In the first chapter of ‘Capital’, Marx quotes Aristotle on value. “’There can be no exchange,’ he says, ‘without equality, and no equality without commensurability’… ‘It is, however, in reality, impossible that such unlike things can be commensurable,’.. This form of equation can only be something foreign to the true nature of things, it is therefore only ‘a makeshift for practical purposes’.
Marx disagrees. For Marx, human labour is the homogenous form of value that underlies the commensurability of commodities. This is “[t]he secret of the expression of value.” And knowledge of this secret distinguishes Marx from the vulgar economists who see money as the principle of commensurability. “For them… there exists neither value, nor magnitude of value, anywhere except in its expression by means of the exchange relation, that is, in the daily list of prices current on the Stock Exchange.”
What’s striking here is that both Marx and the economists he criticises are working from similar perspectives: they share the idea that capitalist exchange would be impossible without a certain fundamental homogenisation of value. There must be some substrate or matrix shared by all commodities, if they are to be commodities at all. For Marx it is human labour; for the vulgar economists, money; but the principle is the same.
I want to say a few quick, stupid things:
1) This substrate or matrix could be called ontological or transcendental. Marx’s enquiry could be called ontological in the sense that it uncovers the necessary underlying form of value; the vulgar economists’ could be called transcendental in the sense that it tells us the form our experience of value must take. (So, for instance, we are supposedly unable to properly comprehend the value of environmental resources except through cost-benefit analysis: money is, for orthodox economics, the form through which all value must be experienced.) For Marx, we might say, a commodity’s use-value is ontic; its labour-value ontological. This is why the promised revolution is a messianic unveiling of true reality. For the vulgar economists, by contrast, the movement is one of assimilation: the dark corners of the world not illuminated by money’s civilising power must be brought into capitalism’s sight, and the threat of incommensurate, unknowable values destroyed. Here a commodity is empirical, the commodity’s price transcendental, and the non-commodified object noumenal – unthinkable and disruptive.
2) Both these forms of value have a fundamental connection to time. For Keynes, recall, “the importance of money essentially flows from its being a link between the present and the future.” And for Marx, the underlying meaning of value is not just labour, but labour time. Of course for Heidegger Time is the horizon of Being; and, for Kant, the most basic transcendental form of experience. I think it’s tempting to run with the following idea: Marxism and liberal economics both see value as fundamentally connected to time, but have different concepts of time. Marx sees time in terms of living flesh; liberalism in terms of circulating currency. But, as we know, these oppositions – between the natural and the artificial, the living and the dead, and the ontological and the transcendental, are all more than a little suspect.
3) Still, let’s assume the following: Marxism and liberal economics both imagine a homogenous and homogenising time, as the substrate or matrix of value. If we want to interrogate these traditions we could do worse than to start with analysing this concept of time. Which brings me, again, to that Derrida quote I’m circling around: “[I]s not Time the ultimate resource for the substitution of one absolute instant by another, for the replacement of the irreplaceable…?” We need to place all possible weight on this idea of the irreplaceable. What is it to value something, if not to say: this cannot be substituted, this cannot be replaced, nothing can make good its loss, and if it dies, I will mourn forever? How, then, can we say that value is based on commensurability? Rather, we have here a dialectic: commensurability and incommensurability both essential to the paradoxical nature of value.
All this subject to the ‘vitiated by ignorance’ tag above. I need to do a lot more reading.