Abstract labor vs. concrete labor?

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S. Artesian
Joined: 5-02-09
Jun 27 2012 19:32

I just started rereading theGrundrisse, and look what I ran across in the opening chapter... as if Karl anticipated a certain current discussion, and a certain past but future distortion of his work by those who would prefer ideology to revolutionary critique:

Whenever we speak of production, then, what is meant is always production at a definite stage of socialdevelopment—production by social individuals. It might seem, therefore, that in order to talk about
production at all we must either pursue the process of historic development through its different phases,
or declare beforehand that we are dealing with a specific historic epoch such as e.g. modern bourgeois
production, which is indeed our particular theme. However, all epochs of production have certain
common traits, common characteristics. Production in general is an abstraction, but a rational abstraction
in so far as it really brings out and fixes the common element and thus saves us repetition. Still, this
general category, this common element sifted out by comparison, is itself segmented many times over
and splits into different determinations. Some determinations belong to all epochs, others only to a few.

[Some] determinations will be shared by the most modern epoch and the most ancient. No production
will be thinkable without them; however even though the most developed languages have laws and
characteristics in common with the least developed, nevertheless, just those things which determine their
development, i.e. the elements which are not general and common, must be separated out from the
determinations valid for production as such, so that in their unity—which arises already from the identity
of the subject, humanity, and of the object, nature—their essential difference is not forgotten. The whole
profundity of those modern economists who demonstrate the eternity and harmoniousness of the existing
social relations lies in this forgetting.
For example. No production possible without an instrument of production, even if this instrument is only the hand. No production without stored-up, past labour, even if it is only the facility gathered together and concentrated in the hand of the savage by repeated practice.

Capital is, among other things, also an instrument of production, also objectified, past labour. Therefore
capital is a general, eternal relation of nature; that is, if I leave out just the specific quality which alone makes 'instrument of production' and 'stored-up labour' into capital
. The entire history of production relations thus appears to Carey, for example, as a malicious forgery perpetrated by governments

And this:

But none of all this is the economists' real concern in this general part. The aim is, rather, to present production—see e.g. Mill—as distinct from distribution etc., as encased in eternal natural laws
independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeois relations are then quietly smuggled in as the
inviolable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded. This is the more or less conscious
purpose of the whole proceeding. In distribution, by contrast, humanity has allegedly permitted itself to
be considerably more arbitrary. Quite apart from this crude tearing-apart of production and distribution
and of their real relationship, it must be apparent from the outset that, no matter how differently
distribution may have been arranged in different stages of social development, it must be possible here
also, just as with production, to single out common characteristics, and just as possible to confound or to
extinguish all historic differences under general human laws. For example, the slave, the serf and the
wage labourer all receive a quantity of food which makes it possible for them to exist as slaves, as serfs,as wage labourers. The conqueror who lives from tribute, or the official who lives from taxes, or the
landed proprietor and his rent, or the monk and his alms, or the Levite and his tithe, all receive a quota of social production, which is determined by other laws than that of the slave's, etc. The two main points
which all economists cite under this rubric are: (1) property; (2) its protection by courts, police, etc. To
this a very short answer may be given:

to 1. All production is appropriation of nature on the part of an individual within and through a specific
form of society. In this sense it is a tautology to say that property (appropriation) is a precondition of
production. But it is altogether ridiculous to leap from that to a specific form of property, e.g. private
property. (Which further and equally presupposes an antithetical form, non-property.)

And this:

To summarize: There are characteristics which all stages of production have in common, and which are
established as general ones by the mind; but the so-called general preconditions of all production are
nothing more than these abstract moments with which no real historical stage of production can be

Notice how Marx never once refers to a "law of value" being any part of a characteristic held in common by "all stages of production"-- and of course the Grundrisse itself demonstrates how incapable "general preconditions of production" are of apprehending the real historical stage of production.

It is the succeeding interpretations by Engels, and Kautsky that attempt to turn the "law of value" into a general precondition of production.

Compare, after all, these words of Marx to Engels' interpretation that barter and the exchange of goods between peasants and artisans were governed by a "fairly accurate" measure of "labor time." Or to his assertion that the "whole of commodity production" started with "this determination of value by labor-time...and with it the multifarious relations in which the various aspects of the law of value asserts themselves as described in Vol 1. of Capital."

Engels is attempting to give to Marx's revolutionary critique, Marx's exposition of the conflicts specific, an immanent to laws of motion of capitalism and capitalism alone, an "eternal life"-- as if those laws predates the very organization of labor that creates it. Engels in this attempt to bestow immortality on Marx's contribution , thereby only reproduces from the "left," the eternal life the political economists wish to breathe into market relations as the "natural" and "general precondition" for all production.

Noa Rodman's picture
Noa Rodman
Joined: 4-11-09
Jun 27 2012 15:48

"It is probable that in all ages those metals [gold and silver] have cost more in their production than their value ever repaid."

Noa Rodman's picture
Noa Rodman
Joined: 4-11-09
Jul 1 2012 14:43

The reference to Jacob is in the first section. Then Marx refers to Eschwege and the claim that 80 years of diamond production were only worth about 18 months of Brazilian sugar/coffee export. The estimate of Eschwege starts in 1730. As white laborers merely had to spend a few days of work on a piece of fertile land to provide themselves the whole year, they had no incentive to go in the mines; slaves were imported (there were free-lance adventurers of course as well). It's an example of primitive accumulation, when wage labor is not yet the dominant form of production in capitalism. It also shows that his analysis, contra Luxemburg, includes 'non-capitalist' commodity production. Already in the first pages Marx makes a connection to the topic of the last chapters (from the Grundrisse it's clear that he takes the Eschwege example from Merivale's lectures on colonization).

The private property of the labourer in his means of production is the foundation of petty industry, whether agricultural, manufacturing, or both; petty industry, again, is an essential condition for the development of social production and of the free individuality of the labourer himself. Of course, this petty mode of production exists also under slavery, serfdom, and other states of dependence. But it flourishes, it lets loose its whole energy, it attains its adequate classical form, only where the labourer is the private owner of his own means of labour set in action by himself: the peasant of the land which he cultivates, the artisan of the tool which he handles as a virtuoso.
Joined: 23-11-12
Nov 23 2012 03:11

Concrete Labour: Work activities as they really are with unique material qualities. Embodied in use-value.

Abstract Labour: Work activities treated as if they had no distinguishing qualities. Embodied in value.