Maoist Internationalist Movement
mim3 at nyxfer.blythe.org
Fri Nov 3 16:50:46 MST 1995
I read Keen's thesis and am glad I did.
Here is what I have to add and recapitulate.
1. On Sweezy, he has always hung out with economists. For him to
downplay use-value as understood by Marx is just pedagogically
strategic. The gap between Marx and Ricardo is a mere stream compared
with the great open sea between Marx and neoclassical economics. The
neoclassicals and spontaneous defenders of the ruling class are not capable
of understanding the word "use-value."
Keen does demarcate against subjectivism in his discussion of use-value,
but he is emphasizing how Marx spruced up classical economics with the
use-value concept. One can fault Keen's priorities, but he makes them clear
and doesn't attempt to distort Marx to do it. Even with Juan Inigo's point
about a certain text, Keen is ready to confront it and the rest of his thesis
shows the same willingness. (If Keen weren't attacking the LTV openly
it would be a distortion of Marxism of course.)
2. On my page 39 of Keen's thesis where he discusses Dobb, Keen nearly
answers why labor-power must be seen as the privileged commodity. The
question is how can the law of value pertain AND accumulation/surplus-
What Keen left out is how can we uphold the law of value and accurately
characterize the class system at the same time? How could a capitalist class
go on existing if it exchanged dead labor for an equal quantity of live labor?
With an LTV, obviously it's impossible and the riddle is solved with the
concept of labor-power. (An exception--a section of the workers (labor
aristocracy) receives equal dead labor for live labor but only at the expense
of other workers superexploited who see to the reproduction of the system
the labor aristocracy thrives in.)
If we allow other commodities the privilege of generating surplus-value,
maybe we can allow an equal exchange of dead value for live labor for all
workers, but then we are left with an unequal exchange between capitalists
that allowed for the surplus-value created under a non-LTV which allows
workers to exchange work for work. Not for nothing Marx said as Keen
quoted that "not capital" is labour.
A non-exception would be where Keen considers the situation where
surplus-value originates from both labor-power and non-labor-power
commodities. An interesting political question is how would such a
situation persist? As Keen says, workers with any power whatsoever
should be able to end it and make the capitalists at least share the surplus-
value from machines. So why is there so much war and class struggle in the
world? With an LTV, there are only two possibilities for appropriation of
labor, either by capitalist or by labourer; hence, explanation of political
In reality, if Keen is correct, in a free market system, labor-power will NOT
generate surplus-value according to Keen and other commodities will. I
suspect ecologists might have more legitimate interest in that idea than we
political economists would. We have in Keen the possibility that workers
consume what they produce while the objects of the world save the day by
allowing accumulation. Maybe if the sun shines a little brighter in foggy
agricultural areas or if a meteor deposited amazingly fertile soil or
industrial inputs, we could have use-values we didn't have before.
However, sunshine and meteors do not belong in the subject of political
economy as the source of accumulation. Alternatively if Keen is really
saying that he is not interested in meteors and sunshine, perhaps he merely
confused labor productivity (purified of other use-value inputs) with fixed
capital, which is why some anthropological and historical exercise of the
mind might be useful.
So how to simultaneously uphold the following?
1. Equal exchange. (No wealth creation through exchange or capitalist
class deception of itself.)
2. Creation of wealth.
3. Existence of classes.
Economists are called economists, not *political* economists, because they
drop number 3. I submit that Keen is forced to drop either 1 or 3 in his
arguments. In the 1995 context where most of the world's workers still
can be shot for organizing or joining a union, there is no free market for
labor-power and Keen must drop #3. In his theorizing for a real free
market situation for labor-power, he still drops #1.
All things being equal, I would prefer with Keen that there be just one
category of commodities, not labor-power and all the rest. However, not
all things are equal. He says lawyers make distinctions, but we could just as
easily say that economists abstract from history and institutions for the
benefit of having simple assumptions for the creation of formal models.
Marx's "The Poverty of Philosophy" on the uselessness of categories of
thought at the expense of the concrete is applicable here.
Aside from doing without classes in a Bowdlerized LTV, an example is his
discussion of the reserve army of unemployed and
Bowles and Gintis. For Keen there is only a choice between an absolutely
commoditized labor force or an un-commoditized labor force. There are no
degrees or historical untidiness. Again this reflects how an economist
thinks--not anything about the real world. To his credit, he did say he
found something about the Bowles and Gintis as persuasive; he just didn't
integrate or synthesize the insight he claims to have seen.
It may take a long time for the LTV to be worked out in all the detail and
modeled in a way that would satisfy intellectuals. One could easily suspect
we don't have the mathematical ability as a species yet. This doesn't mean
we should give up reality in order to model something slightly easier to
3. Skilled labor. As I already said, the difference in the real world in wages
for skilled and unskilled may originate partly in superexploitation. That
involves an examination of political institutions including unfree labor. Few
would argue a slave deserved as little as s/he got, but many seem to forget
the implications of having a bifurcated labor-power market, where unions
and negotiating are still in question in some places, and not in others.
I also raised the caveperson example. Something about culture and
organization through the efforts of civilization over long periods of time
does accumulate. The caveperson can do nothing with an assembly-line for
cars. Keen has spoken of reification, but vivification is what happens with
machines: "The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general
productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, and
more specifically of *fixed capital,* in so far as it enters into the production
process as a means of production proper." "Grundrisse," Section "G,"
Nicolaus ed. Keen's discussion of this around page 98 in my version of his
thesis seems to miss Marx's irony, sarcasm and grimness with regard to
how dead labor commands live labor.
He also did not comment on how Marx imagined communism would
change everything. His discussion of machines as mainly important for use-
value occurs in the "Grundrisse" in a section where exchange-value has
already disappeared--i.e. communism: "As soon as labour in the direct form
has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and
must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be
the measure] of use value. [Pat comments: You would have thought Keen
would love this quote so far, but read on as to what circumstances this is
true in.] The *surplus labour of the mass* has ceased to be the condition
for the development of general wealth, just as the *non-labour of the few,*
for the development of the general powers of human head. With that,
production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material
production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis."
("Capitalism, Machinery and Automation," Section G, "Grundrisse")
4. Because Keen wanted simpler assumptions, he was free to attribute
logical errors to all his opponents. Hence his argument with me already
recapitulates his argument with Desai. Keen is quite correct that it boils
down to his "point 4" on my page 106 of his thesis. What Keen is calling a
logical error is in fact though a matter of reality. Is it in fact possible for
live labor to exchange for an equivalent of dead labor, both in accounting
and overall social terms? What about the "Critique of the Gotha Program"?
It seems that Keen has left out the workers' social obligations for
investment, insurance etc. and the issue of who controls them. But then
again, as I said, it is most convenient for economists to produce theories
where it is assumed there are no classes and no social obligations, just
individual actors. It's as if everyone is an independent contractor or
consultant. In his vision of the LTV as strawman, there aren't any trustfund
babies or other parasites being fed, clothed and sheltered by the workers. If
such parasites are introduced into theory, Keen protests to the theorist
about "unequal exchange."
Another aspect of simplification of assumptions means that for Keen, there
is no matter of degree in market relations. Even though he admits that
Marx meant to critique the market as a place where coercive social
relations are covered up, he feels no obligation to account for the dynamics
of intra-capitalist competition and how they might differ with class struggle
between workers and capitalists--again because the hidden assumption is
that there are no classes. In this regard, he suffers from mild
commodity fetishism in regard to labor-power and takes Marx's comments
on equality in the marketplace too literally.
The commodity fetishism is compounded when we realize that Keen's
theory tolerates unequal exchange in results quite openly. He is willing to
see workers as getting their share or more but somehow some capitalists
must be getting cheated by others in results. The significance of unequal
exchange to Keen is only as a reason to say that labor-power cannot be
*treated* at the *beginning* of an exchange process as any different than
any other commodity.
For economists Keen will still have appeal, because of their penchant for
ahistorical generalizations. However, if we run Keen in reverse, can his
work survive the same scrutiny he gave to the LTV?
5. Ernst says Keen is not Steedman, but at least in this thesis it is obvious
that the main part of the work is the Sraffaesque attack on the LTV. The
whole distinction Keen draws out of Marx regarding use-value is entirely
friendly to Steedman. Most of the work that this distinction does in the
thesis is in fact to refute the LTV.
Keen then tells us we don't have to solve the transformation problem
anymore and that now we know why the FRP may not be happening;
although I wonder if a lot of fixed capital --"c"-- wasn't destroyed in World
War II and the like, and how much of an attack on Marx is left if the profit
rate rebounds only at such cost?
Ernst seems to think there is some payoff from not having to solve
problems anymore and maybe Keen's idea has some new implications. I
have to agree with Miller that left with just use-value and a supposed
dialectic, there is nothing really left. I see Keen's work as possibly
destructive of Marxist theory and its potential, but I also believe a Keen-
like approach to itself would also be highly destructive, and being left no
where, I prefer the LTV with realistic assumptions and some solutions to
for some problems.
6. As long as a reader goes into Keen's book with the question in his/her
minds--how much historical, institutional and social reality am I willing to
sacrifice to eliminate one distinction that creates two categories instead of
one?--I think one can learn some things about Marxism from Keen's book.
I'm still troubled by the influence of the political economy of academia on
the Marxism List. Ernst says Miller should shut up and do his own work.
That's the kind of thing we expect to hear in academia where people are
supposed to be doing work to get a job. If it were a "Post-Keynsian" or
"alternative economics" list, maybe Ernst would be justified. If
"Marxology" is not a contradiction in terms since Marx believed people
learn in practice including the practice of class struggle, then maybe Ernst
would be correct in his response to Miller on a "Marxology" list. But
people going down to the pub belong on a "Marxism List." This pro-
experts attitude of Ernst's is not Marxist. We are trying to get theory to
seize the people like lightning as Marx said.
As for what Proyect said, as usual it is self-evident sectarianism in the name
of fighting sectarianism. He admits he duked it out on the LTV years ago,
but now he thinks the subject is too bookish. At the same time he leads a
seminar on fascism piled high in books, (with an underrepresentation by the
people actually involved in fighting fascism for that matter). All we are
supposed to be allowed to do by Proyect is participate in his supposedly
non-sectarian seminar on fascism. He doesn't like the competition from
people who believe we gotta study political economy. That's sectarian, by
putting his studies agenda ahead of others that are obviously also
necessary, at least according to Marx. Proyect should at least allow us to
judge for ourselves whether he wasted his time in studying LTV. We will
apply the same standard to his seminar.
Keen's project is a great intervention in Post-
Keynesianism or economics generally, since academia is not going to be
Marxist anytime soon. Since we must intervene in academia, I revert to the
sales question. What makes Keen think that the LTV is any less coherent
than anything else? It would be a bad result if Keen persuaded many people
to stop investigation of the LTV, because it is allegedly less logical than
other possibilities. Any assumption can be set up in formal terms. I'm not
persuaded that the LTV is any less fit for logical expression than anything
Pat for MIM
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