Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Anti-DeLong: Volume 3

DeLong explains the "intellectual origins" of Marx's errors:
Marx's beginnings in German philosophy, and the fact that he hooked up in the 1840s with Friedrich Engels whose family owned textile factories in Manchester. German philosophy, or perhaps rather Hegel.
Oh, goody. An economist riding the Hegel hobbyhorse. This should be fun.

DeLong produces a long quotation from Chapter 1, section 4 of Capital, on the fetishism of the commodity. He proclaims that he doesn't understand it at all. Then he conflates his own lack of understanding with lack of intelligibility, and attributes it all to Marx coquetting with the modes of expression peculiar to Hegel. Uh, no. Marx does use some Hegelian terminology in Chapter 1, but most of it is earlier, prior to section 4. I don't see a single Hegelism in the quotation DeLong proffers. But ignorance is not the limit of DeLong's special powers of not understanding. To wit:
To say that "the value relation[s] between the products of labour ... have absolutely no connection with their physical properties" is simply wrong: if the coffee beans are rotten--or if their caffeine level is low--they have no value at all, for nobody will buy them.
Marx does not deny this--he says explicitly and repeatedly that commodities must be use-values in order to bear exchange-value. But he denies that the use-value has any real connection with the exchange value, in the sense of determining it. We'll come back to this.
Nobody I talk to believes that "values" are objective quantities inherent in goods by virtue of the time it took to produce them.
Brilliant methodology. First of all, the whole point of Marx's discussion of fetishism is to say that when we exchange goods in the market we don't think to ourselves, "I'm exchanging a quantity of socially average labour for an equivalent quantity of socially average labour." As Marx puts it:
Men do not [...] bring the products of their labour into relation with one another as values because they see these objects merely as the material integuments of homogeneous human labour. The reverse is true; by equating their various products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour. They do this without being aware of it. (Capital, Fowkes translation, pp. 166-7)
In other words, Marx doesn't think that values are objective quantities inherent in goods, nor does such a belief constitute the fetishism of commodities. And he says as much repeatedly. Rather the reverse. Values appear to be subjective, to be based on our individual, idiosyncratic preferences. In fact, according to Marx, they are outcomes of the social production process, which goes on behind our backs, as he puts it repeatedly. Back to DeLong:
If the combination of my wealth and its usefulness to me makes me value it the most, then I use it--it is to me what Marx calls a use value.
Use-value in Marx means the concrete functionality of a thing--what it does, in a very Aristotelian sense. There is a persistent tendency in economic discussions of Marx to identify his "use-value" with "utility" when in fact the two are radically divergent. Use-value is function, while utility is, depending on who you're reading, pleasure or preference. DeLong seems to avoid this particular error, at least here, which is admirable. But this does not put this passage beyond criticism, since he seems to imply that I regard a particular thing as a use-value only because I do not regard it as an exchange-value. But use-value is the primitive condition, not the derived condition. Moreover, he drives this home by saying that a thing is a use-value to me only if I value it the most. This is simply not true, both according to Marx and according to, I think, any fair minded consideration of affairs. I might relate to something as to a use-value even if I don't particularly want to use it. The only consideration here is that I treat the thing as a concrete particular, and not as an equivalent to a bunch of other things. The market is not the primary human horizon. Things are useful before (ontologically speaking) they are exchangeable. Indeed, DeLong seems to recognize this in the very next sentence:
But what Marx calls exchange values are really use values to others:
Exchange-values are really use-values to others. Of course DeLong thinks he's criticizing Marx here, when Marx says the same thing. For example, at the beginning of Chapter 2, Marx writes:
For the [commodity] owner, his commodity possesses no direct use-value. Otherwise he would not bring it to market. It has use value for others. (Fowkes trans., p. 179)
DeLong detects here a toehold for The Economists' Criticism of Marx (TM):
Things have value not because of the abstraction that socially-necessary labor time is needed to produce them but because of the concretion that somebody somewhere wants to use it and has something else that others find useful to trade in turn.
DeLong thinks that the latter condition is more concrete than the former, and that they are mutually exclusive. I think he's wrong on both counts.

That somebody somewhere has a use for what I sell is abstract in two senses. First, this "somebody somewhere" is both general and futural. The items on the shelves in the grocery store don't lose their value simply because no customer is currently in the act of buying them. Value refers, in DeLong's story as much as in Marx's, to an expectation grounded in a social division of labour, an expectation about what "people" want, need, etc. Second, the exchange of some goods for other goods posits the equivalence of the goods in question, an equivalence that abstracts from the particular functions of those goods. A sandwich is for eating (this is its use-value). A book is for reading. You cannot eat a book or read a sandwich. Hence, when we say that a book and a sandwich are equivalent as values (they each cost $4.95), we are grounding value in an abstraction, whether we consider this abstraction to be "utility" (Hegel's "need in general") or socially necessary labour-time.

Moreover, there is an equivocation in DeLong's use of "because." As I mentioned above, Marx does not deny that commodities must be use-values; on the contrary, he insists that every commodity must be a use-value, and that every commodity proves that it is a use-value, and that the labour that made it was useful labour, by being exchanged. But being a use-value does not explain why something has value, or why it has as much value as it does. As Hegel says, "man, as a consumer, is chiefly concerned with human products, and it is human effort that he consumes" (Philosophy of Right, s. 196). Or, if you prefer Smith's phrase, through commerce, we all come to rely upon "the assistance and co-operation of many thousands" (Wealth of Nations, I.1). Commodities have value, from this perspective, because the represent a certain amount of effort, effort conditioned, again, by the social division of labour and the development of the means of production. Recognizing that value is conditioned by need does not prohibit recognizing that value is also conditioned by socialized labour.

But this has been the realm of honest discussion, which we must now depart for the realm of hackery. Delong continues:
The distinction between use-value and exchange-value is not something invented by or peculiar to the capitalist mode of production: it is found in all human societies, no matter how large or small, no matter what the glue that holds them together.
Marx doesn't say that the distinction between use-value and exchange-value is peculiar to capitalist society, and you cannot have paid the slightest attention to Capital and come away with this opinion. He says right away on the first page of Chapter 1 that this distinction is definitive of commodities. Commodities existed before capitalist production--I should hope that DeLong recognizes this--and so did the distinction, therefore. However, that does not mean the distinction exists "in all human societies" indiscriminately. It exists only where commodity exchange of some sort goes on. As Marx writes in Chapter 2 of Capital:
Objects in themselves are external to man, and consequently alienable by him. In order that this alienation may be reciprocal, it is only necessary for men, by a tacit understanding, to treat each other as private owners of those alienable objects, and by implication as independent individuals. But such a state of reciprocal independence has no existence in a primitive society based on property in common, whether such a society takes the form of a patriarchal family, an ancient Indian community, or a Peruvian Inca State. The exchange of commodities, therefore, first begins on the boundaries of such communities, at their points of contact with other similar communities, or with members of the latter. So soon, however, as products once become commodities in the external relations of a community, they also, by reaction, become so in its internal intercourse. The proportions in which they are exchangeable are at first quite a matter of chance. What makes them exchangeable is the mutual desire of their owners to alienate them. Meantime the need for foreign objects of utility gradually establishes itself. The constant repetition of exchange makes it a normal social act. In the course of time, therefore, some portion at least of the products of labour must be produced with a special view to exchange. From that moment the distinction becomes firmly established between the usefulness of an object for direct consumption, and its usefulness in exchange. Its use-value becomes distinguished from its exchange-value. (translation slightly modified; my emphasis)
Then, from the misty-reaches of anthropological generalities, DeLong ricochets to the concerns of a contemporary academic economist:
...the labor theory of value [...] is simply not a very good model of the averages around which prices fluctuate. Socially-necessary labor power usually serves as an upper bound to value--if something sells for more, then a lot of people are going to start making more of them, and the prices at which it trades are going to fall. But lots of things sell for much less than the prices corresponding to their socially-necessary labor power lots of the time.
He's not even trying anymore. Marx says the magnitude of value is determined by socially necessary labour-time, not labour-power. Labour-power is a commodity, and hence has a value, and therefore cannot be the determiner of value, since what would explain its own value?

Finally, we come to the punch-line:
This matters because one conclusion Marx reaches is that markets and their prices are a source of oppression--that they aren't sources of opportunity (to trade your stuff or the stuff you make to people who value it more) but rather of domination by others and unfreedom: the system forces you to sell your labor-power for its value which is less than the value of the goods you make. And it is that conclusion that human freedom is totally incompatible with wage-labor or market exchange that leads the political movements that Marx founded down very strange and very destructive roads.
There's a funny conflation of "markets" and "wage labour" going on here, which is telling. Marx is not so much concerned with markets in general as he is with the market in labour-power. Capitalist production--and hence a society of generalized market relations--doesn't get off the ground (or stay in the air), according to Marx, unless there are a whole lot of people who don't have any "stuff" to sell, and so have to sell their labour-power. Their ability to do so on the labour market is most certainly a "source of opportunity" not to starve to death--Marx does not deny this--by selling their labour-power to those who "value it more" in the precise sense that they have a use for labour-power (since they own the means of production) that its bearers do not (since, not owning the means of production, their labour-power is useless to them).

DeLong has quite simply missed Marx's entire argument. And as convenient as it might be for him to blame this on Hegel, I think he amply betrays a real unwillingness "look at the thinker, Karl Marx, and what he actually wrote and thought."


brad said...

You did not read, did you?

The cattle that Hrothgar slaughters to feed his thanes in Heorot are not commodities. Nor are the acts of homage and service that his thanes perform for him. Nevertheless, the cattle's value to Hrothgar lies in what marx would call their exchange value.

Will Roberts said...

I'm glad you brought up this passage. I didn't talk about it in the original post--in part because it is often hard to argue about imaginary scenarios, since it's easy to see in them whatever you want to see in them--but I think it highlights some of the issues I raised. it may help clarify an important point, also.

Essential to Marx's notion of "exchange-value" is equivalency. This Hrothgar passage either presupposes this equivalency, in which case the first two sentences are wrong, or it does not presuppose this equivalency, in which case the last sentence is wrong.

If "acts of homage and service" were exchange-values for the cattle then they wouldn't be acts of homage and service in the relevant way. If the thanes treated their service as an exchange-value, it would be equivalent to the cattle provided. If it were an equivalent, then it would not be homage. There is no special honor in receiving the equivalent of what you have given. People who exchange equivalents do not, insofar as they do so, treat one another as lord and thane. If the cattle's value for Hrothgar lies in their equivalency to the services rendered by the thanes in return, then the thanes are mercenaries, not thanes, and we really are dealing with a commodity exchange, despite the pretense of honor and service.

On the other hand, if the passage is not meant to imply this equivalency, then it seems that the last sentence equates "exchange-value" with "use value for another." This is simply not what Marx means by exchange-value. Having a use-value for another is necessary but not a sufficient condition for having exchange-value.

In either case, it seems to me that what is at stake is the ability to distinguish between different social relationships. What is the difference between a personal relationship of the lord-servant variety and a relationship of exchange? Marx has an answer. It's not clear that post-Jevons economics does.