[OPE-L:1700] Re: productive assets

Gilbert Skillman (gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu)
Fri, 5 Apr 1996 00:39:55 -0800

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Andrew writes:

> A couple of thoughts on Rakesh's 1666
> (1) What explains differential ownership of scarce resources? Why should
> that be taken as a "primitive"?

Depends on the issue being addressed. For instance, in Ch. 6 of
Volume I, Marx does indeed take such differential ownership as a
"primitive": "Why this free worker confronts [the capitalist] in the
sphere of circulation is a question which does not interest the owner
of money, for he finds the labour-market in existence as a particular
branch of the commodity-market. And for the present it interests us
just as little. We confine ourselves to the fact theoretically, as
he does practically."[I, 273, Penguin]--because there he's trying to
explain the basis of surplus value given such conditions, not the
conditions themselves.

But my critique centers on the argument that leads Marx to his Ch. 6
account, so for present purposes it is equally as appropriate to
ignore the historical genesis of differential ownership of relatively
scarce productive assets.

> (2) If people must either starve or surrender some of their labor or
> some of the product of their labor to you because you've got control of
> the productive assets they need in order to avoid starving, then, yes,
> differential ownership "explains" (can "account for") the surplus-value.
> course, a third alternative is to expropriate the expropriators). So
> the ORIGIN of profit is still the "unpaid" labor of other people.

Of course. No one denies this.

> (For a long time I've had the sense that post-Marx economics, although
> ostensibly giving a different answer to Marx's question about the
> origin of profit, in fact changed the question in a subtle way. E.g.,
> because I won't surrender the use of $100 for a year without a guarantee
> that you'll give me $108 back, "time preference" is said to "explain"
> the interest. But where does the extra $8 COME FROM? Rather than
> providing us with a theory of the ORIGIN of profit, the post-Marx
> economists give us necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence
> of profit.

And yet not, because *even if* profit is understood as a return to
impatient time preferences, it remains the case that profit must
originate in surplus value. Thus Andrew and I are in agreement
here---simply because nothing in the above contradicts what I've been

> ... I'm certainly no expert on Roemer's work, but it strikes
> me that a lot of what he says doesn't so much contradict Marx as run
> "orthagonal" to Marx, especially on this question.)

Without doubt Roemer contradicts by counter-example Marx's Ch. 5
claim that surplus value must be explained on the basis of
price-value equivalence. Roemer's theoretical analysis, however, is
corroborated by Marx's historical analysis of usury and merchant's
capital extended to small producers, so it is unclear that it really
"contradicts" Marx's theory of capitalist exploitation, taken on the

What Roemer does clearly leave out of the mix is capitalist
production, in the sense of formal and/or real subsumption. But the
reasons these things matter are historical-strategic, not the
value-theoretic stipulation that surplus value *must* be explained on
the basis of price-value equivalence.

In solidarity, Gil