Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Notes from our discussion on pages 172-250
In the Introduction, Marx has discussed method; in the essay on Bastiat and Carey, he has sketched in polemical form his focus on identifying the real subversive, creative impulses within capitalist development; in pages 115-172, he has started his substantive economic discussion by criticising the Proudhonists and showing that any serious critique of capital must also be a critique of the basic social relations involved in exchange-value.
He then moves on to start that critique. This whole section of the Grundrisse can be read as a draft, or notes, for chapters 1 to 3 of Capital:
Ch. 1: Commodities
Ch. 2: Exchange
Ch. 3: Money, or the Circulation of Commodities
There are long passages which are false starts, or digressions (some of them amusing, as when we discover on page 178 that a source for Marx's discussion of the qualities, and methods for extracting, gold is a handbook produced by the British Government School of Mines for emigrants going to Australia to join the 1850s gold rush).
But there are also passages where we can gain insight from seeing Marx work out - in detail, over many pages - ideas which he will later express very tersely, in one or two sentences, in Capital. And there are interesting extrapolations and digressions which Marx will omit from Capital as too speculative.
Money and community
In the second category are Marx's comments on money and community. On pages 221-2 Marx shows that money, once developed, goes beyond its "servile role" as "mere medium of circulation". It becomes "the lord and god of the world of commodities".
Before the full development of money, says Marx, the possession of wealth, which was always particular wealth, was also "a certain development of [the owner's] individuality". Possession of money, however, is "possession of what lacks individuality".
When money-relations have spread to cover the whole of society, then money itself "is the community, and can tolerate none other standing above it". "Monetary greed, or mania for wealth, necessarily brings with it the decline and fall of the ancient communities". "Money becomes the real community".
This community becomes "a mere abstraction, a mere external, accidental thing for the individual, and at the same time merely a means for his satisfaction as an isolated individual". But do not suppose that Marx is falling into the romantic critique of capitalism.
In a developed money system, "money becomes the means of general industriousness... the real sources of wealth are opened up... the individual's industriousness knows no bounds; it is indifferent to its particularity, and takes on every form which serves the purpose; it is ingenious in the creation of new objects for a social need". It is to the contradictions in the development of this new human creativity that Marx looks for revolutionary possibilities, not a reversion to the old community.
Wage-labour. What distinguishes capitalism from other money systems
In this section Marx starts to argue that a fully-developed money system must be a wage-labour system. The argument is that a fully-developed money system means that everyone buys their means of subsistence. That presupposes that they are separated from the means of subsistence, but have some way of getting money, i.e. by selling the only thing they have for sale if separated from the means of subsistence, labour-power. They are wage-labourers. If there is wage-labour, then there must also be capital, i.e. the mass of wealth which buys wage-labour and sells products.
Thus [p.205]: "Exchange value presupposes social labour as the substance of all products, quite apart from their natural make-up... Since labour is motion, time is its natural measure... labour as substance and labour-time as the measure of commodities".
[p.223]: "Money... can exist as a developed moment of production only where and when wage-labour exists".
[p.240]: "... exchange-value and the social mode of production corresponding to it".
But this all begs several questions. Marx knows, indeed insists, that money and merchant capital can and do develop partially for centuries, "in the interstices" of pre-capitalist societies, without dissolving them.
Where is the threshhold? The dividing line? The tipping-point? Marx offers other ideas which are relevant - though not really any answers - later in the Grundrisse, and we should discuss the issue again in relation to them.
In these pages we see Marx edging towards (but not yet arrived at) some of the key ideas in Capital. Notice, by the way, that nowhere in the Grundrisse does he concern himself with "proving the labour theory of value": he simply alludes to it as an obvious, accepted fact, that labour is the substance of value.
1. The difference between value and price. Here, he says exchange-value and price, because he has not yet distinguished between value and exchange-value. Exchange-value is in fact, once a fully monetary economy is in operation, the same as price; value is not only numerically different from price, but a different sort of thing.
2. Abstract and concrete labour. In Capital, Marx will write that the "twofold nature of the labour contained in commodities", the fact that "so far as it finds expression in value, it does not possess the same characteristics that belong to it as a creator of use values", is "the pivot on which a clear comprehension of political economy turns". Here, and in the following pages, he is edging towards this idea - see, for example, his comment that "Exchange value presupposes social labour as the substance of all products" - but he has not actually reached it. The discussion in the Grundrisse strongly suggests, I think, that the distinction between abstract labour and concrete labour, and the distinction between labour and labour-power, are inseparably linked.
By 1861-3, in the manuscripts later published as Theories of Surplus Value, Marx will have clarified his views, via a critique of Ricardo. "Ricardo does not examine the form - the peculiar characteristic of labour that creates exchange-value or manifests itself in exchange-values - the nature of this labour. Hence lie does not grasp the connection of this labour with money or that it must assume the form of money. Hence he completely fails to grasp the connection between the determination of the exchange-value of the commodity by labour-time and the fact that the development of commodities necessarily leads to the formation of money...
[When discussing wages,] Instead of labour, Ricardo should have discussed labour-power. But had he done so, capital would also have been revealed as the material conditions of labour, confronting the labourer as power that had acquired an independent existence and capital would at once have been revealed as a definite social relationship". [Theories of Surplus Value, Part 2, chapter X.A.2 and chapter XV.A.6].
3. Commodity fetishism. For example, a little later on Marx argues that "bourgeois wealth is always expressed to the highest power as exchange value, where it is posited as mediator" - and he compares this with the fact that "in the religious sphere, Christ, the mediator between God and humanity - a mere instrument of circulation between the two - becomes their unity, God-man, and, as such, becomes more important than God; the saints more important than Christ; the popes more important than the saints". [p.332].
4. "Liberty, Equality, Freedom and Bentham". Several pages of this section are given over to developing the idea which Marx will later express crisply, in just eight sentences, at the end of chapter 6 of Capital.
"This sphere... within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.
On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the 'Free-trader Vulgaris' with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but - a hiding".