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Brendan has replied here to my post “Reading Marx: Yammering it up with ‘Brendan’ by myself on “abstract labour” and the “value relation.”

The follow up to what is below is here: Reading Marx: part 2 of comparing more notes with Brendan on the meaning of ‘abstract labour’

Part of the ongoing discussion also involves this Post: Reading Marx: on the reduction of ‘skilled labour’ to ‘unskilled labour’ (which if read as the first in a series of posts helps to clarify everything else that ensues)

And I begin my reply to his:

Hey, Brendan,

Thank you for the reply.  And yes, we each have two very different readings of Marx, which is to be expected: every reader comes to any ‘text’ with a different set of contextualizing assumptions and, unfortunately, we are to a high degree the prisoners of our inculcated and personal idiosyncratic cognitive categories.  That is as it should be and I feel I have nevertheless profited a great deal already from wrestling with what I take to be your reading and contrasting it with what is emerging in my own mind as my reading.  That isn’t to say that there isn’t an ‘objective’ meaning to what Marx is writing and that all readings, on account of the subjective elements any reader brings to any text, are equal: some interpretations will be more adequate than others on the basis of more or less compelling textual evidence.  I also want to emphasize that I do not take my reading to be in any sense more adequate than your own, but as with anyone who must make an honest effort to think things through for himself, I will take away what to my mind, rightly or wrongly, seems to add up to a more adequate interpretation.  So I am aware that I may be misreading Marx and for the reasons you set forth.

Having gotten the possible reasons for our divergent readings out of the way, I want to speak to the two points that you raise here.  But first, so that you don’t miss it, a very revealing quote from my copy of “Capital” (Vintage Books Edition, August 1977), what is an important footnote ((18) on p.142.) by Marx himself (and what is in ‘bold’ is my emphasis):

“One of the first economists, after William Petty, to have seen through the nature of value, the famous Franklin, says this: ‘Trade in general being nothing else but the exchange of labour for labour, the value of all things is …most justly measured by labour’ (The Works of B. Franklin etc., edited by Sparks, Boston, 1836, Vol. 2, p. 267) Franklin is not aware that in measuring the value of everything ‘in labour’ he makes the abstraction from any difference in the kinds of labour exchanged – and thus [he, Franklin, in his head] reduces them all to equal human labour.  Yet he states this without knowing it.  He speaks first of ‘the one labour,’ then of ‘the other labour’, and finally of ‘labour’, without further qualification, as the substance of the value of everything.  [Franklin, too, is confusing ‘conceptual categories,’ as Marx is clearly stating, here.]”

This is not a negligible piece of textual evidence for my reading of Marx.  And he is saying in words that are difficult to read in any other way that B. Franklin is guilty, without being aware of it, of ‘reducing’ all forms of labour to equal human labour, an ‘abstraction’ that he is unwittingly committing.  This quote, then, which I only came across this very evening, is a vindication of sorts, for me.  It states in no equivocal terms what I have said Marx was saying all along; by dint of being an additional and unexpected piece of textual confirmation, this quote buttresses for me the idea that I am getting a bit more than just some of the gist of Marx’s exposition.

As textual evidence that by the expression ‘abstract labour’ Marx is referring to a ‘real’ situation outside our heads, so to speak, and not so much to ‘a way of regarding labour,’ you quote the following: “This abstraction of human labor in general virtually exists in the average labor which the average individual of a given society can perform-a certain productive expenditure of human muscle, nerve, brain, etc.”  And yes, it’s true, Marx does make many allusions in different places to the abstraction of human labour as ‘virtually‘ existing in the manifestation of an average level of ability among the people who comprise any society whatever.  But do note that this ‘virtual’ abstract labour exists in ‘any’ society and is not at all distinctive of capitalist society.  Therefore, I submit that he makes that allusion to show to his reader that the idea of ‘abstract labour’ is not something conjured out of thin air.  There is a ‘rationale’ for it and one that is grounded in ‘common sense,’ especially in a capitalist milieu, namely the observation that, indeed, people can and do point to skill sets that are the average for ‘any‘ given community.  Marx, I put it to myself, is writing a book for fellow citizens who do not recognize in themselves their cultural aptitude for regarding ‘labour’ as being something that they think about in abstract terms.  He is looking for, therefore, heuristic examples to acquaint his readers with what he has in mind, examples that he knows will be accessible to his cultural peers.

Consider, for example, this note of clarification by Engels (on P.138. of  my edition of ‘Capital’ (V.B.,August 1977)) to a footnote by Marx (in which Adam Smith’s anonymous predecessor is quoted favorably as saying about ‘labour and time,’ “one man’s labour in one thing for a time certain, for another man’s labour in another thing for the same time”)(I will interpolate my comments in the quote):

“The English language has the advantage of possessing two separate words for these two different aspects of labour [i.e. the ‘double’ nature of ‘labour-power’ to which Marx wants to draw attention and which he can point to as being a ‘cultural given’ in capitalist culture, but a ‘given’ that goes unnoticed – viz. to paraphrase Marx, ‘I was the first among economists to point to this double nature of ‘labour-power.’]  Labour which creates use-values and is qualitatively determined is called ‘work’ as opposed to ‘labour’; labour which creates value and is only measured quantitatively is called ‘labour,’ as opposed to ‘work.’ [i.e., a distinction is being made, and it is a culturally alive distinction.  For otherwise there would not be two words underpinning two different referents; and it is this distinction that Marx wants to emphasize since he quotes Adam Smith’s anonymous predecessor to rebut and rebuke Smith’s failure to attend to this very distinction.  Of the anonymous predecessor, Marx says, he “…is much nearer the mark when he says (– what I’ve already in part quoted above).” ”

I will, for now, end this comment here and pick up tomorrow when I have time where I here leave off.

I also hope that you can see that there are good and solid textual reasons backing up the manner in which I am reading Marx, at least for the time being.

And I sincerely appreciate the conversation.  That is the only way that we can possibly learn even if in the end participants may go away with different ideas and having drawn different conclusions.  At the very least, I’m reading more attentively than I probably otherwise would be.

Kind Regards,


(I’ll eventually post this stuff on my blog if only because I can do things there by way of emphasis that I cannot with posted comments, here.)

(And I apologize, once again, to Toritto for having inadvertently posted this on his blog.  Perhaps a bit too much going on, on the desktop at once.)