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

From: Costas Lapavitsas (cl5@SOAS.AC.UK)
Date: Tue Jun 22 2004 - 11:05:16 EDT

Dear Howard,

I don't really have much else to add to my previous posts, except perhaps 
three brief points.

1.The example you give of 'funny walking' actually conveys quite clearly 
what I mean by transhistorical and metaphysical. You  are abstracting from 
the particularities of each form of such walking, hoping to arrive at a 
material substratum, a kind of 'funny walking in general'. This, by 
analogy, you also do for labour. I don't think that this is Marx's 
materialist method. Rather, it seems to me that Marx focuses on labour 
under capitalist conditions, extracts the theoretical content of abstract 
labour, and then often uses it to understand other forms historical forms 
of labour. He terminology is not always consistent when he does the last.

2.On exchange value, I did refer to 'mock commodities' rather than 
commodities. But the point remains important: the form of value becomes 
attached to things or processes or even qualities that have nothing to do 
with the substance of value. The form of value is exchange value and, when 
more developed, price.

3.On value, and this is also in reply to Paul C, it seems to me that it is 
vital to claim that value is actually produced, under capitalist 
conditions. Value is more than a statistical centre of gravity for price. 
If value is not produced, then surplus value is also not produced and the 
theory of exploitation goes out of the window. I don't think that this is a 
path that Marxist economics could or should take.


At 11:56 21/06/2004 -0400, you wrote:
>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 
>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 
>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 
>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?

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Wed Jun 23 2004 - 00:00:01 EDT