[OPE] Reply to Jerry on commodity

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@telfort.nl>
Date: Tue Oct 05 2010 - 19:42:51 EDT


I don't want to get into a slanging match with you, that's not part of list
protocol, but surely in the light of all that I wrote and posted, it is
rather outrageous to accuse me of "devaluing the importance of money and
exchange for capitalism". It sounds a bit like Stalin accusing Trotsky for
"underestimating the role of the peasantry". In fact, I have had people here
saying I should take myself off money topics altogether, for the sake of a
better life, they think I am overdoing things talking about capitalism, and
should give more attention to the "human" side of things, you know,
relating, "you and me" and so on, not just the bread but the games.

If you accuse me of "theoretical inconsistencies" I think it would be
helpful and fair, if you made explicit and prove exactly what they are, so
that I might learn something from your academic rigour, rather than be faced
with an insinuation or allegation that I can do nothing about. I have never
claimed that everything I say is completely consistent, but I do strive to
be consistent insofar as that is humanly possible, even with people who lie
and cheat me when they see an opportunity. It may be boring at times, but
there are benefits, namely I can stick with what I said or did not say
rather than change my story when it happens not to fit.

So I "clearly don't fully grasp the pervasiveness of risk and uncertainty
under capitalism"? Why then do you think I posted what I have, on the
subject? Why do think I worked as research officer in statistics? I don't
want to skite, but I could have been dead several times in my life, and I am
thankful that I am alive. I think it is sometimes necessary to take risks,
even if just to verify something very personally, but I am also aware that
there are risks which are not for me to take. In my wikipedia contribution
to "commodity fetishism", I refer specifically to the contemporary
preoccupation with risk and the reification of risk, if you care to read it.
I am deeply conscious of risk, also because people here felt I wasn't taking
enough risk and accuse me of fears that haven't even occurred to my mind, it
can be exasperating, sort of like "what do you want me to do, expose myself
to the Queen?" - and I just don't think it's appropriate.

You attribute to me that "capitalist production and exchange is severed in
your understanding" so that "I say that people are able to make an
assessment of value". But that is not what I have claimed. That particular
severance is just in your own mind, not mine. I am merely following a more
sensible interpretation of value, according to which it is an aspect of
products of human work irrespective of whether they happen to be sold or not
at a given time. Indeed, it frequently happens that at the point where
commodities are purchased or sold, nobody can really say what exactly they
are worth, or what the cost is. Retrospective calculations or negotiations
may reveal a different magnitude than was previously supposed.

You start talking subtle language in this context, such as that the
"potential" value of a commodity is not fully "realized" or "actualized"
until it is sold, but that really amounts to saying that if it is not sold,
it has no exchange-value, and by implication it has no use-value or value,
and, therefore, it is not really a commodity at all. But such an argument is
patently ridiculous, not to say "undialectical", because it makes the
designation of a commodity as a commodity dependent on whether it is sold.
Theoretically, it makes the definition of a commodity dependent on its
successful circulation, what what that has to do with Marx, or the real
world of business, I am not sure.

Commodities are wares which are intended for the purpose of sale, that is
all there is to this issue. When I worked as statistician, where your "fancy
and nice calculations" are daily work, and not held in contempt, because
lives depend on it, this was also the type of definition which is applied:
whether the good is intended for market sale or not. For accounting purposes
you have to know that, and be able to define it, if not with total
exactitude, then at least with the least margin of error. Commodities may
linger in transit in all sorts of places without being sold, but everyone is
well aware, that they are commodities or products with a value, and not
simply use-values.

You raise the question of "what exactly did people know for thousands of
years", and then you say "The overwhelming amount of people know that they
must work for a wage because the goods and services that they need to
sustain life take the commodity-form, i.e. they know that they need money
to survive and that to get money they have to get a job for capital or the
state. Yes, they know they must labor but it is folly to think that this
reality isn't connected to money and exchange or that working people don't
grasp this connection."

Rest assured that, as I am at this moment unemployed, I am well aware of
that reality, and I am aware of the carnal knowledge of humanity as well, to
the point where I sometimes start to think I want to wear sunnies all the
time, except I think that Bono act is a bit passe.

But if that insight of yours is accepted, why then make a big controversy of
it? Shouldn't we be talking of something more important? What you say just
proves the point I made, namely that people jolly well know what the
economizing of labour effort involves, and they have known that forever and
a day, as I said, on pain of the risk of death, misadventure or starvation.
All I am adding to this is, as a scientific claim, that even if they did not
have money as a universal equivalent, that did not prevent them from
exchanging goods or valuing them, with or without reference to a standard
commodity to indicate comparative values, and that they could quite well
estimate the effects for their work effort. They could do that even trading
cigarettes in a prison. It is difficult to find an exact historical turning
point at which a product becomes a commodity, and at what point its value is
no longer defined by custom, but by market trade only, but Marx does try to
define the basics of the development of the value-form of commodities, and
he does that precisely BECAUSE he believed the existence of economic value
is not dependent on, or originates from, the existence of monetary
transactions. If people could not conceive of value without money, that was
because they projected current understandings of economics back into
economic history, a sort of time warp.

As regards Marx's argument in Capital Volume 3 which you so cavalierly
dismiss at the stroke of a pen, Marx states explicitly:

"As soon as the amount of surplus labour it has proved possible to extort
has been objectified in commodities, the surplus-value has been produced.
But this production of surplus value is only the first act in the capitalist
production process, and its completion only brings to an end the immediate
production process itself. Capital has absorbed a given amount of unpaid
labour. With the development of this process as expressed in the fall of the
profit rate, the mass of surplus value thus produced swells to monstrous
proportions. Now comes the second act in the process. The total mass of
commodities, the total product, must be sold, both that portion which
replaces constant and variable capital, and that which represents surplus
value. If this does not happen, or happens only partly, then although the
worker is certainly exploited, his exploitation is not realized as such for
the capitalist, and may even not involve any realization of the
surplus-value extracted, or only as a partial realization; indeed, it may
even mean a partial or complete loss of his capital. The conditions for the
immediate exploitation and for the realization of this exploitation are not
identical. Not only are they separate in space and time, they are also
separate in theory" (Capital Volume 3, chapter 15, section 1, General
considerations, p. 352).

David Fernbach's translation is, as usual, excellent - though one might
question the final sentence, insofar as Marx writes "separate conceptually"
(begrifflich), not "separate in theory" (im theorie), but OK the main point
is clear.

Question now is, how can this surplus-value, or indeed the other components
of a commodity's value, exist in the "first act" if it exists only in the
"second act" and if these acts can be separate in space and time as well? I
think you will need a very sophisticated linguistic or poetic operation to
define how that works. But that's the literature department, not the
economics department, if you ask me.

In discussion with Yaffe/Bullock, who denied a distinct realization problem,
I have emphasized previously that, at least for Marx, the processes of
valorization and realization are distinctive processes, as Marx clarifies in
various unpublished and published manuscripts. This argument simply makes no
sense at all, if value exists only at the point of successful circulation,
and not before or independently of it. I think Andrew Kliman and Anwar
Shaikh would agree with that. Marx does not say that if the commodity fails
to sell, that it has no value, but rather that the value it that it has, is
sadly lost to the would-be seller. In order to make that argument at all, it
logically follows that the value must have existed prior to the attempted
sale (who would buy it otherwise?), and independently of whether it occurs.
It makes no sense to say that a quantity of 2 reduces to zero, if the
quantity of 2 never existed. Your "dialectical" argument seems to be that
the quantity was about to come into being, but it didn't. The epistemic
question then is, how do we know that the quantity ever existed? How can +2
= -2 in mathematics? Then we are back with Marx's quip - in regard to the
objectivity of commodities as values - about Dame Quickly's reply to
Falstaff in Shakespeare's Henry IV, where "a man does not know where to have
it". (Capital Volume 1, Penguin edition, p. 138).

Part of Marx's critique is precisely that the political economists, unable
to form a coherent theory of value, ended up theorizing that value somehow
appears out of the trading process, validated by monetary transactions, that
it is the result of the market being there. And indeed that is today the
most popular argument among economists, and value-form theorists such as
senator Reuten follow in their wake. Then it would also seem to follow, that
if there is no market, that there is no value, which is what many Marxists
and non-Marxists argue. Well if you had tried to argue that with a Gosplan
economist in the USSR, he'd laugh you out of the door probably. Ha Joon
Chang has just published an interesting book on that theme. If you want to
try your hand at overthrowing Marx's argument with a new revolution in
science, you are welcome, but so far you are not really succeeding in my
view. The super-radical talk about "the commodity form" and the "value form"
just flops in the light of the evidence, thusfar.

A final point. Do you really think we advance the social sciences by means
of a whacky discussion like this? People here are laughing at me even for
bothering with this byzantine subtlety at all, claiming collosal waste of
misplaced effort. Do you want me to demonstrate how many angels can stand on
the head of a pin? I am not going to, let us be clear of that, although I
have had my thoughts about it. Do you want me to prove how good a commodity
I can be? Well I don't intend to do so, I am a human being, first and
foremost, and this was affirmed by statisticians who studied me. I realize
the importance and value of money, but I don't want to see my own person as
simply a commercial object, and I never have, other than perhaps as a
fantasy. But that is fairly mainstream opinion, there's nothing especially
radical about that.

I rest my case.


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Received on Tue Oct 5 19:45:09 2010

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