[OPE-L:1964] Re: "actually existing capitalism"

Gilbert Skillman (gskillman@wesleyan.edu)
Thu, 25 Apr 1996 15:24:12 -0700

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Hi, Steve, good to hear from you on these issues. You write:

> Gil's [#1917] response to Fred on value provides a useful
> intro for my perspective on this issue and others. In arguing
> that Marx stipulated "price-value equivalence" in order to
> explain the source of profit, Gil cites the following from
> VP&P:
> |"To explain, therefore, the *general nature
> |of profits*, you must start from the theorem that, on an average,
> |commodities are *sold at their real values*, and that *profits are
> |derived from selling them at their values*, that is, in proportion to
> |the quantity of labour realised in them. **If you cannot explain
> |profit upon this supposition, you cannot explain it at all.**"
> My perspective is that Gil is quite correct to say that this is
> an incorrect result, but that it is nonetheless a valid
> methodological precept. That is, there are two classes of
> explanations of profit: one of above-value and below-value
> exchanges between classes, the other of exchanges at value
> from which, nonetheless, profit is derived.

I certainly agree that proceeding on the basis of price-value
equivalence is *valid*, in the sense that it is *possible* to explain
the creation and appropriation of surplus value on this basis, as
Marx shows. What I continue to question is the *significance* or
*centrality* of the case of price-value equivalence to the Marxian
theory of capitalist exploitation. Why focus on it at all, given that
a) as Marx acknowledges, prices typically diverge from values,
b) surplus value may exist even if price-value disparities arise in Marx's
canonical case (i.e. there is capitalist production and wage labour,
but the real wage is not equivalent to the value of labor power) and
c) some vehicles of capitalist exploitation (i.e. historical circuits of usury and
merchant's capital extended to small producers) *require* price-value
disparities as the basis for capitalist appropriation of newly created value?

Marx's apparent answer in Ch. 5 of Volume I begs the question: he
characterizes price-value equivalence as the "pure" case of commodity
circulation, but nowhere defines what he means by this. In
hindsight, this characterization is highly problematic if it is not
simply tautological. For example, Roemer shows that price-value
disparities generally arise from the same conditions that guarantee
the existence of capitalist exploitation in his system (and in Marx's
historical cases of usury and merchant's capital extended to small
producers): unequal class ownership of relatively scarce means of production.

By the same hindsight, then, any significance imputed to the case of
price-value equivalence **derives from** the _a priori_ significance or
centrality of the institution of wage labor--i.e. appropriation of
surplus value on the basis of purchase and consumption of the
commodity labor power under capitalist production. But then the
centrality of the latter to the theory of capitalist exploitation must
be justified on grounds **independent of** the stipulation of
price-value equivalence!

What grounds? I suggest Marx's historical-strategic argument of Vol. III,
the Resultate, the Grundrisse, the Economic Manuscript of 1861-63,
etc. etc. The key point is that *whether or not* one stipulates
price-value equivalence, the Marxian theory of exploitation requires
a justification of the centrality of wage labor and capitalist
production which is *independent* of any such stipulation.

[And this conclusion remains true even in light of Marx's explicit Volume I
focus on "the capitalist mode of production," or the stipulation that
aggregate prices equal aggregate values.]

In solidarity, Gil