Abstract Labor and the Puzzle of Unproductive Labor

by Jehu

Value-form theorists love to repeat a statement of Marx that seems to have been first marked by Rubin in the 1920s.

“Political economy has indeed analysed, however incompletely, value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is represented by the value of its product and labour time by the magnitude of that value.”

Says Rubin,

“The concept of labour must be defined in such a way that it comprises all the characteristics of the social organisation of labour, characteristics which give rise to the form of value, which is appropriate to the products of labour.”

As the name implies, the value-form school places great emphasis not simply on the value of commodities and the magnitude of value, but also on the appearance value takes in a commodity producing society. Rubin argues “that value arises not only from the substance of value (i.e. labour) but also from the ‘form of value’”

This argument resonates with a very large body of labor theorists today because of one simple fact: What we today call money is a valueless token issued by the fascist state and controlled by it through its laws and central banks.

This fact suggests Marx fundamentally misunderstood a critical category of the capitalist mode of production. Since the movement of capital begins and ends with money, you cannot misunderstand money without misunderstanding both the beginning and end of the movement of capital itself.

In labor theory as formulated by Marx, money arises directly out of the circulation of commodities and is itself a commodity; the same process by which a commodity becomes money turns all other commodities into non-money. Which means the material of the money commodity is the physical substance in which every other commodity expresses its own value. Finally, labor theory states no one and no state law determines what is money — a case which does not hold in for fiat. Money is not money because the fascist state says it is money; it is money because society at large has determined some specific commodity to be money.

It is otherwise with fiat in at least three important respects: First, fiat is not a commodity but a token in which, ideally, no concrete labor is contained; second, this fiat is defined by the state; and, third, the physical material of the token has no value.

Rubin’s argument offers a way of explaining how valueless token can ultimately end up serving as money in place of a commodity, because Rubin states money as form of value is itself necessary. An object lacking value can serve to express the value of other commodities, because exchange require some material serve in this role no matter its own intrinsic value.

Chris Arthur made this sort of argument in 2003 where he asserted, “on my account only money makes value actual.” Arthur states,

“Instead of understanding so-called ‘labour values’ as ontologically prior to money prices, the position adopted here is that order and regularity in the interrelations of units of capitalist production is possible only because there is a form of value, namely money, as a precondition for it. Only once this form of commensurating products obtains is there any meaning to the supposition of a law of value rooted in labour and appearing as price.”

Money, argues Arthur, is a precondition for value.

So far as I can tell, Arthur’s view was not the main view at the conference where the question of money as a commodity was discussed, however, no one else seemed to consider anything unusual about fascist state fiat. At that conference, Anitra Nelson did note that for Marx money must be a commodity, although she had some serious reservations about this. But no one challenged this fact — they simply assumed Marx in his ‘dogmatic’ insistence that money must be a commodity was mistaken in his opinion.

I studied many of the papers delivered at the conference because I had recently discovered how much GDP as measured by gold differed from GDP measured in dollars. What is more, GDP measured in gold seem to more accurately reflect the finding of labor theorists about the 1970s crisis. In dollar terms, there was no crisis in the 1970s, while gold suggests there was a severe, protracted crisis. Labor theorists were talking about a severe crisis in the 1970s when no dollar measure of output or employment supported their conclusions:

US GDP as measured in ounces of gold, 1970-1981

US GDP as measured in dollars, 1970-1980

On the other hand, gold was screaming we passed through a crisis in the 1970s at least as severe as the Great Depression:

US GDP as measured in ounces of gold, 1970-1980

US GDP as measured in ounces of gold, 1970-1981

I’d say this second chart pretty much demonstrates evidence of a really big crisis.

This is not to take issue with Marx’s assertion that money had to be a commodity like gold or silver; nor is it meant to suggest a valueless fiat is not really being employed as money at this point. Both of these facts are proven beyond all controversy. The question raised by fiat is what does it as a valueless money form imply about social relations after 1971? What does it mean that the value of all commodities are being expressed in a valueless money form? What, if anything, does this say about the value of commodities?

This is where Rubin offers a very interesting argument of his own, in my opinion. Rubin’s argument seems to be that we have these categories — concrete useful labor, the relations of production of the commodity producers, abstract labour, value, exchange value and money. According to Rubin, you just can’t go from concrete useful labors — like production of a table — to value, without some explanation of how you get from the first to the second.

Contrary to Marx, some Marxist in 1920s Soviet Union believed value was created directly by the expenditure of useful labors. Rubin argued this was not so — the labor the created value was no just useful labor, but abstract labor. This is the confusing thing: there is, in any case, only one expenditure of labor and it is always some useful concrete labor performed by an individual.

So, what is it about this useful concrete labor that makes it abstract and homogeneous? In first place, there is nothing about the labor itself that changes it from concrete useful labor into abstract homogeneous labor. It has to be the social context within which the labor is expended that does this.

To give an example: you can make a chair for yourself — and this chair will be useful (useful to you) — which is to say, you can sit on it and read this essay — but it will not contain any value whatsoever. However, if you begin making chairs for the market — creating not use values, but social use value, use value to be consumed by others — the chairs acquire value. A social use value is a use value for others — intended to be useful for someone other than the producer. Moreover, it is intended for exchange — a chair for a pair of pants, shoes, an electric guitar, etc. The value of your chair is then expressed in so many definite quantities of pants or shoes or guitars, etc.

This brings us to the threshold of abstract labor: cooperative social production through exchange of useful objects among the individual producers of a community. The activity of each individual is expressed in how much of everything else produced in the community that the individual producer can exchange her chairs for.

Thus, almost without noticing it, the labor of the producer is functioning as a sort of money, in that the product of her labor can be used to ‘purchase’ the products of the labor of others. Money as a category, therefore, arises naturally from within this incipient form of social production through exchange. The relations of production are individual producers carrying on their productive activity as individuals, but always with an eye toward exchange of the products of their labor, not their own personal use. The money form follows naturally from what is now the division of a single act of labor formed out of many individual private acts.

If money expresses the fact that a single act of labor is divided up among many separates individual labors, what does fiat express?

Arthur states there is no change here implied by replacement of commodity money by valueless fiat. According to folks like Arthur, the collapse of the gold standard in the 1930s and the collapse of Bretton Woods in 1971 has no significance. But this is what I mean about a basic dishonesty among these folks: because, while the collapse of commodity money has no significance for society, it nevertheless proves Marx was wrong about money.

And these are people who purport to be Marxists — you just can’t make this sort of shit up.

Which is to say, these folks say the value form [money] is important for analysis of the capitalist mode of production except when it has no value itself.

There is, in fact, no way to get from value producing labor — expressed in some money — to labor that produces no value — expressed in some fiction of ‘money’; any more than there is a way to get from concrete useful labor to value producing labor. In this sense we must repeat what Rubin says is Marx’s methodology:

“In order to arrive at the concept of value dialectically from the concept of labour, we must also include in the concept of labour those features which characterise the social organisation of labour in commodity production and necessitate the appearance of value as the particular social form of the product of labour.”

Paraphrasing Rubin, we could likewise say that in order to arrive at non-value producing labor dialectically from the concept of abstract homogeneous labor, we must also include in the concept of abstract homogeneous labor those features which characterize the social organization of value producing labor and necessitate the appearance of non-value producing labor as the particular social form of the product of value producing labor.

Which is to say, we must explain how non-value producing labor is the necessary product of value producing labor — we must show, in other words, that valueless fiat is the necessary result of a historically specific form value production.

This much labor theorists have erroneously undertaken for the most part by identifying particular concrete labors that do not produce use values. Since in the labor theory of value no value can be produced if this value is not embodied in a socially useful object, the low hanging fruit is simply to tick off labor that appears prima facie to produce no use values.

But this is where the problem gets complicated for them: unproductive labor, as Marx employs the term (for instance in his “Theories of Surplus Value”) has nothing to do with labor that produces no value. By the designation “non-productive labor” Marx only refers specifically to labor that produces no surplus value. The distinction here is important: value producing labor must produce a socially useful product — a commodity and it is clear that no value can be produced unless, at the same time, an object is also produced that is useful for others.

However, in the specific form of commodity production being examined, capital, it is not just necessary to produce a socially useful object having value; this object must, in addition, embody surplus value. Up to this point, everything we take as given with value producing labor — that its character is abstract and homogeneous; that its magnitude is determined socially necessary labor time; and that it is necessarily expressed in the form of money — holds true. And, all of this must also hold true for surplus value as well.

Is there a way this can be done? There is reason to believe so.

The three factors of value mentioned by Rubin do not simply relate as distinct, separate characteristics, but also constitute an antagonism. As the overall character of concrete useful labor in society changes — from abstract to directly social — both the duration of labor and form in which this labor is expressed are compelled to change as well. On the other hand, a change in the duration of labor has an impact on the form in which labor is expressed, as well as the character of the labor. Finally, the change in the form in which value is expressed (money) must have implications for both the duration and character of labor.

It is not possible for the form of money to lose its capacity to express the value of commodities, without at the same time implying substantial and significant changes in both the character and duration of the labor embodied in them.