[OPE-L:2643] Re: estimation of abstract labor

Michael Williams (100417.2625@compuserve.com)
Thu, 11 Jul 1996 17:11:15 -0700 (PDT)

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I would like to thank Paul for responding so promptly to by methodological
interventions, which were, perhaps, expressed rather brusquely.

Paul C writes (I think in response to some comments of mine):
I take seriously Smith's proposition about labour being the original
currency with which we 'purchase' our wants and necessities from nature.
It is the job of historical materialism to examine the different social
forms and institutions under which this invariant necessity of labour
takes place. Capitalism is only such historical form, and it is one
of the systems of production in which part of the social labour time
comes to be represented as exchange value.

Michael W:
We seem to agree on all of this very clearly expressed position. I would make
one important terminological change, because I do not think it is very helpful
to think of all kinds of human interaction with nature in pursuit of useful
objects, throughout all history, as 'labour'. This seems to be the focus of our
disagreement. It would seem, then, that we might disagree about the import of
social FORMS. It was lazy of me to appear to charge Paul with some general
'crime' of bring a-historical. What I intended was to indicate the difficulty I
have with any kind of trans-historical substance or field ('labour' if you
must), homogenous in content across historical epochs, to be the basis of
adequate accounts of the specific bourgeois epoch with its capitalist economy.
It is indeed the FORM which this social human creative activity takes in
diffferent epochs which is the basis for understanding them. But, of course,
form and content constitutue a unity. For example, it has always been unclear to
me how Adam Smith could envisage a quantitive relationship between labour
expended on different hunter-gathering activities, on the one hand, and the
rates at which the outcomes of those labours might be exchanged one for the
other, on the other. Similarly, it is difficult to see how productive labour in
any quantitative sense could be a systematic element in a social system in which
there was no clear distinction between consumption and production, or indeed
between work and liesure. And so, and so on. Which suggests to me - perhaps
wrongly - that an economy of labour only develops fully with a fully developed
capitalist market system, in which the allocation of labour is driven by cost
reduction and profit seeking behaviour, enforced by market competition.

A little later, Paul expresses quite congruent ideas:
.. In a commodity producting society the exchange values, more specifically the
of commodities are one form in which a part of the social labour time
becomes represented as information. This information is then accessible
to economic agents allowing them to modulate their behaviour.

Michael W.:
Just so! Our disagreement then seems to be about the effects of this form of
coordination on the content of the human activity.

So for example, I have difficulty with Paul's remark:
I therefore distinguish between abstract labour time and its historically
specific form of representation.

Michael W.
This is because I cannot see how we can have the category of abstract labour
without a value-form system to realise and reproduce the abstraction. The only
value-form system of which I know is a capitalist market economy.

So what Paul says next:
It is however, the underlying objective
distribution of labour time that is the source of the information that
is transduced, albeit noisily, by the price system.

Michael W:
is also a source of disagreement. I see no underlying objective distribution of
labour time, autonomous from the price system. IMO:- First, what does exist is a
(highly complex) distribution of 'concrete' specific labour. Second, the price
system is not merely some passive transducer of information. It also continually
reproduces and transforms the underlying distribution of labour, and, indeed,
brings about the abstraction from 'concrete' to abstract labour, which is
manifest in the money expression of labour. Incidently, IMO, this systemic
external coordination of resource allocation, production, distribution and
circulation characterises developed capitalism alone amongs historical modes of
production - hence my disposition to think of labour as a fully developed
category only in the form of capitalist wage labour.

Paul goes on:
I suspect that some of the objections Michael has may be terminological,
he may be designating with the word value, what I term exchange value.

Michael W:
Yes, we do have terminological disagreements. The distinction between value and
exchange value (Marx notwithstanding, I am afraid) plays no great role in my
work. Perhaps it should. Nevertheless, I am still concerned (as I was many posts
ago) about trying to link up value defined as a quantity of abstract labour,
with the everyday connection with (historically specific, social) valuation; a
position which I have elaborated briefly in my last post, as well as earlier.
Value is a dimension; how can a dimension have a 'substance'?
Although when I read the relevant paragraph, I note a rather aggressive and
assertive tone, I hope that Paul will overlook that and respond, since it may
well help to make the disagreements between us clearer.

Comradely greetings,

Michael W.

Reverting to his earlier remarks, as I have indicated earlier, I have nothing to
examine in order to try to discover how social human creative activity will be
coordinated, valued and so on in some hypothetical future society.
I have tried hard to capture the import of Paul's remarks about understanding
the capitalist economy of labour in terms of, or in contrast to, that under a
future socialist society. It is certainly a thesis of the dialectic that what is
to be grasped in its interconnectednes with, amongst other internal relations,
what it is becoming. But I have so far understood this in the sense of the
possibilites which seemd to be opened up or closed off by the currently
existent, as a basis for speculative extrapolations about possible futures.
Paul's remarks seem rather to either suggest a determination of the present by
some unrealised future, or, more plausibly, an understanding of the present
facilitated by an analoagoy with that specualtive future. It does seem to me
that we disagree about these matters, dispite a degree of agreement about the
passage from Paul quoted above.