For vulgar economics money is the principle of commensurability which permits capitalist exchange to take place. For Marx, money is merely a veil concealing the true principle of commensurability: labour time.
I confess to being confused by Marx’s theories (I’m still labouring through the early chapters of ‘Capital’). How, for instance, is Marx able to distinguish between price and value, given his theory of value?
But what interests me right now is the way in which Marx makes labour time the ontological foundation of his economics. Marx homogenises labour into abstract labour time – and this homogenisation allows Marx to posit the proletariat as possessing a single unified political will. Marx’s proletariat is the subject of ‘abstract labour’: a single entity that bears little relation to actual workers.
“Equality in the full sense between different types of labour can be arrived at only if we abstract from their real inequality.” (Capital, p. 166) This is one of the most basic theoretical moves of Marxism. Real inequality must be elided, in favour of a fictional, abstract equality of labour-time.
Should radical economics really be based on such an elision of the inequality of labour? Isn’t this just as much a fiction as the capitalist economists’ ‘utility’ or ‘welfare’? And doesn’t it have many of the same consequences for economic theorising?
On page 199 of my edition, Marx accompanies “the owner of some commodity, say our old friend the linen weaver, to the scene of action, the market.” The weaver’s linen is valued at £2. “We leave out of consideration here any possible subjective errors in calculation by the owner of the commodity, which will immediately be corrected objectively in the market. We suppose him to have spent on his product only the average socially necessary quantity of labour-time.” (pgs 201-2)
Marx here binds together one of the distinctive features of his own theory – the emphasis on labour-time – and one of the guiding myths of capitalist economics – the objectivity of the market. These two ideas support each other. Though Marx mocks vulgar economists’ emphasis on money, Marx’s theory here supports that emphasis. The market price is the objective price – because “real inequality” has been abstracted out of existence.
Marx, I’m sure, complicates and expands this as he goes on. But at this stage of my reading I’ll ask again – why does Marxism have such a grip on the radical left? Surely we can do better than this…