[OPE] Call for Paers: [MARXISM 21] special issue

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@telfort.nl>
Date: Thu Sep 09 2010 - 04:43:30 EDT

I consider there are two main problems:

1) Many Marxists believed there was only one kind of exploitation: the
performance of surplus labour for others without compensation. In the real
world, as any non-Marxist knows, there are many different ways of
exploitation and therefore the Marxists with their point-of-production
theory of exploitation seem hopelessly naive. I have mentioned this several
times on OPE-L, for example in the "exploitation and consumption" thread in
June 2007 (at one time I attempted a taxonomy of forms of exploitation on
OPE-L but seem to have lost the archive reference).

2) Exploitation, insofar as it is not merely a synonym for the utilization
of a resource, is an irreducibly moral concept, and therefore it refers
directly to the form taken by the rule of law. Yet Marxian legal theory is
one of the least advanced areas of Marxian scholarship, though some
outstanding work was done by Franz Leopold Neumann (I am not so keen on
Pashukanis - it sounds sexy but his theory is full of errors).

Ancillary to this, there is a third problem:

3) an idea such as "the performance of surplus labour for others without
compensation" is itself a highly abstract notion, and when we unpack this
notion, it turns out that it permits of all kinds of modalities and
variations. BTW Marx indicates this explicitly:

"The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of
direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it
grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a
determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of
the economic community which grows up out of the production relations
themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always
the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the
direct producers - a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite
stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social
productivity - which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the
entire social structure and with it the political form of the relation of
sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the
state. This does not prevent the same economic basis - the same from the
standpoint of its main conditions - due to innumerable different empirical
circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical
influences, etc. from showing infinite variations and gradations in
appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically
given circumstances." (Cap. Vol. 3)

It is a meaningless, vulgar Althusserian non sequitur to say that "surplus
product" is "at a higher level of abstraction" than surplus value, because
it depends just on your point of view and purpose. For example, I could
argue from a social accounting point of view that surplus product is a more
concrete, specific empirical category than surplus value, since the surplus
product refers to the actual total surplus production of a society, of which
surplus value is only an abstracted component (surpluses of various kinds
and originating from various sources occur simultaneously). It just depends
on the purpose of the analysis and on the vantage point taken. "Levels of
abstraction" are of course very handy here for the wily academic, because if
somebody objects to a definition, one can always say one meant a "different
level of abstraction", and in this way the argument can always be rescued
from refutation by eliding to a different meaning. But it's a profoundly
unscientific and scurrilous modus operandi, which becomes apparent when we
really do have to act practically, using the definition.

Bureaucrats like tidy, cut-and-dried hierarchies of concepts and categories
for administrative purposes, even if they are preceded by a moment of
"brainstorming", but as someone who worked professionally on the design of
official standard statistical classifications (really the pinnacle of
administration) I can tell you now that in categorizing an object for the
purpose of quantitative measurements, the object can be "carved up" in
innumerable different ways depending on point of view, the purpose of
analysis, the uses to which the data are put, and technical constraints.

Therefore I can only smile at the childish fantasy that one category is
necessarily and intrinsically "more abstract" or "less abstract" than
another, independently from the referent theoretical context, and
independently from a specification of what exactly we are abstracting from.
People who say such things in my opinion do not understand their own
thinking processes (ideological consciousness) or suffer from turgid
dogmatism/doctrinairism; we begin to think only when we do not fetishize the
concept, but seek to understand the real object to which it refers. The
poisonous legacy of Althusserian theoreticism is very evident there.

Just recently I was inquiring into the epistemology of masks. Masks can be
considered a very specific, concrete notion; somebody hires a Halloween mask
at a costume store for example, or looks at an African mask in a museum etc.
But masks can also be an extraordinarily abstract notion, and indeed when we
can observe a mask armed with deep knowledge of its significance and the
context of its uses, the mask is no longer "just a mask" as it is for the
superficial observer. It is understood to symbolize abstractly a whole world
of meaning, which you would never know about, unless you had delved into the
subject. That really gets to the nub of the issue - one does not really know
the full meaning of a concept, until the concept has to be put to real use,
and until its use has real consequences.


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Received on Thu Sep 9 04:45:15 2010

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