[OPE-L:2809] Re: Social labour vs socially necessary labour

andrew kliman (Andrew_Kliman@msn.com)
Wed, 7 Aug 1996 16:34:54 -0700 (PDT)

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A reply to Rakesh's ope-l 2807

(Hi Rakesh)

He wrote:
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.

Andrew: I think I said his *displacement* of abstract labor from the
production process, not abstract labor as social mediator, is what makes this
impossible. (Instead of the dual *character* of labor in *production*, he has
the dual *function* of labor - concrete labor in production, and abstract
labor or, more generally, "'labor'," [indicating an abstract concept] as a
social mediator.)

Also, I didn't mean that labor must be abstract in production in order to
quantify value or labor. Clearly that is not the case; all of us, every day,
quantify value, and many non-Marxian theories quantify what they mean by
value, without reference to abstract labor. But if value is determined by
abstract labor-time, as in Marx's theory, and if the magnitude of
surplus-value is determined (temporally) prior to its distribution, as in
Marx's theory, then the physiological labor of workers in production must
immediately be abstract as well as concrete. (In our recent EEA paper
critiquing Bruce's market-centered interpretation of Marx's concept of
abstract labor, Ted and I show the incompatibility between the determination
of value by labor-time and the notion that a particular act of labor becomes
abstract through the exchange of the products of that act. Similarly, though
Postone's thinking is not market-centered, it remains the case that one runs
into a vicious circularity in attempting to determine value by labor-time
unless labor, physiological labor in capitalist production, is immediately.)

Finally, I don't think I said that Postone couldn't grasp the exploitation
and alienation in production. I think I said something like the following
(I'll quote from the abovementioned EEA paper):

To say that labor is abstract in the production process itself, that abstract
labor is 'real work' [Marx, Resultate, Vol. I, Vintage, pp. 991-92] does *not*
imply in the least that the existence of abstract labor is transhistorical and
asocial. Although the passage in which he refers to 'real work' as
value-creating is not well known, much controversy has surrounded one in which
Marx [Vol. I, p. 139, Vintage] reiterates this point, calling abstract labor
'an expenditure of human labor-power in the physiological sense.' Whether
they endorse or reject this view, commentators have generally presumed that
the 'phyiological' character of abstract labor implies its existence
independently of society and history (see, e.g., Postone 1993).

What goes unrecognized in this view is that the *specific social character* of
the capitalist process of production *separates* the workers' physiological
activity from their thinking, desires, and intentions: 'human labor-power
[is] expended without regard to the form of its expenditure' [Marx, ibid., p.
128]. What goes unrecognized, in other words, is abstract labor that has the
character of being *merely* physiological, mere exertion, labor alienated from
the workers' personality and human being as a whole. The workers' real work,
in other words, has a dual, self-divided character. It remains useful and
concrete, but this aspect becomes the form in which its character as exertion,
physiological expenditure as such, appears. As Marx [Grundrisse, Penguin, p.
297] put it:

[T]he character which capitalist and worker have as the extremes of a single
relation of production ... develops more purely and adequately in proportion
as labour loses all the characteristics of art; as its particular skill
becomes something more and more abstract and irrelevant, and it becomes more
and more a *purely abstract activity*, a purely mechanical activity, hence
indifferent to its particular form; a merely *formal* activity, or, what is
the same, a merely *material* activity, activity pure and simple, regardless
of the form [emphases in original].

The contrary view, that the workers' actual physiological activity is solely
concrete, fails to recognize its dual, self-divided character and thus makes
the abstraction of labor *external* to the workers' actual experience in the
process of production. Hence, this view theoretically negates the
revolutionary potential of working people that arises from within capital,
from within their self-divided experience. As Hegel (Science of Logic,
Humanities Press, 1989, p. 439, emphasis added) noted, 'contradiction is the
root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a
contradiction *within it* that it moves, has an urge and activity.'

Explaining why he finds my critique of Postone unpersuasive, Rakesh says:

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.

Reply: I don't see how the 1st point addresses, much less weakens the force
of, my critique. Part of the 2nd point is based on a misunderstanding of my
critique (workers as revolutionary Subjects, not (only) as degraded by modern
industry). As for quantification, there's not much precise discussion of the
determination of the mass or rate of profit, etc., in Postone. And it doesn't
matter what he says; what matters is whether the whole of his thesis coheres.
Lots of people have a lot of nice-sounding stuff that seems quite impressive,
until you carefully test the whole for coherence (which *very* few readers are
likely or have the background to do), at which point the bon mots don't hold
up. I stand by my claim that the determination of value by labor-time is
impossible unless labor is abstract in production - e.g., that the mass of
profit is determined before its distribution is impossible.

Andrew Kliman