Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Heinrich's introduction to Marx' Capital

One of the books I've been reading during my convalescence has been Michael Heinrich's An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’ Capital (Monthly Review Press, 2012). It's probably the most lucid commentary to Capital that I've read so far. No wonder it's so much talked about. Personally, I was impressed with how much ground he manages to cover in such a slim volume - no mean feat! I don't really have any criticism to offer against Heinrich, but since I find myself with some spare time on my hands, I want to use the opportunity to clarify my own stance in regard to the so-called "new reading of Marx" (neue Marx-Lektüre) by bringing out what I found most valuable in the book.

First I should start with some general remarks about this "new reading", which started to be developed by Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt in the 70s. I'm still not very well read when it comes to the authors associated with this reading, but, among other things, many or at least several of them stress that:
  1. Capitalist rule is the rule of seemingly “natural” or objective relations (fetishism), rather than class rule. This seeming naturalness is not simply an illusion, but a constitutive illusion, implied in the very workings of capitalism. 
  2. This illusion is not impenetrable. However, the working class is as caught up in it as everyone else. Hence the “standpoint of labor” is not a privileged standpoint for criticizing capitalism.
  3. The goal is a liberation from labor, not of labor.
This amounts to a rejection of the "traditional Marxism" that dominated Marxist thought for most of the 20th century and which underpinned the “really existing” socialism of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. By contrast, the three above-mentioned points seem to be far more consonant with the legacy of Frankfurt school critical theory - but that's a point to which I will have to return in the future. Although the three points all point in the direction of de-emphasizing the role of classes and class-struggle, Heinrich never goes as far as, say, Immanuel Wallerstein, who has been much more radical in proceeding in that direction, arguing that free wage labor or "proletarianization" isn't really crucial for capitalism and that what matters for capitalists is profit, regardless of whether commodities are produced by Russian serfs, American slaves, household labor or free wage-labor. Heinrich, by contrast, still emphasizes that the existence of formally free wage labor as part of what defines capitalism, together with the fact that the goal of endless capital accumulation assumes priority over the satisfaction of wants (Heinrich 2012:14f).

The crucial battleground in Heinrich's confrontation with "traditional Marxism" is Marx' labor theory of value, which is also where the originality of the "new reading" stands out most clearly. Here Heinrich makes a great contribution in pedagogically explaining Marx' theory. What creates a commodity's value is not the individually expended labor-time needed to produce it (as Ricardo and many traditional Marxists thought), but the average “socially necessary labor-time”. This value shouldn't be confused with a commodity's use-value. A use-value can be produced without exchange. Value, by contrast, is only consummated through exchange. Only then is it possible to see that the value of, say, two linen sheets is equal to that of a hundred eggs. It is thus not production alone that determines the value of commodities, but their production as well as their circulation on the market. Against substantialist theories of value which see value as a property or substance inherent in the commodity, Heinrich points out that this value is not a reflection of the input of labor-time in individual products: “value is not at all a property that an individual thing possesses in and of itself. The substance of value... is bestowed mutually in the act of exchange” (ibid. 53). The labor used to produce this value can therefore only be known retrospectively. Marx' term for this labor is "abstract labor", which shouldn't be confused with the "concrete labor" used to produce use-values. Abstract labor is the labor used for producing the value of the things that get to be exchanged.

One of the problems Heinrich solves with this interpretation is the so-called "transformation problem" - the problem of how prices can be derived from value. Since value doesn't exist before prices are established, this problem turns out to be illusory. There is simply no “transformation problem” (ibid. 148f). The movement from value to prices is not a temporal sequence whereby a value already bestowed on a commodity through the production process is expressed in prices, but a movement between analytical levels.

Heinrich's solution seems elegant, but let's at least try an objection. What if we venture out into the market and discover that commodities of type A that, on average, require 1 hour to produce are exchanged with others of type B that require 2 hours? In that case, value would not seem to be dependent on labor time at all, not even “socially necessary” labor time. This objection could be handled by using a supply and demand model, i.e. by assuming that the supply of B will be decreased or that of A increased until prices per "socially necessary" labor-time become equal. Heinrich seems to suggest that this is indeed what will happen, since he states that “value”is not independent of supply and demand (ibid 51f). Rather than using the termonology of supply and demand, however, he prefers to describe the adjustment in terms of mediation:
The magnitude of value of a commodity is not simply a relationship between the individual labor of the producer and the product (which is what the ‘substantialist’ conception of value amounts to), but rather a relationship between the individual labor of producers and the total labor of society. Exchange does not produce value, but rather mediates this relation to the total labor of society. (ibid. 55)
The objection falls, since the labor theory of value holds good, not for the relation between the individual labor required to produce a commodity and its value, but for the relation between the totality of labor and the totality of value produced in a society, with exchange mediating the two levels and creating pressure for adjustment if necessary.

Here we could try a new objection. Is Heinrich's break with substantialism really complete? If the labor theory of value hold good on the aggregate level of total labor and total value in a society, then it certainly no longer makes sense to see value as a substance enveloped inside the individual commodity. However, it could still be argued that value is a “substance” enveloped in the totality of commodities produced in a society.

To this, Heinrich might of course well reply: so what? What matters is not whether substantialism is wholly refuted or not, but that Marx' theory is made comprehensible and coherent. The point is established that labor is the source of value in capitalism, and hence also of the surplus value that keeps the system going. While the individual labor-time expended on a product is certainly no guarantee that the individual capitalist who bought this labor-time will profit, profitability in the system as a whole is only possible because of the exploitation of labor. 

Still, one might argue that Heinrich's fidelity to the idea of free labor as the utltimate ground of value in capitalist society leaves him open to criticism from those, like Wallerstein, who prefer to expand the concept of capitalism to make it compatible with a heterogeneity of relations of production. How about when the capitalist system incorporates products obtained by slavery or colonial robbery? How useful is the labor theory of value then? I suppose that Heinrich would reply that products not produced by wage-labor per definition lack value (just like, for instance, virigin soil, which can function as a commodity despite not being produced by labor). That would be a theoretically reasonable answer, but at the same time it would point to the need to supplement the labor theory of value with other concepts - such as those of "primitive accumulation" or what David Harvey calls "accumulation by dispossession" - to account for the many ways in which capital can be accumulated without having to rely on free wage-labor.

To wrap up about the labor theory of value, I think Heinrich is quite successful in laying the "transformation problem" to rest. The relation between value and prices has long been considered the Achilles heel of Marx' theory of value. Heinrich doesn't take the trouble to clarify in detail how the "mediation" between individual and total labor occurs, but this, I think, is something he can do with good conscience. That simply is not the central problem. If individual prices are what we are interested in, neoclassical economics will do fine. Heinrich instead helps us focus on things that were probably more central to Marx. This was, of course, first of all to demonstrate the role of labor as the source of value. This in turn helps us understand how capitalism functions. Without labor, there can't be any surplus value either, and hence no capital accumulation. Here, however, I need to register a slight reservation. As I've indicated above, I think that people like Wallerstein and Harvey have a point when they claim that labor isn't the only source of capital. To me the weakness of the labor theory of value is not that it can't explain individual prices. It's that it doesn't offer a complete explanation of capital accumulation.

Before finishing, let me just quickly mention two other spectacular punches Heinrich delivers to traditional Marxism in this book. Firstly, he repeatedly states that the proletariat is no revolutionary subject, but just as caught up in fetishism as everyone else (ibid. 180f, 194ff). Secondly, he points out that there is no theory of collapse of capitalism in Capital. In contrast to what was believed by traditional Marxism and the more recent “Krisis” group developed around Robert Kurz in Germany in the 90s, nothing in Marx' theory says that crises will bring about an end of capitalism. On the contrary, each crisis performs a service to capitalism by restoring profitability (ibid. 175-178). Here I can't help thinking of Moishe Postone and his argument that Marx never intended to establish any dialectical necessity leading history out of capitalism to the next stage. When Marx reinterpreted Hegel, the totality that set the horizon for dialectics was capitalism, not world-history as a whole. Not the proletariat, but capital was Geist and subject of this movement. To get out of capitalism, we can't rely on historical necessity. Labor is itself part of the capitalist whole. Not the liberation of labor, but the liberation from labor points to the way out.   


For Swedish readers: Heinrich's book has recently appeared in Swedish translation as Introduktion till de tre volymerna av Marx kapitalet (Tankekraft, 2013)
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