[OPE-L:2468] Re: Commodity Money

Michael Williams (100417.2625@compuserve.com)
Tue, 4 Jun 1996 16:03:21 -0700

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In response to a post of mine,
Paul C writes:
Clearly it is not at present measured, but let us consider the following
A socialist government has been established in a country, but the economy is
as yet not subject to any central plan, with enterprises still selling their
product on the market and reproducing themselves as capital from the proceeds.
Let us suppose that the government wishes to start the transformation of the
economy to a socialist one, which will require an alternative method of doing
economic calculation. Being orthodox socialists they consult Engels who says
that they should do this by replacing monetary calculation by labour time
calculation. Before they can even start socialising the economy they must
gain access to information about how much labour is used to make things.
As a first step, they legislate that each firm must submit to the
statistical office along with its company accounts a schedule of how many units
of each
commodity it produced and how many hours of direct labour it used on their
Using this data, the statistical office can then construct disaggregated i/o
tables, whose inverse will give the labour required to make things.
Here is a mechanism by which the labour contents of all commodities can be
simultaneously measured (co-mensurated) without, as yet, abolishing capitalist
relations of production. Of course in the simple account given above, one can
say that no allowances
are made for skills etc. If you wish to pursue this I can specify more
complex accounting procedures.

To which Michael W.:

I think we are talking at cross purposes. By incommensurable, I intend to refer
to what is commensurable within capitalism. Indeed, the construction of
logically possible worlds (much beloved of bourgeois micoreconomic modellers) is
an intellectual passtime (and perhaps sometimes an effective mental work-out)
rather than an activity in itself useful to social science. So your story does
not undermine the notion that specific labours cannot be systemically
commensurated under capitalism by any method other than market reproduced
generalised capitalist comodity production and exchange. I do not see what
handle we can get on commensuration under capitalism by envisaging an external
social subject insisting on labour-time accounting. It is not a question of
intractable complexity. Market forces embedded in a system of generalised
capitalist commodity production and exchange already continually abstract from
the flux of differences of specific use-value producing skills. The only actual
quantitative existence of abstract labour, which is value, is price. Even in
your model, what is collected are specific labour times. No amount of reduction
can commensurate bakering and butchering. I cannot envisage a way in which the
capitalist system, whilst remaining what it is, could commensurate specific
labours in any other way. What would be the real world reference of a - no doubt
logically possible - accounting system which did so commensurate them? (The
field of value? see my query below.)

As to speculation about actually possible post-capitalist social systems, I am
not convinced that constructing accounting systems to enable decentralised
central planning in terms of labour times is either a desirable or feasible part
of such a system. I have not thought in any great detail about possible
post-capitalist societies (and I guess your model is not meant to facilitate
such speculation), but my general feeling is that coordination of any complex
society will involve a major role for market mechanisms, including prices. All
the interesting questions are how to collectively regulate those mechanisms to
facilitate the obviation of exploitation, alienation, production driven by
valorisation and to achieve the separation of access to life's opportunities,
and contribution the creation of the social conditions for them. (Whether such
regulation requires an alternative system of social economic calcuation at all I
am uncertain - but I would speculate not. Part of the inhumanity of capitalism
is that it coordinates human creative activities in a way which insists that
they tend to be socially evaluted in a mutually commensurable way. Transcendence
of that would involve trying to overcome the urge to reduce all useful objects,
and the activity of their creation to a single measure, endless expansion of
which is then the driving force of resource allocation. A corollary of that is
that such a society would struggle to overcome any tendency to the abstraction
of labour.)

Stepping back one stage (and accepting that you have proposed a verbal model
just to refute any notion of absolute incommensurability of abstract labour), I
do not envisage the over coming of capitalism by the coming to power of a
socialist government with a capitalist economy.

I must say, that in terms of enhancing our understanding of the development of
capitalism and bourgeois society, I cannot see where any of this might be taking
us. I am not sure it is possible to prove a real world impossibility - but your
logically possible world doesn't indicate to me a real world referent in any
system of advanced capitalism existing, or potential. It is clear that the work
in which you are engaged has different objectives, foci and methods than that
which engages me. Nevertheless, whilst I cannot glimpse any possible useful new
critical political economy insights from what you do, I cannot be sure. In
practice, I follow your debates here and (to a lesser, time constrained, extent
elesewhere) with interest.

Then Paul C:
I prefer a field interpretation [of abstract labour-embodied values] myself,
which is why I favour simultaneous
models for the determination of value. However, the discrepancy between the
two interpretations is small in quantitative terms unless one has a very
rapid rate of technical change.

To which Michael W requests:

Could you indicate briefly what a field as opposed to a substance interpretation
of abstract labour/value is; in particular, I would be interested in what
ontological commitment it has to make. Is there then postulated a causal
relation from the value field to the price field?


Comradely greetings,

Michael W.