[OPE-L:2654] Re: estimation of abstract labor

Paul Cockshott (wpc@cs.strath.ac.uk)
Tue, 16 Jul 1996 03:21:13 -0700 (PDT)

[ show plain text ]

Rather than reply point by point to the last posting of
Mike WIlliams (2643) I will try and present a more general
arguement on what, I think, distinguishes our outlooks.

At stake here is the extent to which the concept labour
is applicable to non-capitalist economies, I tend to view
it as a general concept useful in the understanding of all
human societies, and possibly some non-human ones, whereas
Mike prefers a more restricted application of the concept
to capitalist economies.

I feel that we have to distinguish between the history of
an idea and the history of what the idea describes. It is probably
true that the idea of labour as something quantifiable in terms
of hours spent is one that crystalised in capitalist economies.
In the absence of having done the historical and anthropological
research to verify this I will for the moment take it on trust.
It seems plausible that for the concept of labour time to become
the modern one, it would have needed both the ready availablility
of clocks and the habit of hiring workers by the hour or the
day. Whilst the hiring of labour is a very ancient institution,
at least for seasonal agricultural work, the invention of the
clock and the ability to precisely time the working day would have
enabled the concept to be made more precise.

With the establishement of hourly wage rates, it became both
easier for employers to rationally calculate how much labour
was being used for a task and for economists to introduce the
idea in a systematic way into their writings.

But this relates to the discovery of the idea of the labour hour
not to the labour hour itself. Armed with the modern concept of
the labour hour, scientific archeaology can perform experiments
to see how many hours labour were required for certain tasks using
the tools available at a given time. One can dig trenches in chalk
using picks made from antler to determine how much labour was
required to build some monument whose remains we see today.
On the basis of such estimates, along with hypotheses about how
long a monument took to build - was it completed in one season
etc, one can estimate the population involved in the work and
thus the scale of the social units then existing.

In doing this we are employing modern concepts to help us understand
the past, just as we do when we use calculations of the calorific
values of ancient diets, field yields etc, to make estimates of
the nutritional status of past populations. But the concept of
labour time is not invalidated because it was not understood in its
modern form by, for instance, the military engineers who supervised
the construction of the Antonine wall. The concept still designates
something real.

Given the labour productivity of each of the
concrete activities involved, turf digging, turf laying, quarrying,
masonry work, road building etc, and given the number of miles
of wall to be constructed that set an objective constraint on
the number of legionaires and auxilliaries who would be required
to complete the work over a two to three year period. Even if
the concept that they denoted by the word labor might not be quite
the same as our modern concept of labour, the engineers would have
been able to calculate how many centuries and manuples to
allocate to each task on each section of the wall.
Indeed, it is certainly arguable, that it was the need to
coordinate collective labour projects that played an important
role in the development of systems of calculation and arithmetic
notation in ancient civilisations. This is certainly the impression
one is given by the sorts of arithmetical examples in the
Rhind papyrus for example.

The concept of abstract socially necessary labour time is one which
enables us to define the boundaries to the configuration space that
societies with a given level of technology can occupy. With a given
population and given labour productivies, we can set limits to the
material wealth of a civilisation. The fact that this is never explicitly
calculated by the members of that civilisation does not make it
any less real. If erosion induced by deforestation reduced the
productivity of agricultural labour on the Mediterranean coast, this
decline in productivity still had its impact even if, unlike today,
it was given no price in ECU.

Mike said at one point <<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.>>
It is true that what exists at any time is a distribution of labour
into concrete specific activities, but what is being distributed?

It is people and their time. So long as they are in one place doing one
thing they are not doing something else. Abstract social labour time
is what is conserved over the possible distributions (assuming population
is constant). This is true whatever the society one is dealing with.

In capitalist society this distribution of labour time is represented
indirectly as an allocation of money, in previous societies it may
be represented more directly as an allocation of people - I say to
one man come and he cometh, to another go and he goeth - but people
still had to be allocated to activities. The people, prior to their
being given the order to do something specific, are abstract labour
in potentio.

Paul Cockshott