[OPE-L:5128] 1-some answers: Napoleoni after Colletti

riccardo bellofiore (bellofio@cisi.unito.it)
Tue, 27 May 1997 08:39:47 -0700 (PDT)

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Since I must leave Italy at the end of this week, and I'll be away
for some time, and I still have some answers to give, I try now to present
some of them, taking up some themes I left in the middle some days ago.
Unfortunately, I will be at the same time too long and imprecise.

Napoleoni after Colletti

A first theme I left in the middle were some deepenings of
Colletti's train of thought made by Napoleoni in the early '70s. I'll
remember here the following:

a) the basic connection between the notion of abstract labour and money as
the essential output of the capitalist process.

b) the clarification that the general exchange situation analyzed by Marx
in the first chapters of Capital has nothing to do with a 'simple commodity
society' where independent producers, owners of the means of production,
exchange their outputs after the production process, and who only through
this external link comes into social contact. It is true that abstract
labour is initially deduced by Marx from exchange as such; and that this
abstraction already entails that producers do not control the social
process of their reproduction. But according to Marx, commodity production
is general rather than occasional only when labour power itself becomes a

c) once abstract labour is deduced from capital and not from exchange as
such, the process of real hypostatization at the heart of Colletti's
reading of abstract labour (= *objectified* abstract labour as the subject,
and individual workers as predicates) takes on a second, deeper, meaning.
When the wage earner alienates his capacity to work to the capitalist, what
is really happening is that the capitalist has the right to exploit the use
value of the commodity s/he has bought. This exchange appears from the
start as a very special one for two reasons. The first reason is well-known
in Marxist literature: the capitalist is lucky because s/he has found a
commodity on the market whose use value is labour itself, that is the
substance of value; s/he may then extract from the worker a longer working
day than the one embodied in the exchange value of labour power. The second
reason is usually less emphasized: "the commodity is very, very peculiar
indeed because it is not a thing owned by the worker; it is rather the same
worker in a particular determination - namely, as labour power" (Napoleoni,
Lezioni, p. 55). When the labourer is divorced from the objective
conditions of production, s/he is separated from her/his own labour: "it is
in and because of this separation that labour is abstract, that is separate
from individuals' subjectivity, and becomes a substance in itself of which
individuals, workers, are nothing but the personification" (Napoleoni,
Smith Ricardo and Marx, p. 106: there is an error in the English
translation here). The sense is, I think, crystal-clear. It is not the
individual worker who owns the commodity labour power; it is rather labour
power (as *potential* living labour) as a commodity which owns the worker.
At the same time, this interpretation (implicitly) suggests that the
specificity of the commodity labour power is that it cannot be materially
cut off from the human being.

d) this second meaning of the abstraction of labour is further developed in
a third, still deeper, definition. When the labour process is fully reduced
to be a mere means for the valorization process, and a truly capitalist
mode of production has come to life, living labour loses all the qualities
pertaining to it, in the precise meaning that the concrete features and
abilities expressed in it are function of its being annexed by capital. The
science and will which drive the productive process in its own 'technical'
determinations are by then completely external to the worker. Living labour
is not only subject to capital's compulsion in performing surplus labour -
namely, capitalist labour as forced labour. It is also other-directed
labour, because in an increasing degree its specifications come from
outside. More and more the compulsion to work is the effect of labour being
ruled by capital even in its concrete features. The real hypostatization of
labour eventually reaches the stage that the same *living* (abstract)
labour, estranged from the worker, is the subject of which the individual
(concrete) workers are predicates.

e) it is now clear that what prevented Classical political economy to
reveal what is hidden behind the formation of profits - namely, surplus
value as surplus labour - is that the notion of labour power was missing,
even though it came very near to it. At bottom, however, the true
impediment was the impossibility for bourgeuois theories to admit the
notion of abstract labour, and therefore of capitalist objectivity as an
*inverted* reality. Indeed, here labour power takes its full meaning from
being a specification of the concept of abstract labour - that is, to be an
instance of the process of real hypostatisation stressed by Colletti. To
Marx it was possible to go beyond the limits of political economy because
working-class movements contested in practice the idea that capitalist
command over living labour in the production process was something
'natural', inherent to the labour process as such, and whose objectivity
was indisputable. By now, critical political economy reveals itself as a
critique of political economy altogether.

My opinion is that Colletti implicitly hold these views, but they were not
learly spelled out in his writings.

Further (incomplete) considerations in the next mail.