[OPE-L:7251] [OPE-L:776] Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: abstract labour

Fri, 26 Mar 1999 16:14:20 +0000

At 02:44 PM 26-03-99 GMT0BST, you wrote:
>> At 02:32 PM 25-03-99 GMT0BST, you wrote:
>> >
>> >Of course only an economist qua economist could be satisfied with
>> >the analogy between Watt's abstract work (horsepower per period)
>> >and a concept of abstract labour build around human sweat, blood
>> >and passions.
>> >
>> >Massimo
>> >
>> Speciesist! Do not horses toil and sweat.
>> Paul Cockshott
>Of course they do, but in horse ways, and with horse-forms of
>rebellion and aspirations.
My contribution above was of course light hearted, but I have
a couple of serious points to make.

The first is that the idea of abstract labour was already common
currency prior to Marx. It may just be my bias (as an engineer
rather than as an economist), but I find it interesting that
Smiths exposition of a labour theory of value should be developed
in the same institution and overlapping in time with Watt developing
the idea of an abstract measure of work done.

Of course Watt's 'work done' is not the same as Smith's labour, for
Watt abstracts from whether the work is done by humans, horses or
machines. For him it is all work and quantifiable as such. But this
is part of the signal dethroning of anthropocentric views
brought about by industrial progress. By reducing work
to a comon measure whether done by muscle or machine, Watt intellectually
prefigures the process that led to the
the muscle of the spinner being supplanted by the strokes of
his atmospheric engines as they drove 'mules'. Abstracting from
the agent doing the work, as well as its concrete form,
Watt recognises that machines can and will replace workers.

But work done in Watt's sense, does not correlate well with exchange
value, nothing like as well as human time expended does. This weakens
the notion that it is the expenditure of energy and effort as such
that determines exchange value, for if it were so, why does electrical power
contribute less to value than muscle power.

Massimo suggests that it is the added ingredient of 'sweat blood
and passion' that creates value. True, an atmospheric engine was
deficient in these, but of themselves they can hardly be constitutive
of value. All three are given freely in love and war without
exchangeable value arising thereby.

I would suggest that two other factors that lie behind human
labours ability to create exchangeable value:

1. The versatility of human labour, the fact that humans can adapt
to such a wide range of task, beyond the ability of any other
animal or machine, makes it the general resource par-exellence at the
disposal of society.
This concept of fluid and malleable, and thus abstract, human labour
was, I believe, well grasped by Marx's predecessors.
2. The fact that the agents of labour are also social agents recognised
as legal personalities entitled to compensation for their labour
means that in almost every branch of production the compensation
of labour is the single biggest cost of production.

I consider it an open question whether labour would still be the sole
source of value under social relations in which most work is done by slaves.
It is not clear that the labour human slaves would then have the same
priority over that of bovine slaves, which free human labour presently enjoys.

Paul Cockshott