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

From: Howard Engelskirchen (howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM)
Date: Mon Jun 21 2004 - 11:56:19 EDT

Hi Costas,

Your post is very interesting and raises a couple of fundamental issues.
Let me start with a couple where I hope we can agree.

1.         transhistorical.  How are you using that word?  I offered a
clarification on this before.  Are we in agreement with the clarification or
not?  I suggested that I used the word ‘transhistorical’ to refer to things
common across all history and that therefore I did not consider value
transhistorical even though I did think it was present in many
pre-capitalist economic formations.  We can use the word differently;
nothing turns on this.  Just so we are not misunderstanding one another.
You suggest that I want to establish the reality of value transhistorically.
According to the meaning offered above, I do not.   If you want to use
‘transhistorical’ to refer to something present in more than one historical
period, but not necessarily all, please let me know.

2.         You refer to a “constant elision between what you [Howard] think
and what you think Marx thinks.”  As I explained to Paul Z at the very
beginning of our exchange, I am interested in interpreting Marx.  I am not
offering my own theories of history or economics.  However, the only access
I have to Marx’s thought is through what I think he thinks, and we are all
faced, in evaluating others’ interpretations, with distinguishing what is
authentic from what is illicit.  You seem to be complaining that substantial
parts of my interpretation of what Marx thinks are incorrect, introduce
things not in Marx, etc.   Then this is just error, and I welcome your
corrections.  I will work on being clear.

3.         I think there probably is a metaphysical point on which we
differ – metaphysical in the sense of ontological.  Did you ever see the
Monty Python sketch about the Ministry of Funny Walking?  Imagine John
Cleese seriously applying himself to the social forms of funny walking.
People have walked throughout history.  When, by means of abstraction, I
refer to the material substratum of that activity without reference to the
diversity of its forms (e.g. I abstract from gender differences in the way
we walk) that doesn’t mean the referent of my reference is not real.  Marx
does that all the time.  In the chapter on the Trinity Formula he complains
that coupling capital with land and labor makes the error of mixing a social
object that is the product of history with material objects that are the
substratum of all history.  Paul Cockshott’s translation of “indifferent to
form” into the positive capacity for redeployment to different social tasks
seems to me very good.  There is no production in general, Marx writes in
the introduction to the Grundrisse, but there are elements common to all
production, and it is not a false abstraction to refer to them as such.

Think of what makes forms of law different from forms of production.  We
confront the same problem of abstracting in “depth” to reach an object not
presented phenomenally the way we want to consider it.  I take it that for
Marx, legal relations are relations of force.  Like social labor, relations
of force never occur in history except in particular social forms, but if I
abstract to the thing of which they are relations – ie I make force rather
than say labor the object of my study -- that doesn’t mean that I refer to
something that isn’t real.

4.         I understand your point about exchange value not being produced.
Exchange value is a form of manifestation, so to justify the use of
‘produced’ I think we’d have to get into a causal theory of reference, and
this was not your meaning or mine (just now).

But in your response on the point you seem to treat anything in the market
with a price as exchange value.  Is that so?  Virgin land, honor, etc., all
have exchange value if they are offered for sale at a price.  Is that your
meaning?  Doesn’t Marx distinguish between price as the money name for a
weight of gold and exchange value?  In other words, once exchange is
established, gold can be exchanged for things without value or exchange
value, say, a promise, which clearly does not embody objectified labor.  But
these things will have a price.

Perhaps others on the list might have an idea how we would evaluate recovery
for “pain and suffering” or “emotional distress” in a lawsuit?  Do these
things have value? Or exchange value? Are they forms of social labor to
which large skill multipliers are attached?  My instinct has been to treat
them like ‘honor’ and to say they have a price but not value. Does that seem

5.         I’ll take up the point about abstract labor in a separate post.



----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Costas Lapavitsas" <Cl5@SOAS.AC.UK>
Sent: Thursday, June 17, 2004 4:37 PM
Subject: Re: [OPE-L] Money, mind and the ontological status of value and
abstract labor


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

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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