[OPE-L:2673] Re: More on abstract labour

Allin Cottrell (cottrell@wfu.edu)
Thu, 18 Jul 1996 12:06:08 -0700 (PDT)

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I hope I'm not driving this topic into the ground, but here's a
bit more on abstract labour and its provenance.

Duncan has argued that the "main line" of Marx's thinking on the
matter is consistent with the restriction of the concept of
abstract labour to commodity-producing societies. I'd like to
examine the evidence for that, and suggest that on a close
look the texts in question are compatible with the alternative
view that Paul and I advocate. This is therefore a "history of
thought" sort of posting.

Here, for example, is a passage from Capital, I, that looks
helpful to Duncan: "It is only the expression of equivalence
between different sorts of commodities which brings to view the
specific character of value-creating labour, by actually reducing
the different kinds of labour embedded in the different kinds of
commodity to their common quality of being human labour in
general" (142). Taken by itself, this seems to suggest that the
"reduction" is actually effected (for the first time) via the
exchange-equivalence of commodities. But in the context of
Marx's comments on Aristotle (which I cited earlier, and which
are located only a few pages away), as well as the (later) Notes
on Wagner, this reading becomes possible: Marx's point is
epistemological -- he is saying that the "common quality" is (I
emphasize) "brought to view" by the exchange-equivalence of
commodities -- and furthermore he is talking specifically about
commodity-producing society; that is, he is saying that _in such
a society_ the common quality of human labour is rendered
perceptible "only" via the "expression of equivalence between
different sorts of commodities" (rather than directly). This
leaves open the possibility that the common quality could be
"brought to view" in other ways in other sorts of society.

In the section on the 'fetishism of the commodity', Marx says of
commodity-producing society that "Since the producers do not come
into social contact until they exchange the products of their
labour, the specific social characteristics of their private
labours appear only within this exchange. In other words, the
labour of the private individual manifests itself as an element
of the total labour of society only through the relations which
the act of exchange establishes between the products..." (165).
He then goes on explicitly to contrast this situation with,
first, "the patriarchal rural industry of a peasant household"
and , second, "an association of free men, working with the means
of production held in common" (i.e. communism). His point is
that in these cases the social character of the labour of
individuals is directly apparent, and does not require indirect
representation via the exchange-value of their products.

Similar comments can be made about Marx's critique of Ricardo,
which has also been cited in support of the position Duncan is
arguing. In TSV, III, for instance, Marx complains that Ricardo
has overlooked "the necessity of _presenting_ the labour
contained in commodities as _uniform social labour_, i.e. as
money" (131). Marx's "i.e." may lead one to believe that he saw
money as essential to the concept of abstract (here, "uniform
social") labour. But again there is the alternative
interpretation -- that Marx is talking specifically about
commodity-producing society and the "i.e." has to be taken in
that context.

Nonetheless, I would agree with the point Makotoh made recently,
namely that the socialization of labour is pushed further under
capitalism that in previous modes of production: it becomes both
more thorough and more general, as more and more branches of
social production are brought within the ambit of market
competition and monetary calculation.

Allin Cottrell