Abstract labour: against its nature and on its time.

Author:Bonefeld, Werner


Numerous critical studies on abstract labour have appeared in recent years. Apart from three articles in Capital & Class by de Angelis (1995), Arthur (2001), and Kicillof and Starosta (2007a), notable contributions have come from Heinrich (1999), Kay (1999), Kicillof and Starosta (2007b), Murray (2000), Postone (1996) and Starosta (2008). In place of transhistorical conceptions of abstract labour as the physiological expenditure of human energy, or as homogeneous labour that is generally adaptable to the changing demands of capitalist production, the emerging consensus in the contemporary debate conceives of abstract labour as a socially determined, specifically capitalist form of labour that 'depends on exchange' (Bellofiore, 2009: 183). This insight was fundamental to earlier debates on value and abstract labour in Capital & Class (see Himmelweit and Mohun, 1978; Eldret and Hanlon, 1981; de Vroey, 1982).

Their conceptualisation of abstract labour as a specific capitalist form of labour goes back to Isaak Rubin's work on value, which was rediscovered in the early 1970s. Rubin had argued,

one of two things is possible: if abstract labour is an expenditure of human energy in physiological form, then value has a reified-material character. Or value is a social phenomenon, and then abstract labour must also be understood as a social phenomenon connected with a determined social form of production. It is not possible to reconcile a physiological concept of abstract labour with the historical character of the value which it creates. (Rubin, 1972:135)

For Eldret and Hanlon (1981: 40), the 'determination of abstract labour as a physiological expenditure of labour-power leads to the crudest understanding of value and the loss of the socially specific character of value-creating labour. The abstractness of value-creating labour is determined by the exchange process, which accomplishes the abstraction from the multifarious concrete labours objectified in commodities.' Similarly, De Vroey (1982: 44) rejected physiological conceptions of abstract labour as being a 'naturalistic deformation of the social reality of capitalism'. If it is physiologically understood, abstract labour defines Man's productive relationship to natural objects in general, as a generic presupposition of historically specific forms of social relations. For these CSE authors, this notion misconceived of Marx's theory of value as a refined and improved version of Ricardo's labour theory of value, which also suggested that Marx's account evolved logically from classical political economy, especially Ricardo. (1) Yet Ricardo's labour theory of value did not distinguish between concrete labour and abstract labour, and it treated labour as an undifferentiated category that belonged to production. His account thus 'lacked historical specificity: historically specific categories are rendered universal and hence natural. It follows that any analysis which uncritically employs these categories will always tend to ascribe asocial, natural, even eternal qualities to what is socially specific to capitalism' (Himmelweit and Mohun, 1978: 80). In contrast, the CSE authors argued that the examination of value as a specific social form of wealth entailed the understanding of abstract labour as a specific capitalist form of labour.

In this context, Axel Kicillof's and Guido Starosta's stance is distinct. They argue against social form analyses of abstract labour, and instead offer a vigorous defence of its physiological conception. At the same time, however, they treat value as a specifically capitalist category. They see abstract labour as a transhistorical category that in capitalism is 'represented' by the value form. This article examines Kicillof's and Starosta's intriguing contention. Marx's notion of abstract labour is ambivalent. (2) He defines it in asocial physiological terms, and insists that it is a specifically capitalist form of labour. With this in mind, the paper starts with an account of Killicof and Starosta's physiological reading of abstract labour and examines their critique of the contributions by de Angelis and Arthur, who, for different reasons, see abstract labour as a specifically capitalist category. These three contributions represent the spectrum of debate about abstract labour. Notwithstanding the ambivalence in Marx's own text, the paper then explores Marx's social form account of abstract labour. It argues that abstract labour is a specific temporal form of capitalist labour. (3) The conclusion maps the political implications of these distinct conceptions.

Abstract labour and its social form

For Kicillof and Starosta, abstract labour is the material foundation of the human metabolism with nature. Man has to exchange with nature, and they characterise this exchange as the 'generic determination of labour' (Kicillof and Starosta, 2007b: 23). However, the circumstance that Man has to exchange with nature does not say anything about the mode of production. Nor is labour in the abstract possible. The reality of labour is always concrete. They therefore argue that the transhistorical nature of abstract labour expresses itself differently in distinct modes of production. Thus, in capitalism, abstract labour entails 'both a generic material determination and a historically-specific role as the substance of value' (2007b: 23). The transhistorical materiality of abstract labour obtains through specific historical forms. They thus argue that 'the real "genuine" object of the critique of political economy [is] not the pure realm of social forms, but the contradictory unity between the materiality of human life and its historically-determined social forms' (2007b: 24). Since abstract labour is a natural condition of human existence, and since one cannot subvert or revolutionise nature, the revolution of abstract labour has to do with its capitalist form; that is, with the way in which it is socially 'represented' in the form of value (cf. Kicillof and Starosta, 2007a: 20). Their exposition focuses only on the capitalist form of abstract labour, which provides the illustration for both its historically specific application as substance of value, and its natural, transhistorical materiality.

Their approach, then, begs the question of whether it reveals abstract labour as an ontological presupposition of human existence or whether it naturalises capitalist economic categories. Yet despite Marx's biting critique of 'the economists" attempt at naturalising economic categories, which, he argues, allows them to smuggle them into their analysis as the 'inviolable natural laws on which society and history in the abstract are founded' (Marx, 1973: 87), their argument is on strong textual grounds. On the one hand, Marx conceives of abstract labour as 'a purely social reality' that can only appear in the social relations of 'commodity to commodity' (Marx, 1983: 54); and on the other, he defines it physiologically as 'productive expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles' (Marx, 1983: 51). (4) As physiological expenditure, abstract labour comprises expenditure of bodily energy--in production, in exchange with nature, indifferent to concrete purposes, a mere expenditure of 'corporeal power' (Starosta, 2008:31).

If abstract labour really is expenditure of bodily energy, then it can indeed be defined without further ado in precise physiological terms. That is, 'muscles burn sugar' (Haug, 2005: 108). (5) Muscles have burned sugar since time immemorial and will continue to do so, indifferent to historical development--and in this way, expenditure of bodily energy appears indifferent to concrete purposes and distinct modes of production. Like Haug, Kicillof and Starosta hold that physiological determination is the 'only meaningful definition of abstract labour, which, as much as its concrete aspect, is a purely material form, bearing no social or historical specificity. And yet, when performed privately and independently, and once congealed in the natural materiality of the product of labour, that purely material form acquires the form of value of the commodity, i.e. a purely social form that embodies "not an atom of matter"' (Kicillof and Starosta, 2007b: 34-5). Their critique of Rubin's form analysis is thus easily understood. Rubin did not ask how, in capitalism, labour 'in the physiological sense becomes specific in terms of value'. His mistake was thus to 'surrender to the self-evident fact that the identity between different concrete labours contains a physiological or material determination' (2007b: 22). There is thus a need to trace the social form of abstract labour back to its natural determination, which bears no social and historical specificity.

Kicillof and Starosta therefore argue that the conception of abstract labour as substance of value 'does not answer the question about the "specific social character of the labour which produces" commodities' (Kicillofand Starosta, 2007b: 22). It merely tells us about 'the material determination ... of that which is socially recognised in the form of value'. In short, 'the analytical reduction of value to its substance' (2007b: 22) reveals only the capitalist representation of abstract labour--it does not tell us anything about its 'generic materiality' (2007a: 16). In their view, Marx discovered this materiality in the opening pages of Capital, which tell us that 'in any form of society human beings productively expend their corporeal powers' (Starosta, 2008:31). (6) At the start of Capital, Marx is therefore not concerned with the 'common property in commodities. Rather, he is searching for (i.e., not yet unfolding) the specific determination defining the potentiality of the commodity as a historical form of social wealth' (2008: 25). That is, Marx is said to search for the general properties of labour and is said to find these in abstract labour--the worker's labour obeys the...

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