Brendan’s reply, to which I’m responding, can be found here, and the first half of my reaction to Brendan’s reply is posted as:Reading Marx: comparing more notes with Brendan on the meaning of abstract labour.
The post to which Brendan originally replied is: “Reading Marx: Yammering it up with ‘Brendan’ by myself on “abstract labour” and the “value relation.”
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)
I pick up my commentary where I left off yesterday:
[. . .]
That the English language, which is a cultural repository of commonly shared assumptions and conceptions, does have two words that pertain to labour-power – as Engels’s clarification of what Marx is saying – underscores a culturally ingrained twofold attitude toward the nature of ‘work,’ but an attitude that – as underscored by Marx’s example of how B. Franklin, a representative of capitalist bourgeois thinking, handles the two categories of ‘labour’ – is not necessarily self-aware. But I want for one moment to return to the quote that you offer in support of your thesis that Marx intends by the expression “abstract labour” a reality in the ‘capitalist process of production’ rather than a constellation of ‘capitalist mental constructs’ that ‘fix’ and ‘hold together,’ so to speak, a broad array of ‘social relations.’ I will, however, include a few additional lines to better contextualize your quote:
“This abstraction, human labour in general, exists in the form of average labour which, in a given society, the average person can perform, productive expenditure of a certain amount of human muscles, nerves, brain, etc. It is simple labour [English economists call it “unskilled labour”] which any average individual can be trained to do and which in one way or another he has to perform. The characteristics of this average labour are different in different countries and different historical epochs, but in any particular society it appears as something given.” [Norm’s note: I emphasize the words ‘exist ‘ and ‘simple’ to draw attention to their original emphasis in the text.] Source: MIA: Critique of Political Economy
First, note the last sentence of that quote. It is not a careless and badly worded throw-away by Marx. And he clearly states that the “characteristics of this average labour” – [ ‘this average labour’ being the “simple labour,” i.e. the “human labour in general,” i.e. the “abstraction” he is talking about] – can be found in all places and in all times: i.e. “in different countries and different historical epochs.” And what does it do? It “appears” as something “given.” Therefore, Marx does not mean that “the capitalist mode of production” produces the “abstraction” at hand. For if he meant to say that, he would not be talking about “different historical epochs” in relation to it.
And yes, he does indeed use the word “exist,” but the word is in italics, suggesting that if this “abstraction” does exist, it “exists” not in the ordinary sense of that word, which usually refers to a state of affairs that is quite independent of whatever thoughts or assumptions or presuppositions may be floating around inside our heads. And the hint of the manner in which the “abstraction” at hand “exists” comes at the very end of the quote when he says, “it appears as something given.” So this “abstraction” “exists” in the form of an “appearance,” or what is the same, a cultural construct, a customary way of thinking about something, a cognitive or intellectual projection, a way of seeing something. There is, however, an ambiguity about the ‘cultural mindset’ for which this ‘appearance’ in ‘fact’ “exists.” My bet is that it is more apparent to the ‘capitalist turn of mind’ than to any other historical cultural outlook.
Let me now deal with your second point:
“The value-form is a matter of the expression of value. From your blog post I get the impression that you are conflating the expression of value with the forces which either create value or bestow certain properties on value like the homogeneity of the value substance.” Source: Brendan
I’m a bit puzzled. First, the value-form is not in and of itself a matter of the expression of value although inseparable from it. The “expression of value” is money proper or ‘exchange-value,’ that is, the ‘numerical’ equivalent of one type of commodity for another type of commodity. Or in other words, the “expression of value” is the content of the “value-form.” For Marx, what is essential to the generation of the “expression of value” or “exchange-value” is a “relation” that has a very specific ‘logical’ form. Marx, after all, does say that the exchange-value of a commodity cannot be arrived at by examining a commodity in isolation, that it must enter into a ‘relation’ with at least one other different type of commodity. But that relation isn’t just a sort of juxtaposition. It is a ‘relation’ with a very specific ‘form.’ To get a sense of what I take that ‘form’ to be, re-read my post entitled “Reading Marx: Yammering it up with ‘Brendan’ by myself on “abstract labour” and the “value relation” . Clearly, I am not conflating any ‘forces’ whatever. Marx says that if you want to get to the ‘value’ of a commodity, you need to understand what is at issue in the idea of ‘value’ as it pertains to exchange, and ‘value’ is a “relational” concept with a very “specific form.” If ‘labour’ makes it into my post, it does not enter as a ‘force’ of anything whatsoever, but as an “expression” of the “value form,” as a commodity, as the “master equivalent,” as the content of a “value relation,” that “form” of value without which, according to Marx, you cannot arrive at the “expression of value.” In my post, as with Marx in dealing with the “value form,” “labour” as the substance that produces “exchange value” has not yet entered into the discussion – not even one little bit. If it does, please show me where in what I have written or suggested what you say I seem to be suggesting.
“This means that value has an existence apart from exchange . . .”
In what sense can “value” have an existence apart from exchange if it is the “form” of “exchange-value?” You can make a conceptual distinction between two aspects of one inseparable whole, for the sake of analysis. But if the whole is all of a piece, if it has a “form” and a “content,” clearly you cannot have the one “exist” without the other. If Marx discusses “value” apart from “exchange-value,” this doesn’t mean he is talking about something that “exists” apart form and separate from “exchange-value.” When he analyses “value,” he lays out the “form” of the relation that conceptually “yields” “exchange-value.” Why do you think Marx spends so much time emphasizing and elaborating and reiterating the “form” of the “value-relation” i.e. that the commodity ‘value relation’ is of the form of “the ratio” of “one” type of commodity to “one or more” other types of commodities in definite proportions to one another”? Could it be that it is an important concept? And where does it end up? It ends up with the revelation that any one commodity in the ‘set of all commodities’ can substitute for the “one commodity” in terms of which the “exchange-value” of all other different commodities find their “expression” in nominal value terms. It is only because this is so and that ‘labour’ is a commodity, that labour as a commodity can be the measure of the nominal values of all other commodities. It isn’t Marx that claims that ‘Labour’ as “abstract value” is the foundation of the “exchange-value” of all commodities; it is capitalism itself. All that Marx is doing is solving the riddle of how capitalism goes about the business of concocting that “relation.”
As for Proudhon, Marx has a couple of beefs: 1) getting rid of the tokens that we regard as ‘money’ does not in fact get rid of the “money form” – there’s that word again, the “form,” which is the commodity “value relation” – if you still trade in commodities and regard labour, in its “abstract form,” as also being something that you can buy and sell, or what is the same, “exchange” for something — all of which, beyond getting rid of the tokens of “money,” Proudhon would salvage and, thereby, not get one iota beyond capitalism toward socialism. (See Marx’s discussion of “Value.”) 2) Proudhon has an ahistorical conception of capitalism and a bourgeois conception of what an individual is by nature. (See: MIA: Introduction of the “Grundrisse”)
And this is all for today . . . and I noticed that you’ve posted another comment that I must get to at some point . . . Until then, Brendan.