[OPE-L:394] Re: abstract labor

Paul Cockshott (wpc@clyder.gn.apc.org)
Thu, 2 Nov 1995 11:26:46 -0800

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Marxs formal argument for value
Burkett wishes to argue that the analysis of commodities in
chapter 1 of capital is specific to capitalism.

This has very serious implications for the logical structure
of Marx's Capital. Chai-on Lee has argued, I think convicingly,
for the importance of the concept of logical priority in
Marx's argument. The argument starts with a concrete social form,
the commodity, which whilst characteristic of capitalist wealth,
is known to have preceeded capitalism. It then moves on from
this to deduce that the commodity exchange relation involves
an equality relation, and that this in turn implies that some
common substance is preserved in commodity exchanges. Marx
then argues that this common substance can only be human labour

He later goes on from the exchange relation to deduce the money
form, and from the circulation of commodities moves on to the
circulation of capital.

In Marx's argument the commodity is logically prior to both
money and to capital, thus any deductions about the commodity
that he makes, can not logically depend upon the existence of
capital. The existence of capital takes the commodity as
one of its logical preconditions. It follows therefore that his
argument about commodity exchange implying a common substance to
commodities appart from their use value, is itself logically
prior to the existence of capital, and is valid wherever commodity
exchange exists.

The role of Aristotle as a counter example
This is reinforced by the fact that Marx cites Aristotle as
having been the first to analyse the value form, and the first
to recognise that exchange implies both equality and commesurability.
(Fernbach translation pp151-152) That Aristotle was unable to
identify what the common substance was, Marx attributes to the
blinkered ideology of the slaveowning class to which Aristotle

'Aristotle himself was unable to extract this fact, that,
in the form of commodity values, all labour is expressed as equal
human labour and therefore as labour of equal quality, by inspection
from the form of value, because Greek society was founded on
the labour of slave, and hence had as its natural basis the
inequality of men and of their labour powers. The secret of
the expression of value, namely the equality and equivalence of
all kinds of labour because and insofar as they are human
labour in general, could not be deciphered until the concept of
human equality had already acquired the permanence of a fixed
popular opinion. This however becomes possible only in a society
where the commodity form is the universal form of the product
of labour, hence the dominant social relation is the relation
between men as the possesors of commodities. Aristotles genius
is displayed precisely in his discovery of a relation of equality
in the value expression of commodities. Only the historical
limitation inherent in the society in which he lived prevented
him from finding out of what `in reality' this relation of
equality consisted.'

Note that Marx does not say that there was no common substance
to commodities in Aristotles time. He says that there was a
common substance, equal human labour, but that the social distance
between Aristole and a slave, made this concept unthinkable -
because it would have revealed 'the equality and equivalence
of all kinds of labour' and thus the equality and equivalence
of all human beings.

Marx is saying that abstract labour existed, was what made
commodities commesurable 2500 years ago, but that the even
the greatest genius of antiquity was prevented by class ideology
from seeing this.

Burkett in contrast is saying in effect, that Aristotle was right
when he said 'It is in reality impossible that such unlike things
can be commensurable'. And that "Exchange value depended on a lot
of things; since material reproduction in pre-capitalist societies
is (was) not regulated by value relations but rather primarily by
relations of interpersonal dependence and/or hierarchical dependence"

If as Burkett maintains, exchange value depended on 'a lot of things'
then he must be rejecting the argument put forward by Marx that
equivalence between commodities must imply the existence of a
single social substance, positing instead the possibility of
exchange value having a multiplicity of components. This
philosophically consistent with the trinity formula, whereby land
labour and capital contribute components to value, (not to imply
that Burkett believes this).

What are these 'lots of things' which were in the past the common
substances of value?

Commodity production under slavery
Burkett is of course correct in his belief 'that the
material reproduction of Roman society was not dominated
by the commodity form' if he means that large part of the
social product was consumed within the domesitic economy
both of peasant farms and of latifundia.

But nonetheless the *objective*
of latifundia production was commodity production. This is
clear from Cato and Varro. Moreover, the existence of an
urban ruling class deriving their wealth primarily from
agricultural estates - something that distinguished antiquity
from feudalism, was, as argued by Kautsky, Weber and Thompson
predicated upon their incomes being monetary in form.
This monetarisation of the incomes of the ruling class, along
with the large scale development of commodity exchange,
manufacturing, seagoing trade etc is what allows many historians
to mistake it for a capitalist society. In this sense
commodity production did dominate the society.
Burkett must either assume that these commodities had no
value, or if the commodities did have value, then the value
had no substantial basis.

What evidence does he deduce for this?

Has he any evidence, or just an opinion?
Does he believe that available evidence for relative
prices, ( for instance Diocletian's Price Edict of 301),
is incompatible with prices being regulated by labour time?
We know for instance from this that the price of a pound of gold was
72,000 denari whereas that of silver was 8000 denarii.
This 9 to 1 ratio seems on recent historical evidence to
be within the range that one would expect in terms of their
relative values. Given that the relative rarity of the
elements is more or less constant, these ratios are
not inconsistent with labour values having operated then.
Or to take a more recent example, are the relative prices
of different slave produced commodities in the 19th century,
say cotton, rice and sugar, incompatible with their prices being
regulated by relative labour contents?

Surplus labour
I had pointed out that rejecting the application of abstract
labour to non capitalist modes of production means rejection
of the concept of surplus labour in these modes of production.

Burkett counters:
'I think the analysis of feudal exploitation does not
depend on the ability to quantify and aggregate any rate of
exploitation in feudal society in terms of qualityless labor time---
unless we conflate analysis with aggregate quantification in terms of
labor time.'

Is he saying that it is possible to analyse feudal exploitation
without a concept of surplus labour?

We know that the form in which the surplus was extracted under
feudalism took a bewildering variety of material forms: obligations
to deliver quantities of firewood, geese, etc to the manor,
requirements to work for 2 days a week on the lords land,
requirements to surrender part of the grain to the lords mill
as a milling fee etc. If we abandon the concept of surplus labour,
then all of these forms of exploitation have nothing in common,
they are just so many quaint customs. The only conceptual basis
we have for unifying them under a single concept, that of
exploitation, is to say that in all cases, the peasant is directly
or indirectly giving up their labour time to the lord.

This conceptual unity is logically prior to any attempt to
measure the degree of exploitation. But, of course such measurements
are something that Marxists have attempted - starting with Marx
in chapter 10 of capital where he compares the appetite for
surplus labour of the Danubian Boyar with the English Manufacturer.
Why was Marx deluded to attempt this?

Burkett claims that Marx repeatedly states in both Capital and
the Grundrisse that abstract labour is a concept that applies only
to capitalism. What he may have written in early notebooks
does not concern me here, since he was unwilling to put his
name to these ideas in print. But where in Capital does he
say that abstract labour is a concept inapplicable to other
modes of production?

Abstract Labour under communal production
Burkett argues:
"Cooperative allocation of (directly social) labor according to a
definite plan is quite different from abstract labor being the
substance of value. This passage is in fact a good example of Marx
clearly distinguishing value relations from non-capitalist relations.
Notice that Marx preambles this by stating "We shall assume, BUT ONLY
the share of each individual in the means of subsistence is
determined by his labour-time" (p.172, edition quoted)."

Allocation of labour is indeed different from abstract labour
being the substance of value, since the allocation of a substance is
not the substance itself. The question is, whether it is abstract
or concrete labour that is being allocated?

Marx indeed states that it is only for the sake of a parallel with
commodity production that he assumes a distribution of the product
in proportion to labour time performed. This was because he
saw this as only the first stage of a future communal economy,
which could not initially escape the ideological background of
bourgeois right. He foresaw that at later stages there would be
a progressive restriction of bourgeois right and a movement towards
the principle of distribution according to need.

However, that does not get round the problem of whether or not
abstract labour exists as a distributional mechanism in the first
phases of development of communal production. The mechanism
that Marx foresaw on page 172 was almost exactly that which in
fact operated in the Peoples Communes in China, where distribution
of the product was in terms of the work point system. This was
a real social form, one which involved hundreds of millions of people.
Was the labour measured in the work point system not abstract?

Paul Burkett says that we may just have to agree to disagree, that
may be the case, but if we simply accept that as a method of
proceeding, we are treating the whole exercise as one in ideology
not science. If we are approaching the matter scientifically
we must be able to adduce evidence for and against the propositions
we advance.

Paul Cockshott