Re: Money, mind and the ontological status of value

From: Costas Lapavitsas (Cl5@SOAS.AC.UK)
Date: Sun Jun 06 2004 - 08:14:59 EDT

Howard marshals a long array of quotes mostly from the Contribution and the Grundrisse and states that "It passes understanding to imagine how anyone can review these materials and not suppose Marx is talking about commodity exchange across history". Howard is also interested to know how the view took hold that abstract labour rests on capitalist relations of production, and if there is another strand to this but the new Hegelianism.

It is possible to engage in textual analysis of the quotes that Howard presents and argue plausibly that several refer to exchange value, not abstract labour. It could equally be argued that their meaning is not nearly as indisputable as he suggests. But I won't do that because I actually agree with Howard that Marx could indeed be read the way he suggests. It cannot be an accident that Marxists have debated the historical problem of value, or even simple commodity production, for as long as we have.

What I can easily do, however, is point to the source of the view that abstract labour (value) is bound up with capitalist production: Marx himself. Marx's developed analysis of abstract labour is found in the first chapter of Capital, from which, I note, Howard quotes much less. The opening paragraph of this chapter, thus of Capital, is, as we all know: 

The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an "immense collection of commodities"; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form. Our investigation therefore begins with the commodity."

This seems to me a pretty clear and powerful statement of the dialectic. Marx starts with the capitalist mode of production, abstracts down to an appropriate elementary component and, through analysis, aims gradually to construct the capitalist mode of production in thought. The choice of elementary component, incidentally, is not predetermined. Marx chose to start from the commodity and this starting point must be justified by the rest of his analysis. He could, for instance, have started with "value", which is broadly what Ricardo does, or the "market", which is what neoclassical theory does. Both of these starting points would have been ideally abstract, and consequently problematic.

It is entirely legitimate to think, therefore, that Marx's discussion of the process of exchange in Capital refers to capitalist exchange, and not to exchange across history. Moreover, bearing in mind the 'man - ape' analogy that Marx himself used for the historical aspect of the dialectic, his ample references to exchange in history could be seen as demonstration of how the template of capitalist exchange can provide insights into 'earlier' forms of exchange and 'simpler' expressions of value. Marx's historical references are not necessarily a demonstration of the trans-historical aspect of value, as Howard suggests.
Nor is there any great mystery regarding the recent origins of the view that abstract labour is bound up with capitalist production relations. It is, for instance, one of the strongest results of British political economy from the 1970s onward, partly inspired by the need to oppose Sraffianism and its ahistorical understanding of labour time. There have been several important contributors to these debates, often associated with the Conference of Socialist Economists - Pilling, Fine, Kay, Mohun, Weeks and many others whose names escape me right now.

In a different but related way, the Uno school in Japan has developed an even broader and more elaborate analysis of the link between abstract labour and capitalist production as well as the implications for the form of value. The Uno school, unlike British theorists, also conveys in deflected form the debates of the great German and Austrian Marxists of the beginning of twnetieth century. 

To go back to the beginning, though, I am still struck by our focus on the consistency of Marx's views rather than on the problem itself. The real question for me is, do we gain a better understanding of value in contemporary capitalism by interpreting abstract labour trans-historically and working backwards from exchange, as Howard seems to suggest? I don't think that we do because abstract labour as social substance appears then as assertion. For abstract labour to have social content, there must be appropriate social processes (especially wage labour) which are in turn summarily captured by the concept of abstract labour. This, I think, is a vital advantage of connecting abstract labour to capitalist production. By the same token, in non-capitalist modes of production, abstract labour is either absent or undeveloped. I discuss some of these ideas in my Social Foundations of Markets, Money and Credit, Routledge, 2003.


-----Original Message-----
From: Howard Engelskirchen <howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM>
Date: Sun, 6 Jun 2004 03:52:34 -0400
Subject: Re: Money, mind and the ontological status of value

In a post just sent I presented a bunch of quotes showing that Marx's
analysis of commodities and value does not require the buying nd selling of
albor power or the capitalist mode of production or the dominance of the
circuit M-C-M.

Here are some points of clarity:

1.  The dispute is not about the existence of a simple mode of production.
I agree with the critique of that notion.  Value does not take over
production except as capitalist production.  But we don’t have to throw out
the baby with the bathwater.  Accepting that there is no linear historical
progression from simple commodity production to capitalist production, what
is at issue is whether the social relation of value could have existed in
pre-capitalist social formations as a subordinate social form.

2.  Commodities existed in pre-capitalist societies, but wealth in those
societies could never have been characterized as “an immense accumulation of

3.   In Capital, the Contribution, the Grundrisse, etc. Marx mixes
theoretical analysis of value, exchange value, commodities and money with
illustrations from the ancient and medieval worlds and from pre-capitalist
formations on other continents.  He never says – ‘but I don’t really mean
‘value’ here because I’m talking about ancient Rome.’

5.  Exchange value is a form of the manifestation of value.  Therefore,
references to exchange value presuppose the existence of value.   Money is
exchange value with independent existence.  Therefore, the existence of
money presupposes the existence of value.  Marx never suggests the nature of
money as money is different in pre-capitalist economic formations.

Undoubtedly I’ve missed a lot, but it doesn’t seem like the evidence of what
Marx’s understanding was on the existence of exchange value before bourgeois
production is even a close call.  This comes through particularly in the
Grundrisse chapter on Money where he is engaged in working out his ideas.


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