[OPE-L:480] Re: abstract labor & interpretation

jones/bhandar (djones@uclink.berkeley.edu)
Wed, 15 Nov 1995 02:44:01 -0800

[ show plain text ]

Andrew has raised several criticisms of Moishe Postone's analysis of
abstract, concrete and physiological labor. I shall for the moment bypass
most of Andrew's criticism and attempt here only to indicate positively
Postone's interpretation.

However, I begin with this from Andrew:

> My real point is that--as I interpret Postone--workers physiological labor
>*solely* concrete. Abstract labor is not something extracted from them in
> production.

As Postone points out, II Rubin long ago probed the question of whether it
is "possible to reconcile a physiological concept of abstract labor with
the historical character of the value which it creates." (Rubin quoted in
Postone, p. 145).

Based on a close textual reading of the Grundrisse and Capital, Postone
establishes that "it is central to Marx's analysis that value be understood
as a historically specific form of social wealth." That is, "the category
of abstract human labor is a social determination"; "it cannot be a
physiological category."

But once Postone demonstrates that value is historically and socially
specific, then what are we to make of the conceptualization in Marx's
*Capital* of abstract labor of "an expenditure of human labour-power in the
physiological sense." (Marx quoted in Postone, p. 144)

I believe that Postone's formulation of the problem is as brilliant and
decisive a step in the clarification of Marx's value theory as Rubin's was
in his time:

"The problem, then, is to move beyond the physiological definition of
abstract humna labor provided by Marx and analyze its underlying social and
historical meaning. An adequate analysis, moreover, must not only show
THAT abstract human labor has a social character; it must also investigate
the historically specific social relations that underlie value in order to
explain WHY those relations appear, and, therefore, are presented by Marx,
as being physiological--as transhistorical, natural, and thus historically
empty. Such an approach, in other words, would examine the category of
abstract human labor as the initial and primary determination underlying
the 'commodity fetishism' in Marx's analysis--that social relations under
capitalism appear in the forms of relations among objects, and, hence, seem
to be transhistorical." (145)

Before I go on to indicate why Postone argues that the historically
specific function of labor appears as physiological labor, it also needs
to be clarified what sort of abstraction is implied by Marx's concept of
abstract labor: logical or real. Andrew agrees here with Postone that
abstract labor is a real abstraction specific to capitalism but nonetheless
differs with Postone's intepretation of wherefrom that reality derives.
(Actually,the interpretation on p. 281 seems to me to be strikingly similar
to Andrew's, but perhaps we will discuss this later).

Here Postone emphasizes the function of social mediation as well as the
reality of abstract labor:

"What makes labor general in capitalism is not simply the truism that it is
the common denominator of all various specific sorts of labor; rather, IT
mediating activity, labor is abstracted from the specificity of its
product; hence, from the specificity of its own concrete form. In Marx's
analysis, the category of abstract labor expresses this real social process
of abstraction; it is not simply based on a conceptual process of
abstraction....(B)ecause each indvidual labor functions in the SAME
socially mediating way that all the others do, their abstract labors taken
together do NOT constitute an immense collection of various abstract labors
but a GENERAL social mediation--in other words, socially total abstract
labor. Their products thus constitute a SOCIALLY TOTAL MEDIATION--VALUE.
This mediation is general not only because it connects all producers but
also because its character is general--abstracted from all material
specificity as well as any overtly social particularity." (152)

Andrew has argued that Postone's conceptualization of abstract labor is
incapable of grasping the dividedness of the working class on the factory
floor. I think that this is a very important criticism. But Postone is
clearly not oblivious to the torture of workers in industrial society

At this point in the argument however Postone attempts to analyze on the
one hand the system of abstract complusions to which such a value-mediated
totality gives rise and on the other hand the fetishization of the labor
which performs the function of this mediation. To put it another way, he
is concerned here with how labor itself constitues, as a seemingly natural
attribute of itself, a quasi-independent structure of abstract compulsions
which comes to dominate labor itself. So he argues: "Even the labor of an
independent commodity producer is alienated, if not to the same degree as
that of an industrial worker, because social compulsion is effected
abstractly, as a result of the social relations objectified by labor when
it functions as a socially mediating activity. The abstract domination and
the exploitation of labor characteristic of capitalism are grounded,
ultimately not in the appropriation of surplus by the non-laboring classes,
but in the form of labor in capitalism." (160-1)

This abstract domination takes on temporal dimensions; people are compelled
to "keep up with the times". But as Postone takes many pages to delineate
abstract, temporal domination at the fundamental level, I shall not comment
upon it. The point is that here Postone is concerned with abstract
domination as self-generated by labor.

And as suggested, the argument here is that labor not only constitutes a
quasi-independent structure of abstract domination when it takes on the
function of social mediation but also that despite such an effect, abstract
labor nonetheless appears natural. Postone goes so far to argue that this
is a deeply fundamental facet of bourgeois ideology. Under capitalism,
labor appears as the only way to consume what one does not produce. Labor
alone seems to be the means to one's family compulsion. (161) Security and
survival then seem to depend wholly on ever greater exertions of abstract

Actually Postone argues a few pages later:

"I have shown how the social 'essence' of capitalism is a historically
specific function of labor as a medium of social relations. yet, within
the framework of Marx's mode of pressentation--which is already immanent to
the categorial forms and proceeds from the commodity to examine the source
of its value--the category of abstract labor appears to be an expresion of
labor per se, of concrete labor in general. The historically specific
'essence' of capitalism appears in the immanent analysis as a
physiological, ontological essence, a form that is common to all societies:
'labor.' The category of abstract labor presented by Marx is thus an
initial determination of what he explicates with his notion of the fetish:
because the underlying relations of capitalism are mediated by labor, hence
are objectified, they appear not be historically specific and social but
transhistorically valid and ontologically grounded form. The appearance of
labor's mediational character in capitalism as physiological labor is the
fundamental core of the fetish of capitalism." (p. 170)

Postone also argues that "Marx's physiological definition of the category
is part of an analysis of capitalism IN ITS OWN TERMS, that is, as the
forms present themselves....It is precisely because of this immanent
character that the Marxian critique can be so easily misunderstood, and
that quotes and and concepts torn out of context can so easily be used to
construct a positive 'science.'" In a footnote criticizing Cornelius
Castoriadis, MP notes that the former implies "that in one and the same
chapter of Capital, Marx holds the very quasi-natural, non-historical
position he analyzes critically in his discussionof the fetish." (p. 170-1)