Exchange value as a field etc

Chris, London 100423.2040 at
Fri Jun 21 00:13:54 MDT 1996

Paul  on Zeynep:


Exchange value as a field? I wonder what you exactly mean.

Paul C:
The usage derives from Mirowski's book, More Light than Heat, which
focuses on the borrowing of concepts from physics by economists.
Refering to Marx, he argues that Marx had two value theories the
substance of value theory wherebye labour time is defined in terms
of the past labour embodied in a commodity, and what he
calls the field theory. In this, value is defined in terms of the
labour necessary to reproduce the commodity.

In principle the two measures can diverge, since technical change
tends to make the second measure smaller than the first.

Mirowski makes an analogy between the substance theory and the first
conceptualisations of energy in thermodynamics as a conserved substance,
and says that the field theory of value is analogous with latter treatments
in physics that focus instead upon the gravitational, electrostatic etc
fields, with energy then being defined in terms of integrals over
paths through fields.

It should be noted that it is 'value' not exchange value that is being
spoken of as a field.


As my clarification explained, I come to the image of a "field" from
concern about unequal exchange and from the feeling that the debates
of the 70's are still unresolved. I do not know Mirowski's book.

Paul writes as someone who has done some of the detailed modelling
and published articles testing the implications of reading Marx
with new perspectives.

My use of the word 'field' was drawing from analagy of how I
gravity can be understood as a field, far from even, with
lumps and hillocks, pits and troughs that would deflect the path of
a ball bearing propelled across its surface. This seems to me an
arguably helful idiom for looking at the very uneven economic
patterns in the world as a sort of field with strong gravitational
forces pulling trade and capital accumulation in some directions
but not others. For example latest figures show that Africa has now
sunk to less than 3% of global trade.

The image of a gravitational field is of course quite compatible
with understanding these processes stochastically, in terms of
relative probability of an outcome rather than of rigid deterministic
consequence. I note once again Paul's reference to the
modelling done by Farjoun and Machover of a stochastic approach.

Paul's summary of Mirowski's position emphasises a link between
the concept of a field, and the issue of whether value is defined
in relation to past labour congealed in the commodity or future
labour necessary to reproduce the commodity. It is not clear to me
why that link is being made, although I find the emphasis on future
labour more coherent. Why?

One argument, perhaps not a central one, but certainly associated,
is perhaps this. Marx makes clear that in producing any
use value a worker first imagines the article, then does the work.
Similarly the process by which the capitalist throws commodities
into circulation requires an imagination of what the possibilities
are of transforming them through sale in a market back again into

The analogy apparently Mirowski makes of the transition in scientific
thinking from the first conceptualisations in thermodynamics of
energy as a conserved substance, to field theory, I find totally
acceptable. Without the hype of the popular scientific books, it is
the sort of shift in scientific thinking that I believe must be
applied to Marxist theory, and shows promising signs.

But I am unclear the significance of saying that it is value rather
than exchange value that Mirowski was proposing as a field, and
I think it is highly likely that people are using 'value' and
'exchange value' in different ways.

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