Re: value, labour and conservation laws

From: Andrew Brown (Andrew@LUBS.LEEDS.AC.UK)
Date: Fri May 23 2003 - 07:37:10 EDT

Hi Ian, Paul C. and all,

I don't think the strangeness of the abstract labour 'substance' lies
in the fact that it represents an abstraction, as in the analogy with
a thermostat. The strangeness stems from the fact that exchange
value, unlike a thermostat, or any other phenomenon, has no
apparent natural material basis. The behaviour of the thermostat
can be explained by its natural material constituents. Yet
exchange ratios cannot be so explained (Marx makes this point
many times). This is the puzzle for the materialist.

The solution has two key aspects:
(1) Recognition of the crucial transhistorical aspects of labour. The
defining charactaristic is universality (I agree with Paul C.) but,
even more important, creativity. Humans not only plastically adapt
to their circumstances, they creativiely transform them (in the
process transforming themselves). This is indeed what makes
abstract labour a potential reality.

(2) Recognition of the wierd inversions of the transhistorical
apsects of labour in capitalism. Fundamentally, the creative
universality of labour is taken from labour and imposed upon labour
from the outside, i.e. in the form of capital, a dominating
abstraction from all specificity.

Re your point about sociality made to Paul C: the sociality of
labour is not separate from the creative adaptability of labour, so I
think you add to Paul's point about the universality of labour, as I
have done by stressing the creativity of labour, but you do not
negate Paul's point.

On a slightly different issue I wanted to elaborate on the question of
whether something can be 'purely quantitative' -- I note that Marx
says that this is exactly how exchange value appears *at first
sight*. But time constraints intervene...

Many thanks,


Date sent:              Thu, 22 May 2003 07:35:42 +0000
Send reply to:          OPE-L <OPE-L@SUS.CSUCHICO.EDU>
From:                   Ian Wright <ian_paul_wright@HOTMAIL.COM>
Subject:                Re: value, labour and conservation laws
To:                     OPE-L@SUS.CSUCHICO.EDU

> 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
> context.
> 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?
> -Ian.
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