Prescience and Received Opinion

Jul 21st, 2015 | By | Category: Articles

batmanmason In response to my criticism of Paul Mason's think piece “The end of capitalism has begun” the journalist Giulo Sica stopped by the Zero Books Facebook page to object, and to object strongly.

Sica wrote:

“Paul Mason's piece is brilliant and prescient. Your response is incoherent. I'm glad you published it though. I've got a better understanding of where Zero Books is coming from now. Thank you.”

I posted my own comment to the wall asking Sica to pinpoint the incoherent arguments in my critique and Sica responded by quoting this line:

“If it takes as much time to make a McDouble and a Pabst as it takes for one worker to make, say, ten iPods then the capitalists would have to pay the worker what they’d hoped to keep as profits."

As a follow up Sica asked the following questions:

Q: Does this sentence take into account the relation between time, the original value of the objects being "assembled", and the value ascribed to the end product?
Q: Does it take into account the profit margin from the original raw materials to the end product on sale in the market place?
Q: Does it recognise the difference between the use of each item in its final form, one a foodstuff (and the other a drink I've never heard of) that can keep someone alive for a short time, the other a piece of technology that has myriad uses, many of which the producers and capital accumulators were and are not aware of?

shopping
After laying out his questions Sica concluded with this observation:

It seems to me that this sentence makes no sense to me and Paul Mason has a much clearer angle on both the nature of capital accumulation and the shifting value and use of the commodities in question. Just my opinion, but I hope I've answered your question.

I was pleased to get this response and list of questions, even as I groaned at the implication of his objections. What Sica did was lay bare some of the assumptions that most people have about the way the world works under capitalism, some of the received ideas that usually go unexamined, but that Marx spent a lot of time picking apart. In order to respond I'd have to start from the ground and move up, and I decided that rather than try to answer quickly on Facebook I'd write this blog post.

So to begin to answer I have to address this word value. All of Sica's question can be read differently depending on what he means by the word “value.”

If I were to assume that his definition and my definition of value were the same it would be easy to respond. The answers would be:

A. Yes
B. Yes
C. No, but that's a good thing.

But, we don't have the same definition of value so I'll have to say a lot more.

Most of the time when people talk about the value of a consumer good they are referring to an item's usefulness, but this kind of value is of little concern to critics of capitalism who are influenced by Marx or who oppose capitalism as an economic system rather than as ill-defined bogey.

Economists who do turn to use values in order to describe economic exchanges are called maginalists. Now, these maginalist economists or neoclassical economists dominate most discussion of economic issues today, but one of the consequences of that fact is that there is little objection to capitalism as an economic system. After all, the marginalists describe a world wherein disequilibrium is a consequence of interference from institutions that are external to the market, institutions like the State. From a neoclassical perspective capitalism is perfectly able to meet all our human desires, the trick is to manage capitalism correctly.

So, if Sica is asking whether or not I take into account how subjective calculations of use values determine the value of various commodities the answer I'd give him is no, but this is because I do not hold with the neoclassical description of capitalism.

A fairly solid refutation of marginal utility can be found on Brendan Cooeny's blog Kapitalism 101. His refutation of utility theory is also available as a youtube video.

A second definition of value, a Marxist one, would be classical rather than neoclassical. The labor theory of value is the theory that makes more sense as it can account for profit making, monopolies, inequality, and the tendency for crisis that we find in the world. This labor theory of value holds that the value of a commodity is determined by the socially necessary labor time that the commodity embodies. That is, the average amount of labor that goes into producing the raw materials, the machinery, and the final product of a given commodity is equal to its value.

So, let's go over those questions again. In fact, let's start with the sentence he objected to and then repeat the questions.

“If it takes as much time to make a McDouble and a Pabst as it takes for one worker to make, say, ten iPods then the capitalists would have to pay the worker what they’d hoped to keep as profits."

Q: Does this sentence take into account the relation between time, the original value of the objects being "assembled", and the value ascribed to the end product?

marxA: Given that the value of the raw materials and final product are both determined by the socially necessary labor time involved in production of either the raw materials or the final product then the answer is yes. My account of why capitalists want to reduce the amount of time involved in making commodities of subsistence takes into account the amount of labor time in production, the original value of the objects being assembled (raw materials?), and the value ascribed to the end product.

Q: Does it take into account the profit margin from the original raw materials to the end product on sale in the market place?

A: Yes. I'm working from the argument that the profit margin is derived through the exploitation of labor.

Q: Does it recognize the difference between the use of each item in its final form, one a foodstuff (and the other a drink I've never heard of) that can keep someone alive for a short time, the other a piece of technology that has myriad uses, many of which the producers and capital accumulators were and are not aware of?

A: My sentence doesn't address this as these differences in use values are not factors in determining the rate of exploitation. My account of economics does not turn to use values to explain how the market works or how the production process operates.

Obviously there are large theoretical differences between Sica and Mason on one side and me on the other. I'm glad to debate them further. It's in my interest to welcome these debates in order to be heard because economic critiques of capitalism are marginalized today even by those who call themselves erratic Marxists or who long for a post-capitalist world.

I'll close with one final observation. One of the strengths of Mason's essay rhetorically is that he does not require his reader to come to a new understanding of what capitalism is in order to persuade them that capitalism is changing. Mason need not make the theoretical assumptions of neoclassical economics clear to his readers either. In fact, his argument can only be thought to succeed if those assumptions remain unexamined.

I look forward to pressing on with a thoroughgoing critique of Mason's essay in the weeks to come, and I look forward to more objections as well.


Douglas Lain is the publisher of Zero Books, a novelist (Billy Moon and After the Saucers Landed), and a sometimes pop philosopher for the Partially Examined Life Blog and Thought Catalog. He is also the voice behind the Zero Squared Podcast.

If you enjoy the Zero Books podcast consider listening to the Inside Zero books podcast on Patreon!
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Comment