Marxism After the Death of Gold
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“On all occasions, the measures in which rents are collected ought to be the same throughout the diocese.” “Let the measure applicable to the corn-rent, due the seigneurs and others, be settled in Brittany so as to be one only and the same.” “And when the dues are paid, let that be by one measure throughout the kingdom, the measure of his Majesty.”
-From the cahiers de doleances of 1789 [quoted in (Kula 1986: 187)].
Railroad trains are the great educators and monitors of the people in teaching and maintaining exact time.
-William F. Allen, Report on Standard Time (1883) [quoted in (Galison 2003: 125)].
I. “Slightly Stretched” or Broken?
The Marxist critique of political economy has been often criticized empirically. The “laws” of the falling rate of profit and the increasing immisseration of the working class have been cited as central hypotheses of Marx’s analysis of capitalism that have been falsified “by the facts.” These criticisms, in turn, have been answered by Marxists in ways that have kept the criticisms from being fatal to Marx’s critique, but they, in effect, have left the debate on the status of these “laws” in a conceptual purgatory due to long-standing disagreements as to the meaning of terms like “rate of profit” and “immiseration” and how they should be measured.
It is therefore surprising that the “Marx killers” have not latched on to a much more vulnerable aspect of Marx’s critique of political economy: his account of the central role of gold in a capitalist world. Indeed, money provides an important test case for the viability of a Marxist “research program.” For the options appear simple: Marx clearly argues that gold is necessary for the functioning of capitalism; but since Nixon’s decision to “shut the gold window” on August 15, 1971, gold has played a peripheral role at best in the managing of national or international transactions. The last thirty-seven years have seen many crises in capitalism without, however, a crisis of capitalism (to use Lebowitz’s distinction) (Leibowitz 2003). Capitalism is surviving without the working class’s “cross of gold” in the same way it survived the end of chattel slavery. What might have seemed essential at one point in capitalist history has been shown to be a mere “accident” in the case of chattel slavery.(1) Does the same error apply to gold as money? I.e., does the end of gold (and indeed of any precious metal) as the money commodity constitute the crucial negative experimental test of Marxism? If so, the late Sir Karl Popper would have us say, “Falsified! On to a new theory!”
But we know since the work of W. O. Quine, Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos in the 1960s that anomalies are not usually falsifications of a core theory (and that there are no logically “crucial experiments,” though there might historical ones). Anomalies are often simply negative moments productive of revisions of a core theory in a research program. Is this the case with Marxism and the end of gold money? Does the post-1971 story of gold force us to stretch or break with Marxism? As Frantz Fanon pointed out in the case of colonialism: “Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem” (Fanon 1963: 40). Does the “death of gold” like colonialism require a “slight stretching” of Marxist categories or a revolutionary break from them?
In order to answer this question, I will (a) examine Marx’s notion of gold as the ultimate monetary commodity and (b) the consequence of the cutting of the tie of gold with the dollar in 1971 for Marxism and, finally, (c) show how a “slight [class struggle] stretch” of them can give us an adequate analysis both politically and theoretically.
II. “For the sake of simplicity”: On Marx’s theory of money. The notion of Essence and Appearance in Hegel’s Logic and measurement in 19th-century science.
What role does gold play in the functioning of capitalism according to Marx? The answer is not simple, although he begins his chapter on money in Capital I with the claim: “Throughout this work I assume that gold is the money commodity, for the sake of simplicity” (Marx 1976: 188). Marx’s effort at achieving simplicity in exposition clearly did not achieve empirical universality, for at the time of the publication of Capital I, very few nations were operating with a gold standard, and therefore gold was not yet the money commodity of the planet.(2) As Niall Ferguson notes:
In 1868 [a year after the publication of Capital I-CGC] only Britain and a number of its economic dependencies--Portugal, Egypt, Canada, Chile and Argentina--were on the gold standard. France and the other members of the Latin Monetary Union [Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, the Papal States-CGC] as well as Russia, Persia and some Latin American states were on a bimetallic system while most of the rest of the world was on the silver standard (Ferguson 2001: 329).
Marx’s “simplicity” became a fact about “world money” in 1900 when (still with significant exceptions) the gold standard became the global norm and World War I, of course, disrupted even that.
Gold “as the money commodity” was in 1867 not only marginal in what Marx called “world money,” but its use in the form of coins was also marginal to “domestic” monetary transactions among capitalists and between workers and capitalists. By 1867, gold coins were literally banished to the hoards of banks, states, or wealthy individuals and only peered out of their shells in rare circumstances. Indeed, if we see money as having three different sources (and supporting institutions)--the fiat source (state), the commodity source (market), and the credit source (banks)--then in Marx’s time the commodity aspect of money was relatively small and diminishing. Gold was becoming more of a specter than Communism in his time.
This slow “demise” or demonetarization of gold need not necessarily have perturbed a Marx who had thoroughly recorded the illusions generated by its fetishistic power. Moreover, there were other kinds of money--credit money as well as government-issued fiat money--that increasingly dominated a monetary horizon apparently not in need of gold as the money commodity or even any money commodity at all. Marx, however, rejected the possibility of the demise of gold in a capitalist system and he was not alone.(3) Did Marx, the arch defetishizer, get trapped by gold’s fetishistic power? Let us consider why gold became something of conceptual “idée fixe” for Marx.
Throughout Capital (and the earlier Contributions to a Critique of Political Economy) Marx explored many aspects of money that explicitly were categorically detached from gold and indeed he recognized that this detachment was functional to their operation (Marx 1970). Though he wrote very little on national fiat money (e.g., the U.S. “greenbacks” issued in the Civil War), he was especially interested in the relation between commodity money (gold and silver) and credit money (i.e., the discussion of bills of exchange, securities, bank notes and checks in Vol. III of Capital comprises what Suzanne de Brunhoff has called Marx’s “monetary theory of credit,”). One could understand his interest, since credit money was crucial for the circulation of commodities in the 1860s (and, of course, is even more so down to the present day). In this function it proceeds according to the rules of a commodity monetary system even though it has no direct relation to gold as the monetary commodity (De Brunhoff 1976: 77). Credit money in Marx’s time also became an instrument of hoarding as well again even though it had no direct exchange correlation to gold.
Credit-money thus satisfied two of the three major functions of money Marx noted in Chapter 3 of Capital Vol. I: (i) the measure of value, (ii) the circulation of commodities, and (iii) an instrument of hoarding. The only function of money that credit-money could not fulfill is that of the measure of value of commodities. This “two-thirds” monetary theory of credit indicates that Marx was conceptually ready to see a shift from a commodity aspect of money to credit money as the basic vehicle of the circulation of commodities...up to a point. Marx’s hesitation here leads to questions like: What role does value measurement play in capitalist society? Is it central to the operation of a monetary system? If so, why? Why can’t credit money measure the value of commodities?
Marx’s initial answer to these questions, however, poses more questions than it initially answers. He starts off by proposing a definition of money as a measure of value: “the necessary form of appearance of the measure of value which is immanent in commodities, namely labour-time” (Marx 1975: 188). This complex Hegelian-jargon-ladened sentence needs some analysis. First, Marx claims that there are two measures of value: (i) labor-time and (ii) money. Second, labor-time is immanent in commodities while money is its form of appearance. Why are there two “measures of value,” the immanent and as well as the apparent one? Why is the “apparent measure,” money, necessary?
The textual evidence shows that this is important territory for Marx (though extremely labyrinthine for the reader), since he returns to it again and again in the Grundrisse, in Contributions to a Critique of Political Economy as well as in Capital.(4) The immanence of the labor-time measure of value is exactly what the Hegelian jargon Marx uses would lead one to expect: labor-time is the essence of the commodity’s value. It is what is “hidden” in commodities. Similarly, continuing with the Hegelian jargon, essence must “shine forth” in the form of appearance that, in the case of value, is necessarily money.(5) However, one can ask Hegel in general, “why can’t we remain at the level of essence and eschew appearance?,” and Marx in particular, “If labor-time is the measure of value, then why is money as a measure of value necessary at all?” Hegel’s answer to the first question verges on the tautological: “To show or to shine is the characteristic by which essence is distinguished from being--by which it is essence; and it is this show which, when it is developed, shows itself, and is Appearance” (Hegel 1892: 239). Marx’s answer to the second question verges on the poetical: “Although invisible, the value of iron, linen and corn exists in these very articles; it is signified through their equality with gold, even though this relation with gold exists only in their heads, so to speak. The guardian of the commodities must therefore lend them his tongue, or hang a ticket on them, in order to communicate their prices to the outside world” (Marx 1975: 189).
Given these unsatisfactory responses, perhaps an example of immanent and apparent measures from another discipline that Marx was familiar with might be in order: the measures used for heat in nineteenth-century physics. One measure of a gas’s heat is the average kinetic energy of the atoms that constitute it. This measure is “invisible” in two senses: (a) it is ideal, as any average inevitably is, and (b) gas atoms are not directly observable. The average kinetic energy is the immanent measure of heat of a gas (in a Hegelian sense), but it cannot be directly measured (and even Maxwell’s accounting demon would eventually collapse from trying) (van Baeyer 1998:145-155).
The other apparent measure of a gas’s heat is that determined by thermometers (heat=thermo, meter=measure). There have been an enormous variety of methods and instruments used to measure heat throughout history, from the expansion of a gas that pushes a liquid, to the rising of alcohol or mercury in a glass tube, to the bending of a bimetallic strip (Whitelaw 2007: 80-81). But all of them lead to observable, apparent results that “shine forth” or “communicate” (though not directly) the immanent measure. Changes in the average kinetic energy of a gas are reflected in the changes of the length of mercury in a glass tube placed in the gas, but there is no identity between them. This independence can be seen in the development of the 19th century theory of thermodynamics that was based on a non-atomic conception of heat phenomena and the results of apparent, observable measurements. Many supporters of thermodynamics like
Georg Helm and Ludwig Ostwald developed a phenomenological “energetics” program that rejected the atomistic “reduction” of thermodynamics and questioned the epistemological status of an unobservable “metaphysical” atomic stratum of reality (Kragh 1999: 7-9). They would therefore, in Hegelian terminology, be advocating for Appearance and rejecting Essence.
Marx rejected attempts by economists from both the left and right who advocated the elimination of either Essence (the labor-time measure of value) or Appearance (the money as gold measure of value) in the theoretical discussions of capitalism in his time.(6) The tension between these two measures is crucial for the understanding of capitalism, according to Marx. The relationship between them is complex since they are neither polar opposites nor homologous. Let us examine the contradictions and the identities of these two measures.
The labor-time measure of value is quite similar to the atomic measure of heat in that it is invisible, immanent and notional. The value of a commodity is measured by the labor-time socially necessary to produce the commodity “under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time.” When a commodity shines before us, it tells us nothing about the value immanent within it that can be directly observed. Nor do the details of its particular history of production tell us of its value any more than the velocity of an individual atom in a gas tells us of the average kinetic energy of the whole ensemble of gas atoms.
“Normal,” “average,” “prevalent” are words in the definition of the value measure that indicate both a concrete story and an abstract and time-span dependent dimension. The application of these terms might not be as difficult to accomplish as the task of Maxwell’s demon (who has to distinguish between “slow” and “fast” gas atoms), but it is hard enough and certainly gives results that are both real and yet extremely untimely since the phrase “prevalent at the time” is sensitive to the commodity being produced.(7) It is also in the nature of notions like “normal” and “average” to be post factum. There is a measure here in labor-time, but there is hardly measurement. Even though value exists and exerts a tremendous effect on the world of commodities (just as the average kinetic energy of a gas exists and exerts a tremendous effect on the world of gases), it is hardly the basis of a definitive equation like “the value of x commodity y=10 labor-hours,” because in order to make such a statement one must investigate the whole branch of production devoted to commodity y and have agreement concerning the meaning of sensitive words in the phrase “under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time.”
The money measure of value dramatically differs from the labor-time measure in that it is not based upon a review of entire branches of the economy and the making of delicate decisions concerning the “normal” and “average” in order to make a measuring statement like “the value of x commodity y=1/32 ounce of gold.” One simply observes what the commodity’s price (i.e., the money form of its value) is in the publicly traded markets and from that one can infer a potentially infinite series of price equations. In other words, the apparent money measure of value allows one to conclude, “the endless series [of price equations] itself is now a socially given fact in the shape of the prices of the commodities” (Marx 1975: 189). What would have required an elaborate investigative process to determine the immanent value of a commodity is short-circuited through the creation of the price-form through which this immanent value shines forth in its price, or, as Marx puts it, “Price is the money name of the labour objectified in a commodity” (Marx 1975: 195-196).
Though the apparent measure of value is not in contradiction with its immanent measure, it is not completely homologous either, as Marx delighted in pointing out [cf. (Marx 1975: 196)]. The labor-time measure of value though immanent and difficult to determine has an important property of any good measure: changes in the measurement of X’s quantity Q are due to changes in X and not in the measure of Q. This is true of the labor-time measure of value, since any changes in a commodity’s value would be due to the changes in the commodity’s production or in its branch of production (involving changes in “normal,” “average” and “prevalent” as noted above); labor-time being an invariable unit across branches of production, national economies and within historical periods. But this is not true of the money measure of value, for if the value of gold changes due to changes in its production, the price of many commodities will change, even though (in fact, because) there were no changes in their production or their branch of production. Consequently, whenever there is a change in a commodity’s price, it is not clear whether it is arising from changes in the value of the money commodity or changes due to the value of the commodity (or both). The measure can affect the measured (and vice versa, if the measured is an element in the production of gold). This would appear to be a major defect in the Appearance or Measure of value in this price-form, but instead of railing at the confusion of value the price-form creates, calling for “reform,” and demanding, as so many in the past have done, “just balances, just weights,” Marx calmly states that a confused and confusing measure is perfectly appropriate for a confused and confusing system: “This is not a defect, but, on the contrary, it makes this form the adequate one for a mode of production whose laws can only assert themselves as blindly operating averages between constant irregularities” (Marx 1975: 196).(8)
In conclusion, Marx insisted on the centrality of the gold measure of value because it is the way in which a crucial aspect of commodities could be expressed. Money as gold allows for commodities’ value to be expressed definitively and concisely, to shine forth as price, even though in doing so it can distort their absolute value. This is certainly important, especially since the labor-time measure of value though essential is entirely inapplicable by capitalists to do “what bosses do.” Thus for Marx, without gold there would be no prices, and what would capitalism be without prices? But why does Marx insist on the “real thing” and not upon some imaginary unit of account or “notional equivalent of gold” in order to arrive at prices?(9) As he insists, even though price equations, e.g., the value of 2 ounces of the commodity iron=1/36 of an ounce of gold, need not involve “the tiniest particle of real gold,” they must equate labor-times between gold and iron in actual exchanges (Marx 1975: 190). He doggedly defended this insistence on real gold versus imaginary gold in an amazing variety of images and tropes utilizing religious, biological, and philosophical references at the end of the section on “Money” in Capital I. The use of such a pyrotechnic display is a sure sign of Marx’s ironic ire against gold abolitionists and other sorts of monetary cranks and serves almost as a warning to those like Nixon who would venture to detach money from gold:
In order, therefore, that a commodity may in practice operate effectively as exchange-value, it must divest itself of its natural physical body and become transformed from merely imaginary into real gold, although the act of transubstantiation may be more “troublesome” for it than the transition from necessity to freedom for the Hegelian “concept,” the casting of his shell for a lobster, or the putting-off of old Adam for Saint Jerome...If the owner of the iron were to go to the owner of some other earthy commodity, and were to refer him to the price of iron as proof that it was already money, his answer would be the terrestrial equivalent of the answer given by St Peter in heaven to Dante, when the latter recited the creed: “Right well hath now been tested this coin’s alloy and weight; but tell me if thou hast it in thy purse”....Hard cash lurks within the ideal measure of value (Marx 1975: 197-198).
“The act of transubstantiation,” “the transition from necessity to freedom for the Hegelian ‘concept’,” the casting of a lobster’s shell, “the putting-off of old Adam for Saint Jerome,” and St. Peter’s question all point to the fact that “Between the essence/And the descent/Falls the Shadow” (Eliot 1962: 59).
Since this passage expresses Marx’s insistence on gold, it would be worthwhile reflecting on this surfeit of tropes and metaphors. Marx first describes the sale of a commodity for gold money that makes it an exchange value in practice a form of “transubstantiation.” Transubstantiation is, of course, the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ during the Consecration in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox masses. This transformation was not understood by the faithful of these religions in a metaphorical or symbolic sense. At some point in the mass, an actual miracle is supposed to take place and the heavenly body and blood of Christ is really infused into the earthly bread and wine. In Marx’s trope, the exchange of a commodity with money is a transubstantiation simply because the commodity’s value (which was purely imaginary or “heavenly” before) becomes real in the money qua gold it is exchanged for.
The transubstantiation of the commodity is, according to Marx, more “troublesome” than the three other transformations in logic, biology and religion he mentions. It is worth thinking through this series to understand why.
First, consider the philosophical one: the transition from necessity to freedom. Hegel argues that Necessity and Freedom in the abstract are mutually exclusive (hence there can be no transition from one to the other), but when we examine the inner nature of Necessity we find “the members, linked to one another, are not really foreign to each other, but only elements of one whole, each of them, in its connexion with the other, being, as it were, at home and combining with itself” (Hegel 1892: 283). Once this inner richness of necessity is recognized, it is “transfigured into freedom--not the freedom that consists in abstract negation, but freedom concrete and positive” (Hegel 1892: 283).
The commodity version of the transition from necessity to freedom is when a commodity fulfills its destiny as a commodity in being exchanged for money and verifies its actual price, “concrete and positive.” In what sense is this transition more troublesome for a commodity than the Hegelian “concept’s” transition? Consider one of Hegel’s examples of this transition: a criminal can only become free when s/he recognizes his/her punishment “is a [necessary] manifestation of his own act.” This recognition, however, comes from within (Hegel 1892: 283). But a commodity finds the commodity-equivalent of Spinoza’s “intellectual love of God” when it is exchanged for gold. But this transition is “more troublesome” than the criminal’s because it requires facing the possibility that it might not be sold at all, i.e., it requires more than self-reflection, but a hazardous, potentially embarrassing relation to another.
The next transition is from the biological realm: the molting of the lobster’s shell. Clearly it is a necessary action, since the lobster cannot grow without periodically casting off its shell, but it is a troublesome one, since it exposes the lobster to attack before it can grow a new shell.
The commodity when casting off its shell becomes vulnerable in an even “more troublesome” way, for it might discover that it is not able to grow its golden shell and perpetually remains vulnerable to total annihilation.
The final transition in the series is “the putting-off of old Adam for Saint Jerome” that refers to Saint Jerome’s (340-420 CE) self-confessed difficulty in discarding (“putting-off”) his human tendency to sin (“old Adam,” a variant of original sin). This was hard enough to do when he had to deal with the desires and temptations of his material flesh, but he also had to wrestle in his old age with “the spiritual flesh,” wrote Marx (Marx 1975: 197). Jerome confessed in a letter to a disciple, Julia Eustochium, that after a life of world-renowned austerities he dreaded going before his maker because he thought that when the Judge of the Universe asked, “Who art thou?,” and he answered “I am a Christian,” the response was going to be “Thou liest, thou art nought but a Ciceronian [i.e., a clever and eloquent orator, a man of words, and dubious ones at that-CGC]” (Marx 1975: 197). The implication of St. Jerome’s thought is that it is difficult to actually be a Christian, though it is easy to believe or imagine that one is.
Making that transition from belief or imagination to reality is “troublesome” enough, but the transition from being a commodity waiting to be sold for money and actually being sold may be even more troublesome because its “imagined gold-shape” or price gives no guarantee that it will be sold whatever the quality of its will, hence for the commodity’s god, its owner, it is a Ciceronian indeed until it does.(10)
Marx uses these metamorphoses in logic, biology and religion to show the different dimensions of transition that are echoed in the exchange of a commodity for money as gold that for all its “troublesomeness” is necessary.
Finally, Marx uses Dante’s border crossing into Paradise to once again point out that a price determined by an imaginary unit of account is a world apart from the price as determined by an actual exchange. As Dante’s tale goes, passing the heavenly immigration officer, St. Peter, was bound to be difficult, since after all Dante was not dead. St. Peter put difficult questions to Dante to test his knowledge of Christian doctrine before he would let him through. When he proved to be an adept student of the creed, Marx noted that St. Peter asked: “Now that you have thoroughly/examined both this coin’s alloy and weight/tell me, do you have such in your purse?” Dante’s response, one that Marx left unquoted, is, “Yes I do, so bright and round/I have no doubt of its quality” (Dante 1984: 285).(11) The brightness shines forth its purity and its roundness that fact that it has not been clipped, i.e., it is a coin of quality; but the most important point of the exchange is Dante’s “Yes, I do.”
After such a remarkable series of metaphorical reiterations of the point it should easy to agree with Marxist commentators like Claus Germer (although he arrives at this conclusion through a different path than I do): “Examination of Marx’s work shows that, without a doubt, he conceives of money in capitalism as a commodity” (Germer 2005: 34). From this conclusion one is led to an overwhelming question: “Can there be a capitalism without gold as commodity money?” It is somewhat equivalent to the question in the religious sphere, “Can there be Christianity without Transubstantiation?” The answer to the latter is, of course, “Yes.” After all, transubstantiation was one of the basic bones of contention in the Church’s confrontation with medieval heresy and Protestantism. Wyclif, Hus, Luther, Calvin, Bucer and Melanchthon all rejected it (though for different theological and political reasons) (Bainton, 1952: 48). We shall consider the monetary version of this question, “Can there be an anti-gold capitalist ‘Protestantism’?,” in section 4 of this paper. In the next section we shall examine the desecrating moment when the “transubstantiation of the commodity” definitively and universally was abolished at the hands of Richard Nixon on August 15, 1971.
3. The demonetization of gold: a précis. Richard Nixon, the Exemplary Postmodernist. A class analysis of the decision and its consequences. Was the demonetization of gold the apotheosis of Keynesianism or its demise?
I remember quite clearly watching with comrades in a Capital study group on Sunday August 15, 1971 the broadcast of Nixon’s announcement that he had ordered the “closing of the gold window.” Given that we were reading for the previous few months passages like the following from Capital: “money--in the form of precious metal--remains the foundation from which the credit system, by its very nature, can never detach itself” (Marx 1994:606), we left each other that night with the thought that either Capitalism or Marxism was coming to an end before our very eyes!
The technical aspect of Nixon’s decision is simple enough to describe. The U.S. government pledged to exchange for every $35 returned by foreign central banks one ounce of gold. This pledge of gold convertibility was put into question in the long period, especially in the 1960s, when the US’s balance of payments was consistently negative. More dollars were sitting in the accounts of foreign central banks than gold in the US Treasury’s. As Tom Wicker describes the situation:
This [gold convertibility] pledge was the guarantee of stability in international trade and finance; the dollar was backed by gold, and most other currencies were backed by the dollar. By 1971, however, the US had nowhere near enough gold at Fort Knox to redeem all the world’s dollars at that price; and the supply it did have--$18 billion against $36 billion in potential dollar claims abroad--was shrinking, as occasional redemptions were demanded (Wicker 1991: 545).
In fact, the rather heavy straw that broke the golden camel’s back dropped during the week of August 9, 1971, when the British government demanded $3 billion in gold for the dollars in its vaults in London (Wicker 1991: 553).
Why did Nixon make a decision that would inevitably generate so much opposition in his own Republican Party ranks? After all, in 1896 the Republican Party, in response to William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” campaign, declared for “sound money” in its Electoral Platform:
[The Republican Party] caused the enactment of a law providing for the resumption of specie payments in 1879. Since then every dollar has been as good as gold. We are unalterably opposed to every measure calculated to debase our currency or impair the credit of our country (quoted in (Fink 2001: 198)).
Adherence to the gold standard became the watchword of Nixon’s predecessors in the 20th century Republican Party. So it is not surprising that one Republican remarked in 1971 that with the closing of the gold window “American fascism arrived on August 15” (Wicker 1991: 557).
It was no accident that Nixon made this decision in conjunction with announcing a wage-price freeze, for these policies were closely connected. As he said at the time as an explanation for these decisions, “now I am a Keynesian” (Wicker 1991: 551). This self-description meant that he recognized the power of the US working class to impose wage settlements and resist unemployment (the class problematic of Keynesianism). This level of autonomy had dire consequences on the “normal” functioning of a gold-based monetary system.
In the so-called normal case, an increase in wages would lead to price increases and a reduction in exports, to be followed by an outflow of gold from the central bank’s coffers and a deflation in the money supply. An increase in unemployment and a reduction of wages would result, leading to a lower price for exports. The concomitant increase in exports would lead to a positive balance of payments and a return of gold to the central bank’s coffers.
Thus goes the “normal” story. But with a “rigid” working class that has the power to impose wage increases, resist unemployment and widen the scope of the wage (including social security pensions, welfare payments, food stamps), the unfolding of this story is blocked at every turn. Wage increases might lead to increased prices and reduced exports, but instead of imposing a deflation caused by the shipping out of gold, the government would have to “print” more money to support the wage increases and stimulate investment to stop an increase in unemployment. This eventually leads to a gold shortage and a crisis of the international standing of the currency. There need not be harm done to the national economy in these circumstances (in effect, the crisis would be transferred abroad), especially if the nation was at the peak of the panoply of states (and that could be said of the US in 1971!) The working class struggle therefore forced the system to abandon and transcend its gold-backed currency.
In effect, the combination of a wage-price freeze and the closing of the gold window (the “New Economic Policy”) was simultaneously a direct attack on and a recognition of the US working class’s power. The first responded to the capitalist class’s need for direct governmental help in controlling wage increases and a squeeze on its profitability. The second simply accepted the fait accompli of the class struggle and anticipated the inevitable demise of gold convertibility that was looming. Nixon, instead of thinking that he could defeat the working class’s power, decided the best path would be to blunt it and to defuse its impact. (It is often forgotten that the working class won its historically highest average real wage under the Nixon Administration in 1973 while the most direct financial assault on working class power and wages--the Volker interest rate increases--was under the Carter Administration in 1979).
Nixon, who loved to throw the “long bomb,” appreciated the fact that “closing the gold window” was a shocking act for most in his party (and many beyond). He taunted his Republican cronies by calling himself a “Keynesian,” and, if he had the vocabulary, he might have also enjoyed in taunting them even more by describing himself as the first “Post-Modern” President. For if postmodernism has the rejection of representation as the defining element of symbol systems, then he debunked the last monetary myth of reference: the dollar-gold convertibility enshrined in the Bretton Woods Accords of 1944. August 15, 1971 was apparently the last act in the long, slow and intermittent saga of the elimination of referentiality from the monetary world.
Did Nixon understand the metaphysical role he played for his class in this saga? That is not clear. Did most workers understand the consequences of this decision for their class? Again, the evidence is unclear. From a working class perspective, however, the delinking of the dollar and gold was the final rejection of the automaticity of the “laws of capital” whose intent was to continually doom wage struggle to a Sisyphus-like series of moves that led to the point it started from. There was no way out of the bad infinity that I described in the “normal” sequence of events as long as the “golden law” was operative. Nixon, in his fear of mass unemployment, ironically was a “handmaiden” of the working class’s moment of autonomy (which, however, was very short-lived).(12) It did show that in the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a significant breakdown in the apparent “objectivity” of capitalism. Marx argued violence was necessary in forcing agricultural folk in the 16th and 17th century to accept “the discipline necessary for the system of wage-labour,” partially because the system was alien and made no sense to them, but:
The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws. The organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance (Marx 1975: 899)
Yet the working class of the most advanced capitalist nation was not willing to accept its fate as the dependent variable of the production function and pronounced the “self-evident natural laws” null and void through their actions. As I mentioned, on that hot Sunday night in Princeton on August 15, 1971, it seemed to my comrades and to me that Nixon was willing to go to the limits of the system in response to this refusal. Was the consequence, then, either the end of Capitalism or the end of Marxism? We thought so then, for the very text we were studying that day, Capital, Vol. III, seemed to argue that capitalism requires a commodity money measure of value because only a commodity that has a value can measure value (see the previous section). Nixon, therefore, challenged Marx by initiating the “crucial experiment” and simply observing that capitalism did not collapse on August 16, 1971.
The demonetarization of gold, it turns out, was not the equivalent of defetishizing the commodity and the end of the gold standard was not the end of capitalism. Nixon’s experiment showed that capitalism could survive without having a monetary system based upon gold and that the major world currencies could operate without a foundation of golden material substances. This gave capital a new flexibility in responding to class struggle that was recognized and utilized in the later 1970s with the rise of effective neoliberal strategies to attack working class struggles.
IV. 4. An alternative, “slightly stretched” explanation. The notion of measurement in contemporary thought: the end of the “shared substance” view of measurement (global versus local measurement). The critique of the notion of a necessary apparent measure. The underdetermination of measure makes it an object of struggle. The final determination of the money by labor-time and surplus labor, hence the impact of class struggle on the functioning of money. The history of proletarian struggles over the measure of value: a new scene.
Nixon’s decision to “close the gold window” did not end capitalism on August 16, 1971. Since then some gold-bugs and other super rigorists of capitalism have continued to view the era after 1971 era as a post-capitalist twilight zone preceding some more or less horrific version of apocalypse. Other speculators point to the continuing shadowy presence of gold in the international financial scene and claim that this era is a transition back simply to a revived gold standard. But after thirty-seven years there is now a widespread consensus that though there are some important differences between pre- and post-1971 capitalism, what we have had during this time is capitalism all the same.(13)
If the end of the gold standard did not end Capitalism, then did it end Marxism (as the members of my study group feared)? Surely Marxism faced some severe historical tests in the post-1971 period (especially the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the development of a strange capitalism in an even stranger China governed and guided by the world’s largest Communist Party that presumably reveres Marx’s name), but as a theory of capitalism it still has many adherents throughout the planet (myself included) for whom it is incontrovertible common sense and the foundation of their analysis of capitalism.
How is this possible? Marx argued that capitalism needed to have a money commodity to function as the measure of value for commodities, but since 1971 there has been no such commodity measure in action (i.e., there are no direct commodity-gold money transactions), even on the most general level (e.g., as the measure of balance of payments) and even after many severe monetary crises. Isn’t it logically incoherent to continue to employ this theory and to even use it as a sort of socio-political “common sense”? No, if there are good reasons to (i) reject Marx’s “idée fixe,” and (ii) to detach it from the rest of his theory that still is confirmed. In this section I will present these reasons.
Marx’s determination to uphold a money commodity measure of value is based upon philosophical and metrological presuppositions that I for one do not accept. The metrological presupposition Marx holds is: the measure of quantity Q must possess Q. He makes this point clearly in his elaborate analogy between two kinds of measurements--weight and value--in the chapter on commodities in Capital I when comparing the weights of a sugar-loaf and a piece of iron (presumably on a scale) with the value of linen and a coat:
...in order to express the sugar-loaf as so much weight, we put it into weight-relation with the iron. In this relation, the iron officiates as a body representing nothing but weight...Were [the sugar-loaf and the iron] not both heavy, they would not enter into this relation, and the one could therefore not serve as the expression of the weight of the other...Just as the substance iron, as measure of weight, represents in relation to the sugar-loaf weight alone, so, in our expression of value, the material object, coat, in relation to the linen, represents value alone (Marx 1906: 65-66 [my italics]).
This elaborate analogy is connected to the philosophical presupposition that essence has a unique and necessary appearance. For if the essence is inner and must shine forth to be measured, the measure must share in the essence. The apparent measure for an essence is necessarily determined by that essence. As a consequence, the relationship between the apparent measure and the essence is not contingent and open to revision or negotiation. As Hegel (in a rare philosophical joke) said, there is a necessary relation between an appearance and an essence: “we have all reason to rejoice that the things which environ us are appearances and not steadfast and independent existences; since in that case we should soon perish of hunger, both bodily and mental” (Hegel 1892: 241).
Given these two presuppositions it is not surprising that Marx concluded that capitalism was bound to the money commodity, gold, as long as there is need to measure value. Value is an essence of commodities that must be measured and re-measured since commodities’ values are different and continually changing. Value must have only one kind of measure, according Marx’s metrological presupposition, and its appearance (up to unit changes) is unique and necessary, according to Marx’s philosophical presupposition. QED. A corollary is that there is no point struggling around the existence of the gold standard, since it is rooted in a logical necessity of the system. It will only end with the final expropriation of the expropriators. Marx thought that one of the most important functions of his theory was to indicate to working class militants what can be changed within the system and what can only be changed with the end of the system.(14) For example, chattel slavery was not an essential aspect of the system and could be abolished within capitalism, but the wage system itself could only be abolished with the abolition of capitalism.
But Marx’s conclusion and corollary are mistaken. Metrology has recognized that a measure of Q need not possess Q. Thus a gas’s heat can be measured by the quality and quantity of light emitted by the gas. Similarly, the correlation of mechanical, chemical, electromagnetic, and heat phenomena that were unearthed in the establishment of the conservation of energy principle (often called the “First Law of Thermodynamics”) immediately created a wide variety of cross-dimensional measures. Moreover, the development of quantum and relativity theories has shown us that measurement has a complexity and observation-dependency that the metrology of the 19th century was totally unfamiliar with (Galison 2003). Consequently, for every immanent quantity Q there can be a wide variety of measures, M1, M2, M3,...,, of Q with different relations to Q and they need not possess the quantity Q. The only requirement is that the quantity measured by M1, M2, M3,..., is invariant (across a given transformation).
Moreover, the relation between essence and appearance or between immanent properties and their apparent measures, the Hegelian “modes of expression” that Marx “coquetted with” in Capital, by no means necessitate each other (Marx 1906: 25). Surely in the almost two centuries after Hegel presented his dialectical logic there have been many philosophical transformations and the essence/appearance distinction that Hegel makes so much of has been soundly rejected by most twentieth-century philosophical tendencies and schools from existentialism to logical positivism to pragmatism to postmodernism. Consequently, the relation between the surrogates for Hegel’s Essence and Appearance that are recognized in contemporary philosophy has lost the character of necessity.
The rejection of Marx’s metrological and philosophical “presuppositions” leading to the necessity of a golden measure of value opens up a conception of capitalism that has many different kinds of measures of value that need not be commodities themselves. In a nutshell, monetary systems are as open to class struggle as was chattel slavery. This perspective allows us to see that the long history of measures of value is not only shaped by the changing requirements of the capitalist class’s so-called rationality, but also by presences alien to capital whose own value rationality pointed in directions antagonistic to it.
The working class in its broadest definition--those who are exploited by capitalism--has had its own history of measures of value that included “ancient,” “primitive” and “proletarian” measures of value that differed from the official gold and silver coinage as well as the world of bankers’ promissory notes and governmental fiat currency. Workers not only have an inverse relation to money than capitalists--operating by definition with C-M-C transactions rather than the M-C-M’ ones--they have complex but different conceptions and measures of value from capitalists as well. There has been an explosion of interest in the relation of capitalism of this aspect of proletarian life called “unwaged work” sector, “the shadow economy,” the general economy,” “the moral economy,” and the “informal economy” [see (Dalla Costa and James 1972) (Illich 1981), (Bataille 1988), (Thompson 1991), and (Latouche 1993) respectively and (Caffentzis 1999) for an overview]. The extensive work on the gift exchanges in anthropology is simply the earliest and most formalized of the efforts to study how indigenous measures of value conflicted with capitalist measures in many of the colonial areas [cf. for measure of value struggles in Africa see (Atkins 1993), (Guyer 2004), (Guyer 1995)]. Similarly, the long history of counterfeit currency, of autonomous token currency, of the so-called underground “informal economy” methods of debit and credit within the most advanced capitalist regions, makes for a similar rich area of struggle [see (Caffentzis 1989), (Caffentzis 2000)]. Finally, the increasing abstractness, dematerialization and velocity of money is a response to a class struggle over the appropriate measures of value.(15)
In other words, Marx’s theory can be “slightly stretched” (by dropping his “idée fixe,” the necessity of gold as money as a measure of value in capitalism) to deal with the post-1971 era and to realize that the labor-time measure of value, though still operative, co-exists with a wide variety of other measures of value that included gold in the past but no longer. Thus forms of credit or fiat money can measure value, though with their own idiosyncrasies and their different strategic strengths and weaknesses in the class struggle. An interesting case of this is hyperinflation--a dramatic breakdown in the ability of money to measure the value of commodities--of the sort we are seeing at present in the political struggles in Zimbabwe. It is only certain kinds of money are subject to hyperinflation, e.g., commodity moneys are not prone to such a phenomenon. But the governmental decision to subvert the measure of value function of money is not necessarily a flaw in the measuring instrument. Indeed, hyperinflation arises from a government’s political objective in the intra- and inter-class war (as it is now in Zimbabwe).
This revision to the core of Marxism leaves it as an empirically consistent theory of capitalism and class struggle while showing something new about capitalism’s pre-August 15, 1971 past: there has always been a complex, multi-dimensional struggle about not just the quantity of money in the pay packet, but also about what is money and how does it measure value. This struggle appeared most overtly two times in US history: the struggle against the gold standard in the late 19th century and in the wage struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s that led to the end of dollar-gold convertibility as I mentioned above. But these struggles were neither the first nor last of the class struggles over the measure of value. Many other class struggles in the past have been about measures of value as there will be many others in the future.(15) So with a doctrinal loss (the rejection of Marx’s “idée fixe”), this “slight stretch” introduces a new set of observations, explanations, and possibilities.
This approach also shows that one is not forced to respond to Nixon’s decision by rejecting the labor-time measure of value as so many Marx-influenced postmodern “beyond Marx” thinkers have.(16) They see the post-1971 world as proof positive that capital has gone beyond work and labor and it is not tied any longer to the necessity of enforcing a work regime that will lead to the creation of surplus value. Hence the putative value of commodities is more a control mechanism than the creation of collective human labor meeting a capitalist system of exploitation.
Ironically, however, these postmodernists are crypto-gold-fetishists despite themselves and are as committed to gold as the measure of value as Marx and the gold bugs, though with a different conclusion. For I reconstruct their argument as,
*premise: gold, as Marx argues, is the only possible measure of value, but gold can no longer measure value;
*conclusion: there cannot be any measure of value;
*corollary: value is measureless!
But this reasoning is unsound because its premise is false. Gold is not the only possible measure of value and so its displacement is not fatal to the measurability of value.
The demonetarization or “demise” of gold leads neither to a transition from capitalism into a hyper-symbolic social system beyond work and exploitation nor to the end of Marxism as a study and practice of class struggle. I conclude, then, A luta continua!
(1) Though chattel slavery is now a thing of the past or to be found only in the most marginal (either geographic or productive) areas, other forms of slavery are pervasive in contemporary capitalism; for a discussion of the issue of sexual slavery and “trafficking,” e.g., see (Federici 2006). Moreover, there is good reason to claim that capitalism has an inherent drive to slavery in general (independent of any if its particular form) (Dockes 1982).
(2) Indeed, in 1867 the major economic power across the Atlantic still had a wartime state-issued “greenback” paper currency whose date of eventual convertibility to gold was a matter of intense speculation. It was only in 1875 that the gradual retirement of greenbacks began. Even though it proceeded slowly, the process unleashed a devastating deflation that stimulated a significant class struggle over the form of money for a generation, marking the last time, perhaps, that money in general became a self-conscious political issue in the U.S. (Malone and Rauch 1960: 302-305).
(3) Georg Simmel (1858-1918), even though two generations younger than Marx, was also convinced of the continuing usefulness of gold, silver or some other material substance to a modern monetary system. He wrote in agreement with Marx in his Philosophy of Money (1900): “Thus, although money with no intrinsic value would be the best means of exchange in an ideal social order, until that point is reached the most satisfactory form of money may be that which is bound to a material substance” (Simmel 1978: 191).
(4) Marx commented on the role of money as a measure of value versus labor-time in (Marx 1973: 153-185) and again in (Marx 1970: 64-86).
(5) Hegel’s discussion of Essence and Appearance in the “Little Logic” can be found in (Hegel 1892: 207-241). For an excellent discussion of the impact of Marx’s “coquetting” with Hegel’s logic in Part 1 of Capital I see (Cleaver 2000).
(6) Those who wished to eliminate money as gold and use labor-time instead as a measure of value included early socialists like John Gray. Marx expounds and criticizes Gray’s time-chit proposal in the Grundrisse (Marx 1973: 153-165). For a discussion of the development of Gray’s views on money and whether they degenerated into “currency quackery” see (Claeys 1987: 125-129). Those who wished to eliminate the labor-time measure of value include many of the so-called “vulgar economists” who “only flounder around within the apparent framework of those [bourgeois] relations [of production], ceaselessly ruminate on the materials long since provided by scientific political economy, and seek there plausible explanations of the crudest phenomena for the domestic purposes of the bourgeoisie” (Marx 1975: 175).
(7) For more on Maxwell’s demon see (Weiner 1965: 58-59) and (von Baeyer 1998). As for the issue of the variability of the time framework, one must consider that the time involving the building of a luxury liner or an office tower is different from the time involved in the production of a t-shirt. It would be difficult or impossible to devise a universally agreed upon time frame for the labor-time measure of value. Marxist economists have often discussed the problematics of a Marxist statistics in cases like this.
(8) Much class struggle throughout history has been over measurements. A good overview on these types of struggles can be found in (Kula 1986).
(9) I will not discuss Marx’s critique of the Quantity Theory of Money (QTM) in this essay, though it provokes very important strategic issues concerning the proper defense against capital’s post-1971 neoliberal attack on the wage. What should an anti-capitalist movement’s attitude be toward inflation? Should the working class climb back up on the “cross of gold”? For a good discussion of Marx’s critique of the QTM see (de Brunhoff 1976: 31-38) and (Campbell 2005).
(10) The imaginary voice that dismissed Saint Jerome’s pretensions knew what it was speaking about, for Jerome became known as “the Christian Cicero” (Kelly 1975: 333)!
(11) Marx’s many references to Dante’s Divine Comedy in Capital should not be surprising once it is recognized, as Sol Yurick, the novelist, has pointed out to me, that Beatrice was a banker’s daughter and Dante’s beloved (and hated) Florence was the center of international banking in the 14th century. St. Peter’s interest in what is in Dante’s pocket is echoed by Kant in his critique of the ontological proof of the existence of God when he points out that a taler in imagination is quite different from a taler in one’s pocket (Kant 2007: 504).
(12) The Nixon Administration devised and pushed into Congress a guaranteed income proposal, euphemistically called the “Family Assistance Plan,” which was for many capitalist ideologues even more heretical than the end of gold convertibility of the dollar. It was defeated in the Senate by a coalition of left Democrats and right-wing Republicans, according to the major participant observer of the campaign, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. For an informative account of the Nixon Administration’s effort at a “postmodern” delinking of work and income and its political defeat see (Moynihan 1973).
(13) The main difference has been often called the “financialization” of capitalism in the post-1971 era. There has been a dramatic increase in the volume of international money market exchanges compared both to the past and relative to the post-1971 international commodity trade. As for the US, there has a dramatic shift in the distribution of profits from manufacturing and agricultural sectors to the FIRE (Financial, Insurance, and Real Estate) sector.
(14) Here I refer to the distinction between reform and revolution in working class politics. For example, Marx thought it very important to demonstrate to workers that the Iron Law of Wages is not essential to the operation of capitalism and it was perfectly possible for workers to use trade unions to better their lot and weaken the capitalist class long before the working class was able to overthrow the capitalist system. In other words, working class organization can eschew the conspiratorial “Blanquist” type organization that had been a staple of proletarian politics in France since 1789.
(15) Silvia Federici, Peter Linebaugh, Massimo De Angelis and David Graeber have made important contributions in their recent work to the understanding of the history of class struggles over value and value’s contradictory meanings within capitalism [cf. (Federici 2004), (Linebaugh 2008), (De Angelis 2007), (Graeber 2001)].
(16) The “Marx-influenced postmodern thinkers” I am referring to are Christian Marazzi, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt (though there are many others deserving the “postmodern” label who have also written extensively about money’s purported loss of referentiality, e.g., the late Baudrillard). For some orientation to this tendency see (Marazzi 1977) and (Hardt and Negri 2000).
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