June 15, 2008

Real vs. Theoretical Abstraction of Labor

What are the limits to Marx's historicism?  Do labor, use-value, and nature transcend history? Consider the following quote about labor:
Labour, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labour, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself.
I'm not sure statements like this can be tossed out as humanist, essentialist residues in an otherwise radically historicist saga. Instead, I think we should pay close attention to the way Marx marks (!) the gap between real and theoretical (or linguistic) abstractions in the text.  Real abstraction takes place within history, but theoretical abstractions can be used to point to (or bracket) things that precede real abstraction.

Here's a tricky passage where this gap seems evident:
On the one hand, all labour is an expenditure of human labour-power, in the physiological sense, and it is in this quality of being equal, or abstract, human labour that it forms the value of commodities. On the one hand, all labour is an expenditure of human labour-power in a particular form and with a definite aim, and it is in this quality of being concrete useful labour that it produces-use values.
In the first case, abstract labor forms the value of commodities.  All particular forms of labor are historically forced into a relation of equivalence. The abstraction of labor clearly takes place within human history since commodity production, exchange, etc. bring it about.

Yet "labor" is also an abstract concept that refers to labor prior to or outside this process of real abstraction.  "Labor" is always already abstract, but labor is not.  If "labor" is always already an abstraction, does that mean that labor is a historical category?

My three answers:
1) Abstract labor is historical (results from real abstraction)
2) The concept of "labor" is historical
3) Labor is transhistorical

Are 2 and 3 contradictory statements?  I do not think so.  Perhaps we could amend 3 to say "Labor is transhistorical to the best of our knowledge," but this is true of all declarative statements.  Why should the historicity of our concepts undercut their truth? 

A better criticism would be to say that statement 3 is somehow incomplete if it does not include knowledge of the historical conditions that allow that statement to be articulated as truth. Hegel might say that 3 remains at the level of "abstract truth." 

It becomes complicated when we try to indicate precisely what those historical conditions are.  We might think that 3 is parasitic on 2, and 2 is parasitic on 1.  In other words, "labor" becomes an abstract concept that can be applied retrospectively on all of human history only after the real abstraction of labor has taken place in commodity production.  Yet history doesn't seem to work precisely in this lock-step linear fashion (a point underscored by Althusser in "Contradiction and Overdetermination"). Consider the following passage from the same section on labor:
The various proportions in which different kinds of labour are reduced to simple labour as their unit of measurement are established by a social process that goes on behind the backs of the producers; these proportions therefore appear to the producers to have been handed down by tradition. (emph. added)
Labor as a real abstraction is thus cut off from "traditional labor" by virtue of its insertion within a social process that links the concept of labor to a quantifiable value (note: since this happens behind the backs of producers, it poses a number of problems for naive historical empiricism).  This linkage marks the difference between transhistorical labor and historical abstract labor.  If we abandon the transhistorical aspect of labor for a more radically historicist view, I think we fail to grasp the process of naturalization in capitalism. Abstracted labor appears universal and transhistorical because concrete labor actually is something we (as historical beings) can truthfully declare to be universal and transhistorical. 

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