Abstract labour II - real labor

“Your hands, my dear sir. Your right hand is quite a size larger than your left. You have worked with it, and the muscles are more developed.” - Sherlock Holmes

Perhaps we should begin with a description from real labor. This is from McClure’s magazine’s visit to the great Nobel dynamite factory in Ardeer Scotland in August, 1897 by H.J.W. Dam. Dam’s photographer captured many of the workers – 200 girls, and 1,100 men. Dam makes much of the contrast between the tanks of nitroglycerin and the female sex, who are searched by matrons three times a day to make sure they have no pins, shoebuttons or any kind of metal fastener – as the admixture of metal in the dynamite making process creates huge problems. The problem with the men is their habit of sneaking in matches to have a good smoke. The employees from different sections where clothing color coded to reflect their sections – cartridge girls, for instance, wear dark blue.

The cartridge houses are where all the materials – the charcoal, the nitroglycerin, the paper – come together for their ‘appearance’ in the world of commodities:

The hut is about ten feet square with a single door. Four girls are at work. Against the right and left walls are four spring pump handles about the height of a girl's head. Each pump handle when pulled down forces a brass rod through a small conical hopper of loose dynamite fixed to the wall and jams a portion of the dynamite down a brass tube at the bottom of the box. The girl wraps a small square of branded parchment paper around the bottom of the tube, folding it at the lower end. Then holding the paper with one hand and jumping up and down as she works the pump handle with the other, she pushes dynamite down the tube till the paper cylinder is filled to a depth of about three inches. She then removes it, folds down the top of it, drops it through a slide in the wall whence it rolls down into her own special box, a finished cartridge. She replenishes her stock of dynamite with a scoop through a sliding door in the wall from a box of loose dynamite which the runner has placed in a closed chest immediately outside. The girls work with the greatest rapidity. The sliding brass rod is actually lubricated with nitroglycerin. To see this operation, the brass rods flying up and down damp with nitroglycerin, and dynamite being forcibly jammed down a brass tube, entirely destroys your appetite for further knowledge. It is incredible and you want to go away outside the Danger Area and think it over.”

But, as we readers of Marx know by now, there is no area outside the Danger Area to think these things over. Marchons, mes amis!

As Nicole Pepperall has reminded me, in the comments to my last post, and as has been the nail that Moishe Postone hammers at all day and all night in his book, Time Labor and Social Domination, orthodox Marxists have fetishized abstract labor. By this, Postone means that the orthodoxy has lost its grasp on the historically specific character of labor and turned it into an essential and trans-historical entity. This is especially important to envisioning what it would mean to overthrow wage labor – an oppositional dimension that is, as I have been emphasizing, not the point of Marx’s work, but the center that makes his analysis of Capitalism possible.

Okay, I'm going to add more to this tonight.