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

From: Costas Lapavitsas (Cl5@SOAS.AC.UK)
Date: Thu Jun 17 2004 - 16:37:16 EDT


To avoid shadow boxing let me state what agree on. I have no disagreement with value (abstract labour) being a real social substance, as well as object of theoretical analysis. Nor do I have any difficulties with value and capital being distinct social 'objects'. My bone is with your attempt to establish the 'reality' of value transhistorically. 

I noted a logical contradiction in your use of 'labour indifferent to form'. Your clarification is not persuasive. You agree that capitalist production makes labour 'indifferent to form' but then attempt to generalise this across history and establish it as common feature of all labour. It is difficult to know exactly what your argument is because there is constant elision between what you think and what you think Marx thinks, which Paul has also noted. 

From what I can gather, the approach you adopt is a kind of metaphysics. You state that there is 'labour indifferent to form', which then takes a variety of social forms across history. This is hardly compatible with your own insistence on the 'reality' of the concept of abstract labour. If it is 'real', it must have been made so by social processes, as happens under capitalist conditions. If it arises purely because the thinker has abstracted from the particularities of many social forms of labour, it is not real. On the contrary, it is transcendental and metaphysical. 

But you contradict yourself further in your attempt to clarify. In attempting to show that abstract labour can exist without the form of wage labour you argue that "Any production that is production for exchange value is labor indifferent to form. This is where I was unclear." However, in your original message you argued that "Labor abstract in the sense that it is indifferent to the utility of the product which it produces, commodity producing labour, equal and homogeneous labour, is not at all necessarily indifferent to the form of labour - Marx gives the example of guilds and crafts which remained immersed in the particularity of labour". It seems to me that you can't have both arguments. I suggest that the latter is correct, but this makes your clarifying argument logically problematic.  

Incidentally, in your last message you state that exchange value is produced. This is clearly incorrect. Exchange value is an aspect of commodities, an exchange property, and belongs to them whether they have been produced (for instance, cars), not produced (for instance, land or financial assets), or even if they are mock-commodities (for instance, a favour, a bribe). What is produced is value (abstract labour) and only under capitalist conditions.

To return to the point at issue, though, I have full sympathy with the attempt to show that value is a real social substance. The point is that this must necessarily be shown by elaborating the social conditions under which labour takes place. These are capitalist conditions. Otherwise abstract labour would simply be an ideal abstraction, which, incidentally, neoclassicals could fairly easily shoot down. Establishing abstract labour under capitalist conditions does not stop it from giving us insight into non-capitalist forms of labour or commodities in non-capitalist modes of production. But that is not the same as seeking a transhistorical definition of abstract labour. Slaves, to conclude, most definitely do not represent crystallisations of abstract labour.


-----Original Message-----
From: Howard Engelskirchen <howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM>
Date: Thu, 17 Jun 2004 03:52:50 -0400
Subject: Re: Money, mind and the ontological status of value and abstract labor

Hi Costas,

Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

I do not mean to say that wage labor goes into the making of a slave in the ancient world.

The problem is interpreting 'indifference to form.'  I think I was not as clear as I could have been.  There are different ways of understanding "indifference to form."  The significant thing about capitalist conditions is that they strip labor to pure subjectivity, labor is denuded of all objectivity, and as a result it becomes possible to think of labor as "indifferent to form."  But because something becomes thinkable under capitalist conditions does not mean that historically it only existed under capitalist conditions.  This is the 'man is the key to the anatomy of the ape' problem again.  We may recognize something in the ape because of and once we have recognized it in a man.  

So can we identify 'indifference of form' independent of capitalist conditions now that we are alerted to the significance of the concept?

Think of Aristotle's  idea, taken over by Hegel, that "all matter is indifferent to form."  Find an example of that.  You can't, because any matter that actually exists is "en-formed."  Nonetheless, in order to get clear on the significance of form we can start with a conception of matter that abstracts from form.  This is the substratum that is then formed.

My understanding is that Marx treats the activity of labor in this fashion.  He considers all labor throughout history, labor transhistorically, as indifferent to form, and then traces the evolution of social production in terms of the different social forms taken by labor.   He is able to focus attention on distinct forms of social labor by abstracting from the labor to which it gives form.  What he abstracts from, something accessible only conceptually, is un-en-formed labor, labor indifferent to form.

One of the social forms of enforming labor that occurs historically is exchange.  Exchange can attach to different dominant modes of production.  It does not itself become the dominant form of a mode of production except as generalized commodity production, that is, where labor power is bought and sold as a commodity.  But there can be the production of exchange value without the buying and selling of labor power as a commodity, that is, without wage labor.  

Any production that is production for exchange value is labor actually indifferent to form.  This is where I was unclear.  But there are still two such social forms.  In the one case the indifference of labor to form is caused by exchange itself; it is exchange which renders labor commensurable.  If I produce on my own small plot use values for the subsistence of my family, but then have a surplus which I take to market, then to the extent of the surplus I am indifferent to the particularity of the labor whose product I offer to sell.  It exists for me only as a means to money -- I am indifferent to my own labor and look upon it only as a means to a claim on someone else's labor.  In exchange the labor I used equated with all other labor in the market.  Nothing depends on whether anyone produced anything by means of wage labor.

Capital is different.  the indifference of labor to form in the case of capital is not generated by exchange but by the fact that labor is denuded of all objectivity.  

So that's the difference I'm shooting for.  Chances are more clarification would help, but that's a start.  Perhaps the following is a barrier to interpreting what I've argued -- do you view value and capital as distinct social objects?  I do.  I think often there is a tendency to view value as just capital that is not quite ripe yet -- sort of like a green apple -- a necessary analytical stage in order to present the concept of capital clearly, but not a distinct social relation.


----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Costas Lapavitsas" <Cl5@SOAS.AC.UK>
Sent: Wednesday, June 16, 2004 3:17 PM
Subject: Re: [OPE-L] Money, mind and the ontological status of value and abstract labor

I cannot respond to Howard's message for a couple of days. But before replying, I would like some clarification. I have isolated two paragraphs, which seem to me important:

"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."


"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."

I read the first as saying that only labour undertaken under capitalist conditions (wage labour?) is indifferent to form.
I read the second as saying that slaves embodied abstract labour as social substance formed by the union of labour indifferent to form and the social form of the commodity.

Is there something wrong with my reading, or are you suggesting that there was (is?) some sort of capitalist labour going into making someone a slave?


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