[OPE-L:2445] Re: assumptions, assumptions, assumptions

glevy@acnet.pratt.edu (glevy@acnet.pratt.edu)
Sun, 2 Jun 1996 20:22:52 -0700

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We're back on the air! (I hope). In [OPE-L:2443], Andrew wrote:

> [...] I can't agree with Jerry about ensuring that assumptions are
> appropriate to the "level of abstraction," because I don't know what the
> term means. I realize Jerry didn't invent it. I've heard and read it a
> lot, but I really don't know what it means.

How very interesting. I just read Fred's [OPE-L:2440] where he says, among
other things, "I am beginning to think more and more that a large part of
our differences are due to the fact that we are operating at different
levels of abstraction, [....]".

I will not attempt here to define the admittedly ambiguous term "levels of
abstraction." What I will suggest, though, is that this term is frequently
used to express an *ordering or layering* of abstractions and theoretical
determinations which "lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way
of thought". As it relates to _Capital_, Marx consciously develops
theory in the different volumes with an understanding that the inherent
complexity and interrelatedness of the subject requires that one proceed
from higher to lower stages in the process of abstraction and investigate
how fundamental determinations are modified by more concrete
determinations. If this is not done, then we have no way of separating
and connecting essential relations from surface phenomena and the realm of

I realize, of course, that the above is woefully inadequate as an
explanation. If anyone else would like to take a stab at explaining this
process, I believe it might help to clarify some of the differences in
interpretation and method that we have been experiencing.

Andrew goes on to say:

> Regarding Marx's assumption that workers live on air, I think Jerry and
> I haven't been communicating enough. I produced 2 quotes in ope-l 2307
> in which Marx does assume wages are zero and derives conclusions
> concerning the rate of profit. I think it is undeniable that in *those*
> passages, Marx is assuming zero wages. I don't think Jerry disagrees
> with that. [....]

On the contrary, I *DO* disagree with Andrew's assertion that it is
"undeniable" that Marx is assuming zero wages in those passages. To
refresh your memory, here are the two quotes:

> Two workers working for 12 hours a day could not supply the
> same surplus-value as 24 workers each working 2 hours, even
> if they were able to live on air and hence scarcely needed
> to work at all for themselves. In this connection, therefore,
> the compensation for the reduced number of workers provided
> by a rise in the level of exploitation of labour has certain
> limits that cannot be overstepped; this can certainly check
> the fall in the profit rate, but it cannot cancel it out.
> (_Capital_ III, Ch. 13. p. 356, Vintage)

I don't interpret the above to mean that Marx is assuming that workers
live on air. In fact, he adds "hence *scarcely* needed to work at all for
themselves" (emphasis added, JL). Well, if workers lived on air, why would
they work for capital at all? The subsequent sentence, moreover, makes it
clear that there are "limits that cannot be overstepped."

> In order to produce the same rate of profit, therefore, if
> the constant capital set in motion by a worker increases ten-
> fold, the surplus labour-time would have to increase ten-fold
> as well, and very soon the total labour-time, or even the
> full twenty-four hours of the day, would not be sufficient,
> even if it were entirely appropriated by capital. Price's
> [compound interest] progression depends on the idea that the
> rate of profit does not decline ....
> (ibid., p. 523)

The above refers to surplus [and, by inference, necessary] labor-time,
not wages or variable capital. Even if workers were to work 24 hours/day,
that would not mean that workers are living on air and v=0. The meaning
of the above quote can be seen by the next sentences: "The identity of
surplus-value and surplus-labour sets a qualitative limit to the
accumulation of capital: the *total working day*, the present development
of the productive forces and population, which limits the number of
working days that can be simultaneously exploited. But if surplus-value
is conceived in the irrational form of interest, the limit is only
quantitative, and beggars all fantasy".

Consequently, I do not view either of the above two passages as supporting
Andrew's claim that Marx was assuming v=0 in those passages. Although he
uses the expression "living on air" in the first passage, the context of
the passage reveals something else. In the second passage, he is NOT
assuming *anything* about the magnitude of v or whether wages are equal to
0. Of course, it is *possible* that Marx elsewhere *provisionally* makes
the v=0 assumption. I won't argue the point further since, as I explained
before, what assumptions Marx did or did not make can not serve *by
themselves* to justify the assumptions that we make.

In OPE-L Solidarity,