[OPE-L:2665] Re: estimation of abstract labor

Allin Cottrell (cottrell@wfu.edu)
Wed, 17 Jul 1996 10:01:38 -0700 (PDT)

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Responding to Duncan:

> Well, I still read Marx's main line of thinking as associating "abstract"
> labor with commodity production, though Allin's citation raises
> difficulties for this interpretation. Perhaps some of the other OPE-Lers
> can shed some light on this.
> There's no doubt that labor (in the sense of human productive activity)
> predates commodity production and capital. The question is in what sense
> (if any) it becomes "abstract" before commodity production.

I think the Notes on Wagner are particularly clear, but I'm not
sure that they are really in tension with Capital. For instance,
in Vol. 1 (Penguin): "[T]he addition of new value takes place not
by virtue of [the worker's] labour being spinning in particular, or
joinery in particular, but because it is labour in general, abstract
social labour" (308); "the abstract quality of being human
labour" (150); the "common quality of being human labour in
general" (142).

True, Marx thought that this common quality becomes particularly
"visible" in commodity-producing society. In remarking on
Aristotle's failure to develop a concept of value, he points out
that this was not a personal failing: "The secret of the expression
of value, namely the equality and equivalence of all kinds of labour
because and in so far as they are human labour in general, could
not be deciphered until the concept of human equality had already
acquired the permanence of a fixed popular opinion" (151). (In
a society based on slave labour, Aristotle couldn't arrive at this
conception.) But this seems to be an epistemological point:
Marx is not saying that "human labour in general" came into
_existence_ with capitalism. And the examples of large-scale
planning of labour allocation cited by Paul (e.g. the construction
of the Antonine wall) would also provide conditions under which
the sociality of labour becomes "visible".

Paul and I have a particular interest in this topic, since we
advocate a system of socialist planning based on labour-time
allocation. It is my impression that the strong view of
abstract labour being a specifically capitalist phenomenon is
a post-Marx interpretive move, though I haven't investigated
the history of thought on the matter sufficiently to identify
its origins.

Allin Cottrell