Thursday, December 29, 2016

Robert Paul Wolff — Marx Without Marx, or He Who Must Not Be Named

Good one from Robert Paul Wolff today. Professor Wolff looks at primitive acquisition as the basis of expropriation of the commons, which led subsequently to further levels of expropriation based on class power.
The regular commentator who goes by the internet handle TheDudeDiogenes writes: “I have been wrestling with the concept of exploitation/surplus labor for a while now; my issue is, if the Labor Theory of Value is false (as you hold, and I think so do I, though perhaps based on misunderstanding), then what, precisely, does exploitation consist in? How can surplus labor be extracted from the laborer if the LTV is false?”

When I replied by referring to a paper in which I answer the question mathematically, he said, “I am neither good at nor fond of maths (though I value highly those who do understand them), and my intellectual interests are often more "big picture", but if you could write a post for a humanities semi-expert but mathematical novice, I would surely appreciate it!”

This request was seconded by two other readers, which in my rather parochial world constitutes a tsunami of demand, so I shall make an attempt. There are two ways in which I can respond. 
The first way, which is most natural to me, is to render my mathematical treatment of this question in plain English, leaving the formal proofs for the cognoscenti. This way has the great virtue of preserving one of Marx’s deepest insights, the mystified character of capitalist relations of production, which in my judgment is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of modern social theory. 
The second way is to justify the use of the concept of exploitation to characterize capitalism without referring either to Marx or to the Labor theory of Value. This way has the virtue of circumventing the sectarian squabbles that have absorbed so much of the energy and time of those who proclaim themselves Marxists – no labor/labor power distinction, no tendency of the rate of profit to fall, no negative labor values with positive prices [pace Ian Steedman], and all rest. [I say this, of course, as one who wrote an entire book offering my take on these urgent issues.]

After some reflection [not aided by a morning walk – rain today], I have decided to adopt the second course first. If, when I have finished, anyone has the stomach for more Marx shtick, I will attempt the first. With that said, let me begin.
[I have broken up the paragraphing for online readability.]

The Philosopher's Stone
Marx Without Marx, or He Who Must Not Be Named
Robert Paul Wolff | Professor Emeritus, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Peter Pan said...

His characterization includes the concept of surplus, and a definition of class. How is this not Marxist?

Tom Hickey said...

It is a Marxian explanation without bringing in controversial aspects of Marx and Marxism.

It is pretty much a sociological analysis that probably most sociologists and historians would agree with without any connection with Marx.

Everyone agree that "in the beginning" there was the commons and subsistence living was the norm. When a surplus over subsistence was created it was appropriated ("expropriated") by the warrior class and palace and also shared with the priest class and temple at a time when priests were the technocratic intelligentsia.

It is arguable how much was appropriation versus expropriation since both defense and proto-technology were socially necessary in addition to productive work.