Castoriadis on Value

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Reading notes from Michel Bauwens, 2004

* Article: Valeur, égalité, justice, politique: De Marx à Aristote et d'Aristote a nous. pp. 325+

This essay starts with a long quote by Marx on Aristotle's analysis of the equality in value of material objects on the market. If beds and horses could both be traded through money, then this means they have something in common. But they have not, he said, it is just practical convention. He couldn't see that this commonality was human labour, because the slavery-based society did not let him see the equivalency of human labour (in addition to their usage value). But since concrete labour (of the taylor, the butcher) is differentiated, it must be abstract labour. This labour is seen as a substance/essence.

This use of Substance is profoundly Hegelian and based on a series of reductions from concrete phenomena that are in fact impossible to carry out. The concept of a 'Travail Simple, Abstrait, et Socialement Necessaire', based on a fictive average, never occurs in reality, as it would require a totally open and competitive free market has never existed. LIkewise, if 'socially necessary' cannot be determined, neither can 'Simple Work' (Travail Simple) be deduced from concrete complex work, because work also never functions as a pure market.

The key problem is autonomy in Marx, who oscillates between 2 positions, which cannot be reconciled:

   - capitalism for the first time, transforms work in something that is equal and can be measured
   - capitalism makes transparent something that was already the case from the beginning

To make it more complicated, he adds that all this is also a capitalist fiction, reduction, and that humans are singularities, to be revealed in communism. Thus Marx cannot reconcile his historicizing and his ontologizing.Thus, perhaps Aristotle was not limited, but right in saying that labour is different, and that it is society that equalizes it ? As Aristotle rightly sees it, it is a practical fiction only:

   - “L'égalisation (des objets, des travaux, des individus) est chaque fois opérée suffisamment pour le besoin/usage de la société."

Aristotle does not see work as Substance, because it isn't there -- this fiction of measurability which can only arise in capitalism -- and his aim is not to uncover economic processes, but is essentially 'political': his interest is in the foundations of the polis. If Aristotle was the discovered of the economic, it was subordinated to the political, as a means to an end. Greek philosophers are important precisely because of their break with tradition, their search for the just. For Aristotle, is just both what is legal and what is equal. He acknowledges though that the law is not always perfect, it remains an ideal.

Participation in the undivisable vs partaking justly in the divisible

Equality is defined as pertaining to the participants of the polis and concerns both distributive justice (to each its right part) and corrective justice (equality corrected when it is transgressed). Also, equality concerns what can be divided and is exclusive, and is thus different from participative goods , which cannot be divided, such as language for example. Total justice is for Aristotle, the creation of the social-participative realm, the conditions of its accessibility, and the distintion socially-constituted, between 'le partageable et le participable'.

Directly quoted from the french-language text:

- “Socialiser les individus, c’est les faire participer au non-partageable, à ce qui ne doit pas être divisé, privativement, entre les membres de la communauté. Le juste dans la distribution consiste à une certaine proportionnalité (content quatre termes, c.a.d. 2 rapports concernant 2 objets.

- “Ce n’est qu’une fois cette Proto-valeur, cette axia posée axiomatiquement qu’il peut y avoir réponse à la question du partage ‘selon’ (p. 373).

- La société ne serait pas, si l'échange n'était pas, ni l'échange, si l'égalité n'était pas, ni l'égalité, si la commensurabilité n'était pas (Aristotle, quote p. 381) - Toute la problématique se  noue ici: la société présuppose la commensurabilité, mais celle-ci n’est pas ‘naturelle’. Elle ne peut exister que par convention/institution! Elle ne peut être posée que par la société, pour que la société puisse exister. Bref, la société présuppose la société, elle est création d'elle-même.

To recap, A is to B as object a is to b. This presupposes a common measurability. And here we are back at the key problem: how to compare the worth of man. But what this worth is, is subject to debate: liberty, dignity, 'merit', etc ...

Castoriadis writes: "What also interests me about the political nature of the decision about the political nature of the yardstick of worth, is that it places the cause of the type of society, inside man, inside his 'collective imaginary'. (quoted from , La constitution imaginaire de la societe, page unknown).

Thus value is not rational, but axiomatic, and is fought over, argued about by different parties. As it is the yardstick of worth which will determine 'just proportionality'. It is an eminently political question. The axia (proto-value), depends on the nomos (the constitution/institution of society), which is always already there. How do we then go from the proto-value in social justice, to value in the economic ? What is the equal thing which is exchanged there ? Money is a 'good enough' convention, which permits objects to be compared.

A final note on Marx

Marx made a difference between arithmetic equality, which Aristotle had said was inoperable, and geometric equality ('according to a criteria'), for what he called the first and second phase of communism. In the first phase, you get back what you give (equivalent value for hours of work), but in the second, "each gives according to his capacities, and gets according to his needs". In the first phase, applying an equal measure to inherently unequal individuals, is not true equality; but in the second phase, differentiation is applied, to the criteria established by the individuals themselves, but applying this same rule for all. What is totally missing in Marx is how these needs and capacities are socially constructed. He escapes the issue of the paideia, i.e. training for community.


* Book: Les Carrefours Du Labyrinthe. (Multiple volumes). Cornelius Castoriadis.


English: Crossroads in the Labyrinth. Cornelis Castoriadis.