November 18, 2008

Marx on Debt

Filed under: Economics, Marx, NP — duncan @ 5:51 pm

Why is there a social imperative, in capitalism, towards valorisation, accumulation, expansion of markets and production? Here’s a passage from Capital Volume III. Marx is talking about interest rates, and the division of surplus value into interest on capital and profit of enterprise.

[T]his mutual ossification and autonomization of the two parts of the gross profit, as if they derived from two essentially separate sources, must now be fixed for the entire capitalist class and the total capital. Furthermore, this is true irrespective of whether the capital applied by the active capitalist is borrowed or not, or whether or not the money capitalist who owns the capital uses it himself. The profit on any capital, and thus also the average profit based on the equalization of capitals among themselves, breaks down or is divided into two qualitatively different, mutually autonomous and independent parts, interest and profit of enterprise, which are both determined by particular laws. The capitalist who works with his own capital, as well as the one working with borrowed capital, divides his gross profit into interest that accrues to him as owner, as lender of his own capital to himself, and profit of enterprise, which accrues to him as an active, functioning capitalist. It becomes a matter of indifference, as far as this division is concerned, whether the capitalist really does have to share with another or not. The person who applies the capital, even if he works with his own capital, breaks down into two persons, the mere owner of capital and its user

Money that is lent out must be returned to the lender with interest added on – this is the principle of lending. [Though see below.] Another way of saying that: money lent out must be valorised. Now – this doesn’t mean that money lent out will ‘really’ be valorised, through the production of ‘real’ additional value. It doesn’t (contra my macroeconomics textbook) mean that all money lent out must be lent out for investment purposes (still less for successful investment). But the additional value that’s returned to the lender as the price of borrowing has to come from somewhere. For the particular borrower, this additional money could come from, say, reduced consumption at the appropriate time. But just as the capitalist class as a whole can’t make money by individual capitalists thieving off each other, so for the system as a whole interest on borrowing can’t be repaid just by taking money from elsewhere. If the economic system as a whole necessarily involves lending (which it does), then, for the system as a whole, there are only two options (both of which can be (and are) operative at once, of course): 1) default; 2) growth. [Though this ignores changes in price levels, which is really important. Sorry :-(.] I hope I’m more or less right in saying this.

What’s particularly striking about the Volume III passage I quoted, is that here Marx suggests that the logic of lending applies even to capitals that are not in fact lent out – that even the capitalist who invests his own money obeys the capitalist logic of interest and (therefore) valorisation. This is turn suggests that it’s a mistake to give too much emphasis to private property, in our analysis of the capitalist system. One of the things that’s distinctive about capital as a movement of valorisation, Marx suggests, is not private property per se, but rather the interplay between private property and debt, and the entrance of the social logic of debt into some kinds of apparently clear-cut private property.

Keynes on Marx (and Malthus)

Filed under: Economics, Keynes, Marx — duncan @ 11:49 am

Writing to George Bernard Shaw, during the composition period of the General Theory, Keynes justified his dismissal of Marx by claiming that the Theory “will largely revolutionize – not at once but in the course of the next ten years – the way the world thinks about economic problems. There will be a great change, and, in particular, the Ricardian foundations of Marxism will be knocked away.”

At the moment I’m reading Keynes’s Essays in Biography. His discussion of Ricardo and Malthus’s corresondence is interesting – Keynes writes: “If only Malthus, rather than Ricardo, had been the parent stem from which nineteenth-century economics proceeded, what a much richer and wiser place the world would have been today!” That sentence follows several long passages from Malthus’s side of the correspondence, which Keynes sees as articulating ideas neglected by the subsequent tradition. For example:

We see in almost every part of the world vast powers of production which are not put into action, and I explain this phenomenon by saying that from a want of the proper distribution of the actual produce adequate motives are not furnished to continued production… [I]f it be true that an attempt to accumulate very rapidly will occasion such a division between labour and profits as almost to destroy both the motive and the power of future accumulation… must it not be acknowledged that such an attempt to accumulate… may be really prejudicial to a country.

Now here’s part of one of Keynes’s earlier footnotes:

Marx, criticising Malthus, had held that over-population was purely the product of a capitalist society and could not occur under Socialism. Marx’s reasons for holding this view are by no means without interest, being in fact closely akin to Malthus’s own theory that ‘effective demand’ may fail in a capitalist society to keep pace with output.

Quite so. It’s a large mistake to see the foundations of Marxism as ‘Ricardian’, in this sense, or to think that a knocking away of such foundations is also the invalidation of Marx. (I haven’t read Ricardo, I should add, or the modern neo-Ricardians, and Keynes may well be being unfair about Ricardo too.) Marx’s discussion of crises, of overproduction, of the economic imperatives that move capital from industry to industry (driven not by the pull of ‘equilibrium’, but constantly refreshed disequilibriums) – all this is much closer to the Malthus of ‘effective demand’ than to the caricatured ‘long termism’ Keynes attacks, in the General Theory and elsewhere.

Although, of course: central to Marx’s critique is the way in which the logic of capital subjects our lives to the imperatives of production, valorisation, accumulation. Whereas Malthus is clear about the final purpose of his economic theorising:

I expressly say that it is my object to show what are the causes which call forth the powers of production; and if I recommend a certain proportion of unproductive consumption, it is obviously and expressly with the sole view of furnishing the necessary motive to the greatest continued production… [A]n increase of unproductive consumption among landlords and capitalists may… sometimes be the proper remedy for a state of things in which the motives to production fail.

November 15, 2008

Labour Theory of Value: Interim Report (Part 3)

Filed under: Economics, Marx, NP — duncan @ 5:16 pm

Okay – here’s the really controversial one [edited down substantially, since the original version - oh dear...].

In my opinion, the Labour Theory of Value is a fetishised form of thought – a theory that’s the product of, rather than say an expose or analysis of, fetishism, as fetishism is defined in Chapter One of Volume One of Capital.

Here’s part of the famous passage.

“It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things… I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities”.

This sort of fetishism stuff is I think generally read as something like: the thing which is manifested and occluded in commodities is the value-producing activity of labour. Value may appear to be a quality of the commodities themselves, but it is actually a property produced by labour, and then fetishistically attached to commodities, occluding the fundamental link between labour and value.

Now, as I’ve already said, I don’t think we should accept that labour has the particular property of producing value, or of endowing commodities with value. Instead, value is a social category produced or enacted by a whole set of social and economic relations.

Under some circumstances, in capitalism, it becomes plausible to attribute the property of producing value not to this whole set of relations, but rather to a particular relation – the relation between a worker and the means of production – and in particular to the labouring activity itself. It becomes plausible to see labour as solely productive of value. But this is not, in fact, the case. We have taken a complex set of social relations, actions, interactions, etc. and attributed their properties or the social properties they produce/enact to a particular object or activity. In relation to the commodity, in Chapter One, Marx calls this fetishism – a “definite social relation among men” which “assumes the fantastic form of a relation among things”. But men are things too – and our labouring activity can also fetishistically be granted properties that are in reality produced by a larger set of social relations. I think the labour theory of value can best be understood in these terms.

Now clearly this kind of ‘fetishism’ is less pervasive, in capitalism, than commodity fetishism; and there’s a whole lot of other stuff that really ought to be said, expanded on, or qualified. But the usual excuses. More to follow, eventually, hopefully.

November 12, 2008

Labour Theory of Value: Interim Report (Part 2)

Filed under: Economics, Marx, NP — duncan @ 4:23 pm

Okay.  Here’s my current favourite passage in Capital:

“It is the extraction of this surplus-value that forms the immediate process of production, and this faces no other barriers than those just mentioned.  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 in 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, or only at prices that are less than the price of production, 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 a partial realization; indeed, it may even mean a partial or complete loss of his capital.  The conditions for immediate exploitation and for realization of that exploitation are not identical.  Not only are they separate in time and space, they are also separate in theory.”  (Vol. III, p. 352)

I’m not sure I’m in a position to expand on this adequately now – but this passage strikes me as articulating the central equivocation in Capital.  The issue is – what is the relation between the “immediate production” and the “realization” of value?  According to this schema, value can be ‘produced’ that is never realized – and, indeed, the ‘production’ of non-realized value is central to the capitalist system.  Does not this lack of ‘realization’ of value that’s been (immediately) ‘produced’ reflect back on, expand, and in a sense transform the concept of ‘production’?  Indeed, isn’t this the heart of Marx’s argument – not just his argument about the systemic contradictions that produce crises, but also his argument about the coercive power of capitalist social relations to enforce the exploitations of capitalist production?  And doesn’t this stand in marked tension with the ‘standard’ labour theory of value, which I was complaining about in my last post?  If I were going to offer an interpretation of Capital – which I’m not, any time soon, because I’ve still got a whole lot of Marx still to ingest – I think I’d probably take my bearings from this passage, and others like it.

Labour Theory of Value: Interim Report (Part 1)

Filed under: Economics, Marx — duncan @ 1:21 pm

Okay – I’m classifying this stuff as way stronger than ‘hunch’, but still quite a bit weaker than ‘I can cash this out in a 100,000 word monograph’. From the top:

1) The Labour Theory of Value, as (I think) it’s generally understood, is wrong. (Which requires a bit of elaboration, so)

- It’s not totally clear to me what ‘the Labour Theory of Value as generally understood actually is. I think there are probably a few different sets of ideas that can be referred to as the LTV. Let’s say the basic one is something along the lines of: you’ve got your human beings. When human beings work, when they labour, as well manipulating and transforming physical objects (or the minds of impressionable young folk; or computer code; or whatever) they also confer onto those objects (or whatever) a social property – value. According to the LTV, labour is the source of all value. Now I’m not totally clear on how formulations like this are generally understood – but this picture seems to me to be prima facie implausible. How is value understood to be transmitted from labourer to product, or understood to be created in the manipulation or creation of the product? The LTV, in this form, seems to be to be powerfully counter intuitive.

- Now I don’t think adherents of the LTV believe that the value created by labour is simple market price. Rather, there’s understood to be a complex relationship between price and value, such that value in some sense regulates price, but that price can and often does massively deviate from value. This removes some of the prima facie implausibility; but it seems to me just to push the implausibility back a step. I’m not sure exactly how value is generally taken to regulate price [because a) I'm pretty ignorant of the literature; and b) what little I've read strikes me as obscure] – but assuming there’s some causal relation such that value regulates price, and assuming that value is ultimately understood to be created entirely by labour, you’re still left with the question – what exactly is being created or transmitted in the labouring process (and what is the mechanism of that creation or transmission?) Labour in > prices out. How?

- The simplest way of understanding this would be that human activity creates some sort of mana (???) or immaterial substance (??), ‘value’, which is embedded in the products of labour (and which can then be transmitted from those products to other products through the mediation of further labour). But this seems, again, implausible. It seems metaphysically implausible (why are we positing such a substance, even if we call it a social substance rather than a metaphysical one?), and it also seems empirically implausible. It seems like a familiar empirical fact that lots of commodities that don’t involve much labour in their production sell for high prices – or are regarded as very valuable. Whereas lots of commodities that involve heaps of labour sell very cheaply and are regarded as relatively valueless. Obviously this isn’t true all the time; but there seem to be pervasive enough counter-examples to throw what seems to be the LTV into some doubt.

- [Plus how exactly would labour inputs determine price? People buying products don't know how much labour has gone into producing them; the people selling them need not either. And even if everyone does know the relevant labour inputs, why would this influence exchange values? If the influence is taken to be indirect, what would the causal mechanism of this indirect influence be? I can't think of a plausible causal chain, here, that transmits labour inputs into prices, even as a general trend or in aggregate.]

- If I understand right, many adherents of the LTV don’t argue that the LTV is true at any micrological level (even as a long-term trend), but argue that it is true for the system as a whole. Which again, removes some prima facie implausbility, but again seems to me simply to push the implausibility back a step. Put aside as irrelevant the fact that it only makes limited sense to talk about prices in aggregate. (Because it does make sense to talk about, say, the rate of profit in aggregate, and that kind of thing is where the LTV is taken as having descriptive / explanatory power.) I still don’t see why say the ratio between constant and variable capital (or, in orthodox economics’ terms, between capital and labour) should influence the rate of profit (= the amount of value created relative to money spent). The question is still – what’s the causal mechanism here?

- [For what it's worth, I've been in intermittent attendance at the Historical Materialism conference; on Sunday Geert Reuten presented an interesting paper (cowritten with Peter Thomas) about the shift in Marx's discussion of the falling rate of profit between the Grundrisse and Capital. Basically (if I understood right) Reuten was talking about a shift (in Marx's thought) from the falling rate of profit as a long term trend, with an eventual apocalyptic conclusion for capitalism, to a cyclical account that sees crises as providing capitalists, or capital, with the opportunity to recalibrate the capital-labour relation in a way that re-establishes a more substantial rate of profit. As far as I can tell, the implication of this latter argument (though Reuten didn't I think discuss this) is that the falling rate of profit shouldn't be understood as a long-term trend, and that therefore the changing organic composition of capital is not the major factor in the establishment of the profit rate. But that's probably by-the-by.]

- Anyway, upshot is I just don’t see how the labour theory of value can provide an adequate account of the determination of prices, micrologically, in aggregate, or in the short or long term.

More to follow in subsequent posts.

October 20, 2008

Working Definition of Capitalism

Filed under: Economics, Keynes, Marx, NP, Politics, Social Theory, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 5:29 pm

I’m feeling a bit behind in economics stuff. So I thought I’d throw up a working definition of capitalism, open to wholesale revision if necessary, of course.

Say that capitalism has two main features.

1) Blind accumulation / consumption.

Capitalism is a system of economic and social organisation oriented toward production as an end in itself. Clearly the ‘profit motive’ is important here. But the ‘profit motive’ is only one of the more important of the various group or individual inclinations created by and sustaining a system oriented to production for its own sake. It’s a secondary question what is produced, and why – which is why Marx talks about people being subordinated to the processes of production, rather than the other way around. Another useful touchstone here is Keynes, in The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

The immense accumulations of fixed capital which, to the great benefit of mankind, were built up during the half century before the war, could never have come about in a society where wealth was divided equitably. The railways of the world, which that age built as a monument to posterity, were, not less than the pyramids of Egypt, the work of labour which was not free to consume in immediate enjoyment the full equivalent of its efforts.

Thus this remarkable system depended for its growth on a double bluff or deception. On the one hand the labouring classes accepted from ignorance or powerlessness, or were compelled, persuaded, or cajoled by custom, convention, authority, and the well-established order of society into accepting, a situation in which they could call their own very little of the cake that they and nature and the capitalists were co-operating to produce. And on the other hand the capitalist classes were allowed to call the best part of the cake theirs and were theoretically free to consume it, on the tacit underlying condition that they consumed very little of it in practice. The duty of ‘saving’ became nine-tenths of virtue and the growth of the cake the object of true religion. There grew round the non-consumption of the cake all those instincts of puritanism which in other ages has withdrawn itself from the world and has neglected the arts of production as well as those of enjoyment. And so the cake increased; but to what end was not clearly contemplated.

Another good touchstone here would be Weber on the Protestant Ethic, but it’s a while since I read it. And thinking of Weber, an important point of divergence from Keynes in this passage, I think, should be his analogy with religion. Depending on our understanding of religion, this may be fine – but it’s important to register, I think, that a general social inclination towards blind accumulation need not be produced by any individual or group faith in or orientation towards that end. We ourselves don’t need to believe in the virtues of blind accumulation in order for our actions to part of a social-economic system oriented towards it.

Another question here is what we mean by ‘production’. Capitalism counts certain behaviours as productive and others as non-productive. Indeed, there’s a two-fold division – between those activities that supposedly fall entirely outside the capitalist system of production (say, much of family life), and those in some sense non-productive activities that are universally acknowledged as central (e.g. finance). Not sure I’ve got anywhere to go with this just yet. But worth noting, I think, that lots of stuff that’s supposedly external to capitalism even in the former sense is no doubt important to the reproduction of the social forms that everyone acknowledges as capitalistic.

More should be said on all this, obviously, but moving on…

2) A system of production oriented around wage labour.

This is altogether shakier than #1, I think. Clearly slavery has played and continues to play a profoundly important role in capitalist accumulation. Nevertheless, the reason Marx gives labour such an important role in his economic & political writings isn’t just that he’s participating in and trying to foster a political movement of the working class; and isn’t just because labour as a transhistorical activity is essential to any production at all. Marx also sees wage labour as an essential feature of the capitalist system. (c.f. Diane Elson on The Value Theory of Labour.) My historical knowledge is more than a little shaky – but I think it’s probably fair to see capitalism proper emerging alongside the social upheavals that created a large-scale market in wage labour.


Probably worth noting, however, that we don’t necessarily need to find an essence of capitalism in order to, like, talk about or oppose it. It’s worth at least thinking about what such an essence might be, however, since lots of the central features of capitalism that we want to fucking abolish – e.g. massive exploitation – clearly aren’t specific to capitalism (even if capitalism’s specific forms of exploitation are). Also, contrariwise, because if we have an inaccurate sense of what’s essential to the capitalist system, we may direct our critiques and action against political or social forms that capitalism (and its regimes of exploitation) can operate perfectly well without.

Or it may be unhelpful even to think in these terms, I’m not sure.

[As will become customary, the ‘NP’ tag means that this stuff is… erm… in dialogue with Rough Theory. NP has a couple posts about Diane Elson’s essay here, for instance.]

May 17, 2008

More Marx Ignorance

Filed under: Economics, Marx, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 12:09 pm

I’m sort of torn between never writing on Marx again until I actually know what I’m talking about, and continuing to use this blog as a place to store my ignorant thoughts. The latter is what the blog’s meant to be for. But now that it actually has (a couple of) readers, there’s a bigger downside to making an idiot of myself.

I am unafraid! I laugh in the face of intellectual embarrassment! And I post the following:

What is this ‘value’ thing then? Specifically, what is this labour theory of value? On any straightforward reading, it seems just utter nonsense. The value of a commodity is a result of the labour involved in its production? Really really not. I don’t think that’s what proponents of the labour theory of value are actually saying… (?). But so what’s going on?

There’s a weird circularity to any discussion of value. Let’s say you tell the following story: the value of a commodity is a result of the labour involved in its production. But because of a social/economic system based on exploitation – and because of the difference between labour and labour power – labour itself can produce more value than the value required for the production of labour. That’s surplus value. A certain value of commodities is required in order to keep labour more or less trim – workers have to eat and house themselves, and the capitalist class pays wages that allow this, much of the time. But because the use value of labour is (in part) its ability to produce value, there is a disjunct (a disjointure) between value in and value out, in the production process. The difference between labour and labour power is the disjointure that enables the accumulation of value. So – it’s apparently possible to say – workers aren’t paid for the true value of their labour. Ground of critique.

But all value – every commodity – produced under capitalism is a result of this production process based on disjointure. So it seems to me that everything falls apart if we try to say something like “the true value of labour isn’t represented in labour’s wages”. Because value itself, under capitalism, is based on this injustice. Where are we getting the solidity of value – the ‘true’ value of labour – that allows us to frame a critique of exploitation?

Where does value come from? Is there a real, non-exploitative value somewhere, at the base or root of the system, with surplus value built on top of this true reality of value? I don’t think that Marx believes this. And even if he does believe this – or if some other Marxist thinker believes this – where are we getting this value from? What is the account of the formation of value, here? And why on earth would labour produce value in the first place?

Value has already come on stage when ‘Capital’ begins. Where has it come from? What is it?


I think there’s a parallel here with orthodox economics’ theory of value. Marshallian analysis tells us that value – exchange value – is the result of a meeting between demand and supply… and that demand is a result of the meeting of desire (understood in terms of utility) and ability to pay. Utility – this wholly fantasised concept – is here apparently the ground for value. But of course (putting aside the fact that there ain’t no such thing as utility) utility doesn’t explain exchange value at all. All utility analysis can tell us is why certain things are valued more than others – once value has already ‘come on stage’. Exchange value, in Marshallian analysis, comes from the meeting of utility and cost (more or less) – but cost is already there, already out there, outside of us, in the world, in the system within which exchange and utility-maximisation takes place. The social system of valuation, within which different powers compete to maximise their utility, obviously cannot be explained simply in terms of utility. So where do we get the general concept of value that’s part of the system within which we analyse the determination of specific values, by means of supply and demand?

Now – something along these lines is why I don’t think Marx should be understood as grounding his critique on any idea of value. (And again I think I’m in the ballpark of N Pepperell’s posts here – though very much don’t attribute any of these opinions to N Pepperell, I’ve probably misunderstood everything…). My current take on this situation is: Marx doesn’t say – there’s this thing called value, it’s produced by labour, but under capitalism labour is exploited because the value of its product is more than the value of its wages. Rather, the concept of value that’s operative under capitalism (and, therefore, in Marx’s work too) is itself one of the objects of Marx’s critique. Marx’s idea is that this concept of value is a product of an exploitative social system, and that the system needs to be destroyed. His critique of the system, however, is not based on deploying the idea of value. Exploitation is just exploitation – it’s obviously exploitation. If people have to do work they hate, work that hurts them, that shortens or ruins their lives, and they’re doing this work for most of their waking hours, to serve the interests of the ruling class… that’s exploitation. You don’t need a theory of the production of surplus value to identify it as such. So Marx doesn’t say – here’s my theory of value; it allows us to recognise and analyse exploitation. He says – here’s exploitation; the social syste within which its embedded produces a certain theory of value (and, more important, a set of social behaviours that can be understood in terms of value); let’s analyse this theory, and develop it, in order to better understand exploitation, and the capitalist system it’s part of. Value doesn’t ground anything for Marx – it’s part of what needs to be explained. So, I think, it’s possibly politically misguided to deploy a ‘Marxist’ theory of value as a way of critiquing capitalism. Theory of value isn’t the starting point, here; it’s more like an object of critique.

Not sure how much of this is incredibly obvious and how much of it’s incredibly wrong. The interesting point, for me, I think, is that if something like the above is in the ballpark of right, it may be a mistake to see Marx as offering a theory of value that’s been occluded in the economics canon. Marx deployed the economic theories of his time, and, more importantly, analysed the social conditions that created them. The ‘labour theory of value’ was the principle economic theory he analysed, because it was prominent when Marx wrote. But the labour theory of value is no longer prominent (though it may not be as dead as we’re told…). It would, I think, [perhaps] be a mistake to read Marx and say ‘the (Marxist) labour theory of value needs to be brought back’. Rather, we should say – ‘the labour theory of value is no longer so prominent; economics now understands value in other ways; what has changed in the structure of capitalism such that economic theory has also changed?’ That, I think, would be a ‘Marxist’ question. (And another question, while we’re at it: why has no one developed a comprehensive critique of political economy since Marx? What the hell happened to left theorising? We’re due another proper critique, folks, come on, get busy…)

Needless to say, all this is just totally underinformed. I wonder why I’m writing it down, when I could be studying…

May 11, 2008


Filed under: Derrida, Marx — duncan @ 6:59 pm

This is really just me going over ground that’s already been comprehensively covered by N Pepperell’s posts on the early chapters of ‘Capital’ (to which it’s just totally indebted, to the point of outright theft). It was all meant to be part of a longer post on ‘Specters’, which recently collapsed under its own weight, onto its shaky foundations. There’s something I’m not happy with in the below – something that doesn’t seem right. But I can’t figure out what it is – so I’m ignoring it. Perhaps sometime eventually we’ll get to temporality in Derrida.


When the commodity comes on stage, in ‘Capital’, according to Derrida, it comes on stage first of all as a ‘Thing’. “To say that the same thing, the wooden table for example, comes on stage as a commodity after having been but an ordinary thing in its use-value is to grant an origin to the ghostly moment. Its use-value, Marx seems to imply, was intact. It was what it was, use-value, identical to itself. The phantasmagoria, like capital, would begin with exchange-value and the commodity form. It is only then that the ghost “comes on stage.” Before this, according to Marx, it was not there. Not even in order to haunt use-value. But whence comes the certainty concerning the previous phase, that of this supposed use-value, precisely, a use-value purified of everything that makes for exchange-value and the commodity form? What secures this distinction for us?”

Yes, what? Derrida insistently reads Marx in terms of a before and after – a before of pure presence; an after of spectral capital. First use-value; then exchange value.

But this reading requires a somewhat doubtful interpretation of Marx’s text. For when the commodity first “comes on stage”, in ‘Capital’ – in the book’s first sentence – it comes on stage not as a simple Thing, but already as a commodity.

“The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’ [Marx citing his own earlier ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy]; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form. Our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity.”

Marx begins with the commodity; he then disassembles the commodity into what “appear” to be its component parts: use-value, and exchange-value. And once Marx begins this disassembly, he does indeed “appear” to give temporal priority to use-value.

“The commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its properties satisfies human needs of whatever kind.” [my emphases]

First of all an external object – a thing. What could be clearer? But it is perhaps worth emphasising: this “thing” is not in itself a use-value, not as such. Rather, use-value is the product of the ability of external objects to satisfy human needs – and it is only this relation that makes an object into a use-value. “The usefulness of a thing makes it a use-value.” Thus an external object ”is” a use-value, but it is a use-value (of course) only through its involvement in human society. Use-value is socially conditioned, or produced.

“Every useful thing, for example, iron, paper, etc., may be looked at from the two points of view of quality and quantity. [And these “two points of view” may “appear” to map on to the use-value / exchange-value distinction.... (“As use-values, commodities differ above all in quality, while as exchange-values they can differ only in quantity…”)… but this parallel will be complicated as ‘Capital’ advances.] Every useful thing is a whole composed of many properties; it can therefore be useful in various ways. The discovery of these ways and hence of the manifold uses of things is the work of history.”

Marx is enough of a Hegelian that we should prick up our ears when he mentions “the work of history”. And there is a footnote appended to this phrase:

“’Things have an intrinsick vertue’ (this is Barbon’s special term for use-value) ‘which in all places have the same vertue; as the loadstone to attract iron.’ (op., cit., p. 6).” And then Marx adds: “The magnet’s property of attracting iron only became useful once it had lead to the discovery of magnetic polarity.”

This comment disrupts the associations that the concept of “intrinisck vertue” may seem to carry. (It is, perhaps, moments like this that lead Engels to insist, in his Preface to the third edition, that Marx should not be read as endorsing the theoretical views of the economists he quotes.) For on the one hand, the property of attracting iron is intrinsic, is a material property; on the other hand it is a use-value… thus use-value is material. But, of course, since a use-value is only made into a use-value by its social and historical position, in another sense this “intrinsick” virtue is far from intrinsic at all. “[G]eometrical, physical, chemical or other natural… properties of commodities come into consideration… to the extent that they make the commodities useful, .i.e. turn them into use-values.” Commodities, as Marx here says, have to be turned into use-values – just as they have to be turned into exchange values – and this transformation, this ‘turning’ (like the table-turning that Derrida later discusses) is “the work of history”.

So use-value is both social and historicised. And in the next sentence, Marx draws out the parallel between historicised use-value and historicised exchange-value.

“Every useful thing is a whole composed of many properties; it can therefore be useful in various ways. The discovery of these ways and hence of the manifold uses of these things is the work of history. So also is the invention of socially recognised standards of measurement for the quantities of these useful objects.” [my emphasis.]

The historical and social processes that give a material thing its exchange-value also give it its use-value; and use-value is not assumed to exist prior to this general social entanglement.

All this is, perhaps, tediously obvious. Of course in some sense use-value is already social, or relational – whoever thought to deny that? But I think it’s important to emphasise this stuff if we’re to discuss Derrida’s reading of ‘Capital’.

Here’s a famous passage, from the start of Marx’s discussion of commodity-fetishism, that is one of the key moments Derrida uses to convict Marx of a metaphysical privileging of the purity of use-value.

”A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it [and this is the position Derrida emphasises in his reading – an apparent treatment of use-value as non-mysterious, as escaping the mysteriousness of fetishism, and therefore as the locus of the metaphysical idea of purity that fetishism contaminates], whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product of human labour [my emphasis]. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.”

There seems to be a movement here from ‘ordinary’ use-value to the ‘metaphysical’ subtlety of exchange-value, or of commodification. But it should be emphasised that (as Marx says quite plainly) the “ordinary, sensuous thing” that is an object in its use-value, only becomes a use-value through the same social processes that make it into a commodity, and thus make it “transcend” sensuousness. “[I]t first takes on these properties as the product of human labour”. Ordinary sensuousness is not, in itself, enough to make the table a use-value – even though the use-value is that ordinary sensuousness.

The relevant distinction here, I think, is not between materiality as use-value, on the one-hand, and exchange-value or commodification, on the other – but rather between materiality as such, independent of human needs, and materiality as use-value. Derrida seems to assimilate use-value to materiality in general, in his reading of Marx – which is why he calls Marx’s idea of use-value ‘ontological’. And this has some justification – because a commodity’s use-value is its materiality; Marx says this very plainly. But this is a materiality – an ordinary sensuousness – that is not use-value in itself, but that has to be made into use-value, through labour (which is the basic institution of capitalism), and through the social and historical production or invention of the needs use-values satisfy. Use-value, like exchange-value, is an outcome of the general social system Marx analyses.

Is this belabouring the obvious? Maybe. But I think Derrida neglects this aspect of Marx. Perhaps I’ll have more to say about that some other time.

April 28, 2008

More on Derrida and Marx

Filed under: Blogroll, Derrida, Economics, Marx, Philosophy, Politics — duncan @ 1:42 pm

I’m a little bit tired at the moment, so no proper post just yet. But for anyone interested in Derrida and Marx, let me put up a pointer to Le Colonel Chabert, who has recently started a Marx-oriented critique of Derrida.

From the conclusion of the outstanding first post:

“It is against the project (of explanation, critique and action) expressed and referred to here in the Grundrisse that Derrida’s intellectual product most consistently militated, undertaking a defence of liberalism’s doctrine of sacred property in the most mystical and mystifying possible manner, discovering private property, and indeed, eventually, capital specifically, to be not only the natural law of human relations but the the very primal matter-energy of which the phenomenal world is made, the force that is found spectrally filling the void from which being and presence have always already absconded (to be forever pursued, their imaginary loss forever mourned), the foundation of the universe itself, the creator and all creatures, eternal, indestructible.”

But read the post in full.

March 24, 2008

In passing…

Filed under: Derrida, Marx, Philosophy — duncan @ 9:48 pm

I seriously need to get myself an internets connection – I can’t respond to comments properly today - sorry!  But anyone interested in ‘Specters of Marx’, which has been in the news here recently, needs to run, not walk, over to Rough Theory, where N. Pepperell has a fabulous post up about Derrida’s selective interpretation of ‘Capital’ – and Derrida’s own exorcism of Marx’s more threatening specters.  I’d been green with envy if I wasn’t so delighted.

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