[OPE-L:2660] Re: estimation of abstract labor

Paul Cockshott (wpc@cs.strath.ac.uk)
Wed, 17 Jul 1996 02:01:37 -0700 (PDT)

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>I think the "archeological" idea of measuring the labor times required for
>certain "productive" tasks in the past is a useful one, though we should
>be aware of its limits. For example, in some societies there is no clear
>dividing line between "productive" activites and "recreational", or
>"ritual" activities.

That may be true, but it is only relevant if we wish to hold fast to
a narrowly capitalist conception of labour as something that you are
paid to do. Whatever we label our time as, there remain only 24 hours
in the day, leaving aside the time for sleep, the waking hours of the
able bodied members of society represent its ultimate resource or budget.
At any given time, culture and tradition may dictate that part of that
time is spent in prayer, conversation etc and another part in actitivities
that sustain our material reproduction. In trying to estimate the population
reauired to build a monument like Maes Howe in the Orkney Islands,
are making some assumptions about the proportion of the year that could
be devoted to ritual work. Since they dont have hard data on this there
is some margin of error in the resulting population estimates, but they
do have secondary sources of estimation. Since many such monuments are
communal grave mounds, one can go and count the number or skulls present
in them, and date them. This enables, at least for earlier monuments,
a baseline to be established for the labour overhead expended by
a given population on ritual graves.

I cite these examples because their examination and reinterpretation
played a crucial role in the rise of the historical materialist
new-school in archaeology.

>On the other hand, I think it is unwise to use the technical Marxist terms
>"abstract, social labor" for this measurement. I think Marx reserved the
>term "abstract" labor for labor expended in a commodity producing society:
>what makes it "abstract" is that the product is exchanged for money, not
>that it represents some kind of "lowest common denominator" of labor (I
>think Marx used the term "simple" labor to represent the reduction of
>skilled labor to a common denominator, following Ricardo).

I think that you confuse cause with effect here. It is because abstract
labour exists that it can be expressed in dollars. What makes labour
abstract is that human activity is so polymorphous. Unguided by instinct,
we turn our hand to any task. Thus labour was our original
currency that made dollars possible.

It is only because human labour can potentially
be devoted either to building cars or railways, that it makes sense
to compare the dollar costs of public and private transport.

Abstract labour does not exist because of dollars, dollars can only exist
because of abstract labour.

One must not identify a human potentiality with its form of expression in
commodity producting society.
Paul Cockshott