[OPE-L:5039] To Paul C: about Colletti

riccardo bellofiore (bellofio@cisi.unito.it)
Fri, 16 May 1997 01:01:59 -0700 (PDT)

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At 1:44 -0700 14-05-1997, riccardo bellofiore wrote:
>At 9:38 -0700 13-05-1997, Paul Cockshott wrote:
>>In my view this is really putting the cart before the horse.
>>It is the fact that human labour is a polymorphous productive
>>capacity that makes it abstract, not the commodity form of its
>>product. The abstraction of labour is realised whenever people
>>change jobs. It is this, and only this that gives abstract labour
>>any meaning. If people could not change jobs, it would make no
>>sense to abstract from what they are presently doing and treat
>>their time alone as a social resource. If they could not change
>>jobs, but were genetically programmed to perform the same thing,
>>a market system would be impossible.
>This is Sweezy reading of abstract labour. Colletti criticized it in his
>essay on Bernstein in From Rousseau to Lenin, Verso. I think his criticism
>was sound.
>Did you see it?

Dear Paul, unfortunately I do not have at home From Rousseau to Lenin, but
I found the relevant passages in Shwartz's, The Subtle Anatomy of
Capitalism, pp. 460-463.

Colletti writes (his own italics):

"Sweezy, who has gone further than most, writes <Abstract labour is
abstract only in the quite straightforward sense that all special
characteristics which differentiate one kind of labour from another are
ignored. Abstract labour in short, is, as Marx's usage quite clearly
attests, equivalent to labour in general: it is what is common to all
productive activity>. The meaning of this argument is clear: 'Abstract
labour' is an abstraction, in the sense that it is ental *generalization*
of the multiplicity of useful, concrete kinds of labour: it is the general,
*common* element of all these kinds of labour. This generalization,
moreover, as Sweezy goes on to point out, corresponds to capitalist
reality, in that in this kind of society labour is shifted or diverted
according to the direction of capital investments; hence a determinate
portion of human labour is, in accordance with variatons of demand, at one
time supplied in one form, at another time in another ... In spite of
Sweezy's plea that <the reduction of all labour to a common denominator ...
is not an arbitrary abstraction, dictated in some way by the whim of the
investigator> but <rather, as Lukacs correctly observes, an abstraction
'which belongs to the essence of capitalism'>, despite this, in the absence
of what seems to me to be the decisive point, 'abstract labour' remains, in
the last analysis, essentially *a mental generalization*"

Colletti's decisive point i well-known : "the process whereby 'abstract
labour' is obtained, far from being a mere *mental* abstraction of the
investigator, is one which takes place daily in the *reality of exchange
itself*". Hence, at least on the surface, a view which points toward the
value-form approach.

But is Colletti's point really understood even by those who quote him? That
point means that: in the reality of the world of commodities ... individual
labour powers are equalized precisely because they are treated as abstract
or *separate* from the real mpirical individuals to whom they belong ...
'Abstract labour', in short, is *alienated* labour, labour separated or
estranged with respect to man himself". Hence, "the effect of the world of
commodities on real men has been similar" to Hegel's separation of human
thought from man. "It has factually separated or *abstracted* from man his
'subjectivity', i.e. his 'physical and mental energies', his 'capacity' for
work, and has transformd it into a separate essence. It has fixed human
energy *as such* in the 'crystal' or 'congelation' of labour which is
*value*, turning it into a distinct entity, an entity which is not only
independent of man, but also dominates him". Hence, value is a real

My opinion is:

(i) this is not rigmarole: without understanding it, one has no access to
Marx's critical political economy in its true shape;

(ii) if thought in its consequence (not explicitly drawn by Colletti), this
argument grounds abstract labour, value, and the magnitude of value, both
in production and circulation: in the sense that in production (potential)
value already exists, and may be (theoretically) measured in labour time

(iii) provided Marx's value theory is read as a macro theory of class
relations within the circuit of money-capital.

(iii) is needed because (ii) following Marx may be done only on the ground
of the eventual validation of private labours in exchange, and this creates
all the problems (rightly) stressed in the value-form literature.