Potatoes as money

Chris Burford cburford at gn.apc.org
Mon Sep 7 15:24:34 PDT 1998

In the last seven days there have been a number of dramatic accounts of how the people of Russia have been persevering in surviving through this currency crisis.

For example a five minute documentary from around Moscow, illustrated how people come out to the farms to dig up potatoes by manual labour. They are paid in potatoes and give the surplus to the farmer. Then people use sacks of potatoes as currency. For example several were shown delivered as payment for school fees.

Para 9 as Sven has copied it contains the sentence (Fowkes translation) "The universal equivalent form comes and goes with the momentary social contacts which call it into existence."

Although Marx is basically describing an arrow of time emergent phenomenon, of money in the form of precious metal, what I like here is that it can also explain what is happening in the Soviet Union is real and sensible and creative, in very adverse circumstances.

A lot hangs on this theoretical point. Commentators are speculating that the "Communists" will continue to hang out against Chernomyrdin and Yeltsin and they will only be broken when the economy gets much worse. So the resilience and good sense of the people are an important feature of resistance to the dictates of international capital, whether you approve of specific tactics by Zyuganov or not.

Other reports from Krasnoyarsk in Siberia describe how the society has virtually reverted to a gift economy. A doctor at the hospital has not been paid for several months. When his car breaks down someone mends if for him free. A carpenter is also fortunate to have skills that are in demand. These are reimbursed in gifts, barter, or just friendly help. When someone has money they all borrow from that person, until the next person gets money.

In para 7 there was a reference to the "slumbering contradiction" (M&A "latent contrast; Fowkes "latent opposition") between use-value and Value which exists within the nature of the commodity.

I think I have discovered the correct Marxist term that embraces labour products which are commodities and those which are not: products of "social labour", in Marx's letter to Kugelmann July 11th 1868

"Every child knows, too, that a nation which ceased to work, I will not say for a year, but even for a few weeks, would perish. Every child knows too, that the masses of products corresponding to the different needs require different and quantitatively determined masses of the total labour of society. That this *necessity* of *distribution* of social labour in definite proportions cannot possibly be done away with by a *form* in which it *appears*, is self-evident. No natural laws can be done away with. What can change, in historically different circumstances, is only the *form* in which these laws operate. And the form in which this proportional distribution of social labour is manifested in the *private exchange* of the individual products of labour, is precisely the *exchange value* of these products. Science consists precisely in demonstrating *how* the law of value operates." [This letter is is volume 2 of the Selected Works]

Chris Burford


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