Re: Money, mind and the ontological status of value

From: Costas Lapavitsas (Cl5@SOAS.AC.UK)
Date: Mon Jun 14 2004 - 06:10:34 EDT

Howard's message asks several difficult questions. I can offer a response but, as I don't have a copy of the Grundrisse to hand, I cannot cite Marx fully. 

Howard's main question is: "Now since exchange value is a form of manifestation of value and since slaves existed in the ancient world, value existed in the ancient world. What failure is there in the premises or inferences of that argument? What are the alternate interpretations that falsify its conclusion?"

I have three points to make, in descending order of importance.

First, in the quote mentioned, Marx wants to establish labour-power as peculiar commodity, owned and traded by the worker under capitalist conditions. Labour-power is the capacity to work, which is differentiated from the person of the worker. For Marx, the worker's person has no exchange value, unlike a slave.  

As a first response to Howard, are you really suggesting that slaves, ancient or otherwise, represent 'crystallisations of abstract labour'? It is difficult enough conceptually to establish this point for labour-power under capitalist conditions, despite the social existence of the basket of wage goods, socialisation through schooling, high mobility between jobs and geographical areas and, not least, regular participation of workers in labour markets. But for slaves? What exactly is the abstract labour embodied in them? That of catching them? Or of their families and societies making them the human beings they are? It makes no sense at all. I do not think that Marx uses the term 'value' in this context to indicate abstract labour.

Second, it seems to me that there is a serious problem of argumentation here. It is one thing to say: under capitalist conditions, concrete labours are commensurated and become abstract, which is the substance of value, which assumes an independent form in money. Quite another to say: I observe money, hence there must also be abstract labour. Even more different to say: I observe Marx using the word 'value' in a variety of contexts, hence he means abstract labour. Or, more complexly, to say that: value has substance and several forms and since it is generally postulated that the substance and form of phenomena are connected, whenever I observe the form, I must also have the substance.

This, at the limit, is circular reasoning. In my view, to establish the existence of abstract labour it is necessary to show that the social conditions necessary for it (as established by theory) actually exist. It is fallacious to claim that, because exchange value can be shown to be a manifestation of value's substance under appropriate social conditions, the existence of exchange value is evidence of these social conditions. 

Third, the real issue here is the existence of capitalism in the ancient world. There is a strong historical debate on this. The dominant view, associated with Weber and resting on Finley's historical work, argues in favour of the qualitative difference between the ancient economy and modern capitalism, hence the inapplicability of modern economic concepts to the ancient world. This has come under sustained attack during the last two decades, including by Marxist writers, notably Jairus Banaji. My own sympathies are with Finley, without necessarily accepting his view of capitalism. Be that as it may, much hinges on the existence of a labour market, or the content of free labour, to which Howard's quote refers. Our understanding of those has a strong bearing on the characterisation of the mode of production as well as on abstract labour as social substance.


-----Original Message-----
From: Howard Engelskirchen <howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM>
Date: Sat, 12 Jun 2004 15:01:43 -0400
Subject: Re: Money, mind and the ontological status of value

Hello Costas and all,

I still put off response to Costas post below, especially as regards
abstract labor.  Also, I have a couple of  clarifications, but first (still
quoting from the Grundrisse), let me raise a question.

That value did not exist in the ancient world was one starting point of this
thread.   While presenting the general concept of capital Marx argues that
the worker must find him or herself without value, ie not a slave. He
writes,  "As a slave, the worker has exchange value, a value.  . . .  So
long as the worker as such has exchange value, industrial capital as such
cannot exist."  (289).

Now since exchange value is a form of manifestation of value and since
slaves existed in the ancient world, value existed in the ancient world.

What failure is there in the premises or inferences of that argument?  What
are the alternate interpretations that falsify it's conclusion?

Curiously, the thing that didn't exist in the ancient world, according to
Marx, is use value.  I mean this not in the sense that wheat didn't exist,
but in the sense that use value didn't figure as a social relation studied
by political economy.  In the circuit of simple commodity exchange the use
value of commodities falls outside the economic relation.   So, from the
point of view of political economy, it is use value that didn't exist in the
ancient world, not value:  "use value falls within the realm of political
economy as soon as it becomes modified by modern relations of production."
(881).  The meaning here is that labor as the use value of capital becomes
an intrinsic part of capital as a social relation under modern relations of

The clarifications:

Though I think the social relation generative of value is associated with a
very large swath of history, it is not "transhistorical," in the sense of
characterizing all history, a view Costas perhaps thinks I hold.  That is,
Marx spoke of commodity exchange across history, but not all history
contained commodity exchange.  There's a difference.

Also, I agree with Costas that "Marx's discussion of the process of exchange
in Capital refers to capitalist exchange" and, broadly, with the proposition
that "his ample references to exchange in history could be seen as
demonstrations of how the template of capitalist exchange can provide
insights into 'earlier' forms of exchange and 'simpler' expressions of
value."  What I'm arguing is that when Marx does refer to money or
commodities in history, he's not hedging.  Those social objects may not be
fully developed, but they're there and value analysis is relevant to
understanding them.  The same for reflections of value in the
superstructure, law, ethics, etc., of the ancient world.


----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Costas Lapavitsas" <Cl5@SOAS.AC.UK>
Sent: Sunday, June 06, 2004 8:14 AM
Subject: Re: [OPE-L] Money, mind and the ontological status of value

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

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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