Re: [OPE] debates on whether value existed in pre-capitalist society

From: Paul Cockshott <>
Date: Wed Sep 01 2010 - 18:54:57 EDT

I think this is a very good defence of the idea that value exists in some but not all
pre-capitalist economies. The idea that it does not is spreading and I raised it because of
a debate on the Kasama website over Jairus Banaji's critique of the Naxalites, with supporters
of Banaji arguing that value is restricted to capitalism.
From: [] On Behalf Of Jurriaan Bendien []
Sent: Wednesday, September 01, 2010 9:46 PM
To: Outline on Political Economy mailing list
Subject: [OPE] debates on whether value existed in pre-capitalist society

According to the far Left, economic value came into existence when peasants
were kicked off the land and capitalists conquered private ownership of the
means of production. Value dropped out the air one fine day around 1750. And
some say it disappeared when Stalin crushed capitalism in the Soviet Union,
or alternatively, his socialism was really capitalism. Obviously there is a
very serious credibility problem when socialists cannot even agree if a
society is socialist, capitalist or something else.

But this kind of interpretation demonstrably has nothing to do with Marx,
nor is it an even remotely credible reading of economic history, economic
anthropology and social archaeology. The real dispute concerns a quite
different matter, namely what are the social forms of economic value in
different types of societies, and what are the human consequences of it or
the consequences for social relations, for the economic structure. OF COURSE
people ALWAYS attached value to their economic products, but the social
effects were very different depending on whether trade was very restricted
and limited in scope, or whether commerce dominated the very organization of
production and economic life.

I have discussed this a bit in recent times, explicitly or implicittly,
often in the context of value-form theory (in debate with Michael Heinrich
(May 2009), in response to which I posted a simplified wiki about the ABC of
the value-form, another thread on the value-form (March 2009), Value-form
theory 101 (December 2008), etc.. The controversy was also debated again in
the thread "Odyssey and the Peruvian treasure" (february 2009). I replied to
senator Reuten on the value-form in March 2009. I have also posted a brief
overview wiki on abstract labour and concrete labour, and a wiki on the law
of value.

According to Chris Arthur, who has made substantive contributions to Marxian
scholarship, a society of simple commodity producers never existed. But he
conflates Marx's analytical approach with economic history and with certain
neo-Ricardian interpretations of Marx's text. A society of "simple commodity
producers" really did exist in the earliest phase of e.g. European
settlement in North America; that is quite easy to prove; similar
communities of simple commodity producers existed in parts of Australasia,
South Africa and Latin America when annexed by Europeans (there are probably
plenty more cases if we consider the economic history of the last thousand
years or so).

That is exactly on reason why Marx attended to the theoretical significance
of the "problem of the colonies", where it was often so difficult to retain
wage labour and domestic servants, because of the great possibilities for
escaping from wage-slavery and working for oneself - a important motive for
many emigrants, who, when they arrived at their destination, had to produce
many goods themselves or obtain them through simple exchange, because those
goods were not readily available and no uniform currency regime existed.
Simple commodity production however did not last very long since, as soon as
a regular, more comprehensive and secure trading circuit had been created,
C-M-C' rapidly gave way to M-C-M', that is to say, the trading circuit
became a means for capital accumulation, and capitalist production displaced
simple commodity production. The whole theoretical debate is rather
schematic though since, as Marcel van der Linden among others has shown,
throughout the whole history of capitalism a variety of different kinds of
labour relations coexisted with each other - and they still do.

A few writers such as Bruce Jesson (New Zealand), Maurice Godelier (France).
Kozo Uno (Japan) and Frank Furedi or Jairus Banaji (Britain) pointed out
long ago that Marx's analytical attempt to "peel out" (Marx's own
expression) the defining forms of capitalist production and exchange from
the historical evidence, through an analysis of history and theory, in
order to define the essence and structure of the capitalist mode of
production and exchange in a non-arbitrary way, should not be
straightforwardly equated with the immediacies of observable reality,
because that leads to theoretical deformation and political nonsense. I
would add, that the greatest weakness of official Marxism is that whereas
they talk about historical materialism, they rarely do anything so mundane
as studying economic history, economic anthropology and social archaeology.
They have this definition, and reality or history has to conform to it, and
if that isn't idealist, I do not know what is.

One Marxist wrote to me, how can there be abstract labour when people did
not even have reliable clocks? But this is a misunderstanding in my opinion.
It assumes that abstract labour is a fixed category, rather than an
evolutionary one (and all economic categories are evolutionary, except
certain super-abstractions which, by being super-historical, have little
content and do not tell us very much about real societies; these
super-historical abstractions merely tell us "where to look" in a
methodological sense, their importance is primarily methodological). Without
using any clocks, people were already thousands of years ago able to
estimate fairly reliably how many days and how many workers or slaves were
necessary to achieve a certain output by a certain date. They didn't make
those calculations simply for the intellectual pleasure of it, but because
people's very lives crucially depended on it.

If agricultural output was not sufficient, people could die. And that was
particularly important given that the 70-90% of the working population
(Bruce Trigger) who were engaged in farming in traditional agrarian
societies produced a surplus to their own consumption of "at most" about
20-30% (Paul Bairoch) (see my wiki on surplus product). It might take only
one bad harvest, or a natural disaster of some sort, to cause many people to
starve. So the "abstract thinking" about human labour in general had a very
clear survival motive and was not simply an academic preoccupation in
refereed journals. It is indeed one of the original sources of mathematical
thinking (see Dirk Struik's history and more recent archeological and
anthropological studies of the origins of the practice of quantification).
Although many people tend to think that in the past people were more stupid
and primitive than we are, in reality their total packet of life-skills was
often far greater and more diverse than our own. Our superior facility for
abstract thought in modern times can also lead to ideological
malabstractions which are disastrous for humanity. So-called primitive
people, who lived closer to the ground, would never think that way, because
they were much more concerned with physical human survival.

Lacking an adequate understanding of the nature and dimensions of economic
value, it is of course difficult to theorize a society in which the
producers would no longer be dominated by the exchange-value of their
economic products - the vision of Marx - other than in a sort of rhetorical
way, a rhetoric about abolishing the market. In that case, the end goal of
the Marxist movement is also unclear, the corrolary being that the steps
leading to that goal cannot be understood very well either. And then you get
an incoherent politics out of that.


ope mailing list

The University of Glasgow, charity number SC004401
ope mailing list
Received on Wed Sep 1 18:59:33 2010

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Thu Sep 30 2010 - 00:00:01 EDT