Abstract labor vs. concrete labor?

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LBird
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Apr 8 2011 17:57
Khawaga wrote:
You could measure concrete labour. After all, you could just count the number of shoes you've produced, how many feet of yarn spun, how many potatoes plucked etc. But the issue is that since these are qualitatively different use-values you can't easily compare them; they're not commensurable.

Yeah, I think I was groping towards this 'commensurability' with my 'measure by comparison', though you've captured the concept more elegantly:

LBird wrote:
am right in saying that to try to measure 'individual concrete labour' is not possible, that it can't be evaluated? This is because measurement requires a comparison...

But, at the moment, something else that you've said (and ocelot) has sidetracked me.

Khawaga wrote:
The political significance of the category of value and the commodity is that as communists we want to get rid of them. It is value and the commodity form that enslaves the working class.

Unfortunately, this then takes me back to my real initial problem with the issue of learning about 'value': why bother to learn about it, if it is to be of no use in a future Communist society?

From this perspective, 'value' might as well be 'grace': it's all bollocks, and neither will play any part in a society liberated from capitalism or catholicism.

Do you see my point, and problem? One could be a good Communist revolutionary and want to play an active part in the overthrow of the system and help build Workers' Councils without ever having struggled to understand 'value' (or,indeed, 'grace').

Unless I can overcome this objection, why would I want to understand the various 'values' and 'labours'?

Once more, this is a genuine question. To me, unless it is of some use in the future in explaining things to fellow workers and to help build a Communist sytem, there is no point to the effort to understand (other than just as an interest or hobby, like stamp collecting, which is irrelevant to Communism, just for its own sake).

In a nutshell, what's the point?

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Khawaga
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Apr 8 2011 18:46
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From this perspective, 'value' might as well be 'grace': it's all bollocks, and neither will play any part in a society liberated from capitalism or catholicism.

Well, the thing is that it's not bollocks unfortunately. Value becomes real in the form of money (this is another level in Marx's argument), and as such it is power incarnate. And going from value to the commodity form, money, wage-labour etc. helps us realize the faultlines of capitalism and perhaps give guidance as to what is revolutionary politics and what is not (e.g. ethical consumption or the notion that mom n' pop stores are better than walmart etc.).

I completely agree with this:

Quote:
One could be a good Communist revolutionary and want to play an active part in the overthrow of the system and help build Workers' Councils without ever having struggled to understand 'value' (or,indeed, 'grace').

Still, the point is that by having a good analysis of capitalism we will know how to destroy it, and more importantly what NOT to do come communism, e.g. any form of wage, commodities, money etc.

Angelus Novus
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Apr 8 2011 19:55

Khawaga has done a good job of trying to clarify the matter in the most understandable terms possible on this thread.

However, my opinion is anyone new to Marx isn't going to gain much by asking somebody to break down individual concepts from _Capital_ into discrete, hermetic categories.

It's an irritating cliche at this point to refer to Marx's "dialectical method", but it really should be stressed that Marx's categories aren't intended to be grasped in isolation from one another, but rather acquire their full meaning only with reference to the categories introduced later in the account.

So the early chapters of _Capital_ might be frustrating to somebody looking to understand what underlies an individual act of exchange, but the concept of abstract labour really first starts to make the most sense when it's understood as a systemic logic that all producers are forced to adhere to, for example, in the chapter on the working day, or the section on the accumulation of capital. The mechanisms of absolute and relative surplus extraction analyzed by Marx, as well as the stuff on concentration, centralisation, reserve army of the unemployed etc., sort of retroactively "explain" the concepts introduced earlier in the book.

So my advice to anybody who has a hard time getting a full grasp of the categories in the first three chapters is to keep plowing along. Things get fleshed out as the book proceeds. This is a more fruitful approach rather than trying to get an airtight grasp on something in isolation from the very phenomena it is linked to.

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Arbeiten
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Apr 8 2011 20:43

Abstract Labour is the potential for labour, its not labour in action, it can potentially be anything.

Concrete labour is this potential labour being enacted. It is now no longer 'abstract', 'in general' or 'potential' but is instead in action. i,e actually sowing (rather than the potential to sow etc).

thats how I would explain the distinction in the simplest terms....

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Khawaga
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Apr 8 2011 20:49
Angelus wrote:
It's an irritating cliche at this point to refer to Marx's "dialectical method", but it really should be stressed that Marx's categories aren't intended to be grasped in isolation from one another, but rather acquire their full meaning only with reference to the categories introduced later in the account.

Couldn't agree more, particularly with the advice of just plowing on. For too long I kept re-reading the first three chapters to get the "fundamental" concepts down, when in fact, Marx dialectical exposition throughout Capital explained it all for me in the later chapters. As I mentioned earlier, whenever a new level of abstraction is introduced, Marx always reminds the reader of what we (i.e. Marx + the reader) "already know" by a brief summary/re-statement of arguments and concepts from the earlier chapters.

So yeah, LBird, if you want to go on with this I suggest that stuff like contradiction and forms of appearance/value form is next. Not only will that help you in understanding value/use-value, but also exchange value, exchange, money and commodities.

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Apr 8 2011 20:55
Arbeiten wrote:
Abstract Labour is the potential for labour, its not labour in action, it can potentially be anything.

Concrete labour is this potential labour being enacted. It is now no longer 'abstract', 'in general' or 'potential' but is instead in action. i,e actually sowing (rather than the potential to sow etc).

Arbeiten, you're completely confusing abstract labour with labour-power. Labour-power is the potential to (the performance) of labour. And labour-power is simply the potential for any form of labour; you might be a software engineer, but the capitalist might very well have you cleaning the toilets instead. However, abstract labour is the condition for the existence of labour-power as a commodity, which in turn enables the capitalist to extract surplus-labour/value from the labour of the worker (and this labour is both abstract and concrete; the former necessary for the valorization process, the latter for the labour process).

LBird
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Apr 8 2011 22:13
Khawaga wrote:
Value becomes real in the form of money (this is another level in Marx's argument), and as such it is power incarnate. And going from value to the commodity form, money, wage-labour etc. helps us realize the faultlines of capitalism and perhaps give guidance as to what is revolutionary politics and what is not (e.g. ethical consumption or the notion that mom n' pop stores are better than walmart etc.)...Still, the point is that by having a good analysis of capitalism we will know how to destroy it, and more importantly what NOT to do come communism, e.g. any form of wage, commodities, money etc.

Perhaps this is part of my mistake: I'm assuming that understanding Marx's economics is of some use in the future, to allow workers to understand how they would run their own economy. You seem to be saying it is only of use in understanding capitalism today, to help politically analyse the beast as a guide to workers' action now.

I can't say that I'm convinced by this argument: surely political discussion and ideas (and consideration of philosophy and ideology) would be of more use for this purpose? There's no doubting, I'm still confused as to the real worth of the apparently immense efforts required to get to grips with 'value', etc.

Khawaga wrote:
So yeah, LBird, if you want to go on with this I suggest that stuff like contradiction and forms of appearance/value form is next. Not only will that help you in understanding value/use-value, but also exchange value, exchange, money and commodities.

I really appreciate yours and Angelus' efforts to try to explain this to me, but I have tried before to understand the 'economic stuff'. Someone recommended 'Value, Price and Profit', which I bought, but unless you already understand the concepts being used, how do you get any intellectual purchase on that or Capital? It all appears to be meaningless.

Angelus Novus wrote:
So my advice to anybody who has a hard time getting a full grasp of the categories in the first three chapters is to keep plowing along. Things get fleshed out as the book proceeds. This is a more fruitful approach rather than trying to get an airtight grasp on something in isolation from the very phenomena it is linked to.

The problem is, if I don't have 'an airtight grasp' of the basic words, it might as well be written in Martian. How do you keep reading something that has no meaning? Does a 'flash' of inspiration suddenly come down on you from above? Does 'something' suddenly 'click'?

[start edit]
Unless I can use the concepts as I learn them, to explain something I already understand, they remain meaningless words. This is how I would build in more and more complexity, around an initial core of understanding. As it is, I might as well be talking about 'grace' and the power of 'prayer'.
[end edit]

This seems, for me at least, to be an insurmountable problem. I'm not happy about it, not least because of the valiant efforts K & AN have made to explain.

How do others, reading this thread in hope of enlightenment, feel? Has anyone come to grasp anything yet? I suppose I need to know is it just my personal blindspot, or was Bill Shatner, post 12, right?

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Khawaga
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Apr 8 2011 22:17
LBird wrote:
I can't say that I'm convinced by this argument: surely political discussion and ideas (and consideration of philosophy and ideology) would be of more use for this purpose? There's no doubting, I'm still confused as to the real worth of the apparently immense efforts required to get to grips with 'value', etc.

Well, Capital is all about political discussion and consideration of philosophy and ideology. What Marx sets out to do in Capital is reveal that bourgeois economics is nothing but ideologal and has the instrumental use of supporting capitalism so that it appears like there is no other alternative (they do this by simply assuming that the way in which things are now has always happened and will always happen). After all, Capital is supposed to be a weapon in the hands on the working class.

Quote:
Someone recommended 'Value, Price and Profit', which I bought, but unless you already understand the concepts being used, how do you get any intellectual purchase on that or Capital?

Actually, that's a very good recommendation. More or less it's Capital stripped down to its bare bones. Well, "Value, Price and Profit" together with "Capital and wage-labour". These texts were lectures that Marx gave to working mens associations back in the day. So please go on and read that text. Btw, how far did you get in Capital? What was your stumbling block?

Quote:
Does a 'flash' of inspiration suddenly come down on you from above? Does 'something' suddenly 'click'?

I would say so; a lot of the concepts that were unclear for me in the first three chapters suddenly 'clicked' when I started reading about the working day, surplus-value etc. Still, don't get me wrong. Marx is dense and ain't easy, but in my opinion the payoff is huge in the end. Apart from personal experience, it's the book that has influenced me the most politically.

LBird
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Apr 8 2011 22:37
Khawaga wrote:
Well, Capital is all about political discussion and consideration of philosophy and ideology. What Marx sets out to do in Capital is reveal that bourgeois economics is nothing but ideologal ...

Well, I'm sure you know that I'm totally convinced philosophically and ideologically, and also politically and historically, but the economics is mystifying.

Khawaga wrote:
After all, Capital is supposed to be a weapon in the hands on the working class.

Yeah, this is the worrying bit - the truth is, it seems to be more of a burden than a weapon.

I've got the handbook with both VP&P and W-L&C. I need to try again, I think. As for Capital, all the history stuff is great - my view is, 'pity about the economics - spoils a good read!'. And I've always skipped the first three notorious chapters like the plague.

Khawaga wrote:
Still, don't get me wrong. Marx is dense and ain't easy, but in my opinion the payoff is huge in the end.

The problem is the trade off is not reading (and writing about) all the other subjects that I'm fascinated with, while trying to wade through treacle. I suppose I'm doing it through a sense of duty, not real desire.

I need to have a break from this for the time being, and have a re-think about how to approach the problem - perhaps re-read Capital from chapter 4.

Thanks anyway, Khawaga - I'm only sorry that your tremendous efforts haven't (this time) borne much fruit (with me, at least). I'll leave it at that, for now.

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Apr 8 2011 23:31

Well, my final suggestion then is to not skip the first three chapters. Just try, see how it goes.

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Apr 8 2011 23:48

argh christ your right, sorry man, didn't read the question properly, school boy error.

On Capital being a weapon or a burden. I think it really depends on how you read it. As it seems you have already discussed, it really depends on how you read it. Of course it is out of date, things have changed etc, but I always like the stress on the inherent structural dynamics of capitalism, this for me at least keeps Capital alive and kicking.

Dave B
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Apr 9 2011 13:41

I think abstract labour is general undifferentiated human effort or work or labour.

Thus you go to work, clock in, expend effort doing something, anything, clock out and go home knackered as evidence of your expended labour power and life force etc.

As to it being concrete labour, like making a shoe or a use value, you may not even know what you are doing exactly as it may be a very small part of an overall process.

It is as if, in an analogy, you were driving a treadmill that was operating an invisible machine in another room that may be a handloom one minute or a pumping water another.

It is important in respect of value as it is that effort, as undifferentiated pure or abstract effort that determines value. And that same quantity of effort, as effort alone, can go into one use value or another, which is why one use value has the same value as another, in general.

Looking at it in a somewhat idealised and theoretical way from the other perspective of selling your human effort. If one type of work is less exhausting than another, and just as meaningless to you, but pays the same then you do that instead.

Thus you need a concept of ‘abstract labour’ for the concept of value and to analyse the capitalist process as a whole.

In fact when you ‘take out’ of your working day the specifics and details of what you are doing and its purpose in the greater scheme of things, if they mean anything to you in the first place, all that is left is that you are tired.

[that is having set aside all the complexities of skilled versus unskilled labour and the differentials in the value of labour power and productivity etc etc.]

Concrete labour or different types of labour are therefore subsets or categories of generalised or abstract labour.

You can use an analogy of energy. Thus an object in total can have an ‘abstract’ energy value.

That can exist as concrete energy;

ie heat energy or in other words it may be hot.

Kinetic energy or in other words it might be moving fast and have a momentum etc

Potential energy or in other words a stone on the top of a hill that could roll down.

Chemical energy ie a piece of coal that can burn.

Etc etc

Or in fact it could have a combination of concrete energies ie a hot piece of unburnt coal already rolling half way down a hill.

And just as the total ‘abstract’ energy value of an object can be made up of several ‘concrete energies’, the total economic value of a commodity is the overall summation of the particular types of effort or human ‘energy’ that has gone into it, or what it is.

And just as concrete energy values are exchangeable and in theory, conserved. Or in other words you burn a piece of coal to heat water to drive a steam engine to the top of a hill or whatever.

One type of concrete living labour that has been embodied in a use value is exchangeable for another type of concrete labour embodied in another use value.

Scientist account for energy in systems using a general or abstracted term, the Joule.

In the International System of Units a Joule is defined, for convenience, as the energy expended (or work done) in applying a force of one newton through a distance of one metre.

You could say in capitalism value was in effect ‘defined’ for convenience as the amount of labour expended (or work done) to produce a troy ounce of gold or whatever.

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Joseph Kay
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Apr 9 2011 17:40
LBird wrote:
The problem is, if I don't have 'an airtight grasp' of the basic words, it might as well be written in Martian. How do you keep reading something that has no meaning? Does a 'flash' of inspiration suddenly come down on you from above? Does 'something' suddenly 'click'?

This is a problem Marx himself flagged up - I think the first David Harvey lecture someone else mentioned already discusses this a bit. Basically, all the concepts are related to one another, so wherever he started the book, it would appear like he was dropping the concepts on you out of thin air. But as Khawaga says, it gets a lot easier going after chapter 3, and the concepts from the beginning start to sink in as they're applied to analysing aspects of capital, many of which resonate with everyday experience (e.g. the stuff on extending/intensifying the working day). You don't need to read Capital to struggle against capitalism, but as anti-capitalist theory goes it's one of the most worthwhile texts imho, and worth sticking with. When i first read it I had the advantage of being able to talk this stuff over with some people who'd read it a decade earlier, which really helped me get my head around it. Hopefully libcom can play the same role for people without a bunch of Marx nerds for mates!

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Apr 10 2011 05:03
Khawaga wrote:
Rabbit wrote:
Would I be right in saying that concrete labour is to abstract labour as use value is to exchange value?

Partly correct: concrete labour maps on to use-value (so you got that right), but abstract labour maps on to value. Exchange value is the ratio in which a quantity of use-values is exchanged for another quantity (but both these quantities have the same value contained in them).

Quote:
Abstract labour, then, would be expressed simply as hours worked, regardless of what the labour was producing; concrete labour would be expressed as hours worked producing A or B, and because the units are now different, you can no longer add or subtract these measurements. Is that it?

Again, partly correct. The measure of value is labour time, so abstract labour is hours worked. However, with concrete labour you don't really care about the time spent, but rather the actual use-values produced. If you were producing for yourself you'd be more interested in the actual stuff you created, rather than the time you spent on them (unless your Robison Crusoe). If you were to measure concrete labour you'd be more likely to count the items produced, coz in the end that's what matters. So value is all about quantity, whereas use-value is all about quality.

So, abstract labour is expressed in labour-hours, and concrete labour is expressed in the total use-value of the goods produced?

LBird wrote:
Khawaga wrote:
After all, Capital is supposed to be a weapon in the hands on the working class.

Yeah, this is the worrying bit - the truth is, it seems to be more of a burden than a weapon.

Yeah, it would be a weapon if they understood it. William Blake said "Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believed" - all the workers who have been exposed to Marx's ideas but remain supporters of the capitalist system must not understand Marx's analysis.

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Apr 10 2011 06:12
Rabbit wrote:
So, abstract labour is expressed in labour-hours, and concrete labour is expressed in the total use-value of the goods produced?

Yes, but it's more precise to say that abstract labour is expressed in value, which is measured in labour time. And concrete labour is expressed in use-value, which, if it can be counted, is measured in material output.

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Apr 10 2011 06:53
Khawaga wrote:
Rabbit wrote:
So, abstract labour is expressed in labour-hours, and concrete labour is expressed in the total use-value of the goods produced?

Yes, but it's more precise to say that abstract labour is expressed in value, which is measured in labour time. And concrete labour is expressed in use-value, which, if it can be counted, is measured in material output.

Ok, then I think I've got this. Thanks.

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waslax
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Apr 10 2011 06:58

Having read this thread, and sympathizing with LBird, and whoever else has problems comprehending what abstract labour is, I wrote what follows, as hopefully offering some assistance. I think it is beyond the level of comprehension of the average five year old, but maybe not the average fifteen year old (with the aid of a dictionary for a couple of words). But if it helps just one person ....

ON ABSTRACT LABOUR

Abstract labour -- as per Marx -- is indeed a most difficult concept to grasp. And yet it is absolutely essential to understanding Marx's Capital, his critique of bourgeois political economy, and, not least, what exactly capital and capitalism are. Without understanding what capital and capitalism are, the struggle against them, and the struggle for communism, is blind. For without understanding what exactly capital and capitalism are, the struggle against them may well bring about a state of affairs in which certain non-essential features of capitalism -- features which nonetheless have figured prominently in its historical configuration -- are consciously abolished in the expectation that their abolition will be sufficient to eradicate capitalism, but in which capitalism's essentials remain in force, and so capitalism remains unsurpassed.

Abstract labour is not labour in general, labour stripped of all its specificities. This is a common misunderstanding of first-time readers of Chapter One of Volume One of Capital. It cannot be such, since such undifferentiated labour has existed in history for many thousands of years, far longer than capitalism has -- longer even than any form of human society, surely -- and the abstract labour which Marx claims is historically specific to it. Abstract labour is indeed undifferentiated, general labour, but this is only part of it; the latter is necessary to the former, but it is not sufficient for it.

To really understand abstract labour, we need to go much further than this trans-historical abstraction, and bring in the idea of generalized market exchange. Market exchange involves two separate parties exchanging items (use-values) at a rate, or in a relationship quantitatively, that they both agree on as fair and equal. This means that whatever various items (use-values) might be exchanged in such a manner must be commensurable: they must have a common measure which renders them so commensurable, and this applies not just for this or that exchanging party, but for any and all such parties. It is the market, generalized exchange, mechanism which renders this commensurability possible. There must be something common to all such exchangeable items to allow this to happen in a way that people (parties, exchangers) can rely on whenever they enter the market to participate in such exchange. Everyone vaguely familiar with Marx's Capital knows that for him (as for David Ricardo and various other theorists of bourgeois political economy prior to Marx) it is labour (time) that is this common denominator facilitating such exchange.

But it is not just any labour that serves this function. It is definitely not what Marx refers to as "concrete labour", i.e. this or that or any such particular instance of labour. If it takes me twice as much labour time to make item A than you, that doesn't make my specific A's worth twice as much as yours. And it is, again, not just general, undifferentiated labour (time). It is "socially necessary average labour time" -- this, for Marx, is the real substance of capitalist value. But socially necessary average labour time is something that needs to be established over time and involving a sufficient number of specific items (use-values) being exchanged via the market. Once a sufficient number of such instances occur, an average can be established. It is not established by some sort of impartial investigation or scientific analysis, but by means of repeated negotiation between exchanging parties of the same type of item (use-value) on the market.

It is this average, once established, that sets the standard on the market of the value of the item in question. And it is this average that Marx called "abstract labour", when he posited that value in capitalism is abstract labour, and that abstract labour is the substance of (capitalist) value. Since this process of abstraction occurs in an objective manner, by way of social exchange, in the market, rather than within the minds of humans (as do typical forms of abstraction), Marx refers to it as a process of "real abstraction".

Angelus Novus
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Apr 10 2011 07:50
Khawaga wrote:
Yes, but it's more precise to say that abstract labour is expressed in value, which is measured in labour time.

...which furthermore can only be expressed as price, in money.

I think this is a very important point, to emphasize the difference between substantialist, "pre-monetary" notions of value, and what I regard (following Backhaus and Heinrich) as Marx's monetary theory of value, of the capitalist mode of production being one in which production is conducted for exchange.

The former conception seems to regard "value" as some transhistorical measure of labour expenditure, upon which money and exchange relations are merely superimposed. A prime example of this is Ernest Mandel's Marxist Economic Theory, which goes out of its way to cite anthropological studies in an effort to prove that labour-time measuring as a basis for the commensurability of acts of labour pre-dates monetary exchange.

Kind of beyond the scope of this thread, but a very important distinction. It's what separates Marx's critique of political economy from the pre-monetary theories of Smith, Ricardo, or Proudhon.

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Apr 10 2011 07:59

My five-year-old's mind is trying hard to wrap itself around your post, waslax.

waslax wrote:
Market exchange involves two separate parties exchanging items (use-values) at a rate, or in a relationship quantitatively, that they both agree on as fair and equal. This means that whatever various items (use-values) might be exchanged in such a manner must be commensurable: they must have a common measure which renders them so commensurable

I understand the first sentence. Could you expand on the second? If I want to exchange a pair of shoes for a loaf of bread, why is it necessary for the two goods to have a common measure?

Quote:
labour (time)...is this common denominator facilitating such exchange.

What if you're exchanging an object that required zero labour time to produce, like a rock you picked up from the ground? Or would you count the time spent in picking it up?

Quote:
But socially necessary average labour time is something that needs to be established over time and involving a sufficient number of specific items (use-values) being exchanged via the market.

I understand why it needs to be established over time - the word 'average' suggests it. But why does a determination of socially necessary average labour time require the exchange of goods on the market? And exchange of what goods, exactly?

Quote:
And it is this average that Marx called "abstract labour"

So the term 'socially necessary average labour time' is interchangeable with the term 'abstract labour'? And both, therefore, are specific to a commodity, a place, and a time?

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Apr 10 2011 08:35
Angelus wrote:
The former conception seems to regard "value" as some transhistorical measure of labour expenditure, upon which money and exchange relations are merely superimposed. A prime example of this is Ernest Mandel's Marxist Economic Theory, which goes out of its way to cite anthropological studies in an effort to prove that labour-time measuring as a basis for the commensurability of acts of labour pre-dates monetary exchange.

Yeah, I never got why on earth anyone would assume value as transhistorical. You can easily make the claim that use-value is (I think Marx argues this in the Grundrisse if I remember correctly), but value never... Mandel just seems to take Engles at his word that the first few chapters of Capital is historical rather than logical.

Rabbit wrote:
But why does a determination of socially necessary average labour time require the exchange of goods on the market? And exchange of what goods, exactly?

Exchange of commodities, i.e. articles produced for the purposes of exchange. Determination of socially necessary labour time is what competition is all about. Angelus indicated this with his comment:

Quote:
but the concept of abstract labour really first starts to make the most sense when it's understood as a systemic logic that all producers are forced to adhere to

Socially necessary labour time is not really an average, but the least time it takes to produce a particular commodity (which then becomes an average). If you produce 1 shoe in 2 hours, but I can do it in 1 hour (because I have a machine), my commodity could be cheaper on the market. So hypothetically, if there were only two consumers they would buy what I produced simply because it's cheaper and you'd go out of business. You'd be forced to sell your commodity at its social value, the new socially necessary average. For Marx this is what drives competition in capitalism; the difference from bourgeois economics is that this competition does not com from some mystical supply and demand of the market, but from production itself (but it appears as if it happened on the market).

PS: I am half-asleep typing this, so not sure if it makes sense.

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Apr 10 2011 09:56
Rabbit wrote:
My five-year-old's mind is trying hard to wrap itself around your post, waslax.
waslax wrote:
Market exchange involves two separate parties exchanging items (use-values) at a rate, or in a relationship quantitatively, that they both agree on as fair and equal. This means that whatever various items (use-values) might be exchanged in such a manner must be commensurable: they must have a common measure which renders them so commensurable

I understand the first sentence. Could you expand on the second? If I want to exchange a pair of shoes for a loaf of bread, why is it necessary for the two goods to have a common measure?

Well, you are planning to make that exchange with someone else, right? What if that person doesn't agree with the rate of exchange you propose? Maybe they want more from you than you are offering. The exchange must be mutually agreeable. So there needs to be some 'neutral' factor common to both items that both parties can agree on.

Quote:
Quote:
labour (time)...is this common denominator facilitating such exchange.

What if you're exchanging an object that required zero labour time to produce, like a rock you picked up from the ground? Or would you count the time spent in picking it up?

As with Marx, we are only concerned with exchange of items that are products of labour. Why would someone give up something in exchange for something that required zero labour time to produce? Perhaps because it was very rare? That is different, and its price is all down to supply and demand. It's actual value would still be zero. In a case such as fruit that grows naturally, the value is determined by how much labour is required to bring it to market (I would think). Not much, clearly.

Quote:
Quote:
But socially necessary average labour time is something that needs to be established over time and involving a sufficient number of specific items (use-values) being exchanged via the market.

I understand why it needs to be established over time - the word 'average' suggests it. But why does a determination of socially necessary average labour time require the exchange of goods on the market? And exchange of what goods, exactly?

Marx is quite good on this, as I recall. But, in my own words, what better way of comparing the various different amounts of labour-time embodied within the items concerned? Each party to the exchange is assumed to try to maximize the return they receive, and to minimize what it is they exchange. Enough of this will eventually find an average rate. Again, we are talking about any items which are products of human labour, which can be quantified, and specified qualitatively (i.e. as use-values).

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Quote:
And it is this average that Marx called "abstract labour"

So the term 'socially necessary average labour time' is interchangeable with the term 'abstract labour'? And both, therefore, are specific to a commodity, a place, and a time?

Well, as far as Marx is concerned, yes, the two terms are interchangeable. While it's true that socially necessary average labour time is just one particular form of abstract labour, it is the only one that Marx is concerned with. General, undifferentiated labour by itself would count as a form of abstract labour. It is of course labour at its very most abstract. But it doesn't help us understand capitalism and capitalist value.

Your final question I am not fully clear on. It seems ambiguous to me. However, each commodity has its own socially necessary average labour time. Of course, two different commodities can have the same socially necessary average labour time. In terms of place, capitalism did arise at a specific time in specific places, so that early on (in capitalist history) a commodity would have one value in one market (place) and another value in another one. Protectionism between countries (national markets), or even between regions within a country, maintains this difference. Gradually, over time, as protectionism is reduced, a world market develops, and a common value for the whole does too. In terms of time, definitely socially necessary average labour time and value do change. In general, they decline over time, as new labour-saving technology gets invented and implemented. Production which goes in this direction is rewarded with a greater return ("surplus-profit" for Marx), since it creates more output with the same amount of labour-time. This is the direction capitalism moves irresistably in, but it leads ultimately to crisis and collapse. (Not necessarily total collapse, but partial collapse can still be devastating. wink ) Marx's Capital deals with the specifics of all this brilliantly.

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waslax
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Apr 10 2011 09:55
Khawaga wrote:

Socially necessary labour time is not really an average, but the least time it takes to produce a particular commodity (which then becomes an average). If you produce 1 shoe in 2 hours, but I can do it in 1 hour (because I have a machine), my commodity could be cheaper on the market. So hypothetically, if there were only two consumers they would buy what I produced simply because it's cheaper and you'd go out of business. You'd be forced to sell your commodity at its social value, the new socially necessary average.

As I understand it, it really is an average, but the more competition develops, the smaller the range of differences in actual labour-time, since, as you note, those who take more time to produce are forced out of business. In your example, the average would be 1.5 hours. It is up to you to either continue selling your product at that rate, and realize a surplus-profit on each item you sell, or to lower your price to try to corner the market, and force your competitor out of business. This decision is of course a gamble. But in competitive capitalism there will soon enough be a producer who will lower their selling price, forcing others to match it, which of course they can only do and make a profit on if they adopt the same production process with the same technology you have (or one equally as or even more productive). A new average is then established. You acknowledged as much yourself, I think. But you are right to emphasize the "necessary" part of the formula, as this refers to the minimum necessary time to produce the thing. Competition, and the technological invention it drives, keeps pushing this minimum lower.

Dave B
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Apr 10 2011 12:33

Actually contrary to what seemed to be implied in a earlier post Marx starts off with a trans-historical analysis of the “labour theory of value” or more properly the Law Of Value.

Then with the understanding or theory of it established then applies that Law to capitalism.

And in fact the law of value, of which ‘abstract Labour’ is a part, preceded capitalism, as Engels pointed out in the supplement in Volume III written for those had got the wrong end of the stick.

And far from the law of value being historically specific to capitalism, it actually starts to breakdown under capitalism due to the effect of the average rate of profit ie stuff exchanging for above and below their values due the rate of profit demanded on different amounts of capital etc etc.

Thus;

Quote:
In a word: the Marxian law of value holds generally, as far as economic laws are valid at all, for the whole period of simple commodity production — that is, up to the time when the latter suffers a modification through the appearance of the capitalist form of production. Up to that time, prices gravitate towards the values fixed according to the Marxian law and oscillate around those values, so that the more fully simple commodity production develops, the more the average prices over long periods uninterrupted by external violent disturbances coincide with values within a negligible margin.

Thus, the Marxian law of value has general economic validity for a period lasting from the beginning of exchange, which transforms products into commodities, down to the 15th century of the present era. But the exchange of commodities dates from a time before all written history — which in Egypt goes back to at least 2500 B.C., and perhaps 5000 B.C., and in Babylon to 4000 B.C., perhaps to 6000 B.C.; thus, the law of value has prevailed during a period of from five to seven thousand years.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894-c3/supp.htm#law

and as a synopsis from Engels covering abstract labour we have thus;

Quote:
Exchange-value presupposes a tertium comparationis by which it is measured; labor, the common social substance of exchange-values, to be precise, the socially necessary labor-time embodied in them.

Just as a commodity is something twofold: use-value and exchange-value, so the labour contained in it is two-fold determined:
 on the one hand, as definite productive activity, weaving labour, tailoring labour, etc. — "useful labour";
 on the other, as the simple expenditure of human labour-power, precipitated abstract (general) labour.
The former produces use-value, the latter exchange-value; only the latter is quantitatively comparable

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/1868-syn/ch01.htm

So in other general words; work or activity is a compound of two different things, which is dialectics in the sense of looking at ‘one thing’ as a composite of two things.

That is a ‘definite productive activity, weaving labour, tailoring labour, etc. — “useful labour”;’

And

“simple expenditure of human labour-power, precipitated abstract (general) labour.”

And you can ‘abstract’ either out depending upon what you want to do.

The tertium comparationis is useful, apart from being in Latin, as it sums up the logic that Karl uses in the crucial opening pages of Volume One.

It means basically that the third part of a comparison is the quality that two things which are being compared have in common.

So he theorises that as one commodity can be compared with as an equivalent with another, the equivalence must (or could be) the result of another as yet obscure ‘reducible’ quantitative ‘property’ in which they are identical or equal.

That is in fact the bedrock of scientific analysis.

Thus if a litre of water weighs the same as a block of iron it must be because they contain the same amounts of something else.

Which is in this case that they contain the same amount of baryons (for simplicity protons and neutrons).

Water and Iron only differ in their concrete form due to the different arrangement of the ‘abstract’ baryons.

Although scientist will never be content until they can reduce mass to one abstract thing and can say the both contain the same amount of one even more abstract thing, probably gravitons or something

Which is what they are doing with the Hadron collider thing.

yoda's walking stick
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Apr 10 2011 15:08

My inner five year old is displeased.

Oh well, I give up. I'm off to become a Randian!

Jk

LBird
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Apr 10 2011 15:35

Dave, I am far, far happier with this...

Dave B wrote:
Actually contrary to what seemed to be implied in a earlier post Marx starts off with a trans-historical analysis of the “labour theory of value” or more properly the Law Of Value.

Then with the understanding or theory of it established then applies that Law to capitalism.

And in fact the law of value, of which ‘abstract Labour’ is a part, preceded capitalism, as Engels pointed out in the supplement in Volume III written for those had got the wrong end of the stick.

And far from the law of value being historically specific to capitalism, it actually starts to breakdown under capitalism

...than I was with this...

Khawaga wrote:
Ocelot raises an extremely important point here. Categories like value and commodity are historically specific to capitalism.

It must be the historian in me, that has difficulty believing that all the detailed thinking behind 'Critical Political Economy' can only be applied to capitalism.

I'm now becoming warier of some of the things that Khawaga and ocelot said earlier. But, if anything, this has re-energised me, to think that there may be some more mileage in some of the things that I outlined earlier (the 'Smith family' model), which were far simpler to comprehend than the esoteric complexities of the main explanations.

This doesn't mean that Khawaga was necessarily wrong (and Khawaga was definitely helpful in keeping me thinking), but that I still think that there must be a far simpler way of teaching the meanings within Capital to other workers.

Of far more serious implication, though, is my next thought - if Dave B is correct, and 'value' (of some sort which I haven't yet isolated in my own thinking) is transhistorical, than why can't it be applied to the future Socialist/Communist society, to help workers organise production efficiently?

Heresy?

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Khawaga
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Apr 10 2011 16:10

LBird, Dave B adopted Engles' interpretation. There's been quite a lot of critique of Engels misinterpretation of those chapters; an interpretation that he offered after editing together Volume 3 (well more than editing; he rewrote huge parts of it; some chapters are completely Engles'). He could not get his head around how values are transformed into prices. His solution was to argue that Capital should be read almost as a linear history rather than a logical argument that progressively introduces new levels of abstraction.

Treating value as transhistorical is silly in my opinion because that is exactly that Marx warns against when he critiques the categories of bourgeois economics. That they're not seen as historical. So paradoxically, a so-called "historical" approach is actually ahistorical.

You Smith family model, btw, can work as an example both for a logical and a historical interpretation of the first few chapters.

Angelus Novus
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Apr 10 2011 16:42

I have undertaken a translation of an essay by Ingo Elbe that addresses some of those Engelsian distortions of Marx's work. The English translation remains incomplete but a few key passages are available:

http://communism.blogsport.eu

S. Artesian
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Apr 10 2011 17:46

"Use-value" refers only to the utility, the usefulness of the object, product. Consequently "use-value" is more than trans-historical, it can even be independent of human production. Thus Marx refers to nature as being a source of "wealth," in that nature provides objects of utility to human beings independent of the social organization of labor, of production

Concrete labor is the specific labor expended in making an object, and consequently concrete labor is not restricted to the production of commodities. Concrete labor is embodied in shoes created by direct producers for direct consumption, shoes created by direct producers for indirect consumption; a leather belt, milk, cheese, beef stew etc.

Abstract labor refers to labor that is conducted under specific social relations, specific differences, and even conflicts, between labor and the conditions of labor; the conditions of labor under capitalism is the organization of labor as wage-labor for the aggrandizement of surplus labor-time.

Abstract labor refers to the social mediation, the mechanism for measuring labor, converting it into a universal medium for exchange, for accumulation; converting it into value.

"Time is everything. Man is nothing, or at most, time's carcass" wrote Marx. He wasn't kidding.

Dave B
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Apr 10 2011 18:13

So Fred didn’t understand the Law of Value then!!!!!!!!!

Ok then where did Marx say that the Law of Value or in other words that the exchange values of commodities was specific to capitalism?

Was Aristotlian Greece and feudal Europe transhistorical to capitalism?

The following quote from Karl is useful I think as it deals with that ‘obscure’, ‘common substance, which admits of the value of the beds being expressed by a house’ that needs to be ‘deciphered’. But was even more obscure for Aristotle than it is in capitalism

Karl Marx. Capital Volume One Part I: Commodities and Money Chapter One: Commodities

Quote:
The two latter peculiarities of the equivalent form will become more intelligible if we go back to the great thinker who was the first to analyse so many forms, whether of thought, society, or Nature, and amongst them also the form of value. I mean Aristotle.

In the first place, he clearly enunciates that the money form of commodities is only the further development of the simple form of value – i.e., of the expression of the value of one commodity in some other commodity taken at random; for he says:

5 beds = 1 house

is not to be distinguished from

5 beds = so much money.

He further sees that the value relation which gives rise to this expression makes it necessary that the house should qualitatively be made the equal of the bed, and that, without such an equalisation, these two clearly different things could not be compared with each other as commensurable quantities. “Exchange,” he says, “cannot take place without equality, and equality not without commensurability"..

Here, however, he comes to a stop, and gives up the further analysis of the form of value. “It is, however, in reality, impossible, that such unlike things can be commensurable” – i.e., qualitatively equal. Such an equalisation can only be something foreign to their real nature, consequently only “a makeshift for practical purposes.”

Aristotle therefore, himself, tells us what barred the way to his further analysis; it was the absence of any concept of value. What is that equal something, that common substance, which admits of the value of the beds being expressed by a house? Such a thing, in truth, cannot exist, says Aristotle.

And why not? Compared with the beds, the house DOES represent something equal to them, in so far as it represents what is really equal, both in the beds and the house. And that is – human labour.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm

And in feudalism we have Karl applying the law of value to deduce surplus value and surplus labour etc just as in capitalism. In fact as he says it is such an obvious case it hardly merits dwelling on it.

Capital Vol. III Part VI Transformation of Surplus-Profit into Ground-Rent Chapter 47. Genesis of Capitalist Ground-Rent I. Introductory Remarks

Quote:
But this identity of surplus-value with unpaid labour of others need not be analysed here because it still exists in its visible, palpable form, since the labour of the direct producer for himself is still separated in space and time from his labour for the landlord and the latter appears directly in the brutal form of enforced labour for a third person. In the same way the "attribute" possessed by the soil to produce rent is here reduced to a tangibly open secret, for the disposition to furnish rent here also includes human labour-power bound to the soil, and the property relation which compels the owner of labour-power to drive it on and activate it beyond such measure as is required to satisfy his own indispensable needs.

Rent consists directly in the appropriation of this surplus expenditure of labour-power by the landlord; for the direct producer pays him no additional rent. Here, where surplus-value and rent are not only identical but where surplus-value has the tangible form of surplus-labour, the natural conditions or limits of rent, being those of surplus-value in general, are plainly clear.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894-c3/ch47.htm

On value in socialism it will exist as Karl (and Fred) said it would, but without exchange value, but lets leave that for now.

We did it here a few years ago.

Dave B
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Apr 10 2011 18:36

Marx-Engels Correspondence 1868 Engels To Marx In London

Quote:
Dear Moor,

The business with the rate of profit and the value of money is very neat and very clear. The only thing that is unclear to me is how you can assume m/(c+v) as rate of profit, for m does not flow solely into the pockets of the industrialist who produces it, but has to be shared with the merchant, etc.; unless you are taking the whole branch of business together here, therefore disregarding how m is divided up between manufacturer, wholesaler, retailer, etc. In general, I am very keen to see your exposition of this point.

Best greetings to all.

Your
F. E.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1868/letters/68_04_26.htm

Good point!

That made it into the relatively tough section in Volume III on Merchants capital.

m is for the german mehrverte or surplus value a translation error that also went into Volume III at one point.