[OPE-L:400] Re: abstract labor

ECUSER (ECBURKE@scifac.indstate.edu)
Thu, 2 Nov 1995 16:44:38 -0800

[ show plain text ]

This post is going to be somewhat long, so if you're not into the
abstract labor discussion you may want to exercise the delete option
at this time.

First, thanks, Paul Cockshot, for taking the time to clarify at
such length your position that abstract labor and value are
transhistorical categories at such length. I believe we are moving
closer to getting to the methodological roots of our disagreement.
If I continue to disagree with your position this does not detract
from my view that your position is a legitimate one to argue. (The
meaning of 'agreeing to disagree', and of 'scientific', for you and
for I is briefly commented upon at the end of this post.)

Let me consider Paul's points in the order they were posted:

Paul C.:
> 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
> time.
> 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.

Paul B.:
To me this discussion seems to conflate logical priority
(ordering) with historical priority (historical specification). My
position on the movement from the analysis of commodities in Part I
to the analysis of capital in Part II is that Marx does in fact here
conduct a logically ordered proof of the fact that GENERALIZED
commodity production (and its value form) must be capitalist
production. (Parenthetically, on this point, while I see what Steve
Keen is getting at regarding emryonic developments of the value form
in pre-capitalist systems, among which I would include any embryonic
forms under Paul C.'s case of Roman production, I disagree with
Steve in the sense that in my opinion what Marx is talking about in
Part I of Capital I is the fully developed form of value---at a
different level of abstraction than in, say, Volume III to be sure.)
The notion that because Marx analyzes the commodity in apparent
abstraction from the wage-labor form of production in Part I, he must
be asserting the transhistoricality of abstract labor and the value
form, is a non-sequitur.

Two side-notes on some connected literature. First, my
interpretation is consistent with David Harvey's discussion of the
concepts in Part I of Capital I in his book THE LIMITS TO CAPITAL,

"Marx considers the commodity as a material embodiment of
use value, exchange value and value. Once again, these concepts are
presented to us in a seemingly arbitrary way 'as if we had before us
a mere a priori construction' (KM). These are the concepts that are
absolutely fundamental to everything that follows. They are the
pivot upon which the whole analysis of capitalism turns. We have to
understand them if we are to understand what Marx has to say.

"In this there is a certain difficulty. To understand the
concepts fully requires that we understand the inner logic of
capitalism itself. Since we cannot possibly have that understanding
at the outset, we are forced to use the concepts without knowing
precisely what they mean . . . Marx's relational way of proceeding
means that he cannot treat any one concept as a fixed, known or even
knowable building block on the basis of which to interpret the rich
complexity of capitalism . . . Marx never treats once concept in
isolation as if it could be understood in itself . . . The relations
between the concepts are what really count."

Second, as another example of an interpretation in which the
categories in Part I of Capital I are specific to capitalism---one in
which it is also argued that Marx conducted a dialectically ordered
categorial analysis of the capitalist mode throughout the three
volumes of Capital, I would mention Tony Smith's book THE LOGIC OF
MARX'S CAPITAL. However, I think Tony can state his own opinion much
more clearly than I can especially since (I think) he is on this list.

Although this is a matter of interpretation and conceptual
consistency and not just quote-baiting, I would point out that at the
very beginning of Capital I Marx says he is talking about "the wealth
of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production
prevails" (p.25, International Edition, 1977 printing).

There is of course a crucial difference between Marx and Engels
on this issue, in that Engels developed the notion that the fully
developed value form could operate---with prices of production
proportional to values---under a 'simple commodity production' system
of owner-operators (see the supplement to Capital III). I disagree
with Engels' view on this, because generalized commodity production
and its value form presume (in my interpretation of Marx, which as I
said is certainly not the only legitimate interpretation) the formal
commodity status of labor power, i.e., the specifically capitalist
separation of workers from necessary conditions of production.
(Weeks has a good critique of Engels's supplement, in the context of
an argument that the value-form analysis in Part I, Capital I is
specific to capitalism, in his book CAPITAL AND EXPLOITATION.)

Back to Paul C.:
> 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
> belonged.
> '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.

Paul B.:
Wait just a minute here! Clearly Marx is not 'attributing' any
shortcomings in Aristotle's analysis merely 'to the blinkered ideology
of the slaveowning class to which Aristotle belonged'; rather, he
relates this inability to fully specify the substance of value to the
class-material basis of Greek society which underpinned this
ideology. Marx continues:

"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."

Paul B.: Need it be added that a society where the commodity form
is the universal form of the product of labour is capitalist society?
Hence, Aristotle must have been one smart dude to have analyzed the
value form even to the extent that he did on the basis of the merely
embryonic forms of value present in Greek society. This obviously
took a lot of imagination (counterfactual reasoning, for example).
Indeed, Marx goes on to state that:

>"Aristotle's genius
> is displayed precisely in his discovery of a relation of equality
> in the value expression of commodities [i.e., way ahead of its
> time; PB]. 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.'

But Paul C. interprets this quite differently:
> 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.

Paul B.:
Marx does not (in this particular passage) come right out and say
"there was no comon substance to commodities in Aristotle's time" (in
the specific capitalist sense of abstract labor as the substance of
value under commodity production as the universal form of
production). Nonetheless, he certainly does NOT say there was such a
common substance in the specifically capitalist sense.

Paul C.:
> 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.

Paul B.:
I believe this is Paul C. talking, not Marx.

Paul C.:
> 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"

Paul B.:
Yes, that's right. Aristotle was right, given the mode of
production he was a part of.

Paul C. then shifts gears a bit:
> 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.

Paul B.: Not at all. To begin with, the form of your statement
presupposes that you are correct about the transhistoricality of
abstract labor as the substance of value (in the sense analyzed by
Marx in Part I of Capital I), even though I thought that was what we
are trying to debate. More to the point, what I AM saying in this
particular connection is that the specific kind of equivalence
Marx was talking about in Part I of Capital I is specific to

Paul C.:
> What are these 'lots of things' which were in the past the common
> substances of value?

Paul B.: Nothing, since (as Steve Keen points out in his last post
in a somewhat different way) the commodity form as the universal form
of the product of labor (hence the value form of the commodity, i.e.
abstract labor as a general substance of value) is specifically
capitalist. What we are disagreeing about here is precisely whether
there is such a substance of value (in the sense specified by Marx in
Part I, Capital I) in non-capitalist society. In my earlier post, I
never said "'lots of things' were in the past the common substances
of value".

Paul C.:
> Commodity production under slavery
> ----------------------------------

Paul B.:
Sorry, I mistakenly erased a couple lines here in which Paul C.
argues that my view leads to an untenable position that Roman
commodities either had no value or that this value had no substantial
basis. Paul C. then goes on to talk about the supposedly objective
basis of prices (in labor times) based on gold and silvers' relative
price, and so on. My response is that it is not my position but Paul
C.'s that depends on the objective basis of relative price in labor
time (although I do wish him luck in his empirical explorations). It
is not my view of what Marx's value analysis is all about that
requires any particular, general objective basis for relative prices
in pre-capitalist societies; rather it is Paul C.'s view that
requires this.

Perhaps the proper application of a materialist conception of
history here (as has been suggested, for example, by Paul Sweezy
regarding both pre- and post-capitalist societies) is to recognize
that there are no general laws of motion in non-capitalist societies
of the kind there are in capitalist society, precisely because of the
difference between production which is value-formed 'behind the backs
of the producers' as Rosdolsky indicated, versus production (and
reproduction) which is governed more by relations of interdependence
and hierarchical dependence more bound up with concrete use value as
Steve Keen indicated (based on the fact that the direct producers are
not socially separated from necessary conditions of production
including natural conditions the way they are under capitalism).
More on this below in the context of the documentation issue.

Paul C.:
> 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?

Paul B.:
No, I am not saying that. What I did say is that it should be
possible to analyze feudal exploitation without an aggregatively
quantifiable and empirically measurable concept of labor isolated
from the conditions and results of production. I think Steve Keen's
last post provides some useful sidelights on this point.

Paul C.:
> 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.

Paul B.: How does not being aggregatively quantifiable and measurable
suddenly reduce something to "just so many quaint customs"?

Paul C:
>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.

Paul B.: If you limit the 'single concept' to exploitation in the
sense of extraction of surplus labor and appropriation of surplus
product, I would agree that the 'basis' suggested in the last 14
words of this statement is a valid concept. I am not sure, however,
that I would limit the conceptualization of exploitation to just this
dimension. What about the different (class-specific) relations of
the producers and appropriators of the surplus product to the natural
conditions and results of production, for example? For some purposes
and issues (e.g., the specific ecological crisis tendencies of
specific modes of production) this might be just as valid a dimension
from which to look at the relation of exploitation as the labor
aspect (the two aspects are intrinsically connected---labor
being the initiator of the reproductive people-nature metabolism, as
Marx says).

Paul C.:
> 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?

Paul B.: Michael P. has studied this issue in detail, partly based
on the political and historical context in which Marx wrote. Perhaps
this is a case where Marx just wasn't trying to conduct a systematic
categorially ordered analysis, i.e., it may have been in the way of a
popular illustration or historical digression from such an ordered
analysis, of the kind that Tony Smith points out other examples of in

Paul C.
> 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.

Paul B.: It seems to me that this is an extraordinary limitation on
the debate and discussion of Marx's critique of political economy.
Do you have any evidence of major, absolutely foundational,
conceptions (such as the historical specificity of the value form)
that are presented in truly fundamentally different ways in the
GRUNDRISSE and Capital? I am wondering what other people on the list
think about decreeing the GRUNDRISSE (and all of Marx's other
unpublished writings) out of bounds in terms of interpreting and
extending and applying Marx's conceptions---especially given the very
partial character of Marx's published works compared to the
unpublished ones? Do we leave out Volumes II and III of Capital as
well because Marx was unwilling to put his name to these ideas in

Paul C.:
>But where in Capital does he
> say that abstract labour is a concept inapplicable to other
> modes of production?

Paul B.: There are many places where Marx points out the capitalist
specificity of abstract labor as the substance of value (in the sense
analyzed in Capital I, Part I). In Capital I, Marx says that
"directly associated labour" [i.e., the post-capitalist, associated
mode of production] is "a form of production that is entirely
inconsistent with the production of commodities" in the sense that he
is analyzing in Part I, Capital I (International Edition, p.94, n.1).
I'll get back to Capital I, but may I quote from the CRITIQUE OF THE
GOTHA PROGRAM (1966 International Edition, p.8) which, although not
published by Marx, certainly was important in applying his views to
what was for Marx an absolutely crucial political development in
Germany at the time (1875) when Capital I had already been published?
Here, again referring to post-capitalist society: "Within the co-
operative society based on common ownership of the means of
production, the producers do not exchange their products; JUST AS
VALUE OF THESE PRODUCTS, as a material quality possessed by them,
since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no
longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part
of the total labour".

In Capital I, Part I, in reference to "the European middle ages
shrouded in darkness," we are told:

"Here, instead of the independent man, we find everyone
dependent, serfs and lords, vassals and suzerains, laymen and clergy.
PERSONAL DEPENDENCE here characterises the social relations of
production just as much as it does the other spheres of life
organised on the basis of that production. But for the very reason
that personal dependence forms the ground-work of society, there is
no necessity for labour and its products to assume a fantastic form
different from their reality. They take the shape, in the
transactions of society, of services in kind and payments in kind.
Here the particular and natural form of labour, and not, as in a
society based on production of commodities, its general abstract form
is the immediate social form of labour. Compulsory labour is just as
properly measured by time, as commodity-producing labour; but every
serf knows that what he expends in the service of his lord, is a
definite quantity of his own personal labour power." (p.77,
International Edition). Marx then goes on to repeat the same ideas
in somewhat different words, pointing out again that in the pre-
capitalist situation, the producers' "own mutual personal relations .
.. . are not disguised under the shape of social relations between the
products of labour" (ibid).

I think the passages quoted above are also sufficient answer to
Paul C.'s claim that it is abstract, value-creating labor (in the
sense analyzed by Marx in Part I of Capital I) that is allocated under
post-capitalist production in the view of Marx and Engels, as well as
the complaints raised in his other recent post regarding total labor
time in post-capitalist society. Certainly the following comment by
Paul C.:

> 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?

does not help matters very much, since it could be argued (and I in
fact would argue, along with Andrew) that if this Chinese labor was
abstract, value-creating labor then 'post-revolutionary' China was in
fact a state-capitalist economy. I would also point out that I find
somewhat disturbing the tendency here to reduce Marx's concept of
value to a mere principle of quantitative distribution. I certainly
don't agree with the interpretation of Marx's principle of
'distribution according to need' as involving quantification of these
needs in terms of abstract, value-creating labor time.

Paul C. closes with:
> 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.

Paul B.: This seems to oversimplify what I meant by agreeing to
disagree. The recognition of the possibility that there might be two
conceptually incommensurate approaches to reality need not involve
any wholesale flight into ideology in some simplistically pejorative
sense. See the work of Resnick and Wolff, for example. Besides,
perhaps ideological and political issues of great importance are
indeed at stake in this debate over whether Marx should be
interpreted in a particular quantitative, or even empiricist,
fashion (see recent posts by Michael P. and Andrew K.).

Paul C.:
>If we are approaching the matter scientifically
> we must be able to adduce evidence for and against the propositions
> we advance.

Paul B.: I have tried to do provide both some conceptual reasoning
AND some evidence in previous posts as well is in the current one,
but without labelling positions which do not agree with my own
as 'unscientific' by contrast with my own 'scientific' approach (let
alone reducing scientific including conceptual reasoning to the
provision of empirical or textual evidence).

I would, however, again like to thank Paul Cockshott for pursuing
these issues in detail. It seems important to have a detailed,
exploratory discussion when trying to argue these things out rather
than the intellectual sniper fire and trap-setting sometimes
characteristic of computer lists, and I think Paul's recent posts
have, on balance, contributed to such useful discussion.

Paul Burkett