[OPE-L:1228] Another way of putting it

Gilbert Skillman (gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu)
Mon, 26 Feb 1996 12:22:56 -0800

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One consequence of the fact that many of us speak different in
theoretical dialects is that it is never clear how to render an
argument so as to make its meaning most transparent. Thus, in
practice, OPE-L discussions have also been experiments in how to
communicate ideas.

Anyway, from the recent exchange with Fred I got an idea for a shorthand
way of expressing what I'm getting at in the Ch. 5 discussion (with no
logical symbolism). If you're already sick to death of this topic,
please delete now.

As represented in Marx's Volume I account, the analytical significance of
the purchase and subsumption of labor power for the logic of capitalist
exploitation *derives from* the analytical significance or centrality of the
case of price-value equivalence, which Marx terms the "pure" case of
commodity exchange (pp. 260-62). This is the ground Marx explicitly
offers for his subsequent exclusive focus on the former case.

There are two problems with this derivation: first, the fact that
surplus value cannot be explained on the basis of simple circulation,
taken alone, with or without price-value equivalence, simply does not
imply that the explanation of surplus value must be based on the
condition of price-value equivalence. Thus Marx's conclusion at the
end of Ch. 5 is simply invalid.

Second, though, Marx's characterization of price-value equivalence as
the "pure" case of commodity exchange is problematic if it is not
simply tautological (as Alan once suggested). Marx does not define
the term or justify its usage other than to quote certain obscure
authorities (Le Trosne and de la Merciere?).

John Roemer's work shows that "pure", whatever it means, can't mean
"typical" or "basic", at least not in any world in which there are
wealth inequalities, since the latter typically imply non-equivalence
of price and value. Furthermore, such disparities have explanatory
significance, since wealth inequalities plus markets for credit or merchant's
capital translate into capitalist exploitation even by Marx's strict conception
of the term. This is the analytical corroboration of Marx's historical analysis of
capitalist exploitation arising from usurer's and merchant's capital
extended to small producers.

As Marx makes clear in Volume III (compare Ch. 36 to Ch. 23),
subsumption of labor power is a historically contingent strategic
response to the problem of appropriating surplus value. Capitalist
exploitation prior to the subsumption of labor, moreover, necessarily
involved price-value disparities rather than price-value equivalence.

Once workers become "free in the double sense", and markets for labor
power develop based on the capitalist mode of production, it becomes
possible, but by no means necessary, for capitalist exploitation to
proceed on the basis of price-value equivalence. The latter condition
is thus a mere epiphenomenon of the historical dynamic which
caused wage labor to become central to the process of capitalist
exploitation. It would for example be silly to say that capitalists
subsumed labor in the capitalist mode of production because commodity
prices became proportional to their respective values.

Thus, to put it in a nutshell, and in direct contrast to Marx's Volume I account,
any significance of the case of price-value equivalence *derives from* the
analytical significance or centrality of the purchase and subsumption of labor
power, rather than vice-versa. But the centrality of purchase and
subsumption of labor power must therefore be explained in terms which are
essentially independent of Marx's value-theoretic analysis in parts 1
and 2 of Volume I.

Well, OK, this wasn't much of a shorthand. But the message might be
more decodable.