[OPE-L:2676] Re: estimation of abstract labor

Michael Williams (100417.2625@compuserve.com)
Thu, 18 Jul 1996 13:50:44 -0700 (PDT)

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The subsequent posts from Allin and Duncan on this stream are all extremely
interesting, and clarify the two main positions: (abstract) labour as
transhistorical vs (abstract) labour as historically specific to capitalism. I
will be working forward through all of them chronologically, IDC.

Paul's account of trans-historical 'labour' was presented with characteristic
erudition, and an impressive historical knowledge. I cannot match his expertise
on the historical facts; but I do not think that our differences are, primarily,
empirical .
An approach seeking to clarify the distinction between our views, rather than to
persuade, is also very appropriate.

I will address his arguments, trying to identify those which make most clear the
differences between us.

First, we could conclude the discussion now by recognising that what I want to
call 'labour', Paul may want to call something like 'labour under capitalism'.
However, I think that our differences run deeper than that, so it may be useful
to thrash them out a bit more.

I feel that we have to distinguish between the history of
an idea and the history of what the idea describes.
Michael W.
This is very suggestive of our differences. Of course we CAN make that
distinction, and no doubt there are epistemological purposes for which it might
be helpful. But I do not see that 'we have to'. I do think that abstracting from
the unity of an idea and its referent is highly conducive to Paul's position.
But I think by doing so we lose the dynamic of human life. The productive
interaction between humankind and nature ('work' for short) is what people in a
particular epoch, intersubjectively, think it is. It is in accordance with this
systemic idea that people interact with nature, with each other and with their
social context, and thereby reproduce and transform their 'world'. Of course, in
as much as they conflict with laws of nature, they may be forced to re-think.
But humans are social as well as natural beings. And, IMHO, Marx was concerned
with their social nature, about which there appear to be no laws on a par with
natural laws.
Paul goes on:
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.
Michael W.
I have not either, and my general historical knowledge is obviously inferior to
yours. However, this comment puts its finger on the point after which we
diverge. Of course I think that work has evolved, no doubt in a non-linear and
differentiated fashion, in history towards (capitalist) wage labour. But I think
it makes sense to allow the meaning of our categories to be determined by their
location in the systemic whole within which they are located. That is the
bourgeois epoch, as well as its history and its potential futures.
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.
Michael W.
The narrow focus on two innovations, one social-insitutional and one
technological, needed for the emergence of abstract labour betrays Paul's
different, perhaps physically and biologically determinist, approach. It
neglects what I perceive to be the far more significant, social conditions for
the emergence and development of abstract labour: the emergence of the
consciousness of the individual self separated from the social group; the
separation of 'consumption' from 'production'; the development of a social
surplus; the separation of work and liesure; the extensive social division of
labour; the separation of workers from the means of production; the emergence of
a social mechannism enforcing 'economising'; the tendential universalisation of
generalised commodity production and exchange, etc, etc. No doubt each of these
singly and in groups has been present embryonically in earlier societies, but,
IMO, it is only with the evolution to capitalism that sufficient of them have
come together to enable the emergence of labour as a universal capacity - the
specifically capitalist form of humankind's productive potential. Then the
precision of the concept lies in the identification of its internal relations
within the categorical system of capitalism, or the bourgeois epoch more
broadly. It is precisely those internal relations which characterise labour; and
most of them are absent in earlier forms of society.
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.
Michael W:
It can, and jolly interesting too. But it neither establishes the
trans-historicity of labour, nor of itself establishes the nature of the society
in question. Which is not to say that it cannot be deployed to help draw
inferences about that society; for example, about the actual processes of
allocation of work in it.
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.
Michael W:
Very likely, but again, in terms of the question at issue, so what? The need to
coordinate collective labour projects is not a sufficient, and probably not even
a necessary condition of the emergence of abstract labour. The coordination
could well have been - and given the lack of a social structure providing the
systematic incentives, sanctions and ability to do otherwise, almost certainly
was - one of the coordination of specific work, by specific persons, in
accordance with social tradition.
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.
Michael W:
I beg to differ: the fact that this calculation was not, and could not have
either been explicitly carried out, or implicitly tendentially systematically
enforced by any existent social mechanism does indeed change the nature of the
reality of which we are talking.
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.
Michael W:
This is a very clear statement of the concept of abstract labour which neglects
the crucial social determinants of the form which this human capacity takes in
different epochs. The physics-envy metaphor of 'conservation' is also suggestive
of the nature of our disagreement. Since abstract labour does not emerge before
the coming about of capitalism, it cannot be conserved in earlier societies.
What you (like the Sraffians) are referring to is some kind of outer
physical/technological constraint on human potential, which could not be
expressed (even in principle) quantitatively, because it involves summing over
disparate objects: different and changing kinds, intensities and productivities
of human productive activity.
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.
Michael W:
Yes, of course they did. But since the work they performed when so ordered is
not socially commensurated, It is not, IMO, abstract labour.

I will get round to commenting on some parts of subsequent postings soon.

Comradely greetings

Michael W