[OPE-L] exploitation and abstraction

From: Michael Schauerte (mikeschauerte@GMAIL.COM)
Date: Tue Jun 26 2007 - 20:56:25 EDT

Hi Jurriaan,

Sorry to drag out the debate with one more post, but I just wanted to say
that I agree that the goal is to understand empircal reality, but I think
that the only way we can do that is to use abstraction, which simply means
setting aside certain elements not directly related to a given problem so
that the problem can be posed in a pure form. Concrete reality is of course
complex, and if we try to understand everything at the same time, we will
only be able to describe phenemena, which is basically just repeating what
we already know from our everyday experience. Of course, if we arrive at an
essential concept through analylsis ("power of abstraction"), such as the
concept of surplus-value, and then seek to apply that concept directly to
reality, that would be a mechanical approach which Marx called "formal
abstraction" and this is precisely what Ricardo tried to do by applying the
concept of value to *directly* account for prices. So I would agree that it
is a big problem to try "to apply abstract categories directly to empirical
reality, without studying the empirical data" but I would say that this is
not a sin of Marx (although no doubt a mistake of many "Marxists").

I've got this topic of abstraction on the brain because I'm writing the
introduction to my translation of Kuruma's "Theory of the Value-form and
Theory of the Exchange Process" and am trying to explain his (and Marx's)
understanding of abstraction versus that of Kozo Uno. I'm borrowing a
comparison that I came across in a book by Teinosuke Otani about the
similiarty between the process of abstraction and how one needs to take
apart a clock in order to grasp what makes it tick. That is, if we only
observe the outside of the watch, we will know that it tells time, that the
second hand moves around, etc., but we will not understand its precise
mechanism. So we need to take it apart, but merely taking it apart is
something a child might do and not come any closer to understanding it or
being able to put those pieces back together. So as we take the pieces
apart, we examine each one and how it fits together with other parts. When
we do this, we are obviously setting aside the other parts, which is
precisely what we do in the act of abstraction as well. We set aside
use-value, for instance, to examine value. When Marx is criticized for
making assumptions that go against reality, because he is only analyzing
certain aspects of it at a given time, it is like taking the watch examiner
to task for not examining all of the parts *at the same time*. The watch
examiner is hardly "detached from reality" in examining those individual
parts. In fact, without doing this, the person will never come to an
understanding of the totality of the watch, its concrete reality.

I'm rambling a bit, but my point is that in the study of society as well, we
start from concrete reality, but in order to understand it we need to take
it apart, and examine its elements. And then we have to work our way from
those elements back up to the concrete reality. Each of Marx's starting
points is one of the familiar forms of capitalism (price, profit, money,
commodity), but if he tries to account for everthing at once, without taking
these forms apart, then he would tell us what we already know, and we would
not arrive at the essence of those forms. But if we only arrive at the
essence, and then try to apply it to explain phenomenal reality, like
Ricardo, we will soon become entangled in contradiction after contradiction.
That would be like the child who cannot put that watch back together. So the
transformation of value into surplus-value, for example, is an attempt to
fill in the mediating points between the essential level of understanding
and concrete reality. In criticizing Marx, we at least need to understand
why he adopted this approach of breaking down concrete reality and then
working his way back towards concrete reality on the basis of the
fundamental concepts uncovered. I don't see any other way to arrive at a
deeper understanding of reality. And so when we analyze the phenomenon of
profit, we need to uncover its essence (surplus-value) and then undertake
the difficult task of understanding the relation between  essence and the
concrete reality we encounter every day. Obviously if the essential theory
cannot account for that reality (after the mediating points are filled in),
then it is of little use.

It does sound scholastic when Marx's method is discussed like this without
referring to a concrete example, but I think it may be worth bearing in mind
this basic role of abstraction  in relation to the question of how we should
understand exploitation or the phenomenon of profit.

I hope that I will be able to explain this in a much clearer way in my


The big problem with Marxism is, typically, that it tries

> The production of a surplus product need not imply exploitation
> necessarily. An independent producer can produce a surplus product, without
> necessarily exploiting anybody.
> Marx argues the general social precondition for capitalist private profits
> in bourgeois society is the existence and performance of surplus-labour
> (Mehrarbeit), the product of which can be appropriated in virtue of
> ownership title to capital assets. But that is not to say that profits
> cannot also arise in numerous other ways (I don't even pretend to know all
> of the different ways).
> The big problem with Marxism is, typically, that it tries to apply
> abstract categories directly to empirical reality, without studying the
> empirical data. The grandiose theoretical claims are many, the research
> pitiful in comparison. In reality, there is no neat-and-tidy accounting sum
> according to which total surplus value equals total profits, since surplus
> values are generated without translating into profits, and profits are
> realised without any relation to new surplus values produced. Anybody who
> understands anything about national accounts or economics knows this. And
> therefore the "transformation problem" has always seemed a trifle scholastic
> to me.
> Bourgeois economics extols the benefits of trade. Obviously, people don't
> trade unless they gain something from it (unless they are forced to trade,
> on unfavourable terms), but the gains might be very unequally and
> unfairly distributed, and therefore you can be exploited in trade.
> Labour-power can also sell above or below its value. All Marx then says is,
> whether the worker's wage be high or low, he's still exploited anyhow. Fine
> and good, but short of the red revolution, the worker aims to get a wage
> that at least reflects the value of his labour-power.
> To take a personal example: after a bout of depression, I took on a job
> that 150 or so other workers wanted, and I accepted pay scale 6. I wanted to
> work, rather than be on the dole, that's how I was brought up. But in terms
> of the work I really end up doing, I should be at least in pay scale 7,
> because that's the norm for that sort of work. Marx can say: whether you are
> in pay scale 6 or 7, it's wage slavery anyway, which is a valid point of
> view, but it is not a lot of use to me, insofar as I, as a worker, think I
> ought at least to be paid for the work I do. And there is an issue to
> resolve there. I think my union would agree with me on that point, we'll see
> (the fine points of the law are something else again).
> As regards workers exploiting workers, consider this "hypothetical case":
> an immigrant worker without a residence permit and a work permit, takes on
> work under a false name (a friend of his), and his wage gets deposited in
> his friend's account. For this "service" his friend (also a worker) keeps
> 40-60% of the earnings for himself, and pays out 40-60% of the earnings to
> the immigrant. The immigrant has no leg to stand on, since he's illegal as
> it is. His employer accepts his work, and says he's doing a good job, his
> "friend" takes part of the money, but basically he stays where he is,
> because he hasn't got much in the way of other options, and doesn't earn
> enough to get himself out of this trap. The bourgeois press of course loves
> this kind of story, because it shows workers exploiting workers. Real point
> is that you could be working like this for years, and nobody gives a damn
> except about the money, and you cannot even earn your work permit in this
> way.
> I have read plenty philosophical discourses about exploitation, but the
> reality of it is something else again, and you have to keep your wits about
> you, because you can get screwed in a jiffy.
> Jurriaan
> PS- I wrote a few wiki reference articles on the topic here:
> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surplus_value
> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surplus_product
> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surplus_labour
> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_accumulation
> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reserve_army_of_labour
> You are of course welcome to improve them.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Sat Jun 30 2007 - 00:00:04 EDT