[OPE-L:7358] [OPE-L:888] Re: abstract labour

Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Tue, 13 Apr 1999 19:40:05 -0400 (EDT)

As always, I think Paul C makes several reasonable and thought provoking

Let me backtrack a bit.

I have advanced at least two claims that have not been differentiated. As a
result the concepts of abstract labor and wage labor have been conflated.

First, I have suggested that the theory of abstract labor is the theory of
fetishism which is itself an attempt to specify the historical uniqueness
of capitalism vis a vis real former and hypothetical modes of production. I
will put the idea in my own words, though I highly recommend Postone's
chapter on abstract labor. He worked for over a decade on the theoretical
ideas in his magnum opus.

I have already written in response to Allin: While concrete labors produce
a diversity of use values, abstract labor as exchange itself value positing
labor can only be represented in the use value of another commodity or
money (for Marx this also creates the possibility of a general glut).
Abstract labor produces a mass of commodity value through the realisation
of which (necessarily in money) the mediation of the producer to social
labor as a whole can only be achieved. As Colletti realized, the theory of
abstract labor is thus also the theory of fetishism: "that objects are
personified and people are represented by things".

I have followed Marx by arguing that the duality of labor only becomes the
key to the social formation upon exchange having acquired such an extension
that useful products are produced for the purpose of being exchanged or
serving as mediations, and their character as value has therefore to be
taken into account beforehand and during production.

While exchange value has enjoyed an antediluvian existence, exchange value
only comes to dominate (almost by definition) in a fully marketized
society. Most objects of labor can now serve as mediation between any
producer or, more precisely, the bourgeois agent who has claim to the
produced commodities and social labor as a whole; the producer or the
organizer of production is indifferent himself to the concrete character of
the output produced.

Moreover--and this is key--the actual productive process is only
transformed in capitalism due to the predominance of exchange value. That
is, the labor process must have a specific character to ensure the value
character of the produced commodities and the meeting of valorisation
requirements; if this is not ensured, commodities will be wasted as use
values even to their claimants holding on to them. The labor process is a
unity of value and technical elements, but the demands of value production
require the actual transformation of the concrete nature of work if the
commodity output is to be realized at value--this is investigated by Marx
in his theory of machino facture in the section of relative surplus value
and in the discussion of real subsumption in the Resultate. This profound
historical transformation of the work process under the demands of a social
system in which exchange value has become the general social mediation is
obscured if we see in capitalism only a continuous increase of quantity of
exchange values which have indeed enjoyed an antidiluvian existence. We
are not prepared to understand the epochal break bourgeois society has
achieved in the concrete nature of labor's activity.

So I have argued that abstract labor is the production of goods in the form
of commodities that serve as a social mediation for the (bourgeois)
claimant of that produced output; I have also suggested that universal
dependence on the market requires that value (and, it should be added, the
*social* use value nature of) commodities be taken into consideration
before and during production. To meet such considerations, there is an
epochal change in the conditions of work--machino facture. So even the
exploration of abstract labor must not be reduced only to mysteries of the
exchange value but also to material nature of the labor process as it is
changed. Marx considers the phenomena of bourgeois society always from
value and material sides.

Secondly, I have argued that the generalisation of the market or the
generalisation of the product of labor in the form of a commodity or as a
social 'mediation' and more specifically the use of productive credit that
enables entrepreneurs to supply markets with diverse commodities is only
possible on the basis of free and mobile wage labor. Or to put this second
claim another way, the (bourgeois) society in which the commodity has
become the general unit of wealth is necessarily based on the relation
between capital and free or mobile wage labor. The very dependence of the
proletariat on the market for its needs provides an impetus for the
development of commodity relations.

Of course this argument has yet to be made; I have only made the suggestion

one does not need perfect mobility for the concept
>of abstract labour to have social relevance.

Yet in a generalised market society in which relations are only established
by things, entrepreneurs must be able to make productive use of credit to
organize the supply of any and all commodities that alone will allow the
mutual dependence on the market that characterizes bourgeois society. There
is no widespread productive use of credit without mobile wage labor. This
is suggested by the absence of productive credit in the ancient
economies--a terribly important point actually. So proletarianisation and
the mobility it enables are the foundation of a market society in which
*abstract* labor *generally* produces first and foremost in the form of
commodity value to the concrete nature of which its claimant is indifferent
a mediation to social labor.

>As soon as one can talk of labour having alternative potential
>uses, then labour in the abstract is a relevant concept.
>Certainly slave labour had alternative potential uses.
>Cairnes, one of the most astute Ricardians, in his contemporaneous
>'The Slave Power' cites as one of the advantages of slave
>labour that it can be directed more readily than free labour
>into different activities.

There was a widespread attempt by the antebellum US Southern ruling class
to industrialize on the basis of slave labor; the latter was used so as not
to jeopardize plantation slavery. I believe there is a book by Starobin
(?) on why it failed to lay the basis for dynamic industrial development.
Will have to look it up.

Thus the major commodity
>products of the estates were produced by a labour force that
>was mobile between different alternative uses. At the disposal
>of the slave overseer it was abstract labour.

Well yes there was indeed abstract or exchange value positing labor. And of
course exchange value was already a significant enough social mystery to
have induced Aristotle's famous reflections. I do not disagree. I only
suggest that it was marginal even to the labor that slaves did. And in no
way did they produce a sufficiently immense accumulation of commodities
that would have enabled universal dependence on the market. And without
universal dependence on the market, abstract labor itself can only have a
marginal existence.

>Whilst the majority of the population even in the later republic
>may have been self sufficient peasants, the majority of the
>marketed product was probably produced by slave estates, and
>as such the mobility and directablility of the slave labour
>force meant that it would not only have been abstract labour,
>but would have allowed the law of value to operate in regulating
>the relative prices of agricultural commodities.

If only the surplus is being marketed after consumption requirements have
already been met, there is no reason why the marketed output must be
realized at 'value'. And this does not prove that they were produced with
value considerations beforehand.

>This is disputable, since money could be converted into slaves
>who would then serve as a source of further money. It would be
>news to the British capitalist of the 18th c who made their
>fortunes in the Jamaican sugar estates that their 'money did not
>serve as capital' since it employed slaves rather than free men.

You are switching from ancient to modern slavery; perhaps their characters
were different. Blackburn presents contradictory evidence as to the
capitalist character of modern slavery.

Yours, Rakesh