RE: [OPE] Abstract Labor (a note for Dave Zachariah)

From: Paul Cockshott <>
Date: Tue Mar 03 2009 - 17:09:12 EST

Very useful sources those. Not sure about the argument against state money here though, I think you will have to elaborate that in more detail since I read the history, including the Mesopotamian history as supporting it. Remember that Keynes made studies of the Mesopotamian economy before writing the General Theory.

Paul Cockshott
Dept of Computing Science
University of Glasgow
+44 141 330 1629

-----Original Message-----
From: on behalf of Jurriaan Bendien
Sent: Tue 3/3/2009 8:34 PM
To: Outline on Political Economy mailing list
Subject: [OPE] Abstract Labor (a note for Dave Zachariah)
In previous mails I explained how the Marxist forgers with their "value form theories" mystified the historical process by which social labor is transformed into value-quantities, and how they falsified Marx's concept of abstract labor. I also explained that the category of abstract labor in reality has a very long history, which, as archaeologists and anthropologists know, began thousands of years ago, even if this was not philosophically recognized by social theorists at the time. Dave Z. then asked me if I could provide references, but I didn't cite them. I am gathering a lot of those together for a future anti-Marxist, pro-Marx article on abstract labor.

But anyway, I was just reading a text again by Marc van de Mieroop, which provides a very good example of the kind of thing I have in mind, and I will cite this, just to give you an indication. He discusses, referring to Robert Englund's research, how ancient Mesopotamia had a very sophisticated accounting system, recorded with inscriptions on clay tablets:

"For example, a balanced account of the labor provided by 37 female workers in the year 2034 BC indicates the different activities in which they were involved. Milling work took up 5,986 labor-days. The time dedicated to this task was calculated on the basis of the amounts of their finished products, that is, flour of different qualities. The source tablets for the balanced account provided the total amounts of the different types of flour milled. The time needed to produce these was calculated on the basis of standardized performance expectations. The accountant knew, for example, that 860 liters of fine flour had been produced during the year. As it was expected that one woman milled 20 liters of that type of flour in one day, it was easy to calculate that 43 labor days had been involved." (Marc van de Mieroop, "Accounting in Early Mesopotamia: some remarks", in Michael Hudson and Cornelia Wunsch, Creating Economic Order: Recordkeeping, standardization and the development of accounting in the ancient Near East". Bethesda: CDL, 2004, p. 56).

On the basis of their input, output and labor accounting, the Sumerian analysts, particularly from the Ur III period, were evidently able to estimate, in quantitatively accurate terms, how much labor it took to produce a certain quantity of output, and therefore how many workers you needed for a given interval of time. They lacked a money commodity, in the sense of a universal equivalent for exchanging goods, but nevertheless "The concept of value equivalency was a secure element in Babylonian accounting by at least the time of the sales contracts of the ED IIIa (Fara) period, c. 2600 BC." (Hudson/Wunsch, op. cit., p. 38).

In other words, it was possible in those days to express the value of a quantity of product as a quantity of many other types of products, or a quantity of labor, according to prevailing norms of exchange based on production costs. "This formation and use of grain product equivalencies ... must be considered an important step in the direction of general value equivalencies best attested for in the Ur III period for silver, but then still generally applicable for other commodities such as grain or fish, including finally also labor time." (p. 38, ibid.).

I think we begin to make scientific progress on this question, when we reject both the fake "value-form theories" of the pseudo-Marxist philosophes, as well as the PostKeynesian "state theories of money", on the ground that they do not correspond to real history. Value form theories, being anti-historical and anti-Marx, simply ignored the whole pre-capitalist history of labor accounting. PostKeynesian theories ignore that value equivalents were already being used as money commodities, long before the state started to issue coinage and promissory notes.

Why should anybody believe crackpot theories about human labour, when even just one day of focused library research provides evidence that scientifically demolishes them?

Right now, across the road where I live, the housing corporation is building a new block of apartments. The building workforce has a pretty good idea about "abstract labour", namely, they have industry norms which enable them to calculate that you need X number of workers and Y amount of worktime, to complete different phases of the project within a certain interval of time. If they didn't have some basic yardsticks like that, they would be unable to plan anything, even if contingently the work occurs a bit faster or slower. That is part of the economic or physical basis necessary for a further evaluation of what the project is "worth" in price terms.


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Received on Tue Mar 3 17:19:00 2009

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