[OPE-L:7054] [OPE-L:551] Re: Sequiturs?

Michael Williams (michael@mwilliam.u-net.com)
Sun, 28 Feb 1999 21:03:16 -0000

Gil wrote:
> For example, let's take a poll:
>what do the comrades on this list take as the definition of a "commodity"?

According to my interpretation, the best characterisation of 'Commodity'
that emerges from Marx's work (note the careful circumlocution ...) is:

"A useful product of wage labour in the capitalist system of generalised
commodity production and exchange." The more usual description, 'a product
of wage labour that has both exchange value and use value', in my opinion,
given an adequate account of 'use-value' and 'exchnage-value' implies the
characterisation that I have given.

But does that necessarily include 'LOOP'?

Gil goes on:
> Very well, then imagine that plots of unimproved land are
>exchanged for units of boot-polish, and suppose such exchanges, as well as
>all others, obey LOOP.

According to my account above, unimproved land is not a commodity. (It may,
of course, when embedded in a system of capitalist generalised commodity
production, be grasped by the value form. But its price *cannot* be
regulated by the labour required for its production, because there is none.)

Gil again:
> Then according to Marx's analysis, it *must* follow
>that "a common element of identical magnitude exists" in the exchangeable
>bundles of unimproved land and boot-polish, and according to his subsequent
>argument the *only possible* common element is human labor, which is of
>course impossible in the case of unimproved land. Contradiction.

So - no contradiction!
But more to the point, an alternative interpretation (and perhaps
clarification?) of Marx on this matter, even one that accepted abstract
labour as a 'substance' pre-existing any *particular* exchange, might want
to argue that the determination of the quantity of this 'stuff' associated
with the relative prices of the commodities exchanged derives from the
on-going interaction of production and exchange consituted by the fact of
capitalist generalised commodity production and exchange.

(Note that abstract labour cannot exist without the capitalist generalised
commodity production and exchange that carries out the real abstraction that
reproduces it.)

And LOOP? Well, I have not yet worked out whether that is entailed by a
*pure* system of capitalist generalised commodity production and exchange.
However, even if it were, the concrete world is only ever an approximation
to such a system, so it remains to be seen whether any of the counter
examples to LOOP can be shown to be ubiquitous and systemically important
enough to threaten LOOP as a moment of the pure conceptual model.

Much of Marx's argument about exploitation has an 'even if' nature, intended
to rule out apparent exploitation arising from exchanges other than at
value. *Even if* all exchanges occur at value, exploitation of labour is
demonstrated to occur.

Later Gil says:
>If you check the dictionary, there are two definitions
>potentially applicable here. "Tautology" in the language of formal logic
>is just as Alan describes it above--any valid inference from a given set of
>premises. But there's another, "layperson" definition of the term as an
>instance of circular reasoning, or simply restating a particular assumption
>as one's conclusion. In the latter reading, for example, exchange on the
>basis of price-value equivalence might be understood as the "pure form" of
>commodity exchange simply because Marx defined it that way. It goes
>without saying that no body of reasoning we typically honor with the word
>"theorem"--much less Fermat's last theorem!--is merely a tautology in this
>latter sense.

Well - up to a point. Tautologies can only exist conceptually (for example
in a model). No real world object is identical to any other real world
object. ('The morning star' and 'the evening star' are identical as 'Venus'
*only* if we drop the time subscripts and sever the connection with the
system that includes the determination of 'day' and 'night' - a process of
*abstraction*.) That is why the interpretation of conceptual systems and
models, that is so sadly neglected by orthodox economics, is crucial to
grasping what, if anything, they are saying about the real world domain to
which they are meant to be relevant.

"Books are Weapons"