[OPE-L:1166] Re: gil and capitalism as a totality,I

Gilbert Skillman (gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu)
Tue, 20 Feb 1996 16:31:06 -0800

[ show plain text ]

It's a pleasure for me to welcome Mike [back] to the Chapter 5
discussion. For OPE-Listmates who wonder why, it was a seemingly
innocent question from Mike, on PEN-L back in January 1992, which led
me into the investigation of what I call Marx's "historical-
strategic" account of capitalist exploitation.

And since at the moment various debates seem to be heating up all
around, let me pause to affirm that the debates in PEN-L are in
general a pleasure to engage in. There are immediate frustrations,
of course, and the task of trying to make oneself clear in very complex
exchanges is intellectually demanding, sometimes to the point of
headache, but in general the process has been rewarding and I believe,
ultimately forward-looking.

With that, I turn to Mike, who writes:

> I have been wanting to make a comment about Gil's
> arguments in relation to Ch. 5 and all that; and Fred's
> recent post (1126) opens up the issue I want to address. I
> agree completely with Fred that the essential point to grasp
> is that Capital assumes the capitalist mode of production
> from the outset and that "Marx's theory, from the very
> beginning is about capitalism as an existing totality."
> In Ch. 5, Marx argued that surplus value for society as
> a whole can emerge from the exchange of neither equivalents
> nor non-equivalents in simple circulation and thus we must
> look to something not visible in (simple) circulation for
> the explanation of surplus value in the societies in
> question (presumably, as the opening sentence of Capital
> indicates, those "in which the capitalist mode of production
> prevails"). Accordingly, he proceeded to develop the
> argument showing how in these societies surplus value was
> generated within production.

Some minor caveats, just to keep the record straight:

1) Marx argued that "surplus value...can emerge from the exchange of
neither equivalents nor non-equivalents in simple circulation",
**taken alone**; otherwise the argument is manifestly invalid.

2) Mike's qualifying phrase, "for society as a whole" is irrelevant,
since the issue is not whether "society as a whole" can realize
surplus value, but whether a strict subset of society as a whole,
i.e. the capitalist class, can appropriate surplus value. This is
why Marx's comment about the capitalist class not being able to
"defraud itself" is irrelevant, and why this comment is based on an
obvious fallacy of division, as I've argued elsewhere.

3) As is readily verified from reading the last paragraph in the
body of Ch. 5, Marx argues we "must" do something else as well,
as I discuss further below.

4) Question: granting for the moment that Marx focuses all along on
societies "in which the capitalist mode of production prevails",
what is this "something...in the background" which according to Marx
is *necessary* for the existence of surplus value? And what are the
possible grounds for this alleged necessity? More on this anon.

> Gil has protested, however, (eg., in 1056), that Marx
> made an invalid leap from his point about surplus value and
> simple circulation to an argument that capitalist
> exploitation (a) must be explained upon the basis of price-
> value equivalence and (b) "requires the purchase and
> subsumption of labor power within the capitalist mode of
> production".

As for (b), I said rather that this was an apparent implication of
Marx's conclusion (a), since the only circuit of capital which
satisfies this stipulation is that based on the purchase and
subsumption of labor power, and **whether or not** Marx intendedly
limits his focus to the societies in which the capitalist mode of
production prevails, nothing in the logical structure of his argument
depends on this limitation. Thus either the argument is logically
valid or it isn't. And it isn't.

> Fred has responded to both points,

Do you really think so, Mike? Fred said "Marx did not argue in
Chapter 5 that surplus-value must be explained on the basis of the
assumption that the price of individual commodities [is] equal to
their values." Do you agree with this assessment? How?

>and I want to
> address the second, which Gil is especially anxious to reject.

Whoa, there, Mike, you can't possibly know whether I'm "especially
anxious" about anything, parked up there in British Columbia, and
whether or not I am is irrelevant to the argument. For the record, I
don't feel anxious at all.

> Capitalist exploitation, he insists (citing Marx),
> occurred outside and before the emergence of the capitalist
> mode of production--- eg., via the usurer and merchant
> capital.

Rather, usury and merchant's capital extended to small producers.

> Accordingly, there must be some *other* explanation
> of the emergence of the capitalist mode of production (and
> its characteristic purchase of labour-power), something
> other than Marx's "value-theoretic" explanation. Gil
> proposes that "the onset and prevalence of the capitalist
> mode of production is best understood on historically
> contingent strategic grounds which are essentially
> independent of Marx's value theory"; in 952, he describes
> the alternative as "Marx's historical-strategic account of
> capitalist exploitation".
> I've learned a lot from the questions that Gil has been
> posing (both here and in the old "Ch. 5 debate" a few years
> back on Pen-L)

and for myself, I owe virtually everything I've learned about Marx's
analysis on this score to Mike's initial nudgings--

> but think Gil has not sufficiently considered
> the implications of Marx's indication that his investigation
> concerns "societies in which the capitalist mode of
> production prevails." The question appears relevant, too, to
> Gil's preferred alternative, the "historical-strategic
> account".
> Let's start from the premise that Marx was concerned in
> Capital to communicate an understanding of capitalism as a
> totality. What does that mean? For me, it means (among other
> things) that Marx wanted to demonstrate in general that all
> capitalism's premises and presuppositions are results, ie
> are produced within capitalism--- and, in particular, that
> capital itself is a result, the result of the exploitation
> of workers, ie., the worker's own product. If we begin with
> a historical presupposition (eg., the separation of
> producers from the means of production--- or Roemer's
> differential property endowments), the point is to show that
> this condition is reproduced by capitalism itself and thus,
> to this extent, capitalism is a reproducing, stable system.

I deny that Marx has any intention of depicting capitalism as a
"stable" system. To the contrary, Marx understands the reproduction
of capitalist relations to be problematic.

> Would Gil disagree with any of the above? Although I
> have the feeling that at points that he treats Capital more
> as a historical account than as the study of an organic
> system,

well, how about...the study of a [necessarily] historically
developing organic system?

> I think Gil would accept the above if capitalist
> exploitation were not interpreted as relating exclusively to
> the case where the sale and purchase of labour-power has
> occurred. However, if we posit the requirement that the
> system be a stable, reproducing organic system,

There's that adjective again. I deny that Marx requires this.

>would Gil's
> other examples of capitalist exploitation (exploitation by
> the usurer and merchant capital) satisfy this condition?
> I suggest that, having introduced (from the sky--- ie,
> without it flowing logically from the preceding treatment)
> the existence of the doubly-free producer and capital as
> owner of the means of production) in Ch.6, Marx proceeded to
> consider only the buying and selling of labour-power (ie.,
> "labour-market island") and not the alternatives (eg.,
> "credit-market island) because *only* the combination of no
> property rights for workers in the product of labour and
> subordination of workers to capital within the labour
> process ensures the reproduction of capitalist relations.

This is a pretty neat, even ingenious, idea. As far as I can see
there are only 4 problems with it:

1) It's completely unproven, by Marx or anyone else (and it's a
pretty strong, i.e. categorical, claim, so it needs an explicit proof).

2) It is almost certainly not true. For example, capitalist
relations would almost certainly be reproduced even if there were a
law passed which required all firms to be worker-owned, subject to
the caveat that they must borrow money from capitalists. There are
some passages from Marx on worker cooperatives which support this
conclusion; references on request.

3) To the extent it is true, its theoretical validity cannot be
established on value-theoretic grounds, but *must* be established on
what I've labelled historically contingent strategic terms. For
example, one would have to argue on strategic grounds that
capitalists could not extract surplus value from worker owned firms,
if the latter were mandated. Thus, if Mike is right about this,
it proves the main point of my critique!

4) Marx does not in fact justify his focus on the purchase and subsumption
of labor power on the grounds indicated by Mike; rather he explicitly justifies
his argument on the grounds of explaining capitalist exploitation on the
basis of price-value equivalence. References on request, but I doubt
they're needed.

Thus, where Mike says

> Only where labour-power is bought and sold
> is the **necessary condition for capitalism**, the
> propertylessness of the producer, produced;

(my emphasis), he is most emphatically begging the central questions
at issue.

Test: on what grounds, Mike, do you assert that the propertylessness
of producers is a "necessary condition" for capitalism, and where
precisely in Chapters 1-5 are these grounds explicitly established?

[You could say it's true by the definition of capitalism, but that
would definitely be cheating.]

There is a related question as to whether the existence of workers
free in the double sense is a *sufficient* basis for capitalist
reproduction, and especially "stable" capitalist reproduction, but
Mike addresses that in his next post, so I will too.

But based on the foregoing, I'd say the ball is back in Mike's court.

In solidarity, Gil