Grundrisse notes

I’ve been reading through Marx’s Grundrisse, which unaccountably I had never read before. It’s clear that this huge manuscript consists of rough notes, in various degrees of development. Marx never could have intended publication in this form. Parts of the manuscript are dazzlingly brilliant, and other parts are rather tedious (like the places where Marx, who was a philosophical giant, but evidently not a math wiz, takes twenty or thirty pages of tedious arithmetic calculations to establish, for instance, the fact that fractions which have the same numerator but different denominators are not, in fact, equal to one another). But against that, there’s the excitement of seeing Marx actually work through and work out philosophical and historical arguments (like that about what he later came to call “primitive accumulation”) which are only presented in finished form in Capital.

Here, too, Marx first works out the argument about “surplus value”: which is where we get a lot of the tedious and painfully elementary mathematics, but also where we get a full statement of the argument — not quite articulated in this way in Capital, or anywhere else in Marx’s writing, as far as I can remember — about how the whole notion of surplus needs to be thought in the sense of a radical incommensurability.

What I mean is this. (A lot of this is very elementary, but I need to write it all down here as part of the process if working it out for myself). The so-called labor theory of value, together with the quantitative calculation of surplus value, have long been the most contentious points in Marxist theory. This is largely for mathematical reasons which Marx clearly had a lot of trouble with (and which I myself can only partly understand). Basically, Marx (following Smith and Ricardo) defines the “value” of commodities and products in terms of the human labor that has been required to make them (even things like raw materials can be defined in these terms, since their value = the amount of human labor that was required to extract and appropriate them in the first place). Overall, this is an argument about how resources and productive forces are allocated by society as a whole, in terms of both production and distribution.

The trouble is that such a global concept of “value” does not actually correspond to the way that individual commodities are actually bought and sold. There is no direct equivalence between a commodity’s value as Marx defines it, and its empirical price in the marketplace. These are two separate dimensions; Marxian values have to do with the overall social organization of the economy, while prices have to do with the fluctuations of supply and demand (and especially marginal supply and demand). Marx endeavored at great length to figure out the mathematics of how value could be converted into price (or more precisely, how value — as a reality at the level of economic production — is in fact transformed into price, and surplus value correspondingly turned into profit, in the actual movements of the marketplace). But he failed; his mathematics was flawed, and apparently no general mathematical solution is even possible, aside from very special circumstances. (This is the so-called transformation problem. Marxists have offered various ways around the problem, usually based on questioning the premises under which the mathematical calculations are carried out in the first place: for instance, all the models imply a situation of equilibrium in the economy as a whole; but Marx is always suggesting that this equilibrium cannot be pre-assumed, since capitalism really moves in terms of disequilibrium and crisis).

If value cannot be calculated in empirical terms, then neither can surplus value (or the quantitative amount that capitalists are appropriating from workers). Marx knows that there is no simple one-to–one correspondence between the rate of exploitation in a given firm or industry, and its profit; rather, the entire social surplus (the excess of what is produced over what is paid for in production costs) gets distributed among capitalist enterprises through the market. But again, Marx never succeeded in linking the macro-level to the micro-level mathematically. This has led the majority of economists to conclude that questions of value and surplus value are simply irrelevant, and that Marx’s claim that workers are being exploited is without justification. “Value” is considered by these economists to be merely a metaphysical notion; for them, the positive quantities of price are all that matters, since they are all that can be calculated empirically.

Throwing out the whole dimension of value, however, is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. You need some concept like value if you are ever to try to look at the economy (of the world, or of a given nation or society) systematically rather than just atomistically. The “price” paid by neoclassical marginalist economics, which looks only at prices, is precisely that all sorts of politico-economic questions are ruled out of bounds, and only “purely” economic issues are addressed. You can talk about the effect of an interest rate increase on the rate of inflation, but not about its effect on class relations. (I called this a “price” paid by neoclassical economics, but actually it is not a bug, but a feature: the whole purpose of neoclassical economics is to rule out the sort of question that would put the naturalness and inevitability of capitalist relations into doubt).

But how do we make sense of Marx’s whole theory of value, if we stand apart from the questions of calculation that he tried but failed to put into practice? All sorts of answers have been given in the course of the last century. I am inclined to accept Karatani’s suggestion that the theory of value needs to be regarded, not as an empirical phenomenon, but as the “transcendental condition,” in a Kantian sense, for the functioning of a capitalist-commodity mode of production and distribution. Marx acutely notes at one point in Grundrisse that “language as the product of an individual is an impossibility. But the same holds for property” (490). It is much more familiar today than it was in Marx’s time to note that, although I express myself through language, the language in which I make this expression is not properly mine, and does not belong to me, because it is social and communicative, and even precedes me. Marx says that the same is the case with “private property”: it is only in a given social framework, only when there are others, and myself and those others stand in various forms of relation, that I can even make the claim that something is mine, that it represents me, that it belongs to me. Property relations, like language, already have to be given before the issues of personal expression and personal presence and personal belonging even arise in the first place.

Grundrisse actually helps with fleshing out this claim about the pre-existing, transcendental supposition of property relations and of what Karatani calls the “value-form.” For here, in first working out the theory of surplus value, Marx emphasizes the incommensurability between workers’ wages on the one hand, and the productivity of their labor power, on the other. There is no common measure between the way, as a worker who sells my labor power, I replenish on a daily basis my own conditions of existence (I may get more money rather than less, and have a higher living standard than other workers, but I am still always a paycheck away from default, bankruptcy or ruin, since my wages basically only allow me to reproduce my own standard of life), and the way that the production process as a whole creates values that expand the material wealth of society as a whole, leading to the expansion and accumulation of capital. I sell my labor-power as a commodity in order to get the money to pay for the commodities that I need in order to make it to another day of selling my labor power all over again (Marx calls this the circuit of C-M-C). Whereas a corporation invests money in the production of commodities, in order thereby to sell the commodities and end up with an expanding quantity of money (Marx calls this the circuit M-C-M’). A social surplus is always being produced (except in conditions of grave economic dislocation, or when there are disasters like famine, tsunami, earthquake, and plague), and this surplus is always credited to the account of capital (which grows and accumulates directly; the ultimate result may be something of an increase in my standard of living as a worker, but this only happens secondarily, as part of a “trickle-down” process).

Or to put it in another, more pragmatic way: when I go into credit card debt I am making trouble for myself; I will be increasingly unable to pay off the debt. But when a corporation goes into debt, it is generally enabled thereby to expand. Even in cases of bankruptcy: the Congress has recently passed laws making the conditions of recovery much more difficult and punitive for individuals than it was before; while corporations increasingly declare bankruptcy as a way to “reorganize” by breaking their labor contacts, decreasing wages and benefits, etc. (This is happening right now with Northwest Airlines and with the auto parts manufacturer Delphi, both major presences in the Detroit area.

As Deleuze and Guattari say, “it is not the same money that goes into the pocket of the wage earner and is entered on the balance sheet of a commercial enterprise.” For the wage earner, there is “a flow of means of payment relative to consumer goods and use values, and a one-to-one relation between money and an imposed range of products” (Marx’s C-M-C); while for the enterprise, monetary quantities are “signs of the power of capital, flows of financing,” and hence forces of multiplication, of the accumulation of capital itself (Marx’s M-C-M’) (Anti-Oedipus 228).

The qualitiative difference between the two circuits of exchange, that of the wage earner and that of the corporation, remains structurally or transcendentally significant — it determines everything — even if it cannot be specified quantitatively in ways that empirical economics is able to calculate. Though Marx makes repeated efforts to calculate the rate of surplus value throughout Grundrisse, he also foregrounds this basic incommensurability (in a more explicit way than he does later in Capital). For instance, Marx says that surplus labor isn’t just added on top of necessary labor, in such a way that reducing the working day in length would be enough to eliminate exploitation. For “in production resting on capital, the existence of necessary labour time is conditional on the creation of superfluous labour time” (398). The expropriated surplus, in a very real sense, comes first; it is only this surplus that motivates productive investment in the first place. For the capitalist, wages are just a deduction from total profit, an input cost like any other. Without the lure of the surplus, the whole process would come to a halt.

In this way, Marx’s notion of surplus value shows its affinity to the Derridean supplement and to the Lacanian notion of “surplus enjoyment” (which Zizek is always writing about); and beyond these, to Georges Bataille’s “notion of expenditure” (which powerfully influenced both Derrida and Lacan). Bataille is often taken to be anti-Marxist, because of his emphasis on expenditure rather than, and as opposed to, “the principles of classical utility” (Visions of Excess 116). But Marx is no defender of such principles of utility; his whole point about the separation of exchange value from use value points to the way in which capitalist reproduction isn’t really about utility at all. (When Marx writes of use value as serving “needs,” he means this latter word in the broadest sense — not economically basic needs as opposed to superfluous desires, but “need” as anything anybody wants, or is willing to pay for). It seems to me entirely coherent to say that surplus value is the form that Bataille’s excess takes in a capitalist society, and that the problem of expenditure is itself a more generalized form of the problem of overaccumulation or overproduction, which Marx sees as one of the problematic points of capitalism as a whole.

Surplus value is only one of a number of areas in which Marx’s formulations in Grundrisse significantly add to what he presents later, in its polished and publishable form, in Capital. On the other hand, in Grundrisse there is little discussion of the “fetishism of commodities,” such as it is highlighted in the notorious opening chapters of Capital. (Notorious because these opening chapters have discomfited so many readers, including notably Althusser, who urged readers of Capital to skip those chapter altogether). To my mind, and contra Althusser, the discussion of commodity fetishism is crucial and invaluable; Marx had good reasons for opening Capital with it. Commodity fetishism is, as it were, the manner in which we live the world of Capital (what Zizek calls “ideology,” though for various reasons I am not happy with naming it in this way); and as that which constructs our “lived experience,” it is as real as are the “underlying” processes (exploitation, capital accumulation) that it masks.

This brings up the whole issue of subjectivity, and how we can understand it in Marxist terms. In the past, I’ve mentioned my discomfort with psychoanalytic/Lacanian/Zizekian approaches, which seem to me to depart too much from social and economic conditions, in their pursuit of a logic of the unconscious that is ultimately entirely separate from the economic logic of capitalist society. Zizek even says that, while Marxism defines “ideology” as “false eternalization and/or universalization,” the attribution of universality to something that has a specifically social and historical basis, psychoanalysis, to the contrary, denounces “ideology” as consisting in “an over-rapid historicization,” seeing something as merely contingent and historical, when in fact it is absolutely universal, “the Real of the Law, the rock of castration… which returns as the same through diverse historicizations/symbolizations” (The Sublime Object of Ideology 49-50).

Zizek here makes the “Hegelian” move of extending Marx’s logic (in this case, the logic of ideology and fetishism) to the point where he altogether abolishes it. When “ideology” is redefined as the ultimate impossibility at the heart of any subject whatsoever, it’s all of Marx’s analysis of the historical specificity of capitalism — its radical difference from other social formations and relations of production — that disappears. Althusser scandalously argued that some sort of “ideology” would continue to exist even in a communist society. And this seems right to me. But Althusser didn’t take the additional step that Zizek does: the step that dissolves the particularity of one particular regime of ideology. Though it is perhaps unfortunate that Althusser designated “science” as the asubjective alternative to ideology (meaning by “science” something like Spinoza’s understanding sub specie aeternitatis), I find Zizek’s claim to Hegelian/psychoanalytic analysis much more disturbing. Here is a point where a Kantian understanding of limits (or a Whiteheadian understanding of the irreduciblity, and yet the inevitable partiality, of all abstractions) would be helpful.

In Grundrisse, Marx takes a rather different tack, when he proposes that “the production of capitalists and wage labourers is thus a chief product of capital’s realization process. Ordinary economics, which looks only at the things produced, forgets this completely” (512). We need to think more about how subjectivity is itself produced in the capitalist process of production/circulation/realization/appropriation of the surplus. Needless to say, this has little to do with the old-fashioned Marxist distinction according to which consciousness or subjectivity would merely be a “superstructural” effect, determined by an economic “base.” It does have to do, to the contrary, with something like Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the unity-in-division of libidinal and economic flows. Though I think that Toni Negri goes too far, in the opposite direction from Zizek, when he privileges Grundrisse over Capital, on the grounds that only the former work provides an account of class antagonism, and revolutionary subjectivity, Negri laments the absence of such a perspective from the more objective account of capitalist process in Capital itself. It seems to me, however, that Negri is too facile in the way he reads Marx’s demonstrations of the antagonism between workers and capital — class hatred, in short — as itself somehow the motor of a new subjectivity, one that already and immediately embodies Marx’s rather vague statements about how the capitalist mode of production itself already establishes the conditions for a communism that would transcend and abolish it. (All this is the source of the almost embarrassing optimism about the potentialities of the multitude that one finds in Hardt and Negri’s Empire and Multitude — but that is the subject for another post, in which I want to talk about monstrosity: the body of the multitude in relation to the body of capital).

I am even less sure than usual whether this long and rambling post makes any sense — and especially whether it gets the value/price question right — so in order to stop myself from rambling to infinity, I will publish it now.

30 Responses to “Grundrisse notes”

  1. Dan Smith says:

    Hi Steven,

    Could I trouble you say a little more about what you mean by transcendental condition in the Kantian sense?

    Many thanks,

  2. Dan, see my previous posts on Karatani, especially this.

  3. Dan Smith says:


  4. David says:

    The only problem I see here (3rd paragraph down) is that Adam Smith defines value in terms of supply and demand. This is why Marx was a towering figure against liberal economics–he defined value in terms of labor.

  5. “(When Marx writes of use value as serving “needs,” he means this latter word in the broadest sense — not economically basic needs as opposed to superfluous desires, but “need” as anything anybody wants, or is willing to pay for).”

    I’m curious about this notion of “use value”, particularly as it might be related to Emerson’s idealism and his ‘doctrine of use’ which asserts that “the final cause of the world will discern a multitude of uses” …. which …. “all admit of being thrown into one of the following classes: Commodity; Beauty; Language; and Discipline.” Isn’t this ‘doctrine’ an applied Kantianism that prefigures Marx? Can’t it be read as an engine of dynamic equilibrium harnessed to an antinomian Nature-Spirit chassis, designed to be sold and/or interpreted, as the case may be, by a class of idealists produced by and therefore, with some limitations, exempt from that process? Could it be that the surplus value the system produces exists in the form of prophets rather than profits?

  6. Jodi says:

    Interesting post, Steve. I have a few questions and comments (I hope this doesn’t post twice, I screwed something up first time I wrote something).

    1. Is the incommensurability between value and price because value cannot be measured empirically? Or is it because the measures of value are fundamentally different (but no less empirical)?

    2. In books written after Sublime Object, Zizek says that each move can be ideological. Neither is superior to the other. Each is illuminating in its way.

    3. Why do you say ideology is the impossibility at the heart of any subject whatsover for Zizek? As I read him, the impossibility at the heart of the subject is the Real, an impossibility that is at the same time the condition of possibility for the subject. But, maybe you aren’t using subject in that sense here. Still, again, as I read him, Zizek can account for the specificity of ideological formations–he does so via Lacan’s four discourses (this is now a little advertisement for Zizek’s Politics, soon available at very few bookstores….) More specifically, Nazism and Stalinism provide different responses to the fundamental antagonism of class struggle and different arrangements of enjoyment. Likewise, Stalinism and capitalism/liberal democracy are differently structured.

    Admittedly, this last point may not change your view on the limits of Zizek’s use of psychoanalysis–but, he does specify changes in subjectivity under late capitalism (last chapter of Ticklish Subject, for example).

  7. Nate says:

    This is a great post, thanks. I pulled out some quotes that I have questions about. I apologize for the length and hope this isn’t too annoying, I’m just interested in your argument.

    “Marx (following Smith and Ricardo) defines the “value” of commodities and products in terms of the human labor that has been required to make them (even things like raw materials can be defined in these terms, since their value = the amount of human labor that was required to extract and appropriate them in the first place).”

    I’m not clear on what you mean. Do you mean that the commodity’s value is the actual labor time spent? If so, I read Marx differently. To my mind, value of a commodity is the average per commodity of the aggregate labor time spent producing those commodities.

    “We need to think more about how subjectivity is itself produced in the capitalist process of production/circulation/realization/appropriation of the surplus. Needless to say, this has little to do with the old-fashioned Marxist distinction according to which consciousness or subjectivity would merely be a “superstructural” effect, determined by an economic “base.” ”

    On this, have you read Jason Read’s book _The Micro-Politics of Capital_? Capitalism and subjectivity is a big chunk of what Read’s on about. I’m very sympathetic to your move against the base/superstructure distinction, but I’m nervous about the language of “produced in the capitalist process,” as that could easily cede all agency to social forces which are absent or to the capitalists.

    “Commodity fetishism is, as it were, the manner in which we live the world of Capital (…) and as that which constructs our “lived experience,” it is as real as are the “underlying” processes (exploitation, capital accumulation) that it masks.”

    Again I’m sympathetic to the leveling move – no underlying process that determines everything else, but this is another category that I feel nervous over, as it can enact another move like the bad base/superstructure distinction. Do all of us live this? If so, do all of us live this the same way? Do we get out of it, by reading Marx or participating in revolutionary situations?

    “Marx is no defender of [classical] principles of utility; his whole point about the separation of exchange value from use value points to the way in which capitalist reproduction isn’t really about utility at all.”

    Am I correct then in assuming that you mean here that it’s not really about the classical principles of utility that Batailles was opposed to? Or do you mean this in some other sense (capitalism is useless, or something)? If the latter, can you expand on that, please?

    Lastly, have you read Harry Cleaver’s book Reading Capital Politically, by any chance? That was a big deal for me in my reading of Marx. I’ve still not got around to Karatani yet, but your treatment makes me want to get to him faster.

    Best wishes,

  8. Great post Steve. Wow, this takes me back. Karatani’s solution to the transformation problem seems to be that of the French ‘regulation school’ of the 70s. Namely, that values cannot be transformed into prices — and that’s the point. They got this in turn from A A Rubin, a victim of Stalin’s purges, if i remember rightly.

    The Sraffa school (Ian Steedman et al) saw it as a reason to abandon value. Their argument was a strong one, and based largely on the Occam’s razor principle. Go with the simpler theory. However, they were professional economists, so it didn’t matter to them that they were (as you say) sheering off the whole ethico-politico dimension to ‘ecomony’.

    I remember reading Steedman and Althusser back to back. The former says the theory of commodity fetishism dons’t work, but don’t worry, the theory of surplus value is intact. The latter said the theory of surplus value doesn’t work, but don’t worry, this leaves the theory of commodity fetishism intact. And so Marx succumbed to the great disciplinary carve up…

    In response to Jodi, the Rubin-Lipietz view was that value and prices could be quantified, and were comensurable, but not transformable. Capital in short is an economy set adrift from an anthropology of needs.

    Is Karatani’s contribution anything really to do with Kant, or more that he is the first person in a while to treat Marx outside of disciplinary protocols? That he takes the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach seriously?

  9. Correction, I I Rubin, Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value.

    On profits/wages, nobody put it better than Michael Kalacki: “Workers spend what they get; capitalists get what they spend.”

  10. jake says:

    A social surplus is always being produced (except in conditions of grave economic dislocation, or when there are disasters like famine, tsunami, earthquake, and plague), and this surplus is always credited to the account of capital (which grows and accumulates directly; the ultimate result may be something of an increase in my standard of living as a worker, but this only happens secondarily, as part of a “trickle-down” process).

    This is probably an accurate statement in regards to many companies and corporations: the workers’ real wages never keep up with management’s or profits, but it’s obviously far more complex than that: for one stockholders in a corporation might include wprkers, who might share in profits that way; and in more mercantile models–say construction–I am not sure it works that way (tho don’t really have the time or energy to prove it). My feeling is that in many circumstances workers such as tradesmen are doing very well and so-called petit-bourgeois are not: as in Silicon Valley where there many underemployed struggling techs /engineers/ teacher types, and lots of rich contractors and tradesmen.

    But there is always that somewhat Hobbesian question that Marx is skirting: why should we care, regardless if we are prole or bourgeois? Humans even poor and uneducated will do things for their own benefit. Some workers do well; others do not–and exploitation cannot be easily quantified.

  11. Jodi and Nate,

    thanks for both your postings. I’ll try to answer some of your questions/comments, though I probably cannot respond to all of them.

    Jodi, I’m not sure what the answer is as to whether value can be measured empirically (though Marx clearly seems to believe that it can be). My understanding is that value has to do with the entirety of social production. (And yes, Nate, you are of course right that labor value has to do with the average socially necessary labor, not with actual hours spent; this is indeed one of Marx’s great advances over Ricardo). Whereas prices are set individually for particular commodities. As far as I understand the math, Marx’s attempt to calculate how value is transformed into price (i.e. how the social surplus is redistributed among various capitals) is flawed, and there are also difficulties in deriving a better formula. (Most attempts to do so seem to use Sraffa, and hence ultimately go back to Ricardo rather than Marx: but the details of this, and how Marx’s difference from Ricardo might play out mathematically, are beyond my understanding, and something I definitely need help with). So I haven’t really gotten any further than saying that, if you simply forget about value and only consider price, you can only ask microeconomic questions about “efficiency” and returns to factors of investment and compensation for “risks” and so on; and that, conversely, in order to ask the bigger (more socially relevant) questions that Marx is interested in, and that we are interested in, you *need* some sort of value framework. But I remain unsure as to the proper way to conceive that framework. I have been struggling with this issue since my first Capital reading group nearly thirty years ago, and I still don’t feel very confident about any answer. It seems to me that many of the phenomena Marx discusses — the movement of capital accumulation, the way class relations are produced and reproduced economically (which is not necessarily the same thing as class defined sociologically), the drive to revolutionize production in order to increase relative surplus value, etc. — are empirically observable, and that means in a real sense statistically measurable, but whether they can be numericized in terms of strict Marxian “value,” I honestly don’t know.

    Nate, when I said that “capitalist reproduction isn’t really about utility at all,” I meant only that capital(ism) is exclusively concerned with exchange values, and that use value only even enters consideration to the minimal extent that something has to be perceived as having a “use” in order for somebody to buy it (even if the “use” is that it makes the buyer feel that he is better, or better off, than other people). It was sloppy of me to juxtapose that sense of “utility” with “utility” in the sense that Bataille opposes to expenditure. I lack the space here (or the energy, at this time of night) to go into Bataille in as much depth as I ought to; I’ve argued in print for the relevance of Bataille’s economics for Marxist considerations, but probably not as lucidly & convincingly as I ought to (because I still feel the nagging desire to go back to it and do more).

    I haven’t read either Jason Read or Harry Cleaver, though it is clear that I ought to. My thoughts on capitalist subjectivity come largely from Deleuze and Guattari, not necessarily their specific formulations so much as the general sense that I want to push further with thinking about investments of desire in terms that would be rooted in (or better, somehow conterminous with) capital logic. Admittedly this is rather vague for me at the moment. And it would mean thinking more about things like consumerism and the power of corporate logos in everyone’s consciousness, and how this relates to the actual mechanisms of capital appropriation etc, than about class consciousness or proletarian consciousness or antagonism (in Negri’s Marx Beyond Marx) or the pomo update of all of these in Hardt/Negri’s multitude. (Though in certain ways Adorno and Marcuse might be very much relevant; and Virno, too, much more than Hardt/Negri).

    Jodi, I accept your complexifications of Zizek’s position. In order to work through this, obviously I need to read The Parallax View, and (when it comes out) Zizek’s Politics. (My copy of The Parallax View has arrived, but I have a few other things I want to get through first — including Mladen Dolar’s A Voice and Nothing More). But in the most general philosophical terms, I think, Jodi, that you have nailed what the issue is in your posting about “The Parallax Real,” where you say that for Zizek being’s non-identity with itself comes first, and multiplicity must be seen as a secondary, reactive attempt to fill or cover over this primordial division. I am inclined rather to agree, for various reasons, with Deleuze that multiplicity is ontologically more primordial or “original” than negativity, and that it is negativity, or non-identity viewed as negativity, that is the secondary, reactive reformulation. Again, this is something that I obviously need to work through more carefully/rigorously at some point; it has something to do with my preference for Kant over Hegel, or my rejection of Hegel’s claim of subsuming Kant (something that Zizek reiterates on a number of occasions). (I should also add that my reference to Kant has something to do as well with my dissatisfaction with Deleuze’s, as well as Hardt/Negri’s Spinozism).

    I fear that now I may have just muddied the waters even more — or made yet more unsubstantiated stakings-of-position that it would take me far more time than I have at present to be able to (hopefully) work out in a manner that I (let alone anyone else) would find as a convincing argument rather than just a bald assertion. But such are (sometimes) the perils or complications of blogging. I need to start getting ready for bed, since the children are sure to wake me up earlier than I would like tomorrow morning…

  12. Ken, thanks for your clarifications and citations. Yes, this whole matter “takes me back” too. My sense is that these questions, which seem to have a bit of the musty and hoary about them, are in fact (and notwithstanding their apparent reversion to days past) are in fact uncannily relevant in our current atmosphere of neoliberal dogma and “globalization” and (as you have written about) information as a new terrain of appropriation and struggle.

  13. Nate says:

    Thanks for clarifying Steven. I hope you keep posting your reflections on this reading, these are some of my own pre-occupations (since, you know, it’s all about me, right?), and I also have a hard time when Marx starts talking numbers. There’s an article by George Caffentzis that you might be interested in, about the measuring of value. It’s in issue 10, the most recent issue of the e-journal The Commoner, here:

  14. Jodi says:

    Steve–thanks for your thoughtful reply. I find your engagements here not hoary at all but quite refreshing; they seem quite on the mark with regard to grappling with current problems. Yes, it’s been a long time sense I’ve read the Marx texts (and only ever did small sections of the Grundrisse). What you have here strikes me as more promising that H/Ns discussion of value in Empire. I figured you for a multiplicity person–but it would be nice (for me) to discern some arguments for preferring one (One) over the other (Others)–or, better put, arguments besides Zizek’s and Badiou’s. take care
    (by the way, I did an excerpt and link to this post at Long Sunday but couldn’t figure out how to do the trackback–if you have time or inclination perhaps you could send me the proper link? when I clicked on the trackback thing all I got was the page again)

  15. jake says:

    The distinction between value and price is important (and money-value and money-price), and tho Marx may not have got it right (I am not a professional economist), there is an issue there: he’s trying to show that supply/demand in itself is not sufficient to explain the market mechanism, I believe. Before he (or any econ.) attempts some number crunching there is the political economy question: how is value measured, or how is the commodity produced converted into value and then into price– is it merely what someone will pay for a good or service (includng wages) it in the market? Yet I am not sure Marx’s disucssion of use value and exchange value of commodities is so clear: first, it assumes existing properrty relations (which I think Herr Shaviro acknowledged) . A craftsman trades his linen for a certain amount of gold, but the gold has been awarded an exchange value already, apart from utility (I do think Marx realized this and that he had a rather jaundiced view of precious metals and jewels–that might be an interesting chat for LS types). Which is to say the possibility of some Smith-like mercantile economy with tradesmen exchanging goods and services on a equal footing has already been abstracted if not destroyed by the bizarre exchange rate making use of gold and jewels.

    Yet nearly all of these questions relate to quasi-Hobbesian issues about the social contract: Marx is describing capitalism historically, after the producers and industrialsts and monopolists have taken charge, following the feudal system. Had some fixed commodity-exchange rates been in place (say at the American revolution) preventing hoarding, eliminating a gold standard, inequitable distribution, land grabs, these problems would not have occurred.

  16. Kirby Olson says:

    Steve, this is probably irrelevant to you but in Port Angeles Washington there was once an anarchist commune that ran according to the principles of the time-bank.

    You put in a sack of potatoes that cost you say 40 hours of farming, and you could then get out forty hours of onions, or forty hours worth of poems.

    It went belly up after about a decade. There were problems in the time as value concept because 1. everyone was guessing, and sometimes overestimating, and 2. everybody wanted to bring in poems, and nobody wanted to bring in potatoes.

    I read about this in a chapter in Charles Le Warne’s Utopias on Puget Sound.

    I found it funny to read about. The arguments between Marx and Proudhon on the basis of value in alternative economies are much funnier somehow when they are translated into a real life context.

  17. Franz Bieberkopf says:

    Hello. Interesting post. Leaving the question of value-form as transcendental supposition aside I want to say something about production-price. I’m just reading The Great Discovery by Vitali Vygodski and he makes the argument that Marx in the Grundrisse hadnt yet worked out the concept of production-price (which is cost of production (constant + variable capital) + average profit among branches with different organic composition of capital, which means that prices would depart from value according to how the organic composition of the given capital relates to the average composition of capital. This is rather something he figures out while writing Theories of Surplus Value, and deals with in the third volume of Capital.

    I havent really understood the details of the argument of the transformation problem, so I’m not saying that Marx really got it right, but I’m saying that the concept of production-price adresses what happens inbetween socially necessary labour and price. Vygodski argues that Marx with the concept of production-price shows that value is not an empirical concept at all but exists within averageprofit, land rent, etc., etc., as a regulation. I guess one, for instance, could say that the law of value operates in the proportional relation between capital of different organic composition; an increase in productivity in a given bransch would mean increased supply which would mean falling prices, which would mean relocation of capital to more profitable branches to the point that the supply in the first bransch falls again and prices rices to match average profit. High-tech industry would generally have prices above value and this departure would encompass prices below value in labourintensive productionprocesses. George Caffentzis, mentioned by Nate above, has formulated this into a reasonable objection to Negris reading of the passage in Grundrisse known as the fragments on machines.

  18. classless says:

    I’d agree that Marx does not derive the value from the specific amount of labor that is used for a specific commodity but form what he refers to as abstract labor which is the average social labor.

  19. Kirby Olson says:

    Does Marxism necessarily imply an economy that is totally controlled by the state in order to guarantee the Marxist notion of value remains in operation (as opposed to supply/demand).

    Would this also pertain to cultural production — as in, the state decides what can be made, and how, so that supply/demand does not kick in?

    If so, would this not create the conditions by which the first amendment would have to be scrapped in favor of a blueprint for artistic production?

    The clown as producer of wealth is mentioned in the Grundrisse. But how can a clown operate without (a la the jester of older times) specifically attacking the government?

    Would the Marxist state allow a jester whose work capitalizes on the discrepancy between value of the state’s viewpoint, and value of the jester’s viewpoint, which is to an extent a value created AT THE EXPENSE of the state?

    Just a few tiny questions I had while rereading this.

  20. Kirby, in Grundrisse Marx says absolutely nothing whatsoever about the state controlling the economy. His only mentions of the state are in the context of how the state serves capital and guarantess its power.

  21. Kirby Olson says:

    Steve, isn’t the state nevertheless implied — a kind of elephant in the living room?

    I can’t see how else the vision would get instantiated. Is there another way except total control of the economy by the state?

    What happens to the clown is what bothers me.

  22. Kirby Olson says:

    On second thought are you saying that the work is purely descriptive and doesn’t imply a prescription?

    If it implies a prescription I think it also implies a state.

    Who else would administer the prescription?

  23. Tim says:

    how is it possible to talk about subjectivity and Marx without talking about Sartre? subjectivity begins at the existential and should radiate outwards into the ideological as a stance against OR for some action of social justice.

  24. janus says:

    I know I’m a bit late coming into this, but I’d just like to say that I’m very much looking forward the other “post, in which I want to talk about monstrosity: the body of the multitude in relation to the body of capital”, and your opinion on the whole idea of the multitude.

    Also, I’m sure glad you’ve got the comments back on. There seems to be a very good discussion going on.

    As for the Grudrisse, that’s mostly over my head, but I’m learning a lot.

  25. Miguel Caetano says:

    Dear Steven:

    Your thoughts about the concept of value in Marx have led me to buy the Portuguese translation of a book written originally in French by Anselm Jappe, author of a Debord’s biography.

    Jappe is related to the KRISIS german group (, who used to be led by Robert Kurz. The book is very well researched but I think it is very apocalyptic. Here’s the french presentation:

    Les aventures de la marchandise
    pour une nouvelle critique de la valeur

    RESUME : Analyse les phénomènes récents de la mondialisation, des crises monétaires et boursières, du délabrement social. Explique en quoi la société actuelle, basée sur le règne de l’argent et la consommation de biens périssables, reste prisonnière et aliénée par de faux concepts.

    ARGUMENTAIRE : Il est devenu banal de dire que le monde n’est pas une marchandise, qu’il faut refuser la «marchandisation» de la vie. Mais plus personne n’ose affronter le problème central: où réside exactement ce mensonge, cette inversion de la réalité que nous attribuons à l’argent et à la consommation? Marx y avait répondu il y a plus d’un siècle: les humains fétichisent la «valeur», ils fabriquent un concept tout-puissant, un nouveau dieu qui n’a plus rien à voir avec la réalité de leur vie et de leurs besoins.
    Philosophe, Anselm Jappe reprend à la source le projet de Marx et de nombreux auteurs qui s’y réfèrent. Il analyse les phénomènes récents de la mondialisation, des crises monétaires et boursières, du délabrement social. Il tente d’expliquer en quoi nous sommes prisonniers de faux concepts et toujours aliénés par cette souveraine «valeur marchande», qui n’a guère bougé depuis les débuts du capitalisme. Avec une véritable profondeur, mais en restant toujours accessible, Jappe apporte ses fondements à la critique contemporaine du néolibéralisme.

  26. Miguel Caetano says:

    Oh, I forgot to give the URL of the site from where I copied the reference:

    In English, the name of the book would be something like “The Adventures of The Commodity – For a New Critique of Value”.

  27. Kirby Olson says:

    What are the chances that the left will revert to Locke?

    Is it possible that Marxism is just so skewed that it will never function properly?

    Think of Pol Pot’s economy — where you could only exchange a bag of rice for an exactly identical bag of rice.

    Money permits exchange to at least take place.

    Perhaps we do fetishize it, but I can’t see anything wrong in and of itself with fetishization. We all fetishize. Why shouldn’t we fetishize value, too?

    The important thing is that a government has to protect private property. Otherwise the only economic player is the government.

    I would rather that the individual had some say in the economy.

    Locke did want to impose limits on the amounts of any given thing that a person could own (he wasn’t very precise, but he leaned in that direction)

    Life, liberty, health, possessions. Lockean logistics and criteria have always made more sense to me in terms of thinking about functional economics and functional communities than Marxism, which makes the state into the only player.

    Locke makes the state instead the guarantor of individual liberties.

    Why exactly is that so awful?

    I sure wish the left would get back in step with Locke.

    But that’s why I’m always being screamed at for being a liberal. I’ve never understood even after twenty or thirty years why it’s so bad. When you compare any liberal state to any communist state, the liberal states are always at least functional. The communist states never function, and generally implode within one century.

    Why do the communists want to turn everything over to the state?

    Geez, why is everybody so against Locke, and thus against Madison, and co? Why is so much faith put into the hands of the party?

    What kind of miscalculation is going on that I always fail to compute.

    Getting from Marx to a “dictatorship” no matter of what or of whom, always seems to me to be a fundamental faux pas whether it’s the situationists or Pol Pot.

    I still think Locke is the step we ought to take, and did take, into the only truly decent societies humanity has ever known. Those who marched with Marx always marched into nightmarish concentration camp conditions.

  28. matthew cooper says:

    In response to Kirby and his concerns about trhe “State” and…

    Reading Brian Massumi’s attempt ( The First and Last Emperor…) to cover Delueze and Guattari’s “Apparatus of Capture” and the two other closely related chapters in 1000 Platueas, you might also figure that he seems to have only the vaguest, if not an entirely bad idea of what the State is and what he is dealing with in those texts?

    My understanding of Marx’s estimation of the State is that could be done away with altogether- hence the barricades. Simply to say Marx wasn’t proposing Stalinism anymore than Nietzsche was the Third Reich.

    What Kirby seems to be saying though, in his third entry is … since Marxism in the then guise of Soviet Communism (after the assassination of Lenin) was such a State-bound experiment (China too) such a failure in the
    sense that it managed to firslty turn the State against the revolution itself!!!

    I thought the whole gyst of Delueze and Guattari was to pull all this off that inevitable course for exacrly that reason? I thought it had already been done.

    There is Brian Massumi trying to reconstitute an idea which might be politically appropriate in Nepal as it is but Reagan wasn’t the King. He seems to be unaware of the whole point of Foucault?

    The “State” as both Nietzsche and Marx thought of it is a long way practically from who is simply going to “manage” the economy or protect private property etc. It’s find and seek.
    The “state”, the people and the things which constitute it can be you and your best friend as they can be the thing itself. That isn’t to say “it’s immanent in it’s transcendence” as Massumi says. It isn’t immanent. You have to go looking for it.

    The “origin” of it isn’t a mystery really. You can reasonably assmume that social production itself has always contained the same elements. The state is and always was the same “criminal” enterprise it now deflects itself against.
    Encumbency and opposition are presented and played out ad infinituum and therein it’s obfuscation.
    Kirby is pointing out that the failure of Marxism has already involved the same stupidity.


  29. Will says:

    “Commodity fetishism is, as it were, the manner in which we live the world of Capital (what Zizek calls “ideology,” though for various reasons I am not happy with naming it in this way)”

    In its stead, Gestell (enframing)?


  30. Alex says:


    I stumbled across this by accident, and read your post — but skimmed the comments…so what I say might be have been discussed before (sorry).

    Regarding your point “Marxian values have to do with the overall social organization of the economy, while prices have to do with the fluctuations of supply and demand (and especially marginal supply and demand).” I take issue with this.

    First, the marginalist paradigm has been suspect since its birth. There are reviews of the problems available in the literature (e.g. “The Economics Anti-Textbook”, etc.), so I won’t bore you with them here.

    Second, Marx points out that the labor theory of value implies supply and demand in Das Kapital, vol. I, when noting the fluctuations in prices of Brazilian coffee and diamonds.

    I think the problem is mistaking “supply and demand” as the foundation of all truth…instead of realizing it’s merely a *specification* about how prices fluctuate under certain (ambiguous) circumstances.

    Third, the empirical strength of the labor theory of value has been studied (see, e.g.,…compared to the train-wreck of marginalist economics, the LTV comes out quite well!

    Just some food for thought…

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