[OPE-L:2106] Re: Chapter 5 and Marx's method

Gilbert Skillman (gskillman@wesleyan.edu)
Tue, 7 May 1996 12:43:35 -0700

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Thanks to Fred for his reply; we're moving right along. I'll follow
my earlier practice of first providing a summary of my argument and
then posting a detailed response, so that unless so inclined fellow
OPErs can avoid the gory details.

But before I summarize, let me emphasize that the fundamental issue
here is *not* whether Marx has an "aggregate" theory of surplus value
which is at least consistent with his Volume I account of the logic
of capitalist exploitation. As I've already stated, I agree that
Marx does indeed have such an aggregate conception of value (and by
extension, surplus value), and subject to a fundamental caveat to be
discussed below, that it avoids many of the difficulties of Marx's account
of capitalist exploitation in "disaggregative" value-theoretic terms.


1) Marx's analysis in Ch. 5 is *manifestly* conducted in
"disaggregate" rather than "aggregate" terms. Fred suggests this is
based on my interpretation of a "few passages" in Ch. 5, but I think
this is a serious misrepresentation of what's actually going on in the
chapter. At *every* key juncture of the argument, Marx poses
statements in disaggregate rather than aggregate terms. Consider:

Pursuing the question of whether surplus value might arise from simple
circulation, taken alone, Marx first addresses the case in which "the
exchange of commodities is an exchange of equivalents." This is a
disaggregative condition (the corresponding aggregative condition
would be total values = total prices). Next, Marx considers the
"exchange of non-equivalents", e.g. when each commodity exchanges at
a price 10% above or below its value. This is, again, a
disaggregative condition.

[Aside: Doesn't Marx's acceptance of the possibility that *all*
commodities exchange at prices above (or all below) their respective
values imply a _de facto_ rejection of the stipulation that total
values are identically equal to total prices?]

Marx then gets even more disaggregative by considering
hypothetical cases involving individual classes (p. 264), and then
just plain individuals (p. 265).

*On the basis* of these disaggregative considerations, Marx then
explicitly draws the (invalid) conclusion that "the transformation of
money into capital" has to be explained on the basis of "exchange of
equivalents", a stipulation he reaffirms in the following footnote
and at the beginning of the next chapter. There is no mention of any
aggregate notion of surplus value at the beginning of Ch. 6.

Furthermore, Fred has to work very hard to find passages **in
Chapter 5** that support his "aggregate" interpretation of Marx's
argument there. In both cases his source is the final footnote. I've
criticized both of his citations, without response. Both citations
ignore the specifically disaggregative passages which start out the
footnote: "the formation of captial must be possible even though the
price and the value of *a commodity* be the same. *If prices actually
differ from values, we **must** first reduce the former to the
latter." Etc. Finally, the latter passage he quotes contains a
passage which can only be understood in disaggregative terms: the
notion that commodity prices are "regulated" by their respective
values. Again, no response to this criticism.

In sum: Fred may well *reject* Marx's explicit disaggregative
argument in Ch. 5. Indeed, I've been arguing for just that outcome.
But it is illegitimate, I suggest, to pretend the argument isn't there, and
that another (somewhat) less vulnerable argument has magically taken its
place, no matter what Profs. Rosdolsky, Mattick, and Moseley say.

2. But no matter what the interpretation of Marx's Ch. 5 argument
is, his purpose in advancing this argument is clear: to establish
the centrality, even the necessity, of the purchase and consumption
of the commodity labor power within capitalist production to the
analysis of capitalist exploitation. I have argued that, in light of
the invalidity of Marx's Ch. 5 conclusion, one must look elsewhere
for such an argument (this is the basis of "Mike and Gil's surprising
agreement"), namely Marx's historical-materialist account of
capitalist exploitation.

Fred's response is that Marx's Volume I account takes capitalist
production for granted, so that in fact this is not at issue. I
believe this interpretation leaves a gaping hole in Marx's argument,
but more on that under point 3. The first, and less significant,
issue is whether Marx equates "capitalist production" and "the
capitalist mode of production" **as a matter of definition** rather
than as a matter of **empirical generalization.** If Marx does *not* in
fact equate these two terms as a matter of definition, then Marx's
Volume I account cannot validly ignore alternatives to capitalist
production (in the sense of at least formal subsumption) **even if**
one accepts that Marx limits his focus there to the capitalist mode
of production.

There's a lot that can be said on this issue (and I will say it, in
the following detailed post), but really it comes down to this:

a) Fred produces no passage where Marx explicitly equates the two
terms *as a matter of definition*. It is not enough to show that Marx
typically uses the terms interchangeably. This can be explained on
historical-materialist grounds, as I've argued.

b) On the other hand, in Volume III Marx explicitly poses the
question of whether "the capitalist mode of production could proceed
on its course without capitalist production." Adoption of Fred's
view would **require** us to conclude that Marx was speaking rank
nonsense here, as if asking whether one could have apples without
apples. Needless to say, my reading does not require anyone to
believe that Marx is speaking gibberish here.

c) Furthermore, I've indicated alternative passages where Marx does
*not* list capitalist production as one of the *identifying
characteristics* of the capitalist mode of production, but rather
treats it as a *consequence* of such characteristics.

In sum: following up on Alan's point, in terms of what Marx
**actually writes** at the beginning of Volume I, one can conclude at
most that he restricts attention to "the capitalist mode of
production", not to "capitalist production", which should be
understood as a strategic variable within the rubric of the broader
former term.

3) But even if I granted Fred's position on the above, I think there
would still be a fundamental problem with his alternative,
"aggregative" interpretation of Marx's argument: it is manifestly
incapable of establishing the necessity (or even centrality) to
capitalist exploitation of the purchase and consumption of labor
power within capitalist production, for the simple reason that a
given aggregate sum of surplus value can exist without *either* wage
labor *or* capitalist production, as Marx affirms in his historical
analysis of proto-industrial merchant's capital and usury capital
extended to small producers.

Fred suggests that Marx's Volume I account need only establish
the necessity of wage labor to capitalist production, rather than the
necessity of the latter for capitalist exploitation. I think there
are strong reasons to reject this view, but I'll spell those out in
the detailed post. My main point here is that the aggregative
account of surplus value necessarily fails to achieve even this
limited aim.

Why? Granting the predominance of capitalist production, i.e.
production directly controlled by capitalists in at least the sense
of formal subsumption, it does not follow from any valid
*value-theoretic* basis, least of all an aggregative one, that
capitalists can only gain access to the commodity by hiring *wage
labor*, i.e. a fixed payment purely for the capacity to labor.

Capitalists could instead hire labor services, i.e.
*contractually specified* transformations of inputs into given
commodities, as for example when capitalist firms engage the services
of consultants or external contractors. If your response, OPE comrade,
is to suggest that such arrangements are typically infeasible as a practical or
strategic matter, of course I enthusiastically agree with you--but
the basis for such a conclusion is found in historically contingent
strategic analysis, not value-theoretic considerations, least of all
"aggregate" ones.

If Fred's response to this is to suggest that the latter is an
example of wage labor, then his argument is tautological--capitalist
production implies wage labor as a matter of definition, not as a
consequence of value-theoretic or historical-strategic

In sum: It's not what Marx wrote in Ch. 5, but even if it were,
Fred's "aggregative" account of surplus value of itself cannot
possibly establish the necessity of wage labor to capitalist
production, much less the necessity of capitalist production to
capitalist production under the historical conditions of modern
capitalism. Thus, as I have argued, one must look elsewhere for the
valid grounds of such conclusions--i.e., Marx's historical-materialist
account of capitalist exploitation, understood as essentially independent
of his value-theoretic account in Volume I, Chapter 5.

In solidarity, Gil