Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 25 February 2021



Thus far, we have disposed of the “objective” exegesis of Value in capitalism according to which Value is measured in terms of measurable “socially necessary labour time”, and of the “phenomenological” one for which Value is objectified by the fetishism of commodities which, despite being an “illusion and error”, is nevertheless rendered “objective” or “necessary” (whence the Lukacsian expression, “necessary illusion” in his essay “Reification and Class Consciousness”) by “the generalization of exchange value”, that is, simply by the inurement of workers and all social agents to the hypostatization of the commanded living labour embodied in commodities as labour power as a social hieroglyph – as “wealth” or more tangibly as “money”. The central contention of the phenomenologists is that by alienating living labour from means of production and from the labour process, and also by segmenting social labour into parcelized “individual labours”, capitalist industry is able to transmogrify concrete living labour into abstract labour power that can be sold by the worker and bought by the capitalist as any other commodity. This coerced abstraction of living labour can then become the essence and measure of Value.

The insuperable difficulty with this exegesis of Value is that no amount of coercion and no kind of “necessary illusion” (an oxymoron at best because no illusion can be necessary and no necessity can be illusory) will ever be able to trans-form, to meta-morphose itself into a calculable entity such as exchange value or Value in aggregate, no matter how “generalized” commodity exchange becomes. Similarly, Marx’s description of fetishism as “objective appearance” is oxymoronic because an appearance cannot stand for its object and the object cannot stand for its appearances.

Hanno ragione quegli interpreti, in primo luogo Isaak Rubin (Saggi sulla teoria del valore di Marx, Feltrinelli, Milano 1976) e poi Perlman, curatore della traduzione inglese dei saggi di Rubin, che risalgono agli anni venti (Il feticismo delle merci: Saggio su Marx e la critica dell’economia politica, Lampugnani Nigri, Milano 1972) che hanno indissolubilmente legato insieme teoria del feticismo e teoria del valore in Marx.

In this passage, taken from a very late work, Mario Tronti, to my mind one of the greatest interpreters of Marx, agrees with Rubin’s thesis that, contrary to what we have contended above, “the theory of fetishism and the theory of value in Marx are indissolubly linked”. To dispel this important argument further and to adduce more reasons to our own exegesis of the relation between value and social institutions, let us take a close look at this passage in the crucial chapter in Das Kapital on “The Fetishism of Commodities”:

To what extent some economists are misled by the Fetishism inherent in commodities, or by the objective appearance of the social characteristics of labour, is shown, amongst other ways, by the dull and tedious quarrel over the part played by Nature in the formation of exchange value. Since exchange value is a definite social manner of expressing the amount of labour bestowed upon an object, Nature has no more to do with it, than it has in fixing the course of exchange.  The mode of production in which the product takes the form of a commodity, or is produced directly for      exchange, is the most general and most embryonic form of bourgeois production. It therefore makes its appearance at an early date in history, though not in the same predominating and characteristic manner as now­a­days. (Capital, just after footnote [34])

We have explained already why an appearance cannot be objective and how objectivity cannot be apparent. The reason why Marx and so many Marxists after him have insisted on this oxymoronic phrase – just like Lukacs’s “necessary illusion” – is that they were trying to achieve the impossible, and that is, to prove that ideas can become objective social relations. Of course, all social relations, including those of production, have ideal sources because to the extent that they are “relations” between people they must be mediated by common meanings and understanding. But then, these meanings or symbols or “social hieroglyphs” must be supported by real institutions backed by the exercise of force and coercion to impose them on the rest of society, because otherwise they would quickly evaporate and lose all social validity, all “value”. Therefore, it is not the social hieroglyphs themselves - the illusions, the appearances - that acquire in and of and by themselves this social validity: the validity comes from the coercive power of the institutions that enforce the social hieroglyphs! Yet what Marx and many Marxists after him are seeking to prove is that the fetishism of commodities (the social hieroglyphs) can give rise to exchanges based on Value purely as the result of transactions between independent producers, that is, without the intervention of precise political institutions that enforce the validity of those social hieroglyphs! This is what we contend is clearly impossible. The only way in which exchange value – coerced living labour as abstract labour – can be measured is through a series of complex institutional arrangements that together constitute the society of capital. Here is Tronti trying to state the Marxist viewpoint:

Il capitalismo è questo rovesciamento tra persona e cosa. La cosa si personifica, la persona si cosifica. È stato un capolavoro la narrazione ideologica di questa come la società degli individui finalmente liberi. In realtà si erano liberate le merci e messi in servitù gli uomini. Il Moderno qui è stato assunto e sottomesso. Il movimento operaio ha tentato di rimettere il mondo sulle gambe degli uomini invece che sulla testa delle cose, come Marx aveva cercato di rimettere sui piedi la logica dell’idea di Hegel. Nel caso non fosse chiaro, avverto che sto dicendo questo: se Marx aveva ragione, allora il movimento operaio non aveva torto.

Tronti is saying that capitalism consists in personifying the “thing” (commodities) and “thingifying” or reifying the person (the worker). But this is what we contend is clearly impossible. However much capitalists may try to turn human living labour into a “thing”, they can never succeed, not even through the deepest mystification or social inurement, for the simple reason that the uniqueness of living labour as use value in the production of both use values and exchange values is evident to anyone who reflects on this reality for a single moment. The only way in which living labour can be turned into exchange value – into coerced living labour as abstract labour – so that it can be measured by means of exchange is through a series of complex institutional arrangements that together constitute the society of capital. It is nonsense to argue that living labour, which is not and cannot be homologated and homogenized in any manner whatsoever because it is living activity, becomes measurable and quantifiable by virtue of frequent and generalized exchange of commodities, of dead labour. This is simply false – because it is impossible in reality. And because it is impossible in reality, this homogenization and quantification of living labour cannot be turned into reality by sheer repetition, by “generalized exchange”. Yet this is precisely what Marx himself would have us believe!

Let us take a closer look at Marx’s contention in his own words:

There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-­enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.  This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.  As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things. It is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire, as values, one uniform social status, distinct from their varied forms of existence as objects of utility. 

What Marx insinuates here – for it is indeed a “sinuous” distorted thesis – is that once social labour is (forcefully? coercively? violently? Marx does not say) parcelized, broken down, dissected into individual labours so that the real sociality of human living labour is disguised by means of the exchange of the products of living labour as if they were the products of “private individuals”, then and only then can social labour appear as the aggregate of individual labours and therefore the products of living labour acquire individual exchange values or “prices” that are then in turn attributed to the “labour” of independent individual workers as if the living labour of these workers could actually be measured and quantified in terms of the general exchange of commodities. But note here the “as if”. It is emphatically not the case that social labour can in reality be parcelized into individual labours. The parcelization of social labour into individual labours that can be quantified by generalized exchange of commodities is only a “fiction”. And it remains a fiction at all times! No serious thinker can be fooled by this “fiction”! Nor could the fiction – the fetishism of commodities – be turned into reality by sheer repetition or “generalized” exchange of commodities! Once more: the only way in which a “fiction” can be turned into reality, an “appearance” into an object, and an illusion into necessity is always and everywhere by means of sheer violence and coercion, by institutional political means! To repeat: these institutional means are: (a) the expropriation of the proletariat (workers plus reserve army); (b) separation of workers from means of production; (c) proscription of workers’ collective bargaining; (d) capitalistic use of production process and employment and income policies to induce “competition” between workers and between employed and unemployed as well as “middle classes” (petty bourgeoisie). And so on.

Now we can see where Marx has gone wrong by re-reading critically his own statement of the case:

This division of a product into a useful thing and a value becomes practically important, only when exchange has acquired such an extension that useful articles are produced for the purpose of being exchanged, and their character as values has therefore to be taken into account, beforehand, during production. From this moment the labour of the individual producer acquires socially a twofold character. On the one hand, it must, as a definite useful kind of labour, satisfy a definite social want, and thus hold its place as part and parcel of the collective labour of all, as a branch of a social division of labour that has sprung up spontaneously. On the other hand, it can satisfy the manifold wants of the individual producer himself, only in so far as the mutual exchangeability of all kinds of useful private labour is an established social fact, and therefore the private useful labour of each producer ranks on an equality with that of all others. The equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator, viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract. 

What Marx has not explained to us is the all-important, essential question: exactly how does “the exchangeability of all kinds of useful private labour [Marx ought to say “private labours”, not “private labour”!]…[become] an established social fact”? Certainly not through sheer repetition, through sheer “generalized exchange”! Yet this is precisely what Marx would have us believe – that living labour as social labour is homogenized and abstracted as private individual labours through the frequent exchange of its products!

The twofold social character of the labour of the individual appears to him, when reflected in his brain, only under those forms which are impressed upon that labour in every­day practice by the exchange of products. In this way, the character that his own labour possesses of being socially useful takes the form of the condition, that the product must be not only useful, but useful for others, and the social character that his particular labour has of being the equal of all other particular kinds of labour, takes the form that all the physically different articles that are the products of labour. have one common quality, viz., that of having value.  Hence, when we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it.[28] Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our own social products; for to stamp an object of utility as a value, is just as much a social product as language. 

The contradiction in Marx’s reasoning is evident. For if indeed it is exchange by itself that leads us erroneously to equate discrete heterogeneous living labour as homogeneous abstract labour, then it is not clear how exchange, no matter how frequent, can ever transmute concrete living labour into abstract dead labour in reality! Put differently, it is impossible to see how mere exchange, no matter how frequent, can ever lead to the sufficient co-ordination of productive activities as social labour, given that exchange presupposes the prior co-ordination of private labours (social labour) and the co-ordination of private labours presupposes the prior existence of exchange! This is a classic vicious circle that is as rare in Marx as it is spectacularly fatal to his entire theory of value and of capitalism! All social labour involves “exchange” – but not necessarily the exchange of “exchange values”! What brings the exchange of commodities, of exchange values, into being is not the mere fact of trading the products of social labour: it is rather the forceful, coerced imposition of exchange on the basis of private property, on the basis of the private ownership of the product of social labour. This imposition is not the result of “generalised exchange of commodities” arrived at individually and independently by producers! Instead, it is the specific outcome of a specific form of social coercion and violence!

The recent scientific discovery, that the products of labour, so far as they are values, are but material expressions of the human labour spent in their production, marks, indeed, an epoch in the history of the development of the human race, but, by no means, dissipates the mist through which the social character of labour appears to us to be an objective character of the products themselves. The fact, that in the particular form of production with which we are dealing, viz., the production of commodities, the specific social character of private labour carried on independently, consists in the equality of every kind of that labour, by virtue of its being human labour, which character, therefore, assumes in the product the form of value – this fact appears to the producers, notwithstanding the discovery above referred to, to be just as real and final, as the fact, that, after the discovery by science of the component gases of air, the atmosphere itself remained unaltered.  What, first of all, practically concerns producers when they make an exchange, is the question, how much of some other product they get for their own? in what proportions the products are exchangeable? When these proportions have, by custom [!], attained a certain stability, they appear to result from the nature of the products, so that, for instance, one ton of iron and two ounces of gold appear as naturally to be of equal value as a pound of gold and a pound of iron in spite of their different physical and chemical qualities appear to be of equal weight. The character of having value, when once impressed upon products, obtains fixity only by reason of their acting and re­acting upon each other as quantities of value. These quantities vary continually, independently of the will, foresight and action of the producers. To them, their own social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them. 

Once again, mere exchange can appear to be co-ordinated only in those societies where exchange does not play a vital role in their reproduction. In those societies and only in those “pre-capitalistic economic formation”, exchange values may be fixed “by custom” and “attain a certain stability”. But it is of the essence in capitalism that private exchange, those mythical “impersonal market forces”, is in appearance at least central to its expanded reproduction! Yet it is absolutely and devastatingly obvious that appearance alone, no matter how “objective”, cannot form the material foundation for the reproduction of a complex society with extensive division of social labour! Marx wants it both ways: he wishes to affirm the impossibility of private production in that all production is really through social labour, and he wishes to insist on the necessity for capitalist production to be really the product of individual labours. But this is a blatant contradiction! Yet again, incredibly, Marx insists on this point – except that this time, quite surreptitiously, in order to evade this logical impasse, he introduces an underlying reality that subtends the “objective appearance” of exchange values – the solid, truly real, substantive reality of “socially necessary labour time”. Let us read these lines with the utmost care:

It requires a fully developed production of commodities before, from accumulated experience alone, the scientific conviction springs up, that all the different kinds of private labour, which are carried on independently of each other, and yet as spontaneously developed branches of the social division of labour [this should read, “the division of social labour”], are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires themAnd why? Because, in the midst of all the accidental and ever fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour time socially necessary for their production forcibly asserts itself like an over­riding law of Nature. The law of gravity thus asserts itself when a house falls about our ears.[29] The determination of the magnitude of value by labour time is therefore a secret, hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative values of commodities. 

Its discovery, while removing all appearance of mere accidentality from the determination of the magnitude of the values of products, yet in no way alters the mode in which that determination takes place.  Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him. The characters that stamp products as commodities, and whose establishment is a necessary preliminary to the circulation of commodities, have already acquired the stability of natural, self­understood forms of social life, before man seeks to decipher, not their historical character, for in his eyes they are immutable, but their meaning.  

Herein lies the difference between our thesis and Marx’s erroneous and contradictory position: we argue that generalized commodity exchange can come about only as the result of institutional, political coercion of violence by specific historical social agencies (“the State”), whereas Marx insists on their “spontaneous” historical emergence and evolution. This “spontaneity” is, of course, a result of Marx’s reliance on the inversion of Hegelian dialectical idealism into his own historical materialism whereby “human beings make their own history, but not as they would wish” (from “A Contribution”). Let us re-quote Marx from above:

whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it.

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