[OPE-L:7058] [OPE-L:555] Re: Re: Sequiturs?

Gil Skillman (gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu)
Sun, 28 Feb 1999 17:40:30 -0500

Michael writes:

>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.

Perhaps, but unless " generalized commodity production and exchange" is
taken to mean "exchange without transaction-specific bargaining,
discriminatory pricing, incomplete information, or transaction and mobility
costs", then this cannot imply LOOP. Remember, the question is whether
"commodity exchange" implies LOOP as a matter of *definition*, not simply
contingent *abstraction.*

>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.

I agree. That's the basis for the contradiction derived below.

>(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.)

Again, agreed. See below.

>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!

No, contradiction. Michael has exactly missed my point. The relation of
"equality" that Marx holds to flow from systematic exchange is *not* shown
to depend on the exchange of *commodities* in particular. [Note in this
connection that Alan's representation of an "equality relation" *in no way*
depends on the elements that enter into the relation, but rather *only* on
the properties of the relation R itself.] Therefore if it is true that
systematic exchange (however qualified) establishes relations of equality,
it must hold for non-commodities as well as commodities. But that's where
the contradiction necessarily arises, since unimproved land and boot-polish
can be exchanged, and thus "equalized" in Marx's sense, and yet obviously
aren't both products of labor, contrary to his conclusion.

>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.

But this "alternative interpretation" begs the question at hand, since it
presupposes exactly what must first be proven, that "abstract labor" has
anything fundamentally to do with exchange or exchange-value.

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

I don't see this, since Marx defines "abstract labor" as simply that aspect
of labor that remains once one *intellectually* abstracts from the concrete
forms of labor. Thus one need not have "generalized" commodity production,
whatever that means, in order to define "abstract labor."

>And LOOP? Well, I have not yet worked out whether that is entailed by a
>*pure* system of capitalist generalised commodity production and exchange.

Mere "entailment" does not support Alan's position, since he holds that
LOOP is part of commodity exchange as a matter of *definition*, not inference.
And by the way, what does "pure" mean in this context?

>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.

The legitimacy of abstracting from specific real-world exchange conditions
is not at issue here. The issue is rather whether Marx intended LOOP as an
integral part of the system of exchange he examined in Chapter 1, whether
by his definition of "commodity" or not. And again, Michael, what do you
mean by "pure" in this context?

>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.

True, but beside the current point. I have a separate critique with
respect to Marx's Chapter 5 argument on this point. Briefly, Marx asserts
that it is in some sense necessary to explain exploitation of labor under
capitalism on the hypothesis that all commodities exchange at their
respective values. This claim, as I argue elsewhere, is invalid.

>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.

OK, but I don't see this caveat as relevant to the exception Alan takes to
my use of the term "tautology." Granting that "no real world object is
identical to any other real world object", it is still the case that a
theorem, as typically understood, is not simply a case of circular reasoning.