[OPE-L:2473] Re: Commodity Money

Paul Cockshott (wpc@cs.strath.ac.uk)
Wed, 5 Jun 1996 04:06:03 -0700

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>Michael W.:
>I think we are talking at cross purposes. By incommensurable, I intend to
>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.

Paul C:
I disagree strongly with this. A socialists we intend to change society,
to introduce a different set of economic and social relations. To reject
at the start any attempt to think through the consequences of our intentions
prevents any serious development of a socialist program. The scenario that
I outlined above, touched on issues that were actively debated as questions
of policy in the USSR during the 20s and later by Strumlin and others.
Under conditions of socialist transition, these would not be academic but
political questions.

Michael W:
>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.

Paul C:
What I am concerned to show was that:
1. Socially necessary labour time is an objective underlying fact about
socialised production whether or not it is capitalist.

2. It is this which explains the existence of prices rather than vice-versa.

3. That the measurement of this underlying reality is in principle possible.

It is perfectly valid in a science to hypothesise an objective underlying
cause, that is in principle measurable, even if it is not regularly measured
in practice. It is valid to hypothesise that peoples levels of alertness is
a function of their blood sugar levels among other things, even though
we do not have continuous data on everyones blood sugar levels. We can show
that there exist procedures by which blood sugar levels can be measured,
and that is enough. For the theory that socially necessary labour time
is an underlying causal factor, it is enough to show that it is in principle
measurable, and to provide evidence from such partial measurements as
we can obtain that the hypothesises correlations exist.

Michael W:
> 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.

Paul C:
I think there is some confusion here between reduction and abstraction.

The instance that you give : baking and butchering - presumably one could
include candlestick making for good measure - is one that requires abstraction
not reduction. To treat these as abtract social labour one has to ignore the
concrete type of the labour, to abstract from this type, retaining only the
fact that it is human labour. There is nothing difficult about this,
one has done it as soon as one strips off the specific type subscripts
from ones statistics and treats it as hours.

Reduction is a distinct issue and relates to differential skill levels. It
is performed by multiplying by a pure number, and as such presupposes labours
of the same type. One can reduce the labour of an unskilled candlestick
maker to 0.75 times the labour of a candlestick maker of average skill,
if the less skilled one produces 3/4 as much per hour as the worker of
average skill. But such reduction must occur prior to abstraction.
It is in any case only relevant when comparing individual workers. When
one takes an entire trade or profession one must perforce ignore such
reduction, since the act of adding together the labour of all the workers
in the profession necessarily gives one a total in terms of average labour
for that profession.

Michael W:
>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.)

Paul C:
A real world reference is the current practice of the software engineering
industry which pre-costs projects in person months as a standard practice.

Michael W:
>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
>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.

Paul C:
There is a fundamental political difference here. I hold to the classic
positions of Marx and Engels on communist economy, which see it as a
form of production.

To my mind there is a certain logical continuity between your position
that value only exists in exchange and this position on the desirability of
market socialism. The position is currently fashionable, but I think it
betrays the influence of the Austrian school more than Marx.

Michael W:
>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.
Paul C:
How the government comes to power and is constituted is another matter.

Michael W:
>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
>us. I am not sure it is possible to prove a real world impossibility - but
>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
>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.

Paul C:
My concern is not with critical political economy, but with the elaboration
of the communist program.

> Michael W requests:
>Could you indicate briefly what a field as opposed to a substance
>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?

I am using Mirowskis terminology based on an analogy with the development of the
concept of energy in the 19th century, which involved moving from a concept of
energy as substance to defining energy( potential ) as an integral over a field.
Mirowski says that Marx had two value theories the embodied labour theory: a
theory, and the labour time necessary to reproduce theory: a field theory.

I would prefer the definition of value as labour necessary to reproduce, since
it does not involve speculation about a substance, which as you point out is
basically aristotelean.

I assume that the value field constitutes, to first approximation, the
predictor of the price field.

Paul Cockshott