[OPE] FWD: Reply to critics

From: Paul Cockshott <wpc@dcs.gla.ac.uk>
Date: Wed Oct 06 2010 - 16:25:23 EDT

Why is cut hair or a repaired heart not a physical product, just because the raw material is human tissue should make no difference at all.

--- original message ---
From: "Ian Wright" <wrighti@acm.org>
Subject: Re: [OPE] Reply to critics
Date: 6th October 2010
Time: 7:32:34 pm

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 reside.

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

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 16:27:32 2010

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