Re: [OPE-L] questions on the interpretation of labour values

From: Jerry Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Sat Mar 03 2007 - 09:42:35 EST

> There is nothing in the analogy as so stated that does not apply to the
> distinction between the real definition of the commodity form and price.
> Drawing a sharp line between the things we study in nature and in society
> is too easy and insulates social science to its loss.

Hi Howard:

I think, rather, that it's too easy to draw improper analogies between
natural processes and social processes.  In general,  I believe that we
should train ourselves not to think of  social phenomenon as if they
can be grasped with the same logic by which natural processes can
be grasped.  There are several issues here.  Neither capitalism nor
any other mode of production are a consequence of natural laws.
Nor can their logic be grasped by appeal to the logic of  the natural
sciences.  There are sometimes similarities, but great caution is needed
here otherwise we are likely to fall into the trap of  bourgeois economics
of believing that capitalism or some other mode of production represents
the natural order of social life.   The appeal to science also leads to
the fallacy that the same kind of (formal) logic which is used in certain
natural science disciplines can be  employed to grasp the character
and dynamic tendencies of different modes of production.  This
can produce mathematically more elegant and sophisticated models
(and allow one to have discussions with  economists employing other
paradigms since mathematical logic -- especially when coupled with
English, the language of the leading Empire -- is the 'universal'  language
of economists)  but at an injustice to grasping the contradictory and
dynamic character of the subject matter of capitalism.

> Analogies to lessons from natural science run throughout Capital.

Yes, that's true.

So do analogies to literature including mythology.

In part this is a question of the _style of exposition_.  These analogies,
like his analogies to literature  are part of  his writing style and often,
imo,  represent simply a literary flourish.  In other cases, they reflect
Marx's 19th Century understandings of science and, especially, a
Darwinian influence.  The point is that there is nothing in _Capital_
which can't be explained without reference to analogies to natural
processes or literature, is there?

In any event, no one is going to convince me about any point
in terms of grasping the logic of  capitalism by appeal to the logic
and findings of the natural sciences.  Nor do I think _anyone_ should be
so convinced.  Such appeals represents a kind of over-reaching and
often leads to both bad science and bad political economy.

(NB1: this is  not to say that there are _no_ connections between natural
and social processes -- obviously there are, especially when considering
ecological dimensions such as how social activity can alter natural
processes which in turn can change social life, etc. )

(NB2: A good example of bad political economy is the belief  that
scientific theorems developed  in the 20th Century can and should be
retroactively used to grasp the 19th Century thought of Marx.)

> You point out that I identify a social structure linked to the character
> of
> commodities.  Actually my point was more precise.  The concept of a
> commodity makes no sense except as the product of a particular social form
> of labor.  That form of labor -- independent producers producing goods
> useless to them for private exchange -- gives us a real definition of the
> commodity form.  All of it, not part of it.  You suggest that prices are
> part of the real definition of commodities.  What else does the definition
> include?  To be clear: a nominal definition is the kind of thing we do
> with a dictionary.

Exactly.  Those who assert that commodity relations exist in non-capitalist
modes of production apply the nominal dictionary definition of
commodity: a good which is produced with the intention of being sold.
This may help them grasp the existence of those nominal commodities in
pre-capitalist  or post-capitalist social formations, and it also helps
one when you dialogue with mainstream historians and anthropologists
(since those other disciplines are likely to use the simple dictionary
definition), but it makes it more difficult for one to grasp the subject
of capitalism which can be unpacked in large part by considering the
larger meaning of the commodity-form and its relation to the value-form
and the capital-form.

> A real definition identifies the dispositional properties of
> a thing such that we know how it persists as what it is and how it tends
> to behave.  An explanatory mechanism showing how these essential
> properties  account for manifestations of behavior and other features
> is presupposed.  It is not a conjunction or gathering of all important
> characteristics.

Agreed.  The real and essential character of commodity requires (amongst
much  else) price, money, market, etc.   This can not be seen by an appeal
alone to a particular definition (or what Marx wrote); it must be explained
in terms of grasping the inter-connection between different categories
associated with comprehending the subject matter of capitalism.  The issue
thus isn't merely a definition; the issue is grasping how capitalism works.

In solidarity, Jerry

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