[OPE-L:2697] Re: More on abstract labour

Murray Smith (msmith@spartan.ac.brocku.ca)
Sat, 20 Jul 1996 18:25:30 -0700 (PDT)

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I agree with Duncan that a) "abstract labor" or "labor in the abstract"
is used inconsistently by Marx, and b), more importantly, that the
specifically Marxian-theoretic content of the concept refers to a
phenomenon that exists only under capitalism (at least in its
"fully-developed" form). While Marx introduces the
concept of abstract labor at the very beginning of Capital I, prior to
any discussion of the specific features of capitalist production, he does
so in the context of discussing the characteristics of commodities in a
system of generalized commodity production and exchange (where, indeed,
it is the "single commodity" that constitutes the "unit" of the "wealth
of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails."

It seems to me, however, that the debate on the precapitalist provenance
and postcapitalist relevance of "abstract labour" has been too marked by
"all-or-nothing" formulations. The "abstract labour" that is fundamental
to the capitalist value-form is historically specific; but this abstract
labour (which is, as Marx states, the "substance" of value in a
commodity-capitalist economy) is also but one historical form of
"the social-equalization of labour" -- a phenomenon that reaches back into
pre-capitalist simple commodity production and which will undoubtedly be
an indispensable feature of all economies transitional between capitalism
and socialism/communism. In arguing this, I am of course taking a
position on a long-standing controversy to which our current OPE-L debate
is intimately related: the historical scope of Marx's law of value.

I think it would be useful to go back and review John Weeks' argument
with Engels in his Capital and Exploitation (1981). At one point, Weeks
insists that "A distinction can be drawn between the law of the economy
of concrete labor time, applicable in all societies with or without
exchange, and the law of the minimization of abstract labor time (law of
value)" (p.33). Now, if the law of value is synonymous with the "law of
the minimization of abstract labor time," then there can be no argument
concerning the applicability of the law of value to pre-capitalist
commodity exchange (as enunciated by Engels). "Abstract labor time"
(with emphasis on time) is a category specific to capitalist relations of
production, inasmuch as it is connected to the quantitative determination
of value through the determination of "socially necessary labor time." So
if the law of value is predicated on the concept of abstract labor time,
there can be no pre-capitalist "law of value." But what if "abstract labor"
is not intrinsic to "value" in all its historical forms? Marx's insistence
that abstract labor is the substance of value under capitalism is then in
no way contradictory to the idea that earlier (and simpler) forms of
value might possess a less developed "social substance." As I.I. Rubin
discussed at some length, abstract labor is simply a specific historical
form of "socially-equalized labor" -- one that is transitional, as it were,
between either a planned distribution of concrete labors or simply a
"subjective" accounting of the concrete labor time embodied in particular
marketed products and the "universal, abstract labor" characteristic of
developed commodity-capitalist economies. It would seem to be consistent
with Rubin's "genetic-dialectical method" to insist that the "social
substance" of the commodity form must evince a range of historical forms,
progressing from subjectively-calculated concrete labor-time through
forms anticipating "unconscious" processes of social equalization and
culminating in the fully-reified phenomenon of abstract labor (and the
value-form specific to capitalism, in which money emerges as not merely a
means of circulation but as the universal measure of wealth).

Consider the following quotes from Rubin:

"Abstract labor is not only socially equalized labor, i.e., abstracted
from concrete properties, impersonal and homogenous labor. The concept of
abstract labor presupposes that the process of impersonalization or
equalization of labor is a unified process through which labor is
"socialized", i.e. is included in the total mass of social labor."
(Essays on Marx's Theory of Value," p. 142)

"Abstract labor appears and develops to the extent that exchange becomes
the social form of the process of production, thus transforming the
production process into commodity production. In the absence of exchange
as the social form of production, there can be no abstract labor. Thus to
the extent that the market and the sphere of exchange is widespread, to
the extent that the individual economic units are drawn into exchange, to
the extent that these units are transformed into a unified social economy
and later into a world economy, the characteristic properties of labor
which we have called abstract labor are strengthened." (1973:144)

I think that Rubin is right on in these passages. Again, none of this
means that the concept "abstract labor" cannot have more than one meaning
(even in Marx's texts). What it does point to however is the centrality
of a particular concept of abstract labor to the operations of the
capitalist law of value. Abstract Labor emerges as a real structure of
relations and as the mediating link between the capitalist value-form
(money) and the magnitude of value at the level of the capitalist economy
as a whole. Marx states that "the money-form is merely the reflection
thrown upon a single commodity by the relations between all other
commodities" (Capital I, Vintage edition, p.184). This can be expressed
otherwise as follows: money is the form of apperance of or "reflection"
of a structure of abstract labor that mediates the relations among
commodities. To fully understand this structure and its mediative role,
one must look to the problem of the "magnitude of value"
(characteristically slighted by pure "value-form" theorists). As I argue
in my book Invisible Leviathan, "abstract labour needs to be conceived as
a structure (of relations) grounded in production but reflected by
individual commodities in the sphere of circulation" (p.129). This I take
to be the general position implied by the "fundamentalist" school of value
theory (in which I include Shaikh and Foley, among others).

I disagree with Ted on two counts: his "all-or-nothing" stance prevents
him from seeing that "abstract labor" is something that develops through
a protracted historical process (the emergence of increasingly determinate
and universal forms of "socially equalized labor"), and his state-capitalist
analysis of the Stalinist states. He is quite right, however, to point
out that the notion that the law of value survives under "socialism" was
a theoretical revision of the classical marxist position (while also
constituting a revival of certain utopian-socialist tropes). Marxist
economists who wanted to reconcile the survival of an (attenuated and
non-capitalist) "law of value" in the USSR with Stalin's declaration
(from 1936 on) that "socialism" (albeit "only" the first stage of communism)
had already been realized in that country were obliged to engage in some
pretty fancy theoretial foot-work. Stalin, himself, went on in his
"Economic Problems of Socialism..." to explicitly endorse the notion of a
"socialist" law of value! Now what strikes me as most problematic in all
this is not the notion that a (non-capitalist) form of the law of value
might survive a socialist revolution and the creation of a planned
economy, even a democratically-administered planned economy, but rather
the premise that the USSR had achieved "socialism" at all. At best one can
characterize the USSR as a social formation transitional to socialism,
and it therefore was more profoundly marked by the "old crap" of class
society than even Marx's "lower stage" of communism (as described in
Critique of the Gotha Prorgramme). But the survival of elements of the law
of value in such a transitional formation in no way licenses the notion
that it is "state capitalist" -- a formulation that Raya Dunayevskaya
sought to bolster by arguing that "value" and "capitalism" are
inextricably linked. It is really rather surprising that so "dialectical"
a Marxist as Dunayevskaya could have authored such a formalist and
non-dialectical argument. But then "program" often determines theory more
strongly than does "method" -- and Dunayevskaya was above all concerned
to justify her break from Trotsky's "defensist" position toward the USSR.

I apologize for this overly-long post. But perhaps it makes up for the
"lurker" status that I've occupied since I joined a couple of months ago.
An extremely busy schedule has kept me from plunging into earlier
debates, but I couldn't resist this one.


Murray Smith