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

From: Howard Engelskirchen (howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM)
Date: Mon Jun 21 2004 - 12:11:13 EDT

Hi Costas,

This post replies to your comments on abstract labor and value in the
ancient world on June 17.  Sorry for the delay in response.  An accompanying
post covers other points.

5.         In point 4 of the accompanying post I argued that the concepts of
‘labor’ or ‘labor activity’ could refer to the material substratum that
characterizes any process of production and I referenced the Trinty Formula
Chapter.  The point there was to argue that the reference is not to an ideal
abstraction, but to a real object.

The material substratum that is a real object will be a bearer of social
form.  What I’m trying to argue is that there are two distinct social
forms – the commodity form and capital.   The sort of thing I’m trying to
give an account of is the following excerpt from the chapter in Book III on
Historical Facts About Merchant’s Capital:

“No matter what the basis on which the products are produced, which are
thrown into circulation as commodities – whether the basis of the primitive
community, of slave production, of small peasant and petty bourgeois, or the
capitalist basis – the character of products as commodities is not altered,
and as commodities they must pass through the process of exchange and its
attendant changes of form.”

Commodities must “pass through” C-M-C which can also become M-C-M.  I looked
back to Book I to see when those letters were first introduced.  I looked
quickly, but if I am not mistaken it’s in the chapter on Money.  C
symbolizes the commodity as a unity of use value and value and M the money
commodity, also embodying value.  Wouldn’t it have been peculiar for Marx to
use those letters in the Chapter on precapitalist forms of merchant capital
to symbolize indifferently the extremes the commodity must go through
whether precapitalist or capitalist and not to have warned us that in the
one instance the reference was to value, but not in the other?  If there was
such a significant difference in reference, wouldn’t he have been obligated
to use a different symbol?  And what does capital mean in the ancient world
anyway?  This was definitely capital without wage labor.  Was it therefore
capital without abstract labor and without value?

The person in the ancient world who exchanged a commodity for money had a
claim on any form of manifestation of human labor in general.  As an
objectified embodiment of society’s aggregate labor brought to market, the
commodity represented social labor and was equalized and homogenized through
the confrontation with other products in exchange.    The labor objectified
in them could be homogeneous because each just represented a portion of
total social labor brought to market.  Across exchange no one thinks of the
particularity of the labor but only of the quantitative amount of claim that
can be made on any kind of labor present in the market whatsoever.  This is
true whether the product is produced by capital or otherwise.  The
indifference is to the form of objectified labor.  Would you argue that when
I go to the market and choose between two piles of tomatoes, one produced by
a family farm, the other by an agricultural corporation, that one tomato has
value, the other doesn’t?  Labor as the use value of capital is different.
It is rendered abstract by being reduced to pure subjectivity; this is an
indifference to the form of living labor itself.  The discussion of abstract
labor in Chapter 1 does not go beyond the homogeneity of objectified labor
embodied in a commodity.


----- 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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