[OPE-L:2708] Puzzles

Wed, 24 Jul 1996 14:10:23 -0700 (PDT)

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I have been arguing on this list for a "historical-materialist" (understood
as analytically distinct from, though perhaps not inconsistent with, "value
understanding of Marx's theory of capitalist exploitation and profit, with
particular emphasis on Marx's historically contingent *strategic* analysis
of class conflict in production and exchange. Here I list some puzzles in
Marx's analysis which I believe cannot be explained in the absence of this
understanding, and in particular cannot be resolved purely on
value-theoretic grounds. I'd be interested in others' reactions.

1) Marx repeatedly affirms that usury capital and merchant capital, when
extended directly to small producers to finance the purchase of means of
production, constituted "capitalist exploitation without the capitalist mode
of production." Yet in describing the capitalist era, Marx describes as
"nonsense" the notion that the capitalist mode of production could be
sustained without capitalist production, saying that if all capitalists
tried to revert to being interest capitalists (as in usury capital), the
[effective] rate of interest would fall so drastically that they would be
forced to return to being industrial capitalists. How can he make both

2) Shortly after characterizing as "nonsens[ical]" the notion that the
capitalist mode of production could be sustained without capitalist
production, Marx reports the case of worker cooperatives which not only
yield surplus value in the form of interest to capitalists, but "sometimes
paid a much higher interest than private [i.e., capitalist] factories did."
{III, Penguin ed., p. 512} How can he consistently assert both claims, and
in particular how can this surplus value be extracted from worker
cooperatives without the presence of some representative of capital at the
top of the production hierarchy?

3) Marx says that the "power of usury" comes to an end once producers are
completely expropriated (i.e., through attachments of property following
bankruptcy). But why? Why can't interest capitalists continue to extract
usurious rents by lending workers the wherewithal for production, given that
workers don't own *some* of the means of production?

4) Relatedly, Marx states in Volume I that propertylessness of the working
class implies that workers must sell their capacity to labor as a commodity.
But why does this follow? Granting that workers must interact with
capitalists to gain access to the means of production, why must they
interact in this particular way? Logically speaking there are at least 2
alternatives: first, producers could borrow the means of production (or
financing for same) at interest; second, they could provide specific labor
*services* as subcontractors do now: i.e., rather than just engaging workers
*capacity* to labor, why don't capitalists take the less roundabout approach
of contractually stipulating exactly what workers are to do?

5) Marx insists in the Resultate that real subsumption of labor under
capital is necessary for the attainment of relative surplus value. But why?
Why, for example, couldn't capitalists condition the provision of production
loans to worker cooperatives on the basis that they adopt a particular
production technique?

There are other puzzles of like nature, but I'll stop here. Of course I
think there are coherent resolutions to these puzzles, but as advertised I
believe they entail historically contingent strategic arguments which are
essentially separate from value-theoretic considerations.

Why does this matter? While I've couched the above in terms of issues taken
from Marx's writing, the ultimate concern of this list is to extend Marx's
analysis to present-day concerns. I'm trying to suggest here that important
dimensions of Marx's analysis would be neglected were we to define this
forward-looking task purely in value-theoretic terms.

In solidarity, Gil