[OPE-L:969] Re: Pure and Normal

Gilbert Skillman (gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu)
Tue, 6 Feb 1996 17:47:05 -0800

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Continuing to work my way through Alan's posts. Let me preface the
following by emphasizing that I've *never* argued that Marx understood
"normal" or "pure" to mean "typical" as regards the case of
price-value equivalence in commodity exchange.

Alan writes:

> Re: OPE 876: Normal and Pure in Marx


> So, I think it may be important to get more precision on what
> Marx means by these two terms, and whether they in fact have
> the same meaning for him.
> The one citation you supply where he speaks of the 'normal
> course' of events comes from p252 where the reference is to
> 'this particular form of circulation' which turns out on
> examination to be C-M-C, that is, noncapitalist circulation.
> So as far as I can see we don't have any evidence that Marx
> states exchange at values to be 'normal' for capitalism. It may
> be that there are other places that he uses this word in the
> context of capitalist circuits, but I haven't noticed them.

I didn't argue that Marx considered price-value equivalence in
commodity exchange to be "normal" in this sense of "typical"; I said
that readers might have gotten the impression that he assumed
price-value equivalence throughout Volume I as the result of such
passages. My own take is very much like the one you give below, with
an important caveat mentioned in earlier posts and other writing,
and summarized below.

> I'm going to come back to this in another post because I think,
> in your critique of Marx, you have overlooked the fact that
> throughout Chapter 5 Marx is speaking of C-M-C or 'Simple
> Commodity Circulation'.

I addressed this directly in an earlier response to this passage. My
argument in no way depends on whether or not Marx speaks solely of
C-M-C in Chapter 5. Certainly Marx understood his analysis of this
circuit to yield conclusions relevant to the "general formula of
capital." Indeed, as advertised by the title, that's what Ch. 5 is
all about.

> However, to continue: for me decisive are the several places
> where Marx specifically denies that exchange at values happens
> in reality, as in Ch5:
> "but in reality processes do not take place in their pure form.
> Let us therefore assume an exchange of non-equivalents" (p262)
> Note the antithetical phrasing: 'in reality...pure'. That is,
> for Marx, the 'pure form' is *not* what actually happens.

Of course not. I never said otherwise.

> Now, the question then arises: what meaning attaches to the
> word 'normal'? If you can show me that he uses the word
> 'normal' as a substitute for 'pure' then we'll have to re-
> examine a few questions though I think it will leave our
> agreement intact; but as far as I can see 'normal' for Marx has
> one of two possible meanings.
> The first is its modern everyday meaning of 'what happens most
> of the time'.
> The second is 'what happens as a rule' (i.e. as a Norm) or to
> be more precise 'what happens in the absence of external
> disturbances'.

I agree. And I have argued that this imputation is at least
seriously misleading and in general invalid; see below.

I think this is closer to his usage and I'll
> amplify that in a bit. But in either case, it *doesn't* mean at
> all the same as 'pure'.

> 'Pure' has a different meaning, though it is a distinction I am
> not sure you accept as valid. You seem to impute to Marx the
> idea that 'pure' means "a special case in which we pretend that
> it really happens, even though it doesn't".

Not exactly. I mean "pure" in the sense that Marx uses it in his
final footnote of Ch. 5. This is the sense of my statement of Marx's
"isomorphism" conclusion, as explained in an earlier post.

> I think that by
> 'pure' he means "in abstraction from price-value deviations"
> (as deseasonalised data abstracts from seasonal variations). I
> shall amplify this shortly.

But this is circular. Look what your interpretation does to passages
such as the following [I, p. 260]: "...[the circulation of
commodities] necessarily involves the exchange of equivalents,
provided the phenomenon occurs {in abstraction from price-value

or p. 261: In {abstraction from price-value deviations}, the
exchange of commodities is an exchange of equivalents..."

This makes Marx sound like he's talking in circles. In contrast,
my interpretation says that Marx is asserting that price-value equivalence
is in some sense analytically primary or central, abstracting from accidental
or irrelevant disturbances i.e., just the sort of sense
you impute to the term "normal". Thus the fundamental question
concerns how "accidental" and "irrelevant" these unstated sources of
"disturbance" really are. More below.

> But for the present, the point is that even given what I take
> to be your reading, pure does not mean the same as normal. So
> the citations you provide, do not relate to the point I was
> making, which is that Marx does not treat exchange at values as
> normal for capitalist production either in Volume I or,
> actually, anywhere.

Of course I agree that Marx does not take price-value equivalence as
normal in the sense of "typical." In light of the above I continue
to have my doubts about the distinction you draw in his use of
"normal" and "pure" in reference to conditions of commodity exchange.

[Fast forward....]

> This is contrasted to M-C-M, in which there is still no production,
> but the purpose of the exchange is to augment a sum of money
> (otherwise it is pointless just to keep exchanging money for
> goods for money).

But M-C-M' does indeed involve production, although not the
capitalist mode of production, when M is extended to independent
small producers as in the case of proto-industrial merchant's capital
and usury not supplied to "extravagant magnates."

> [This may be relevant to your enquiry into the place which Marx
> assigns to antediluvian circuits of capital, since people who
> make profits out of M-C-M are going to be people like
> merchants.]

It is, subject to the caveat given just above.

> I think what Marx is saying is that, if the only purpose of
> exchange is to obtain a different use-value, then since there
> is no special requirement to augment value, price-value
> deviations are accidental and exogenous. In everyday parlance
> 'what usually happens' is that goods exchange at their value.

But Roemer's work has shown this conclusion to be problematic at
best. He shows that *given* differential ownership of relatively scarce
productive assets, then even in the absence of markets for capital or
labor power, there will *generally* arise price-value disparities.
Thus it is *not* the case that price-value equivalence is "what
usually happens", given unequal distribution. Nor is this
price-value disparity incidental or unimportant, as I'll show below.

> In the M-C-M case there is an endogenous, immanent reason for
> price to deviate from value. This is because the people who do
> M-C-M (the merchants) do so in order to augment their value. In
> the C-M-C case there is no such reason.

Roemer's work shows that the connection between price-value
disparities in C-M-C and those in M-C-M is closer than you suggest.
Given the same conditions which yield unequal exchange in pure
commodity circulation (referred to above), plus the existence of
markets for capital to finance means of production (i.e. through usury or
proto-industrial merchant's capital), Roemer shows there will arise
surplus value, i.e. capitalist exploitation without the capitalist
mode of production, just as Marx said happened in describing these
"antediluvian" circuits of capital.

> I think we will find as the enquiry proceeds, that Marx
> specifically denies the C-M-C case holds for *capitalist*
> production, C-P...C'-M'. This will form part of our discussion
> around Chapter 5.

If this is going to be part of our discussion then I should note two
disagreements. First, the complete schematic associated with
capitalist production is M-C...P...C'-M', not what you show. Second,
while this is associated with capitalist production it is not unique
to it; e.g. usury capital extended to small producers and proto-industrial
merchant's capital are consistent with the operation of the above
schematic, although the identities of who does what vary across the
three modes.

[Fast forward...]

> In this as in all else it is important that we read what Marx
> actually wrote, and not simply raid him for quotations which
> support our positions. Otherwise, we will only see what we are
> looking for.

Yes, I agree strongly that people shouldn't do this.

In solidarity, Gil Skillman