Subject: [OPE-L:1756] value form
Date: Sun Nov 28 1999 - 13:17:22 EST
I am replying to both Paul's and Allin's messages here to avoid sending too
many messages (I have copied Allin's message below). I have just received
Nicky's and Chris's messages and have not had time to read them carefully.
I'll get back to those later.
At 04:26 PM 11/26/99 -0000, you wrote:
> > I THINK THAT YOU MISUNDERSTOOD. MY CONCERN IS NOT TO DIFFERENTIATE
>> PRIVATE AND SOCIAL LABOUR, THAT IS OBVIOUS. INCIDENTALLY, TO CLAIM THAT
>> COOKING A MEAL AND SWEEPING THE FLOOR ARE MANIFESTATIONS OF 'ABSTRACT
>> PRIVATE LABOUR' IS A BIT LIKE CLAIMING THAT HAVING A SANDWICH AND EATING A
>> CHOCOLATE ARE MANIFESTATIONS OF ABSTRACT SATIATION OF HUNGER.
>There are two distinctions here
>1.private versus social labour
>2.abstract versus concrete labour
>the two axes are orthogonal.
>The abstract concrete distinction is just like the one you rather deride
>eating sandwiches and eating chocolate as abstract satiation of hunger.
>There is nothing funny about this comparison. It is exactly what is done
>when tables of calorie content are published for chocolate and sandwiches -
>they are comensurated on their abstract ability to satisfy hunger.
>I see no reason why this comparison invalidates the concept of abstract
>It appears to me that you are not keeping the two axes above orthogonal.
The further analogy you offer is, I'm afraid, even more unfortunate.
Calorie levels have nothing at all to do with satiation of hunger. They
measure energy content. All material things are directly commensurate in
this respect, you simply have to burn them. Material things do not possess
an 'abstract ability to satisfy hunger', just as a stone does not possess
an 'abstract ability to break someone's head'. Things have properties or
capacities but certainly not abstract abilities.
The problem lies, it seems to me, with your view of abstraction: Because
you can appropriate something in thought that makes it abstract. In a
trivial sense that is true but, if we are not to move rapidly toward
idealism in social science, the abstraction must correspond with actual
social processes, it must have social reality.
>> MY POINT WAS THAT ABSTRACT LABOUR IS THE FORM NECESSARILY TAKEN BY SOCIAL
>> LABOUR IN CAPITALISM.
>This is confused. In what sense is abstract labour a form?
>All abstract labour must take on the form of some concrete labour to exist,
>concrete labours such as cooking, driving, bricklaying are the forms
>in which concrete labour must exist. All labour whether social or
>private has to exist in some concrete form in order to do anything,
>this is as true of capitalism as of any other society.
I give an answer to this below in reply to Allin.
>Social labour under capitalism typically takes the form of waged labour
>but this a juridical form, which engenders a third axis
>3. waged versus unwaged labour.
>This too is orthogonal to the previous ones, as one can have
>waged labour that is both private( the work of a private servant)
>and social ( the work of a factory operative).
I think that there is something in this but not in the way you have
approached it. I agree that capitalist social labour is typically
undertaken by wage labourers. But, in my view, this is an underlying
condition showing that for capitalist labour (ie, that performed in
capitalist production of commodities and embodied in the latter) to become
social it must also be abstract. Given the fragmented and competitive
nature of the capitalist economy, capitalist labour becomes social as
value, ie, in an anarchical and fetishistic way.
>>WHAT I WAS ASKING WAS, IF SOCIAL LABOUR COULD EXIST
>> DIRECTLY, WHY USE THE CONCEPT OF ABSTRACT LABOUR?
>Because the axes are orthogonal.
>> >>Third, the form of value (price, money, etc) is also met in great many
>> >>societies. Is this connected with abstract labour, in your view?
>> >I believe it is connected with abstract labour, yes. As a working
>> >I would assume that prices in pre capitalist societies were also
>> >more or less strictly, by a law of value.
>> I'M NOT QUITE CERTAIN HOW SIMPLY QUOTING MARX'S COMMENT ON 'ROBINSONADES'
>> DEALS WITH MY QUESTION
>He was not just making a comment on robinsonades. He says quite
>>relations between Robinson and the objects that form this wealth of his
>>own creation, are here so simple and clear as to be intelligible without
>>exertion, even to Mr. Sedley Taylor. And yet those relations contain all
>>that is essential to the determination of value.
>I.e. the relations essential to the determination of value are relations
>between Robinsons own abstract private labour times. The fact that
>these value relations appear in the mystified form of prices in
>a commodity producing society does not alter the fact that the
>underlying relations are logically and historically prior to commodity
'Abstract private labour time' has nothing to do with it. Robinson
economises on his time, as all labouring human beings must do. That
naturally results in variable amounts of material wealth. Time, labour, and
wealth are indeed 'all that is essential to the determination of value' but
only in the sense that gravity, energy and friction are all that is
essential to sending a rocket to the moon. The real problem remains
commensuration of diverse concrete labours as social process.
ALLIN COTTRELL WROTE:
On Fri, 26 Nov 1999 email@example.com wrote:
> MY POINT WAS THAT ABSTRACT LABOUR IS THE FORM NECESSARILY
> TAKEN BY SOCIAL LABOUR IN CAPITALISM. WHAT I WAS ASKING WAS,
> IF SOCIAL LABOUR COULD EXIST DIRECTLY, WHY USE THE CONCEPT
> OF ABSTRACT LABOUR?
I think that Paul's point, with which I agree, is that the
concrete/abstract and private/social distinctions are
orthogonal. Robinson's private labour takes a variety of
concrete forms, but these concrete forms may be considered as
particular dispositions of his total available (abstract)
labour. The same goes for the social labour time in a planned
I think this puts the problem across very neatly. Individuals, in my view,
do not have a "total available (abstract) [and presumably private] labour"
which they then proceed to apportion between different activities. This, if
I may say, is quite neoclassical in spirit - an endowment of time (since
labour must be counted in time units) allocated rationally among different
tasks by its owner.
Individuals have a capacity to labour, which becomes a commodity in
capitalism. All labour performed is immediately private and concrete (thus,
produces useful things) - in other words, it is characterised by minute
particularity of place, person, skill and moment in time. This,
incidentally, also holds for labour that the same individual performs at
different times, in different places, etc. For this particularity to
disappear and labour to become homogeneous specific social conditions are
necessary. Under capitalist conditions, this happens by labour becoming
I suppose that "social labour" means labour that is not directed
towards the satisfaction of the individual needs of the person
performing the labour, but rather forms part of a social
division of labour (planned or unplanned). I think that what is
special about capitalism is not that "abstract labour is the
form necessarily taken by social labour" (social labour is
always both abstract and concrete) but that the social character
of labour is only "validated" ex post, via the market, and that
quanta of abstract labour are not calculated and represented as
such, but are rather represented by quanta of money.
The point I have been stressing is that the 'social character of labour'
has to be created and cannot be assumed at the outset, as it seems to me
that you are doing. Labour is not directly social but always private (and
concrete). In becoming social, division of labour is a crucial aspect but
so is relation of labourers to means of production and product.
Historically, labour has become social in many different ways. Most of
these were direct and have involved command, free cooperation, custom and
tradition. Social relations, calculation and apportionment of time,
allocation of workers, etc, are then more or less transparent - though not
necessarily egalitarian. There is nothing abstract about such labour except
in the sense of appropriating the process of its creation in the mind.
Capitalist conditions make labour social through (money-based) production
of commodities - that entails things we all know about division of labour
and labour-power. Abstract labour is a social substance that encapsulates
this process - thus, capitalist social labour must be abstract labour. This
is a 'real' abstraction (value is accumulated, destroyed, etc, etc.) in the
sense that it corresponds to the social and historical conditions of
capitalism. Commensuration of concrete labours takes place blindly,
anarchically, and in thing-like fashion. I should stress, I am referring to
labour undertaken to produce capitalist commodities, ie typical capitalist
labour. Labour undertaken in cooperative or communal fashion within
capitalism can have a direct social character, eg, labour performed in a
national health service system. Though even that can assume value forms.
Under socialist conditions, labour can acquire social character directly
and for society as a whole. Homogenisation of labour can take place through
social mechanisms of job training, job transfer, nursery provision, housing
allowances, lessening of division between mental and manual labour, and so
on. The problem remains very complex and difficult but abstract labour in
the sense in which we use it to analyse capitalism seems to me irrelevant
to it. That is, unless some measure of commodity production were also
allowed by society. Commensuration of labours would then become even more
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