From: Hans Ehrbar (ehrbar@ECON.UTAH.EDU)
Date: Sun May 11 2003 - 11:42:51 EDT
Jerry, Regarding the terminological questions you are addressing I think it is very important to say that value is "congealed" abstract labor, rather than just saying that value is abstract labor. This is not a metaphor but a description of the social relations associated with the commodity. To clarify what it means to speak of metaphors, let me first say that it is strictly speaking incorrect to say that a product contains labor just because this product was produced by labor. This is a metaphorical expression which does not describe a real relation. The labor is sublated in the use-value of the product but the labor itself it extinguished; it no longer has effects as labor but only through the use-value it has produced. Here is an analogous example from the natural sciences: water is necessary to mix concrete, but this does not mean that the concrete contains water. The water has undergone a chemical reaction. The oxygen and hydrogen atoms which constituted the water can be found now in the concrete, but no longer in the chemical binding H2O, i.e., no longer as water. If Marx says that the value of a commodity is the abstract labor congealed in that commodity or represented by the commodity, then he does not mean it in such a metaphorical manner. This is not a contradiction to what I said above because he does not refer to the concrete labor sublated in the use-value of the product, but to the social relations attached to the commodity which focus on the abstract labor spent while producing it. Society remembers that part of the social labor-power has been spent on this commodity and associates this abstract labor with the commodity. This is why society is willing to exchange this commodity for other commodities which represent other chunks of the overall abstract labor available to society. For the individual this means that the labor-time he or she put into the commodity is not irretrievably lost, but can be recaptured, not as living labor but in the form of a different use-value. This is (as I understand it) the meaning of Marx's formulation that the abstract labor is congealed in the commodity: it is no longer liquid labor, but it is still present as labor and manifests itself in the exchangeability of the commodity. The concrete labor has disappeared, it is sublated in the use-value of the product. But if the product is produced as a commodity, then the abstract labor still lingers on as labor, albeit congealed labor; it constitutes the value of the commodity. Here we have the situation that something that happened in the past, the expenditure of human labor-power yesterday, has an effect today, because it constitutes the value of the product today. This is so because the person who has produced this commodity yesterday is hungry now, therefore he or she has to go to the market to sell this commodity and buy other commodities. There is another interesting quirk: qualitatively, the substance of value is past labor, but quantitatively it is not measured by the labor-time spent yesterday, but the quantity of value is measured by the socially necessary labor-time that would be needed today to reproduce the commodity. Yesterday's labor drives the producer to the market and forces him to exchange the product, but it does not guarantee the outcome of these exchange efforts; they are determined by the production conditions prevailing today. Hans.
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