[OPE-L:514] Re OPE-L 493: Mino on abstract labor

Riccardo Bellofiore (bellofio@cisi.unito.it)
Mon, 20 Nov 1995 11:01:24 -0800

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I wish here to propose some first comments on Mino Carchedi's
"Some comments on abstract labour and value in Capital I". May be I've
lost some post on the topic - if there have been some - because my server
is going up and down.

Mino Carchedi's post OPE-L 493 (the un-uuencoded version of Mino's
mail, thanks to Paul C.) is highly stimulating. In fact, I agree almost
totally with his 'point one', have *some* disagreements with 'point two',
and consequently would change somet hing in his 'point three'. I apologize
if in the following I'll be compelled to stress the few points of
difference, and not the many ones of convergence.

Mino says that "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 p ower 'im physiologischen Sinn'. This
definition is crystal clear". Quite right. But Mino does not spend a word
on the process of abstraction which here (in Capital vol. I, chapter I) is
in question. One can agree with the idea that Marx's abstract labour
is physiological labour. But physiological labour as a natural transhistorical residue, or as the human activity under capitalist control? Frankly, I would take the second road. But in this case, abstract labour as 'capitalist' physiological labour is th
e end of an argument, not its beginnings - it is, in a sense, the end of the argument in Capital vol. I when we reach the analysis of machinofacture. On the contrary, in Mino's 'point two' this 'physiological labor' is so 'clearly' there from the start, a
t p. 61 of Kapital, when nothing is said about capital(ism) ...

What is clear to me is that to understand abstract labor, and the
first chapter, we should not *reduce* immediately abstract labor to
(transhistorical) physiological labor. Rather, one must ask "what is the
process which makes physiological labor ( the form of appearance) of
abstract labor?". Taken from this point of view, the nature of the
abstraction involved is *not* crystal clear. Please note: it was puzzling
even at the eyes of Marx. We have at least *eight* (8) versions of the
first chapter of
Capital, if we consider the Grundrisse and the Contribution. If we prefer to start from the 1867, first edition of Capital vol I, we have *six* (6) (significantly) different versions of the chapter. They are the following:

1. 1867. First chapter in the first edition (Ware und Geld). It is
available in Italian and in French, and of course in German. Is it
available in English? The Italian edition is especially worthwhile because
it includes the version 2 which follows, and a
clear introduction by Cristina Pennavaja showing the differences between the various versions, and some ambiguities in Marx. Note that Rubin and others - including, si parva licet componere magnis, myself - look at this version as a most important one to
understand Marx's reasoning on value.

2. 1867. Appendix on the 'Value Form' (Die Wertform) in the same first
edition, translated in English in Capital and Class. Marx wrote the
Appendix because for him the 'beginning' of Capital was not so crystal
clear for the 'undialectical' reader.

3. 1873. The second edition of Capital vol I: a new version, mixing the 1.
and 2., with other changes.

4. 1874-75. The French translation by Roy - too 'literal', not 'wrong',
according to Marx - convinces Marx to intervene again with other changes.

5. 1883. Third edition of Capital vol I - I think the English translation
is mainly based on this one. Engels, following a suggestion by Marx
himself, included (some of the) changes made by Marx for the French
translation, and others found by Engels on th e French and German copies
of the book held by Marx.

6. 1890. Fourth edition of Capital, vol. I - the Italian translation is
based on this one.

According to my opinion, to discuss of the first chapter one *must*
confront at least 1, 2, 4 and 6 (or 5: the differences among 5 and 6 are
only slight changes).

If the definition of abstract labour as physiological, which is
already in the first version, is so crystal clear, Mino, why so much toil
and trouble? My answer is: because what really mattered for Marx was that
people understand the nature of the process of abstraction which was
involved here.

In my view, the *whole* of chapter one shows that the abstraction
here involved was the following. The labor of the individual is, in this
chapter, not immediately social: it *becomes* social only in so far as
that labor is productive of money. All commodities are equal because they
become general wealth through money: in this process, all types of labor
are at the same time made equal parts of a general, communal, 'abstract'
labor. Individual labor - concrete and useful labor - becomes social thro
ugh a process of *inversion* (Verkehrung is the term Marx uses, reminding
of the Hegel's Umkehrung) going on in the market.

Let me be clear on the point. Mino says that in the reading of Marx
one should not mutate abstract labour *only* in an exchange category. I
agree, completely. But one should not put exchange completely out of the
door when talking of the abstractio n of labor - it is *also* an exchange
category. Certainly, it is impossible consider at the same time production
*and* circulation when reading chapter 1. That opens up a *problem*, the
relationship between production and circulation in Marx's abstraction
of labor. A problem to the resolution of which Marx gave all the terms.

According to my opinion, Marx went on in most of the following
chapters of Capital vol. I - after having introduced labor power and
capital - and showed that the *presupposition* given by the abstraction in
exchange, which rules the roost in the se cond part of chapter 1, was in
fact the *posit* of a more fundamental abstraction in production - that
is, the result of the abstraction of labor in the capitalist labor process
as a valorization process. This second, more 'essential', abstraction was
giv en by the 'forced' and 'other-directed' nature of the living labor of
the wage laborer under capitalist control. At this point, what appears in
chapter 1 as a transhitorical physiological, labor becomes the human
activity under capitalist compulsion - i.e . a completely historically
determinate category. *If* one does not make this long detour, and wishes
to affirm too immediately the 'central' role of production in the
abstraction of labor, those who stress exchange in the deduction of
abstract labor are simply more rigorous.

This process of abstraction in production cannot, in its turn, be
reduced to a 'technical' process, i.e. to the process of homogeneization
of labor to which Mino refers at the beginning of 'point 3' - if I
understand it well: on this I confess I'm not sure, because Mino does not
say what he means by 'homogeneization', and may be I misrepresent his
position. At a first reading, 'homogeneous' labor seems to me too close to
a (Bravermanian) 'unqualified' labor, that is to a special kind of
concrete la bor.

With the previous caveat, I would accept almost all the rest of
Mino's 'point three'.

Let me summarize my position in this way: (i) abstract labor
*cannot* be reduced to transhistorical physiological labor, even for Marx
himself; (ii) the abstraction involved in abstract labor *has* to do with
abstraction in exchange; (iii) this abs traction is grounded by Marx in a
*more fundamental* abstraction in capitalist production as production for
exchange, when he shows that the *general* commodity exchange from which
Capital vol I started was nothing other than *capitalist* exchange. The se
quence is made clearer by a parallel reading of Capital vol 1 and the

I tried to put forward this reading of Marx in my paper with
Roberto Finelli at the Bergamo conference. But I am here more interested
to convince you of the presence of the problem than to my (Marx's)
personal solution. If I am right, *nobody*, not
even a friend like Mino, is allowed to declare that who do not agree with (Mino's) abstract labor as physiological labor should confess that s/he is 'substituting' Marx's notion with another one.

(BTW, I do not like the last section of Werner's and Mino's article
in Capital and Class because they do to others what they don't want that
the others do with Marx, i.e. they completely misrepresent others's
position. But I do not want to discuss this here and now. I'm sure Mino
would ask Marx's critics to confront *his* position rescuing (Mino's) Marx
- and also to discuss their criticism of Mino with Mino itself. Thus,
Werner and Mino should discuss their position with neo-Ricardians as
Steedman , or with people like Arthur and Geert Reuten.)

Note that in the preceding interpretation the abstraction involved
in abstract labor is not a *mental* abstraction but a *real* abstraction:
at first, in exchange; then, in production. In both cases this abstraction
has to do with 'relations'. In M ino's position at first abstract labor
appears as a mental abstraction, of the individual labourer alone (as in
Adam Smith?); later it becomes real through the homogeneization of
'physical' labor (as in classical Marxism?).

Let me add that while Mino's position is liable to Paul C.'s
criticism in OPE-L 494 - 'if the idea is that of human labour as
physiological exertion in abstraction from the concrete form of that
exertion then we can apply it wherever human exertion
existed' - the same is not true for my position. Abstract labor is here seen as *only* a capitalist notion both when deduced from (general) exchange and when deduced from (capitalist) production.

And let me conclude that I'm not taking value as a 'metaphor' -
this is the critique raised by Werner and Mino against not only Steedman
but also all the 'value-form' approach. Unless, of course, you see
capitalist compulsion - capital's and labor's class struggle in
(capitalist) production (for exchange) - as a metaphor.

in solidarity


P.S. I fully accept in advance any criticism to my post saying that it is
not enough 'crystal clear' 8-)

Riccardo Bellofiore e-mail: bellofio@cisi.unito.it
Department of Economics Tel: (39) -35- 277505 (direct)
University of Bergamo (39) -35- 277501 (dept.)
Piazza Rosate, 2 (39) -11- 5819619 (home)
I-24129 Bergamo Fax: (39) -35- 249975