Re: [OPE] Reply to critics

From: Ian Wright <>
Date: Wed Oct 06 2010 - 14:31:18 EDT

Hi Paula

Thanks for the reply.

> I don't know German, but I'll go with Chris's translation (number 5) since
> it's the last one posted on this thread. The most interesting thing about
> the passage is that Marx takes a single commodity and abstracts it both
> from
> the process of production and from its relation of exchange with other
> commodities. And, quite rightly, he tells us that we can't see any value
> in
> it. Value, therefore, is not natural. Since its substance is social
> (labor),
> value as a form is only expressed in the social relation of one commodity
> to
> another (exchange). None of this contradicts my point that the commodity is
> a physical object (not an activity) that embodies a certain amount of
> labour
> (in both its useful and abstract aspects).

Agreed, Marx's passage doesn't contradict your definition that a "commodity
is a physical object (not an activity)".

But I quoted it to show that, for Marx, labor-value is "purely social" and
not a physical property of the commodity's "body". It follows that
"embodied" cannot be interpreted as "physical" embodiment. In other
words, labor-value (or "value") does not need a physical body in which to

This is a separate point from whether a commodity should always be
considered a "physical object (not an activity)".

> In fact, the passage supports my
> point, because you cannot take a service and abstract it from its
> production
> process. The service is consumed precisely at the same time as it is
> produced. It does not have an independent existence (as an object that can
> be "twisted and turned") during which it can be exchanged in the market.
> This all follows from its being an activity rather than a thing.

Granted, Marx's metaphorical use of "twisted and turned" could be intepreted
to imply that he's only talking about "physical" objects. But this is too
literal a reading I think.

To use your example, heart surgery requires a definite amount of coexisting
labor to reproduce (the labor of training the surgeon, the labor to produce
the tools used-up, the labor to replace/repair/maintain capital
equipment, etc.) This objective cost of production is the labor-value
of heart surgery.

The service of heart surgery doesn't produce a "physical object" that one
can "twist and turn" in one's hand. But it does produce a large number of
material transformations of the world that have enduring effects. Not least
the patient's improved heart condition.

Services of course have "value" because they use-up labor resources. I do
not agree with your restriction of the definition of commodity to physical
objects only. So for me, surgical operations are commodities with values.
The question of whether a "physical object" is produced or not is irrelevant
to the question, "what is the labor-value of this commodity?', where
commodity denotes anything (service, physical good etc.) that is produced
and regularly exchanged in the market.

> I'm clearly saying that services ARE physical - what can be more physical
> than heart surgery? And sure, all services require definite amounts of
> labor; but that can't possibly imply that all services are values,
> otherwise
> we'd have to conclude that financial services, retail services, etc, are
> productive.

No we don't have to conclude that at all. Your reasoning depends on a
particular theory of "productive" labor, one which I probably do not
share. Anyhow, financial services produce all kinds of "physical objects" --
think of all the paperwork.

Also, as I and others have intimated, it is very difficult to maintain a
coherent distinction between "services" and "physical objects" once we delve
a little deeper. This common-sense conceptual distinction soon breaks down
when we analyze all the cases, especially edge cases. Many services, which
you denote merely as "activity", produce physical outputs as joint products.
And some "physical objects" have very short life-times. How long (in time
units) must a commodity exist for you to consider it a "physical object".
This is a hornet's nest that we don't need to visit.

In your view must the labor of cutting hair be considered "unproductive"?
This seems an odd place to end up. I completely agree that a haircut cannot
function as a store of value. But nonetheless it is a commodity, bought and
sold in the marketplace, with a definite labor cost. If we reject this then
we also reject the ability of the labor theory of value to explain the
trajectory of market prices of a huge number of activities that take place
in a modern economy. So your interpretation, unless I misunderstand it,
leads to very severe and deleterious consequences for the labor theory of
value. But the whole line of reasoning starts, I believe, from a faulty
focus on "physicality" as a criterion for "having value".


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Received on Wed Oct 6 14:33:45 2010

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