[OPE-L:647] Re: Order of enquiry and critique

akliman@acl.nyit.edu (akliman@acl.nyit.edu)
Mon, 4 Dec 1995 14:13:11 -0800

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Andrew here, replying to Paul Zarembka and to Jerry Levy.

First, Paul:

My question was about whether Althusser thought relations of commodity
production, value production, relations in which labor has a dual character
of being both abstract as well as concrete--whether these relations are
characteristically (if not exclusively) capitalistic, or whether they are
present in other modes of production.

Paul also writes that some people, evidently Althusser and perhaps himself
included, think that Part I of _Capital_ is inadequate partly because it
was drawn from the _Contribution_ and Marx did include Part I in "1867" but
"hadn't really polished it off."

Response: It was not only in 1867 that Marx included Part I, but also in
the 2d German ed. of 1872 and the French 1872-75 ed. And a lot of polishing
took place, not to mention a significant expansion of the discussion of
commodity fetishism, as well as significant changes to it, during that time.
Raya Dunayevskaya has argued that this is related to the Paris Commune of
1871--i.e., that the changes to the discussion of fetishism reflect Marx's
experience with "free and associated labor" during the Commune (whether this
was conscious on Marx's part or not). The discussion is complex and not
easy to summarize; see Raya Dunayevskaya, _Marxism and Freedom_, esp. Ch. 5.
But I can mention a couple of things here: (1) there was no separate section
on fetishism in the 1867 ed., much less in the _Contribution_; (2) in 1872,
Marx says that commodity fetishism clearly arises "from the [commodity]
form itself"--that was new, so perhaps not "clear" to Marx himself in 1867.

Moreover, Ch. 1 of _Capital_ is in my mind very different from Ch. of of the
_Contribution_. One key difference is that Marx (in _Capital_) spends pages
developing the distinction between value and exchange-value. That distinction
is not even present (explicitly) in the former work, which basically used
one term, exchange-value, to cover both concepts, with "value" being used as
a synonym for "exchange-value." I.I. Rubin called attention to this as
Dunayevskaya did later (apparently independently); I have recently written a
paper discussing the development of this distinction.

In sum, I think the later editions of _Capital that Marx wrote, especially,
reflect a good deal of polishing, as well as conceptual development. In any
case, this is something for readers, including "the workers," to decide for
themselves in my view.

The last issue Paul addresses concerns the passage in the section on the
fetish of the commodity (p. 169 of the Vintage and Penguin editions), in which
Marx says that the categories of bourgeois economics are both "absurd" and
"socially valid." Jerry also addresses this. Note that one paragraph
begins "The categories of bourgeois economics consist precisely of forms of
this kind." The "this" means that yes, we do need to relate this sentence
to the paragraph immediately preceding, in which Marx says that to *state*
that coats or boots relate to linen (or gold or silver) because the latter
is the universal incarnation of abstract human labor is "absurd." BUT, it
isn't only the *statement that is absurd--it is the relationship itself. As
Marx notes, when the one commodity is brought into relation with its
equivalent, the economic relation appears in exactly this absurd form--the
relationship *itself* is "absurd" in other words. Marx then says that the
categories of bourgeois economics consist precisely of these, i.e. "absurd,"
forms. That does not mean they are incorrect. Exactly the opposite; they
are "socially valid and therefore objective" for commodity production; but
only for commodity production.

Hence, fetishism is not just something that "conceals" the real relations.
The real relations are themselves fetishistic, absurd, inverted, inhuman
(as marx also notes, the real relations appear to the produces as these
relations *really are*--material relations between persons in their work and
social relations between things.) Bourgeois thought is not fetishistic
because it is "incorrect"; even when it is scientific and correctly reflects
reality it is still fetishistic, because it correctly reflects, codifies,
and expresses in thought-forms an absurd, topsy-turvy, inhuman reality.
Thus, the life-process of society does not strip off its mystical veil
through science--but only when it becomes production by freely associated
_menschen_, and stands under their conscious and planned control.

And hence, as I mentioned before in connection with Colletti's recognition
that this was indeed Marx's view (which led Colletti to abandon Marxism
in favor of science and materialism), Marx's standpoint is not "scientific,"
because it does not take what exists as the standard against which conceptions
are to be measured--i.e., truth is not here the identity of the concept to
what exists--because what exists is itself perverted and unnecessary, and
thus "untrue" in the Hegelian sense (Hegel accepts that truth is the identity
of thought and reality, but sees this as a *two-sided* relation--truth emerges
through a process in which, as Marx put it, thought not only strives towards
reality, but reality strives towards thought. Or as Lenin put it,
consciousness not only reflects the objective world, but creates it.) Rather
than what exists being the measure against which conceptions were judged--or
rather than that *alone*, because Marx certainly does criticize conceptions
that fail to reflect events accurately (e.g., Ricardo's view that the "more"
fertile land is used before the "less" fertile)--Marx measures conceptions
against the future human society he envisions, in which the free development
of each is the condition for the free development of all (Comm. Manifesto),
and in which "human power [is] an end in itself" (_Capital III, Trinity
Formula chapter).

Onto Jerry's points, which I found very interesting and thought-provoking.

Marx certainly did think that economics took a turn away from disinterested
science, telling it like it is, in other words, and towards acting as
hired prize fighters to promote notions that are ideologically "useful" and
expedient for capital--around 1830, due to the intensification of the
class struggle. I don't think this contradicts the passage about "absurd"
and "socially valid" categories of bourgeois economics, because I think
that, in that context, Marx is referring to the BEST economists, the
classical economists--clearly the reference is to those who recognized that
labor is the source of value, and not the "vulgar" economists who denied this.
Marx is saying that labor is expressed as value and the duration of labor
by the magnitude of value--these notions of the classicists are correct, but
nonetheless "absurd," because they are formula that bear the unmistakeable
stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production
has mastery over man instead of the opposite.

So I *do* agree that we need to distinguish between different tendencies and
"schools" in economics. But I don't think "validity" and "absurdity" are
dichotomous poles--you can have the latter without the former, as in vulgar
economics, but also both together, as in classical and much modern Left and
even marxian economics. When categories are such that they accept what is,
whatever might be the subjective views of the theorists, and when what exists
is "absurd," then I think Marx's stricture applies. (Clearly this implies
rejection of the fact/value dichotomy, according to which "facts" are
neutral and cannot themselves be critical.)

And I certainly do agree with Jerry that hired prize fighters are more
prevalent today than even in Marx's time. As he (Marx) put it, they're not
really concerned with whether a theorem is correct or not, but with whether
the conclusion is experdient and useful. How true! But I also think there
is another category of economists that Marx did not really confront--applied
economists, including macroeconomic planners. These guys aren't concerned
with truth or even "ideology" in the usual sense, but with whether the
ideas "work." In the modern age these people are certainly at least as
dangerous as the ideological form of hired prize fighters, since in many
cases--especially re monetary and macroeconomics--the "ideas" are mere
tools to fight the massesm, their truth content not even being of concern
to the practitioners or even the theorists.

Jeryy asks whether modern economic thinking can be considered as "socially
valid and therefore objective." Excellent question. But one that's
hard to give a unilateral answer to. A lot of high theory is certainly
far removed from this, and it seems to me that the more abstract bourgeois
economics is, the more general and ahistorical it is, and thus the less
"objective" a reflection of current relations. Conversely, the more down
to earth, in general, the more "objectivity" I find. Take Lucas--please.
The notion of policy ineffectiveness certainly does reflect the failure
of Keynesian demand-management in the context of the global slump of the
past two decades-plus. Put aside his "explanation" for the moment, just as
Marx put aside Ricardo's "explanation" of the falling rate of profit, and
just think of why Lucas' doctrine has won the day. If it had been proposed
in 1959, it would have been laughed out of court (just as Friedman was
saying a lot of things about the ineffectiveness of fiscal policy in that
era and was treated as a joke). Now of course, Lucas is certainly NOT
a "disinterested" figure in the sense Marx thought Ricardo was, but there
is something objective--an intractable economic slump--that his "thinking"

The close to the real world we get, the more objectivity is reflected. In
the _Bell Curve_, Murray and Herrnsein say something like (quote from
memory): "In economic terms, and barring a profound change in direction of
our society, many people will be unable to perform that function so basic
to human dignity--putting more into society than they take out." This is
of course tied to the possibility they float of turning the ghettoes into
reservations, and, again, foregoing trying to make things better through
social programs because it won't work. This last part is just like Lucas.
But also notice the "putting in" and the "taking out." Putting in and
taking out WHAT? See how ABSTRACT it is. If this statement doesn't prove
that abstract labor is not just a "concept," but a social reality--socially
valid and *therefore* objective--then I'll eat Vol. I of _Capital_ (like
Paul Zarembka's copy, mine is conveniently falling apart for inclusion in

What are the implications of all this for the examination and critique
of contemporary economic thought, Jerry asks. Again, excellent question.
I have no definitive answer, but I'll say this. The Left usually does
a good job of exposing errors in economists' writings, pronouncements, etc.
And usually a good job in locating the special pleading. But, partly
due to a scientisitc cast in many Leftists' thought, and partly due to the
--seemingly ever-increasing--desire to be respectable and "relevant," the
Left tends to neglect the *practical*, political, character of a lot of
economic "theory." Harry Cleaver has done a good job of emphasizing this.
He notes that General Patton read Rommel's book as a guide to Rommel's
strategy. So he knew what was coming and how to fight it. A lot of
leftist economists would be writing "critiques" of Rommel, or running
regressions to disprove his theories.

But there's also another aspect, to my mind even more important nowadays.
The scientistic character of much Leftist thought is such that the categories
and approaches are simply not CRITICAL. Don't get me wrong, I do think it
is important to explain what's going on. But it is even more important to
show that this society is transient, historical, unnecessary--that we don't
have to live like this. As Marx put it in a letter to Kuglmann, once
the inner connnectedness of bourgeois relations is grasped, all theoretical
belief in the permanent necessity of existing conditions collapses, before
the practical collapse. So yes, let's get the inner connectedness of what's
going down--but for the PURPOSE of showing that capitalism doesn't need to
be eteranl. This requires categories that are themselves critical, and
not only one's subjective dislike of the system. Again, I'll let Marx
speak--in its rational form, the dialectics is a scandal and an abomination,
because it includes *within* its understanding of what exists, *at the same
time* an understanding of its inevitable negation. Because it does not
let itself be impressed by anything [including what exists, and bending our
thinking so that it conforms to what exists] and is in its essence
critical and revolutionary (Postface to _Capital_, 2d German ed.).