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Abstract labor II - real labor b

Postone writes, with admirable clarity: “ The category of abstract human labor refers to the social process that entails an abstraction from the specific qualities of the various concrete labors involved , as well as a reduction to their common denominator as human labor. Similarly, the category of the magnitude of value refers to an abstraction from the physical quantities of the products exchanged as well as a reduction to a nonmanifest common denominator – the labor time involved in their production.” [189]

Marx, as I have said, was strongly aware that capitalism both freed labor and emptied it, as far as it could, of specificity. This correlate of the ideal interchangeability of the human is the quantity of time. The factory, to Marx, was in a sense the ideal palace of capitalism because there, interchangeability is crystallized, more clearly than in any other economic formation, in ‘putting in time.” They are the palaces of abstract time, and their ruin in the developed countries – for instance, the ruin of the explosives factory at Ardeer, which you can see here – has the air of the ruin of something royal and tyrannical, something that lasted for centuries. And yet, of course, it lasted for 80-100 years. And like the gutted palace of some predatory ruler, when it empties, when the people can rush into it - there is nothing there. Or rather, there is no treasure there.

“If the specific productive work of the worker is not spinning, he wouldn’t transform cotton into thread, and thus would not transfer the value of the cotton and the spindle into threat. If the same worker changes his métier and becomes a cabinetmaker, he would, as before, through a work day add value to his material. He adds this thus through his labor, not in as much as it is spinning or cabinetmaking, but in as much as it is abstract social labor in general, and he adds a specific quantity of value, not because his labor has a particularly useful content, but because it has lasted a particular length of time.”

This, of course, offends our sense of craftsmanship. The flight from abstract labor time is encoded in the system of distinctions that traverses the field of taste.
But I don’t want to get into that here. Rather, I want to return to the sticks of dynamite. Lovely things, dynamite. Their use value makes them allegorically interesting, in as much as it consists in destruction. Of course, in the main course of things, dynamite is usually used simply to destroy geological formations – in mining. Some stray sticks, of course, fell into hands that used it otherwise – the anarchist dynamiters in Colorado in Pynchon’s against the day undoubtedly used Ardeer sticks. As well as the absinthe drinking bombers in Paris in the 1880s.

But in the Ardeer factory, the girls, in Marx’s schema, both created value and preserved old value by completing the end of the process of making the sticks. Doubtless, the discipline of the plant led to the weeding out of slow girls. And thus, inevitably, abstract time was stained by human difference. But if the cartridge girls were rewarded for being quicker, it all, in Marx’s scheme, was subject to the capitalist imperative of seeking the most unpaid work possible – the highest surplus value.

That imperative is folded into another one – the social reproduction of the relations of production. Which I will try to touch on tomorrow.


Anonymous said…
It is an undoubted fact that machinery, as such, is not responsible for “setting free” the workman from the means of subsistence. It cheapens and increases production in that branch which it seizes on, and at first makes no change in the mass of the means of subsistence produced in other branches. Hence, after its introduction, the society possesses as much, if not more, of the necessaries of life than before, for the labourers thrown out of work; and that quite apart from the enormous share of the annual produce wasted by the non-workers. And this is the point relied on by our apologists! The contradictions and antagonisms inseparable from the capitalist employment of machinery, do not exist, they say, since they do not arise out of machinery, as such, but out of its capitalist employment! Since therefore machinery, considered alone, shortens the hours of labour, but, when in the service of capital, lengthens them; since in itself it lightens labour, but when employed by capital, heightens the intensity of labour; since in itself it is a victory of man over the forces of Nature, but in the hands of capital, makes man the slave of those forces; since in itself it increases the wealth of the producers, but in the hands of capital, makes them paupers-for all these reasons and others besides, says the bourgeois economist without more ado, it is clear as noon-day that all these contradictions are a mere semblance of the reality, and that, as a matter of fact, they have neither an actual nor a theoretical existence. Thus he saves himself from all further puzzling of the brain, and what is more, implicitly declares his opponent to be stupid enough to contend against, not the capitalistic employment of machinery, but machinery itself.

No doubt he is far from denying that temporary inconvenience may result from the capitalist use of machinery. But where is the medal without its reverse! Any employment of machinery, except by capital, is to him an impossibility. Exploitation of the workman by the machine is therefore, with him, identical with exploitation of the machine by the workman. Whoever, therefore, exposes the real state of things in the capitalistic employment of machinery, is against its employment in any way, and is an enemy of social progress! Exactly the reasoning of the celebrated Bill Sykes. “Gentlemen of the jury, no doubt the throat of this commercial traveller has been cut. But that is not my fault, it is the fault of the knife. Must we, for such a temporary inconvenience, abolish the use of the knife? Only consider! where would agriculture and trade be without the knife? Is it not as salutary in surgery, as it is knowing in anatomy? And in addition a willing help at the festive board? If you abolish the knife — you hurl us back into the depths of barbarism.”
(Marx, Capital, chapter 15, section 6; trans, Moore and Aveling)
Marx adds a footnote to the passage, which they translate as: "The inventor of the spinning machine has ruined India, a fact, however, that touches us but little.” A. Thiers: De la propriété. — M. Thiers here confounds the spinning machine with the power-loom, “a fact, however, that touches us but little.”
Ben Fowkes in his translation renders this as "the inventor of the spinning machine has ruined India, a fact that is however of little concern to us." M.Thiers here confuses the spinning machine with the power loom, "a fact that is however of little concern to us."

The French translation of these passages by Claude Roy is a little different. As one knows, Marx was very involved in the translation and even rewrote some passages. Notice the appearance of a certain "baguette magique".

Anonymous said…
La machine est innocente des misères qu'elle entraine; ce n'est pas sa faute si, dans notre milieu social, elle sépare l'ouvrier de ses vivres. Là où elle est introduit, elle rend le produit meilleur marché et plus abondant. Après comme avant son introduction, la société possède donc toujours au moins la même somme de vivres pour les travailleurs déplacés, abstraction faite de l'énorme portion de son produit annuel gaspillé par les oisifs.
C'est surtout dans l'interprétation de ce fait que brille l'esprit courtisanesque des économistes. D'après c'es messieurs-là, les contradictions et les antangonismes inséperables de l'emploi des machines dans les milieu bourgeois n'existent pas, parce qu'ils ne proviennent non de la machine, mais de son exploitation capitaliste! Donc, parce que la machine, triomphe de l'homme sur les forces naturelles, devient entre les mains capitalistes l'instrument de l'asservissement de l'homme à ces même forces; parce que, moyen infaillible pour raccourcir le travail quotidien, elle le prolonge entre les mains capitalistes; parce que baguette magique pour augmenter la richesse du producteur, elle l'appauvrit entre les mains capitalistes, parce que etc., le bourgeois economiste déclare imperturbablement que toutes ces contradictions criantesne sont que fausses apparences et vaines chimères et que, dans la réalité, et pour cette raison dans la théorie, elles n'esistent pas.
Certes, ile ne nie pas les inconvénients temporaires, mais qu'elle médaille n'a pas son revers! Et pour lui, l'emploi capitaliste des machines en est le seul emploi possible. L'exploitation du travailleur par la machine est la même chose que l'exploitation des machines par le travailleur. Qui expose les réalités de l'emploi capitaliste des machines s'oppose donc à leur emploi et au progès social. Ce raissonement ne rappelle-t-il pas le plaidoyer de Bill Sykes, illustre coupe-jarret?

Moore and Aveling just translate, "the celebrated Bill Sykes", while Ben Fowkes translates as "the celebrated cut-throat." I'm not going to quote the French translation of Marx's quote from Bill Sykes. Of course, it is not exactly a quote, but what is it then, a parody, a rewriting, a joke, or what? Put in the mouth, so to speak, of a Dickens character, and a cut-throat one at that? And why is a figure from literature suddenly appearing here before the law?

Here is the footnote in the French translation referencing Thiers. It's a bit different again and not just because it can quote Thiers in French.

"L'auteur de la machine à filer le coton a ruiné l'Inde, ce que ne touche peu." (A.Thiers, De la Proprieté.) L'éminent homme d'État confond la machine à filer avec la machine à tisser, ce qui d'ailleurs nous touche peu."

Roger Gathmann said…
I really meant to say more about machines, Amie. Things are now coming to the endpoint, ho ho. So out of all that I've put down, I have to extract and, to use a euphemism, 'popularize". I've learned a lot the last two months - for instance, that so many passages in Capital stick their thumb in your eye. You go, wow, Marx already KNEW!