[OPE-L] "Levels of abstraction"

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Sun Feb 03 2008 - 10:43:05 EST


The way Marx put it himself in his 1863-66 Resultate manuscript, i.e. after he had already drafted the manuscript of Cap. Vol. 2 in 1861-63, is as follows:

"The obsession with defining productive and unproductive labour in terms of its material content derives from 3 sources:
1) the fetishistic notion, peculiar to the capitalist mode of production and arising from its essence, that the formal economic determinations, such as that of being a commodity, or being productive labour, etc., are qualities belonging to the material repositories of these formal determinations or categories in and for themselves;
2) the idea that, considering the labour process as such, only such labour is productive as results in a product (a material product, since here it is only a question of material wealth);
3) the fact that in the real reproduction process - considered from the point of view of its real moments - there is a great difference, with regard to the formation, etc., of wealth, between labour which is expressed in reproductive articles and labour which is expressed in mere luxuries." http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/economic/ch02b.htm

Point is that Marx, contrary to the "historical materialists", precisely denies "defining productive and unproductive labour in terms of its material content" and very explicitly says so, including emphasizing this in Capital Vol. 1 which he published himself. The proper distinction, he concludes, is a purely social one, defined by relations of production, and therefore the issue is not one of material necessity but of social necessity. Admittedly, in Cap. Vol. 3, Marx comments that:

"The physiocrats, furthermore, are correct in stating that in fact all production of surplus-value, and thus all development of capital, has for its natural basis the productiveness of agricultural labour. If man were not capable of producing in one working-day more means of subsistence, which signifies in the strictest sense more agricultural products than every labourer needs for his own reproduction, if the daily expenditure of his entire labour power sufficed merely to produce the means of subsistence indispensable for his own individual requirements, then one could not speak at all either of surplus-product or surplus-value. An agricultural labour productivity exceeding the individual requirements of the labourer is the basis of all societies, and is above all the basis of capitalist production, which disengages a constantly increasing portion of society from the production of basic foodstuffs and transforms them into "free heads," as Steuart has it, making them available for exploitation in other spheres." http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894-c3/ch47.htm

But this says only, that the possibility for the existence of surplus labour and surplus value presupposes a minimum level of productivity beyond subsistence. As Paul Bairoch comments:

"...in traditional societies the average agricultural worker produced an amount of foodstuff only about 20 to 30% in excess of his family's consumption. (...)These percentages - this 20 to 30% surplus - acquire special meaning if we take into account a factor often omitted from theories of economic development, namely, the yearly fluctuations of agricultural yields, which even at a national level could amount to an average of over 25%. Consequently, periodical subsistence crises became inevitable, crises greater or less in degree but which at their worst could produce a decline in economic life and hence in the civilisation it supported. For this reason, as long as agricultural productivity had not progressed beyond that stage, it was practically impossible to conceive of a continuous progress in the development of civilisations, let alone of the accelerated scientific and technical progress that is an essential characteristic of modern times. The profound changes in the system of agricultultural production that preceded the industrial revolution brought that particular deadlock to an end. The consequent increase in productivity led in the space of 40 to 60 years to the transition from an average surplus of the order of 25% to something more like 50% and over, thus surpassing - for the first time in the history of mankind - what might be called the risk-of-famine limit; in other words, a really bad harvest no longer meant, as in the past, serious shortage or actual famine. The agricultural revolution... prepared the way for the industrial revolution." - Paul Bairoch, "Agriculture and the industrial revolution 1700-1914", in: Carlo Cipolla (ed.), The Industrial Revolution - Fontana Economic History of Europe, Vol. 3. London: Collins/Fontana, 1973, p. 453-454.

Of course we can then pronounce general verities such as that agricultural labour "supports the rest of society" but that is neither here nor there. As we say in Dutch, "you have heard the bell ringing but you don't know where it hangs". 

Marx never defined surplus value as a physical surplus, he defined it as a quantity of surplus labour expressible in a quantity of money-units according to some standardised valuation. This does not mean that a physical surplus does not exist, nor that it is not important for the reproduction process, but the physical surplus is not identical with the surplus product. The capitalist surplus product according to Marx is a quantity of surplus value enabled by a quantity of surplus labour, which at any point in time materialises partly in products (goods and services) and partly in money. Nor is the surplus product of a society necessarily identical with surplus value. All this is important insofar as measurement requires first of all that we fix the pure concepts for which we seek to obtain measures. Otherwise we don't even know what we are measuring, what is behind the numbers, we just make assumptions about what the numbers mean. We can tout formula's and appear very sophisticated, but what it means is still not clear unless we explicate the measurement units.

What Paul Cockshott effectively argues is that surplus value is the financial claim on (or the valuation of) the physical surplus, but point is that physical surplus itself may arise in good part not because of domestic production, but from appropriations of product from elsewhere, through trade. So the concept of physical surplus sidesteps the whole problem of the creation of new value versus transfers of value, i.e how value is transferred through trade. If for example in 1980 the US exported and imported a value of goods in a ratio of 9:10 and now does so in a ratio of 5.5:10, the US physical surplus rises disproportionally to domestically produced surplus value or indeed domestically produced goods. Even so, if the physical surplus increases but has a lower labour-content, the growth of surplus value is lowered in proportion to the lower labour-content. The physical surplus may indeed increase while surplus-value decreases. In the end, the "physical surplus" is probably a rather incoherent notion anyway, because physical transformation through production may not lead to separable or separately identifiable physical products which can be claimed.

What the totalitarian does is that he foists his "superior abstractions", based on stylized, unrealistic assumptions, directly on historical reality. He claims to know the essence of society and the march of history on the basis of his "philosophy" in advance, before he has even studied it conscientiously and thoroughly. As long as this occurs among neo-Hegelians pontificating about the "totality" within the confines of the professorial drawing room, it does little harm, at most it invites ridicule. But it does a great deal of harm, when bureaucrats who think they stand on the shoulders of Karl Marx (or some other luminary) try to reorganise the world according to their abstractions, and when, if the world they haven't studied does not turn out to conform to their abstractions, because in fact it is organised in a different way, they try to punish people for it, and force them violently to conform to their abstractions. In that case, the tyranny of concepts becomes a real tyranny.

What Marx referred to as the materialist view about history was only a methodological guide to the study of history (a set of insights providing an orientation for research), to obtain a rational understanding of it without myth or mysticism. All abstractions should be relativised by human practice relevant to those abstractions. Through studying historical facts, we might actually reach the conclusion that our starting assumptions would need to be modified, and therefore no "doctrine" is possible, Kautsky notwithstanding. Marx denied having a "philosophy of history" and a "theory of history" universally applicable, never mind a dialectical-materialist theory of the cosmos as a whole. The whole point of e.g. the critique of Herr Duhring was to show how ridiculous such world schematism really is. If "Marxism" claims such a universal theory, this is a forgery of Marx's work.

Time and again, Marx & Engels criticised academics who tried to knock up their skimpy knowledge of historical facts as quickly as possible into a grand "philosophical system" that would explain everything. The validity of the materialist view was only to be proved by actually applying it in real research, which showed that it could coherently explain the facts. Point is that the philosophy comes after the experience ("Minerva's owl flies at dusk"), not before it, and if it comes before the experience, it presumes that we can have real knowledge before having any experience of what we are talking about. This does not deny that we use theory in verifying experience - facts do not spontaneously order themselves - or that we have our "personal metaphysic", but is says that such insight is only a guide to experiential knowledge, that it is modified and qualified by experience, and is not a masterkey unlocking the truth of the totality in advance of experience or in spite of experience. For all the odes to "materialism", detaching theory from experience is in fact the height of idealism.

This is why I am very skeptical about "historical materialism" as a "philosophy of history", a "doctrine" or a "system of sociology". This confuses science with ideology. It aims to get people to see things in a certain way in advance of a proof explaining why they should see it that way. No doubt there is ideology within science, to the extent that some assumptions are unquestioned and popular paradigms exist, but that is not to say that asserting an ideology is itself practising science.

I can always say that X who doesn't produce a material product is dependent on Y who does produce one, but this is an empty generality, unless we analyse the activities of X and Y and their social relations in their specificity. If we do so, we may reveal a complex set of interdependencies between X and Y, which indeed explain WHY X doesn't produce a material product, and Y does. It may be that Y produces a material product only BECAUSE of his dependence on X. Typically when the historical materialists actually start to study history in depth, their "historical materialism" flies out the window, it does no work. Why? Because the supreme abstractions are inoperable in any specific context, they exist only by abstracting from everything that matters to understand that context. At most the facts are forced aposteriori to conform to the supreme abstractions, but such interpretations do not last, because they aren't credible. This moreover makes any scientific discussion impossible, because you are dealing with people who have a quasi-religious dogma which is upheld regardless of any conscientious inquiry. And it does not lead to research which proves who really is correct anyway, because there is nothing which could prove it. You cannot prove scientifically that a metaphysical abstraction is true, you can only believe it, or not. Hence old Engels's complaint that historical materialism was being used as an "excuse for not studying history".

In the contemporary United States, over 20 million workers operate financial transactions and exchange processes as the main content of their job, and another 5 million workers are in the business of enforcing property rights and public order. I could say that they are "supported" out of a physical surplus, without which they could not exist in their function, but as a matter of fact if they were not there, the whole wealth-creation system itself would come crashing down. Those 25 million workers additionally also generate profits. And I do not get very far at all with the analysis of gross product or of the interdependencies involved, if I conflate the creation of surplus value with the creation of wealth, the creation of a surplus product, and the creation of material product. 


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