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A key concept in Karl Marx’s critique of political economy is absolute value.
This category has been lost in the English secondary literature. Its specific meaning can be understood by re-reading Marx’s confrontation with Samuel Bailey and David Ricardo in the 1861-63 Economic Manuscript, and then tracing its evolution through the various editions and drafts of Capital I. Unfortunately, the available English translation of his Theories of Surplus Value is seriously deficient. This paper reconstructs that theoretical path, whilst considering Marx’s previous writings (Grundrisse, A Contribution, Urtext), and provides a survey of the relevant secondary literature (in German, Italian, French and English).
For Marx, the adjective ‘absolute’ refers to the two following, and entwined, circumstances. First, that the commodity, beyond being use-value, is value, as long as it materialises as exchange value in another commodity. Value within the commodity is separated (or “abstracted”) from the use-value of that commodity itself, and enters into a relation where money becomes the “body of value”: value embodied. Second, the unsocial sociability between the isolated producers is separated (or “abstracted”) from them, and controls them.
“Absolute” here refers not only to this detachment and incarnation but to the despotic command that is thereby executed over these isolated producers. The abstracted moment (here, the form of money as absolute value) is considered in the relativity with the correlativity from which the process of isolation and separation begins (here, the form of the commodity, inseparable from its own use value). ‘Absolute’ thus also stands for the development of value into an automatic Subject as an overgrasping and self-reproducing totality.
We have here the expression, in the form of a thing, of something inherently “relative”: the social relation between human beings, on the one hand, and their mutual productive activity as a separate entity governing them, on the other. Unfortunately, the foundation upon which Marx’s reasoning is erected is fragile. The category of labour as the substance of absolute value is not properly grounded, and it maintains an internal necessary reference to money as a commodity which should be rejected.
I provide an alternative foundation based on the Urtext and on Chapter 7 of Capital I. The answer to Marx’s question – what is it that grounds the reference of value to labour? – lies in the “consumption” by capital of the living bearers of labour-power: i.e., use of their labour power, and hence in the (antagonistic) extraction of their living labour, turning into the new value added. This outcome cannot be taken for granted in capitalism’s historically socially specific situation. That is why capitalist production is nothing but labour, and this is the ultimate foundation of Marx’s (monetary) value theory of labour. The monetary imprinting must be given by an ex-ante validation of the living labour expended, by finance to production (the buying and selling of labour power).
In this perspective, Marx’s Capital is a journey from intrinsic value (an ethereal “ghost”) into money as an absolute value (a “fetish”), which becomes capital (a “vampire”). The first section of Capital must be read “backwards”, from the real subsumption of labour to capital and class struggle in production, to commodity and money.