[OPE-L:457] abstract labor

Michael A. Lebowitz (mlebowit@sfu.ca)
Thu, 9 Nov 1995 02:32:11 -0800

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I've been finding this discussion of abstract labour quite interesting
because it has forced me to question my own preconceptions.I agree with those
who argue that the subject of CAPITAL is the commodity within capitalist
society-- i.e., the society characterised by capital and wage-labour (and
more specifically by the buying and selling of labour-power, which I point
out merely to provoke Gil). I have always been inclined, however, to argue
that insofar as there was commodity exchange in other societies and it
occurred for the purpose of securing a general equivalent (rather than a
specific use-value), then clearly value, abstract labour and money as the
representative of abstract labour were characteristic of those societies. In
this respect, the logical development in CAPITAL could be seen as not
dependent upon but nevertheless corresponding to the historical development.
I take this as the position that Duncan was advancing.
Paul B, however, posed well the crucial question in 407:

>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.

Clearly we have to recognise, as Levins and Lewontin described the
dialectical view in THE DIALECTICAL BIOLOGIST, that commodities "acquire
properties by virtue of being parts of a particular whole, properties they
do not have in isolation or as parts of another whole." In this respect, we
could not expect commodities outside of capitalist society to manifest the
same characteristics as within capitalist society. We might ask 2
questions. (1) What qualities would they not have? (2) what qualities
would they have within a C-M-C society? To (1), we might answer that they
would not be products of wage-labour, not be repositories of surplus value,
not be forms of capital. (It might be useful to take this further.) To (2),
we need to say that there is no such thing as a C-M-C society *as such*.
Ie., there are clear differences between a society of peasant/craftworkers
where a substantial portion of output is not for exchange but for use-values
directly consumed (cf. the discussions by Kula on the feudal system and by
Chayanov on Russian peasant economy), one in which the sale of the products
of slave latifundia occurs for the purpose of altering the form of the
surplus product and of securing replacement slaves and a society of
cooperatives functioning with socially-owned means of production in the
market. As Steve K stressed in 396, we have to situate commodity exchange
within the particular dominant social relations within the society. In this
respect, the commodity will bear differing social relations in each of these
3 non-capitalist societies described; its properties are the result of being
parts of those particular wholes.
If we come back to Paul B's statement of "the crucial question", which
is whether the concepts of value, abstract labour,etc as developed in
CAPITAL are applicable to non-capitalist commodity producing societies, I
would have to say at the moment that I don't know. I don't know because it
would seem to require a careful investigation of the particular social
relations in question, which involves going beyond familiar forms. (Indeed,
we might find that the degree of applicability of those concepts may differ
significantly in each of those non-capitalist societies.) In short, I don't
see how we can take the position of either Paul B or Paul C (or Paul M, who
seems to be arguing that the concept of abstract labour-- once developed--
unequivocally can be applied to earlier societies) with certainty in the
absence of an analysis comparable to that which Marx performed for
Do we need, however, to come to any agreement at this point beyond one
which acknowledges that Marx's study was one of the commodity within
capitalist society? For the study of capitalism, does anyone see a critical
issue outstanding if this question of the commodity in non-capitalist
societies is not resolved?
in solidarity,
Michael A. Lebowitz
Economics Department, Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, B.C., Canada V5A 1S6
Office: (604) 291-4669; Office fax: (604) 291-5944
Home: (604) 255-0382
Lasqueti Island: (604) 333-8810
e-mail: mlebowit@sfu.ca