Is value universal and transhistorical?

Chris Burford cburford at
Sun Jul 12 23:33:43 PDT 1998

I appreciate Andrew coming back on this on 11th July, and for letting me have background material.

I accept the point about the risks of taking isolated words, and am happy that Andrew has posted his whole summary. I was partly working myself into the subject.

I have taken the liberty of widening the thread title. So far in the debate I feel it is even more important to argue that value is to be found in all human societies, including the present than that it is found at all times in history Marx presents an argument that it required the development of the economy to reach a certain point for value to become manifest. I may wish to argue that value is an emergent property of human economic activity, and that is compatible with Marx's analysis.

However we now have volume problems so I will cut out what is not at issue between me and Andrew. There is a danger of intersplicing comments that one appears to cut up an opponents arguments into shreds, but I hope there is enough mutual respect that this will not be the apparent result.

At 03:50 PM 7/11/98 -0400, Andrew Kliman wrote:


>(1) I had commented that, near the end of the section on the
>fetishism of the commodity, in _Capital I_, Ch. 1, Marx indicates
>that value belongs to a social formation in which the process of
>production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite. Chris
>objects that the text speaks of "These formulas" belonging to
>this social formation, not value.
>He is right, of course. However, the "formulas" concern value.
>Specifically, Marx is arguing that labor-time and the duration of
>labor-time -- which are themselves transhistorical -- become
>"represented" as value and magnitude of value only in a
>*particular* social formation.
>The whole context of the passage lends additional support to this
>reading. Political economy has uncovered the content
>(labor-time) concealed within "these forms" (value and its
>magnitude). But it hasn't asked "why this content has assumed
>that particular form." So Marx is suggesting that value is a
>form of appearance of labor-time.

Now further reading of the Chapter 1 of Capital suggest to me that the content of value for Marx is more properly called human labour in the abstract, rather than "labour time". That is, abstracted from the conditions of commodity exchange that make the "form" of value "exchange value".

>He then suggests that political economy hasn't asked *why* the
>content assumes this form of appearance because it takes it for
>granted. This relation (the "formula" relating the two) between
>the content and the form appears to bourgeois consciousness as
>self-evident and a nature-imposed necessity. Clearly, he is
>suggesting that the opposite is the case. Thus, in his view,
>labor-time is not always expressed as value, nor is duration of
>labor always expressed as magnitude of value. The accompanying
>footnote (35) likewise suggests that the appearance of labor as
>value is not a "natural institution," contrary to what the
>economists hold.

The sarcasm in this footnote by Marx against the bourgeois economists is stressing the continuity of economic processes across different economic formations: "The economists have a singular way of proceeding. For them, there are only tow kinds of institutions, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions." He is saying that exchange value is peculiar to commodity exchange. Therefore it is more correct to say above "in his view, labour time is not always expressed as *exchange*-value".

>Moreover, in the prior footnote (34), he writes, even more
>clearly: "The value-form of the product of labor is ... the most
>universal form of the bourgeois mode of production; by that fact
>it stamps the bourgeois mode of production as a particular kind
>of social production of a historical and transitory character."
>This does not seem ambiguous to me. The only problem, perhaps,
>is that "value-form" (wertform) is used elsewhere to refer to
>exchange-value, i.e., the value of one commodity having a second
>commodity as its form of appearance. But that is not how it is
>used here. Here it refers to the product of labor having value
>as its form of appearance. I should also note that the above
>"formulas" likewise concern value, not exchange-value.

We read the same passage differently. IMO Marx is indeed writing about Wertform here. There are many many different products of labour throughout history. Marx has to use this wider phrase to use this expression, because only a subset of them are commodities. It is under conditions of commodity exchange that the products of labour have a value form, namely exchange value. But the wider set of products of labour all require human labour, and stripped of the actual concrete conditions that is human labour in the abstract, the sum total of which is deployed to maintain and perpetuate the social life process of any society.

The title of Chapter 1, Section 3 of Capital Vol 1 is "The Form of Value or Exchange Value". That means they are virtually synonymous.

>There are other passages that say much the same thing. See p.
>167: "Something which is only valid for this particular form of
>production, the production of commodities, namely the fact that
>the specific social character of private labours ... consists in
>their equality as human labour, and, IN THE PRODUCT, ASSUMES THE
>FORM OF THE EXISTENCE OF VALUE ...." (emphasis added).

I would contend that the passage highlighted by the use of the word existence in translation does not illuminate the content of value, only once again the form, under conditions of commodity exchange. The German here is "die Form des Wertcharaketrs der Arbeitprodukte". We are once again agreed that the form of value peculiar to commodity exchange is exchange value. That does not dispose of the question of the content of value, which is human labour in the abstract.

Also, p.
>164, where he first says from where the fetishism of the
>commodity arises. Again, we have the two "formulas." The point
>is clearly that these formulas pertain to commodity production,
>which is a *particular* form of social production, not a
>universal one.

This is the second paragraph of the crucial fourth section of Chapter 1 where as you say he first discusses the mystical or fetishistic character of the commodity. The paragraph ends clearly giving economic perspective to all human societies:

"In all situations, the labour time it costs to produce the means of subsistence must necessarily conern mankind, although not to the same degree at different stages of development. And finally, as soon as men start to work for each other in any way, their labour also assumes a social form." So human labour in the abstract is found in all societies.

>Also, pp. 138-39: "commodites possess an objective character as
>values only in so far as they are all expressions of an identical
>social substance ... their objective character as values is
>therefore purely social." Again, this is not something
>transhistorical. It arises in a particular kind of society.

This is not discussing value specifically but values. That means bearers of exchange value. That is what is specific to commodity society.

>And, for my finale, perhaps the clearest statement of all, on pp.
>153-54: "The product of labour is an object of utility
>[use-value] in all states of society; but it is ONLY a
>historically specific epoch of development which presents the
>labour expended in the production of a useful article as an
>'objective' property of that article, i.e., as its value. It is
>ONLY then that the product of labor becomes transformed into a
>commodity" (emphases added).

I would say that here the expression "its" value implies its own exchange value which must be in relation to other exchange values.

>OK. Now, to comment on Chris's posts.
>POST OF 7/8
>Chris: "I submit it [the topic] is far from academic alone. If
>there is indeed an overarching theory of value which is not
>limited to commodity exchange ...."
>Well, I agree that it is not academic alone, but for different
>reasons that will, I'm sure, emerge in discussion. Alone, I do
>not think value is a category of commodity *exchange*; as Marx
>uses it in _Capital_, at least, it is a category of commodity
>This raises questions such as, what is a commodity and what is
>commodity production. I suspect that the differences Chris and I
>have are not limited to value , but encompass these and other
>categories. But I'm happy to let this, too, emerge in due

Since Marx consciously tries to proceed in Capital from the analysis of the commodity, perhaps we had better clarify the possibility of differing perspectives soon.

>Chris: "I would say that value (overarching value) is the sum
>total of all human
>activity in a given society that contributes to the economy of
>that society
>- the physical reproduction of that society (including all its
>social and
>psychological mechanisms of organising itself ...."
>Were you to call the predicate "labor" or "human activity"
>instead of value, I'd surely agree. I think that these were the
>terms Marx used, and people generally use, for what you're
>talking about. Of course, due to the alienation of work from the
>worker under capitalism, "labor" or "work" now has much more
>restricted connotations, but Marx indeed understood "labor" as a
>broader, transhistorical, category. Labor, but not value.

We may agree broadly on what we are talking about and resolve our differences into ones of terminology. I could explain why I want my terminology.

>I do not believe there is even one place where Marx defines
>"value" as you have done.

Marx was keen to present his analysis as deriving from a detailed analysis of the commodity and not from the assertion of abstract principles. Indeed as between the first edition and later editions of Capital he rather deleted statements about the fundamental social nature of commodity exchange and instead expanded section 4 of Chapter one, going into the detail of the fetishistic and mysterious character of the commodity which creates a social phenomenon without the conscious intention of the participants.

The second paragraph of Chapter 1 Section 4 summarises the argument about where the mysterious nature of the commodity comes from:-

"The mysterious character of the commodity does not arise, therefore, from its use value. No more does it spring from the content of the determinations of value. For in the first place, however varied the useful labors or unproductive activities might be, it is a physiological truth that they are functions of the human organism, and that each such function, whatever may be its nature or its form, is essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles, sense organs, etc." So here Marx dismisses the content of value as being the source of the mysterious character of the economy. And he hereby states what the content of value is - human labour. This is indeed not too mysterious. Except that it is so simple we may overlook it, in our efforts to grasp the technicalities of Marx's dialectical analysis.

Your definition is also quite at
>variance with normal usage, both among economists and in daily
>life. Now, if _Capital_ is a _Critique of Political Economy_,
>which it is, then it is a critique of this society's relations
>and their reflections in thought (economic categories), so it
>can't (and doesn't) just go about redefining things and using
>terms willy-nilly.

I do not think my usage is at variance with normal usage. I think it gives expression to a whole number of quality of life issues that are plainly being ruined by the onward march of commodity exchange. I also think there is a continuum about how contributions to the social life process are valued as part objects for their contribution to the making of commodities that can help realise surplus value, and how much they are valued as whole objects (contributions).

>Chris: "the word "formula" may be a typographical error."
>Yes, it is. But I don't think this implies what Chris says. I
>don't hang my hat on this or that word in any case, but it seems
>clear to me that the correct word, "form," corroborates my

Thanks for clarifying this textual point, which neither of us thinks is fundamental to the debate.

>It took me a good while to see why Chris thinks the opposite. It
>is because she (he? -- sorry, I don't know which

[true - he]

) thinks that
>"Exchange value is the form taken by value under conditions of
>commodity exchange." Thus, it seems, Chris reads the reference
>to "form" as a reference to exchange-value.


>This, however, begs the question. Whether there's a
>transhistorical "value" of which exchange-value is the form under
>conditions of commodity exchange is PRECISELY the question under
>discussion. In other words, it isn't permissible to impute a
>meaning to "form" that presupposes the answer is yes.

I do not understand this line of reasoning. Words must be read to see how well they fit reality, and Andrew and I are united that Marx describes a wide context of social labour of which commodity exchange is only one subset. It is a question of looking at different models of reality, and of Marx's description of reality and deciding which fits best. "isn't permissible" seems to presuppose a model of logic which might take precedence over reality, but perhaps I have misunderstood Andrew's point of view about what we are wrestling over.

>"Form" can of course refer to many things. As my message to
>Chris notes, even Marx's expression "value-form" refers to two
>different things, (a) the form of appearance of value, i.e.,
>exchange-value, AND (b) the social form of the product of labor
>(as in "The value-form of the product of labor is ... the most
>universal form of the bourgeois mode of production").

I have not grapsed the distinction that Andrew is making here. I wonder if he can amplify it and then put the challenge to me again in the paragraph in which we agree "formula" should read "form"?

I guess we are getting near the top of size limits or conventions that Doug has given, but I have forgotten them. If he has got to the end of this, perhaps he can give a reminder.

I am also near my capacity. I propose to break off here and respond to the rest of Andrew's post of 11th July at another time.

This debate is clearly a process, and it will take time to clarify its implications both for economic phenomena and for an understanding of the nature of Marx's dialectical method.

Chris Burford


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