[OPE-L:195] RE: the book on wage labor

Paul Cockshott (wpc@clyder.gn.apc.org)
Tue, 3 Oct 1995 17:21:34 -0700

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Abstraction and abstract labour

John Ernst suggests that the only abstract labour is that
which produces gold, and avers that only in the process of
exchange does labour become abstract.

To my mind there is a confusion here between the role of
abstraction in science and the partial way in which the
abstract categories discoved by science become apparent
to quotidien perception.

Science must always seek the general behind the concrete,
the abstract behind the particular. Thus in the development
of thermodynamics one has the formation of the abstract
concept of heat, which is distinguished from the forms in
which it becomes apparent as warmth, temperature or
thermal radiation. To measure heat, one needs to co-
ordinate several distinct observations and data.

If you want to measure the number of calories released by
by burning 10 grams of sugar under a bombe calorimeter,
one must know the starting temperature of the calorimeter,
the volume of water it contains, the final temperature, the
specific heat of water, etc.

Prior to the development of a coherent theory of heat, and
data on the specific heat of water one might come up with
regularities like ' other things being equal, the rise in
temperature was proportional to the sugar burnt', but this is
not a meaure of abstract heat.

The similarity to exchange is clear, a capitalist can observe
that, other things being equal his turnover is roughly
proportional to the number of workers in his employ, but
this proportionality does not yet give him a measure of
abstract necessary labour time. The fact that such
proportionalities exist is an indication that there is an
underlying material cause for them, just as the
proportionality between temperature rise and fuel burned
indicates a similar abstract cause.

A scientific measurement of abstract labour needs the
analogue of adjustments for different specific heats and
calorimeter volumes, the fact that in a given factory the
techniques of production are worse than average, will
indicate that the measure of actual expended labour has to
be corrected to arrive at a measure of abstract labour.

The existence of objective material causes underlying the
phenomenal forms to which they give rise, is one of the
basic postulates of philosophical materialism. That these
causes not only exist bur are discoverable and measurable
is a further necessary postulate for scientific materialism.
This, it seems to me is one of the fundamental distinctions
between Marxism and Hayekism, and more generally
between materialism and empiricism. For Hayek, the worth
of things is in principle un-knowable outside of market
exchange. Thus the Marxist programme of a communist
society in which economic calculation transcends the
market, is hopelessly utopian, scientism, the engineering
fallacy etc.

I think, therefore, that it is a fundamental philosophical
error, and one which, moreover can be exploited by our
enemies, to say that it is only through market exchanges
that abstract labour can be measured. This may be the
only form in which it becomes apparent to the practical
concerns of bourgois society, but that does not exhaust the

To take the particular example of gold. If we make the, very
restrictive, assumption along with Marx, that gold can be
coined with no seigneurage or minting charge, then gold is
directly money. As such, it is the closest approximation, in
bourgeois society, to a measuring rod for the values of
other commodities. But this makes the product the most
abstract form of embodied labour, not the labour performed
in the mines. The mines will differ in productivity, and it is
only in the 'average' mine that actual labour time will
correspond with abstract value creating labour.

One must distinguish the scientific abstraction, abstract
labour as the expression on a polymorphous human
potential, from the empirical abstraction performed by the

An analogous polymorphous potential, one regularly used
in industry is the computing machine cycle. One costs
algorithms in terms of the number of machine cycles they
cost. A computer is a universal machine, its computation
power can be expressed in a vast variety of concrete forms,
so there are different sequences of machine cycles with
different concrete effects. But when one uses machine
cycles as a metric of algorithmic costs, one abstracts from
what these cycles are - adds, subtracts, moves etc, and
reduces them to the abstract measure of an almost
infinitely plastic potential. The abstraction over labour is