Thursday, February 21, 2013

Old Age Marxism

The following is a response to Paul Cockshott's review of Michael Heinrich's Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital, New Age Marxism. Read Cockshott's review first.


Cockshott begins his review by criticising Marx's and Heinrich's biological metaphor:
The anatomy of man is a key to the anatomy of the ape. On the other hand, indications of higher forms in the lower species of animals can only be understood when the higher forms themselves are already known
I'd agree with Cockshott that to suggest humans are better than other apes is ridiculous. There are no higher and lower forms of life, just ones that are successful (extant) and unsuccessful (extinct). However, other than using sloppy language, I'm not sure that Heinrich and Marx are saying anything controversial. If one replaced "lower" with "less complex" and "higher" with "more complex," there wouldn't be an issue. They're not actually suggesting that humans are better than other apes and they're not even really talking about evolutionary biology.

Value Theory

It's when discussing value theory that Cockshott goes awry:
The establishment of capitalist industry went hand in hand with the development of artificial sources of power: coal then oil. We also all know that in today’s world the owners of oilfields are fabulously wealthy, so might energy not be the source of value?
There are a couple of problems with this:
  1. It appears as if Cockshott is suggesting that value only came into being at the beginning of capitalism. But value relates to commodity exchange, not capitalism as such. There were commodities before capitalism and therefore there was value before capitalism. Since coal and oil use, at least in any generalised form, came after commodities, how could they be the source of value?!
  2. Cockshott makes a logical jump from oil/coal to energy. Oil/coal is not the same thing as energy. There have been lots of different sources of energy throughout human history with vastly different uses. E.g., burning wood for heat and food; burning candles for light; oil/coal for industrial production. Can one really jump through wood-candles-coal-oil to energy, from there to a value theory, without any theoretical complications?
Cockshott's argument is that the labour theory of value is lacking, so we must look to what science does.
If one adopts the normal method of science, the answer is simple. You see what price structure would be predicted by the labour theory of value, what price structure would be predicted by the energy theory of value, and see which theory gives the better predictions. Such tests have been done, and they show that actual prices correspond much more closely to what the labour theory of value predicts than to what the energy theory predicts. But as we will see in the next section Heinrich’s approach prohibits this sort of scientific test.
Does science really work like this? It's true that empirical measurements are essential to science, but it's at least misleading, probably downright wrong to apply empirical results to a poor theory. For a scientific theory to be accepted, it needs to make coherent, logical arguments in a purely abstract form that then fits fairly well with reality. If the theory is faulty, the evidence is irrelevant.

As an example, I could propose f = mac (force = mass * acceleration * crap). Most of the time c is 1, but occasionally I decide that it's 1.5 or .5 for masses that I have a peculiar distaste. Now, it could be, with God's favour, that the world really does agree with my formula, f = mac. Or it could be the case that we never come across masses that I don't like (e.g., invisible pink elephants). (My formula would be essentially f = ma.) Neither of these possibilities have anything to do with the fact that this formula is logically inconsistent with other physical laws.

My point: you have to sort out your theory, regardless of the evidence! Cockshott suggests you can "go through the passage from Marx above and wherever there is a reference to labour substitute energy or power and the essence of the argument would be unchanged." If that were true, Marx's labour theory of value would be wrong. It would not be theoretically sufficient. It would need to be revised or abandoned.

I do not agree for a moment that you can substitute terms in Marx's theory. For a start, Cockshott missed a crucial section, the fetish of the commodity. This grounds Marx's value theory as part of the social consciousness of humanity. The commodity, abstract labour, value-form, etc. is a psychological trick.

Abstract Labour

Cockshott truly breaks with my reading of Marx in the notion of abstract labour:
So abstract labour is the abstract expenditure of human physiological effort and society has only a certain amount of this effort available to it which can be expended in different concrete forms.

This concept is indeed ‘naturalistic’ and ‘a-historical’. It is naturalistic in that it depends on our adaptability as a species, our ability to turn our hand to any task. It is a-historical in that any society with a division of labour has abstract labour.
Marx's theory is the opposite of this view. It is concrete labour, actually doing stuff in the world, that is the only transhistorical, ahistorical or naturalistic conception of labour in Marx's theory. Concrete labour existed before capitalism, before class society. Abstract labour is vastly more modern and arises with commodity exchange. Abstract labour did not arise with the division of labour because many societies - those based on slavery or serfdom, for example - hardly measured and compared work at all. To the extent that they were not based on the exchange of commodities, they were not societies based on value and abstract labour. The key thing lacking in Cockshott's theory in these paragraphs is a clear understanding of the history of social production.

I.I. Rubin sorted out the issue of abstract labour and physiological effort long ago:
Marx never tired of repeating that value is a social phenomenon, that the existence of value (Wertgegenstandlichkeit) has "a purely social reality" (C., I, p. 47), and does not include a single atom of matter. From this it follows that abstract labor, which creates value, must be understood as a social category in which we cannot find a single atom of matter. One of two things is possible: if abstract labor is an expenditure of human energy in physiological form, then value also has a reified-material character. Or value is a social phenomenon, and then abstract labor must also be understood as a social phenomenon connected with a determined social form of production. It is not possible to reconcile a physiological concept of abstract labor with the historical character of the value which it creates. The physiological expenditure of energy as such is the same for all epochs and, one might say, this energy created value in all epochs. We arrive at the crudest interpretation of the theory of value, one which sharply contradicts Marx's theory. (Essays on Marx's Theory of Value, Chapter 14: Abstract Labour)
Cockshott's theory becomes incredible problematic when we bring in temporal concerns. If abstract labour is physiological effort, what can you say about that effort when the value of the commodities you've already produced halve in value because a competitor produces the same commodity for much cheaper? How does your physiological effort - that you've already expended - suddenly disappear into the ether? As abstract labour is the substance and measure of value, you've got a problem explaining where it went to.

Cockshott says:
On the other hand there is no doubt that were we to accept Heinrich’s reading we would have to abandon any claim that Marxian analysis of value was scientific. Science rests on the testability of its propositions and has to be wary of hypothesising causal entities which are in principle unmeasurable. If we say with Heinrich that the labour time that creates value can not be independently measured, can only be inferred from the price at which things sell, then you no longer have a testable theory.
Yes, it's true, we don't have a testable theory in the same way that a lot of the physical sciences do. If you tried to measure every aspect of commodity production, concrete labour-time, physiological equivalents, prices, etc. you would not arrive at Marx's critique of political economy. You would arrive at the tools of appearances that we already have: supply/demand curves, employment rates, economic statistics, etc.

Marx's critique has many complexities and subtleties that does not make it appropriate for empirical measurement as proof in the way Cockshott would prefer. One huge issue, for example, is moving from value to production prices and average profits. (See: Value and Production Price)

Finally, possibly the worst part of Cockshott's review, is a comment on a quote from Marx to Kugelmann:
“It is self-evident that this necessity of the distribution of social labour in specific proportions is certainly not abolished by the specific form of social production; it can only change its form of manifestation. Natural laws cannot be abolished at all. The only thing that can change, under historically differing conditions, is the form in which those laws assert themselves.” One can scarcely have a more explicit assertion of the natural and a-historical basis of abstract labour than that.
However, Marx was not talking about abstract labour in slightest! He was simply talking about the necessity for humans to work. Humans, from the time when we developed self-awareness, have had to work to survive. We need to gather, sow, reap and kill for food. We need to bring-up the young, collect water and dispose of waste. We need to look after the old. We will have to do this until we cease to exist as a species. Nothing, not pre-class society, slavery, serfdom, mercantilism, capitalism or communism is going to prevent this necessity for work. All that changes is how we organise work in society, as the most social species on the planet. What does abstract labour have to do with it? It is nothing but the form of how we are choosing to work at the present time, under capitalist conditions.

To suggest that abstract labour is going to be the form of society, not only of capitalism, but also communism, brings nothing but horrible images of totalitarian monsters into our mind.

Down with measurement!

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