[OPE-L:2105] Re: Chapter 5

Michael Williams (100417.2625@compuserve.com)
Tue, 7 May 1996 11:32:07 -0700

[ show plain text ]

I agree with the gist of much of what Alan writes in this post; and have not the
time to raise all the areas of difficulty. But here are a few details relevant
to the stength of Alan's argument:-

Alan writes (in the midst of much else)

The derivation of the category of value depends on the fact that by
exchanging in consistent proportions, commodities prove that they are
commensurable, and that for things to be commensurable there must be
something that they have in common which is not reducible to any
particular property of any particular one of these things.

Michael W.
I fear I was not on OPE-L in January and February, when it would appear my
following question may have been aired: The question is:- Why for things to be
commensurable must they have something in common? (Some other reason than that
Marx used this as a premise in his argument too, please ... .) Commodities are
consistently ('systemically'?) commensurated by on-going market exchanges; and
they are commensurable just because they are systemically commensurated.
Commodities do have abstract moments in common - they are all the contradictory
unity of value and use-value; or as I would prefer to say, they are all
use-values grasped by the value-form. But I guess it is not that this that Alan
has in mind. What he may have in mind is a common UNIT. But then this could be
just the money unit, quantitiatively only determined in the act of systemic (and
systematic) exchange, anticipated by the precommensurations of capitalist
decision makers. Why not?

Later Alan goes on:

For me it is the decisive reason that Marx's theory of money
is superior to its neoclassical rivals, all of which assume capitalist
production in order to derive money. This makes nonsense of the fact that
money exists both before and after capitalism.

Michael W.

But I think not: not only money but many other things had some form of existence
before and after capitalism - useful objects for one - but what we are
interested in (as Alan later cites Marx to show) is their form of existence
under capitalism. Ditto for money -whose specifically capitalist existence is (I
would argue) as the sole autonomous expression of the form of value. But the
point for now is that existence in non-capitalist forms may tell us little or
nothing about form of existence under capitalism.

And later again Alan says:

only now, do we consider
the one commodity that becomes generally available as as a commodity in
this epoch, namely, labour-power. And this specific commodity, we
conclude, is the real foundation of capital.

Michael W.

A small but key detail: what Marx says in the quote cited is: ' It [capital]
arises only when the owner of the means of production and subsistence
finds the free worker available, on the market, as the seller of his own

And this is not sufficient to characterisie labour-power as a commodity
(although, of course, Marx does just that elsewhere). The point is that a
(capitalist) commodity is not only 'sold on the market', but is also necessarily
1) produced under capitalist relations of production for such a sale; 2) the
contradictory unity of value and use-value. Labour-power is produced primarily
in the private sphere of family and personal relations, and even its 'human
capital' inputs are typically strongly mediated by the state. Its price is not
systematically related to its costs of production, and the wage is much more
complexly determined than commodity prices (it is the 'income source of last
resort' at the level of the capitalist economy; and the most significant
component of what makes demand 'effective').
Of course, there is a continual struggle to 'commodify' labour-power, and labour
has been loosing out in the last 20 years of labour-market liberalisation. But
if labour-power was ab initio, a full commodity - why the struggle for both
formal and real subordination?
So, the two heresies I am hawking around are that neither labour-power not money
are commodities.
[Jerry - any word on Suzanne de Brunhof's impending arrival on OPE-L - much of
the early work on the crucial 'peculiarities' of labour-power and money as
commdoties was hers?]

Alan again:
Being abstract, it is equally true for all societies in
which commodities exist.

Michael W.
Surely not? I guess Alan and I have a different notion of 'abstraction' : for
me, that objects having some of the characteristics of the capitalist commodity
exist in other forms of society, does not make a commodity grasped just in terms
of those aspects which are in common, an 'abstraction'. When we abstract to such
a high level that we move out of the conceptualisation of the bourgeois epoch,
we move into the realm of trans-historical categories (useful objects, being
etc.), which are not simply the subsumption of what epochally specific
manifestations of these categories have in common.

Comradely greetings,

Michael W.