New Reading of Marx

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Frederick Harry Pitts

"The New Reading of Marx is best expressed in work by Marxian theoreticians such as Michael Heinrich (2012), who can broadly be described as holding a broadly ‘monetary’ theory of value. Inspired by the readings of Marx given in the work of I. I.Rubin (1972) and originating in the work of Helmut Reichelt (2005) and Hans-GeorgBackhaus (1980, 1992, 2005), the NRM works from a careful reinterpretation of Marx’s written output. It inflects its reading of Marx with Frankfurt School social theory derived from the work of Adorno, under whom many of its earliest exponents studied (Bellofiore and Riva 2015). As in open Marxism – with which it shares certain personnel, and through the earliest publications of which the likes of Backhaus came to Anglophone prominence – the critique of political economy is read as a critical theory of society rather than an alternative economics per se. It presents ‘a Marxism stripped of dogmatic certainties and naturalistic conceptions of society’ (Bonefeld2014: 41 –2), radically open to a range of theoretical and empirical applications. Where the labour theory of value has traditionally held there to be a direct relationship between hours of labour and value, the NRM says, instead, that ‘for value abstract labor is decisive’, as, in the words of Michael Heinrich, ‘the result of a social process which validates the concrete, individual labor spent as a part of the total social labor’ (Heinrich and Wei 2012: 725). The NRM suggests that value does not consist in the amount of labour-time expended in production by any one labouring individual. It relates to the amount of time ‘socially required for its production’ (Marx 1976: 301).For the NRM, value is subject to a social validation made after the concrete expenditure of labor (Heinrich 2012). In production, value can thus only be a potential quantity, pending validation in the exchange of commodities In this respect, a product of labour is not automatically a commodity. By means of its sale it must be validated as such in order to enter into the value relation. For a product of labour to bear value, it must be a commodity. And for a product of labour – whether a good or a service – to become a commodity, it must be sold (Heinrich and Wei 2012: 727).For the NRM, the validity of economic categories such as labour and value does not hold in abstraction from society as whole. Rather, their necessity is established socially through the abstract relation of all things with all other things, in monetary exchange. The exchange of money and commodities brings private labours into asocial relation with one another by ‘establish[ing] the social necessity of the labour expended for the production of a particular commodity’ (Bellofiore and Riva 2015: 30 –1). By means of money, the formerly private labours that take place in production are brought into a social relationship with one another. The status of money as universal equivalent mediates all things with all other things. Hence, value rests on the social validation of labour as value-producing via ‘ exchanging commodities with money as the universal equivalent’ (Bellofiore and Riva 2015: 29).This social aspect is crucial. Labour is only private and pre-social in its doing. In this way, private individuals and private labour are the historical predicates of value, not labour per se (Kicillof and Starosta 2007; Bellofiore and Riva 2015), insofar as value is the name for the relationship into which they enter in and through market exchange. Value relates to abstract social labour and not its concrete private and individual expenditure (Bonefeld 2010: 262). As Bellofiore and Riva assert, ‘labour is not immediately social in production as such’ 2015: 30). Only concrete, private labour is performed and it is from this private, individual basis that the abstraction of labour proceeds. It is in exchange that previously private labour attains its social form in value. Labour becomes social only through the totality of ‘private exchange between independent producers’ validated through the market (Bellofiore and Riva 2015: 30).Moreover, this is not one exchange between two things, but the exchange, mediated by money as general equivalent, of all things with all other things. Value, Marx suggests, is ‘purely social’ insofar as it exists as the relation between commodities. Indeed, value, Marx writes,‘ can only appear in the social relation between commodity and commodity’ extended across society as a whole (Marx quoted in Murray 2013:140). It is this totalising viewpoint that allows Marx to explore the way in which the social organisation of labour within capitalist society is geared towards the commensuration of distinct labours in service of commodity exchange. The NRM gives a very different reading of the relationship between labour and value than do more traditional and orthodox approaches, seeking the secret of value in the social form assumed by the results of labour rather than in its direct content. For the NRM, the form aspect is the key element of Marx’s value theory. As Backhaus writes, the central‘ expository motive’ of Marx’s value theory is the crucial question‘ why this content assumes that form ’ (1980: 101). It is this that radically destabilises any attempt to recoup Marx for any kind of alternative economics or political economy to pose alongside rather than against their classical cornerstones. Because the central insight of the NRM is that value relates not to expended concrete labour as in orthodox accounts, but to its abstract form, the NRM is therefore an attempt to explain ‘the specific social character of commodity-producing labour’ (Heinrich 2012: 45 –7), i.e. precisely why and how a content should take a certain form. Its focus on form means that, for the NRM, Marx’ s theory is not ‘one“ economic theory” beside many others’, an alternative ‘bundle of sociological and economic hypotheses’ to pose against others(Backhaus 1980: 99). In Heinrich’s view, stressing Marx’s ‘labour’ theory of value or his theory of exploitation only serves to‘ neglect his originality and reduce him to something which was already reached before’ in, say, Ricardo(Heinrich and Wei2012: 722). The specific monetary character of Marx’s theory distinguishes it from Ricardian value theory, and, moreover, from productivist accounts that centre the content of the labour process writ either small or large, such as in labour process theory and post-operaismo. As Heinrich suggests, it is not any productive activity that renders capitalism a specific and significant kind of social formation, but the purposes to which it is put and the forms in which it results. ‘We all produce society’ – through time, across places – ‘but we do this in certain forms’ (Heinrich and Wei 2012: 716).The productive activity of a given society is not sufficient alone to understand it, but rather the forms and purposes under which this productive activity takes place (Murray2013: 124). Central to this form-specific analysis of a capitalism that neither political economy nor economics ever truly questions is the value-form. This is the form taken by the wealth by which, as Adorno puts it, life and society are produced and reproduced under capitalism. Thus, the study of what is at bottom an abstract social form always implies the consideration of the specific social relations that it supports a nd that make it so. But it is only through consideration of this form that the critique of political economy is in any way substantially historical (Backhaus 1980: 107).Backhaus quotes Marx, who, in a letter to Engels, wrote that ‘already in the most simple form, that of the commodity, the specific social, in no way absolute character of bourgeois production is analysed’ (Marx quoted in Backhaus 1980: 107). Hence, any approach that extrapolates from the immediate content of production wider historical changes or the specificity of capitalist production itself misses what is truly important about capitalism as a social formation. The understanding of Marx’s method is central to the NRM’s conceptualisation of social form, and the qualitative sociological side of value that this conceptualisation captures. Marx begins Capital with the commodity and goes on to ‘elucidate a development that cannot simply be called economic, but rather is really the development of the commodity form as it moves’, a development that takes in society as a whole (Postone and Brennan 2009: 313). But although Marx begins from the commodity, and not the social constitution of a society based on the buying and selling of labour power in and through the class antagonism, insofar as the man is the key to the understanding of the ape, he begins from the most developed social form of a set of social relations he progressively unveils as the work goes on. The chapter on primitive accumulation, in which Marx unfolds the historical constitution of the abstract categories covered in early chapters, does not arrive until the very end of the book. As Heinrich writes, history ‘does not precede the theoretical development, but rather follow[s] from it’, and Marx uses this presentation to show that‘ the separation of immediate producers from the means of production is the central historical precondition of the capitalist mode of production’ (Heinrich, forthcoming). This demonstrates that for the NRM it is not just the social form assumed by labour that matters, but the constitutive social relations this expresses. However, the NRM does not go far enough in delineating the former, and leaves much of the work required in doing so to its close relative and descendent, open Marxism."