Re: [OPE-L] status equality

From: Ian Wright (iwright@GMAIL.COM)
Date: Thu Feb 17 2005 - 14:03:20 EST

Hi Rakesh

Sorry for the delay in replying.

> >I don't think objective equality of causal powers implies that
> >everyone should get paid exactly the same. Some parts of the division
> >of labour may be particularly unpleasant or dangerous, for instance.
> But this still implies equal pay for equal work, with some kind of
> premium for unpleasant or dangerous work. Where does that principle
> derive from?

I am not trying to set an incomes policy for a hypothetical social
organisation.  I am not sure how to do that. I think there is some way
to travel from the recognition of the equality of people to some
mechanism for income distribution that is consistent with it.

But the current mechanism for income distribution, which is
fundamentally shaped by class exploitation and the existence of
wage-labour, is not consistent with the natural fact of objective
equality, just as feudal relations of distribution were not.
Empirically there is evidence of inter-class distributional inequality
because there are two distinct regimes in the income distribution that
must ultimately be explained by two different methods of income
generation that are subject to different laws.

> OK so we do have the idea that everyone should not be deprived on
> account of their status (or inherited group identity) of the freedom
> to attempt to obtain equal value for whatever commodities that they
> own. The owner of the product of any kind of labor--leather working,
> gold mining, journalism writing--can get equal value for the
> expenditure of that labor, considered however not concretely but
> abstractly as any other kind of labor.  The commodity is a born
> leveller. It gives rise to a well entrenched ideology of equality and
> cult of the abstract individual.
> I think you want to represent these ideological-legal effects of
> bourgeois society as progress. I am not quite sure. For example,
> should we give up any kind of qualitative judgements just because the
> marketplace does?

I do not think they are just ideological-legal effects, but real
effects, which do represent progress over feudalism, but not the end
of history obviously.

The marketplace is stuffed full of qualitative judgements. Some of
these qualitative judgements include irrationalities, such as treating
people worse due to race, gender, etc. But normally two identical
commodities will have the same price regardless of who produced it.
The quantitative representation of value has no room to represent some
of the qualitative irrationalities. So you are right that in this
sense generalised commodity production is a great leveller.

I suspect your worry is that in some future society it will be
important to represent many qualitative rationalities. I think you are
right. But even in capitalism, not everything is left to the market,
libertarian fantasies aside. Prices are not the only form of
communication between market participants.

But currently and ultimately transactions are effected according to
quantitative representations of value. Is the latter a forced
abstraction, a mere generalisation, or is it a real abstraction,
referring to a natural kind? Does the value-form constitute a good
theory of human labour, or is it a purely contingent representation
that is tied to capitalism and class exploitation, and therefore can
and should be discarded?

I would not want to be too hasty providing an answer to that. The real
is not wholly rational, and the possible could be better. But I do not
think that the real is wholly irrational, and therefore I do not think
the value-form itself is an oppressive aberration. In my view, the
value-form is a real abstraction, that is there is a substance of
value, or in other terminology, price has a real referent, which,
importantly, exists independent of its representation. This is why I
get a bit confused by the claim that abstract labour only has reality
in capitalism.

A collection of people is an amount of abstract labour-power that can
in principle be reallocated to other tasks in the division of labour.
This is possible due to  equality of causal powers. Labour is
fungible, and in some sense universal. This was true in fedual times,
except not recognised and realised, that is put into practice. It will
also be true post-capitalism. I expect that quantitative measures of
this substance will still serve a purpose, at least for a while.
Bhaskar's distinction between the real, the actual and the empirical
is useful here: it is important to avoid the flat ontology of
positivism. Real mechanisms can exist even if they do not exercise
their casual powers and even if that exercise is not empirically
registered. Abstract labour, that is the causal powers of humanity,
was real prior to and independently of its representation in a

Our history is sort of a process of understanding our own nature. I
have deliberately not tried to give a real definition of abstract
labour, but just mentioned "causal powers". This is another topic, and
I am still thinking about it (inductive learning is important here I
think, and also our ability for self-modification, which begs the
question whether there is an invariant causal structure that can be
referred to). But whatever our current understanding of it, abstract
labour was always a reality, it just took some history for it to
acquire a value-form and thereby more fully actualise its real

I do think that capitalism, with its idea and partial reality of equal
commodity producers, better reflects our real equality. If our
economic organisation can be viewed as a scientific theory of what
humans can do together, then it is a better theory than feudalism
(incommensurability of scientific theories and denial of scientific
progress goes hand in hand, I think, with incommensurability of
economic value in different social systems and denial of historical
progress). As scientific progress is normally cumulative, I would not
expect the value-form to be immediately discarded as a complete
irrationality, just as general relativity did not discard Newton, but
preserved his theory in a more general and encompassing theory.

I do not want to get into an argument that lists the positive and
negative aspects of capitalism, because whenever a positive is put
forward, such as, say, the real possibility of meritorious movements
in the social hierarchy in modern capitalism, it is often interpreted
as an apology for capitalism, which is a bit tiresome. I'd hope that I
wouldn't have to expend too much effort defending the idea that
capitalism, on some axes, is better than what went before.

> >But the reality is the opposite: there is equality of causal powers of
> >humans but they participate in an economic game that is unfair, which
> >only provides unequal opportunities, and this is the cause of huge
> >income inequalities. The cause of economic inequality is structural,
> >and is not explained by the unequal causal powers of humans.
> But this seems to be a non sequitar. Just because almost of all
> income inequality in this society is not explained by interindividual
> variance in causal powers does not mean that there is not such
> variance and that a socialist society would have to "deal" with it.

I agree with you -- there is variance in causal powers, and it I think
it would be a big mistake to legislate or bureaucratize it away with
top-down commandments that 1 hour of work is always and everywhere
equally valued, if that is what you are getting at. I think this would
be a bit like expending work to narrow the distribution of kinetic
energy in a gas: expensive and pointless, especially when it is
desirable to encourage motion.

I hope I am responding to your thoughts. I guess this touches on lots of issues.


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