Colletti on Crisis.

Stumbled upon this on bit on crisis in Colletti’s article on Marxism and the Dialectic’ from NLR. I’m by no means an expert on the history of Marxian crisis theory but it seems to me that as with his work on Marx’s theory of value, Colletti’s notion Marx’s theory of crisis as an inherent tendency within the socially specific form of capitalist social labour has interesting parallels with Heinrich’s recent article:

‘The texts I shall draw on here are a few statements deduced from one of the major discussions that Marx has left us of his theory of capitalist crisis (a theory which remained incomplete, as is well known), in chapter 17 of Part II of Theories of Surplus-Value. The question concerns, in particular, the concept of the (abstract) possibility of crisis, which Marx opposes to Mill’s and Say’s Law that denies this possibility. [49] On the other hand, as is well known, this ‘possibility’ arises, for Marx, simply through the separation of commodity (c) and money (m). No sooner has money made its appearance, than purchase and sale, which coincided in the era of barter, come to be separated in time and in space: so that the seller is not constrained to repurchase at once, nor (assuming that he should wish to do so) to repurchase in the same market in which he appeared as a seller. Now this division between purchase and sale—constituting as it does the circulation or metamorphosis of commodities (c-m-c)—is what creates for Marx the initial abstract possibility of crisis. Abstract, in the sense that the categories of commodity and money, which have existed in all pre-capitalist societies, are certainly not adequate to explain the typically modern phenomenon of an economic crisis; and on the other hand, possibility in the sense that, although the separation between purchase and sale and between commodity and money is certainly not a sufficient condition, it is nevertheless a necessary condition for the appearance of crises.

The formulations advanced here are evident in a particularly complex passage in Volume I of Capital, which for the moment we shall merely reproduce, save for certain clarifications. ‘No one can sell unless someone else purchases. But no one is forthwith bound to purchase, because he had just sold. Circulation bursts through all restrictions as to time, place, and individuals, imposed by direct barter, and this it effects by splitting up, into the antithesis of a sale and a purchase, the direct identity that in barter does exist between the alienation of one’s own and the acquisition of some other man’s product. To say that these two independent and antithetical acts have an intrinsic unity, are essentially one, is the same as to say that this intrinsic oneness expresses itself in an external antithesis. If the interval in time between the two complementary phases of the complete metamorphosis of a commodity become too great, if the split between the sale and the purchase become too pronounced, the intimate connection between them, their oneness, asserts itself by producing—a crisis. The antithesis, use-value and value; the contradictions that private labour is bound to manifest itself as direct social labour, that a particularized concrete kind of labour has to pass for abstract human labour; the contradiction between the personification of objects and the representation of persons by things [Versachlichung: reification]; all these antitheses and contradictions, which are immanent in commodities, assert themselves, and develop their modes of motion, in the antithetical phases of the metamorphosis of a commodity. These modes therefore imply the possibility, and no more than the possibility, of crises. The conversion of this mere possibility into a reality is the result of a long series of relations, that, from our present standpoint of simple circulation, have as yet no existence.’

In Marx’s view, all the contradictions of capitalism are the outcome of the contradiction within the commodity between use-value and value, between useful or private labour and abstract social labour. The internal contradiction within the commodity is externalized as the contradiction between the commodity and money. The contradiction between the commodity and money develops in turn into the contradiction between capital and wage-labour, that is between the owner of money and the owner of that particular commodity, viz. labour-power, whose use-value has the property of being the source of exchange-value and hence of capital itself.


a crisis occurs when the phases of exchange (commodity and money, purchase and sale)—while they are ‘essentially’ connected and complementary phases and do not exist outside each other—are separated and appear to stand alone, i.e. are given an independent reality: it is then that their ‘unity’ asserts itself violently and expresses, through the crisis, the non-separability of these split phases’.

About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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