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What are we to think of a law which can only assert itself through periodic crises?  It is just a natural law which depends on the lack of awareness of the people who undergo it. [Friedrich Engels (Capital, Volume 1, Vintage Books, Aug. 1977, p.168.) (Norm’s emphasis)]


 In their difficulties our commodity-owners think like Faust: ‘In the beginning was the deed.’* They have therefore already acted before thinking. [Karl Marx (Capital, Volume 1, Vintage Books, Aug. 1977, p.180.)]

Hi Brendan,

I’ll begin to respond to your last comment but I do so tentatively.  I’m still acclimating to your point of view and trying to re-read Marx in light of that attempted acclimation.  If I offer some responses now, it’s just that I’m re-reading your last comment and feel the impulse to begin to reply; but since I suspect my original perspective still dominates me, I’ll be replying mostly from that particular angle – still and at least for now.

You ask and you write:

“First, to be clear. Are you arguing that A[bstract]L[abour] does not refer to a material aspect of labor? Are you saying that M[a]rx is only referring to an idea about labor and that this idea does not point to/describe a real aspect of labor?”

Secondly, I do not read the 1st passage you quote in the same way. For one, I do not think Marx exclusively uses the term “form of appearance” to refer to a “cultural construct” as you put it. For instance, the form of appearance of value is exchange value. But exchange value is much more than just a cultural construct, at least in the sense that I understand you to be using the term to refer to ideas as opposed to material relations. Exchange value is a relation between commodities and the result of a specific form of production. I think that makes it more than a “cultural construct”, at least in the common use of the term “cultural construct.” Source: Brendan

To my mind, ‘abstract labour’ is ‘real’ and refers to a material aspect of labor.  But this ‘material aspect of labor’ and ‘reality’ must be carefully qualified.

There is a sense in which ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’ or ‘customary ways of behaving and thinking’ – (these phrases being taken as so many references to the entire array of ‘social relations’ that are embedded in, and are a manifestation of, the ‘customs’ or ‘culture’ or ‘traditions’ or various ‘institutions’ of actual social practices which really ‘exist’ with a kind of inertia of their own that is quite independent of any one individual or even groups of individuals) – is/are a ‘material force’ in the world.  No one person or groups of people are entirely responsible for having created the widespread and established (if in flux) ‘social relations’ embedded in the various social ‘practices’ that comprise their society and the body of their inherited practices.  One inherits one’s culture as a child as well as to the degree and extent that one continues to uncritically (un-reflectively and thus unconsciously) adhere to and adopt practices and attitudes and beliefs which are widespread and common, and for which no one individual is personally responsible.  So these ‘cultural constructs’ do ‘exist’ and are ‘real,’ and most emphatically beyond our control.

People are conditioned by their cultural context: their brains are populated, as a result of education and coercive pressures to conform, by ‘reflexes’ that are ‘cultural’ in nature and therefore ‘cultural constructs.’  What explains, for instance, what people do while they are at work if not a part of their socially conditioned cognitive reflexes?  Is it possible to speak of the ‘material processes of production’ without implying a realm of cultural conditioning (i.e. of cultural constructs) that superintends physically observable human behaviors even if the superintending is ‘reflexive’ and therefore to that degree unconscious and ‘material?’  Whether we realize it or not, then, and to underscore the point: we are to a high degree unconscious cultural automatons, and this unconsciousness, this not being entirely aware of what we do and why we do it, is a ‘material’ force in the world that we do not exactly control and yet a very important part of the ‘material production process.’

So what I have been trying to say — on the basis of very salient textual clues and evidence (see the links: [1],  [2],  [3],  [4]) — that Marx has been saying , is that “abstract labour” is one of those ‘unconscious cultural constructs’ that are a ‘material force’ in our lives.  If capitalism, in its (unreflective) cultural dimension did not ‘regard’ the work that people do in a twofold fashion, if there were not, as Engels points out on Marx’s behalf, two words for what people do for a living, two conceptual (if unreflectively conflated) categories to designate what on the surface appears to be one and the same thing, there would not be ‘abstract labor’ for exchange but only concrete and particular ‘labor’ that creates use-values — (this is not to imply that the weight of causation and influence resides primarily in the realm of the ideological, but that the ideological, a realm of ‘conceptual constructs,’ does carry some of that weight, that it is a ‘force of nature,’ so to speak, a ‘thing’ that has a ‘life of its own’ while also being both re-actively determined by factors lying outside of itself). For what is in part the cure to the exploitation that is capitalism?  It is for the majority in a society to arise at the level of culture to the insight that ‘labour’ is in reality always ‘concrete and particular,’ no matter how simple or complex it may be in its particulars, and that it is never, therefore, in ‘reality’ an ‘abstract thing,’ which is the way it is both regarded and handled in a capitalist world.

So ‘abstract labour’ is real: as a ‘culturally inherited’ conceptual category and as a way of ‘treating’ labour in practice on the basis of that ‘unconscious culturally conditioned cognitive reflex’ which as such is part of our ‘material social reality.’  In other words, ‘materiality’ or ‘material reality’ is whatever exists beyond the reach of conscious intentionality and constrains that conscious intent within limits that may thwart that intent.  Culture is as much ‘material’ as it is a set of ‘ideational constructs:’  social relations exist outside my head, but also inside my head as sets of culturally determined reflexes that drive and determine how I behave, a behavior that reproduces both the forms and the contents of the social relations in the midst of which I live out my life in a culturally determinate way.  It is in this sense that ‘abstract labour’ is a real material force in capitalist society.  Destroy capitalist society, undermine what is essential to its mindset, and the social ‘reality’ of ‘abstract labour’ will equally be extinguished, both as a ‘social fact’ and as the ‘conceptual category’ underpinning or superintending that ‘fact.’

I hope that clarifies my take on the ontological status of “abstract labour” as such, a point of view I suspect I share with and borrow from Marx, albeit perhaps not — in which case I would gladly take all the credit.

But you’re busy and I’m busy, so I’ll leave it at that for now. . .

Best regards,