Re: Money, mind and the ontological status of value

From: Howard Engelskirchen (howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM)
Date: Sun Jun 06 2004 - 03:30:10 EDT

Costas asks, “What exactly prevented him [Marx], for instance, from stating
unequivocally whether he is talking about capitalist exchange or about
commodity exchange across history?”

I think the answer to this is that he would have been pretty much
dumbfounded at the suggestion that he was not talking about commodity
exchange across history.  I’ve just spent a bit of time reviewing summarily
the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and the Chapter on
Money in the Grundrisse.  I also reviewed some stuff in Capital, but not the
chapter on Money from which quotes are taken in the recent post to the list
forwarded by Jerry called Cattle as Commodity and Money.  It passes
understanding to imagine how anyone can review these materials and not
suppose that Marx is talking about commodity exchange across history.   His
research reaches to the ancient world and to every continent.  He uses the
words ‘value’ and ‘commodity’ and ‘money’ constantly and he mixes
theoretical elaboration with historical examples.  When he speaks of the
ancient world he never suggests he’s dealing with something different.  He
never says, I use the word “commodity” here, but I really don’t mean it
because value requires the buying and selling of labor power.  I have a list
of quotes.  I’ll give a few examples, but it would be tedious to trot them
all out.

For me this raises the question how the view could have taken such firm hold
theoretically that value doesn’t exist where there’s not the buying and
selling of labor power and that value didn’t exist in pre-capitalist
economic formations.  I understand one source.  Contemporary Hegelian
readings of Capital insist that the result is presupposed by the starting
point and therefore the concept of value presented in the first Chapter of
Capital couldn’t be present in any social totality that did not involve
capital.  I know where to find this argument.  But I’m unclear as to what
other sources of theoretical justification might be.  Costas has suggested
that you don’t have value where you don’t have the operation of the law of
value and this takes abstract labor which takes capitalist production, if I
understood him correctly.  I’m not clear on the details of this argument or
where to find it elaborated.  Are there other lines of theoretical argument
on this score?  As a matter of recent intellectual history does anybody have
a fix on how this theoretical conviction took hold?

Here are some examples that seem significant to me – also, notice the
explicit references to value and commodities in pre-capitalist economic
formations in the posts Jerry has forwarded to the list:

“just as in the ancient Roman Republic at an early stage of its history
experienced a reverse revolution caused by a rise in the value of copper.”

NW 153, v29 at 385:  “The question why gold and silver, and not other
commodities are used as the material of money lies outside the confines of
the bourgeois system.”

NW 156, v29 at 387:  “The purely economic reasons of such changes in value –
conquests and other political upheavals, which exerted a substantial
influence on the value of metals in antiquity, have merely a local and
temporary effect – must be attributed to changes in the labour-time required
for the production of these metals.”

same page,  “the value of silver is therefore originally higher than that of
gold . . . “

GRUNDRISSE:  v. 28, 80; peng. 142:  “In the most primitive barter trade,
when two commodities are exchanged for one another, each is first equated to
a figure that expresses its exchange value . . . .”

Also, this:  v. 28, 140; peng. 204-205:  “With barter, however, the product
is exchange value only in itself; it is its first phenomenal form; but the
product is not yet posited as exchange value.  Firstly, this character does
not dominate production as a whole . . . Barter in its crudest form
presupposes labour as substance and labour time as the measure of
commodities . . . “

v. 28 at 84; peng. 146:  “The need for exchange and the transformation of
the product into pure exchange value progresses in the same measure as the
division of labour . . . “

v. 28 at 131, 196:  “Circulation as the realization of exchange values
implies (1) that my product is a product only in so far as it is a product
for others, in other words, transcended individuality, generality; (2) that
it is a product for me only in so far as it has been alienated, has become a
product for others; (3) that it is a product for the other person only in so
far as he alienates his own product.  This in turn implies (4) that
production appears for me as an end in itself, not a means.”

The passage immediately above seems to me especially significant.  It offers
a summary of what is required for circulation as the realization of exchange
value – notice that the buying and selling of labor power is NOT one of the
things required.


166:  “So, too, the economic categories, already discussed by us, bear the
stamp of history.  Definite historical conditions are necessary that a
product may become a commodity.  It must not be produced as the immediate
means of subsistence of the producer himself.  Had we gone further, and
inqujired under what circumstances all, or even the majority of products
take the form of commodities, we should have found that this can only happen
with production of a very specific kind, capitalist production.  Such an
inquiry, however, would have been foreign to the analyses of commodities.
Production and circulation of commodities can take place, although the great
mass of the objects produced are intended for the immediate requirements of
their producers, are not turned into commodities, and consequently social
production is not yet by a long way dominated in its length and breadth by
exchange value.  The appearance of products as commodities pre-supposes such
a development of the social division of labour, that the separation of value
from excdhange value, a separation which first begins with barter, must
already have been completed.  But such a degree of development is common to
many forms of society, which in other respects present the most varying
historical features.” etc.

Maybe a picture is worth a thousand words.  Here is one from the

“In the year 760 a crowd of poor people turned out to wash gold from the
sand of the river south of Prague, and three men were able in a day to
extract a mark [half a pound] of gold; and so great was the consequent rush
to ‘the diggings’ and the number of hands attracted from agriculture so
great, that in the next year the country was visited by famine.”

Now we can reflect on this a minute theoretically:  what people are after is
value, a claim on other people’s labor in the form of the universal
equivalent.  There is a moral to the story:  value has causal consequences!

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