[OPE-L:543] OPE 539(Converted)

John R. Ernst (ernst@pipeline.com)
Wed, 22 Nov 1995 10:22:45 -0800

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POSTS OPE-L 494 AND 495.

Dear Paul Cockshott, if we agree that the
concept of abstract labour could arise
only under capitalism, than it follows
logically that distinction between
abstract and concrete labour can be made
only under capitalism. But you write: "The
existence of capitalism was a historical
precondition for the formulation of the
idea of abstract labour, but it does not
follow from this that the idea can not be
applied to the analysis of earlier
society."[OPE-L 494] Yes, but this is what
I say too. I said: "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".
[OPE-L 488]. Only, may question was, what
do we gain by applying this notion of
abstract labour to previous societies?
Consider the following two points:

POINT ONE. Abstract labour is a capitalist
concept in the sense that it is not only
human labour in the abstract. It is this
*because* it is the pumping out of the
maximum feasible quantity of human energy.
The individuals's specific abilities are
developed not in order to create all round
individuals free in the real sense, i.e.
free to become what they potentially are,
but only inasmuch as those qualities are
the condition for the maximum extraction
of human energy (in the physiological
sense), i.e. in the abstract.

POINT TWO. Moreover, abstract labour is
organically tied to (the notion of)
abstract labour *time*. But time too, i.e.
the way time is perceived, is not a-historical.
It has been pointed out by
many authors that time in previous
societies was *cyclical*, i.e. tied to
nature's cycles, and *concrete*, or
*qualitative*, i.e. tied to the specific
tasks pertaining to the different parts of
the day, of the week, of the month, of the
season, and of the year. An example: "In
many traditional cultures, duration is
measured by reference to specific tasks
rather than by abstract numbers. For
example, in Madagascar, when someone asks
how long something takes, they might be
told that it takes the same time as 'rice
cooking' (about half an hour) or the time
it takes to 'fry a locust' (a moment). The
Cross River natives of West Africa, when
asked how long it took for a man to die,
would say 'The man died in less time than
the time in which maize is not yet
completely roasted (less than fifteen
minutes)'". (Rifkin, Time Wars,1989, p.
64-5). Under capitalism, time has become
something completely different. Now time
is *linear*, i.e. proceeding from past
through the present to a future which is
not a repetition of the past, as if
flowing along a straight line, and
*abstract*, i.e. *quantitative*, because
time periods are not any longer associated
with specific activities: any activity can
be performed during any fraction of time.
Time is thus dividable into increasingly
small parts because this is what
capitalism needs. Time can now be split in
smaller units, just like money. Actually,
'time is money'. The most appreciated
quality of time is speed because it is
through speed that time can be saved and
productivity increased. Etc.

Thus, my contention is that this notion of
abstract labour (time) has an inherent
capitalist social content. My question in
my previous post was: We can apply this
notion of abstract labour (and abstract
labour time) to previous societies, but
what do we gain from it? Now I add: Don't
we run the risk of superimposing the
notion of capitalist rationality upon
other social systems if we analyze them
according to these principles? And, as far
as the future is concerned, maybe
socialism will want to allocate people and
resources not in order to save time in
production, not to maximize productivity
(i.e the maximum amount of products per
unit of inputs). Maybe they will want to
maximize human development in production,
rather than the time in which the societal
labour process can be carried out. This
would be a different type of rationality
than that inherent in von Mises's (and
bourgeois economics at large) question. As
in pre-capitalist societies duration might
be measured with reference to particular
tasks but differently from those societies
duration might be measured with reference
to *human centered* tasks and thus will be
only element, and a subordinate one at
that, for the allocation of people and
resources. This concept of time and of
labour are not the abstract labour (time)
Marx was talking about. The abstract
expenditure of human energy will cease to
be a social category inasmuch as time will
cease to be (artificially) scarce. In
short, socialist rationality is planning
for human freedom within a time frame of
reference in which the expenditure of
human energy in the abstract will play at
first a subordinate and then no role. This
is my answer to bourgeois ideologists.

To conclude, I don't have a crystal ball,
I might be wrong. But I do think that
these remarks fit into the whole of Marx's
theory and that the rejection of
capitalist rationality is a necessary
condition for thinking about socialism.
This, I think, implies rejecting abstract
labour as an organizing principle of a
future we can only speculate about.

In solidarity. Mino Carch*e*di (please
notice the spelling).

John R. Ernst