[OPE-L:2759] Re: Commodity Money

Michael Williams (100417.2625@compuserve.com)
Tue, 30 Jul 1996 10:49:25 -0700 (PDT)

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First, thanks to Paul for taking the time to respond to my long post; and sorry
about my tardy response.

Paul C:
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.

Michael W:
I did not intend to reject anything, except that our socialist aspirations can
provide grounding for our science. I merely expressed scepticism about
post-sraffian structured embodied labour time modelling as a good - let alone
the only - method for thinking "through the consequences of our intentions".
Of course, you and I do have different political agenda: on mine, fundamental,
on-going critique of existing capitalism comes way above the development of a
socialist programme, in any sense of some kind of a priori blue-print.
We also differ on method, with me much more concerned with the fundamental
interconnectedness of historically specific social systems; and you (apparently)
more concerned with the trans historical necessities of interaction with nature.
This differences will lead to different emphases, and periodical clashes - but
that need not preclude agreement to differ in the interests of a fruitful
division of labour.

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

Michael W:
We disagree on this - or perhaps on its import. Of course human productive
potential has been allocated in a variety of different more or less conscious
ways throughout history. But, IMO, this has been too intermittent, fragmented,
unsystematic and partial to deserve the adjective 'socialized', until the
development of capitalism. It is only then that a near-universal structure of
sanctions and incentives imposes the imperative to economize in the use of
resources in general; and it is only because of the tendential commodification
of labour-power that labour times are incorporated in this economization.

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

Michael W:
Again, we disagree: IMO the best proximate explanation of relative prices is
provided by the appropriate version of orthodox price theory. Prices EXIST
because of relative scarcity. What models of socially necessary labour time add
is a - one-sided - account of the physical/technological constraints on the
market mechanisms modelled in orthodox models.

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

Michael W:
May be - but that measurement is not, IMHO, an implementation of the Marxist
category of abstract labour.

Paul C:
It is perfectly valid in a science to hypothesize an objective underlying
cause, that is in principle measurable, even if it is not regularly measured
in practice. ... 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 hypothesizes correlations exist.

Michael W:
To repeat what I have said before - I do not wish to denigrate the attempts to
measure socially necessary labour. I am concerned with the possible
interpretation of the results of such measurement.
First, it is not obvious that under capitalism socially necessary labour is not
continually measured and commensurated - via the price mechanism.
Second, what is valid in natural science may not be in social science. The body
is no doubt noting blood sugar levels and existing at a certain state of
'alertness' regardless of whether medical science measuring these variables. But
the derivation of prices from models of labour-time economization is, in itself,
no more convincing a demonstration of their causal role than derivation of
events from rational choice models, without independent argument and evidence
that it is indeed rational-choice mechanisms that are generating them.

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

Michael W:
I agree that I have sloppily conflated two distinct processes under 'reduction'.
On the other hand, IMO, they are not independent, and commensuration in practice
involves both.

Paul C:
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 abstract 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.

Michael W:
This is too glib. I KNOW manipulating models is easy; the hard part is
interpreting them realistically. IMO butchering and Baking (and candle stick
makering) only become commensurable in practice when they are indeed
commensurated, by their products entering the system of generalized capitalist
commodity production and exchange. It is, for example, the hypothesized absence
of any equivalent mechanism in hunter-gathering societies that undermines Adam
Smiths common-sense grounding of his labour theory of value in the rational
exchange ratios based on relative labour times.

Paul C:
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:
Again, the modelling is easier than the interpretation. The real processes of
abstraction and reduction are implemented by market coordinated generalized
production and exchange, and involve dealing with different collective groups of
workers (commodities have prices, and do not map onto 'professions' of workers
involved in their production.) Again, IMO the jury is still out as to how we
might interpret your correlations, which you claim relate socially necessary
abstract labour times and prices. But whatever that interpretation may turn out
to be, I doubt that it will be a satisfactory implementation of 'abstract

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.

No doubt all capitalist decision-makers precommensurate and plan - but IMO they
do that typically in terms of monetary values, assisted, no doubt by attempts to
anticipate physical shortages, but not just of labour. Software engineering may
not be typical, in that its major resource is its skilled, professional labour.
Anyway, these ideal precommensurations are only realized as dictated by the
state of the markets when the commodity outputs come to market. They are
attempts to second-guess the market; but must subsequently be validated by it.

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:
We do have different political visions here: IMO the abolition of commodity
production must await the abolition of scarcity (which is, I would say, not as
implausible as it sounds).
My position is not that 'value only exists in exchange', but rather it exists in
the unity of production and exchange.
IMO, the Austrians ( what we called 'systematic liberals' in our 1989 book) have
something to say about what is and is not compatible with or antagonistic to a
capitalist economy.

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

Michael W:
Not given that you introduced socialist planning iaw socially necessary labour
times to support your view that there is such a labour economy underlying the
capitalist system, it isn't.

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

Michael W:
In this we clearly do differ. I do not believe their are scientific grounds for
saying very much about how a post-capitalist system may develop. This does not
imply that the construction of socialist utopias as works of art is not
politically relevant, nor that they might not be more interesting if consistent
with what might be possible according to extrapolation from what currently
exists. I do believe, however, that the current priority is to facilitate the
overcoming of commodity fetishism in order that working people may come to
discover more clearly the nature of the present system, and so be motivated to
act to overcome it. Blue-prints for possible communist futures do not seem to me
to have any special claim on our attention. But, again, I am more concerned to
investigate the authenticity of my own position than to impose it on other

Epigrammatically I would ask: under socialism, planning iaw labour times may be
possible - but is it desirable? Under capitalism, measurement of socially
necessary labour time may be possible - but is it actual?

Finally, Paul, thank you for your clarification of your use of 'substance' and
'field'. My only comment would be to remind ourselves that Mirowski has used the
programmatic adoption by bourgeois economics of concepts from 19th century
physics to mock its naturalistic aspirations. IMO such aspirations are equally
misplaced for Marxist critical political economy, and indeed any social theory.

Comradely greetings
Dr Michael Williams
"Books are Weapons"