Re: [OPE] Odyssey and the Peruvian treasure

From: Jurriaan Bendien <>
Date: Wed Feb 11 2009 - 11:45:37 EST

As I have said before I think that (simplifying a long story) "value" operationally has its origin in (1) the ability of a living organism to prioritize its own behaviours according to internally (autonomously or freely) chosen options on a more or less conscious basis, (2) the mutual adjustment of organisms qua behavioural choices to each other for social survival reasons, based on principles such as "do unto others..." and "don't do unto others..." (3) the social influence which the community of organisms as a totality asserts over its members, to maintain its own reproduction process.

In that sense, the ultimate origin or basis of the phenomena of value is "natural", yes. But the developed concept of economic value in the sense that Marx uses it is a purely social category, an historically emergent and evolving social category, a social construction. You cannot say that the value phenomena of one epoch are the same as the value phenomena of another epoch, valuations change, ultimately very little stays constant in that sense, and to understand the social meanings of ancient civilisations it does not suffice to superimpose our own social understandings on them.

I do not generally subscribe to the idea of eternal categories, perhaps there are some, but not many (the concept of eternity cannot be sustained otherwise). It does not necessarily take human labor to produce products (animals, vegetation or machines could produce them), but usually it does, insofar as it still takes labor to appropriate products. So yes, value in some or other form is normally implicated in all cooperative social labour among human beings, and perhaps among some higher-order primates who also have valuation schemes.

It is part of human nature, of human beings as social beings, that a human being is a "valuing subject" and thereby also a "moral agent". Nothing is easier for vulgar minds then to infer that "value is eternal".

But the values that apply in different historical circumstances are not all the same, or eternal. It would be a kind of objective idealism to infer that, if all human beings have values and are subject to social valuations, that therefore the concept of value is eternal in the same way that 2+2=4 is an eternal datum. It does not follow, that's a metaphysical extrapolation and it is difficult to know what it would mean anyway.

Adam Smith refers to a "natural propensity to truck, barter and exchange". But this is a very primitive error, because it confuses value with exchange value, like the Marxist "value-form theorists" do in a different way. Marx's argument is rather, that human beings have a natural propensity to "create and relate", something which is harnessed for the capitalist production of commodities. Subsequently, as Marx describes, the bourgeois thinkers conflate durable human qualities with the qualities demanded by commercial society, so that commercial society is naturalised and eternalised. In bourgeois society, the value of labour is thus regarded according to the exchange value of its product, and organised according to the exchange value of its product. Marx is quite clear about all this already in his comments on James Mill

In a similar way, Adam Smith ultimately explains slavery in terms of a "domineering inclination in human nature" - his theory boils down to the idea that "there are slaves because there are masters". In game theory, the starting assumption is often that the actors in the game are all unequal, in the competition for resources there are therefore winners and losers, and thus some dominate naturally over others.


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Received on Wed Feb 11 11:52:12 2009

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