Re: Money, mind and the ontological status of value and abstract labor

From: Howard Engelskirchen (howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM)
Date: Wed Jun 16 2004 - 01:52:52 EDT

In this post I'll try to address Costas's points around abstract labor.
This will also touch on ground raised in Ian's recent post.

Hegel had the view that any time you considered a thing in isolation from
the totality of which it was a part, your conception of it was to that
extent abstract.  There's nothing wrong with that.  To consider value today
in isolation from capitalism would be inadequate and incomplete, just as it
would be to consider it in the ancient world in isolation from the
patriarchal form of production to which it was subordinate.

But if its value we're calling abstract, I want to insist that it is a real
social object capable of existing wherever the appropriate social conditions
for its operation are present and that these do not include wage labor.
Generalized commodity production certainly requires wage labor.  The
question is whether what we learn about the commodity form as it is
disclosed in its approximately 'pure' development within the capitalist mode
of production doesn't allow us to understand it in those situations where
wage labor didn't exist but appropriate conditions for its emergence did.
So if the question is whether Chapter 1 presupposes wage labor or not, the
answer it seems to me is unambiguously yes and no.  Yes, in the sense that
generalized commodity production is presupposed; no in the sense that no
theoretical category specific to capital as such, e.g. wage labor, surplus
value, etc., is introduced.  Therefore, the analysis there presented can be
applied where commodity production existed but was not generalized and did
not dominate production.  But that argument collapses if abstract labor
presented in Chapter 1 is a theoretical category that requires wage labor.

Marx refers to abstract labor in three different contexts.  On the one hand
he refers to labor as just physiological expenditure common to all human
history.  As simple labor common to all history.  Labor never occurs except
in a specific social form under given historical conditions, yet we can
abstract to the general features that characterize all human labor.  Second,
he refers to labor that is equal and homogeneous in Chapter 1.   Third, he
refers in the third notebook of the Grundrisse to labor denuded of all
objectivity, altogether indifferent to the form of labor.

Labor abstract in the sense that it is indifferent to the utility of the
product which it produces, commodity producing labor, equal and homogeneous
labor, is not at all necessarily indifferent to the form of labor -- Marx
gives the example of guilds and crafts which remained immersed in the
particularity of labor.  Indifference to the utility of the product, the
thing that causes(!) recourse to exchange, does not at all imply or
presuppose indifference to the particularity of labor.  The conditions for
capitalist production do.  Labor as pure subjectivity, as the use value of
capital, labor indifferent to form, presupposes production for exchange
value, not for use.

A key here is a footnote found in the Nicolaus edition of the Grundrisse at
360: the quote is from Hegel:  matter is that which is indifferent to form.
It's just the quote that's important, not the analysis it footnotes.  That
point, of course, Hegel took from Aristotle.  For Aristotle, matter was
indifferent to form and, as such, pure potentiality.  If we try that on
labor we get abstract labor in the first sense -- the kind of labor that is
the substratum of human production and common to every historical period.
Labor accessible not empirically, but only "in account," because you never
get actual labor without form.  Marx's contribution, of course, is to insist
on the forms of social labor and the epochs of human history are
characterized by ways of joining the different social forms of labor with
labor abstract in this most rudimentary sense.  The commodity form is one
form; the capital form is another.  Notice incidentally that while the
commodity form gives you equal and homogeneous labor, generating ideas of
equality, that is not the case with labor as the use value of capital.
Unless these things are kept distinct, analysis of the base will lead to a
muddle when it comes to understanding the superstructure.

Finally, as the Grundrisse Introduction makes clear, it isn't possible to
think of understanding any of this until the category of labor's pure
subjectivity has been developed by modern economic relations.

So, yes, slaves embodied abstract labor in the same way money or other
commodities did -- by the social substance formed of the union of labor
indifferent to form and the social form of the commodity.

A point on working backwards from exchange which Costas raised in the post
below.  It is exchange that renders commodity producing labor commensurable,
but that does not establish the priority of exchange.  In some of the value
form literature there is a tendency to make the error of collapsing powers
to their exercise or, what amounts to the same thing here, reducing real
possibilitiy to abstract possibility (the way Hume did).  It's logically
possible a banana will grow out of the prime minister's ear -- that's
abstract possibility.  Where there is surplus production not needed by an
independent producer for individual reproduction, that production can be
taken to market -- that's real possibliity.  It may not be, but to the
extent the division of labor develops and spreads you generate dependencies
and the real possibility of exchange.  Value has its source in those
production relations, not exchange, though without exchange it will not be


---- Original Message ----- 
From: "Costas Lapavitsas" <Cl5@SOAS.AC.UK>
Sent: Sunday, June 06, 2004 8:14 AM
Subject: Re: [OPE-L] Money, mind and the ontological status of value

Howard marshals a long array of quotes mostly from the Contribution and the
Grundrisse and states that "It passes understanding to imagine how anyone
can review these materials and not suppose Marx is talking about commodity
exchange across history". Howard is also interested to know how the view
took hold that abstract labour rests on capitalist relations of production,
and if there is another strand to this but the new Hegelianism.

It is possible to engage in textual analysis of the quotes that Howard
presents and argue plausibly that several refer to exchange value, not
abstract labour. It could equally be argued that their meaning is not nearly
as indisputable as he suggests. But I won't do that because I actually agree
with Howard that Marx could indeed be read the way he suggests. It cannot be
an accident that Marxists have debated the historical problem of value, or
even simple commodity production, for as long as we have.

What I can easily do, however, is point to the source of the view that
abstract labour (value) is bound up with capitalist production: Marx
himself. Marx's developed analysis of abstract labour is found in the first
chapter of Capital, from which, I note, Howard quotes much less. The opening
paragraph of this chapter, thus of Capital, is, as we all know:

The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails
appears as an "immense collection of commodities"; the individual commodity
appears as its elementary form. Our investigation therefore begins with the

This seems to me a pretty clear and powerful statement of the dialectic.
Marx starts with the capitalist mode of production, abstracts down to an
appropriate elementary component and, through analysis, aims gradually to
construct the capitalist mode of production in thought. The choice of
elementary component, incidentally, is not predetermined. Marx chose to
start from the commodity and this starting point must be justified by the
rest of his analysis. He could, for instance, have started with "value",
which is broadly what Ricardo does, or the "market", which is what
neoclassical theory does. Both of these starting points would have been
ideally abstract, and consequently problematic.

It is entirely legitimate to think, therefore, that Marx's discussion of the
process of exchange in Capital refers to capitalist exchange, and not to
exchange across history. Moreover, bearing in mind the 'man - ape' analogy
that Marx himself used for the historical aspect of the dialectic, his ample
references to exchange in history could be seen as demonstration of how the
template of capitalist exchange can provide insights into 'earlier' forms of
exchange and 'simpler' expressions of value. Marx's historical references
are not necessarily a demonstration of the trans-historical aspect of value,
as Howard suggests.

Nor is there any great mystery regarding the recent origins of the view that
abstract labour is bound up with capitalist production relations. It is, for
instance, one of the strongest results of British political economy from the
1970s onward, partly inspired by the need to oppose Sraffianism and its
ahistorical understanding of labour time. There have been several important
contributors to these debates, often associated with the Conference of
Socialist Economists - Pilling, Fine, Kay, Mohun, Weeks and many others
whose names escape me right now.

In a different but related way, the Uno school in Japan has developed an
even broader and more elaborate analysis of the link between abstract labour
and capitalist production as well as the implications for the form of value.
The Uno school, unlike British theorists, also conveys in deflected form the
debates of the great German and Austrian Marxists of the beginning of
twnetieth century.

To go back to the beginning, though, I am still struck by our focus on the
consistency of Marx's views rather than on the problem itself. The real
question for me is, do we gain a better understanding of value in
contemporary capitalism by interpreting abstract labour trans-historically
and working backwards from exchange, as Howard seems to suggest? I don't
think that we do because abstract labour as social substance appears then as
assertion. For abstract labour to have social content, there must be
appropriate social processes (especially wage labour) which are in turn
summarily captured by the concept of abstract labour. This, I think, is a
vital advantage of connecting abstract labour to capitalist production. By
the same token, in non-capitalist modes of production, abstract labour is
either absent or undeveloped. I discuss some of these ideas in my Social
Foundations of Markets, Money and Credit, Routledge, 2003.


-----Original Message-----
From: Howard Engelskirchen <howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM>
Date: Sun, 6 Jun 2004 03:52:34 -0400
Subject: Re: Money, mind and the ontological status of value

In a post just sent I presented a bunch of quotes showing that Marx's
analysis of commodities and value does not require the buying nd selling of
albor power or the capitalist mode of production or the dominance of the
circuit M-C-M.

Here are some points of clarity:

1.  The dispute is not about the existence of a simple mode of production.
I agree with the critique of that notion.  Value does not take over
production except as capitalist production.  But we don’t have to throw out
the baby with the bathwater.  Accepting that there is no linear historical
progression from simple commodity production to capitalist production, what
is at issue is whether the social relation of value could have existed in
pre-capitalist social formations as a subordinate social form.

2.  Commodities existed in pre-capitalist societies, but wealth in those
societies could never have been characterized as “an immense accumulation of

3.   In Capital, the Contribution, the Grundrisse, etc. Marx mixes
theoretical analysis of value, exchange value, commodities and money with
illustrations from the ancient and medieval worlds and from pre-capitalist
formations on other continents.  He never says – ‘but I don’t really mean
‘value’ here because I’m talking about ancient Rome.’

5.  Exchange value is a form of the manifestation of value.  Therefore,
references to exchange value presuppose the existence of value.   Money is
exchange value with independent existence.  Therefore, the existence of
money presupposes the existence of value.  Marx never suggests the nature of
money as money is different in pre-capitalist economic formations.

Undoubtedly I’ve missed a lot, but it doesn’t seem like the evidence of what
Marx’s understanding was on the existence of exchange value before bourgeois
production is even a close call.  This comes through particularly in the
Grundrisse chapter on Money where he is engaged in working out his ideas.


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