[OPE-L:368] abstract labor

ECUSER (ECBURKE@scifac.indstate.edu)
Sun, 29 Oct 1995 17:35:03 -0800

[ show plain text ]

Paul Cockshot, quoting Marx's statement concerning the fact that
"all labour is speaking physiologically an expenditure of human
labour power", conjectures that "this appears to indicate that Marx
thought abstract value creating labour is not specific to a given
mode of production". I agree with Roman Rosdolsky's observations on
this issue in his review of Joan Robinson's ESSAY ON MARXIAN
ECONOMICS. The passage I have in mind is on pp.533-534 of THE MAKING

"Marx makes the distinction between the weight-relation of the
two bodies and the value-relation of two commodities absolutely clear
here; the former is a material relation, the latter is a purely
social one. However, this did not prevent his Keynesian critic from
imputing exactly the opposite view to him: the concept of value as 'a
quality analogous to weight or colour' and, on top of that, to
lecture him on the distinction between the 'technical' and the
'social'---two concepts which must have been clear even to Robinson
Crusoe, although the poor man was never a professor of economics.
But how could Joan Robinson arrive at such grotesque conclusions?
The explanation clearly has to be looked for in the field of

"Marx asks, how can we designate labour as the substance of
value if, in actual fact, each concrete labour serves a different
aim, and is performed by different individuals of differing ability,
skill etc.? How can the infinite variety of the different kinds of
professional and individual labour be reduced to a common
denominator? His answer is that it is possible: 'However varied the
useful kinds of labour, or productive activities, it is a
PHYSIOLOGICAL fact, that they are functions of the human organism,
and that each function, whatever may be its nature or its form, is
essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles and sense

"In this sense the physiological similarity of human labour is a
necessary precondition of any value-relation. But only a [NECESSARY,
NOT SUFFICIENT; PB] precondition! It would be mistaken to regard the
physiological concept of labour as the essence of Marx's theory of
value, as many of his critics do. If such an interpretation were
correct there would in fact be no fundamental difference between
Marx's and Ricardo's versions of the labour theory of value, and the
theory itself would be open to serious criticism. In the first place
we would have to regard value as a supra-historical category, valid
for all economic systems, since in all economic systems labour looked
at physiologically, is only 'an expenditure of human brain, nerves,
muscles, and sense-organs.' The essentially historical character of
the basic economic categories, on which Marx laid so much stress,
would be obscured. And in the second place, we would be compelled,
or at least tempted, to look for a mechanical measure of
physiological labour, which would, of course, be a fruitless
undertaking. (Moreover, we would then really confuse the 'social'
with the 'technical', as Joan Robinson thinks.) In fact, however, we
have only seen the first part of Marx's solution to the problem so
far, since, although labour can be reduced, physiologically, to the
simple expenditure of labour-power in any society, such a reduction
is only necessary in practice and actually takes place a particular
stage of historical development. This only occurs in a society of
commodity owners where exchange constitutes the sole economic
connection between individuals, and consequently where commodities
are to be regarded as products of average, undifferentiated labour---
'without regard to the form of its expenditure'.

"However, this requires no mechanical measure of the
physiological expenditure of labour-power, since it is society
itself, the spontaneous social process 'behind the backs of the
producers', which equates the various forms of labour on the market
and reduces them to average 'socially necessary' labour . . . the
'equality of human labour' in such a society [AS PART OF SOCIETY'S
DIVISION OF LABOUR; PB] obtains a 'material form . . . in the equal
objectivity of the products of labour as values' . . .

"What conclusions can be drawn . . . ? Clearly that it is
impossible to recognise the exclusively social significance of value,
unless it is regarded as an historical phenomenon; and that it is
equally impossible to deny the historical character of value without
seeing in it a 'quality analogous to weight or colour', i.e. a
'technical' category."

* * * *

I would only add one suggestion: that what allows abstract labor
alone to be the substance of value under capitalism is the
specifically capitalist social separation of the direct producers
from necessary conditions (to begin with necessary natural
conditions) of material reproduction. This means that the substance
of value under capitalism (abstract labor) abstracts from the
necessary basis of material wealth not only in human-social labor,
but also in nature as a transhistorical contributor to use values (to
the material reproduction of human beings). This has important
implications for the relation of capitalist production with its
natural environment; I won't get into this right now but let me
just indicate that this interpretation suggests that it is not
Marx's "labor theory of value" that is anti-ecological (as has been
claimed by many of Marx's critics---Georgescu-Roegen, for example),
but rather capitalism itself.

So, in response to this particular point in Paul C.'s post, let
me suggest that although there is a transhistorical physiological
basis to abstract labor as the substance of value, this is only in
the sense of a necessary condition not a sufficient condition, so
that value itself remains an historically specific category
applicable only to capitalist society. To me this seems similar to
Marx's statement in the famous letter to Kugelmann regarding the
relation between the transhistorical necessity for some reproductive
allocation of social labor time and the specific form of this
allocation (in the form of commodity relations) under capitalism. In
short, I partly agree, and partly disagree, with Paul C.'s

Sorry about the long quote from RR, but it did seem apropos.


Paul Burkett