Reply to Jurriaan and Julio

Jurriaan Bendien J.Bendien at wolmail.nl
Fri Dec 13 19:11:23 MST 2002


Mark...

I regard Julio as a friend, but haven't heard from him for ages. I don't
think you should create a fake amalgam of Julio's position and mine in the
wellknown Stalinist manner. You engage in a sweeping broadside without
really knowing who you are dealing with, it is best first of all to really
find out what somebody's views are, before attacking him.

I hold Sraffa in high regard for demolishing the conventional theory of
capital, and I strive to emulate his concise style, but I absolutely do not
agree with his rejection of value theory. I said so on various lists,
including this one, and recently repeated myself in the matter in
correspondence with Jim Devine, with whom I disagree about the issue "total
prices = total values".  I think value theory is very important, although I
think it should be developed further. I am still interested in Marx and in
doing something with his ideas when I get more time, but I don't consider
myself a Marxist, and have said so repeatedly and explained why. I don't
want to go into that again. I am not a Ricardian economist, indeed I am not
a professional economist at all, but I am happy to work with Ricardian
socialists. The important thing to me is that they are socialists, not that
they are Ricardians. In practice we can agree on a lot, even though, as you
recognise, there is a big difference in the very object of inquiry between
Marx and Ricardo.

I know that it is very hip among leftists to say very wisely and profoundly
that "capital is a social relation and not a thing" but I disagree with it
and I have explained clearly why. Capital IS a thing, namely money,
commodities, assets, inventories, financial claims and the like. These
things acquire a power over people, and Marx explains why, in terms of the
social relations of capitalism. In so doing, Marx seeks to dispell the
fetishism according to which the power which the thing has, is inherent in
the thing itself, a natural attribute of the thing. He also wants to combat
vulgar economics, which often regards assets of any sort in any situation as
a stock of "capital", without regard for the social framework within which
those assets exist. To be sure, Marx also talks about the "capital
relation", summarised by the phrase "capital employs labour", but that is
quite compatible with saying that capital is a thing. The capital relation
is, precisely, the social relation which gives the thing its power and which
inverts the relation between people and things so that things dominate
people. The salient point is that "things" become "capital" only under
definite social conditions, which allow their owners to appropriate the
social surplus product, in part or as a whole, depending on the weight of
the capital in society. Mandel put it quite well: "Behind the appearance of
relations between people and things, Marx discovered the substance of the
capital relation to be a relation of social production, a relationship
between social classes".

To repeat myself, if you argue that relations between people take the form
of relations between things, or are expressed in relations between things
(as value relations), then you cannot also argue that those things are
social relations THEMSELVES. That is just obscurantism. Marx defines capital
in numerous different ways, the point however is that his whole book is his
definition of capital.

I don't conflate values with prices at all conceptually, but I am happy to
talk about it in a loose way sometimes. A 93 percent labour theory of value
(or value theory of labour) is better than no theory of value at all.  I was
referring to the "law of value". You can ask the learned Marxist economists
to define the law of value, and they either cannot do it or they all come up
with different answers. My argument has been that the law of value states
that, the value of commodities in exchange is determined by, or is regulated
by, the socially necessary labour time required to produce them, other
things being equal (for example, no systematic unequal exchange etc.). Marx
explains how that regulation works in the context of generalised commodity
production. However what "value" are we talking about here, exactly ?
Already there, you have many disputes. And as I said, some Marxists believe
that the law of value applies only to fullfledged capitalism. I believe this
is wrong, and that you can neither explain the transition to capitalism nor
the transition to socialism that way. I have sometimes used the formula
"production of commodities by means of commodities" deliberately, to
indicate the difference between partial commodity production and generalised
commodity production,  because somebody like John Weeks denies that a
product produced for the market can be a commodity, unless all the inputs in
the production process are commoditised as well. This is just bunk to me.

As regards the transformation problem, I haven't made my mind up about it, I
keep changing my ideas about it. Basically, I think Shaikh and Farjoun &
Machover have made the best contributions to understanding it (it's been a
while since I studied this stuff). But, briefly, from the data I have seen
and from my understanding of the meaning of imperialism, I think that there
is no real effective equalisation of the rate of profit in the world economy
at any level anyhow, there is at most a tendency towards that. In general,
my opinion is that Marx presents a theoretical model of pure capitalism,
which must be modified in order to make sense of economic realities. So, for
example, in reality it is not true that total values = total prices. However
many Marxists want to apply Marx's theory to concrete reality in an
immediate way, and I think that is a mistake.

As regards productivism, I am not a productivist. That should be clear from
my anti-Stalinist stance which is on record. Why you impute this to me I
don't know.

Many communists regard all markets as "bad" and want to get rid of them, and
when they get rid of them, they establish a political dictatorship over
human needs. I think a more careful, wellconsidered economic approach is
appropriate, recognising that markets are useful to have in some places, and
not in others. And as I said, there are many different types of markets,
some more regulated than others. The general aim of socialism is to get
beyond markets, but that cannot be done straightaway, and meanwhile there
are a lot of economic problems to solve. One of the advantages of socialist
economy is that you can choose where to have markets and where not to have
markets, you can experiment with all sorts of property forms to see what
works best from the point of view of human needs.

Mark, I agree with many of your points, but you seem to me like an
incarnation of Lucio Colletti. Just have a look at what happened to Colletti
in the end. His 100 percent proof, 100 percent revolutionary value theory
was no help at all.

Your polemic illustrates perfectly the reason why I do not frequent Marxist
circles anymore, beyond doing a bit of correspondence and seeing the odd
friend sometimes. It is mostly unpleasant to be with those people, because
they become totally unreasonable and vile if you happen to question their
pet theory or political hobby horse.

Jurriaan




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