The Limits of Ricardian Value: Law, Contingency and Motion in Economics

This paper for the 1999 IWGVT mini-conference on value at the Eastern Economic Association in March 1999, is a kind of watershed. On the one hand, it drew a line under the debate with the ‘Marxism without Marx’ scholars in all its diverse manifestations. On the other, it opens a new discussion on the relation between law and contingency in the formation of value. This was to become more and more critical as the crises of the new millenium unfolded, because it was the gateway to the difficult issue of ‘what difference does conscious human action make?’ In this respect it reconnected with aspects of the Farjoun-Machover ‘econophysics’ literature now emerging after the publication of their Laws of Chaos, in that once it is recognised that economic laws are contingent, and not wholly deterministic, then it can be expected that this contingency will manifest itself to human consciousness as something fixed by chance. However it differs from the econophysics literature in two vital respects. First, it insists on the existence of ‘laws of motion’ in the form of invariants of motion – most importantly, the invariance of total value in exchange. Secondly, it insists that economic laws impose themselves in a deterministic way, to the extent that humans fail to act consciously. Socialism can thus be defined as a form of social organisation in which humans free themselves from the tyranny of blind market forces, by not merely understanding the laws behind these forces, but, 11th-thesis-like, acting to change their effects.

In this respect also, the relation of contingency to blind market laws unifies Marx’s work on political economy with his early work on morality, ideology and free will (his PhD Thesis was on Democritus, architect of the Greek Epicurian concept of free will). Economic laws are deterministic only insofar as we do not act to overcome them. This notion led to my later critique of the trend which I termed ‘Positivist Marxism’, quite dominant in the 19th and early 20th Century, according to which humans, in the march to socialism, act only as agents of a naturally-imposed laws against whose effects they struggle in vain.

The piece begins from a much-ignored assertion of Marx, repeated throughout his works, that the equality of supply and demand is contingent and their non-equality constitutes their law. This highly complex and original idea leads us to the idea of capitalism, and a market, as an entity which perpetuates itself by failing to perpetuate itself: it is the fact that supply diverges from demand which causes the system to continue, not the fact that supply equals demand, which is only the case as a statistical average and never exactly holds.

This fundamental and unrecognised difference between Marx’s approach and that of the classicals also distinguishes Marx from most modern economics, which has focussed on equilibrium as the de facto defining principle from which value may be deduced. The problem is exactly the opposite: it is to define a conception of value which does not require equilibrium and makes no presupposition that supply equals demand, that goods are sold, that profits equalise, or that any of the ‘lawlike’ properties of an ideal market actually hold.

The ‘lawlike’ properties of a market must then be deduced as an outcome of the dynamic, that is temporal, behaviour of the market, expressed in terms of the interaction between value so defined and use value. In order that such a concept of value may have universal applicability, price has to be reformulated as a form of value, and money theorised on this foundation.