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Jun. 25th, 2008




Here's Harry Cleaver's web page.

Here are some of his writings available online, including stuff on food and energy.

Texas Archives of Autonomist Marxism.

You guys really should read Reading Capital Politically. It's a very useful book.

Jun. 14th, 2008


Rough passage

I've had a really rough time with the following passage from chapter 2. Any of your thoughts would be welcome:

We have seen that the money-form is merely the reflection thrown upon a single commodity by the relations between all other commodities. That money is a commodity is therefore only a discovery for those who proceed from its finished shape in order to analyse it afterwards. The process of exchange gives the commodity which it has converted into money not its value but its specific value-form. Confusion between these two attributes has misled some writers into maintaining that the value of gold and silver is imaginary. The fact that money can, in certain functions, be replaced by a mere symbols of itself gave rise to another mistaken notion, that it is itself a mere symbol. Nevertheless, this error did contain the suspicion that the money-form of the thing is external to the thing itself, being simply the form of appearance of human relations behind it. In this sense every commodity is a symbol, since, as value, it is only the material shell of the human labor expended on it. But if it is declared that the social characteristics assumed by material objects, or the material characteristics assumed byt the social determinations of labour on the basis of a definite mode of production, are mere symbols, then it is also declared, at the same time, that these characteristics are the arbitrary product of human reflection... [all emphasis mine]

Some questions: I having difficulty really getting at the distinction between value and value-form in the emphasized sentence. Value would be determinate even before the exchange, but exchange gives it an expression? Is that what he's getting at? And what is this about money being a symbol, or not a symbol? Is he thinking of nominal money? Because I have some serious difficulty in separating nominal money from a sort of ephemeral or spectral evaluation of things as if they were commodities that hold the potential for exchange. Anyhow.

Jun. 9th, 2008



What is communism?

Part One: forms of supply of human labor

All societies, in their attempt to produce what people want and what people need, must divide the total effort of production of these items and services between the different activities that produce those things. The different ways in which these activities can be distributed follows from the different forms the product of social labor can take. There are only two possible forms the product of social labor can take: either as an exchange-value (in which case the product of social labor is a commodity) or not as an exchange-value.1 So there are only two ways in which the aforementioned division of activities can be achieved. It can be achieved by some sort of direct social regulation (by custom or by conscious intention). This takes place in societies where the product is not an exchange-value. Or it can be achieved through the blindly working averages of the price-form.2 This applies to societies based on the market where the product appears under the value-form, i.e., as an exchange-value.3

From this it follows that there are only two fundamental types of societies. The first are those in which the product of social labor either does not take the form of commodities at all (or to an insignificant extent). In these types of societies, the social plan (either conscious or unconscious) is the economic regulator. The second are those societies in which the commodity is the dominant form of the social product and of the supply of social labor. This only occurs under the specifically capitalist form of production. In such societies, the law of value is the economic regulator.

World history, therefore, has three "bands". There is the first band of societies prior to capitalism, there is the epoch of the development of the universalized value-form to a world level (capitalism), and finally there is the third band, human society which has superceded the value-form.

Between each band is a turning point or transition in which we witness a transformation of the forms in which human labor is socially supplied. These are the forms in which surplus labor is extracted.4 The first turning point is the transition from forms of unfree labor to labor which is supplied under the value-form. This turning point turns labor into a commodity subject to sale and purchase. This corresponds with the universalization of the value-form. The second turning point is constituted by the transition out of and beyond the value-form into the higher form of supply of human social labor. This is the transition from capitalism to the free association of the producers consciously cooperating within a commonly agree plan.

Each turning point results in new forms of social arrangement for the extraction of surplus. With the first turning point, we witness the replacement of unfree labor as the basis upon which surplus labor is pumped out from one class by another to wage-labor as the basis for doing so.5 The second turning point does away with the class appropriation of surplus labor altogether and replaces it with common and collective appropriation.

As we saw, the two turning points link three bands of world history. Each band is defined by the form in which surplus labor is extracted and appropriated. In the pre-capitalist band (including ancient and feudal modes of extraction of surplus), surplus labor is extracted by means of relationships of personal dependence. These are the unfree forms of supply of human social labor, either by means of debt bondage, chattel slavery, or serfdom. By contrast, the band or epoch we exist in now is that of universalized exchange. This is the form of social organism based upon the market in which surplus is extracted through the supply of social labor in the form of wage-labor. Under capitalism, the supplier of surplus creating labor is not unfree or personally dependent; he is a free commodity owner, legally equal and free to contract with all other commodity owners. He supplies his labor freely as a social atom endowed with choice. His dependence is not personal as it was under pre-capitalist social arrangements. Yet he is still dependent upon a form, viz., the value-form. His dependence is not upon a lord or master but rather upon an entire class through a system of markets. Under capitalism, his labor appears as an exchange-value which he personally owns and for which there might be more or less demand.

Finally there is the third band, the epoch of the freely associated producers. Under this form of social organism, the surplus is not dominating the producers but is instead subordinated to them and collectively appropriated by them. Marx refers to this final form as communism.

So the first way to understand communism is as a form of the supply of human labor. The supply of human labor can either be regulated by means of the plan (unconscious or intentional) or the value-form. In precapitalist societies it was regulated by the plan, but it was essentially unfree (determined by arbitrary things like gender and age, or determined by a lord or master). Under capitalism, the supply of labor is not planned but is instead determined by the price it fetches. It is free from an individual point of view, but it is still a form of enslavement from a social point of view. Under communism, the supply of labor is self-consciously organized by those who carry out the labor; therefore it is both free and determined by the plan.

Now we have to see exactly what a plan is and what it means in the context of a precapitalist society versus what it means under communism.

1 Exchange-value is the proportion in which useful things of one kind exchange for useful things of another kind. Marx contrasts it with "use-value", which is the ability an object has to satisfy human needs of whatever kind. So for example the use-value of a pair of shoes is that they protect your feet from injury, keep your feet from getting wet, etc. We judge their use-value by how well they do that. By contrast the exchange-value of a pair of shoes is the quantitative proportion in which you can exchange them for another thing. So the exchange-value of a pair of shoes might be equal to that of one coat, five pairs of good sunglasses, a thousandth of a car, or fifty U.S. dollars.

2 Price-form is the expression of value of an object in terms of money. It's the expression of the value of our pair of shoes in terms of fifty U.S. dollars.

3 Value-form is the expression of value by means of a quantitative relation between two kinds of use-values, e,g., 1 pair shoes = 5 pairs of sunglasses, where the "=" means "is worth". The most basic way in which commodities express their value is x commodity A = y commodity B, where "x" and "y" are quantities and A and B are different types of commodity.

4 Surplus labor is any labor that produces things above and beyond what the society needs to survive or "reproduce itself". All societies produce surplus. In a Lenape tribe, for example, people might produce skins or jewelry above and beyond that needed for protection from the cold or religious ceremonies. That surplus could be traded for stuff that really is needed from other villages, or it could be saved for a later date. Under capitalism, the surplus takes the form of "profit", and this can either be hoarded, reinvested, used to purchase goods, used to pay rent, pay workers, etc. How much surplus is created is determined by the productive capacities of the society. What form the surplus takes and how it is controlled is determined by the social relations of that society. So in a precapitalist society, the surplus may take the form of extra food, and what is done with that extra food is decided by the village in common, by the lord or master, etc. In capitalist society, the surplus takes the form of money, specifically of profit, and what is done with that profit is determined by the extractor of this surplus, i.e., the capitalist. Under communism, the surplus will take the form simply of goods and services that enrich our lives, satisfy us, and allow us to flourish, and what is done with that surplus will be determined by no one other than those who produce it, i.e., us.

5 Wage-labor is labor that is subject to the value-form and thus which has a price. Wage-labor is labor which the producer "owns" and which he can sell for money. By contrast, a serf tied to the land or a slave cannot sell his labor to a different lord; he is personally tied to his owner. Likewise, a tribe member labors for his tribe because of the natural bonds of family and clan, not for money.

Jun. 7th, 2008


Oh to the em to the gee

So, I am doing some research on data-lust--or, what I see as data-lust--in contemporary aesthetic and popcultural practice (algorithmzzzz!), and I am reading about this douche rational choice theorist, in an article written by a douche fanboi who's get all moist and misty relating the glories of his pet theorist. Anyhow, I'm reading and reading, and I'm coming along to the point in the article when the author relates rational choice theory in political science to previous mathematicization and formulization in other disciplines. And he writes the following:

For Bueno de Mesquita, getting his methodology accepted by the policy-making establishment remains somewhat of an uphill slog. The most pointed criticism of rational choice has been that, unlike with more traditional political scientists, very little cross-pollination takes place between rational-choice academics and government policy-makers. Bueno de Mesquita says it’s just a matter of time before that changes. “Because people who are in a position to appoint people weren’t trained in this way, they don’t feel as comfortable as with people who were trained in what I would describe as a less rigorous form of study of politics. And, so, the folks who do more rigorous work typically don’t get invited in,” he says. Of course, the same was true of economics 40 years ago when nontechnical types like John Kenneth Galbraith dominated the field. Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman changed all that, and Bueno de Mesquita sees himself playing the same role for politics.


Yes, because the dons of failed economic practice are the people you want to claim as your intellectual compatriots!

Jun. 6th, 2008



Process of Exchange - Question about universal equivalent

This part of the argument is still a little obscure to me:
Let us look at the matter a little closer. To the owner of a commodity, every other commodity is, in regard to his own, a particular equivalent, and consequently his own commodity is the universal equivalent for all the others. But since this applies to every owner, there is, in fact, no commodity acting as universal equivalent, and the relative value of commodities possesses no general form under which they can be equated as values and have the magnitude of their values compared. So far, therefore, they do not confront each other as commodities, but only as products or use-values. In their difficulties our commodity owners think like Faust: “Im Anfang war die Tat.” [“In the beginning was the deed.” – Goethe, Faust.] They therefore acted and transacted before they thought. Instinctively they conform to the laws imposed by the nature of commodities. They cannot bring their commodities into relation as values, and therefore as commodities, except by comparing them with some one other commodity as the universal equivalent. That we saw from the analysis of a commodity. But a particular commodity cannot become the universal equivalent except by a social act. The social action therefore of all other commodities, sets apart the particular commodity in which they all represent their values. Thereby the bodily form of this commodity becomes the form of the socially recognised universal equivalent. To be the universal equivalent, becomes, by this social process, the specific function of the commodity thus excluded by the rest. Thus it becomes – money. “Illi unum consilium habent et virtutem et potestatem suam bestiae tradunt. Et ne quis possit emere aut vendere, nisi qui habet characterem aut nomen bestiae aut numerum nominis ejus.” [“These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength unto the beast.” Revelations, 17:13; “And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.” Revelations, 13:17.] (Apocalypse.)
The bolded parts in particular. What I took away from chapter 1, the analysis of the value-form, was that the universal equivalent "logically" followed from the simple, isolated, accidental value-form. But it seemed then that the simple value-form was still sufficient for expressing the value of the commodity at least to some degree. So even in an equation like

20 yards linen = 1 coat

you still have the relative value of the linen expressed in the coat as its equivalent. So I'm not sure why all of a sudden commodities can't be brought into relation as values without there being a universal equivalent. Doesn't the universal equivalent arise from the fact that commodities already are being brought into relation as values?

Anyone got any ideas?

Jun. 5th, 2008



Reading Capital Politically

There's a free copy of Harry Cleaver's Reading Capital Politically available in PDF.

Jun. 1st, 2008


The Fetishism of Commodities


May. 14th, 2008



Some key terms

I started putting together definitions of key terms from the Contribution. Post additions, clarifications, or requests in the comments, and we can add to the table together.

If you can put these terms together in their phenomenological order, showing how each is a moment in the development of the immanent contradiction between use-value and exchange-value in the commodity, leading all the way up to the absolute, universal expression of the value-form, then you basically understand the Contribution.

Hoard: money immobilized, purposely kept out of the exchange process as the embodiment of exchange-value


Means of circulation (see also “Medium of circulation” and “Means of purchase”): merely transient monetary aspect of commodities; money as means of circulation is always means of purchase


Means of exchange: a commodity which is the sole carrier of exchange-value; physical depository of exchange-value; an object insofar as it is an active carrier of exchange-value


Means of existence: the main function which use-values directly serve; something that satisfies human wants or needs directly; means of satisfaction of needs


Means of payment: only adequate equivalent of the commodity; absolute embodiment of exchange-value; last word of the exchange process; appears as absolute commodity inside sphere of circulation, not outside as in hoard; absolute form of exchange-value; universal commodity of contracts; accumulations of money as means of payment = reserve fund


Means of purchase: that which causes commodities to move by realizing their prices


Measure of value (see also “Price” and “Nominal gold or nominal money”): something is the measure of value if the exchange-value of all commodities is measured in it, is expressed in their relation to a definite quantity of it containing a definite amount of labor-time; condition of something being the universal equivalent; something in which the exchange-value of all other commodities is expressed; reification of labor-time; nominal money; standard of price; an exchange-value compared with the exchange-value of other commodities; the money name of commodities (nominal gold)


Medium of circulation: medium of exchange insofar as it is adapted to the process of circulation (C-C); that which represents the transformation of commodities by its changes of place; gold as coin; money when it’s not just imaginary, a real thing present side-by-side with other commodities; quantity is the crucial factor (compare with “Standard of price”); money’s appearance in C-M-C; one of the two principal functions of money in C-M-C (see also “Standard of value”)


Medium of exchange: any commodity which helps bring about the metabolism C-C; carrier of exchange-value


Money of account: what commodity is transformed into—in the mind, on paper, or in words—whenever the aspect of exchange-value becomes fixed in a particular type of wealth; value of the commodity expressed in dollars and cents


Nominal money or nominal gold: gold as the measure of value; quantity of money serving as a name for a definite quantity of labor-time; imaginary existence of universal abstract labor-time


Price (see also “Measure of value” and “Nominal money or nominal gold”): gives exchange-value a form of existence which is only nominally distinct from the commodity (not yet completely independent as in Money); quantity of gold into which a commodity is nominally converted


Standard of value (see also “Measure of value” and “Medium of circulation”): money as money of account, gold as nominal gold; physical material is the crucial factor (compare with “Medium of circulation”); one of the two principal functions of money in C-M-C; nominal money or nominal gold


Suspended coin: the coin that remains left over after M-C in the process C-M-C

May. 13th, 2008



End-of-the-World Trade

Last November, I spent several days in the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, in banks’ headquarters in the City and in the pale wood and glass of a hedge fund’s St James’s office trying to understand the credit crisis that had erupted over the previous four months. I became intrigued by an oddity that I came to think of as the end-of-the-world trade. The trade is the purchase of insurance against what would in effect be the failure of the modern capitalist system. It would take a cataclysm – around a third of the leading investment-grade corporations in Europe or half those in North America going bankrupt and defaulting on their debt – for the insurance to be paid out.

I asked one investment banker what might cause half of North America’s top corporations to default. No ordinary economic recession or natural disaster short of an asteroid strike could do it: no hurricane, for example, and not even ‘the big one’, a catastrophic earthquake devastating California. All he could think of was ‘a revolutionary Marxist government in Washington’. That’s not a likely scenario, yet the cost of insuring against it had shot up ten-fold. Normally one can buy $10 million of end-of-the-world insurance for between two and three thousand dollars a year. By early last November, the prices quoted were between twenty and thirty thousand, and even then it was difficult to buy in quantity – at least, said the banker, ‘not from anyone you trusted’.

Of course, the credit crisis has increased the risk of systemic economic failure. But the existence and rising price of the end-of-the-world trade indicate something beyond that. The crisis isn’t just about the bursting of the US housing bubble and dodgy sub-prime lending. Nor is it merely a reflection of the perennial cycle in which greed trumps fear to create a euphoric disregard of risk, only for fear to reassert itself as the risk becomes too great. What is revealed by the end-of-the-world trade is that the current crisis concerns the collapse of public fact.


May. 9th, 2008



Means of Payment & World Money

Does anyone have anything they'd like to throw out about credit? I take it the big deal here is that money makes its appearance as means of payment, meaning it's not there to move commodities around (the commodities have already moved on the basis of the promise), but rather to fulfill contracts (promises). What precisely is the difference now between how money was functioning before as means of exchange and how it's functioning now? Can this be made clearer?

World money? I didn't find much of interest in here besides the bit at the end about cosmopolitanism. At some point we may have to reckon with how much of Marx's analysis of international trade carries over if countries aren't swapped gold and silver but currency. There are a lot of exchanges in the world today. One of the important ones is foreign exchange markets where people trade currency. I still have no idea what precise role this plays in the capitalist mode of production compared with other forms of exchange. I do know that it's become much more important since the 70s when we went off Bretton Woods.

One of the things that might be interesting is if someone could go through the text and track the meanings of phrases like: medium of exchange, means of circulation, measure of value, money of account, and means of payment. After all, I think the heart of what Marx is trying to do in this current chapter is to make a sharp distinction between money as means of circulation and money as means of payment. Means of payment is the principal appearance money takes under bourgeois production, according to Marx. So it might be useful to have rigorous definitions of some of these terms. I basically know what the terms mean, but I've been meaning to go back through the text, see where he introduces them, pick up some examples of their use, and put together a glossary of sorts.

I would like to think that if we have rigorous and clear definitions, we can overthrow capitalism by the end of our next session. That, of course, is my motivation here.

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