Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Reflections on Elson’s “Value Theory of Labour”, part 2

Okay, so I went a bit crazy with this… I hadn’t intended to write a whole article-length response to Elson’s work – which, between yesterday’s post and today’s, is effectively what I’ve done. This post is so long that, while I would normally post it to the front page, it just exceeds all reasonable length – I’ll have to tuck it below the fold. Also, apologies in advance that I’m simply too exhausted, having written this, to edit – there are sections where I think I’m being repetitive, and other sections where I’m moving too quickly – hopefully anyone who clicks through will understand that this was written in one long and possibly ill-advised sitting, and it suffers as a result…

For those trying to decide whether to click through, I summarise the second half of Elson’s argument, of which I’m much more critical than I was of the first. I focus particularly on the notion of a real abstraction – and on how Elson is both aware of this concept, and yet uses it in tandem with an analytical framework that is expressly posited as transhistorical – the effect is to criticise capitalism for having a certain set of real abstractions (captured in categories like abstract labour, value, and money) against critical categories that do not have this same “real” status. I follow this thread through Elson’s argument, discussing Elson’s comments on the “structure/agency” issue in theories of capitalism; I outline her reading of the first chapter of Capital; and I discuss her concluding discussion of the political implications of her reading of Marx. In spite of the length of this piece, I don’t cover Elson’s argument in the same micrological detail I used in the previous post: the length is made up of critical asides where I explore the differences and points of agreement between my own approach and Elson’s work. I conclude with a fairly condensed set of criticisms, and also provide a whirlwind sketch of how I understand the concept of abstract labour – just to provide some sense of the perspective from which I am offering this critique.

To the folks who asked me to comment on this piece, all I can say is: be careful what you wish for… ;-P Below the fold we go…

So yesterday I broke off a discussion of Diane Elson’s “The Value Theory of Labour” roughly at the midway point. I broke the discussion where I did because, from that point in the text, my perspective on Elson’s argument becomes much more complex. I like much of Elson’s description of Marx’s method, as presented in the first half of her article – a great deal of what she says there could be a regarded as a kind of de-Hegelianised presentation of some of the same points I make here. Since I generally regard it as a plus, not to drag everyone through Hegel en route to Marx, I enjoy what she does there.

At the same time, there are some slight differences – initially just in phrasing and emphasis – that, by the end of the first half, build up to what I see as a slightly problematic claim, to the effect that the analytical categories in Capital should be understood as “mere” abstractions, as analytical constructs that mustn’t be confused with entities that actually exist in the world. She uses this argument to criticise “capital logic” approaches on the grounds that such approaches confuse “capital” as a “one-sided abstraction” (a conceptual abstraction) with an actually existing entity – thus reifying or fetishising analytical constructions by treating them as though they really exist. Her critique here is, essentially, that “capital logic” approaches fall into idealism, by failing to grasp the distinction between their analytical categories, on the one hand, and, on the other, practical realities that are the real concern of political practice. (144)

From my point of view, this last step mistakes the nature of Marx’s critique of idealism. Marx is critical of approaches that treat ideas as constitutive of reality – Elson captures this when she quotes Marx from the 1857 Introduction, arguing that Hegel:

fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself. (quoted in Elson 144)

The way Marx effects his critique – the way he carries the critique out in his own practice – is not, however, to draw a stark distinction between “ideas” or “analytical categories” that are understood as more contingent or inessential than the realities those categories grasp, but rather to offer an argument for how certain kinds of ideas or analytical categories emerge as moments within practice. The argument here is that the categories that arise in practice remain intertwined with practice – and that idealism misses this intrinsic connection, separates ideas off from practice, and assigns ideas a constitutive role. The move Elson makes in her critique of “capital logic” approaches simply reverses the idealist approach Marx criticises – separating ideas off from practice in much the same way, but this time assigning practice (understood as something that subsides or exists separately from ideas) a constitutive role. Marx – following Hegel’s essence/appearance argument – would, I think, regard both approaches as one-sided. His argument instead takes the form of unfolding a more encompassing concept of practice – on that does not separate out ideal and real, subjective and objective, into separate substances or worlds, one of which is posited as more “essential” than the other. The adequate critique of idealism, for Marx, is not simply to invert its dichotomy, but to transcend it.

Strangely, Elson knows this in parts of her discussion of Marx’s method. She argues against approaches that read Marx’s concept of “determination” as a causal concept – and her argument here specifically points out that causal concepts require a separation of independent and dependent variables – a separation of what “determines” from what is “determined” – that is incompatible with Marx’s method. She convincingly demonstrates that a wide array of apparently unrelated approaches – from economistic readings, to Althusserian structuralism, to deterministic philosophies of history, to searches for “necessary conditions” – are lead astray by their common impulse to separate out some fixed standpoint that can “determine” a social context that is tacitly or explicitly conceived as distinct and separate from the “determinant”. It is therefore somewhat jarring to see her veer suddenly into a very similar dichotomy in her critique of “capital logic” approaches, insisting on the need for a firm separation of analytical categories – understood here as “mere” abstractions – from the context whose characteristics those categories are intended to express.

It is here, perhaps, that what might otherwise appear to be slight differences of phrasing and emphasis between Elson’s approach and my own, find a more substantive edge. I take Marx to be attempting to resituate categories within practice – to be presenting an argument that his categories are real abstractions, and to be criticising idealism for grasping these real abstractions in a one-sided way. It is also, however, possible to construct an equally one-sided materialist approach to these same real abstractions – by making the same move Marx takes the idealists to be making: separating out idea from reality, subject from object; treating one side of the dichotomy as an “essence”, and the other as an “appearance; and then – the crucial step of which Marx would be critical – treating these sides as subsisting in separate substances or worlds. Marx’s argument is that both sides subsist in the same world; one is not more “true” than the other; and the social form we need to grasp, must capture the consubstantial reality of social “essences” and “appearances”, forms of social subjectivity and objectivity, as constituted dimensions of a broader conception of social practice than the one evoked either by idealism or by what Marx sometimes describes as “naïve materialism”.

This point does not vitiate Elson’s critique of “capital logic” approaches – it’s entirely possible that she has in mind approaches that genuinely are one-sidedly idealist, or that are hyper-structuralist in a way that undermines their ability to conceptualise agency. Elson is also rightly concerned that the practical project of political transformation not be narrowly equated with theoretical critique, which can only ever be one small dimension of such a political process. My dispute is not with either of these points, but solely with the terms through which she expresses them – with the tacit suggestion that materialism can be a straightforward reversal of idealism.

I take Marx’s method as an attempt to overcome the partial and one-sided perceptions of capitalism that arise when we succumb to the (structural) temptation to hive off moments of this social context to treat as more “real” than other moments. Elson, to me, both captures this dimension of Marx’s argument – when she discusses the concept of “determination” – and yet fails to follow through on its implications when she comes to treat the categories in Capital as “mere” abstractions – as conceptual and therefore less “real” than practice. Marx poses different questions: how can something be both real and transient – how can something be real “for us” – how do we make something “real”? In grasping how we do this – how we create a social reality – he hopes to reveal determinate potentials for emancipatory transformation.

By contrast, when Elson moves to outline her own interpretation of Marx’s value theory, her account oscillates. One level of her analysis treats Marx’s analytical categories as essentially themselves “idealist”, by describing these categories as a sort of transhistorical classification scheme that can be imposed on any society. She proposes two central pairs of categories – abstract/concrete and private/social – and suggests that these can be treated as mere conceptual abstractions. To do this, she makes strange use of a passage from Marx to which I have also drawn attention in the thesis – one in which he talks about the potential “usefulness” of abstract categories like “production in general”, even though such categories have no “real” existence in any society. She also draws attention to where Marx moves from here – again, covering ground I also cover in the thesis – which is to make an argument about what I would call “real abstractions” – abstractions that emerge in thought because they emerge in practice, such that we are collectively enacting such abstractions. Marx describes this – as Elson mentions – as a situation in which abstractions possess a “practical truth”. (144-145)

Strangely, having specifically mentioned Marx’s explanation of the concept of a real abstraction – or, in his terms, an abstraction that is a “practical truth” – what she takes from his discussion, is the permission he gives to apply abstractions to contexts in which these are not a practical truth – which, in the context of the passage she is citing from the Grundrisse, is to seize on a concession Marx makes to the political economists in passing, in the context of a discussion where he is much more interested to show how political economic categories – he specifically focusses on labour – are abstractions with a practical truth. Marx does discuss in this passage that we can then take abstractions that have a practical truth for us, and look back through history through the lens of these abstractions – but he carefully characterises such a move as something that must be done “with a grain of salt”, because there is “an essential difference” between situations in which such abstractions are practical truths, and situations in which they are not: when we lift these abstractions out of the context in which they express practical truths, we are gazing back into the past in order to discuss the meaning of that past “for us”. Marx has no problem with doing this, as long as the “essential difference” is recognised. His main interest, however, lies in understanding the sorts of practical truths that emerge in our own time. (I’ve discussed this specific example from the Grundrisse in the draft of my third chapter – perhaps a bit more coherently than I’m managing to express the same point here – search on the term “Grundrisse” to avoid having to trawl through the whole document.)

In any event, Elson draws attention to one of Marx’s few explicit discussions of real abstraction, in order to make the case that Marx concedes that it can be “rational” to use abstractions that do not possess a practical truth. She is not misrepresenting what Marx says, but is, I would argue, significantly mistaking his argumentative intentions: she focusses on a line that, in the structure of the text she cites, serves as a throwaway concession to political economy’s tendency to talk about “production in general”. Marx says here that, yes, sure, we can talk about such things – as long as we realise that there is no place, in any time, in any place, where something like “production in general” exists. He then immediately moves to a discussion of another kind of abstraction – abstraction that expresses practical truth – and to argue that key political economic categories are such abstractions, but are unrecognised as such. It is this latter step – the step that political economy does not take – that I would take Marx to regard as more methodologically central for his own analysis.

Elson takes a different path. She positions the pairs of categories to which she draws attention – abstract/concrete, private/social – as a sort of transhistorical categorial grid onto which labour in any society can be plotted. I can’t express how strange this move feels to me, given her opening criticisms of approaches that seek out variables that stand outside their context. Admittedly, Elson is making no causal argument here, so the transhistorical grid she suggests Marx applies to various societies is understood in a completely “idealist” way – as a mere conceptual abstraction that aids analysis: the grid doesn’t cause anything; it just classifies. At the same time, however, the grid also doesn’t interpenetrate or emerge immanently within any particular context – it can’t, because she proposes that it can be applied to labour in any social form.

This interpretation goes a long way to explaining why Elson needs to draw such a strong distinction between the analytical categories unfolded in Capital, and other forms of practice: unless the categories of analysis express “practical truth”, they are, in fact, idealist and divorced from practice. If you perceive analytical categories this way – and, more importantly, if you understand other people to perceive their own analytical categories this way – then it makes sense to be extremely critical of approaches that spend a great deal of effort (as Marx did) trying to find categories expressive of their context in very specific ways. When categories are perceived as expressing practical truths, when they are understood as real abstractions, then the investigation of the categories has some chance of bringing to the surface tensions within social practice in a much broader sense: it is this sort of contribution I take Marx to be trying to make through Capital. When categories are perceived as floating above any specific context, then the link to social practice in a broader sense is necessarily more fraught – and Elson, who is concerned with issues of political salience, is right to underscore that her categories should not be taken as existent entities – not even socially existent ones.

Elson uses her grid to suggest that labour in any society can be understood in terms of the pairs abstract/concrete and private/social. She is careful to stress that these categories do not pick out particular types of labour, but rather different aspects of labour – she calls them potentia. What changes from one society to the next is not the grid – these four aspects are always conceptually salient – but instead the relation of the moments of the grid to one another. In Elson’s words:

The four categories that we have been discussing are thus concepts of four potentia, which can never exist on their own as determinate forms of labour. Labour always has its abstract and concrete, its social and private aspects. Marx poses any particular determinate form of labour as a precipitate of these four different aspects of labour. What is specific to a particular kind of society is the relation of these aspects to one another and the way in which they are represented in the precipitated forms. Marx concludes that in capitalist society the abstract aspect is dominant. The social character of labour is established precisely through the representation of this abstract aspect of labour… (149)

She goes on to argue:

Thus, Marx’s argument is not that the abstract aspect of labour is the product of capitalist social relations, but that the latter are characterised by the dominance of the abstract aspect over other aspects of labour. In these conditions, abstract labour comes to have a ‘practical truth’ because the unity of human labour, its differentiation simply in terms of quantity of labour, is not simply recognised in a mental process, but has a correlate in a real social process, that goes on quite independently of how we reason about it. (150)

This particular move, I suggest, would be backwards from Marx’s point of view. The way Elson frames her argument here suggests that “labour” is always a certain kind of conceptual unity, which can always be conceptualised as possessing four aspects. One of these four aspects of this ideal construction of labour, then comes to possess a social or practical reality in capitalism. Marx would, I suspect, be asking a “who educates the educators” question here: where does the ideal construction come from in the first place? While Marx does periodically discuss how certain abstractions can be applied transhistorically, he tends to be extremely dismissive of the usefulness of such abstractions for any sort of critical work. The following passage from Marx’s Notes on Adolph Wagner gives some sense of how he thinks “theoretical” categories develop in practice – and also of how scathing he can be of approaches that don’t take the same practice-theoretic perspective on this process:

But men do not by any means begin by “finding themselves in this theoretical relationship to the things of the outside world.” They begin, like every animal, by eating, drinking, etc., that is not by “finding themselves” in a relationship, but actively behaving, availing themselves of certain things of the outside world by action, and thus satisfying their needs. (They start, then, with production.) By the repetition of this process the capacity of these things to “satisfy their needs” becomes imprinted on their brains; men, like animals, also learn “theoretically” to distinguish the outer things which serve to satisfy their needs from all other. At a certain stage of evolution, after their needs, and the activities by which they are satisfied, have, in the meanwhile, increased and further developed, they will linguistically christen entire classes of these things which they distinguished by experience from the rest of the outside world. This is bound to occur, as in the production process—i.e. the process of appropriating these things—they are continually engaged in active contact amongst themselves and with these things, and will soon also have to struggle against others for these things. But this linguistic label purely and simply expresses as a concept what repeated activity has turned into an experience, namely that certain outer things serve to satisfy the needs of human beings already living in certain social context //this being an essential prerequisite on account of the language//. Human beings only give a special (generic) name to these things because they already know that they serve to satisfy their needs, because they seek to acquire them by more or less frequently repeated activity, and therefore also to keep them in their possession; they call them “goods” or something else which expresses the fact that they use these things in practice, that these things are useful to them, and they give the thing this character of utility as if it possessed it, although it would hardly occur to a sheep that one of its “useful” qualities is that it can be eaten by human beings.

In the Grundrisse passage Elson has already discussed, Marx applies a similar practice-theoretic approach to analyse why it becomes plausible for Adam Smith to be able to develop a concept of “labour” as a unity of all sorts of productive activities – and thus for this very abstract and apparently socially non-specific category to be expressive of practical truth for capitalism alone. Elson’s suggestion that labour can be understood as a conceptually unified abstraction – one that can be analytically broken into four aspects in any society, but where the abstract aspect gains a practical reality in capitalist society alone – seems, in this context, to fall well short of Marx’s method, in which establishing the links between concepts and “practical truth” is, I have suggested, much more central.

Elson moves from her preliminary discussion of abstract labour, to an attempt to make sense of the first chapter of Capital in light of her reading. Not surprisingly (and I have some sympathy with this reaction to the first chapter), she finds the explicit derivation of the concept of abstract labour “quite inadequate”: Marx makes it very, very difficult to “get” the structure of the first chapter, and I don’t blame Elson for being confused. I’ve written probably a bit too often on the blog, how I understand this chapter – anyone who has somehow managed to miss this discussion, can find the latest iteration of my chapter 1 narrative here. For present purposes, suffice to say that Elson finds the explicit argument that “derives” the existence of abstract labour via a sort of geometric proof to be bizarre; regular readers will know that I think Marx actually intends his readers to have this reaction, and that he will later reveal the forms of thought expressed in this section as examples of fetishised forms of consciousness. It would be a severe understatement to say that Marx doesn’t adequately flag his textual strategy – driving even nuanced readers like Elson to frustration when trying to figure out what to do with this section of his text.

Much of Elson’s work on the first chapter therefore revolves around her attempt to square the circles of a text that, read “straight”, is flatly self-contradictory. She wields her “analytic”/”synthetic” distinction here (discussed in the previous post), in order to smooth out these apparent contradictions, arguing that what is involved is not contradiction, so much as a shift from the “analytic” method in the first two sections, to a “synthetic” method in the third section (160). From my point of view, it is actually closer to the mark to view the chapter as self-contradictory – not because I think that it is, but because I think that confronting the contradictory claims head-on is more accurate than covering over the way in which the claims made at the end of this chapter make no sense if Marx endorses the claims with which the chapter opens. Elson reads the first chapter as beginning from a one-sided abstraction that expresses a standpoint of equilibrium exchange relations, and then moving on to a “synthetic” analysis that places this standpoint back into the context of a broader process that tends to disequilibrium (160-161). I like Elson’s impulse here – to argue that the later moments of the text are intended to lead us to revise the conclusions we were tempted to draw from the earlier moments: I think this is roughly how the text works; I’m just not convinced that categorising this process in terms of movements back and forth between “analysis” and “synthesis” adequately captures how this takes place and, of course, I think there is much more going on in the first chapter, than a shift from equilibrium to disequilibrium conceptions of commodity exchange.

I should also point out that, as Elson outlines her reading, she is particularly concerned with working out what Marx could possibly mean when he talks about a common “substance” that is presupposed by the exchange process. Her overriding concern is to understand what’s going on in the text, in a way that preserves the possibility for agency – she is concerned in particular that “structural” conceptions of value necessarily involve separating the “structure” as a causal force, out from the “structured” society, and her account is driven in part by her desire to think Marx’s discussion in a way that isn’t “deterministic” in a casual sense (cf. 159).

While I understand her motives here, this sort of argument strangely participates in the assumptions of the approaches she is trying to criticise. In other words, Elson accepts that, if a theory is making an argument about “structure”, structure is necessarily conceptualised as something that sits outside of what is structured, causally determining everything else that is going on. This assumption makes her, from my point of view, unnecessarily allergic to talking in terms of structure – at one point, for example, she objects to speaking of an “invisible hand” on the grounds that such talk posits “some non-human source” for constraint. Yet the concept of an “invisible hand” is generally meant simply to name the unintended consequences of particular sorts of distributed, noncoordinated social practices – there’s nothing “nonhuman” about it, nor does the invisible hand sit somehow outside the social practices that bring it into being, “causing” things to happen. The basic concept underlying this image is one of emergence – that it is possible for a kind of unintentional order to emerge in situations in which no one is setting out to create something orderly. I would argue that Marx is actually not using equilibrium notions of an “invisible hand” in his argument but, nevertheless, he does use metaphors of emergent order from time to time, including in the first chapter of Capital. I see these metaphors as consistent with his appropriation of the Hegelian notion that “essence” subsists nowhere else other than in “appearance” – that order emerges only in flux, that structure exists nowhere else than in practice. Occasionally, Elson nods at such a possibility in her own analysis – she talks periodically, for example, about “blind social process” (cf. 163); she is, however, fairly ungenerous in her criticisms of others who deploy “structuralist” vocabulary: perhaps more of these folks that she admits might not be making the mistake of perceiving structure as something that subsists outside or in a causal, independent variable, relationship with other dimensions of social life?

Elson develops her analysis by analysing the argument about money as the universal equivalent. Elson argues that, with this step, the abstract aspect of labour (one of the four transhistorical sectors on her grid) gains practical expression – in money. Elson argues that the commodity money gains dominance over all other commodities. It is with this point – when what might otherwise just be a conceptualisable dimension of labour, steps forward to gain social expression in practice – that the abstract aspect of labour comes to the fore, and becomes the dominant aspect of labour under capitalism. (163)

Elson returns here to her critique of “capital logic” approaches, citing passages in Capital that do seem to suggest that something about the logic of this system becomes “self-moving” and escapes human control. (164) I think she is correct here in arguing that Marx sees this “self-moving” perception of capitalism as itself a partial perspective – something that seems plausible enough, when certain aspects of the social context are held in view in a one-sided way, but that does not ultimately capture capitalism as a whole. I am less sympathetic to the overarching argument about money as the most relevant real abstraction for grasping Marx’s argument about capitalism – or even his argument about the fetish in the first chapter. If nothing else, it should be taken as significant that, in the structure of Capital as a whole, the discussion of circulation in the first few chapters leads up to an impasse that allows Marx to derive the twinned categories of capital and wage labour – a move that explicitly relativises the entire discussion that unfolds in the first few chapters (I have written more extensively on this move in materials already cited above).

In her concluding section, Elson draws the political implications of her analysis, arguing that capitalism bifurcates the experience of exploitation into what appear to be distinct realms of exploitation in money relations and labour process relations – unfair wages or prices, and unfair working conditions. (171-172) She argues that her analytical framework provides the possibility for demonstrating the intrinsic links between these apparently disjointed relations in the exploitation process, by demonstrating that the apparent disjoint results from treating, in a one-sided fashion, something that should be taken as a unity. She argues:

Marx’s theory of value is able to show this unity of money and labour process because it does not pose production and circulation as two separate, discretely separate spheres, does not pose value and price as distinctly separate variables. (172)

She then suggests that the capacity of the theory to analyse distinction and unity is central to the capacity to grasp the potential for crisis – which, for Elson, opens the space for political action. (173)

She concludes:

[Capital] offers us neither a structure in dominance, nor a model of political economy, nor a self-developing, all-enveloping entity. Rather it analyses, for societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, the determination of labour as an historical process of forming what is intrinsically unformed; arguing that what is specific to capitalism is the domination of one aspect of labour, abstract labour, objectified as value. On this basis it is possible to understand why capital can appear to be the dominant subject, and individuals simply bearers of capitalist relations of production; but it is also possible to establish why this is only half the truth. For Marx’s analysis also recognise the limits to the tendency to reduce individuals to bearers of value-forms. It does this by incorporating into the analysis the subjective, conscious, particular aspects of labour in the concepts of private and concrete labour; and the collective aspect of labour in the concept of social labour. The domination of the abstract aspect of labour, in the forms of value, is analysed, not in terms of the obliteration of other aspects of labour, but in terms of the subsumption of these other aspects to the abstract aspect. That subsumption is understood in terms of the mediation of the other aspects by the abstract aspect, the translation of the other aspects into money form. But the subjective, conscious and collective aspects of labour are accorded, in the analysis, a relative autonomy. In this way the argument of Capital does incorporate a material basis for political action. Subjective, conscious and collective aspects of human activity are accorded recognition. The political problem is to bring together the private, concrete and social aspects of labour without the mediation of the value forms, so as to create particular, conscious collective activity directed against exploitation. Marx’s theory of value has, built into it, this possibility. (174)

Ugh… I had never intended to write so much on this… And I’m confronted here, having concluded the summary of Elson’s analysis, with a decision about how much to write about what I think about this approach. My basic reaction is that I like the way she wants to focus political action on the eradication of the value form, and I agree that this is the point of Marx’s analysis, and that Capital is an attempt to show that the subjective and objective (both understood as social) “resources” for this kind of political contestation are generated in and through the reproduction of capital itself. I have, however, a fundamentally different conception of how Marx understands the value form, and of how Capital makes an argument about the social constitution of potentials for emancipatory transformation.

From my point of view, Elson’s argument sells Marx a bit short. First, while it might seem like a good idea to appeal to the transhistorical grid that captures moments of the unity of labour, because this provides a buffer against the distortions of labour generated by capitalism, this move actually cedes an enormous amount to capitalism – in much the same way as the bogeyman “capital logic” approaches are accused of doing: it grants that capitalism constitutes something on a practical level with relation to abstract labour – that abstract labour is a practical truth for capitalist society – without also attempting to demonstrate how the other moments of the grid – those moments that represent the actual critical standpoint in the working out of Elson’s approach – are also practical realities in capitalism. Elson clearly believes that they are practical realities – otherwise her critique of “capital logic” approaches for being idealistic, for reifying the category of capitalism, wouldn’t make sense. The movement of her analysis, however, doesn’t explain how these other moments of the grid are constituted as practical realities. Once one could demonstrate how they are practical realities, however, then there is no more need to posit that the grid is transhistorically valid: we might as well treat it as an enacted entity specific to capitalism, and talk in terms of immanent potentials specific to this particular society, rather than speaking as though we have captured the transhistorical essence of labour as such.

On a different level, Elson’s analytical framework forces her into strange distinctions, such that abstract labour is presented, for example, as a non-subjective category, while subjectivity is pushed off into a different category, so that subjective dimensions of labouring activity can be adequately “recognised” and then mobilised politically. Just as I tend to see Marx’s categories as all “practical”, I also tend to see them as categories linking (albeit not in a causal sense) forms of social subjectivity and forms of social objectivity. One potential payoff to approaches that see Marx’s categories in this way, is that it becomes possible to think about agency in more complex terms than those offered by notions of crisis – which is the only category to which Elson, in the end, appeals when she tries to discuss how her reading opens a space for political action. I can’t fully develop this point here, but I think Marx’s theory of crisis is only one aspect of a much more complex argument about the ways in which capitalism generates internal “contradictions”. While some of these contradictions manifest themselves dramatically in macrosociological events, some are far more subtle, relating to conflicting forms of being in the world and contradictory potentials suggested by different moments of the process of the reproduction of capital: it is possible to do much more with Marx’s theory than talk about crisis.

Finally (well, not really finally, but I’m getting extremely tired, so this will be my final point), reducing the category of abstract labour or value to its representation in the category of money misses a great deal – something that, again, Elson seems to recognise in many ways in her critiques of other approaches, but not fully carry through in her own analysis. A brief – and, inevitably, inadequate – sidestep into how I conceptualise the category of abstract labour may illustrate some of what I find unsatisfying about Elson’s approach, in spite of the fact that I genuinely enjoy many aspects of her reading.

I find it useful to think about abstract labour in terms of sets and subsets, each enacted in collective practice.

The main set includes all sorts of activities that are productive or creative of social life in any sense of the term. This set might include working on an assembly line, falling in love, building a house to live in yourself, selling legal services, going on a vacation in New Zealand, etc. In spite of its apparent inclusiveness and genericness, it isn’t an accident that a set with such members should be thinkable to us. There is some practical sense in which our collective practice is – in at least one dimension – so indifferent to the specific activities that we carry out, that we have experiential access to a category that is so large that it can encompass all of these diverse things into an overarching concept of “human practice”. I’ll leave aside for present purposes how I think such a category is suggested by our practices.

Within this set, there is a subset of activities that are grouped together as attempts to assert themselves as commodity-producing activities. The people or groups who engage in this subset of activities can know how much effort they are empirically expending, to undertake whatever activity they are undertaking – manufacturing a car, providing medical services, building houses, etc. They cannot know, however, how successful they will be in getting the empirical effort they are expending to “count” as commodity-producing labour: they will only know this, once they send the products of their labour into the market. At that point, they will find out whether, and how much, of their empirical activity succeeds in making it into the final subset.

The final subset is activities that have successfully asserted themselves as commodity-producing labour – a status that may partially, fully or even excessively recognise the actual efforts empirically expended in production in the previous subset. This final, smallest subset of human activities, comprises those activities that get to “count” as part of “social labour” from the standpoint of the reproduction of capital.

There are other practically-enacted subsets – these three are the ones relevant to the understanding of the first chapter.

Marx’s argument about abstract labour and value relates to our experience of the salto mortale between the second and third subset. In his account, the process that culls from the activities undertaken in the second subset, to generate the activities recognised as “social labour” from the standpoint of the reproduction of capital, is a process that takes place “behind the backs” of social actors: they can experience it taking place, but they are not setting out to create such a process, and they experience this process as (what it is) an impersonal form of coercion on their intentional practices. Moreover, this process communicates its results to social actors through the process of the exchange of their products – through the proportions in which their goods exchange with one another. Productive activities that “succeed” in asserting themselves as part of “social labour”, demonstrate their success by exchanging for greater amounts of other products, which have not succeeded so well. Those activities that get to “count” as “social labour” are therefore rendered manifest to social actors, through a process that establishes relationships among goods. When Marx says that, in capitalism,

the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, objective relations between persons and social relations between objects.

he means this in a very literal sense. He is not describing some strange illusion under which social actors are operating, but something more like a very exotic ritual among the indigenous members of capitalist society, for establishing which activities count as social labour. This ritual is socially specific, but it is nevertheless perfectly real – it possesses a social validity for members of capitalist society that is not automatically undermined by the realisation that its reality is only social in origin.

Marx is worried that his readers won’t grasp how bizarre this familiar ritual actually is – that just pointing out the subsets, and indicating that we are regularly engaged in sorts of productive activity without any idea whether those activities will succeed in counting as social labour, will not provide sufficient analytical distance. He needs to jolt his readers out of their familiarity with their own context. He uses the concepts of abstract labour and value to provide this jolt.

Our collective behaviour, Marx argues, is tantamount to acting as though the labouring activities undertaken as part of the second subset, are haunted by a supersensible world that lies behind what we can empirically perceive – a supersensible world of abstract labour. To the extent that our labouring activities partake of this supersensible world, they succeed in being incorporated into the third subset. Our collective behaviour is also tantamount to acting as though the commodities we produce possess an intangible, supersensible dimension – a dimension in which abstract labour is objectified into the property of value. Another way of saying this is to state that abstract labour and value are “real abstractions” – practical truths specific to capitalist society – social entities that are enacted in collective practice.

Fetishised forms of thought, for Marx, express the existence of these social entities – but do not grasp them as social. Value is thus treated as an intangible substance that inheres in physical objects, and becomes manifest in the process of exchange. Abstract labour is treated as an intangible world of social labour that becomes manifest in the culling process of the market. In his argument, we enact entities like value and abstract labour as real abstractions, but the way that we enact such social entities (unintentionally, as side effects of practices oriented to other goals) and the way we manifest these entities (through proportional relationships established between goods) creates an intrinsic risk that social actors will become confused about the ontological status of these real abstractions – the risk that, as Marx jokes in relation to Dame Quickly, they won’t know “where to have it”.

Marx shows off a bit in the first chapter, using this argument very quickly to suggest that major themes in the development of western philosophy are actually expressive of this confusion over “where to have” these real abstractions. His analysis from that point is more careful, less sweeping – but equally oriented to linking conceptual categories as real abstractions back to the moments of the reproduction of capital in which such categories are enacted.

It is within this context that Marx discusses money – not as a central analytical category, but instead a phenomenon that becomes much easier for him to explain, when he situates it in the context of the real abstraction of value. Elson is right here, I believe, to say that his focus is not on the causal determination of price – but misses the social specificity of his argument about abstract labour, by treating “abstraction” as a quality that labour always has in all societies, that has simply become too dominant in capitalist society. The category of “abstract labour” as I have outlined it above, is intended to grasp a socially-specific form of determining the subset of activities that get to “count” as “social labour” for purposes of the reproduction of capital: the issue here is not that “abstract labour” has always existed and become too dominant, but rather that such a strange social ritual should exist at all.

4 responses to “Reflections on Elson’s “Value Theory of Labour”, part 2

  1. Pingback: » Reflections on Elson’s “Value Theory of Labour”, part 1

  2. Pingback: » The Matter with Form

  3. Pingback: Working Definition of Capitalism « Praxis

  4. K101 January 11, 2011 at 12:53 am

    Thanks for this post on the Elson (I know it’s older, but I finally got my hands on the Elson chapter… not easy to find.) I found my head spinning with unformed criticism of her positions and this post helped me collect my thoughts more concretely. While I am very interested in the question of what is unique about Marx’s theory of value (especially the focus on understanding determination) I am wary of attempts to conceptualize it in ways that leave no room for price or structure of production, especially in light of recent developments in value theory (TSSI, New Interpretation, etc.) I kept wanting Elson to return to her critique of Rubin and explain how her concept of determination could provide a better account of the relation of value to the distribution of labor, or structure of production, or price…. but I didn’t feel like she did this satisfactorily.

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