[OPE-L:407] abstract labor

ECUSER (ECBURKE@scifac.indstate.edu)
Fri, 3 Nov 1995 18:43:51 -0800

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I agree with Duncan Foley's observations on the commodity form
and the notion of 'total labor time of society', but perhaps have a
different view of their implications for the recent exchanges between
Paul C. and myself.

I agree with the statement that "to the extent that production
takes the commodity form, money (or abstract labor) tends to emerge".
(Parenthetically, the seeming identification of money with abstract
labor is shorthand for the necessary development of money as the
general form of value with the development of the commodity form, due
to the contradiction between the concrete particularities of
commodified use values and the general character of value as part of
socially recognized reproductive labor time---on which see below.)
This concept is what was encapsulated in my last post under the
concept of 'emryonic forms' of value. As per the ongoing discussion
between Paul C. and Paul B., to me Duncan F.'s way of phrasing the
problem suggests that THE crucial question bearing on this discussion
is whether the analysis of the commodity in Part I of Capital I
applies to these embryonic forms that might develop in pre-capitalist
society (or might still be present in post-capitalist society in some
projections). Paul C. answers yes to this; I would answer no.

But, at this point, Duncan F.'s third paragraph comes into view:
the paragraph where he urges caution about the concept of 'total
labour time of society', due to the fact that 'every society has a
number of different forms of labour and product coexisting'
(domestic, labor-power-reproducing labor for example). This comment
is important because it suggests that even under capitalism there is
no such thing as a 'pure' commodity form of reproduction---which
would appear to make it more difficult to qualitatively distinguish
the value form of capitalistically-produced commodities from the more
embryonic value forms of pre-capitalistically-produced commodities.
Hence this line of conceptual reasoning appears to support Paul C.'s
way of thinking over Paul B.'s.

It is evident that there are two concepts of 'total labor time of
society' (TLTS, if I may) in play here: TLTS1 is the true GRAND TOTAL
of use-value creating (reproductive) labor time available to the
society; TLTS2 is the total labor time which is SOCIALLY RECOGNIZED
as contributing to the society's reproductive division of labor.
TLTS1 is transhistorical (though it is a specifically human concept in
the sense that it applies only to human beings materially reproducing
themselves in and through society, albeit not one kind of society in
particular); TLTS2 is historically specific to particular systems of
production defined in terms of their dominant production relations
(between producers and appropriators of the surplus product).

Under capitalist production (and reproduction) TLTS2 is
determined by the test of the market and private profitability. I
certainly agree with Duncan F. on the importance of those elements of
TLTS1 which are not recognized as socially reproductive under
capitalist TLTS2 (in addition to domestic labor-power-reproducing
labor a number of other things could be added; e.g., environmental
clean-ups, or pollution-preventing kinds of labor). I would state
this as follows: the fact that capitalist reproduction depends on a
lot of TLTS1 which is not socially validated as reproductive
labor under TLTS2 is a fundamental contradiction of this mode of
production closely related to (synonymous with?) the use value--
exchange value contradiction. Indeed, some kinds of material
reproduction crises involve the failure of adequate TLTS1 to happen
precisely because it is not socially validated as TLTS2, and this
kind of crisis tends in Marx's view to become more and more of a
problem for the system as it socializes the forces of production
leading to more and more contradictions between private profitability
and development of productive forces including (especially) human
beings themselves and their natural environment. And it should be
added that TLTS1 (like the feudal labor in Duncan's second paragraph,
even though this feudal labor is also part of TLTS2---on which see
below) is not (and cannot) be quantified in terms of abstract labor
time, because it cannot be abstracted from its by definition
variegated material forms which manifest the tremendous
qualitative variety of human reproductive activities (diverse
individual human beings interacting with naturally AND socially
variegated material conditions). I would also suggest that the
systemic undervaluation of nature's contribution to use value
(wealth) is manifested in capitalism's TLTS2 reducing the substance
of wealth to abstract labor time (abstracting completely from
nature's contribution).

Hence, it is true that both capitalist and pre-capitalist
commodity production share the same kind of distinction between TLTS1
and TLTS2. The difference is that in capitalist commodity production
the 'domestic' labor that goes into labor-power reproduction is by
definition not part of TLTS2, labor power having been 'freed' from
necessary conditions of production in the double-sense pointed out by
Marx in Capital I. Conversely, under pre-capitalist systems at least
some (not necessarily all) of the labor that goes into the
reproduction of commodity-producing labor power is by definition part
of TLTS2 AND of TLTS1, i.e., there is not the same kind of separation
of 'domestic' from 'economic' spheres as is the case under
capitalism. This is in turn a manifestation of the fact that in pre-
capitalist production necessary conditions of production are not
themselves commodified as under capitalism, because these necessary
conditions have not been socially separated from labor power as under
capitalism. This is the sense in which the pre-capitalist value
forms must be considered embryonic. I also would argue that the
features of pre-capitalist class-material relations recently focussed
upon by Steve Keen (their non-capitalistic use-value orientation
with regard to conceptions of wealth, etc.) is intrinsically bound up
with this difference; but my main point as per the Paul C. versus
Paul B. discussion is that the value form of the commodity as
analyzed in Part I of Capital I is not incomplete or embryonic in the
sense suggested here---hence it is specific to capitalist commodity
production . . .

I realize this post has been largely a rephrasing of disagreement
rather than an attempt to overcome this disagreement; still it may be
helpful to look at disputes from different angles. It seems to me
that there are at least two, maybe several, positions developing in
this discussion which are legitimate to hold, and that a lot of the
gains from discussing these things can be obtained from
interpretations and conceptions generated by the discussion rather
than from any 'final resolution' of the initial question.

Paul Burkett