The social form of value and measure

Erik Empson

Negri: "The limit of Marx’s consideration consists in his reducing the form of value to an objective measure." (Thesis 2)

Rubin, like Negri, argues that Marx is concerned primarily with the social form of value. Even the most developed forms of classical political economy had faltered by fixing the social form of the commodity immutably. Zeleny makes this point of Ricardo, the latter took the commodity form as eternal, and hence tried to resolve why the practical processes threw up contradictions within this form. Marx was in a number of places to point out that the great merit of political economy was to have, in wading through the swamp of empirical first order reflections, stumbled upon abstract and general relations of labour, value and money and so on, on which it constructed the edifice of the science of political economy. (e.g. cf: 1857 introduction....). The way it arrived at these considerations however became its limitation, as demonstrated for instance by Ricardo’s confusion of value and cost-price, (treated in Theories of Surplus Value, Vol 3).

The a-historical character of the scientific exposition of Das Kapital, is testimony to the debt owed by Marx to the conclusions of his pre-cursors. Matteo following Negri sees this science as an incumberence or limited in regard to the real developments. The "simplifying assumptions" of the science - what Henryk Grossman was to unfairly hypostatise as the very basis of Marx's method - mainly found in Volume 1, perform a disservice to the posited content of Das Kapital, that is the appreciation of capitalist system as the total synthesis of both production and circulation, the conclusion aimed at in the incomplete Volume 3. Althusser is a friend of this point of view, infamously recommending in an introduction to a French edition that readers of Kapital ignore the first section of the work.

In so far as the abstract starting point of Kapital has led to so many confusions; take for instance the idea of 'simple commodity production' as both historical and logical premise of capital - these views are justified. But as for the immeasurability of value, they also introduce a confusion and a misrepresentation. Marx as Rubin argues, was concerned not so much to:

"seek a practical standard of value which would make possible the equalization of the products of labor on the market. This equalization takes place in reality every day of the process of market exchange. In this process, spontaneously, a standard of value is worked out, namely money, which is indispensable for this equalization." (Rubin p. 125)

What follows in Rubin's argument is pertinent to Negri's criticism of Marx. Negri looks at Marx's project through the distorted lens of Marxism, wherein overridingly Marx's theory of value is understood as positing that labour time is the practical means of the measure of value. Rubin on the other hand understands that because Marx was concerned with the social form of value, that his emphasis was really on demonstrating that labour power is the substance of value. The argument is theoretical, or ontological: the point is not a practical standard of value of labour, but to demonstrate how 'in a commodity economy the equalization of labor is carried out through the equalization of the products of labour".

Rubin introduces material from Theories of Surplus Value, a text which incidentally qualifies for treatment by the standards of aleatory materialism due to the absence of a strict phenomenological and dialectical schema of exposition, where Marx treats the theory of value, not as an external pre-established criterion of measure, but as the "Immanent standard" and "substance" of value.

What Rubin introduces us to here, is a possible misinterpretation of 'measure' as being a quantitative consideration, a simple matter of addition and calculation. However, in the Hegelian dialectic, measure is understood rather as "qualitative quantum". In 'measure' Hegel finds an immediate identity between quantity and quality. Something 'lurks behind' quantitative changes, which makes measure an antinomy. The example Hegel uses in the shorter logic, is the ancient Greek problem of whether the addition of a single grain makes a heap of wheat - at what point does a quantitative change equal a qualitative change. There is for Hegel a necessary qualitative aspect of measure, we might say it has an ontological relevance. In ratios, which are relative kinds of measure (quantitative ratio), "quantity seemed an external character not identical with Being, to which it is quite immaterial". The contradiction of quantity then, is that it is an "alterable, which in spite of alterations still remains the same". The resolution of this contradiction is not just a return to quality, "as if that were the true and quantity the false notion", but "an advance to the unity and truth of both, to qualitative quantity, or measure." (cf Hegel encyclopedia Logic $105 -$111 - (end of the first subdivision of logic). Hence though this unity produces the immeasurable, this is a relative form and "measureless" is also a measure. And then the gem: "Measure is implicitly essence."

If we assume for the moment that Rubin is right in thinking that Marx's notion of labour time as the measure of value is informed by Hegel (the dialectics of quantity and quality are certainly central to Marx, but by no means uniquely Hegelian), then a different way of perceiving the first stages of Das Kapital is opened up. That is, measure serves as the basis of registering the qualitative aspects of the value form, of identifying it in substance, not practically as a quantum to be measured, but theoretically to establish its ground. Of course the post-modern skepticism of measure goes deeper than this, and as a metaphysician Hegel stands charged with the absolute confidence in the measurable, from the facts of nature, fossils, rivers and chemistry to the practical social world of politics - which incidentally, become more less and less indefinite the further removed they are from inorganic nature.

In this sense, H&N are right to dismiss the measurable as a practical standard through which to estimate the value of commodities, but wrong in so far as they believe measure must be dispensed with, in order to prove the ontological nature of labour and its results. Yet what makes this process fascinating is how prescient the Hegelian reading of Marx was in a case like Rubin’s. For it is exactly the nature of social labour in commodity exchange that Rubin was arguing for.

It is EXCHANGE, not the technical nature of the labour process, nor the mind of the scientist that makes the reduction to simple labour. The science of political economy, makes this assumption, because it takes market society as the established premise of labouring activity - what else could Negri mean when he argues that social networks are prior to capital. It is as Sohn- Rethel would describe it; a real abstraction.

"The unified act of equalizing commodities as values puts aside and cancels the properties of labor as private, concrete, qualified and individual. All these aspects are so closely interrelated that in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx still did not give a clear enough distinction between them, and he erased the boundaries between abstract, simple, and socially-necessary labor (Critique, pp. 24-26). On the other hand, in Kapital these definitions are developed by Marx with such clarity and rigor that the attention of the reader must grasp the close relation between them as expressions of different aspects of the equalization of labor in the process of its distribution. This process presupposes: 1) interconnection among all labor processes (social labor); 2) equalization of individual spheres of production or spheres of labor (abstract labor); 3) equalization of forms of labor with different qualifications (simple labor) and 4) equalization of labor applied in individual enterprises within a given sphere of production (socially-necessary labor).

Among the four definitions of value-creating labor (mentioned above), the concept of abstract labor is central. This is explained by the fact that in a commodity economy, as we will show below, labor becomes social only in the form of abstract labor. Furthermore, the transformation of qualified labor to simple labor is only one part of a larger process of transformation of concrete labor into abstract. Finally, the transformation of individual into socially necessary labor is only the quantitative side of the same process of transforming concrete labor into abstract labor. Precisely because of this, the concept of abstract labor is a central concept in Marx's theory of value." (Rubin pp 128)

What these points address is that the assumptions of simple labour and incidentally of labour being sold at its value, are not permissible because of method (as in Grossman) but because of the content which they are the working conceptualizations of. The reduction to simple labour is possible because the market makes labour commensurable.

This has come across as quite hostile to H&N, this is not my intention. Partly because they in their way, restate the importance of abstract labour, but they do so in my opinion, in a rather confusing way. For H&N it is the growing complexity and differentiation of work; the technical nature of the labour process, immaterial ideational and fragmented as it is, alongside the separation (abstract in this social sense) from the total product, that renders it immeasurable. On one side, the restatement of production in contrast to the relative independence given to consumption in some postmodern theories, re-positions us to look at the nature of labour in the full ontological weight given to it by Rubin and similarly Lukacs etc. Arguably however it subverts the latter by changing the problematic.

For Rubin, what political economy needed to explain was how 'private' labours or the products of those labours could be exchanged. Thus 'universal labour' or 'abstract labour' was restated as central, because it enabled us to look past the world of commodities and the differentiated concrete private, and individual labours that produced them, to the deeper structures that actually represented the premises of that world of commodities. 

"Value presupposes use value. The process of the formation of value presupposes the process of producing use values. Abstract labor presupposes a totality of different kinds of concrete labor applied in different branches of production. Socially necessary labor presupposes a different productivity of labor in various enterprises of the same branch." (p. 40)

Arguably one of the things that changes in Negri's conception is that "private" labour is no longer an adequate first term of the problem. The sociality of activity, the priority of the social, is more clearly the premise of our activity, i.e. our activity presupposes the whole activity of social networks of reproduction, and the new immaterial form of labour. The problem is no longer the alienation of the direct producer of value. We could, to play with the Hegelian mutual transformations of quantity and quality, say that the socialization of labour, has created a new qualitative dimension, posited a change in the essence of accumulation. Their question is really; how does the full interiorisation of labour under capital, total subsumption, redefine the operative dimensions of the law of value? For them "The first and fundamental consequence is that there is no possibility of anchoring a theory of measure on something extraneous to the universality of exchange" (2nd thesis on Marx). Well quite so, but that is - as we have shown - exactly Marx’s point in the definition of the ‘immanent standard’.

The second consequence is of course that the immeasurability of value – or labour - does not deny that the substance of value is labour. To make what point? That the "abstract is more true than the concrete". Well yes, but this is pretty much explicit in Rubin too. Wherein lies the nub of their difference with Marx (and Rubin)?

It seems to lie in the new technical character of variable capital, and the instruments of production. It represents a return to the notion that the technical development of the forces of production lead to new relations of production. But more than that it (thesis 2)leads to the direct identity between the forces and relations of production. This is the nub of the disagreement with other similar emphasis of the social form of value, like Rubin’s. Rubin believes in the analytical separation of the mode of production, the treatment of the technical conditions of production and the relations of production as independent spheres (anathema to Hindess and Hirst). The new mode of production considered by Negri, with communication and mobility as its essence, deconstructs and articulates subjectivity in the same breath. The domination of the law of value, is in the same breath, its deconstruction, because value is only ever an effect of the enactment of creative productive energy (the immanent basis of communism). There is no political moment in this venture, because the process is political from start to finish:

"In the orthodox Marxism of the 19th century, and in any case before 1968, the functions of destruction and reconstruction were separated from the act of insurrection. The immediate strategy of struggle had to articulate destabilization and destructuration, moments of a war of movement and a war of position." (Thesis 7)

The law of value then is a political form. The form of value, the determinate character given to the combination of productive forces and relations between producers. But in Marx’s arguments, say with Ricardo and Bailey (which concern the relation between cost-price and value), the argument has a political basis too. The insistence on the immanent standard of measure is political too, against detractors that insisted upon some other criteria on which not only to measure value, but to argue for the cause of value. Marx’s insistence on the measure of value, is to restate the point, not because he, like Negri understands, wanted to reduce the form of value to objective measure, but because the only basis on which to show the absolute substance of value (labour power as the substance of all value)was by undermining the notion that value somehow existed in the mind of the exchangers, or inhered in the products (as use-values) themselves. Rather than reducing the form of value to objective measure then, Marx shows that the objectivity of the market equalization of products of labour is the material basis of the form of value. In Marx, as with Hegel, measure is a matter of quality. The new mode of production does not subvert this form, rather the increased abstraction of labour and communication as the new mode of commensurability, reinforces the peculiar features of capitalist commodity exchange economies and the basis therein for communism, the profound equalization that results from increased complexity and diversification.

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