[OPE] Reply to Paul Zarembka on the law of capitalist competition II

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date: Sun Dec 14 2008 - 14:18:49 EST


I was just thinking about you saying "You arrive at the concept of surplus value, but you don't go anywhere with it" and I wonder what you really mean.

Certainly, in my Phd studies 1986-1990 (which I did not complete) I delved into the critique of the concepts of value added and human capital, which are derived from the "factors of production" theory, and I tried to establish empirical measures of surplus value. I haven't had an academic career since then, I had to work for a living, but I have provided wikipedia entries on surplus value, surplus product, surplus labour, valorisation, value product, labor power etc. which are still pretty much as I wrote them and which continue to be used. In that sense, I did a lot with the concept.

Methodologically, I do not think that Marx at first ignores market competition because "he wants to drive to a deeper theoretical understanding of capitalist social relations of production in which a focus on "competition" would otherwise become a diversion", as you claim. It sounds sexy or sociable when you say it like that, but I don't think it is true.

As I tried to explain, somewhat in a hurry (like I say, I do not have an academic job at present where I can ponder all this for days and weeks, I have to write my post in one hour), Marx thinks that the observable manifestations of economic competition in capitalist society cannot be understood, unless we first understand what is the ultimate basis for that competition, what ultimately gives rise to it in the first place.

He thinks that competition is intrinsic to the concept of capital, capital can only exist as a competition of "many capitals" - but the root of capitalist competition is a battle over the production and distribution of surplus value, the added value (Mehrwert), and then we first have to know the parameters within which that production and distribution occurs. His inquiry is not primarily about how competition can explain things, but what explains competition, what are the economic laws governing competition.

I used the example of Porter's investigations to indicate the theoretical difficulties encountered, when we try to theorize competition on the basis of multifarious, changeable forms of competition observable in the marketplace. To my knowledge, not one Marxist has ever attempted a critique of Porter's work (from whom we can learn a great deal), although a New Zealand author argues interestingly "The problem with Porter's framework is that if every business adopted the strategies advocated, none would be able to secure a competitive advantage". http://www.mngt.waikato.ac.nz/ejrot/Vol4_1/harfield.pdf

The centrepiece of Marx's own argument is, that the reality of capitalist competition, as observable to the individual, inverts the real relations of cause and effect, explanans and explanandum, hence "the illusions of competition". It looks as though the "economy of trade" determines "the economy of labour-time", whereas in reality, in aggregate, it is just the other way round. "The market" seems to drive the battle for productivity, but in reality the battle for productivity drives the markets, and so on. The integral depiction of economic categories, which a serious analysis of the social relations of production makes possible, then collapses in an array of eclectic concepts which seem to explain something, but really only name and describe.

So anyway, rather than simply "wanting to study social relations of production more deeply" as an academic may ideosyncratically wish to do out of personal predilection, I think that Marx had a scientific, methodological reason for it - quite simply, no integral theory results unless you do this; otherwise, all you have is just a mass of multifarious, changeable and unpredictable forms of competition which could be categorised and distilled in innumerable different ways.

I do not argue that Marx's outline of capitalist competition is the whole story, obviously it isn't, you certainly have to go beyond Marx, but at least he provides an argument to show what the competition is essentially all about, from an economic point of view, and what its basic parameters are.

The issue as I indicated has some ideological importance, since if you are in a stronger position, you are likely to hail competition as "the best thing since sliced bread". That's because you are winning, and can dictate terms. If you are in a weaker position, you are likely to criticize competition more as "unfair", and call for more cooperation. Thus, the shifts in the ideological themes of competition reflect shifts in the power position of those participating in it. A scientific theory however has to rise above whatever the current themes of competition happen to be, in order to establish the social laws which regulate the whole thing. That is what Marx tried to do, and even if he did not fully succeed, there's things to be learnt from that.

My own thinking about this originate as an Education student thirty years ago - children learn from day one about the "good and bad kinds of competition and cooperation", but where do these notions ultimately spring from? Competition and cooperation can be healthy or ruinous factors in learning processes, but why is this? The superficialities of "game theory", with its deformed ideas about human beings, provide no answer to this. In a brilliant satirical essay, Andre Gorz explains how Israeli researchers found that if you really wanted to create equality of opportunity for all children, you had to start with educating the mothers, but that even then, fetal development was strongly influenced by the unequal living conditions of the mothers. Gorz concluded that "equal opportunity for children can only be found where you would most expect it: where social equality exists between adults. As long as inequality continues to exist between adults, education will only confirm and reproduce it in their children. In fact this is one of the principal functions of education" (Capitalism in crisis and everyday life", p. 83). Modern society infantilizes adults and adulterates children, but as for myself, the inquiry into childhood gave way into the inquiry into adulthood.

Oddly, while competition and cooperation are two of the most essential concepts in modern society, the "foundational" theoretical literature on the subject is very small. I then think we ought to ask why. Could it be, perhaps, that a rigorous inquiry into this would yield ideologically unpalatable conclusions? The research of Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, which originally inspired my inquiries, tends to confirm this is so. What Marx referred to as "the furies of private interest" get in the way of a scientific logic of discovery about these things, it is supplanted by a logic of justification and apologetics. That doesn't seem to matter until the misalignments of competition and cooperation begin to murder people, lots of them. Then the meaning of the concepts is sharpened up, very acutely.


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Received on Sun Dec 14 14:27:10 2008

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