RE: [OPE] Abstract Labor and value-form theory

From: Reuten <>
Date: Thu Mar 05 2009 - 10:07:57 EST

This is a brief note on Jurriaan Bendien on "abstract labour" and value-form
theory (at the risk of entering a discussion for which I will have no time
to continue it).

In using phrases like "pseudo" and "anti" Marx the author seems to presume
that he has a privileged knowledge of Marx's texts. What is the ground of
this privileged knowledge? The author writes: "Value form theories, being
anti-historical and anti-Marx, simply ignored the whole pre-capitalist
history of labor accounting." Here is some of my interpretation of Marx. In
his "Capital" at least, Marx aims to set out the capitalist form of
producing wealth and the capitalist form of calculation, measuring etc.
(distinct from what modes of production might have in common). The phrase
"value-form" emphasises this. Marx takes for granted that useful goods are
produced by labour ("every child knows this" he wrote). One of the specific
characteristics of capitalism is that is does NOT adopt measures like the
one quoted in the Mesopotamia piece (nor does it adopt the kinds of measures
that we might perhaps believe to be useful in a socialist society).
Therefore this reference to Mesopotamia is a-historical vis-a-vis


The term value-form is of course Marx's. The term "abstract labour" is also
Marx's (Capital I, Chapter 1). In the context of Marx's value-form theory it
is however most relevant that when he has properly introduced money in
Chapter 3, he drops the term "abstract labour". I have argued elsewhere that
this is because in Chapter 1 (prior to the proper introduction of money)
"abstract labour" is a placeholder (fore-shadow) of money as introduced in
Chapter 3 - so it can indeed be dropped after Chapter 3. (See my "Money as
Constituent of Value: the ideal introversive substance and

the ideal extroversive form of value in Marx's Capital" (2005)
<> )


Next, when we consider Marx's views about value within the capitalist
system, I have the impression that accounts like that of Bendien suffer from
Ricardo's confusion between source and measure of value (i.e. the confusion
of identifying these). Value here refers to the capitalist form of value. I
argued about this in a 1999 paper in "Rivista di Politica Economia"
( ).


Note that Bendien's last paragraph (on the building of apartments) is not at
all about "abstract labour" but rather on concrete labour. And of course
much of the labour process is managed in terms of (the many-fold diversity
of) concrete labour. If this last point is the point Bendien wishes to make,
he is stating - as far as I am concerned - the obvious. Much of the process
is managed in term of concrete labour. However, this is not to say that the
capitalist measurement and accounting runs in terms of this concrete labour.
In this respect Bendien's empirical observations of what happens across the
road of where he lives is unfortunately rather restricted.


Geert Reuten


Van: Jurriaan Bendien []
Verzonden: dinsdag 3 maart 2009 21:34
Aan: Outline on Political Economy mailing list
Onderwerp: [OPE] Abstract Labor (a note for Dave Zachariah)


In previous mails I explained how the Marxist forgers with their "value form
theories" mystified the historical process by which social labor is
transformed into value-quantities, and how they falsified Marx's concept of
abstract labor. I also explained that the category of abstract labor in
reality has a very long history, which, as archaeologists and
anthropologists know, began thousands of years ago, even if this was not
philosophically recognized by social theorists at the time. Dave Z. then
asked me if I could provide references, but I didn't cite them. I am
gathering a lot of those together for a future anti-Marxist, pro-Marx
article on abstract labor.


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.).


I think we begin to make scientific progress on this question, when we
reject both the fake "value-form theories" of the pseudo-Marxist
philosophes, as well as the PostKeynesian "state theories of money", on the
ground that they do not correspond to real history. Value form theories,
being anti-historical and anti-Marx, simply ignored the whole pre-capitalist
history of labor accounting. PostKeynesian theories ignore that value
equivalents were already being used as money commodities, long before the
state started to issue coinage and promissory notes.


Why should anybody believe crackpot theories about human labour, when even
just one day of focused library research provides evidence that
scientifically demolishes them?


Right now, across the road where I live, the housing corporation is building
a new block of apartments. The building workforce has a pretty good idea
about "abstract labour", namely, they have industry norms which enable them
to calculate that you need X number of workers and Y amount of worktime, to
complete different phases of the project within a certain interval of time.
If they didn't have some basic yardsticks like that, they would be unable to
plan anything, even if contingently the work occurs a bit faster or slower.
That is part of the economic or physical basis necessary for a further
evaluation of what the project is "worth" in price terms.



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Received on Thu Mar 5 10:34:00 2009

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