Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Notes on I.I. Rubin’s Qualitative and Quantitative Value Theories

I unfortunately don’t have the time to write on this topic properly, in a way that would make it accessible to readers who aren’t familiar with I.I. Rubin’s work on value theory. It might, for that matter, look a bit alien to people who are familiar with Rubin, since these are more personal notes to preserve a set of associations, than a worked-out argument… But for what it’s worth…

The rediscovery of I.I. Rubin’s work in the 1970s is one of the events that opened up new paths for understanding Marx’s value theory. Rubin’s work opposes substantialist interpretations of the category of value – interpretations that would, for example, understand value as something calculable from labour-time inputs – or interpretations that viewed Marx’s theory of value as oriented to explaining movements of commodity prices. Rubin argues that such interpretations miss the sociological dimension of Marx’s value theory – a dimension which Rubin attempts to recapture by focussing on how Marx’s category of value relates to an analysis of “production relations”.

So far, so similar – at least in superficial terms – to my own attempt to push into the foreground what I tend to call the “anthropological” character of Marx’s argument: like Rubin, I have tried to suggest that Marx is analysing the peculiar qualities and consequences of a distinctive form of social relation – and that the liminal ontological characteristics attributed to categories like value, abstract labour and capital reflect the anthropological peculiarities of the relation being analysed.

In other respects as well, Rubin seems to hit close to aspects of Marx’s theory that I have tried to foreground. In particular, Rubin seems to grasp what I have characterised as the retroactive determination of categories like value and abstract labour. He highlights that “social labour” is constituted as a subset of labouring activities, when the action of market determines objectively what sorts of labouring activities will succeed in counting as part of social labour – a subset that is smaller than the universe of privately-conducted labouring activities that are undertaken without prior knowledge of the volume of demand for the products those private labouring activities produce.

So much, so similar…

More askew, however, Rubin introduces what has become an influential distinction between “qualitative” and “quantitative” dimensions of Marx’s theory of value. The dimension I have just described – the culling process that constitutes “social labour” – falls onto the “quantitative” side of Rubin’s dichotomy. He associates it with the analysis of the magnitude of value, but distinguishes it from the analysis of the form of value – which, for Rubin, is what properly falls on the “qualitative” side of Marx’s theory – and thus on the side amenable to sociological analysis.

What seems to motivate this distinction is an assumption that social relations (“production relations” in Rubin’s inflection of Marx) must be fundamentally intersubjective in character. Searching about for some sort of intersubjective relation to which Marx might be referring in the opening sections of Capital, Rubin seems to hit on the sorts of social contract relations discussed at the opening of Capital‘s second chapter – the intersubjective relations of mutual recognition presented there as being at the heart of commodity exchange between formally autonomous, private producers. This move then skews Rubin’s analysis in a number of strange ways.

First, it leads him to a strangely utopian presentation of capitalist social relations as relations of equality between autonomous individuals (a presentation so positive-sounding in its implications that he must constantly backtrack within his own discussion to point out that the relation omits other important forms of equality, etc.).

Second, it leads him to understand the argument about the fetish character of the commodity as an argument about how these intersubjective relations take on an strangely objective character. This is a difficult circle to square, since social contract relations of mutual recognition are, in many senses, the ideal-typic, almost definitional, archetypes of intersubjective social relations, and are thus difficult to confuse with something objective and beyond the personal control of social actors. Rubin attempts to square it by identifying the only seemingly “objective” thing he can find in the social contract presentation: the fact that the social relation is “mediated” by an exchange of objects. He then tries to argue that this sort of mediation confers an objective cast on the social relation – a move that relies on the naturalisation of the “objective” character of objects (as though “things” naturally strike people as “thingly”, and thus a social relation mediated by the exchange of things would necessarily acquire an objective flavour). Rubin is historically savvy enough for this to cause him some worry: capitalism is hardly unique in mediating social relations by means of objects. This leads him to suggest that there is something more objective about our objects – partially because they are somehow not embedded within social relations in the same way, partially because the relationships being mediated have a form of personal autonomy within a general framework of complex interdependence established by market relations. These specific moves have filtered their way into more recent adaptations of qualitative value theory – particularly in Postone’s work.

I don’t have time for a fully adequate presentation of all of the reasons I think this constellation of moves is problematic, but I can suggest the direction of my criticisms by pointing to the third issue with Rubin’s approach: that he does not consider that Marx’s “sociological” analysis was attempting to confront a very different sort of social relation – one that has “objective” characteristics, not because an intersubjective process is mediated by things, but because the relation is simply not intersubjective in the first place. The phenomena Rubin groups on the “quantitative” side of his dichotomy – which he associates with the magnitude, but not the form, of value – should, I suggest, have instead been positioned as precisely what Marx’s “sociological” analysis is trying to explain.

Marx argues that political economy has grasped – somewhat imprecisely, but grasped nevertheless – the content of value: that somehow, somewhere, a pattern of social behaviour is being enacted that constitutes human labour as equal, and as measured by socially-average labour-time. What political economy does not grasp – because, Marx suggests, it is more worried about understanding the quantitative ratios in which commodities exchange – is the peculiar objective form in which these contents present themselves. This objective form relates to the way in which this content is not deliberately constituted by social actors via any intersubjectively-meaningful process, but instead arises unintentionally, as an emergent aggregate effect, from the tandem operation of a complex constellation of other social practices that are not oriented directly to achieving this specific goal.

As a result, when political economy first discovers this strange pattern – the ongoing enactment of a peculiar sort of lawlike pattern of social behaviour – this pattern does not appear to be generated in any obvious way by human social practices: after all, quintessential, archetypal social practices are intersubjective – and the pattern discovered by political economy results from nothing intersubjectively meaningful. Instead, the pattern is observed first in the movements of material goods. The pattern therefore appears to arise, not due to human actions, but due to some sort of intrinsic capacity for self-organisation inherent in the material world. The discovery of this pattern, in this way, not only disguises its social origin, but also makes it plausible for the material world to be perceived as a spontaneously self-organising realm that operates according to its own immanent laws that arise independently from human action. In other words, the material world starts to look… material. Objective. Secular. Devoid of anthropormorphic determination. Our intuitive secular sense of materiality emerges, from this account, as a very peculiar sort of anthropomorphism – wearing the perfect asocial disguise…

By reducing the sociological to the intersubjective, Rubin presents a near miss: he captures part of the argument about the non-intersubjective social relation through which “social labour” is enacted, but he relegates this topic to the “quantitative” side of the theory of value, and assumes the real meat of the argument must pertain to some sort of intersubjective relation. The set of moves pioneered by Rubin continue to be put forward by more recent attempts to understand the peculiar “objectivity” of the social relation Marx is trying to grasp – many of which replicate Rubin’s one-sidedness – the same one-sidedness analysed in Marx’s discussion of the fetish character. Marx’s attempt to break the identification of the “social” with the “intersubjective” is therefore lost – as is his complex analysis of how we collectively constitute this sort of complex, layered, mutifaceted social, only some portions of which intuitively appear social to us at first glance…

This is a very truncated exposition of this point, and not edited… – apologies… A student is bearing down at the door, unexpected, so I’ll put the post up rather than defer… More another time…

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4 responses to “Notes on I.I. Rubin’s Qualitative and Quantitative Value Theories

  1. roger February 18, 2010 at 4:54 am

    I’ve been thinking about the social characteristics distinguishing barter from money – which I associate, in Marx, with the idea that universal history is being made under capitalism in that certain universal traits, for instance the money economy, become the norm in all societies. In the Grundrisse, the barter relation seems to define the small circle – family, kinship group, polis – among each other – that is, there are a number of small circles which between them form more of an archipelego of cultures than a global society. This h makes sense to me. I’ve been reading Vivian Zelizer’s book about how, within the money economy, the absolute fungibility of money does not govern all social relationships. Money is earmarked, for instance. She doesn’t go into the barter relationship that appears in family and friendships, or below the surface of organizations, but this, too, I think has to be taken into account. Barter of goods and services is essentially a small world phenomenon, while money at first creates relationships between these small worlds, in a characteristically Hegelian way – recognizing borders in order to trespass them – and the capitalist mode of production, which both empties out the specific social ties of labor and makes it a variable, abstract labor time, aligns itself with money as its preferred universal correlate.

    All of which is a very roundabout way of asking about the nature of those intersubjective production relations. I must check out the second chapter again – and I hope what I am saying isn’t totally irrelevant to the distinction you are making between the sociological and the intersubjective.

  2. N Pepperell February 18, 2010 at 9:42 am

    Hey roger – to be honest, although I’ve been trying to make some sense of its architectonic in some offline writing I’ve been doing recently, I think chapter 2 of Capital is a bit of a mess on a stylistic level – it’s nowhere near as tightly structured as the opening chapter (which has its own messiness, but the point is that the second chapter reads, to me, as though it wears several layers of its own drafting a bit closer to the surface than either the first or third chapters do).

    There is, however, a really nice ricochet between the third and second chapters, where you realise at a certain point during the third chapter that one of the perspectives Marx is discussing there as this fragmentary moment of a much larger process is actually the “same” perspective that, in chapter two, seemed obsessed with barter – so the implication is that the earlier perspective always already sees things in barter than no one would have been likely to see in that process, until they also had available to them the practical experience of this other universe of more impersonal and indirect transactions… So the concept of barter that seems to be in play for part of the second chapter was already “contaminated” with the experience of a broader capitalist production and distribution process. If that makes any sense…

    Marx makes this sort of move a number of times during Capital – suddenly re-presenting you with something that had been presented earlier, where the re-presentation is like seeing the same phenomenon, after having zoomed out geographically or historically, so that the original phenomenon is now explicitly presented as this fleeting moment in something much more complex… The re-positioning, in chapter 3, of the chapter 2 perspective that looks at the process from the standpoint of its “material” end result – ignoring all the social practices through which that result has been achieved – is one of the more compressed movements of this sort in the text. Often the re-positioning takes place chapters and chapters later, so it’s much easier to miss.

    On the issue of the non-intersubjective dimensions of the social, and the relation to universal history: I should say first that I’m not trying to claim that Capital ignores intersubjective relations – the text is chock full of analyses of intersubjective relations of various sorts. In posts like the one above, I’m more trying to draw attention to the tendency within the literature to miss that the text does not reduce “the social” to “the intersubjective” – and important elements of its argument, including particularly the analysis of the fetish character of the commodity – are never going to come into view, if this particular dimension of the argument is overlooked.

    This is a longstanding interest of mine, not specific to Marx: I was originally struck when I did medieval history work – when my projects were focussed precisely on the impacts of the development of more impersonal sorts of social connections – how difficult it was to explain to other people what I was trying to observe. The working assumption for many social historians seemed to be sort of… Thatcherite? (although these folks would have been politically appalled at that association) – but people seemed to think you hadn’t understood something unless you could reduce to person A, who contacts person B, who get funding from person C, etc. So there was a lot of very good work tracing out concrete institutional connections and personal relations – but not so much work looking at what might be unintended aggregate effects that would never come clearly into view when looking at these interpersonal connections, since there is no particular reason to expect, from examining the interactions of persons A and B, that you might get some sort of overarching pattern of behaviour that no one was intending to act out.

    So I suppose I’ve fixated on this dimension of Marx’s work – and on the tendency of Marx scholarship to overlook this dimension of the work – because the reduction of “the social” to “the intersubjective” was an old frustration of mine from a very different context.

    But I agree with the point that Marx is making an argument about the accidental creation of various kinds of practical universals – and that you get what are sort of mutual differentiation effects, where our gestalt sense of interpersonal interaction is itself subtly transformed by the ways in which we also engage practically with dimensions of social experience that are more disembedded from those interpersonal interactions – and which therefore help provide a gestalt sense of an “environment”, within which our more personal interactions are then carried out.

    As I see it, parts of our social experience become – for a number of complex reasons – more intuitively grasped as “social” – as contingent, transformable creations of human practice – and this happens, in part, because other aspects of our social experience seem, intuitively, not to be social at all, because they are not social in the same way. So you get a complex process of mutual differentiation of different slices of social experience that makes it much easier to treat certain dimensions of that multifaceted social as social – and therefore as potentially the site for political contestation and critique.

    One consequence is the ongoing unintentional reproduction of certain patterns of social behaviour (the rational core, in my opinion, of Marx’s appropriation of the labour theory of value is that there is a particular sense in which our collective history pivots around human labour in a way that would be irrational if the goal were simply to meet our material needs – so you have an ongoing long-term process of the expulsion of human labour from some aspects of material reproduction, and then its absorption into others, so that you get a kind of historical pivot around human labour that you don’t get in other social formations: there is some sense in which capitalism “values” human labour that cannot be explained by anything related to material necessity). These patterns arise due to complex interactions among a wide range of social practices that are each, individually, oriented to some other end. If you examine any of these practices in isolation, nothing about them suggests they will generate some long-term macrosociological pattern of collective behaviour – and, indeed, individually they would do no such thing. This makes any patterns that do arise seem mysterious and sui generis, because there is no obvious way these patterns are being generated by what we do.

    In Capital, Marx attempts to explain the non-obvious ways that we generate these patterns nevertheless. His argument is that it takes a lot of different sort of practices, operating in tandem, to generate a pattern of social behaviour as an unintended emergent result that social actors then observe, find mysterious, and – since it isn’t “designed” – attribute to the intrinsic properties of material production, human nature, social life, etc. This is what the fetish passage is, I think, trying to pick out – with Marx expressing the concept as best he can, repurposing vocabulary that he has lying ready to hand, particularly from Hegel…

    This is the reason Marx has a fondness for Darwin: he sees his project as similarly oriented to working out why you can get a complex pattern without a “designer” or some sort of intentionality driving the process. This is also why Marx accuses Darwin of projecting onto material nature the characteristics of bourgeois civil society: Marx thinks that he can explain the practical generation of dynamics very similar to those Darwin claims to have discovered as intrinsic properties of material nature – this doesn’t mean Darwin is wrong, but it means he is insufficiently aware of why we might be particularly receptive to his ideas from a particular moment in time…

    But sorry – writing just as I’m waking up, so this is a bit sprawling and probably doesn’t hit your point… So: a morning’s free association, for what it’s worth… (I should have had my tea first… :-) )

  3. roger February 18, 2010 at 10:03 am

    No, it hits it exactly. I was thinking, last week, about the reaction to Jon Elster’s interpretation of Marx, which is exactly that methodological reductionism is the only “scientific” method. So that what you are calling aggregate effects are always simply additive. Now, with this given as his a priori, I think Elster simply can’t honestly understand Marx, and certainly not tell us what is still ‘good’ in Marx. If we have effects that are aggregate and not additive, it follows, of course, that they aren’t analysible by means of subtraction either – one simply can’t make that reduction at all. It is precisely this that Marx saw in the circulation of commodities and money, and it is precisely because of this that dialectic is the method of social critique, because only dialectic avoids the illusion that aggregate effects are additive. However, I like the way in which you see how this principle is embedded, too, in the way Marx presents his analysis. Those moments in which one looks back and sees that, retrospectively, one has been following one side of a social phenomenon, to the point where it reveals its other sides is a very textually alert or dramatic method.
    Anyway, another of your great comments, Nicole!

  4. N Pepperell February 18, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Yes, with Elster (caveat that it’s been a while since I’ve read him in detail, but…): the rational core of what he’s saying is that Marx does think you can provide a deflationary explanation in terms of social practices – it’s just that Marx has a much more expansive sense of what might fall under the category of “social practice”. In principle a “methodological individualist” could grasp emergent results of individual practices – someone like Hayek potentially paves the way for this – but the tendency is to reductionism: instead of looking at all the possible consequences of individual practices (which might then include very indirect aggregate consequences those individuals would never be able to generate on their own), the tendency is to look at direct consequences, and treat aggregate effects as somehow unreal.

    Marx would consider this the method of vulgar political economy: to look only at what can be directly, sensually perceived, and to treat anything else as epiphenomena that can be reduced to what can be direct perception. Classical political economy makes the opposite mistake: looking through what can be directly perceived, to lawlike underlying patterns, and then treating what is directly accessible to sense perception as ephiphenomenal – as though the only real thing is the pattern, and not the practices through which that pattern is unintentionally generated.

    Marx argues that you can’t allocate quanta of ontological “reality” in this way. The patterns are real – and so are the more directly observable social practices. When he complains that political economy doesn’t explain the relationship between form and content, this is the nature of his complaint: he wants them to investigate how all sorts of concrete practices operate in tandem to generate the sorts of laws or tendencies that classical political economy has discovered, and so to engage in a non-reductive form of analysis – and, in the process, come up with a much more variegated sense of the consequences and potentials of different bits of social behaviour.

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