In this essay I use Louis Althusser’s observation concerning the synchrony and diachrony of Marx’s logic in Capital to detail changes in the meaning of value, defined as socially necessary abstract labor time, throughout the three volumes of Capital. I use this analysis to identify three common types of logical error in reading Marx that result from failing to recognize this aspect of his methodology, and I provide examples to illustrate each of these common errors. I then argue that, by recognizing the synchrony and diachrony of Marx’s method, it is possible to read value theory in a way that is noneconomistic but that retains value and class as central concepts in the understanding of the social totality.
The antipathy with which many poststructuralist theorists regard value theory is based at least in part on the belief that value theory is, by its nature, a modern project. Indeed, what could be more structuralist than value theory: the project of theorizing, among other things, how the prices of commodities in a capitalist economy are regulated by expenditures of labor time? At the same time, a wholesale rejection of value theory in an effort to avoid essentializing class has its own unfortunate effect; by unmooring class from value, post-Marxist theory encounters difficulty in resituating class as an integrated relation. This postmodern criticism of value theory as inherently economistic comes, of course, on the heels of a broad rejection of value theory on the basis of its alleged logical flaws. I submit that it is possible to defend a poststructuralist class analysis, but to do so it is necessary to resituate the value theory that informs it. Specifically, it is necessary to produce an account of Marx’s methodology that will permit us to perceive the logic of value that underlies class concepts in a way that releases it from the structural constraints of modern formulations. It would be helpful, too, if this rendering of Marx’s logic could establish that the claims concerning the logical flaws in Marx’s value theory are misplaced. To this end, Althusser provides some specific guidance. One of Althusser’s key insights concerns how to characterize the logical development of Marx’s value theory. He argues that the value concepts take their meanings only in relation to the concepts within the boundaries of the text, boundaries that initially exclude contingencies that
closure, either failing to open the logical totality and allow the meanings of the terms systematically to evolve or failing to close the logical totality and rendering the concepts of value and class devoid of the capacity to analyze the effects of value and class on the social totality. This analysis of the synchronic/diachronic aspects of Marx’s methodology is not meant to be exhaustive, nor is it meant to imply that this methodology provides access to objective truth. Value and exchange-value are key concepts in the development of Marx’s analysis that provide a basis for understanding class relations, but there are other key concepts that ought to be analyzed and further expansions of the logical totality that need to be theorized. Capital, for example, becomes differentiated into industrial, financial, and commercial capital, further integrating unproductive sectors of the economy; the effect of these contingencies on the meanings of the existing value concepts needs to be explored. Furthermore, the integration of nonclass aspects of the social totality into a value analysis does not preclude the important work of generating nonclass frameworks for analyzing the social totality. Because each expansion of the conceptual totality remains centered on the class aspects of society, it makes these aspects visible at the expense of other, equally important social aspects. This approach does not seek to encompass other approaches, only to provide a means of integrating cultural and political dimensions of social struggle into a class analysis in order to be able to provide one point of view of the social totality*/a point of view that is admittedly one-sided and partial but that nonetheless attempts systematically to shed light on an important aspect of social totality. It is able to make visible class relations based upon the capitalist organization of paid labor. While these class relations do not determine social outcomes, they do play their part. A theory that is able systematically to bring the class aspect of our social relations to light is surely worth our efforts to elaborate and to defend.
David Kristjanson-Gural (2009) Poststructural Logic in Marx's Theory of Value, Rethinking Marxism: A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society, 21:1, 14-33