[OPE-L:7370] [OPE-L:900] Re: abstract labour

Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Thu, 15 Apr 1999 02:38:33 -0400 (EDT)

Paul C and I seem fated to disagree. He wrote:

>Yes, but this does not imply that all of the concepts used
>in the first volume of Capital are exclusively applicable to
>capitalist production. Some of the economic categories are
>inherited from earlier periods.

Matha Campbell argues that Marx always intended to distinguish capitalist
forms from apparently similar non capitalist forms; since hardly a line is
wasted in the analysis I shall only recommend her essay "The Commodity as
Characteristic Form" in Ron Blackwell,ed Economics as Worldly Philosophy.
St Martins: 1993

Here's my own simple example: Interest bearing capital of course predates
bourgeois society; as the purest or most fetishistic form of capital, the
analysis thereof may thought to disclose the secret of capital as such.
What can explain the phenomena of interest across historical periods (e.g.
a heir borrowing against his inherited estate in ancient Rome, a peasant
borrowing in the face of drought in colonial India, a capitalist firm
borrowing during a dowturn--all paying interest) could then deduced to be
present time preference.

But Marx attempts to determine the specific laws that regulate interest
bearing capital in bourgeois society alone. For Marx the general non
existence of productive credit supplied to entrepreneurs previous to
capitalism is much more important than the properties of interest as such,
e.g., it enables any lender to eventually make a claim on social labor at
some point.

The uniquely widespread importance of productive credit in capitalism was
understood by the greatest bourgeois Marxist Schumpeter to be a differentia
specifica that must be explained: "[Of course it is a] premium on present
over future purchasing power. This premium has several causes. Interest on
consumptive loans in a case in point. That anyone in unexpected
distress...or in expectation of a future increase in income...values a
hundred present more highly than a hundred future marks requires no
explanation and it is self evident that interest may exist in such cases.
All categories of government credit belong here....But they do not
constitute the great social phenomena that needs explaining. This consists
of interest on productive loans. (Produktivzins)...This is all I mean by
the statement 'The static economy knows no productive interest'--which is
certainly fundamental to our insight into the structure and working of
capitalism." Theories of Economic Development, p. 157-8

Marx is simply not interested in the transhistorical generalisation of
interest bearing capital which would only be a SPECTRE, AN UNREAL
ABSTRACTION. The categories of bourgeois economics and Boehm's interest or
agio theory must be shown to be examples thereof (we can thus understand
Schumpeter's famous critique of his teacher as an attempt to smuggle the
principle of historical specificity into bourgeois economics). I don't have
the knowledge to carry out such a critique of bourgeois economics (any
recommendations?); from a Marxian perspective it would have to be similar
to Richard Jones's critique of Ricardian rent theory as blind to how the
laws of rent differed in accordance with specific regimes of unfree labor.

There are no transhistorical properties of rent that can be deduced from
the concept as such. Such concepts as interest bearing capital as such and
rent as such are simply hypostatisations.

Here's an other example: if we define abstract labor as that common
substance of physiological expenditure that renders and has rendered
possible the commensuration of commodities in determinate ratios in any
society, we fail to understand what is specifically abstract about labor in
bourgeois society--that dependent on the market for its needs and thus in a
state of universal isolation, labor that is privately undertaken generally
produces and must produce *any* kind of object in the value form that can,
by passing from concrete to abstract or private to social, serve as a
'thingly' social mediation. The products of abstract labor have a specific
and indeed fetishistic function in bourgeois society that distinguishes the
nature of its social relations from other societies.

>From even within the realm of circulation in and through which social
relations among isolated producers are established by things, Marx also
develops a theory of money attentive to its specific functions in
generalised commodity production that reveals the possibility that a
society so mediated can indeed suffer a general glut, viz., the absurd
possibility that social reproduction can be interrupted by too much

So even at the beginning of *Capital* Marx is not dealing with common
transhistoric properties of commodities (e.g, simply exchange values or
social use values) or money but attempting to determine the specific nature
of them in a society in which the commodity has become the general unit of
wealth and as a result the latent contradiction inherent in the commodity
between use and exchange value fully developed. Here we have Marx's
theories of commodity fetishism and the possibility of a general glut of
commodities, and they are indeed specific to bourgeois society.

See OPE participant Tony Smith's Logic of Marx's Capital on the value form
for an excellent analysis of the historical specificity of the value form.

In short, Marx may analyze the categories inherited from previous modes of
production but always with an eye to determining how they function
specifically in bourgeois society.

Yours, Rakesh

Cairnes obviously deserves study, as does the question of continuities and
discontinuities between ancient and modern plantation slavery.