

Why limits?

First, there isn't time in this world to do everything. But
second, there are other people on the case. OPE is not going
to be the only thing that any of us do. There is a place for
each kind of discussion and activity we want to have. On OPE
we should do whatever OPE is best at; on PEN-L we should do
what PEN-L is best at, in the MEGA project we do what the
MEGA project is best at, in the International Working Group
on Value Theory we should do whatever the IWGVT is best at,
in URPE and CSE what they are best at, and so on. There is a
division of labour, even our own.

Two things would be a real shame.

It would be a shame if OPE detracts from other projects. One
consequence of a closed list is that all non-members are
excluded from our discussions, and we need to exercise
discretion about what issues we choose to keep out of the
public arena by *choosing* to discuss on OPE.

The discussion on Marxist political economy on PEN-L seems
to have all but dried up, and I'm not at all convinced this
is a good thing. Gerry said [OPE-245], in response to my
question on this, that OPE was 'complementary' to other
projects. Yes, but that can't just mean doing everything in
two places. As we have discovered, that doesn't work. So, we
have to do some things in one place, and some in another.

It would be a shame if OPE was distracted from the good
things it can do by things which are already done better
elsewhere. If we discuss something which may be very
interesting, but is already being tackled with superior
resources, we achieve very little and we take time out from
what could be our unique contribution.

I still think the task of an exhaustive listing of the
concepts and questions of Marxism, dear though it is to
Gerry's heart, will be done better, more thoroughly, and the
way things are going probably more quickly, by the MEGA
dictionary project. They have nearly a hundred people
working on it, they have thrown open their doors to the
Marxists of the world, they have the finest Marx libraries
at their disposal, and I see absolutely no point in
repeating what they do. What we *could* do is help them; but
that requires a bit of humility. Before we decide how to
help the world we might ask a bit of it what kind of help it

Therefore, OPE needs to decide what it *is* best at.

I get a sinking feeling, based on far too long in British
politics, every time an attempt is made to form a new group
by assembling a group of nice guys. Especially 'respected'
nice guys.

It doesn't work.

I'd love to think that getting together thirty Marxists
would solve the outstanding problems of humanity but it
ain't so. I'd love to think getting together thirty Marxists
would produce a comprehensive outline of Marx's economics
but I am damn sure that ain't so either. The truth is that
getting thirty Marxists to produce even one agreed paper is
about the most unlikely event in world history since the
resurrection. In Boston we couldn't even get them to agree
on a restauraunt to eat in at nine degrees under in a
freezing blizzard. Never mind what happened when the
lightbulbs went.

What gets results is assembling a group of people who may be
nice and may be complete assholes, but who agree to a common
aim which is also worthwhile. What counts is not the people
but the aim. So when Gerry says that 'what is most important
is that our understanding of capitalism is furthered', I
agree one hundred percent. Sounds trivial but it's easily

So: what is our aim? What could be considered as progress by
a group of thirty people whose only common feature is, let's
face it, publishing things with the word 'Marx' in?

A radical suggestion: disagreement as progress

I think OPE's best feature is precisely what Gerry
identified in OPE-320. Namely, it is a meeting of
progressive or left-wing people active in the political
economy of Marx from widely *different* perspectives, many
of whom don't know each other.

What interests me most is therefore not agreement but
*disagreement*. Therefore let me make a radical suggestion:
let's start from the knowledge that we are going to
disagree, that this disagreement will be fruitful, and let
us decide not what we are going to produce but what we are
going to *discuss*.

I would see OPE not as a factory but a meeting-place. All of
us are engaged in several projects, which require time and
commitment, and I don't think OPE should seek to end that
commitment but enhance it and draw from it. We come with
widely differing views and I don't think it is necessary for
OPE to worry about reducing the gap. This may be a joint
product of the exercise, but what we should aim to do in the
first instance is enhance the understanding.

I don't particularly want to convince Gil Skillman of the
errors of Analytical Marxism. I do want to find out what
Analytical Marxism has to say. I don't particularly want Gil
to convince me of the errors of labour values. I do want Gil
to hear understand how a dynamic presentation works. I don't
want to reach agreement on whether money must be an
intrinsically valuable commodity. I do want to ensure that
all sides of the argument are properly stated including
Marx's. I don't want to convince OPE that Paul Cockshott's
computation of prices and values is wrong, and I don't want
him to convince us he is right. I do want us to understand
his method of calculation, and I do want us to understand my
objections. And so on.

I think this approach is both in keeping with the scientific
method and the Marxist tradition. I never met anyone who
learned by talking to people s/he agreed with. In fact I
never met anyone who learned by talking. Most people learn,
by listening, and the more they disagree, the more they
learn. The trick is to stay talking to people who pick holes
in everything you say.

IMHO the Marxist tradition is from start to finish a
critical tradition, an approach which always works on the
two levels of essence and appearance; the subject of study
as it really is, and the subject of study as it appears in
the thought of others.

IMHO the most decisive work in the evolution of Marx's
thought, the transition to a concrete theory of capitalism
in all its manifestations, *is* the Theories of Surplus
Value. And this is no accident. All the finest works in the
Marxist tradition are encounters and polemics. Consider:
German Ideology, Marx's critical break with the Young
Hegelian Philosophy. Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of
Right, Marx's critical break with Hegel's political
philosophy. Poverty of Philosophy, the start of Marx's
livelong critical engagement with petty-bourgeois
utopianism. Grundrisse, the great bulk a critical engagement
with Darimon and the time-chitters. Wage Labour and Capital,
Marx's encounter with the 'iron law of wages'. Theories of
Surplus Value, critical engagement with the decisive
currents in political economy of Marx's time - to name but
three Ricardo, Smith, the Physiocrats.

One could go on because it continues after Marx. Mehring's
wonderful historical works on the Lessing-Legend and the
German historical tradition. State and Revolution, Lenin's
head-on collision with Kautsky. Permanent Revolution: a
frontal theoretical confrontation with the theory of
Socialism in One Country. The Bukharin-Luxemburg controversy
with all its offshoots; Grossman, Mattick, and so on, and so
on, progenitors of all principal currents of Marxist thought
today. Why? Because they were critical thinkers who engaged
the main currents of the day.

No-one who has objected to the adoption of a critical
approach has explained why Capital was subtitled the
*Critique* of Political Economy. If we are going to refuse a
critical approach, let's at least explain what an awful
mistake Marx made in choosing this title. It makes Boehm-
Bawerk's objections look like complaints about the coffee-
stains. It's a pretty big damn discovery.

Stop debating and we die. We don't die outside straight
away, but inside, we are already dead. All that remains is
the formal rotting of the flesh.

Agreeing what to disagree on: the need for a strategic goal

If we simply exchange polemics on everything of interest to
each individual member, the result will probably be a sorry
mess and certainly not a nice advert for Marxist thinking.
That is another reason to modify the normal practice on E-
Mail discussion lists, and develop a bit of self-discipline.
Gerry himself said that one of the reasons for setting up
OPE was the 'anarchic' procedures of PEN-L and PKT. Anarchy
is underrated, but since it's already going on elsewhere we
don't need to re-invent it. So OPE should not just be a
place where everyone throws in their 'latest idea' or dashes
off a comment. It should be a moderated list in which we
attempt to stick to a more or less agreed agenda, taking
time out of course for digressions and clarifications but
attempting to abide by a certain order of procedure.

By what means, therefore, can we establish an agreed order
of procedure? IMHO by agreeing on the *subject* of our
enquiry. I am responsible in my comments [OPE 240-243] about
'order of enquiry versus order of presentation' for more
confusion than clarity. Most people clearly thought I was
saying Marx's order of enquiry should be the subject of our

That would be scholastic. The problem of order is a problem
of *how* to study. But a prior methodological question is
*what* we want to study. To clarify this still further, let
me make the point as polemically as I can: I don't think
Marx's writings should be our subject of enquiry.

Let me repeat that.

I don't think Marx's writings should be the subject of our

Why? Not because it isn't important. It is important. Not
because we shouldn't study Marx's writings. We probably will
spend most of our time doing just that. But because the
study of Marx's writings is not going to be the goal which
unites us. *Capitalism* should be the subject of our
enquiry, and specifically, *modern* capitalism.

Why? Not least because other people are already studying
doing it. I am sorry to keep harping on about this but I
have the awful feeling that it is not understood by great
majority of US Marxists. Incidentally, just because it isn't
happening in English, doesn't mean it isn't happening.
Sorry, guys, but other projects are already studying Marx's
writings. Sorry, guys, but they do it better than OPE.
Sorry, guys, but they write more about it than OPE is ever
going to. Sorry, guys, but most of what they write is a lot
better than what appears on OPE. If the OPE project is meant
to do better than them, we'll break our backs. If the OPE
project is meant to do the same as them, we'll duplicate the
effort. If the OPE project is meant to do worse than them,
there's no point. I have a different proposal: I suggest the
OPE project should be to *learn* from them.

This sounds like a tremendous downer on OPE. It isn't meant
to be: it's an argument for OPE to realise its full
potential by developing an absent sense: a sense of context.

[A propos: I have misled people by mischievously threatening
to (metaphorically) pull the legs off anyone who says Marx
is wrong. Actually, I have no problem with saying Marx was
wrong. What is unacceptable is to say Marx has been *proved*
wrong. This says 'there is no other historical tradition and
no other argument except the disproof of Marx'. It elevates
opinion to the status of fact. It is arrogant, bumptious,
exclusive, unscholarly, and not least, undemocratic. It is
what projects like this should be breaking from. It writes
the disproof of the disproof out of history. It says that
the guys who have another view, don't exist. On this basis
you can prove anything; all you have to do is repeat
yourself. Sorry again, but Goebbels had this idea first. OPE
has to make itself aware of the *range* of argument about
the matters it decides to study. And one of the first steps
is to look at what the other guys are doing before we leap
in and proclaim 'the truth']

So: that was reason number one. Now for reason number two: I
think the most appropriate subject of enquiry for a
heterogenous group is neither a text nor a method but a
concrete issue. Methodological disputes and differences
will, IMO, become most evidently relevant if we can show how
they lead to different conclusions about facts or
circumstances that we all consider important and we all
agree exist.

For that reason I want to sharpen up a proposition made,
endorsed or hinted at by many list members [Gerry 245,
Duncan 248/273/280, Rakesh 249, Kitamura 276, Kliman 281,
Mattick 282, Burke 302, Perelman 303, sorry if I've missed
any out] that the subject of our enquiry should be
capitalism. But I want to argue for this to be narrowed
down, and I think the most promising line of development is
that suggested Burke [30] to identify a short list of
questions, not about 'Capital' but Capitalism.

I have one particular list, but I see no reason this should
not be modified, extended, or indeed shortened. This is the
proposal favourably received by some people, and negatively
received by no-one, that that the subject of our enquiry
should be those most salient features of the modern world
economy which contemprary political economy had done least
to explain.

These were, I suggested, poverty, crisis and war.
Alternatively, perhaps slightly more sharply focussed:
inequality, crisis and war.

In short, I suggest that our *strategic* agreed goal should
be to discuss and debate around, and inform ourselves about,
explanations of inequality, crisis and war. This is a simple
definition, everyone can agree it, it's easy to explain, and
it is a good basis for both solidarity and for settling
disputes about relevance and order of procedure.

I suggest that this definition of the group is substituted
for the old definition, and that the old definition is
scrapped; it has served its purpose, it was useful at the
time, and it should be cited as part of our history, but it
should be superseded.

Order and method of enquiry

Am I arguing to scrap the substantial agreement about what
to do next? Not at all. My argument would be that *in order*
to discuss explanations of inequality, crisis and war, we
need a logical procedure, and that the discussion so far has
been doing just that. That is, I would say my proposal will
bring the group's strategic aims in line with its actual

This, I hope, should bring into context and perspective the
issues at dispute concerning our method of enquiry. Why
study Marx? Because we all have good reason to believe he
will afford great insights, and because he is the only
economist ever to have undertaken a comprehensive study of
these three phenomena. Isn't this a much more striking
rationale than studying the texts simply because we think
they might have holes in?

This delivers us from what strikes me as an unnecessarily
defensive paradigm, which is calling forth defensive
questions even though the stated aim was to advance. How
will we advance on Marx by looking for holes? This is arse-
about. It's like trying to fly by questioning gravity. I'm
sure there are hundreds of holes in Marx. The question is
whether they are a road-block to explaining modern society.
The holes his Marx's 'correctors' claim to have found, if
they existed, would make capitalism completely
incomprehensible, which is probably why none of them
understand capitalism. But I don't get the sense that on OPE
we are talking about holes of this size.

Suppose, for a moment, that for five minutes OPE becomes
headline CNN news. Which would you prefer:

'Poor will stay poor: new findings confirm shock claim'


'Vital book missing, say disconsolate pinkos'?

I am sure it is important to understand why the real wage
rises more or less in line with productivity. And the answer
is probably not in Marx. The point is, does its absence
invalidate his explanation for another *much* more important
fact, which is that the real wage does not rise to the whole
net value product of society? Why doesn't *that* happen? I
have found nothing about it in the whole of neoclassical
economics except for psychology: In 1649 people suddenly
decided they wanted to save, bless their little cotton
socks. That's it: the Nobel-Prize theory of the capitalist
epoch. It's pathetic. It's utter bullshit. You want holes?
*That's* where the holes are.

So, my argument would be that the approach to Marx's
writings should be, not to go looking for holes (believe me,
if they're there, someone will fall in them) but to go
looking for concepts. [and just to shock my fellow thinkers
I'm *equally* prepared to go looking in Keynes, Kalecki,
Schumpeter/Wicksell (hi Riccardo), Roemer or wherever any
OPE member thinks it useful to look] What we need to know
is, what is in there to help us understand the world? What's
been neglected, allowed to lie fallow?

A couple of these probably started up the train of
discussion that led to OPE's existence: moral depreciation,
and the release and tie-up of capital. I happen to think,
and I'm very happy to put the argument in front of people,
that they are probably the key to explaining world poverty,
uneven development, crisis, and a few other things. Isn't
there at least a possibility of getting more out of that
line of enquiry?

And it's here that the issue of the order of enquiry comes
in. I want to know what Marx found out, not what he missed
out. What lies *underdeveloped* in his thinking that would
help us better understand the world we live in? My concern
about the underdevelopment of Volume II is precisely that
the most vital question Marx ever asked, in a certain sense,
is 'why does capitalism exist?' And his approach to this
question was to study how it reproduced itself. But he
*knew* this enquiry to be incomplete. He *never* got round
to a full treatment of extended reproduction.

But that means, he never got round to a full treatment of
accumulation. He never got round to integrating his account
of the falling rate of profit, of relative surplus value, of
the movement of capital, into his account of the
distribution of capital between its great classes by the
process of social reproduction. Now that's a real hole. But
it's a hole for which he laid aside some pretty large piles
of gravel. Look at the gravel, not the hole. That's my
argument. If it doesn't fill the hole, fair enough, look for
more gravel. But if all we do is stand around the hole
leaning on our shovels, we ain't never going to travel the
road. Better a bumpy ride than an aborted journey.

Abstraction and the subject of enquiry

Thus my main proposal about our method of enquiry is that we
should be motivated to find, not the gaps in Marx's theory
that make it harder to understand what is already known, but
the presences in Marx's theory that make it easier to
understand what remains unexplained.

Why, then, is it necessary and indeed essential to revisit
the relatively well-known parts of Marx's work such as his
treatment of value? Basically because the world is not the
way it seems to be.

It is true that 'Capital' is often taken to be an account of
an underlying essence which, once grasped, eliminates the
need to study appearance. Once we understand value, it is
argued, price is an epiphenomenon, a distortion of the
underlying reality.

I am certainly not putting this point of view. 'Capital' was
not just an account of capitalism as it was but capitalism
as it appeared, because the way it appears to people is part
of what it is. You just can't get past first base without
acknowledging this. Let's take money, which has been under
some discussion. Whatever we think money is, the people who
deal in it have some pretty firm ideas of their own. *They*
think debt is money, and whatever we have to say, they *use*
it as money, or at least for a lot of the functions of

Moreover this perception of money is not limited to the
spheres of academia. Maybe a misunderstanding is involved
here in what is meant by a critical approach. It doesn't
mean a scholastic approach. It doesn't mean going off and
reading every piece of academic garbage that has rolled off
the combined presses of the Ivy League and Oxbridge. If you
want to criticise the bourgeois theory of money you don't
start with the Nobel Prize Winners, you start with the
people who pay them. You start with the bankers. Their
conception of money is part of the real world. They use debt
as money because they think it is money and this perception
affects their behaviour, hence it affects reality.

However, what we need to know is, why do they think it is

Can we take their perceptions of reality to *be* the
reality? Can we just leap straight in and discuss money,
interest, fictitious capital and debt without first asking
how they come to appear as they do?

One can do this and many do. One can say, the capitalists
think that debt is money because it serves them as money,
and it serves them as money because they think it is money.
Being and consciousness are immediately identical and the
only thing we have to understand is understanding itself.

The problem is then to explain how it can ever cease to
function as money, which in bourgeois theory appears as a
kind of psychological malfunction, a mental disorder. After
all, if debt becomes money through the power of belief, then
all we have to do is maintain our beliefs: everything
rational is real, and everything real is rational. Lucas for
emperor. Only Believe.

For the bourgeoisie this is a recurrent and permanent
problem which they can only resolve by promoting their
perceptions to the status of primary causal agent, so that
debt only stops functioning as money because people 'lose
confidence'. Hence that most entertaining of bourgeois
pursuits, 'talking up the market'.

As if you could talk your way out of forty million

No, you have to understand that these perceptions, and these
beliefs, are themselves the product of relations which do
not depend on these beliefs for their existence. If Paul C
were right and money were 'only' information, trade between
uninformed people would be impossible.

It would only be possible to treat debt, or information, as
the primary essence of money if they served as money under
all circumstances and at all times. But they don't. In fact
the most important junctures of history and of the
capitalist cycle are precisely those at which debt ceases to
function as money, at which capital defies belief and
asserts itself as an independent social relation; or at
which the 'information' which society possesses about its
money passes into its opposite and becomes misinformation,
when people who think they own millions, and who according
to all the records *do* own millions, find they own nothing.

If one rejects the critical approach, appearance is then
taken for the essence and we find ourselves unable to
understand the most important things that have to be
understood. We stand at the pinnacle of a Ziggurat of
understanding which turns instantly into a tower of Babel.

Though price might appear as 'information' and debt might
appear as money, in fact price is not information and debt
is not money. The fact that it serves as money does not
change this, any more than sitting on a car turns it into a
seat. When the car drives off, it ceases to function as a
seat, just as when the state ceases to maintain the
statutory functions required for its debt to serve as money,
it ceases to serve as money, just as when Black Wednesday
arrives the computers become so disruptive they have to be
switched off. Ignorance of these limitations is equally
painful in all three cases.

There is a long and painfully-constructed body of laws,
regulatory practices, ideological struggles, even wars and
revolutions, which have led to and buttress up the treatment
of debt as money (not least the acquisition of the means to
enforce payment of debt. If debt was the only kind of money,
why do we need to make anyone pay? *What* would they pay?)
These struggles, unlike those which led to the existence of
money as such, are quite specific to quite limited epochs of
social development and quite specific countries. I agree
most strongly with Duncan [OPE-294], therefore, that if you
seek a general theory of money you cannot derive it by
incorporating the *limited* assumption that a specific
historical form of money 'is' money.

So a process of abstraction, an analysis of the 'essence' of
money, is necessary in order to derive the most general laws
governing its behaviour. The point is not whether either
gold or debt functions as money. The point is, what can we
say that applies to *both* gold *and* debt? This was, IMO,
the principle governing Marx's order of presentation. The
entire carefully-constructed architectonics of the work is
designed to ensure that as each category is derived, only
those assumptions are made which are strictly necessary for
its derivation. Then as the analysis becomes more concrete,
the category is 'fleshed out' with successively more
concrete determinations. But such fleshings out in no way
invalidate the prior stages of the analysis. It was in order
to achieve this logical outcome that Marx retained to the
end the method of reflection-determination, the highest
achievement of 19th century speculative philosophy.

Thus when the category of money is made more concrete, the
derivation is not falsified. In Volume I money is *not*
necessarily gold and *neither* is it necessarily debt. It
can be either. Neither assumption falsifies the analysis.
Marx chooses to illustrate parts of Volume I with gold money
but in the preceding work, Zur Kritik (towards a Critique of
Political Economy) he makes it equally clear that money need
not be gold at all; indeed the whole of this work, on which
Volume I rests and of which Volume I was intended as a
continuation, is a vigorous polemic against schools such as
the Bullionists who confused the social function of money
with its bodily form.

The result is not only more robust than many of Marx's
'correctors' think - because it is invulnerable to the
criticism that money is not always gold - it is also a great
deal more robust than the assumption that some other
particular form of money is the general form of money. It is
surely just as wrong to assert that debt, or information, or
electronic cash, is the general form of money, as it is to
assert that money must be a valuable commodity in its own
right. I not only agree with Chai on this question but I
would refer all readers to what I consider a vital work by
Adolfo Rodriguez, his PhD Thesis at the Universty of
Louvain, dedicated to clarifying a distinction which he
makes between the value of money and the exchange value of
money. I don't necessarily agree with the choice of words
but the essential point is that the rate of exchange of any
commodity for money cannot possibly determined by the
intrinsic value of the commodity serving as money, any more
than it can be determined by the intrinsic value of the
commodity. Once there are prices different from values, the
value of money ceases to be determined by the quantity of
labour required for its production.

Of course, at all those points where Marx is abstracting
from price-value deviations, he makes the perfectly
legitimate simplification that the money commodity's
exchange-value must be given by the labour embodied in it.
But where the abstraction is absent, the simplification is
equally absent. They go together. Therefore in Volume III
the value of money is *not* determined by the labour
socially necessary for its production, and could not
possibly be.

A method of analysis ('presentation') that proceeds, using
the method of reflection-determination, from abstract to
concrete is therefore unavoidable. Why should we discuss
this? Because so many people think it *is* avoidable. Faced
with disagreement on such a fundamental matter, then I think
our first task is indeed to clarify this as far as we can,
to get this disagreement right out into the open. It is for
this reason, not for any other, that I favour a preliminary
discussion on value and Part I of Volume I.

Part II follows in next post