[OPE-L:2807] Re: Social labour vs socially necessary labour

rakesh bhandari (djones@uclink.berkeley.edu)
Wed, 7 Aug 1996 00:27:59 -0700 (PDT)

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Paul wrote:

>Labour can be social but unnecessary, when overproduction occurs in an
>industry. It is still social in that it is a portion of societies labour
>has been wasted, and wasted moreover in social rather than private
>production - the product was not intended for the direct consumption of
>the producers.

I think we agree that Marx conceives of social labor as a basic condition
of humanity. I think this opens up the question whether Marx understood
history as the dialectic of the progressive socialization of labor and
bourgeois society as the last antagonistic form through which this
socialization will pass.

However, the concept of socially necessary labor is specific to capital.
Actually strike that. That the social necessity of labor can only be
revealed by the expression of a commodity's value in the use value of
another commodity is other than being madness--historically specific. That
is, only under capitalism do products of labor generally take the commodity

Now we have the problem of the nature of this labor--the product of which
takes the value form and, in doing so, produces not only a use value but
also a potential and indeed the only mediation between private labor and
social labor. That the commodity must serve as such mediation for the
private producer to social labor follows from the fact that Paul has
emphasized: under bourgeois relations the products of labor are not
intended for private consumption, they are rather social use values.

I am not sure however whether we agree this labor is historically
specific. This is where we may disagree. In Theories of Surplus Value Marx
faults Ricardo for only determining the relative values or exchange values
or commodities by the quantity of labor while failing to examine the
peculiar characteristic of labor that creates exchange values...the nature
of this labor.

So in order to fix our ideas about socially necessary labor, we must come
to agreement on Marx's concepts of the value form and abstract labor, and
while I do hope that we take up further the tasks of the analysis of the
world market (I am terribly interested in Alan's analysis of superprofit
for example), we have to come to some kind of agreement about Marx's basic
concepts and method. On these problems I consider myself a student of
Postone's and would be more than pleased if Paul or Allin (for whom I have
great respect) had some critical comments on his critique of

Sometime back Andrew replied in an excellent post that Postone's
conception of abstract labor in terms of its function as a social mediator
makes it impossible on the one the hand to quantify labor and value and on
the other hand to grasp the exploitation and alienation specific to the
proletariat within the abode of production. I take these to be excellent
but ultimately unpersuasive criticisms.

In the first place, Postone is initially more interested in the abstract,
impersonal and dynamic properties of this form of sociality, a society that
is not only based upon social labor but also. as Andrew put it, "glued" by
labor and its products. Anyways, the last third of the book can read as
nothing more than an attempt to understand the quantitative properties of
value ("the dialectic of labor and time") and the destructiveness of modern
industry both through its internal division of labor on the human being as
proletarian and through its growth imperative on nature. Postone is
meticulous in his attempt to connect these analyses to his elaboration of
the most basic concepts in the second half of the book.

Another note on the idea of value as socially necessary labor time. We
know that this means that the labor time of the individual producer only
counts as that of normal productivity for the industry. But as Mattick jr
has argued, there is another restriction as well. Once noted, it becomes
clear why the value which is (mis-)represented through exchange value is
not simply a representation of socially necessary labor time but more
specifically labor time under the command of capital. Or as he puts it,
"As value production is thus the organizational principle of production
specific to capitalism, values are defined for products that are exchanged
as products of capitals, not just as products of 'social labor.'"

What then is this second determination of the concept of socially necessary
labor time: "The production of goods that cannot be sold at a satisfactory
rate of profit will be discontinued. Supply-demand equilibrium, therefore,
must be understood as a result of profit-maximization: capital stops
migrating between spheres of industry when no capital can increase its rate
of profit by moving. 'Value,' thus refers to the allocation of labor time
that would obtain if all capitals were to receive profit at the same rate."