[OPE-L:1257] Re: Labor and Language

Gilbert Skillman (gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu)
Wed, 28 Feb 1996 16:12:53 -0800

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Andrew writes:

> This post is in connection with Gil's ope-l 1106. There Gil again accepts
> that I proved the consistency of the TSS interpretation with Marx's
> statements that the value of a commodity is determined by the labor-time
> required for production, albeit only by an "utterly arbitrary use of
> language."

This has it backwards. In 1106 I state that I *don't* accept that
Andrew has "proved [note the verb] consistency of the TSS
interpretation with Marx's statements...", etc, precisely *because*
the "proof" Andrew advances depends on an utterly arbitrary use of
language, and thus is not a proof of anything. To accept that it is
such is to accept that anything can be proved. Since I don't accept
this, I don't accept Andrew's "proof".

> Now, of course we disagree about whether my use of language was so
> arbitrary. But let me accept for the sake of argument that my use of
> language here was indeed utterly arbitrary. Does this affect the
> validity of my proof? Not per se.

Of course it does. The proof, if "valid", demonstrates the
consistency of the TSS approach with Marx's account. It has not done

> Gil did not challenge me to prove
> that the TSS interpretation is consistent with Marx AND that the
> interpretation of "labor-time required" is plausible to Gil. I was
> challenged to do only the former. The point is: what if Marx himself
> was using language in an utterly arbitrary way here? For the sake of
> argument, again, let us assume this is the case. THEN MY PROOF
> utterly arbitrary way in which we were using language was the same).

This is an absolutely surreal position. Conspiracy theorists and
religious fundamentalists use similar arguments to prove their
respective cases. The structure of the argument is: accept for the sake
of argument an utterly preposterous and unfalsifiable hypothesis.
THIS ACCEPTANCE. The next step taken by conspiracy theorists and
religious fundamentalists is to reverse the burden of proof, and
require skeptics to prove that their utterly preposterous and unfalsifiable
hypothesis is *not* in fact the case, which of course can't be done.

Thus Andrew's next step is a little spooky:

> To refute my proof, then, it is up to Gil to PROVE that Marx was NOT
> using language in this "utterly arbitrary" way.


> What Gil will
> probably attempt to do (if anything) is again to argue that the
> meaning of the statement (and ones like it) can be inferred from
> the context in which it appears. But I flatly reject this view, given
> that what Gil means by "context" is a passage in isolation from
> _Capital_ as a whole. _Capital_ has a dialectical structure, so that
> categories almost never have a FIXED meaning.

Actually, this has it backwards, as well. I get my sense of Marx's
contextual meaning from my reading of _Capital_ *taken as a whole.*
Since the TSS notion of value sharply conflicts with this contextual
understanding, I look for specific passages which contradict this
notion, consistent with the sense of the text as a whole. I don't
know how else anyone could possibly proceed. Andrew's reversal of
the burden of proof would require me to find passages such as those I
reported earlier, but which carry the footnote: "I, Karl Marx, am not
using language in an utterly arbitrary manner here." Preposterous.

> Hence, to prove that
> Marx was not using language in an "utterly arbitrary" way (and thus to
> refute my proof),

There is no proof to refute.

> Gil must either first prove that _Capital_ is not
> dialectical in the sense I have just stated,

Nonsense. This statement assumes, without any justification
whatsoever, that acceptance of the claim "the argument in _Capital_ is
dialectical" implies acceptance of the claim that "the TSS notion of
value is consistent with Marx's argument in capital." Of course this
does not follow.

>or find some OTHER
> way to prove that Marx's use of language here was not arbitrary.

This reverses the burden of proof in an utterly preposterous way.
See above.

> Until then, I submit, my proof stands and thus all the available
> evidence suggests that the TSS interpretation replicates Marx's
> value theory whereas other interpretations do not.

Again, this is preposterous.

> Now, I might seem here to be playing with words, but I don't think so.
> I think Marx regularly used language in ways that the Vienna Circle,
> John Roemer, Karl Popper, and others loathe and consider arbitrary.

Perhaps, but granting this does not imply that Marx used language in
the way that Andrew's arguments require, i.e. in a way that
conflates production conditions with exchange conditions. The very
structure of _Capital_, to the contrary, confirms that Marx was quite
careful to keep these categories distinct.

> To take one absolutely crucial example, I'd like Gil and others to
> comment on how arbitrary (utterly, mostly, partly, slightly, not at
> all) they consider Marx's use of language in his repeated references
> to capitalism as a mode of production in which DEAD LABOR DOMINATES
> LIVING LABOR. Or even take the category of DEAD LABOR itself.

> Don't explain to me that this is a "metaphor"; that begs the question.

It does not. Marx is manifestly referring to embodied labor when he
refers to "dead labor". In the passages Andrew refers to, Marx is
speaking of the transformation of surplus value into capital used to
further the formal and real subsumption of workers, i.e. to "dominate
living labor". I see nothing arbitrary or ambiguous in this usage at

> I take the statement and the category literally. If it is meant
> literally, has Marx used language arbitrarily here? And if you insist
> on calling it a metaphor, why shouldn't I insist that "labor-time
> required for production" is a metaphor?

My metaphor doesn't require me to accept statements which are the
substantive equivalent of "War is peace."

> I have chosen a statement and category that also concern labor for
> obvious reasons--I think Marx understood "labor" in a manner very
> different from Gil, Allin, Paul C., Morishima, Joan Robinson, etc.

Perhaps. But this in no way suggests that Marx understood "labor" in
the sense that the TSS notion of value requires, in order to be
consistent with Marx's statements.

Whether intended this way or not, Andrew's statements are those of a
True Believer. I will robustly defend Andrew's right to have these
beliefs, and furthermore I accept, as mentioned before, that the TSS
approach has interesting and potentially useful properties. But I reject
absolutely this coercive attempt to reverse the burden of proof as a means
of "demonstrating" the "validity" of such beliefs.