[OPE-L:5670] Response to Fred - 2

From: nicola taylor (n.taylor@student.murdoch.edu.au)
Date: Sun May 27 2001 - 01:15:56 EDT

(2) Marx's abstractions:

As is well known, the opening sentences of the first chapter of Capital set
the stage for Marx's (1867a) analysis of the double character of the
commodity, upon which so much depends:

'The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production
prevails appears as an "immense collection of commodities"; the individual
commodity appears as its elementary form.  Our investigation therefore
begins with the analysis of the commodity' (Marx, 1867a, p.125).

To begin with, this paragraph suggests both the object of inquiry -
capitalist wealth - and its most abstract universal manifestation - the
commodity.  The first question (from a VFT perspective) is whether the
concept is an appropriate starting point for the presentation that follows.
 Is the commodity and all-embracing and determinate concept from which an
elaboration of the internal interconnectedness of the whole of the
capitalist mode of production follows, in accord with the imperatives of
sytematic dialectical logic?
The first problem with Marx's starting point is that, having suggested the
determinate character of the commodity as a starting point for his inquiry
into the universal form of wealth in a particular type of society, he
immediately suspends determination of the historical character of the
commodity.  He posits, instead a general definition of commodities as
'use-values for others, social use-values' (Marx, 1867a, p.131).  By the
end of the first section, what is established is that the commodity is a
useful object produced specifically for exchange - such that its useful
property (its use-value) is verified only when it is exchanged for
use-values of a different type.  Thus, the commodity is constituted in a
very general sense as an entity of double character: use-value (quality)
and exchange-value (quantity).

What has this duality to do with the commodity form as an appearance of
capitalist wealth?  Marx does not address this important question, but
embarks upon a digression into the exchange relation and the question of
what it is that enables diverse use-values to exchange in predictable
proportions.  It is in this context, that he first introduces value as a
term for the relation of equivalence between commodities - the 'common
factor in the exchange relation' (1867a, p.128).  Here, the 'substance of
value' is what is common in diverse commodities after the particular useful
property (use-value) of the commodity is discarded.  Since nothing is left
but the property of being products of labour, Marx concludes that
'congealed quantities of homogenous human labour' give the exchange
relation its 'phantom-like objectivity' (p.128).  In order that particular
types of labour should be considered 'equal human labour', however, a
similar abstraction must be made from the heterogeneous characteristics of
particular 'concrete' types of labour.
Thus, abstract labour makes a first appearance in Capital as a term used to
describe 'homogenous' labour, constituted as an abstraction from 'concrete'
particularity.  What is common to labour once its heterogeneous
characteristics are discarded is 'human labour-power expended without
regard to the form of its expenditure', and in aggregate this constitutes
the total capacity to labour, or 'total labour power of society' (Marx,
1867a, p.128-129).  Although, in particular instances, diverse labours are
performed with different levels of intensity and skill, each unit of
abstract labour-power is the 'same as any other, to the extent that it has
the character of a socially average unit of labour-power and acts as such'
(p.129).  Given this simplification, the value of any commodity is measured
by the average amount of labour time required to produce that particular
commodity with a socially given level of skill and technology.  'What
exclusively determines the magnitude of value of any article is therefore
the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour time socially
necessary for its production' (p.129).  So it is that Marx arrives at the
concept of abstract labour by way of a reductive abstraction from the
heterogenous characteristics of material use-values and the useful labour
that produces them:

'If then we disregard the use-value of commodities, only one property
remains, that of being products of labour.  But even the product of labour
has already been transformed in our hands.  If we make abstraction from its
use-value, we abstract also from the material constituents and forms which
make it a use-value….The useful character of the kinds of labour embodied
in them also disappears; this in turn entails the disappearance of the
different concrete forms of labour.  They can no longer be distinguished,
but are altogether reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the
abstract' (Marx, 1867a, p.128).

The remarkable thing about this passage, from a VFT point of view, is that
the double character of labour as abstract and concrete is **not**
constituted as a 'unity in difference', presupposing a specific totality
(capitalist commodity production) as it would be if Marx had employed a
systematic dialectic.  First, abstract-labour is not posited as an abstract
universal concept opposed to a second abstract universal concept,
concrete-labour, but as particular labour 'transformed' into abstract
labour, apparently in the mind of the writer (a reductive abstraction??).
Second, there is no reference to the market - thus, no reference to the
exchange relation as constituting the first condition of existence of
abstract-labour.  If a concept of social abstraction is implicit in the
derivation (in our hands?) it is only because an exchange relation is
already inherent in Marx's description of commodities as 'use-values for
others'.  Given the social nature of the commodity, it is curious that Marx
delays any explicit discussion of the activity of exchange as a universal
ground for his abstract-labour/concrete-labour opposition.  When he does
so, however, the difference with the previous passage is striking: 

'But the act of equating tailoring with weaving reduces the former to what
is really equal in the two kinds of labour, to the characteristic they have
in common of being human labour.  This is a roundabout way of saying that
weaving too, in so far as it weaves value, has nothing to distinguish it
from tailoring, and, consequently, is abstract human labour.  It is only
the expression of equivalence between different sorts of commodities which
brings to view the specific character of value-creating labour, by actually
reducing the different kinds of commodity to their common quality of being
human labour in general' (Marx, 1867a, p.142).

Here the concept of abstract-labour is clearly given not as a property of
commodities, but as a relation between commodities arising as the result of
a real social practice - the act of exchanging commodities.  The different
types of physiological energy expended on weaving and tailoring are
abstract only 'in so far as they create value', so constituting value as a
universal 'expression of equivalence' or relation between commodities.  How
are we to understand this passage in relation to the last?  Is
abstract-labour intended to be a genus in a hierarchy, a reductive (mental)
generalisation from particular types of physiological energy expended in
productive activity?  Or, is it intended to refer to a determinate
universal category in the elaboration of a system requiring for its
existence and perpetuation an actual disregard for use-values affected by a
practice of bringing products of labour (and labour itself) into a form of
equivalence on the market - as values?  The substantive point is that
abstract labour cannot be both of these things: it cannot be at the same
time an indeterminate category of productive activity in general and a
determinate category of a particular system of production for exchange.
The importance of Rubin is here, since he was the first (that I know of) to
make this important observation:

'One of two things is possible: if abstract labour is an expenditure of
human energy in physiological form, then value also has a reified-material
character.  Or value is a social phenomenon, and then abstract labour must
also be understood as a social phenomenon connected with a determined
social form of production.  It is not possible to reconcile a physiological
concept of abstract labour with the historical character of the value that
it creates.  The physiological expenditure of energy as such is the same
for all epochs and, one might say, this energy created value in all epochs.
 We arrive at the crudest interpretation of the theory of value, one that
sharply contradicts Marx's theory' (Rubin, 1928/1972, p.135).

Rubin (1928/1972) was certainly correct to point out that the existence of
value has a 'purely social reality' for Marx, in that it makes an objective
appearance only in the relation of commodity to commodity and does not
therefore include an atom of matter.  His statement that a physiological
reading 'contradicts' Marx is much more doubtful however.  Marx (1867a) not
only derives value as 'merely congealed quantities of human labour-power
expended without regard to the form of its expenditure' (p.128), but he
goes on to introduce labour-power (the capacity to perform labour) as a
simplifying assumption.  Further, he justifies this purely by analytic
convenience: 'we shall henceforth view every form of labour-power directly
as simple labour-power; by this we shall simply be saving ourselves the
trouble of making the reduction' (Marx, 1867a, p.135).  Thus, the magnitude
of value comes to depend only on the average quantity of abstract labour
'socially necessary' to produce a commodity, given some average level of
skill and technology.

The extent to which this is important depends not only on the theoretical
issue of whether value can exist prior to exchange (as labour embodied in
particular commodities), but also on the empirical issue of how the theory
can be usefully applied to a competitive money economy (as Reuten, 1993,
and others, have pointed out).  In Reuten's view, any attempt to add up
concrete (pre-market) labour hours must confront the actual discounting to
simple labour that Marx sought to avoid.  Even if socially necessary labour
time is taken as an immanent measure of embodied abstract-labour and the
simplification avoided, there is still a requirement to explain why it is
that socially necessary labour must itself appear in money form.  I take it
that the latter question constitutes Marx's critical challenge to the
classics; the issue, then, is how well he answers it (here the important
precursor to the question - and to VFT - is not Rubin, but Backhaus,

Nicola Mostyn (Taylor)
Faculty of Economics
Murdoch University
Telephone: 61-8-9385 1130

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