Communism in practice: Directly social labour

While reading this extract below from Peter Hudis’ wonderful book, keep in mind the already existing practices of P2P production, such as free software and open education. As Michel Bauwens and others recognise, these are examples of a proto-mode of post-capitalist production. They conform to much of what Marx describes (below) as the features of directly social labour but have yet to overcome the determinate imperative of value production i.e. they do not replace the production of value but remain reliant on it. Tony Smith and Guido Starosta discuss this limitation in detail.

Source: Hudis, P. (2013) Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, Leiden: Brill. pp. 110-113.

“‘Now if this assumption is made, the general character of labour would not be given to it only by exchange; its assumed communal character would determine participation in the products. The communal character of production would from the outset make the product into a communal, general one. The exchange initially occurring in production, which would not be an exchange of exchange values but of activities determined by communal needs and communal purposes, would include from the beginning the individual’s participation in the communal world of products…labour would be posited as general labour prior to exchange, i.e., the exchange of products would not in any way be the medium mediating the participation of the individual in general production. Mediation of course has to take place.’ (Marx, Grundrisse, 1986: 108)

This is a remarkable passage that is worth close analysis. First, Marx acknowledges that labour would have a ‘general’ character in a new society. However, its generality would be radically different from what exists in capitalism, where discrete acts of individual labour become connected to one another (or are made general) through the act of commodity-exchange. In contrast, labour becomes general in the new society prior to the exchange of products, on the basis of the ‘the communal character of production’ itself. The community distributes the elements of production according to the individuals’ needs, instead of being governed by social forms that operate independently of their deliberation. Labour is general insofar as the community directly decides the manner and form of production. Marx is not referring here to the existence of small, isolated communities that operate in a world dominated by value-production. As noted above, Marx never adhered to the notion that socialism was possible in one country, let alone in one locale. He is pointing, instead, to a communal network of associations in which value-production has been superseded on a systemic level. Labour is therefore directly social, not indirectly social. Second, Marx acknowledges that exchange of some sort would exist in a new society. However, exchange would be radically different from what prevails in capitalism, which is governed by the exchange of commodities. Instead of being based on exchange-values, prices, or markets, distribution would be governed by an exchange of activities that are ‘determined by communal needs and communal purposes’. The latter determines the exchange of activities, instead of being determined by the exchange of products that operate independently of it. Third, Marx acknowledges that social mediation would exist in a new society. However, mediation would be radically different from that under capitalism, where it has an abstract character, since ‘mediation takes place through the exchange of commodities, through exchange value’ and money. In socialism, in contrast, ‘the presupposition is itself mediated, i.e., communal production, community as the basis of production, is assumed. The labour of the individual is from the outset taken as [directly] social labour’.

Marx’s distinction between indirectly and directly social labour is central to his evolving concept of a postcapitalist society – not only in the Grundrisse but also (as I will attempt to show) in much of his later work. He contends that in capitalism the ‘social character of production is established only post festum by the elevation of the products into exchange values and the exchange of these exchange values’, whereas in socialism, ‘The social character of labour is presupposed, and participation in the world of products, in consumption, is not mediated by exchange between mutually independent labourers of products of labour. It is mediated by social production within which the individual carries on his activity’. Marx is envisaging a totally new kind of social mediation, one that is direct, instead of indirect, sensuous, instead of abstract: ‘For the fact is that labour on the basis of exchange values presupposes that neither the labour of the individual nor his product is directly general, but that it acquires this form only through objective mediation by means of a form of money distinct from it’. In sum, a society is governed by exchange-value only inso-far as the sociality of labour is established not through itself, but through an objective form independent of itself. Such a society is an alienated one, since (as Marx showed from as early as his writings of 1843–4), the domination of individuals by objective forms of their own making is precisely what is most problematic and indeed perverse about capitalism.

Marx proceeds to go deeper into what he means by directly social ‘communal production’ by addressing the role of time in a new society. He writes, ‘Ultimately, all economy is a matter of economy of time’. All societies strive to reduce the amount of time spent on producing and reproducing the necessities of life. No society is more successful at doing so than capitalism, in which production-relations force individual units of labour to conform to the average amount of time necessary to produce a given commodity. Since this compulsion issues from within the production-process, instead of from a political authority which lords over it from outside, capitalism is far more effective at generating efficiencies of time than were precapitalist modes of production. Marx repeatedly refers to this as capitalism’s ‘civilising mission’. He says this because the development and satisfaction of the individual ultimately depends upon the saving of time so that life can be freed up for pursuits other than engaging in material production.

But how does the economisation of time relate to a new society governed by ‘communal production’? Marx indicates that it becomes just as important as in capitalism, although it exists in a different form and for a different purpose:

If we presuppose communal production, the time factor naturally remains essential. The less time society requires to produce corn, livestock, etc., the more time it wins for other production, material or spiritual…Economy of time, as well as the planned distribution of labour time over the various branches of production, therefore, remains the first economic law if communal production is taken as the basis. It becomes a law even to a much higher degree. However, this is essentially different from the measurement of exchange values (of labours or products of labour) by labour time.

Marx does not detail exactly how the economisation of time operates in a society governed by communal production; the text mentions no single mechanism or lever for accomplishing this. However, in light of his earlier writings, we can surmise that he sees the motivation for the economisation of time in a new society as resting upon the effort to achieve what he called in 1844 a ‘totality of manifestations of life’. When society is freed from the narrow drive to augment value as an end in itself, it can turn its attention to supplying the multiplicity of needs and wants that are integral to the social individual. Instead of being consumed by having and possessing, individuals can now focus upon what is given short shrift in societies governed by value-production – their being, their manifold sensuous and intellectual needs, whether ‘material or spiritual’. The more people get in touch with their universality of needs, the greater the incentive to economise time, to reduce the amount of hours engaged in material production, so that such multiple needs (such as cultural, social, or intellectual enjoyment) can be pursued and satisfied. In a word, whereas in capitalism the incentive to economise time is provided by an abstract standard, exchange-value, in socialism it is provided by the concrete sensuous needs of the individuals themselves. The drive to economise time no longer comes from outside the individuals, from value’s need to grow big with value, but from within, from the quest to manifest the totality of the individuals’ intellectual, sensuous, and spiritual capabilities.”

Marx’s method (II): ‘the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete’

In my previous notes I quoted Marx describing his approach as “the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete”. What a wonderful description, but what does it mean? Marx goes on to discuss it in some length in that section of his notebooks for Capital, first using the concept of ‘population’:

“When we consider a given country politico-economically, we begin with its population, its distribution among classes, town, country, the coast, the different branches of production, export and import, annual production and consumption, commodity prices etc.

It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete, with the real precondition, thus to begin, in economics, with e.g. the population, which is the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production. However, on closer examination this proves false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest. E.g. wage labour, capital, etc. These latter in turn presuppose exchange, division of labour, prices, etc. For example, capital is nothing without wage labour, without value, money, price etc. Thus, if I were to begin with the population, this would be a chaotic conception [Vorstellung] of the whole, and I would then, by means of further determination, move analytically towards ever more simple concepts [Begriff], from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations. From there the journey would have to be retraced until I had finally arrived at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations.”

Shortly after this passage, he clarifies the relation between the abstract and the concrete:

“The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception. … the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought.”

For brevity, I’m cutting out the parts where Marx offers the contrasting conventional method of analysis employed by political economists. He also wants to distinguish his approach from Hegel’s idealism, arguing that his own abstractions are reliant on, and grounded in, the concrete. These ‘real abstractions’ exist dialectically with the concrete.  He gives the example of the abstraction of ‘exchange value’, which can only exist in a dialectical relationship with the concrete social relations found in society, such as the family, commune or state.

This section in Marx’s notebooks is an attack, not just on Hegel’s idealism, but philosophy in general, which he claims equates reality with consciousness. For Marx, thought is a product of material, concrete conditions. Thought does not exist apart from the world, but is “a product, rather, of the working-up of observation and conception into concepts.” The real is a presupposition of the abstract:

“The totality as it appears in the head, as a totality of thoughts, is a product of a thinking head, which appropriates the world in the only way it can, a way different from the artistic, religious, practical and mental appropriation of this world. The real subject retains its autonomous existence outside the head just as before; namely as long as the head’s conduct is merely speculative, merely theoretical. Hence, in the theoretical method, too, the subject, society, must always be kept in mind as the presupposition.”

Marx then goes on to discuss how an abstraction can change in relation to the concrete world. Simple abstractions might appear to presuppose the more complex reality of the world, but in fact, he argues, they express the historical development of the social conditions and relations at particular times and places. He starts by discussing the category of ‘possession’, which has both abstract and concrete qualities reflecting the social relations of a given historical moment, e.g. possession of a flint axe in the Stone Age, differs from the modern judicial meaning of possession of property. Similarly, the category of ‘money’ existed in a simple form prior to the existence of ‘capital’ and may continue to exist in its simpler form depending on the historical development of the society. That is, the category of money, for example, is not trans-historical or absolute but rather expresses the concrete development of the social conditions in which it is being used as a category. “To that extent”, says Marx, “the path of abstract thought, rising from the simple to the combined, would correspond to the real historical process.” In effect, this is a warning not to methodologically employ abstract concepts such as ‘money’, ‘exchange’, or labour’, etc. to all people at all times across all places. It is an argument for grasping the contingent basis of theoretical concepts prior to their application in the concrete world, i.e. “rising from the abstract to the concrete.” Marx underlines this again with a useful discussion of the seemingly simple category of ‘labour’ and concludes that

“even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations.”

Like most of us, Marx understood history as developing, carrying with it remnants of earlier historical ways of living and understanding our lives. Thus, modern ‘bourgeois’ society is “the most developed and the most complex historic organization of production.” As such, our modern categories, when analysed, are found to comprise the remnants of history, too, yet should not be applied to all of history:

“The bourgeois economy thus supplies the key to the ancient, etc. But not at all in the manner of those economists who smudge over all historical differences and see bourgeois relations in all forms of society… The so-called historical presentation of development is founded, as a rule, on the fact that the latest form regards the previous ones as steps leading up to itself, and, since it is only rarely and only under quite specific conditions able to criticize itself – leaving aside, of course, the historical periods which appear to themselves as times of decadence – it always conceives them one-sidedly.”

Thus, it is not simply a mistake to apply existing categories to history but also a constraint because it limits our ability to understand the present as well as the past. Marx argues that categories such as ‘money’ and ‘labour’ express both “what is in the head as well as in reality”, and therefore “the characteristics of existence” but from specific, limited points of view. Thus, says Marx, it is a mistake to think that society , “begins only at the point where one can speak of it as such; this holds for science as well.What does he mean by this last remark about ‘science’? It seems to be a rejection of positivism.

He then goes on to discuss the example of rent, property and agriculture, and provides a wonderful description of the centrality of the specific mode of production in all societies:

“For example, nothing seems more natural than to begin with ground rent, with landed property, since this is bound up with the earth, the source of all production and of all being, and with the first form of production of all more or less settled societies – agriculture. But nothing would be more erroneous. In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialized within it.”

So, Marx’s starting point of analysis is the dominant, ruling, mode of production in society i.e. capital, rather than what he argues are related but secondary (derivative??) categories such as ‘population’ or ‘landed property’. Although there may appear to be a ‘logic’ to starting with a specific point of interest (e.g. ‘population’, ‘higher education’, ‘science’, ‘hacking’, etc.) and then developing one’s analysis from there, Marx argues that the mode of production (i.e. capital) dominates – “rules” – the body and mind to such an extent that without starting from an examination of capitalism’s fundamental categories (and therefore one’s own abstractions) is to approach one’s analysis (e.g. of ‘population’) more-or-less blind. In effect, he is saying that we are born out of capital – we are capital – and must begin our analysis from that point.

“Capital is the all-dominating economic power of bourgeois society. It must form the starting-point as well as the finishing-point, and must be dealt with before landed property. After both have been examined in particular, their interrelation must be examined.

…It would therefore be unfeasible and wrong to let the economic categories follow one another in the same sequence as that in which they were historically decisive. Their sequence is determined, rather, by their relation to one another in modern bourgeois society, which is precisely the opposite of that which seems to be their natural order or which corresponds to historical development. The point is not the historic position of the economic relations in the succession of different forms of society. Even less is it their sequence ‘in the idea’ (Proudhon) (a muddy notion of historic movement). Rather, their order within modern bourgeois society.”

In the final passage of this section of his notebooks, he demonstrates the method of “rising from the abstract to the concrete” using the example of ‘national wealth’, which he says arose in the 17th century as the idea that

“wealth is created only to enrich the state, and that its power is proportionate to this wealth. This was the still unconsciously hypocritical form in which wealth and the production of wealth proclaimed themselves as the purpose of modern states, and regarded these states henceforth only as means for the production of wealth.”

Having explained how the term came into use and over time came to uncritically justify the conception of the modern state, he then finishes by outlining his “method of rising from the abstract to the concrete” in the study of capitalist society:

“The order obviously has to be

(1) the general, abstract determinants which obtain in more or less all forms of society, but in the above-explained sense.

(2) The categories which make up the inner structure of bourgeois society and on which the fundamental classes rest. Capital, wage labour, landed property. Their interrelation. Town and country. The three great social classes. Exchange between them. Circulation. Credit system (private).

(3) Concentration of bourgeois society in the form of the state. Viewed in relation to itself. The ‘unproductive’ classes. Taxes. State debt. Public credit. The population. The colonies. Emigration.

(4) The international relation of production. International division of labour. International exchange. Export and import. Rate of exchange.

(5) The world market and crises.”

In summary, (1) start with simple, abstract concepts that seemingly apply to all people at all times e.g. ‘labour’; (2) move on to an examination of contemporary forms of those abstractions e.g. ‘wage labour’; (3) next, examine the inter-relation of those abstractions in concrete social forms e.g. the ‘workplace’; (4) examine the concrete/abstract dialectic developed so far in the more expansive, global setting e.g. global labour market; (5) examine the dialectic developed so far at a systemic level e.g. the inter-relation between global production, exchange, unemployment, crises, etc. Thus, we’ve started from a simple abstraction of ‘labour’ and moved to examine that abstract category both in terms of its appearance at a local, social level, and its role in international politics, markets, war, etc. To conceive of ‘labour’ or any other simple category in any other way is to fall short of understanding it.

I think that’s what Marx’s means by his “method of rising from the abstract to the concrete”. What do you think?