Re: [OPE] debates on whether value existed in pre-capitalist society

From: howard engelskirchen <>
Date: Fri Sep 03 2010 - 12:43:28 EDT

Hi Dave,

If I understand, I think I agree with your second point. Marx does recognize that the abstraction 'production in general' has a usefulness -- it picks out broadly what it is you are dealing with and in that sense delineates or demarcates a subject matter. In other words, any production is an appropriation of nature by labor -- homo sapiens are always and necessarily engaged in the causal relationship of appropriating nature by labor. You then look for and compare historically specific forms of this. Compare 'law in general'. Ignoring for the moment the distinctions we would want to make between law, politics, etc., law is always the appropriation of behavior by force or the threat of force, so that also fixes a subject matter; it sketches the domain of a science. You then look for historically specific forms of the appropriation of behavior by force. BTW, has energy in general a more or less widely understood definition comparable to the definition of production in general as the appropriation of nature by labor? What are the distinctive features all forms of energy share?

On your first point, though, I don't understand. I understand the mechanism that equalizes labor and renders it homogeneous when independent producers produce for private exchange. What are the comparable mechanisms you are suggesting by your examples. None come to mind for me. And what does "and managed in the abstract by some process" mean?

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Dave Zachariah
  To: Outline on Political Economy mailing list
  Sent: Friday, September 03, 2010 4:38 AM
  Subject: Re: [OPE] debates on whether value existed in pre-capitalist society

  I feel Jerry's brief, axiomatic replies block any further probing into this question, so let me move on to what Howard wrote.

    I have a problem with Dave Z's formulation that the abstraction of labor can
    occur outside the relations of production for market exchange. The problem
    here is that there is latent a fallacy of equivocation: we use a word in two
    different senses. When you ask if the abstraction of labor can occur
    outside the relations of exchange, the answer is yes, but the use of
    abstraction here is conceptual; it doesn't pick out anything historically or
    socially specific.

  The question is whether abstraction processes can occur in other social relations, i.e. whether some part of the population enters into relations in which their individual labour is 'equalized' and managed in the abstract by some process.

  I have suggested one historically-specific context, the construction of large-scale public works in ancient societies. One may also consider the Soviet-type mode of production. Jurriaan has given some further points about non-capitalist conditions where such processes could arise.

  Let me emphasize that I have not claimed that the abstraction of labour is a historically invariant property of all human societies. Rather I'm suggesting that such processes have existed in different historically specific forms of which the capitalist form is just one.

    You refer simply to the
    generality of using labor to appropriate nature to need. But as Marx says,
    there is no production in general and there is no labor in general either.
    But then if we use the term 'abstract labor' we do refer to a historically
    and socially specific configuration of social relations. We refer to a
    quite concrete social structure of labor.

  If Marx meant the literally he was simply wrong. It may be true that 'production in general' or 'labour in general' could not be conceptualized before capitalism, although Ibn Khaldun would suggest otherwise. This is no different from saying out that 'energy (in general)' could not be conceptualized before the advent of the steam engine.

  But it is quite different from saying that "there is no such thing as energy in general". Generality is embodied in the very concept, yet we observe energy in specific forms as kinetic, potential, electrical energy, etc. 'Production' and 'labour' are no different.

  //Dave Z


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