[OPE-L:4873] Re: Four-cornered triangle

Michael Williams (mwilliam@compuserve.com)
Fri, 25 Apr 1997 14:17:31 -0700 (PDT)

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Andrew writes:
> A reply to Michael Williams' ope-l 4866.
> I didn't mean to "shout." *Putting a long clause between asterisks
> really emphasize anything* and _putting a long clause between underlines
> doesn't really emphasize anything either_, and CAPS ARE THE ONLY OTHER

Thanks for taking the time to 'split hairs' with me. No complaint intended

> Michael writes: "... this passage ... makes quite clear that products of

> labour become commodities only when exchange is ubiquitous, and that it
> only then 'that their character as value etc...'. My gloss on this is
that it
> is only then that the producers take the character of products as values
> consideration during production. And how do they 'take this into
> consideration'? IMO, by precommensuration, which they are able to do
> they can see all around them (in the exchange relations that have
> sufficient extension') the money form of value of all the various means
> production that they have to take into consideration."
> "What do you think of that, Andrew?"
> I agree with almost everything, and perhaps everything, depending on what

> "precommensuration" means. I agree fully with the first two sentences.
> "Precommensuration" might mean that the products are already
> before they exchange, because they are already values, and that this
> commensurability attains actual existence by means of money's existence
as a
> universal equivalent, so that the means of production are regarded as
> by virtue of being equivalent to certain sums of money. If so, then I
> with this interpretation, i.e., with everything Mike has written here.
>conception is spelled out rather clearly, I think, in the Resultate (see
>Capital I, Vintage, pp. 952-53).>

>On the other hand, "precommensuration" might mean that the firms are
>at what the value of the product *will be*, but that the product is not a
>value (or is a mere "potential" value) before it is sold. If so, then I
>not think Marx agreed with this, in light of the evidence and more like it

>that I have noted.

Michael W.

Well, Andrew and I seem close together on this, but I think (and I am ready
to be persuaded otherwise) that I would like to hold onto *both* aspects of
'precommensuration'. As character mask (mere bearer of economic relations)
capital precommensurates in the first sense: the labour process proceeds as
a commodity (ie use-value and value creating) process. But when we, more
concretely, introduce a less restricted notion of subjectivity, then the
second aspect comes into play: the capitalist decision-maker does indeed,
on the basis of the available market and technical information,
'guesstimate' the likely success of the firms products as commodities. And
this guesstimate will be more or less robust depending on the nature of the
product, technology etc, and the degree of stability of the context in
which the firm operates. Is this captured by the notion of the product's
Value being, prior to *its* exchange, 'potential'. I'm not sure.

So where does that leave us on the question of the conceptualisation of
Value, and its relation to Labour. Still as we argued in Reuten & Williams
(1989): the sole creative force that produces new value is Labour (this is
what Marx meant, IMO, by calling labour the 'substance' of value - a
formulation that I find problematic, but never mind). For the sake of
provoking dialogue with bourgeois economics, we may say that labour is the
sole primary factor of production of Value (though not of Commodity - ie
including use-value - for which other 'factors' are typically required).
Labour creates value only in production, not in exchange. *However*, IMO,
Value is not *quantitatively* determined in production alone, but only in
the intersection of production and exchange - circulation. The quantitative
determination of Value exists only as Money price. I can go along with
Ramos' formulation of this as the necessity for the substance of value to
have a form of existence - the Value-form, and that this entails the
incorporation of Money.

Now, at the risk of appearing to teach my female grandparent to suck eggs,
I would like to emphasise that there is no clear meaning to any attempt to
ascribe some greater import to 'substance' than to 'form'. That human
creative power takes the alienated shape of abstract labour under
capitalism is very important to human beings. However, that systemic
social evaluation of labour under capitalism occurs only through the
Value-form, more concretely, only through the success of its product as
Commodity (a useful product produced with a view to selling for a price
that covers its costs of production and a rate of profit) is also
important, especially for bourgeois subjects (that's all of us). For the
purposes of grasping the nature of the bourgeois epoch, it is vital to see
that the allocation of social labour in the capitalist economy is
*value-form determined*.

So, labour creates value in production, but value is only quantitatively
determined in circulation of Commodity (through production and exchange),
and *it is of the essence of Value as form that it is quantitative*. The
rational madness of Capitalism is that it is driven by valorisation - the
increase in an 'empty' quantity. Of course, we must be thankful for small
mercies - Capital cannot valorise without producing useful objects in the
alienated form of the use-value of their commodities. But the form
dominates, as my East Anglian capitalist farmer acquaintance makes quite
clear every few years when he orders the ploughing in of his potato crop,
within an hour's train ride of the 1 in 4 malnourished children of London,
because the potato market is glutted that year. Well Mike, he says, next
time there is a glut, I'll give you free access to my fields to do as you
want with the potatoes, just as long as you hand the land back to me in an
appropriate state and at the appropriate time to get on with planting next
season's crop.

Andrew K.

>Let me make two distinctions that might help advance the discussion.

>(1) On the one hand, Marx held that the circulation process is necessary
>products of labor to be values. Without the existence of the circulation
>process, value could not attain actual existence (it would lack a "form of


Yes - a necessary form of appearance, that dominates the content.

> On the other hand, he maintained that labor-product A,
>produced at time t, is a value at time t, and does not need to traverse
>circulation process successfully in order to become a value.

Yes - but IMO, because it is an element of a highly developed *system* of
Commodity circulation. And it is only validated as such an element when,
and to the extent that, it succeeds as a Commodity.

>(2) On the one hand, Marx held that the circulation process is necessary
>products of labor to be values. On the other hand, he maintained that
>is not *created* in circulation.

I agree (both that Marx argues this, and with it). But see the gloss about
quantitative determination, above.

>Is this hairsplitting?

Since it is important both to grasp what the old boy said, and to try to
grasp the nature of capitalist system, no.

> I don't think so. Rather, both distinctions concern
>the difference between the coming-into-existence of the *category*
>and the coming-into-existence of an *actual, particular* commodity. I
>the distinctions are essential to Marx's successivist outlook. All kinds
>things must be present simultaneously for value to exist (production,
>circulation, the Sun, ...),

I would rather say that Value can appear only as one pole of Commodity, the
contradictory unity of Value and Use-value; and for the Commodity to be
produced we need 'all kinds of things'. But I would not subsume 'commodity
circulation' under this collection of conditions of existence: without it,
and without any 'actual particular' product of labour successfully entering
circulation as a Commodity, the labour that produces that cannot be
manifest in its necessary social form - Money price.

>but that doesn't mean that this particular quantum
>of value is simultaneously determined by all the conditions of its
>It must *first* exist *before* it is exchanged with another value.

The trouble with this is that it is only at a very high level of
abstraction that 'Value' exchanges with 'Value'. In reality (which is, once
properly conceptualised, necessarily concrete) the product of labour
completes itself as Commodity (usually 'as expected') only by being
successfully sold for Money.

> (In this
>regard, the commodity exchange relation, x commodity A = y commodity B,
>differs from the direct exchange of products, x use-value A = y use-value

Again, the devil is in the detail. IMO 'Use-Value' is already a category
specific to the bourgeois epoch: it is the specifically capitalist form of
existence of a socially useful object. As such it has existence *only* in
contradictory unity with Value in Commodity. More mundanely, what
constitutes the commodity on the left hand side as 'Commodity A' is
precisely its *use-value*. Your second equation is an abstract abstraction
of the first! And as such, the '=' in it cannot denote the existence of
equal quantities of some uniform substance on each side, rather it just
reports a hypothetical exchange between heterogenous quantities: 40, 000
bags of Walkers potato chips exchange for 1 Ford Escort motor car. Note
that that exchange ratio is (approximately) right, only because in fact
both products are commodities, whose rough price I know, enabling me to
guess at the particular exchange ratio. Were I a stone-age political
economist, I would probably only know about one particular exchange - the
last between my brother the deer hunter, and my cousin the Beaver trapper.
And this would not (just) be because my people had not learned how to
abstract conceptually, but primarily because exchanges were in practice not
systemic, but accidental.

I should finish by saying - perhaps at the risk of switching Andrew off -
that I am concerned here primarily with making sense of the key categories
of Commodity, Value, Abstract Labour, etc, as a conceptualisation of the
Capitalist system in which I live. My proximate concern is not with
precisely what Marx said (which is, of course, no less important). However,
without being able to justify it here, my own reading of Marx leaves me
optimistic that the 'Value-Form' interpretation is in keeping with Marx's
own work.

Dr Michael Williams
"Books are Weapons"

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