Re: value, labour and conservation laws

From: Ian Wright (ian_paul_wright@HOTMAIL.COM)
Date: Thu May 22 2003 - 03:35:42 EDT

Hello Andy,

>However, I would be delighted if, in fact, the problem is purely
>expositional and if therefore Paul (or indeed yourself) could phrase
>his argument in such a way as I could make sense of.

Well let me try and say some things that make sense to me,
which I think may help bridge the gap. Some of this is
`thinking aloud', so these are by no means finished thoughts,
and brevity requires missing out lots of important detail.

Humans make abstractions all the time: we are always
identifying common properties of things and classifying them
into abstract and useful kinds. For example, bananas, apples
and pears are all types of fruit. I'd like to keep this
assertion purely at the commonsense level, because not
only is it obvious, but a philosophical analysis of this
fact would only divert us.

The difficulty with the concept of "abstract labour" derives
from the fact that it isn't us that makes the abstraction from
particular instances of concrete labour, but the economic
system itself. But the idea of a social system supporting
and using an abstract representation is initially a strange one.

It becomes much less strange if you adopt the point of view
of philosophical naturalism with regard to mind and matter.
By this I mean that kinds of minds are kinds of matter, and
in consequence there isn't a sharp distinction between things
able to support abstractions and those that cannot. This
does not imply that human minds do not have unique capabilities,
as of course they do.

An example of a simple form of matter able to support a
representation is the thermostat. The position of its
bi-metallic strip represents, in an impoverished sense,
the temperature of the room. In fact, all kinds of control
systems (in the sense of engineering control theory) have
this property that components refer to aspects of the
subsystem they control.

The economic system is a control system, in all senses of the
word, which just so happens to function through our actions.
It is much more complex than the lowly thermostat, but
much less complex than the human mind. It represents our
concrete labours as abstract labour in the form of money.
Abstract labour is its concept, money is its representation,
and concrete labour is what it controls.

To fully understand how the economic system controls human
labour requires theory, which is of course political economy,
and I take Paul's discussion of conservative systems in that

You use the term "substance" in a technical Spinozian sense,
but unfortunately the term has commonsense interpretations
that are counter-intuitive. It is confusing that something
"abstract" has a "substance". I think this is why Paul
dismissed the notion. However, I think you are onto
something important when you emphasise that "abstract labour"
isn't a pure abstraction, as perhaps some value-form theorists
may claim, but in fact has "substance", i.e. has a material,
not just abstract, ontological status. I agree, but would put
the matter slightly differently: "abstract labour" is a
representation within capitalism that refers to the common
properties of "concrete labour", and there are systematic
causal relationships between the two. Other authors use
the term "measurement" in this context, and I think that
is adequate, except that it neglects the control side.

For you, the expression "purely quantitative" set alarm
bells ringing because this phrase fails to mention what the
quantity counts.

Are we getting anywhere?


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