[OPE-L] Karl Marx on unequal exchange in the "Grundrisse"

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Mon Feb 06 2006 - 14:56:47 EST


If you think I am not being sufficiently clear, do say so!

>How exactly from your perspective would this _in the aggregate_ lead
to S-P inequalities?  (NB: this is a question, not a rejection of the

The concept of competition, dialectically considered, contains within itself
"the negation of competition as a means of competition", through blocking
competitors or disadvantaging them. Economic competition is not simply a
sport between equals on a level playing field, but a war between unequals in
which you try to tilt the playing field in your favour as much as possible.
If you have close to a monopoly over a resource, a market or an output, you
can raise prices well above value on a more or less permanent basis.
Inversely, a strong market position may enable you to force sales below
value, on a more or less permanent basis. In that case, profit can exceed
surplus value for a seller, or surplus value can exceed profit for a buyer.

>Well, if there is wasted labour or destroyed output this could
affect the magnitude of S.  Is there reason to think that the
magnitude of profits would change to a greater or lesser degree than the
change in S?

It could also affect the magnitude of profit. BTW I didn't talk about
"product dumping" (dumping prices) or criminal activity yet (cross-border
"dirty money" is said to be a trillion dollars a year globally; this may
involve a transfer of resource without exchanging for anything). You might
contract to produce something, but it is destroyed or not produced for some
reason, yet you still have a financial obligation. In the insurance world,
you strike this all the time. Someone makes a profit, although nothing is
produced, or although what was produced is destroyed, because of a
contractual obligation.

>Accounting tricks can't change the _actual_ amount of profit; they
can only change the accounting for profit.  Ditto tax rules -- and
the accounting that firms do to minimize their tax liability.

I disagree - accounting tricks and tax rules rarely alter the amount of
surplus value produced, but they can alter the magnitude of profit income
realised. Think of depreciation and inventory accounting for example, or,
what items you can and cannot capitalise on. Profit is basically revenues
less costs, but there are numerous techniques for overstating or
understating costs and revenues, depending on what is most advantageous at
the time, and this has real effects for the incomes realised. It may be a
work of science to extract and define the real economic relation, that
exists behind all the clever ways in which it is represented in accounts.

>The concept of a redistribution of surplus value is key to Marx's
understanding of the relation between landowners and capitalists and the
theory of rent, isn't that so?

Well, Marx's idea is that part of the gross revenues of industries is
captured by landowners as rent, and by banks as interest.
A product has a certain value, but how much of that value is realised in the
exchanges occurring between the point of production and the point of
consumption can vary. In modern times, the situation is more complex, both
because of the increased intermediation between producer and consumer, and
because corporations engage in trade internal to their own organisations. In
estimating the Marxian new value added, land rents and subsoil rents paid
out of current revenues of producing enterprises should be included, but in
official national accounts they are excluded from gross product.

>Right. I'm not sure where conservation "laws" entered Marxian
political economy (Sraffa?), but Marx didn't really have a theory
of the conservation of value.  Instead, he highlighted (especially in
_TSV_) the destruction of capital values.

Marx does argue explicitly that human labour conserves asset values - but he
argues this is often a service which the business gets "gratis" as "a free
gift", since repairs, conservation & maintenance is just part of the ongoing
labour-activities of employees. Human labour has, according to Marx, the
capacity to compare value, consume value, conserve value, transfer value and
create new value. I remember that when I lived in New Zealand, there was a
strike where pulp and paper workers forced a total closure of a mill for
several weeks. We got one of the union reps out to talk about the issue in a
public meeting and on radio. The mill owners complained that, because the
mill was shut down, its capital value deteriorated, quite apart from the
loss of production, orders, etc. If you think of the example of a "ghost
town", you can see what happens when all human labour is completely

>But Marx didn't claim that in reality total value equals total prices.
He assumed it in VI but he claimed in V3 that total value equals total
*prices of production*.  There is a huge difference since there are entire
sectors (e.g. where there are natural monopolies) that are excluded
from the transformation.  Indeed, one could claim that if total value
= total PoP then total value can _not_ = total prices!

Well I agree with that, but whether the identity concerns "market prices" or
"production prices" does not alter my argument one iota. The problem is to
understand, what it means to say that an aggregate product value is "equal"
or "identical" to an aggregate money-price (whether a real or an ideal
price), a question which our clever mathematicians rarely ask, because they
just assign a "number" to total value and a "number" to total price. Once
the numbers have been assigned, you can go ahead with constructing
equations. Obviously, if I assigned letters or hieroglyphs (or whatever) to
values, and numbers to prices (or vice versa), I couldn't construct any
meaningful equation between values and prices, both have to have a numerical
magnitude so that they are both quantities that can be compared. Presumably
what the equation value=price means, is that the aggregate money-price
accurately expresses the "real" aggregate product value, i.e. this amount of
money would exchange for, or buy, the "real" aggregate product value,
consistently valued. But exactly what valuation criteria, equivalence
principle, or terms of exchange, is being applied here? In social
accounting, you strike this problem all the time. Whatever else you might
say about it, the assumption in the value-price identity is one of AN

In Cap. Vol. 1, Marx aimed to show that in production, i.e. the "moment"
between between M-C and C'-M', an increase in value can occur, even if the
exchanges M-C and C'-M' are strictly equal exchanges, i.e. exchanges of
equivalents. The problem is, that the moment of production itself occurs
external to the marketplace, and does not constitute a transaction itself
(it occurs after M-C and before C'-M'), and the only observable economic
evidence available that value-accretion has occurred is that C' has a higher
value (or price) than C. As Frederick Engels states in "Herr Duehring's
Revolution in Science", the theoretical problem is to explain "how is it
possible constantly to sell dearer than one has bought, even on the
hypothesis that equal values are always exchanged for equal values?".
http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch19.htm Engels
also elaborates, that the added value "cannot come either from the buyer
buying the commodities under their value, or from the seller selling them
above their value. For in both cases the gains and the losses of each
individual cancel each other, as each individual is in turn buyer and
seller. Nor can it come from cheating, for though cheating can enrich one
person at the expense of another, it cannot increase the total sum possessed
by both, and therefore cannot augment the sum of the values in circulation."
In reality, however, equal exchange is the exception, and unequal exchange
to some degree or other is the norm, in a business environment that is
constantly changing and prone to market fluctuations - business indeed
scours the globe to buy as cheaply as possible (below value, if possible)
and sell as dear as possible (above value, if possible), even regardless of
what happens in production itself, yet also under the constraint that
everybody tries to do the same thing. It therefore appears as though new
value arises in exchange (value is added, through trading or through market
expansion), whereas in reality it is created in production.

Given  the constraint that everybody tries to do the same thing, what then
regulates supply-prices in an overall sense? It cannot generally be anything
other than the ruling cost-prices and the mass of surplus value newly
created, and the formed production-prices are just the synthesis of these
two factors, the phenomenal form of a combination of a mass of necessary
labour and a mass of surplus labour. Prof. Steedman complains that "Marx
acts as though the same good has a different price depending on whether it
is being bought or being sold", but that is not the case, because Marx
argues inputs are bought (M-C) to produce new, different outputs with them
for sale (C'-M'). So we're not talking about the same good, but different
goods. Prof. Steedman would be correct, if value-adding production of new
products did not exist. But isn't the input of one enterprise the output of
another? Certainly, but all that means is that value-price divergences can
occur at the point of acquisition of inputs as well, something which the
astute businessman tries to turn to his advantage. And, that aside, you have
an historic cost-price, a cost-price at the point of pricing an unsold new
output, and a cost-price after sales; you have also enterprise cost-prices
and average or ruling cost-prices in the market.

I use the term "generic profit" because profit income in the macro-economic
sense can be realised in the broad categories of ordinary profit, or
interest, rent, tax, royalties, capital gains and fees. Profit from
production is, as Marx says, only one of the modes of accumulation of
capital, but it is ultimately the only mode of accumulation that can
increase the total volume of profit, except for (1) privatisation (or, to
put it differently, "the integration of more resources and labour as private
property in markets") and (2) the extension of credit which allows us to
capitalise on the future today or shift the obligation to pay to someone

To cut a long story short, (1) Marx is only talking about "pure cases" and
"ideal averages", (2) aggregate financial data involves "stylised facts",
(3) mathematicians are likely to say "gimme some data, so I can do some
computations" whereas what is being counted also merits inquiry.


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