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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Approaching abstract labor I

Halbwachs, in his study of the life conditions of the worker (published in 1912), shrewdly pointed to the fuzzy boundary between agriculture and industry. Agriculture, we usually assume, deals directly with nature – but as Halbwachs points out, there is hardly a bit of nature in agriculture as we actually know it – from the soil that has been changed in its chemical and geological composition over generations of work, to the organic products that are themselves constantly being changed and adapted by human ingenuity, to finally finished products like cheese and bread, the making of which takes place in buildings, and through gestures that are essentially no different from those employed in making glue. [See Halbwachs 1913, Vol. 1, 26]

Halbwachs’ emphasis on the “gestes” of labor is a welcome attempt to uncover what is partially mystified in Marx’s ‘materialism’. When Marx speaks of labor, he begins with a direct relationship with nature – although this is, in a sense, a fiction, as he tacitly concedes. What he is really writing about is a regime of routines. Although in some vague sense there is a connection, here, with the materialist tradition running from Epicurus through La Mettrie, in my opinion there is nothing in Marx that is as metaphysically musty as his ‘materialism’, which arose as a counter to an ‘idealism’ that has few real correlates outside of philosophy departments. Marx’s ideas could well be agreed to by, say, a Buddhist who could nevertheless insist that all of life is an illusion. Whether it is an illusion or not does not really affect Marx’s articulation of the capitalist system.

Here, in any case, is Marx on the primary labor scene:

“Labor is firstly a process between persons and nature, a process wherein the person mediates, regulates and controls his metabolic exchange with nature through his own act. He encounters natural matter as a natural force. The natural forces inhering in his embodiment, arms and legs, head and hand, he puts in motion, in ordr to assimilate natural matter in a form useable for his own life. When he effects the nature outside of him through this movement and changes it, he changes, at the same time, his own nature. He develops the powers slumbering within it and submits the play of their forces to his own purposiveness. We have to do, here, not with the first animal instinctive forms of labor. Lost in the circumstances of the primeval background in which human labor had not yet completely discarded its first instinctive forms is the moment when the laborer appears as the seller of his own labor power on the commodity market. We are assuming labor in a form, wherein it is exclusively appropriate to human beings.”

That appropriateness, famously, excludes the labor of animals as labor. Their routines – just like the routines of machines – lack purposiveness – although I don’t want to be too philosophisch here – since when Marx fills out this purposiveness, he is evidently talking about the imagination: “A spider commits operations that are like a weaver’s, and a bee, through the building of its wax cells, shames many a human architect [Baumeister]. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best bees is that he builds the cells in his head before he builds them in wax.”

There are a couple of things to note about this passage. Of course, it maintains an old Western hierarchy of thought over action – but this is not really important for me here. It could, of course, be claimed that the omnibus drivers of Paris, who, in the 19th century, were forced to work 14-18 hours driving their buses were working horses who, similarly, were being worn out – and who similarly assimilated the design of the routes in Paris through which they pulled the buses. Or could claim that if one designs a machine to weave the drapery, the product of that weaving, the drapery, will go to market in the same circumstances as the human weaved drapery. It will still be valorized. This claim has been made to show that the living human labor upon which Marx is basing claims about valorization is a secondary distinction, rather than a primary one.

But this is to conflate Capital and the Robinsonaids he mocks. The weaver who uses a shuttle is already using a machine. Or the ditch digger using a shovel. At some point in the process of production, the machine was actually built from real materials – carbon, steel, etc. – that did not hop out of the ground of themselves – and even in the finest robotic factories in Japan, it is subject to human monitoring. Furthermore – to flip the terms around – the notion of mechanization falls, peculiarly, on the working class. Few economists ask whether, in fact, the capitalist could be a machine. There is, obviously, a lag at the moment in the computerization of upper management services because the upper management has guild like features that fight against the obvious rationality of the move. And it would be an odd economist who would suggest that an expert system computer be granted stock options. Why not?

Work is never going to go beyond its social recognition as such, in Marx. The one tie to a transhistorical property is to the imagination. I will take that reference to the imagination as both the starting point for the distinctly human – which may or may not be shared by animals and machines, but which is recognized, in human society, solely with relation to humans - and the moment against which the capitalist system, in its de-skilling or routinizing tendency, works against. A routine is both an act of the imagination and contains within itself the antithesis to the imagination. And once we have down the fact that the act of recognizing human work is tied to the imaginative capacity of the human, one is equipped with the critical tools to sniff out self-interested social contradictions having to do with how humans are treated in different economic regimes - for instance, in the denial that housework is work. Etc.

Now, let's build on this...

12 comments:

N Pepperell said...

But this is to conflate Capital and the Robinsonaids he mocks.

Hi roger - The discussion of labour where this passage occurs in Capital is one of the places Marx is doing the mocking of his Robinsonaids, not a contradiction of this mocking. In the chapter imnmediately prior, he has established that the naturalistic appearance of labour - as an activity mediating between humans and nature, a transhistorical and physiological concept - is the social determination of labour under capitalism. I.e., these passages are not to be taken fully at face value. They are articulations of positions that emerge in political economic discourse, held up here in order to relativise them by situating them in relation to the "given relations" that give rise to such "apotheoses" or metaphysical extrapolations from contingent historical practical experiences.

The passage is often appropriated just as you've done above, so if you want to level this critique at certain forms of Marxism, that's fine. But it's been recognised at least since Rubin that there is something problematic in trying to understand Marx's concept of "abstract labour" in this sort of transhistorical way.

Marx is trying to provide a critical sociological explanation of why "labour" is imagined the way it is in capitalist societies (so that, e.g., housework doesn't appear to be "work", etc.). He is doing this, not because he accepts this imagination, but because he thinks that understanding where the imagination comes from - how it arises as an apotheosis of specific given relations - denaturalises the imagination, cites its historical contingency, and therefore precisely makes it possible to go beyond it.

The weird presentational strategy of the text, with its habit of spending long periods dwelling inside the voices and perspectives it intends to criticise, can make this hard to see. Nevertheless the work as a whole provides the resources to realise that this is the critical interpretive strategy.

(Apologies if you respond and I can't reply for some time - horrific week here...)

roger said...

Thanks, Nicole!

I was concerned to pull out the imaginative element here - but of course, I am not saying that Marx is saying that work is some kind, to use analytiksprache. I assume that when we speak of how a society imagines work, we need to put it in different contexts, draw up situations and ask, is this work? And we aren't looking, here, for one central logical rule, but something more like a wordcloud - a concept cloud, if you will. Thus, to think of an expert program being set up to issue, say, decisions about a company and then to think of the expert system being given stock options tells us something about work and 'persons' - I suppose a more extended way of asking about this would be Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

But of course the example of stock options and machines doesn't cover say, a friend coming over to help you work on planting a garden.

Thus, finding places for 'persons' in all kinds of situations that demand reciprocity should give us not a universal definition of work, but instructions to apply to find out what a society 'imagines' work to be.

That doesn't even mean we need rules of coherence - it is fully possible that the social recognition of work will be full of exceptions and special cases.

Given that Marx is dealing with the trajectory of Western European societies in which the new society was, to an extent, built within the old, probably cases such as housework can be seen as archaic remnants of earlier acts of social recognition.

That said, I think what you are saying here is an excellent rule for what I'd call Marx's revolutionary truth procedure:

"He is doing this [providing a critical sociological explanation of why "labour" is imagined the way it is in capitalist societies], not because he accepts this imagination, but because he thinks that understanding where the imagination comes from - how it arises as an apotheosis of specific given relations - denaturalises the imagination, cites its historical contingency, and therefore precisely makes it possible to go beyond it."

roger said...

ps. above, I meant: I am not saying that Marx is saying that work is some NATURAL kind.

roger said...

Oh, and I had a discussion with somebody this weekend with somebody who was telling me about some 'marxist' who claimed that Marx's claims about labor introduce an irresponsible distinction between mechanical and human labor. I don't think that is so - but in the last paragraph of this post I try to tie this idea into what I think is Marx's notion that one of the tendencies that goes into surplus value is the tendency to 'de-skill' - that is, to make workers interchangeable, and thus as mechanical as possible. De-skill might not be the best phrase for this - 'routinizing' is perhaps better. Lowering the level of human capital necessary for a particular function.

N. Pepperell said...

Hey roger - I think it's right, of course, to pull out the imaginary (in the sense of relating to what we can imagine, rather than in the sense of being illusory) dimension of Marx's work. I think this is an important impulse, and often missed.

The way I understand the argument about de-skilling is that it's one of these social trends that's devastating in its current form, because, at present, it occurs within a context where de-skilling and the development of machinery occurs side-by-side with structural constraints that prevent human labour power from being eliminated from the labour process. So humans come to be employed simply as "labour power", as though they are valuable for the physiological motive force they provide.

(As with all trends in this Marx, this isn't meant to be the only thing going on, of course - as in the example of the ellipse, there are countervailing tendencies. So, e.g., automation reduces people to motive forces in one part of production, and also evicts people in large numbers from one part of production - but, at the same time, as a countervailing force, there is the constant drive to create ever-new "opportunities" for people to labour - these new forms of labour, perhaps filling newly-created "needs", may be quite artisanal in character at first, requiring high levels of skill and allowing creative action from the labourers employed in those fields - until deskilling pressures hit those new areas as well, to a greater or lesser degree depending on available technology and the ease of mechanising a particular sort of labour. So there are countervailing tendencies constantly playing themselves out - drives for deskilling that, if looked at in isolation, might imply a linear tendency toward a society of automatons - a Matrix where humans are valued only as batteries for the machinery ;-P. But also drives for the constitution of new skills, as new forms of labouring activity are displaced into other areas. And other tendencies besides these, of course...)

But I don't see any of this as meaning that Marx thinks the labour that goes on in families is some sort of vestigial form. The doxic character of family ties is challenged by the experience of other dimensions of social life that constitute people as (potential) autonomous individuals, or as other things: this makes possible a conscious negotiation of family forms, and could lead to a critique of those forms. The differentiation out of a world that is collectively enacted as "social labour" also helps to encourage a certain romanticism of the familial space - making it easier to articulate as a "private sphere" that people experience as fundamentally qualitatively different (and often posit as intrinsically ontologically different) from the sphere of work. This operates to disguise women's labour, and is also ideological in other ways - but setting up for a critique of this is not really the same as treating the family as a holdover: it's attempting to specify various potentials for the future development of families, based on the various potentials available now.

The concept cloud concept is right in a strong sense, I think? Political decisions - rather than necessary "objective" trends - are required to decide how we will, in the future, incorporate the potentials of the various contradictory tendencies that confront us now. Our housework isn't the old housework - however much the apparent continuity of this practice might disguise this: this space is already already contaminated with other dimensions of social experience - so it can't be automatic reservoir of something noncapitalist, although it can be a space within capitalism that might incubate potentials that are not incubated as well anywhere else... And it might be this, while also, in its current form, helping to contribute to the reproduction of capitalism now...

(Rushing!! Sorry if this isn't very coherent...)

roger said...

Yes, Nicole, the deskilling and the opening up of other job "opportunities" are connected by what is apparently an antithesis: the trend to create ever more dispensible human links in the chain of labor, and specialization. Specialization can require ever more "human capital", but what happens is a sort of escalator effect - if escalators were all designed by Escher. You struggle to go up - for instance, you get your MBA, you get your information science degree, you learn about software programming - only to find that such knowledge becomes more and more widespread, more and more routinized, more and more offshoreable, etc.

By vestigial, I meant that family reciprocities are not commoditized. I just read an interesting study of middle class and working class friendships in the U.S. by Karen Walker, published in Sociology Forum in 1995, She found that in working class friendships, a reciprocity of services is extremely common, and sort of carries the friendship. However, among middle class friends "celebrated shared leisure and the existence of "interesting" friends - and, paradoxically, among middle class friends, the ideal - of a person who would always be there for you - is impeded by the shame of asking for help - the very thing that shapes the working class friendship. Now, I don't want to generalize too much from one study, but I find both of these characteristics are a response to the commodity relationship - one by producing a sort of counter to it, and one by trying to ignore it.

It is in this respect that I used archaic.

roger said...

Nicole, anyway, so I think you are right, and I'm taking your cautions to heart about remembering the context for Marx's famous remarks - but as they are famous, I have got to include them in my upcoming beginner's book!

However, for myself, of course, the problem that is posed by the refusal to make work a trans-historical category is that we could deny ourselves any way of recognizing work at all in other times. I believe that it is an always 'contested' category - and that household work and emotional labor are two fronts in which you see a contest going on.

roger said...

Although I would love to know if there is some ethnographic work on what work and leisure mean in Bali.

northanger said...

NHF 1842 = LOST IN THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE PRIMEVAL BACKGROUND IN WHICH HUMAN LABOR HAD NOT YET COMPLETELY DISCARDED ITS FIRST INSTINCTIVE FORMS IS THE MOMENT WHEN THE LABORER APPEARS AS THE SELLER OF HIS OWN LABOR POWER ON THE COMMODITY MARKET = INDIFFERENT TO LANGUAGE, ENIGMATIC AND FEMININE, THIS SPACE UNDERLYING THE WRITTEN IS RHYTHMIC, UNFETTERED, IRREDUCIBLE TO ITS INTELLIGIBLE VERBAL TRANSLATION: IT IS MUSICAL, ANTERIOR TO JUDGMENT, BUT RESTRAINED BY A SINGLE GUARANTEE: SYNTAX = THE CENTIMETER-GRAM-SECOND UNIT OF LUMINANCE OR BRIGHTNESS, EQUIVALENT TO 0.32 CANDLES PER SQUARE CENTIMETER, AND EQUAL TO THE BRIGHTNESS OF A PERFECTLY DIFFUSING SURFACE EMITTING OR REFLECTING ONE LUMEN PER SQUARE CENTIMETER. ABBREVIATION: L = THE PERTH MINT AUSTRALIAN LUNAR SERIES GOLD AND SILVER BULLION COINS COMMEMORATE THE CHINESE LUNAR CALENDAR FOR THE 12-YEAR CYCLE STARTING IN 1996 AND ENDING IN 2007. THE SERIES WAS ORIGINALLY INTRODUCED IN ONLY GOLD, BUT IN 1999 THE MINT ADDED SILVER COINS = WELL, THAT HELPS, BECAUSE I WOULD HAVE THOUGHT, WITH YOUR POWERS, YOU WOULD HAVE ALREADY 'GOTTEN IT'. IN FACT, I THOUGHT YOU LONG HAD, EVEN THOUGH I DIDN'T WANT TO GIVE THAT AWAY. SO NOW, I'LL JUST KEEP IT TO MYSELF AND MAKE IT OPERATIVE IF IT EVER BECOMES POSSIBLE.

N. Pepperell said...

Hey roger - sorry: hadn't been intending to suggest you leave the passages out of your book - only suggesting there are other ways to interpret what those passages describe. (I also haven't been sure of the boundaries between what you post here, and what you plan on including in the text, so apologies if the comments have been more in the spirit of open-ended discussion: I know how deadlines force a level of closure that might not be needed in other situations... Point is: my comments weren't meant to react back on your book.)

On the issue of how we might recognise "work" in other times: Marx personally doesn't seem worried about our applying our concepts when we go rifling around in history - as long as we understand that these are our concepts, rather than that we have stumbled across the ontological bedrock that other times have missed.

On the one hand, he thinks that we're built of the detritus of past historical configurations, because he thinks this is the only way things are ever built - by reworking the materials that lie ready to hand. This is one of the "Darwinian" elements of his argument - a bit as in the famous comment about biology: "God is a hacker" - Marx thinks that we don't engineer history; we hack it - opportunistically seizing on elements that can be developed in new directions, through a process of adaptation through gradual modification. Aspects of the history that's been hacked to get us to the present moment, remain accessible to us, creating some unexpected constellations with past times.

But on the other hand, we can trundle back through the past with contemporary eyes, picking up on what catches our attention - Marx has no problem with doing that. He just gets annoyed when we do this in a way that implies we are exempt from the same sorts of transient historical processes we more readily find when we analyse earlier societies...

But this has veered off onto a tangent - apologies...

roger said...

Nicole, mostly, the material here is for my own thinking through. Marx, after all, is a huge figure for me in my Human Limit project. But there is also this book, the deadline of which looms before me as the iceberg did before the captain of the Titanic.

So all your remarks are completely relevant and appreciated!

I rather think Marx starts out in the forties with a much more deterministic way of thinking about history - what I would call the universal history notion - and ends up, in the seventies, closer to your hacker position. It is easy to see how history is armed, so to speak, by the bourgeoisie and wakes our slumbering human powers on a world wide and irresistible scale in the Communist Manifesto. The herderian Bildung of Mankind is close to this - as are the schemas of the Edinburgh Enlightenment men. However, One can watch these notions undergo a change in the laboratory of the Grundrisse. Which, it is my notion, is Marx keeping faith with the revolution as a truth procedure - that is, clipping the larger bonds of necessetiy by which a political and economic arrangement imposes itself, while tracing the internal bonds of necessity that the political and economic arrangement have generated.

Which is the reason, then, that - in your terms - abstract labor is a historically determined relational artifact, but it is, at the same time, an internal necessity of the capitalist system to which all must bow. And, working within the system to reform it, the reformers unconsciously bow before it and perpetuate the system.

N. Pepperell said...

Hey roger - this is nice. I obviously agree that the Grundrisse begins to work out a number of things in earnest, and I also see Capital as still a work in which a number of concepts - even quite central ones - are hovering in a place where they are still only-just-grasped - where Marx has trouble holding onto them.

I'm not sure I would personally put the deterministic theory of history in that category, though: even in his dissertation, Marx is already aligning himself with non-deterministic forms of materialism...

The Communist Manifesto, however brilliant, is not designed as a work of theory, but as a polemical tract - written as an intervention, not as what Marx would call a "scientific" account, in his peculiar meaning of that term. To me, extrapolating theory from that text would be a bit like someone catching me on film at a protest, chanting "The people united will never be defeated!" - and then deciding to write a take-down asking how I could hold such a naive notion of historical change, etc. It seems a sort of category error, to me? Capital and its various drafts are attempts to work out a systematic theoretical analysis - other sorts of writing have different goals...

I do thing there are enormous changes in Marx's work over time - I think his understanding of how to provide a sociological analysis of "labour" is one of the sites where there's a lot of movement, as he reaches for a better explanation of the phenomenon. I'm just not convinced that the basic conception of history falls into the same category - I think most of the passages generally taken to indicate deterministic views early on are both ambiguous, and also not particularly central - they've been over-emphasised by the weight of a subsequent interpretive history that was extremely interested in being able to anchor politics in objective historical trends - but Marx is complaining about approaches that strip the subjective factor from some of his earliest works...

But this comment is, again, more in the spirit of thinking through the issue - I'm not suggesting the deterministic-sounding passages should be elided when people write about Marx - just thinking through my own treatment of them...