[OPE-L:2210] Re: Re: value-form theories: substance and pure form

From: Michael J Williams (michael@williamsmj.screaming.net)
Date: Tue Jan 18 2000 - 09:07:13 EST

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This is too long, and somewhat polemical, for which I apologise, with the
wish that it contribute to light rather than heat ... . I have used one of
Andrew B's messages as a pretext to raise various issues around substance
and form in the context of value form theory.

I am still not sure what Andrew B's argument is in favour of substance and
against pure form. What he says seems to reduce to acknowledging that both
require 'peculiar' ontological commitments, and that theories that eschew
reference to substance are 'unscientific', in the same kind of way that Hume
is unscientific.

Well, as an anti-naturalist I would be interested to know more about in what
this unscientificity consists, since depending on what the charge is, it may
not be of significance to social science.

The clues we get from Andrew B (I fully accept that, as we all must from
time to time, he is offering only a 'desperately brief' account), that seem
to spring directly from post-Bhaskar critical realism, are his references to
Hume. Now, imo, neither Hume's 'scepticism' (nor Kant's scepticism about
knowledge of the 'thing in itself') are as such anti-scientific. Each of
them merely points out that we cannot know certain things directly. Hume
then lays out detailed and complex procedures whereby we may establish the
robustness of empirical regularity sufficiently to allow us to reasonably
infer a causal relationship. (Kant, of course takes a different tack.)

It is not my intention to defend a Humean view of science, merely to say
that his position cannot without considerable distortion reasonably be
characterised as anti-science. As should be clear from my own work, I differ
from Hume not least in emphasising the priority of conception over
perception even in the barest, everyday 'observation' of the world, let
alone in the postulation of intrinsically unobservable objects, relations
and systems. It is this, along with the paradox of realism, that provides
the epistemological motivation for systematic dialectics and all that.

As to substance, I must say that I can find nothing comprehensible in Marx's
and Andrew B's references to some substance that congeals etc. It sounds
very much like Cartesian wax. Andrew B seems to recognise this in his
frantic back-pedalling: this mysterious substance is 'congealed' although it
has no existence in an uncongealed (viscous) form! Why use the word
'congealed' then? I can see no analogy with abstract labour, that is a
moment of specific labour that emerges only in the real abstraction in the
market system from the specific characteristics of different specific
labours. It would seem that we can only save Andrew B's coherence by
dropping 'congealed' in favour of 'constituted': what exists is specific
labours, that are in a value-form determined system of exchanges via money,
constituted as abstract labour. Here it seems to me dodgy metaphor is
replaced by literal proposition.

Nor do I see any causal relation between abstract labour and value. Embodied
labour theories (including those that bandy around the phrase 'abstract
labour' without taking it seriously) seem to be quite unclear whether
abstract labour is (the substance of) value, or whether it is somehow the
cause of value. It cannot, imo, be both. That abstract labour is the source
of new value cannot, imo, be unpacked as a causal relation. As many would-be
critics of value form theory have pointed out, this would lock one into
circularity. The causal work is done rather by the systemic enforcement of
labour time beyond that required to reproduce the worker - this surplus
labour appears under capitalism as surplus value, measured in money terms.
Put microeconomically, the systemic imperative upon a capitalist is to not
buy labour power unless they expect the labour they can realise from it to
contribute more to the value (expressed in Money) of the output than it
costs (in Money) to buy that labour power and extract labour from it.

Approaching it from another angle, Value neither is nor has a substantial
content. Value is rather a predicate. A social system predicates and
re-predicates a value 'to' commodities. Goods and services are not value,
rather they have a (n exchange) value and so are Commodities. The social
object nearest to actually *being value* as can exist is Money, the sole
autonomous manifestation of value. In this sense it is (almost) pure value
form; contentless form; a predicate without a substantial subject. It is
this tendential escape of the value-form from any link with use-value
(itself already a systemically alienated form of existence of human
usefulness) that constitutes the void at the centre of capitalism. Of course
it is absurd to have the allocation of human creative work regulated by a
near contentless form. But it is the actually existing systemic absurdity of
capitalism, not the absurdity of a mistaken conceptualisation.

What happens then when value is expanded in a capitalist labour process is
that the activity of labouring - that substantially alters and combines the
inputs to create a different good or service than any of them - is not that
some more of an identifiable pre-existing substance - abstract labour - is
added, but just the creation of an object that is, social-systemically, more
highly valued. That extra value is then attributed to the labour expended,
constituting it as a certain quantity of socially necessary abstract labour.
The relationship between the actual hours of specific labour expended and
the value-added is expressed as the inverse of the money expression of
labour time, and depends in each specific labour process on the intensity of
labour and the productivity of labour as well as the relative social/market
valuation of its output.

This is all presented here in a polemical, everyday style that neglects the
proper careful systematic hierarchical presentation attempted, no doubt
still imperfectly, in Value-form and the State. The point for now is to show
that in contrast to the implausible metaphor of a congealing substance, that
seems not to be able to distance itself at all from this figurative form of
expression, there is a plausible, if complex, intuitive 'story' attached to
the notion of the Value-form as the contentless void at the heart of

Andrew B (if and when he can find the time) would help me understand his
position if he could indicate what is the real object referred to
metaphorically by terms such as 'congealed', 'ghostly', etc.. I suspect that
abstract labour has no autonomous existence except as a moment of actual
specific labour. Just as value has no existence except as an attribute of a
commodity, or autonomously but systemically determined, as Money. In which
case, the 'congealing' metaphor is radically misleading in suggesting
(despite Andrew's attempt to distance himself from this Elsonian deviation)
a pre-existing viscous substance that flows into a labour process and there
embodies itself into the output. But the 'substance' of a labour process is
not in itself abstract labour, but specific labours that are themselves not
a substance, but activity of specific kinds.

Another set of questions would concern the (critical realist?) notion of
identical 'powers' proving identical substances. What identical powers do
different blobs of abstract labour have that entitle one to infer that they
are identical substances ('of identical substance'?)? Especially since, for
Andrew B., there are no such blobs except as 'congealed' into the value of a

(I have other more general problems with the notion of powers implying
substance. On the one hand it seems an uncontroversial truism: one way of
coming to know unobservable explanatory objects is indeed by their effects.
But on the other hand, it is well known that this is always a speculative
process, since any number of unobservables can usually be postulated as the
generators of any set of effects. But it is perhaps appropriate here to
stick to one specific postulated unobservable object, abstract labour.)

Andrew refers to a 'Humean' scepticism about essences. Well, the value-form
take on that is to focus on the notion of interconnected system, rather than
the archaeological metaphor beloved both of traditional Marxism and
contemporary critical realism that views science as a kind of digging below
the surface to find the sub-structural essence. imo, Marx undermined his own
use of this kind of metaphor by repeatedly pointing out that no matter how
you deconstructed or dug into a commodity, you would find no trace of value.
This negation of his own metaphor is reinforced by the fact that he started
Capital with a micro-level examination of exchanges as the constituents not
of some molecular/atomic substructure but of a system of interconnections.
The unoberveables of political economy are not objects analogous to a
molecular/atomic/sub-atomic sub-structure but are the relations between
actual observable objects and the system(s) constituted by them. To stick to
an archaeological metaphor for discussing value seems to me to lead
inevitably to a labour-embodied dualist perspective in which the underlying
substructure of value determines (albeit discontinuously via disjuncture)
the surface structure of prices and price variables.

It is worth pointing out that the emergence of system as the 'essence' is
posited as a peculiarity of capitalism that is in just that sense to be
grasped as form determined. It is in its form-determination that the larger
irrationality of capitalism reveals itself. Andrew B claims that not to
recognise the substantiality of abstract labour is to succumb to fetishism.
Well, on the one hand adherents to the related notion of the necessary
commodity underpinning of Money have strangely themselves been charged with
fetishism. But more pertinently, the fetishistic obsessions of capitalist
subjects have a real basis in the fact of the dominance of (value)form over
content in the capitalist mechanisms of resource (ultimately labour)
allocation. Commodity (and value) fetishism is not just in the eye of the
beholder, but is a moment of the system. We reveal that fetishism by
exposing the absurdity of valorisation and accumulation tendentially
detached from real social needs and wants; not by denying its existence.
Money makes the (capitalist) world go round and is indeed there the root of
all evil!

This has gotten much too long, and will no doubt have alienated other
value--form theorists let alone critics by its over-simplifications. Perhaps
some necessary sophistication and rectification will emerge in discussion.

Dr Michael Williams
Economics and Social Sciences
De Montfort University
Milton Keynes
fax: 0870 133 1147
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----- Original Message -----
From: Andrew Brown <A.N.Brown@uel.ac.uk>
To: <ope-l@galaxy.csuchico.edu>
Sent: Friday, January 14, 2000 4:48 PM
Subject: [OPE-L:2153] Re: value-form theories

> Desparately brief response to Chris and Fred:
> I wrote:
> > >When replying to Fred you argued that the fact that money is
> > >the 'form' of value would indicate that value is itself a
> > >substance. Not so, I argue. Rather, the fact that the substance
> > >of value is abstract labour (so 'ghostly') means that value
> > >requires an appearance form, which turns out to be money.
> > >Value must express itself in its own opposite, viz., use value.
> > >
> Chris responded:
> > 2. But if value is the appearance of AL then it should already be
> present
> > like your ice. Why is there an extra step? Why have we got to relate
> 3
> > things?
> Chris,
> Here you have merely pointed out an aspect of the disanalogy
> between the notion of natural substance (as illustrated by the example
> of H2O) and the notion of the substance of value (abstract labour). In
> my original exlplication of value and substance I tried to made this
> aspect clear (my subsequent reply added another aspect of
> disanalogy). To summarise, the substance of value is abstract labour.
> This is a peculiar and social substance in that: (1) it is ghostly, so
> requires an appearance form - that is to say congealed abstract labour
> (=value) must appear in its own opposite which is use value; (2) it
> (abstract labour) does not exist in its fluid state except as an aspect of
> concrete labour (I differ from Elson and many others on this point).
> Thus, as far as I can tell, the major criticisms that you have tried to
> on the notion of substance of value do not apply. You are left with,
> not some major flaw or contradiction, but merely a question as to why
> the 'extra step' (that of incorporating 'congealed abstract labour') is
> required.
> Let me answer that question. In brief, the notion of substance emerges
> from the view that, if things have identical powers, then they have an
> identical essence (ie the same substance). I argue that, if this view
> (which relates back to the discussion of measurement on this list) is
> not incorporated by a philosophy then that philosophy immediately
> collapses to Humean scepticism. (Hume's denial of the possibility of
> knowing real essences being the key to his philosophy, imo). On this
> view, Marx is absolutely right to move so swiftly from equivalence in
> exchange to the notion of peculiar and social substance since such a
> move, from equivalence to substance, is the presumption of science
> (of rationality itself) on pain of Humean scepticism. [Meikle's Aristotle
> might have a similar view on this point? - though to refute Hume it
> would be necessary to tackle Hume's point on real essences, rather
> than merely giving pragmatic arguments].
> Re labour and 'what every child knows': yes, at the stage of
> introduction of abstract labour, price *magnitude* has only very wide
> limits. Only once we reach capital does abstract labour impose itself.
> But this is no reason not to recognise abstract labour as the substance
> of value; as you agree, to miss such recognition is to succomb to
> fetishism.
> Re 'pure transcendental form': I was struck by Nicola's point about
> the dangers of talking past one another. I must confess that I find it
> extremely difficult to fully grasp a systematic dialectical view that
> doesn't hold value to be congealed abstract labour. I oscillilate
> between thinking you (Chris) are close to my view and thinking you
> aren't. This substance business is the problem. For me, the heart of
> the differences lies in the point regarding Hume, above. So, I wonder
> what you, and others, make of that point (presumably, not alot, given
> the ridiculous brevity).
> ----
> Fred,
> Amazing that you agree on the point that philosphical and economic
> necessity might be compatible (with the latter 'confirming' the former,
> to speak crudely) - have you seen such a view elaborated upon in any
> published article or book? From your comments, and your paper
> criticising value form theory (which I highly recommend), the main
> point I would first raise concerns your notion of Marx as a realist with
> the associated criteria of 'explanatory power' and the rest (as in Derek
> Sayer's book on Marx's method). The trouble here is apparent from
> Murray's critique of Sayer which I have referred to previously. This
> underlies Murray's mild critique of an article of your's in his 'redoubled
> empiricism' chapter. There is lots to say on this, but, for now, I merely
> suggest that 'explanatory power' is not, on its own, anywhere near
> sufficient to differentiate opposing theories - I seem to remember
> Chris made a similar point. (Murray himself demonstrates conclusively
> that Sayer's specific attempt to pin down Marx as employing only
> such 'realist' criteria is circular). This point may be lurking behind the
> discussion of the 'separate' existence of abstract labour and price.
> Very sorry for brevity and sloth. Many thanks to all. (Especially
> excited that Michael and Geert have joined the discussion! - very glad
> to meet you Geert).
> Andy.

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