Sunday, October 12, 2008

Marx 1 - Aristotle 0?

I have a question to raise, before we all get stuck in to chapters 2, 3, 4 and 6 (why not 5?) about one or two paragraphs in chapter 1.

On page 151/152 Marx is talking about Aristotle and the way he first analysed the value form, yet had 'no concept of value'. Marx goes on to claim that Aristotle was unable to identify human labour and its relationship with commodity value because:

"Greek society was founded on the labour of slaves, hence had as its natural basis the inequality of men and of their labour powers."

He then goes on to suggest that:

"The secret of the expression of value, namely the equality and equivalence of all kinds of labour...could not be deciphered until the concept of human equality had already acquired the permanence of a fixed popular opinion."
(all in 1st para of 152)

Is he suggesting that he lives in a society whereby this is the popular opinion? He later mentions that it was 'historical limitation' which prevented Aristotle from understanding the relation of equality. Is it just me, or is this an alarmingly sweeping statement?

He repeats himself over and over and over again about the linen and the coat but completely brushes over something which I think is extremely important. I know we are supposed to consider the idea of average labour power, but I feel this is a different point entirely? To suggest that he is privileged enough to live in an age where people are considered as equals seems absurd? There is certainly a lack of equality or we wouldn't have the economic system we have today. Surely it thrives on the inequality? On cheap labour in China etc?

I don't understand how he can make the argument that Aristotle didn't figure it out before him because of historical limitation. I can deal with him presenting the concept that people/labourers have to be considered equal before you can make the connection between labour and value, but why state that he only deduced this before Aristotle did because he lives in a society where people are considered equal? I just don't think they are, or have ever been.

Perhaps I have misunderstood, but I'd be really interested to know if this equality of people thing is approached later, or has been commented on elsewhere?


Tom Bunyard said...

Hi Rita,

It's a good question, so raise it on Thursday and see what other people think. I guess my own initial response would be as follows:

If you look at page 874 you can see Marx talking about the proletarian worker as a 'free worker' (he does this throughout the book; this passage just happens to be on a page that I've marked in my own copy. The idea is in fact introduced on p.272).

These are "free workers, the sellers of their own labour-power, and therefore the sellers of labour. Free workers, in the double sense that they neither form part of the means of production themselves, as would be the case with slaves, serfs etc., nor do they own the means of production, as would be the case with self-employed peasant proprietors. The free workers are therefore free from, unencumbered by, any means of production of their own."

Marx's point here is that the proletarian has no choice but to work for the capitalist. He likes to use the phrase ‘free worker’ in an ironic sense, as a way of mocking the rhetoric of bourgeois liberalism: the emergence of enlightenment notions of individual freedom is tied, for him, to the bourgeois revolutions and the emergence of capitalist social relations: relations in which individuals confront and recognise each as other as free, equal bearers of quantitatively equivalent commodities. When Marx refers to the proletarian worker as ‘free’ he’s making the point that the worker is in fact anything but free: he/she has to sell their labour as a commodity or they will starve, as they have no means of independently meeting their own means of subsistence.

As regards the stuff about Greece, the quotation above also states that the slave and the serf were ‘part of the means of production’, and not ‘free’, individual commodity owners. Basically, the slave doesn't get paid: he/she is not the owner of his/her labour power. The 'free' worker, on the other hand, is; he/she confronts the capitalist in teh market place like the owner of any other commodity. The slave, on the other hand, IS a commodity: a machine or animal to be used in production. See p.271 for a discussion of this.

Obviously, everything in ancient Greece was made through human labour. Marx certainly isn't claiming that Aristotle was too stupid to recognise that fact. The point however is that Aristotle couldn’t figure out what the common element might be that gave rise to the relative equality of the beds and the houses; he knew they were made by human labour, but he couldn’t identify that labour as the basis of their equivalence. He couldn’t see this because his society was not characterised by the same (hypocritical) ideology of equality: slaves don’t sell their labour as a commodity (they are commodities). According to Marx, arriving at a “concept of human equality” is only possible “in a society where the commodity form is the universal form of the product of labour, hence the dominant social relation is the relation between possessors of commodities.”(p.152). The whole principle of exchange is based upon individuals recognising each other “as owners of private property” (p.178), “persons” that “exist for one another merely as representatives and hence owners of commodities.” (p.178-9) Slaves are not recognised in this way, but ‘free’ workers are. This entails recognising labour power to be a commodity, and thus as something equal to and commensurable with other commodities.


amedeo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
john said...

Hi Rita

I wish I'd had time to respond earlier, but the vampire is at my throat, my labour is not my own. Funny that.

Anyway, a possible and interesting way to read Marx might be through his comments on slavery - there are quite a few more coming up - from wage slavery through to slavery proper. (no freedom for labour in the white skin when in the black it is in chains')

There would be reason to move carefully though - in the cited passage in your post (Rita's post), Marx refers to 'the concept of human equality'. This "concept" gained popularity in popular opinion, I guess, after the declaration of the rights of man, after the 'liberty, equality, fraternity' of the French and after the abolitionists [we 'commemorated' the so-called abolition of slavery last year by noting its replacement with indentured labour etc etc - see posts on my blog about the slaver statues on Goldsmiths town hall. Paul Hendrich had done good work on this, as had Les Back. The ship above the clock is not just any old boat].

So, I think it would be a great way to generate an opening into Marx by tracking together Aristotle, concept of equality (equivalence, substitution, relation) and slavery - with perhaps the notion of freedom. And what must be said about the double sense of freedom in the lecture on thursday (which I elaborated in detail in an essay on, of all people, Crispian Mills, in "Critique of Exotica".

thanks heaps Rita, good stuff.

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