[OPE-L:493] Re: abstract labour

Paul Cockshott (wpc@clyder.gn.apc.org)
Thu, 16 Nov 1995 15:13:41 -0800

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comments have been spurred by the ongoing discussion on abstract labour.
I hope time will allow me to comment on other topics in subsequent
posts. My apologies for not mentioning those comrades with whom I agree
and those with whom I do not agre. This type of 'dis-embodied' labour is
very time consuming and digging up the references would have cost me too
much time.
POINT ONE. I would like to start from Chaion Lee's justified
concern [OPE-L 330] that one should clarify the relevant aspects of
Marx's method before engaging in the analysis of some fundamental
concepts like that of abstract labour.
In my opinion, the real difference between Marxian abstractions
on the one hand and neo-classical and neo-Ricardian abstractions on the
other is that the abstractions which Marx uses to inquire into a
*specific* socio-economic system are condensations of the essential
features of that society. I.e. they are arrived at by extracting from
the extreme complexity of reality those features which contain in
themseles *in nuce* all the other elements of a specific reality. This
is the method Marx describes in the Grundrisse: "If I were to begin with
the population, this would be a chaotic conception of the whole and I
would then, by means of further determination, move analytically towards
ever more simple concepts, from the imagined concrete towards ever
thinne abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinants
[i.e. classes, capital and labour, division of labour, etc. G.C.]. From
there the journey would have to be retraced until I had finally arrived
at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of
a whole but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations"
(Grundrisse, 1973, p.100).
Once these social and historical condensations (the simplest
determinants in Marx's terminology) have been arrived at, we can unfold
them and consider more and more elements of reality, thus descending to
more and more concrete levels of abstractions. Therefore, I think the
method of successive approximations is both consonant with Marx and
useful [does Chaion Lee, OPE-L 369, disagree on this?] *on condition*
that the simplest determinants are arrived at by concentrating in them
what is historically specific and socially determined. These I call
*historically specific generalities*. This method stands in stark
contrast with the opposite method which abstracts from the historical
and social essence of a society in order to arrive at a-historical
concepts as in neo-classical economics (e.g. homo economicus). It is in
this light that one should inquire into whether Sweezy, Meek, etc. use
Marxian abstractions or not. On the whole, however, I share Chaion Lee's
conviction that the understanding and application of Marx's own method
is a necessary condition for the application and further development of
his theory (we all know that Marx never wrote a methodological treatise,
i.e a treatise on dialectics, but at least in this case his ideas are
crystal clear).
POINT TWO. For Marx, abstract labour is expenditure of human
labour power in the abstract, i.e. disregarding concrete labour and thus
the specific activities required by each type of (concrete) labour, i.e.
it is expenditure of human labour power "im physiologhischen Sinn" (Das
Kapital, MEW, p. 61). This definition is crystal clear. One can accept
it or reject it but this is what Marx means by abstract labour. I do not
think that this notion can be twisted as to give it a different meaning.
I find this notion perfectly satisfactory since it stresses both the
realsubstratum of value (human activity) and its historical specificity
(the social relations of production under which that activity is carried
out). On the other hand, there is no law which forbids one
substitutin this notion with other ones. But then I would recommend
caution. Given the sheer depth and scope of Marx's thought, I would like
to see the following clearly stated: (1) an explicit statement that
onesubstitutes Marx's notion of abstract labour with another one (2) the
theoretical reasons for doing this (i.e. what's wrong with Marx's
notion?) and (3) the theoretical consequences of this operation. If, for
example, abstract labour is mutated into only an exchange category (as I
think is the case for some comrades both on and off this list) then the
consequences are grave indeed (see the last section of my article with
de Haan in the last issue of CAPITAL AND CLASS).
POINT THREE. Marx also stresses the historical specificity of
the notion of abstract labour, i.e. that it is only under capitalism
that the concept of abstract labour can emerge, due to the constant
process of homogenization of labour inherent in the capitalist
productionprocess. It is this real process which makes possible the
generation of the notion of abstract labour (Grundrisse, 1973, p.104).
It is therefore only under capitalism that abstract labour can be
contrased to the notion of concrete labour, which is the expenditure of
human energy as a specific type of activity. Thus, it is only under
capitalism that the distinction between concrete and abstract labour can
be made. Once these notions have emerged, they can be applied, if one so
desires, to other societies as well, both past and future. In so doing,
we transform *historically specific generalities* into *trans-historical
generalities*. These latter are trans-historical not because they are
not historically determined but because they are the historically
determined lens through which past, present, and future are seen. The
expenditure of human energy in the abstract, and thus labour in a
physiological sense, has always existed: only, before capitalism, it was
not perceived and, even if it had been perceived, it would have not been
a social category. It is we who see labour in past societies as being
both concrete and abstract, not they. But, inasmuch as we do this, we
empty these categories of their historical specificity and thus deprive
them of their power to explain a specific type of society.
I think little can be gained from using historically specific
concepts for an understanding of past societies. Nor do I think that a
future, socialist and egalitarian, society will revolve around the
notion of abstract labour. If socialist production is to be production
of use values, what will matter will be the concrete activities rather
than the time within which these activities are carried out. And those
concrete activities will be paramount because they will be the way in
which we will be able to develop all aspects of our personality through,
rather than in spite of, work. This, of course, presupposes an
egalitarian and humanist and participatory process of decision making,
i.e. a revolution in the production relations, as well as a complete
revolution in the productive forces. My hunch is that it will be
concretelabour, rather than abstract labour, which will inform our lives
under socialism. But it will not be the same sort of concrete labour(s)
determined by capitalism.