Re: [OPE] Abstract Labor (a note for Dave Zachariah)

From: Dave Zachariah <>
Date: Tue Mar 03 2009 - 17:34:49 EST

Jurriaan Bendien wrote:
> But anyway, I was just reading a text again by Marc van de
> Mieroop, which provides a very good example of the kind of thing I
> have in mind, and I will cite this, just to give you an indication. He
> discusses, referring to Robert Englund's research, how ancient
> Mesopotamia had a very sophisticated accounting system, recorded with
> inscriptions on clay tablets:
> "For example, a balanced account of the labor provided by 37 female
> workers in the year 2034 BC indicates the different activities in
> which they were involved. Milling work took up 5,986 labor-days. The
> time dedicated to this task was calculated on the basis of the amounts
> of their finished products, that is, flour of different qualities. The
> source tablets for the balanced account provided the total amounts of
> the different types of flour milled. The time needed to produce these
> was calculated on the basis of standardized performance expectations.
> The accountant knew, for example, that 860 liters of fine flour had
> been produced during the year. As it was expected that one woman
> milled 20 liters of that type of flour in one day, it was easy to
> calculate that 43 labor days had been involved." (Marc van de Mieroop,
> "Accounting in Early Mesopotamia: some remarks", in Michael Hudson and
> Cornelia Wunsch, Creating Economic Order: Recordkeeping,
> standardization and the development of accounting in the ancient Near
> East". Bethesda: CDL, 2004, p. 56).
> On the basis of their input, output and labor accounting, the Sumerian
> analysts, particularly from the Ur III period, were evidently able to
> estimate, in quantitatively accurate terms, how much labor it took to
> produce a certain quantity of output, and therefore how many workers
> you needed for a given interval of time. They lacked a money
> commodity, in the sense of a universal equivalent for exchanging
> goods, but nevertheless "The concept of value equivalency was a secure
> element in Babylonian accounting by at least the time of the sales
> contracts of the ED IIIa (Fara) period, c. 2600 BC." (Hudson/Wunsch,
> op. cit., p. 38).
> In other words, it was possible in those days to express the value of
> a quantity of product as a quantity of many other types of products,
> or a quantity of labor, according to prevailing norms of exchange
> based on production costs. "This formation and use of grain product
> equivalencies ... must be considered an important step in the
> direction of general value equivalencies best attested for in the Ur
> III period for silver, but then still generally applicable for other
> commodities such as grain or fish, including finally also labor time."
> (p. 38, ibid.).

Thanks a lot for these references Jurriaan. This supports the idea that
"human labour treated in the abstract" goes beyond the specific
operations of markets and capitalism. Perhaps some people, such as
Rubin, would like to call it 'socially equalized labour'.

However, I disagree with your dismissal of the state theory of money. I
think since Innes wrote his paper in 1913 there has been a growing body
of historical research that supports the theory in which it is the state
that establishes the universal equivalent.

//Dave Z

PS. The discussion could be improved by omitting remarks about
"anti-Marxist, pro-Marx" etc. It is a lot more meaningful to present
Jurriaan Bendien's theory of abstract labour and the evidence for it.
Its closeness Marx's
theory is a secondary issue based on textual evidence. The
scientifically interesting issue is the first one.
ope mailing list
Received on Tue Mar 3 17:37:06 2009

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Tue Mar 31 2009 - 00:00:03 EDT