Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 13 April 2021


 One of the best summaries of the essential problem of economic theory and of the solution offered by Karl Marx is in Lucio Colletti’s From Rousseau to Lenin. The problem is, of course, to explain how a society of private producers with “individual labours” can ever co-ordinate its productive activities so as to ensure its successful reproduction. For Marxist theory, this is the equivalent of establishing how concrete social labour, which is unmeasurable and incommensurable, can be equalized or homogenized and abstracted so that it can be measured. It is well worth our while to reproduce here the entirety of Colletti’s account of the problem which, we must aver, far excels what we ourselves could ever achieve!

THE THEORY OF VALUE AND FETISHISM The decisive point which, I believe, remains misunderstood in all these interpretations is, as already indicated, the concept of ‘abstract labour’; i.e. (a) how this abstraction of labour is produced, and (b) what it really means. The first part of the question is relatively straightforward. According to Marx, the products of labour take the form of commodities when they are produced for exchange. And they are produced for exchange when they are products of autonomous, private labours carried out independently of one another. Like Robinson Crusoe, the producer of com-­

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modities decides by himself how much and what to produce. But unlike Robinson Crusoe he lives in society and hence within a social division of labour in which his labour depends on that of others and vice versa. It follows that while Crusoe carried out all his indispensable labour by himself and relied only on his own labour for the satisfaction of his needs, the producer of commodities carries out only one determinate form of labour, the products of which are destined for others, just as the products of the other producers’ different forms of labour go to him. If this social division of labour were a conscious and planned distribution to all its members on the part of society of the various necessary types of labour and quantities to be produced, the products of individual labour would not take the form of commodities. For example, in a patriarchal peasant family there is a distribution of the work which the members themselves must carry out, but the products of this labour do not become commodities, nor do the members of the family nucleus buy or sell their products to each other.“ On the other hand, in conditions of commodity production, the work of individual producers is not labour carried out at the command or on behalf of society: rather it is private, autonomous labour, carried out by each producer independently of the next. Hence, lacking any conscious assignment or distribution on the part of society, individual labour is not immediately an articulation of social labour; it acquires its character as an aliquot of aggregate labour solely through the mediation of exchange relations or the market. Now Marx’s essential thesis is that in order to exchange their products, men must equalize them, i.e. abstract from the physical-natural or use-value aspect in which one product differs from another (corn from iron, iron from glass, etc.). In abstracting from the object or concrete material of their labour they also abstract ipso facto from that which serves to differentiate their labours. ‘Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied in them and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but what is common to them all . . . human labour in the abstract.”  Hence in abstracting from the natural, sensory objectivity of their products, men also and simultaneously abstract from what differentiates their various subjective activities. ‘The Labour . . . that forms the substance of value is homogeneous labour-power, expenditure of one uniform labour-power. The total labour-power of society which is embodied in


the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour-power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour-power of society and takes effect as such. By now it should be clear that the process whereby ‘abstract labour’ is obtained, far from being a mere mental abstraction of the investigator's, is one which takes place daily in the reality of exchange itself (‘When we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever by an exchange we equate as values our different products, by that very act we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it.')'”

As Colletti rightfully reminds us, the central problem of the critique of capitalism is to explain how concrete labour can be turned by capitalists into abstract labour – or in other words how social labour, which cannot possibly be measured and remunerated individually, can turn into an aggregate of individual labours remunerated individually as wage labour. Notice two things immediately. One is that Colletti refers to “the social division of labour” when in fact he should be referring to “the division of social labour”. The distinction is crucial because by referring to the social division of “labour”, Colletti implies that there is only one total aggregate of homogeneous “labour” that is naturally divided by “society”. In one simple move, thus, Colletti has reified both “labour” and “society”. What Colletti should have done, instead, is to stress the fact that the division of social labour – hence the character of “social labour” and of “society” itself – changes from social formation to social formation, from feudalism to capitalism, for instance.

Because he fails to make this vital distinction, Colletti is then forced rightaway to replicate and perpetuate Marx’s initial fallacy and conundrum, that is, to assume that capitalist society reproduces truly and effectively without any form or shape of “planning” simply by means of the market exchange of “commodities” which, in turn, automatically turns into the abstraction of concrete social labour. The obverse is also true: Colletti equates communism with a planned society. The conundrum then becomes, of course, to explain how “individual labours” based on “private property” and therefore also “individual production decisions” can ensure the efficient yet un-planned reproduction of capitalist society. This is a conundrum because it is an evident mystery to see how an unplanned economy can actually co-ordinate itself in reality through unplanned market transactions!

The problem with Colletti’s excellent description of the problem of the social synthesis or the co-ordination of human activities for the reproduction of society is in the final part: the part where he follows Marx in stressing that the equalization of living labour as abstract labour is due to the very act and practice of market exchange. By so doing, Colletti uncritically subscribes to the Marxian contention that concrete labour is abstracted through the unconscious acts and practices of individual independent agents – by means of market exchange and not by means of orchestrated political coercion!

Now, it is true that, as Marx and Colletti maintain, concrete social labour can be abstracted or equalized or homogenised only when the products of that social labour are exchanged, and thence also “priced”, as individual commodities – because once products (commodities or “goods”) are priced individually, it is entirely obvious and it follows necessarily that the concrete social labour behind their production must be treated as if it were homogeneous abstract labour rather as concrete social labour. But the pricing of the products of social labour for market exchange – their treatment as individual products separate from all other products – and therefore the homogenization and equalization of the concrete social labour that pro-duced these “products” can only take place if and only if there is an institutional political regulation and thus necessarily political co-action or co-ercion behind such equalization and homologation as abstract individual wage labour of the concrete social labour that went into their production!

As we explained above, Marx tries to solve this conundrum of how concrete social labour can be transmuted into abstract individual labours measurable and remunerated as wage labour in two ways – a realist and a phenomenological way. The realist solution assumes that there is an aggregate of socially necessary labour time that is then redistributed by means of individual autonomous market transactions which, because totally unplanned, can then result in regular market anarchy and economic crises. The problem with the realist solution to the conundrum of capitalist market reproduction is that there is and there can be no such thing as “socially necessary labour time” because the minute we try to define what is “socially necessary” we fall into a tautology: what is socially necessary is what is socially necessary for capitalist society to reproduce itself – which is determined by market transactions. But market transactions or exchanges are ex post facto explanations, or rather, rationalizations! In other words, market exchanges fall into the fallacies of tautology first – socially necessary labour time determines market prices and market prices determine socially necessary labour time – and the fallacy called post hoc ergo propter hoc - because it is the final market-clearing prices that rationalize socially necessary labour time in causal terms – as “necessary” labour time! In reality, if Colletti and Marx allowed that capitalist industry, far from being unplanned, is actually very politically and coercively planned, the conundrum would disappear, and we would have to describe how this planning or regulation takes place. Once again, the difficulty arises because Colletti and Marx assume that there is a mythical “social division of labour”, that is to say, an invariable “society” independent of modes of production, and one invariable aggregate “labour” available to that mythical “society”. What we are affirming here is that instead we must refer to historically specific “social labours” that are politically managed for specific social formations or modes of production. This way, we can consign the mythical notion of “the market” to the scrapheap of social theories to which it belongs.

Now, once Marx and Colletti perceive that it is impossible for market prices to explain the equalization of concrete labour into abstract labour, it is then a natural tendency for them to insist on the phenomenological explanation of this mysterious (not “mystical” as Marx describes it in the chapter on commodity fetishism) transmutation by means of a psycho-sociological phenomenological collective hypnosis (a “social imaginary” as Sartre and Althusser would label it) – commodity fetishism! The reason why Colletti, like Marx, has to fall back (a) on fusing the realist theory of value with the phenomenological theory of fetishism, and consequently (b) on con-fusing socialism with “planning” and capitalism with “lack of planning” because he identifies “social labour” with “planned labour” and “individual labours” with “unplanned society”! In reality, all societies rely on concrete social labour for their reproduction The difference between social formations rests on the kind of social labour that they employ and on the use they make of their production.

Because without planning the reproduction of capitalist society cannot rely solely on “the market”, then Marx and Colletti, who insist strenuously on the “unplanned” or “market” essence of capitalism, must of necessity rely on the notion of “commodity fetishism” or that of “socially necessary labour time”. For it is impossible or tautological to explain how “the market” can ensure the reproduction of capitalist society once we realize that market explanations are always and everywhere ex post facto rationalizations of social reproduction: they are valid only until such time as economic crises show the catastrophic inadequacy of “market solutions” – at which time we all become aware of the utter futility of “market equilibrium” accounts of capitalism!

Let us show how Colletti falls back on (a) first:

THE LABOUR THEORY OF VALUE The inadequacy and simplification of the concept of ‘economy’, which, as we have seen, is an element more or less common to all the tendencies of Marxism in the Second International, helps to explain the foundation, during the same period, of an interpretation of the labour theory of value from which even later Marxism has been unable to free itself. This


interpretation consisted in the reduction of Marx’s theory of value to that of Ricardo, or even to the theory of value which developed in the course of the ‘dissolution of the Ricardian school’. Its hallmark is the inability to grasp, or even to suspect, that Marx’s theory of value is identical to his theory of fetishism and that it is precisely by virtue of this element (in which the crucial importance of the relation with Hegel is intuitively evident) that Marx’s theory differs in principle from the whole of classical political economy.

And also at pg.93:

Since ‘value’ is now considered as the objectification of human labour-power, the critical scientific or anti-fetishistic discourse of Capital comes to coincide with the self-consciousness of the working class (a further proof of the unity of science and ideology). For just as wage labour, by recognizing the essence of ‘value’ and ‘capital’, sees that essence as an objectification of ‘itself’ (and hence reaches self—consciousness through this knowledge), the working class, by becoming conscious of itself, achieves — for profit and rent are forms derived from surplus value — the knowledge of the origin and basis of other classes and hence of society as a whole. This point serves to indicate the profound difference between Marx and his Marxist but (more or less consciously) Ricardian interpreters. They failed to grasp the organic unity between the theory of value and the theory of fetishism and therefore could not avoid confusing two totally distinct things.

And now we illustrate both (a) and (b):

On the one hand, in dividing its total labour force between different employments, society must take account of the labour-time involved in each of these employments. On the other hand, we have the specific way in which this law operates under capitalism where, in the absence of a conscious or planned division of social labour, the labour-time required by the various productive activities is presented as an intrinsic quality in the products themselves, as the ‘value’ of a ‘thing’. This confusion between the law of labour-time (which applies to all societies) and its fetishized realization in the world of capital and of commodities, or between the principles of planning and the law of value is the root of modern revisionism

Here Colletti, like the Ricardians and revisionists he is critiquing, clearly mistakes capitalism with the Planlosigkeit – the lack of planning and anarchy which, together with the theft of labour time, was the essential point of attack of Marxist and Social Democrats against capitalist industry! The problem with capitalist industry is most emphatically not “the absence of a conscious or planned division of social labour”! The problem is the organized, regimented political coercion of living labour for the sake of the accumulation of dead labour for the further coercion of living labour! It is only through political coercion that concrete social labour can be turned into abstract individual wage labour.

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