[OPE-L:396] Re: abstract labor

Steve.Keen@unsw.edu.au (Steve.Keen@unsw.edu.au)
Thu, 2 Nov 1995 12:16:41 -0800

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I think this dispute over whether abstract labor and surplus labor
existed in pre-capitalist societies can be clarified by looking
at the concept Marx developed in the Grundrisse, of a dialectic
between use-value and exchange-value. A significant slab of this
manuscript was, of course, separately published as _Pre-Capitalist
Economic Formations_, and much of Marx's analysis here distinguishes
between capitalism, where production is oriented to the production
of exchange-value, and non-capitalist societies where production is
oriented to the production of use-values.

A representative statement by Marx on this issue is:
"The main point here is this: In all these forms--in which landed
property and agriculture form the basis of the economic order,
and where the economic aim is hence the production of use-values,
i.e. the *reproduction of the individual* within the specific
relation to the commune in which he is its basis--there is to be
found: (1) Appropriation not through labour, but presupposed to
labour; appropriation of the natural conditions of labour, of the
* earth* as the original instrument of labour as well as its
workshop... The individual relates simply to the objective
conditions of labour as being his...; (2) but this * relation*
to land and soil ... is instantly mediated by ... his naturally
arisen presence as a member of a tribe etc." [ p. 485]

In this type of society, while merchants and producers oriented
to exchange-value do exist, and hence have a relation to labor
which emphasises the extraction of surplus value, the predominant
relation is one where the reproduction of the individual in his/her
social relation. For a feudal lord, that social relation has
more to do with ostentatious consumption, elaborate use-values,
and the presence of an army of well-fed attendants; for a feudal
peasant, that social relation is the ability to reproduce and
hence keep producing a surplus which maintains the lord's
conspicuous consumption. Thus the dominant social force is not
the accumulation of exchange-value, but the accumulation of
use-values; wealth per se is not the object, as this next cite

"Do we never find in antiquity an inquiry into which form of
landed property etc. is the most productive, creates the greatest
wealth? Wealth does not appear as the aim of production... The
question is always which mode of property creates the best
citizens. Wealth appears as an end in itself only among the few
commercial peoples... Now, wealth is on one side a thing,
realised in things, material products, which a human being
confronts as subject; on the other side, as value, wealth is
merely command over alien labour not with the aim of ruling, but
with the aim of private consumption, etc." [ p. 487]

In this type of society, obviously surplus labor exists--
otherwise the feudal elite could not be maintained--and the
maximisation of this surplus may in fact be an issue for each
feudal lord. But the success of the feudal "enterprise" is
not measured by the ratio of surplus labor generated to
the amount of labor and (labor-equivalent) capital employed,
but by the lavishness of the use-values produced for the lord's
consumption, and the richness of his entourage.

So I side with Paul Cockshott that abstract labor and surplus
labor certainly existed in all pre-capitalist societies. But
the object of those societies wasn't the maximisation of
a quantified ratio of one to the other: such behaviour is
peculiar to capitalism, the one type of society where the
object is the generation of exchange-value. The transition
to this sort of society, Marx says, involves the dissolution:

"of relations of production in which: use-value predominates,
production for direct consumption; in which exchange-value and
its production presupposes the predominance of the other form;
and hence that, in all these relations, payment in kind and
services in kind predominate over payment in money and
money-services." [ p. 502]


"This shows at the same time that the development of exchange and
of exchange-value, which is everywhere mediated through trade ...
brings with it the dissolution ... [of] ... relations which
express a predominance of use-value and of production directed
towards use-value... [ p. 509]

This development of course makes it much easier to perceive and
calculate such quantitative concepts as abstract labor time,
surplus value, etc. But such elements still exist in the
non-quantitative societies which preceded capitalism.

Steve Keen