Abstract Labor in Socialism

Hans Ehrbar ehrbar at econ.utah.edu
Sat Nov 5 11:38:19 MST 1994

I would like to enter the discussion between Paul Cockshott and Justin
Schwartz about value in socialism.  This post is long and tedious.  It
is an attempt to clarify some very basic concepts in Marx's CAPITAL.

Paul wrote earlier:

 (1) In commodity-producing society, value is 'represented' by
 exchange-value; in a planned economy it can be calculated directly,
 and does not take on the form of exchange-value.

Justin noticed correctly that there must be an error; there is no
value in socialism.  Therefore he replied:

 (2) Well, necessary labor time, Marx asserts without argument, can be this
 calculated. But it's not value, properly so called, outside a commodity

I agree with the thrust of Justin's reply, but unfortunatly, you
used the wrong concepts.  What you should have said is, loosely formulated:

 Well, abstract labor, Marx asserts, exists in all forms of society,
 but it does not take the form of value outside a commodity economy.

I left out the "without argument" because it is really obvious that
abstract labor exists in all forms of society.  Since Marxists often
feel uncomfortable when they hear someone say that abstract labor
exists in all kinds of society (`you mean, capitalism is eternal?'),
let me expand a little more what this means.  In the commodity
fetishism Section, Marx wrote that

 "it is a physiological truth" that all kinds of labor
 "are functions of the human organism,
 and that each such function, whatever may be its nature or its form,
 is essentially the expenditure
 of human brain, nerves, muscles, sense organs, etc."

And this expediture of brain etc. is what abstract labor is.  (All
Marx quotes here are my own translations, i.e., they may differ
slightly from what you are used to.)  Since it is a physiological
truth, it holds not only in capitalism but also in every other form of
society.  Capitalism is not distinguished by the fact that every labor
process is the expenditure of labor in the abstract, but it is
distinguished by the fact that society `sees' the labor process only
under this aspect (which has many consequences; among others it has
the consequence that also the `concrete' aspect of the labor performed
becomes much more `abstract', example is assembly line labor).

Here is another Marx quote to this effect, in case you are not yet
convinced.  This one is from Section 3 of Chapter 1 in Capital,
just before the Aristotle example:

 "In tailoring, as well as in weaving,
 human labor power is expended.
 Both, therefore, possess the general property of being human labor,
 and there may therefore be cases,
 such as the production of value,
 in which they must be considered only under this aspect."

In a value-producing society, tailoring and weaving must be considered
(by the observer) only under this aspect because society itself considers
them only under this aspect.

You notice that in both instances Marx avoided using the word
"abstract labor" but circumstribed it by its definition.
He probably did that because "abstract labor" is a mental abstraction
which can be made in those societies---alone the fact that all
these activities are called "labor" is proof here---but abstract
labor as such does not play a social role.  If you keep this in mind,
i think there is no harm in saying that abstract labor "exists"
in all kinds of society.

After these clarifications about the concept of abstract labor,
let's see how Paul replied to Justin's point (2).  He wrote:

 (3) As I understand Marx in Capital I he defines value to be abstract
 socially necessary labour time.

Here Paul is mixing up quality and quantity.  To see that
something is wrong here, just look at this sentence carefully:
basically you are saying value is time.  This cannot be true.  Your
sentence is the illicit amalgamation of the following two correct

 The quality of value is abstract labor.
 The quantity of value is socially necessary labor time.

We are not yet talking about form here---and we can do this discussion
without talking about the form because Marx argues that everthing that
happens on the market is the consequence, manifestation, of the
relations between the producers.  The question about the quality and
quantity of value is the question ``Of which relations in production
are the market relations the manifestation?''  The quality of labor
answer is: of the relation that the producers consider their labors as
equal, consider them only under the aspect of abstract human labor.
This is what Marx considered the "pivot" for the understanding of his

Perhaps a ficticious example may clarify this.  Assume you live in a
very egalitarian society, in which everybody considers his or her own
labor to be the equal of the labor of everybody else.  In such a
society, it would be natural for people to exchange things at
proportions which correspond to the actual labor time necessary to
produce those things.  The tailor would say to the weaver: I just
spent the last 6 hours of my life producing this coat.  But I do not
really need coats, I produce coats because I am good at producing
coats.  What I really need is the linen you have here.  And since you
spent 6 hours to produce this linen, and since I am consider my labor
to be equal to your labor, I am willing to exchange my coat for your
linen, because to me it is as if I myself had produced this linen.

Of course this example is fictitious.  Such a society would explode
very quickly if anyone ever were to try to institute it.  This society
would give people the incentives to lie and cheat on the market and
sleep and dawdle on the job.  And if people were honest and committed
enough to make it work, then it would be absurd that they produce
privately and treat each other as strangers on the market, instead of
directly working together for the common good.

Real commodity production works differently than this fictitious
example.  Marx wrote in the commodity fetishism section:

 People do not bring the products of their labor in relation
 to each other as values because they consider these objects
 as the mere material shells of homogeneous human labor.
 The reverse is true: by equating their different products to each other
 in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labor
 as human labor.  They do this without knowing what they do.

Elaboration: they try to sell those use values which the market
rewards best in relation to the labor they put in, and they try to
produce these use values with the minimum of labor possible.  But
since everybody scrambles to come up with the most efficient
production process, and they also learn from each other, the upshot is
that they all use practically identical production methods. Their
efforts to circumvent the law of value causes them to equalize their
labor, without them knowing it.

This objectivied relationship between people also takes care of the
sleeping and dawdling in the production process.  A fast worker who
produces the same use value (or almost the same use value, with
hard-to-measure differences) will be rewarded more than a slow worker,
therefore everybody has to hurry up.  The concept of "socially
necessary" labor time is a very coercive concept.  I feel this pinch
right now: I should not be spending so much time on a careful analysis
of your little interchange, resulting in a product which I cannot
write into my vita and which will not result in student credit hours
for the University of Utah.  Although I hope to be making a worth while
contribution from which many of you can learn, I have to do it on my
own free time; society will not recognize that I performed this labor.

The equality of all labors qua social labor in a commodity producing
society, and the Procrustes bed of socially necessary labor time, are
important qualitative aspects of all our labors which Paul seems
completely unaware of.  To him, value is not the congelation of
*abstract* human labor, but social labor in general.  He writes:

 (4) Thus the existence of value - social labour - is a precondition for
 the existence of exchange value, but not vice-versa. Value= social
 labour time, exists in any society with a social division of labour.

If Paul is this unaware of the deadly specifics of capitalism, how can
he plan for socialism?  The absurdity of reducing all qualitative
differences of labor to "merely quantitative differences" (another
quote from Marx, Section 2 of Chapter 1 of Capital), can perhaps be
illustrated best when we arrange it in our fictitious society that the
above tailor meets Einstein.  The tailor would say: "I just spent the
last 6 hours of my life producing this coat.  But I do not really need
coats, I produce coats because I am good at producing coats.  What I
really need is the fruit of others people's labor.  I consider my
labor to be equal to your labor. I am willing to exchange my coat for
anything useful which you may have produced in the last 6 hours.  What
can you give me in exchange for my coat?"  This would be an
embarrassment for Albert.  The answer, of course, is not to turn
Einstein into a productive laborer (in the sense: laborer productive
of value), but to turn everybody into an Einstein, allow everybody to
make that unique contribution which only they are able to make. But
such a route is barred from the beginning if we stick to abstract
labor, which is what everybody has in common, the opposite of

I think even the example of building a house can be criticized along
these lines.  Paul writes:

 (5) But a socialist society must still perform
 economic calculation, when people chose between to techniques of
 house building ( to use von Mises example ) they no longer see which
 has the lowest money cost, instead they directly compute how much labour
 is required by different means.

By using the word "labor" plain and simple, Paul is clearly referring
to abstract labor.  If it were *my* house, the abstract labor going into
it would be of minor concern to me.  In order to save a few minutes of
labor, it is common in capitalism to make shortcuts in construction
which will diminish the quality of life of the tenants for a lifetime:
more noise, higher heating bills, expensive repairs, hazardous
chemicals, risks in case of fire or earthquake, you name it.  In
"really existing socialism," it was even worse because here the house
did not even have to go through the test of the market.  I have
seen the famous plate-constructed apartment buildings in East Germany
from the inside.  It is amazing to what extremes these socialists went
to design appliances which save a few minutes at installation time and
then inconvenience the user for ever after.

Hans G. Ehrbar                                    ehrbar at econ.utah.edu
Economics Department, 308 BuC                     (801) 581 7797
University of Utah                                (801) 581 7481
Salt Lake City    UT 84112-1107                   (801) 585 5649 (FAX)


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