[OPE-L:2666] More on abstract labour

Allin Cottrell (cottrell@wfu.edu)
Wed, 17 Jul 1996 11:09:13 -0700 (PDT)

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I'd like to come back to Marx and Aristotle for a moment. Perhaps I could
expand a little on what I meant be saying that Marx's point was
epistemological. In the quotation I gave, there were two distinct
conceptions of "equality": first, the substantive "equality and
equivalence of all kinds of labour because and in so far as they are human
labour in general", and second, the juridical and ideological notion of
the equality of human subjects (before the law, and/or in the eyes of
God). I take Marx to be saying this: the first sort of equality is a
basic characteristic of human societies of all sorts, while the second is
(for the most part) something characteristic of the modern age. That the
second sort of equality has gained currency makes it easier to "see" the
first, but is not a condition of existence of the first. (Although, of
course, the presence of caste distinctions in some societies, involving
prohibitions on certain people doing certain work, does reduce the
fungibility of human labour-time.)

I further take it that the first sort of equality -- the foundation of the
idea of "abstract labour" -- is, as Paul has said, an effect of the
polymorphous quality of human labour-power. As such, it is rooted
in biology, owing to the specific evolution of the human hand
and brain. Bees, beavers and termites may do considerable work, but the
concept of abstract labour does not apply to them because their
behavioural routines are tightly programmed genetically, and their
"labour-time" is not fungible in anything like the same way.

The main point of those who argue for the restriction of the concept
of abstract labour to commodity-producing society seems to
concern the issue of mensuration: It is only the processes of
market competition that make possible the abstraction from
heterogeneous concrete labours; and the abstraction necessarily
takes the form of the assignment of money prices to the products
of those labours. As monetarily-expressed values, commodities
become truly homogeneous, and the labour that went into making
them is thereby "rendered abstract". But I think that Paul's
arguments are effective in undermining this view. The planned
allocation of labour-times in pre-capitalist societies also
involves a mensuration of abstract (general human) labour (albeit
in a different social form), as would labour-time planning under
socialism. In both cases the mensuration proceeds in terms of
social norms (average labour-times, with pressure on any
slackers to work up to the average), and involves some sort of
calculation of the opportunity cost of labour-power that could
equally well be allocated to different concrete activities.

Allin Cottrell