June 17, 2007

The Paradox of Exchange

Filed under: Economics, Marx — duncan @ 4:42 pm

On page 44 of ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, Marx is discussing the exchange relation:

“One and the same relation must therefore be simultaneously a relation of essentially equal commodities which differ only in magnitude, {i.e., a relation which expresses their equality as materialisations of universal labour-time,} and at the same time it must be their relation as qualitatively different things, as distinct use-values for distinct needs, in short a relation which differentiates them as actual use-values.  But equality and inequality thus posited are mutually exclusive.  The result is not simply a vicious circle of problems, where the solution of one problem presupposes the solution of the other, but a whole complex of contradictory premises, since the fulfilment of one condition depends directly upon the fulfilment of its opposite.”

Save for the clause about the labour theory of value {which I’ve placed in brackets}, this strikes me as being entirely correct and perfectly expressed.  This is what I was trying to get at earlier under the heading ‘the substitution of unsubsitutables’.  Exchange is based upon a system of equivalence.  To use Marx’s favourite example:

1 yard of linen = ½ lb of tea

1 yard of linen = 2 lbs. of coffee

1 yard of linen = 8 lbs. of bread


But the reason behind the exchange is the non-equivalence of these objects.  I swap my linen for your bread because I’m starving, and you’re naked.  The whole point is that there’s no equivalence here between linen and bread.

The condition of exchange is that commodities be both substitutable and non-substitutable.  Marx says “the fulfilment of one condition depends directly upon the fulfilment of its opposite.”  In Derridean terms: the condition of the possibility of exchange is also the condition of its impossibility.

Of course, we could just say, with Aristotle (quoted by Marx in the first footnote to part II): “Now in truth it is impossible that things differing so much should become commensurate, but with reference to demand they may become so sufficiently”.  I’m not altogether convinced that the problem can be so easily resolved.



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