I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past couple of days trying to distil my professional and intellectual biographies down into a coherent (?) written narrative, which has somewhat thrown me out of the series on the first chapter of Capital. Let’s see if I can ease my way back in, through a post that is perhaps more a commentary on a discussion currently unfolding elsewhere, than a continuation of this series in the strictest sense.
I last left off on some metatheoretical tangents that were suggested by a question Nate asked in the comments to the post immediately prior. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the immediate provocation for today’s reflections should be a comment by Mike Beggs in the still-ongoing discussion over “immaterial labour” at Nate’s what in the hell…. Mike writes:
What in the hell is ‘immaterial labour’ anyway? Marx recognised from the start that labour processes are heterogeneous. Whatever problems ‘immaterial labour’ brings were already there in the difficulties of comparing different kinds of labour based on different kinds of skills. For Marx labour was only homogenised as abstract labour, which means it can never be read directly from the labour time of any individual. Abstract labour is collective labour and always was. (emphasis mine)
Mike hits here at something I’ve been meaning to thematise more directly in this series, which – I should confess at the outset – might not be quite what Mike was trying to thematise in the passage I’ve quoted above. Hopefully Mike will forgive me for using his comment as an excuse for a comment of my own, particularly in the somewhat likely event that his words have reminded me of something he wasn’t trying to talk about at all… Here goes…
First, as I’ve mentioned here earlier, I share Mike’s confusion over how some recent theories focus on “immaterial labour”, in order to criticise Marx’s “labour theory of value”. Whatever stance one wants to take toward Marx’s theory, it is somewhat difficult to see how the development of service industries, the rise to prominence of “knowledge workers”, the development of some kind of “creative class”, or similar trends often cited as evidence of a shift toward “immaterial labour”, would have much to do one way or the other with the “theory of value” that Marx articulates.
Marx is very clear, very early in Capital, that his notion of “use value” and of “labour” is extremely broad, and can comfortably encompass the sorts of activities that some theories currently attempt to pick out with concepts like “immaterial labour”. Even in a reading like mine, where I present Marx as adopting a critical stance toward the definitions that open Capital, I still understand Marx to be engaging in a form of reflexive theory that unfolds by critically appropriating concepts, by demonstrating how a reflexive theory can understand the practical genesis, and therefore the transformative implications, of those concepts better than competing approaches. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I think Mike is precisely right to be puzzled by theories that take “immaterial labour” to pose some particular problem for Marx.
I also think Mike is right to hit on the notion that “abstract labour” – also presented as “homogenised” and “undifferentiated” labour – is specifically intended to pick out a distinction between, on the one hand, concrete, empirical labouring activities – human labour expended in some particular way – and, on the other, some other sense of the term “labour” that can be distinguished – practically, as well as conceptually – from the various empirical ways in which individuals deploy their labour power. Jumping off from the starting point Mike provides, my question then becomes whether this distinction is entirely captured in the specific formulation Mike uses above – in the statement that, “Abstract labour is collective labour and always was”.
My concern here is a bit complicated – and I also want to be very careful that I don’t voice this as though I’m making a sort of criticism of what Mike wrote – both because I think it’s quite possible that Mike actually means something compatible with what I’m about to say here, and also because I’m quoting a comment Mike wrote in the context of a specific exchange elsewhere, in a context where I wouldn’t expect the participants to be trying to develop their personal theoretical perspectives in a precise and detailed way. I therefore want to be clear from the outset that I’m using Mike’s comment as an excuse to talk about something I’ve been meaning to thematise anyway – Mike has simply provide the immediate provocation, and his comment is not in any way a “target” of this post, but simply reminded me that I’ve been remiss in leaving this topic to one side for so long…
Okay: I agree with Mike that abstract labour is collective labour. As phrased above, though, it remains unclear what the concept of “collective labour” means, when discussed in the context of Marx’s analysis of “abstract labour”. This is important, because elements of Marx’s critique hinge on the notion that abstract labour is collective labour – but collective labour in a specific, alienated form – collective labour as a specific form of unintentional, impersonal domination.
This form of domination exerts itself through the unintentional collective determination of what gets to “count as labour” under capitalism. In other words, I take Marx’s concept of “abstract labour” to pick out the end result or product of a coercive, nonconscious, social process in which social actors involuntarily determine what “collective labour” entails, from the perspective of capitalist reproduction – by constituting and imposing on one another impersonal compulsions to labour for particular purposes, at socially normative levels of productivity. Because this coercive process is not intentionally generated, social actors (whether individual or collective) have no way of knowing at the outset what forms, and what intensities, of human labour will be “counted” as part of the collective labour of capitalist society. Instead, social actors learn, after the fact, after they “labour”, whether and to what degree their labouring activities will “count” as part of the collective labour of capitalist society.
In particular periods of capitalist history, moreover, certain forms of activity that certainly seem, definitionally, as though they “belong” inside a universal category of “human labour” – certain activities that certainly appear to (and, in fact, do) involve the goal-directed expenditure of human physiological effort, orienting to the transformation of material nature, in the service of meeting human needs – are systematically excluded from “collective labour” as collective labour is “counted” for purposes of capitalist reproduction: privatised domestic labour, for example… (There is a complex argument to be made here about the interrelationships between structural dynamics within capitalism, and other sorts of social dynamics that are formally “contingent” with respect to capitalism – about the ways in which, in certain circumstances, capitalist dynamics can come to be overlaid on other dimensions of social life, so as to reinforce – or to sit uneasily and in a complex tension with – those other dimensions. I’ll leave this, incredibly complicated, issue to one side for the moment, other than suggesting that one can potentially use the perspectival understanding of capitalism I have been exploring in this series of posts, to explore the complex ways in which capitalism makes available perspectives that are indifferent to the existence of ascriptive categories like gender, or race, while simultaneously making available perspectives that suggest the potential to embody or articulate concepts of gender or race in specific ways, while simultaneously making available perspectives that wrap themselves around whatever understandings of gender or race might be contingently available, so as to generate certain structurally predictable consequences from contingencies that capitalism might not itself have generated, etc., etc. The topic is much too complex to treat adequately here, but I would hope to be able to get back to the issue in a more appropriate way, once I’ve gotten quite a bit further along in the outline of Marx’s theory of capitalism.)
My suggestion is therefore that Marx intends the category of “abstract labour” to capture, not “collective labour” in some general sense, but rather the specific determination of collective labour under capitalism. Collective labour under capitalism – abstract labour – is a much more narrow category than what we would expect would be encompassed by the notion of “things humans do to transform nature in order to meet their various needs and desires”: it excludes or fails to count fully various forms of productive activities. Interestingly – and this point is extremely important in Marx’s argument – it relates to a direct (if impersonal) compulsion to expend labour specifically in human form. In other words, while Marx repeatedly makes clear that material needs and desires might conceivably be filled in many different ways – by nature or by technology, for example, without the need for the expenditure of human labour power – capitalism, for Marx, generates an intrinsic structural compulsion that human labour power be expended – a compulsion that is independent of the level of material wealth that has been achieved.
Marx’s “labour theory of value”, in my reading, is intended to capture this direct “structural” compulsion that human labour power be expended, not in order to meet material needs, but in order to reproduce capitalism – a situation that Marx characterises as “a state of society, in which the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him”. Marx presents this structural compulsion for the expenditure of human labour power as increasingly paradoxical, as capitalism drives the creation of higher and higher levels of productivity and propels a massive increase in our potential material wealth. This is the sort of thing, I would suggest, at which Marx is already hinting in the first chapter, when he makes otherwise strange-sounding comments like this, from chapter 1, 3.C.1:
The general value form, which represents all products of labour as mere congelations of undifferentiated human labour, shows by its very structure that it is the social resumé of the world of commodities. That form consequently makes it indisputably evident that in the world of commodities the character possessed by all labour of being human labour constitutes its specific social character.
Marx intends this comment, I think, to be jolting: on its face, the notion of “human labour” sounds like a universal. Previous sections of this chapter have, in fact, presented the notion of “human labour” as though it is a universal – writing immanently with the voice of phenomenological perspectives that take “human labour in the abstract” or “undifferentiated human labour” as categories that are generated through a process of abstraction from all qualitatively determinate characteristics – as abstract universals. On its face, then, it should appear extremely strange for Marx to claim that an abstract universal is… its opposite – a particular. And yet that is precisely what Marx seems to be doing in the passage above: “the character possessed by all labour of being human labour constitutes its specific social character” – the qualitative characteristic of being abstracted from concrete specificity is the concrete specificity of labour as determined by the value form.
This is an extremely interesting argument – with some particularly intriguing implications for, say, a Deleuzian goal of how we might understand forms of perception or thought as affirmations, that are prone to misrecognise themselves as being negations. This specific problem – of how an affirmation or a positivity comes to appear as a negation – is in fact mentioned explicitly in Marx’s text, just prior to the passage quoted above:
In this manner the labour realised in the values of commodities is presented not only under its negative aspect, under which abstraction is made from every concrete form and useful property of actual work, but its own positive nature is made to reveal itself expressly. The general value form is the reduction of all kinds of actual labour to their common character of being human labour generally, of being the expenditure of human labour power. (bold text mine)
In this section, then, Marx is explicitly attempting to explore some of the reasons that something like an abstract universal can: (1) emerge as a “real abstraction” in collective practice (although the full account of this waits much more development in later sections of the text); (2) possess specific qualitative characteristics that render plausible the perception that this “real abstraction” is instead just a “conceptual abstraction” – just a category that arises when we “negate” or conceptually abstract from empirical examples of labouring activities, to determine what properties such activities have in common – or else a “discovery” of an underlying material or social property that remains behind when more contingent properties have been stripped away; and, at the same time (3) betray the existence of other immanently-available perspectives, from the standpoint of which “abstract labour” can be seen to be, not a conceptual abstraction from, or negation of, diverse empirical labouring activities, but a instead an actively generated positivity, enacted directly in collective practice, as a form of unintentional social domination.
In other words, I take Marx to be saying something along the lines of: abstract labour is the specific form taken by collective labour in the service of the reproduction of capitalism. But what a bizarre form of collective labour this is. On the one hand, it opens up some potentials that we might just want to keep: for example, it suggests to us that it is possible to treat all sorts of human activities as being somehow the same as one another – and therefore indirectly opens up the possibility to treat all sorts of humans as somehow the same as one another. Such a potential can’t be assumed to be equally intuitive to all human societies – look at Aristotle: this possibility actually occurred to him, but he rejected it out of hand. And yet, even ordinary intellects of the present era can experience this concept as intuitive – fairly effortlessly. This potential to enact some sort of human equality through our collective practice might well be worth retaining – worth exploring – worth developing – worth improvising around – if we’re going to discuss the creation of a more emancipated form of social life.
And yet. When we think about this potential, we often don’t fully recognise that it is somehow been enacted in some specific way in human practice. In other words, we often don’t say (a): “We suddenly started treating the products of labour as… “products of labour”, and thereby – quite by accident, initially – showed ourselves that it was possible to equate vary dissimilar things”. Instead, we tend to say things more like (b): “We suddenly discovered that commodities all share a common property – that of being material things that are the products of human labour – and that all humans share a common property – that of being creatures with a common material or biological form. This underlying, pre-existent similarity explains why we can treat these things as similar in our social practice.”
Given that Marx thinks he can show (a), this leaves him with a specific theoretical problem: why do so many competing forms of theory say (b)? If we are actively creating or enacting certain potentials in our own collective practice, why would we perceive ourselves, instead, to be “discovering” intrinsic properties of material nature, which we then interpret as a kind of “material ground” for our own social practice?
Marx tries to address this problem by saying that there is something about the specific way in which (a) happens, that suggests very strongly – if we happen to look only at specific moments of the process, and ignore other moments – that (b) is the best available explanation. So, there is something specific and strange about the way that we are creating something like “collective labour” or “abstract labour” under capitalism, that plausibly suggests that these categories are abstract universals, or pure negations, or conceptual abstractions – even though, Marx will argue, these categories can actually be demonstrated to be quite particular and “situated” as moments within the reproduction of capitalism.
Marx begins to explain this distinctive form of plausible misrecognition precisely by determining abstract labour – the distinctive form of what “counts” as collective labour under capitalism – as the end result of a form of coercion, as something social actors establish unintentionally and “behind their own backs”. The argument here – even at this early point in the text – is complex, and I will try to take it up more adequately in a later post. Marx suggests, however, that this form of misrecognition captures the way in which this process confronts social actors as something “objective” – something over which they individually have no control and did not seek to constitute. It also captures the way in which the process manifests itself through relationships between commodities – relationships which themselves are constructed in such a way as to separate commodities into what plausibly appears to be a world of material things that intrinsically “bear” value, and a more apparently contingent and arbitrary world of purely quantitative relationships between those material things.
By focussing on these (genuinely present, but partial) moments in the reproduction of capitalism, without capturing other moments, competing forms of theory engage in a fetishised form of thought that overextrapolates from specific elements of complex social field. These fetishised forms of thought thus see themselves as “discovering” intrinsic, abstractly universal properties – of things, of people, of human societies – but that fail to grasp how such “universals”, in spite of their genuinely abstract character, are generated directly and specifically by our own collective practice – and thus located and situated within capitalism in a distinctive, practical way. More – and hopefully better – on all of this at a later point…
Although I can’t fully substantiate this point with reference to this moment in the text, I would suggest that Marx is also beginning to point to the ways in which capitalism – while reproducing itself through the generation of coercive abstract universals – also begins to generate the possibility for something else – for something, perhaps, like a concrete or sensuous universal – for something like “collective labour” in the sense of all the variegated activities in which we collectively engage, in the process of meeting our diverse needs and desires. These alternative “concrete universals”, however, sit in tension with the constitution of abstract universals that takes place via the coercive structural exclusion of activities that do not “count as labour” under capitalism. The tension between these two forms of immanently constituted universal generates an immanent pressure for something… Benjaminian – for a transformation that would enable the present to become “citable in all its moments”, that would make possible a less narrow and coercive, more variegated and creative, collective mobilisation of humanity…
Not doing justice to this topic – apologies… But I’ll need to leave things here for the moment – I’ve put off marking already for much too long today… I’ll try when I pick this series up again to move back into more systematic textual mode – I’d like to finish the detailed textual analysis of the first chapter quite soon, so that I can then look back over what I’ve written, and see if I can develop a kind of synoptic overview of the reading of the first chapter – so that I can then perhaps draw a temporary line under this chapter, and begin peeking a bit further into the book… Perhaps best not to look too far ahead… ;-P
Hopefully, the last couple of posts, which have deviated from the close reading, in order to explore some of the implications or things I might try to do with the sort of reading I’m trying to outline, won’t have been too murky… Or too mistaken (can be a bit hard for me to tell, given that I haven’t made up my mind completely on some of the issues about which I’m writing)… ;-P
Back to these topics soon…
Previous posts in this series include:
Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital
Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”
Nature and Society
Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions
An Aside on the Fetish
Human Labour in the Abstract
An Aside on the Category of Capital
Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic
Subjects, Objects and Things In Between
Not Knowing Where to Have It
Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History