Re: on money substance and abstract labor

From: Howard Engelskirchen (howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM)
Date: Fri May 28 2004 - 00:08:31 EDT

Hi Rakesh and others,

The easiest way to think about my earlier posts might be to imagine what
Marxist debates about value over the last many decades might have been if
Lenin, after filling volume 38 with notes on Hegel's Logic, had gone on to
fill another volume with similar notes on Aristotle's Metaphysics.  Marx, we
all remember, wrote a doctoral dissertion on ancient philosophy, measuring
the atomists, among other things, against Aristotle, and my guess is that
whatever hesitations he brought to his reading of Hegel stemmed ultimately
from things he learned from Aristotle.

Aristotle wanted to know what the basic stuff of reality was.  He called
this 'ousia,' substance.  But though Aristotle could compare governments, he
couldn't compare modes of production, and so lacked Marx's ability to
consider social relations altogether scientifically.  I think part of what
happens in Capital is that Marx extends Aristotle's investigation to a
search for 'social substance.'

Rubin considered substance and offered a critique of the tendency to, in
Ian's phrase, 'drop down to the physiology.'  It is as if 'embodied labor'
was like those bugs that get embodied in amber.  The embodied bug theory of

But 'embodied' is a word that comes from the ancient world and refers to the
soul located in the body.  We take on this idea with a religious, or at best
Platonic, gloss, and it becomes something ghostly embodied in something
material.  That was not Aristotle.  For Aristotle the soul was an organizing
principle of the body.  Ian refers to labor activity as a complex of causal
powers and it is the form or unity that organizes these so that an
individual is capable of human functioning that for Aristotle was the soul.

So to come to the question of abstract labor, certainly I did  want to
challenge the suggestion that what is going on in Marx's analysis of value
or money was the hypostatization of a mental generalization from concrete
labors.  The form of value is an organizating principle that constitutes the
product of labor as a commodity.  It is a form, an organizing principle of
social labor.  So what does it organize?  It can't be a way of organizing
tailoring or brickmaking as such because it also has to be a form capable of
organizing lumbering and carpentry and opera singing.  So it is an
organizing principle set over against labor in general.  There is the
materiality of labor activity on the one hand and the organizing principle
of a given social form of labor on the other.  You put the two together in a
product of labor and the product has value.

Suppose I have a chorus singing in four voices pursuing variations on a
melodic line.  I hear the combined causal consequences of the four voices,
but if I mentally separate one out to give an account of it, the thing I
refer to hasn't lost any of its causal efficacy by reason of the fact that I
refer to it.  Labor is not different.  It has a multitude of causal
dimensions and only ever occurs as a concrete composite of these -- weaving,
carpentry, auto manufacture, etc.  But not all of those causal features
constitute the organizing principle of what it is for the product to be a
commodity.  The causal capacities that make a house a shelter don't make it
a commodity.  Instead, to know what it is that enlivens the commodity I have
to select out only those 'enlivening' features from the total causal
complex.  These are, as Marx presents in the first pages of Capital, two:
the product of labor is produced separately and it is not produced to meet
any need of its producer.  I access these by a process of mental
abstraction.  But I don't subtract anything from their causal potency by
doing so.

Also, I don't need the prior existence of capital here or the reduction of
skilled labor to labor anybody can do.  On the other hand, as I argued to
Paul, I may very well need some such reduction in order theoretically to be
able to conceive of a causal organizing principle unspecific with regard to
weaving, house building, etc.  But obviously the causal potency of the commo
dity form doesn't depend on my being able to conceive it.

A clarification.  If we take seriously the proposition that it is social
form that constitutes the product of labor as a commodity, then the
materiality of labor activity is not, as such, substance.  Substratum,
perhaps, a material potential for being 'enformed', but it is the *social
form* of labor that constitutes the social (as opposed to natural) substance
of the product of labor.  A second point follows from this.  When Marx talks
about crystals of social substance being congealed in the product of labor
he is talking about what happens when abstract labor gets actually realized
in a commodity.  Then you have a composite of material activity realized in
the commodity form.

On this consider Aristotle:  "movement resides in the thing moved."  That's
the way labor gets embodied.  We owe to labor changes of place or form or
quality and so refer to those as embodying the labor that actualized them.

Test against the text.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Rakesh Bhandari" <rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU>
Sent: Wednesday, May 26, 2004 12:38 AM
Subject: Re: [OPE-L] on money

> Howard,
> Just to get an entry into your thought provoking and difficult posts,
> may I ask one question of clarification.
> Where I had written:
> >In supposing that abstract labor can be such a thing, we seem to
> >have been led to a mistaken ontological commitment. It is indeed as
> >if the generalization fruit existed not merely in the mental act of
> >abstracting from bananas, papayas, coconuts, etc. but was rather
> >incarnated in, say, mangoes.
> are you saying that the positing of the existence of abstract labor
> is not a mistaken ontological commitment because in the rough words
> of Hans Ehrbar abstract human labour is in fact an aspect of the
> human labour process as every labour process is the expenditure of
> brain, muscle, sense organs, etc. Do you agree with Hans when he
> writes; "The fact that same word 'labour' is used for many different
> activities shows that the abstraction can be made"?
> Perhaps Hans will comment as well. I can see how my post could be
> based on an important mistake or two that would undermine a critical
> realist point of view. But I am not sure yet.
> Rakesh
> >Hi Rakesh,
> >
> >I want to make this short, and any explanation will inevitably
> >rehash familiar ground, but to sort out confusion in the account you
> >offer for critique, there really is need to distinguish substantial
> >form from phenomenal form.  In the first pages of Capital, Marx
> >wants to show that as a commodity the product of labor is a
> >composite of its natural material or physical features and of the
> >social form that constitutes it as a commodity.  This is tricky,
> >because the constituting social form can't be any particular kind of
> >labor activity for the same reason that whatever it is that
> >constitutes Socrates as human can't depend on the material
> >particularities of Socrates, e.g. that he has a snub nose, because
> >not every human has a snub nose.  If a form of laboring activity is
> >to constitute the entire diversity of the products of labor in a
> >certain way, then it can't constitute them in terms of what makes
> >them particular and diverse.  It has to constitute them in terms of
> >general features that are abstracted from that diversity.  There's
> >nothing mystical about the abstraction required to grasp this.
> >
> >The social form that constitutes a commodity is related, then, to
> >the aggregate of labor activities, rather than to particular
> >ones, and constitutes each individual act of labor as a relation to
> >that aggregate.  Commodities are related to each other qualitatively
> >because they are constituted by the same social form and they are
> >related to each other quantitatively insfoar as they have each been
> >'enformed' by a proportionate amount of the aggregate of labor
> >activities.  But this reciprocal quantitative relation doesn't
> >appear by reference to any natural attribute of the product or even
> >by the actual labor hours committed to it.  So if exchange is to
> >distribute aggregate labor to need -- as it must if production is to
> >continue in this form -- then there must be some way to refer to and
> >represent the form of social labor that constitutes the product of
> >labor as a commodity.  Phenomenal form has to represent substantial
> >form.
> >
> >Sometimes when we use one thing to refer to another the thing we use
> >is completely arbitrary -- the sounds we use for speech are mostly
> >like that.  Other times we use something that bears a resemblance to
> >the thing referred to -- e.g. we draw stick figures on traffic signs
> >to indicate a pedestrian crossing or a bike path.  Sometimes we use
> >someone or thing actually part of the entity represented -- e.g. a
> >building or faculty member or student or dean can represent a
> >university.  Money, whether gold or mango, refers to and represents
> >the social form that constitutes commodities because it is
> >constituted by the same social form.  If mangos are money, the fruit
> >of the mango is not mystically transformed into something that can
> >be any fruit whatsoever.  Instead, because the mango is also
> >constituted by social labor, it can refer to and represent a claim
> >on any other product of social labor.  The thing it refers to in
> >doing so is not some natural property of the other product, say its
> >fruitiness, but the social form that constitutes it as a commodity.
> >
> >Howard
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >----- Original Message -----
> >From: <mailto:rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU>Rakesh Bhandari
> >Sent: Sunday, May 23, 2004 10:49 PM
> >Subject: [OPE-L] on money
> >
> >>Because the product is not produced as an immediate object of
> >>consumption for the producers, but only as a bearer of value, as a
> >>claim, so to speak, to a certain quantity of all materialised
> >>social labour, all products as values are compelled to assume a
> >>form of existence distinct from their existence as use values. And
> >>it is this development of the labour embodied in them as social
> >>labour, it is the development of their value, which determines the
> >>formation of money, the necessity for commodities to represent
> >>themselves in respect of one another as money--which means merely
> >>as independent forms of existence of exchange value--and they can
> >>only do this by setting apart one commodity from the mass of
> >>commodities, and all of them measuring their values in the use
> >>value of this excluded commodity, thereby directly transforming the
> >>labour embodied in this exclusive commodity into general, social
> >>labour.
> >>
> >
> >TSV III, p.144-145
> >
> >
> >Since commodities are produced in order to be claims on social
> >labor, one commodity  comes to count in the exchange relationship
> >not in its concrete form as a use value but as an incarnation of
> >social labor, as itself value. Marx then specifies the peculiarities
> >of the equivalent form.
> >
> >So say on a tropical island where only fruit is exchanged and people
> >become allergic to the fruit that they can themselves grow, then all
> >fruit is produced for exchange. Say mangoes come to be the general
> >equivalent. Then mangoes are valued not for their concrete
> >characteristics but because they incarnate Fruit itself. So we are
> >back to Marx's critique of Hegelian hypostatization as Colletti and
> >Robert Paul Wolff see so clearly.
> >
> >Of course the three fold three-fold peculiarity of the mango then is
> >that it is the immediate incarnation of value; the concrete labor
> >expended in the production thereof becomes the form of appearance of
> >abstract human, fruit producing labor; and private mango farming has
> >turned here into its opposite, to labor in immediately social form.
> >
> >  In supposing that abstract labor can be such a thing, we seem to
> >have been led to a mistaken ontological commitment. It is indeed as
> >if the generalization fruit existed not merely in the mental act of
> >abstracting from bananas, papayas, coconuts, etc. but was rather
> >incarnated in, say, mangoes.
> >
> >The central problem here seems  to be a category mistake. As if the
> >confounded visitor who asks to be finally shown the university after
> >having already been taken to the philosophy, physics, biology, etc.
> >buildings could actually find what he is looking for in a visit to,
> >say, the mining department alone; abstract labor which seems merely
> >to be a general heading comes in fact to be incarnated in a single
> >concrete kind of commodity (mango).
> >
> >
> >As a real hypostatization of fruit, mangoes paradoxically lose for
> >all practical purposes the sensuous, concrete attributes of their
> >fruitiness, for their use value has become exchange value, pure and
> >simple, since mangoes serve as the embodiment of fruit as such in
> >the circulation of commodities. Mangoes just as they come off the
> >tree seem to be forthwith the visible incarnation, the social
> >chrysalis state, of all fruit. The abstract-universal of fruit,
> >which ought to be a predicate-i.e. a property of concrete or the
> >sensate-, has become in mangoes the subject, a self-subsisting
> >entity. The concrete sensate of the mango moreover now counts merely
> >as the phenomenal form of the abstract universal-i.e., as the
> >predicate of its own substantialized predicate.  The sense qualities
> >of mangoes have been reduced to the attributes or, to use Marx's
> >Hegelian terminology, forms of appearance of fruit in the abstract.
> >
> >Routinely accepted as a means of payment, mangoes are money;
> >however, what appears to happen is, not that the mango has become
> >money in consequence of all other fruit commodities expressing their
> >values in it, but, on the contrary, all other fruits express their
> >values in mango, because it just is money.
> >
> >In effect, Marx has attempted to demonstrate how mangoes  as money
> >are qualitatively different from fruits  as fruits ; yet mangoes are
> >born as fruits, as a fruit (commodity) itself, and only under the
> >pressure of the exchange of great quantities of fruit does the mango
> >ascend from earth to the economic heaven to become not merely a
> >measure of value and a standard of price, but in virtue of its
> >functions of universal equivalent and exchange medium, Fruit (Value)
> >Incarnate.
> >
> >Rakesh

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Sat May 29 2004 - 00:00:02 EDT