Re Indirectly Social Labor and a passage from Capital 1, chapter 1

Indirectly Social Labor notes. Capital Fetishism section

In the Fetishism section of chapter one, volume one of Capital Marx makes a comparison of different modes of production, arguing that the fetishism of commodities only arises in the capitalist mode of production. I think that the same logic which Marx uses in these pages also applies to the concept of “indirectly social labor”. A comparison of different modes of production reveals how labor is only indirectly social in a capitalist society in which most production is commodity production. Though Marx is only explicitly dealing with fetishism in this passage I think it is quite reasonable to see his arguments applying equally to indirectly social labor, so that when he says, “The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore, so soon as we come to other forms of production….” the same logic holds for indirectly social labor.

The reason the two categories map onto each other is that it is only in a society of indirectly social labor that the social relations between producers are mysterious and not immediately apparent. It is only because private labor must take the form of commodity value in order to be social that we have commodity fetishism. “Nevertheless, when the producers of coats and boots compare those articles with linen, or, what is the same thing, with gold or silver, as the universal equivalent, they express the relation between their own private labour and the collective labour of society in the same absurd form.”

Thus, Marx’s comparison of modes of production allow us some insights into how we can better understand the concepts of direct and indirectly social labor.

Commodity fetishism and indirectly social labor vanish in non-capitalist social formations. Marx moves through several examples of directly social labor, an isolated Crusoe, medieval production, the patriarchal peasant family, and a communist society of free individuals. One point he makes is that in each mode of production labor time is still used as a measure of one’s input into the total social labor. Each mode of production uses some form of what might be called “labor-time accounting”. Yet this alone does not make labor indirectly social.

The Robinson Crusoe example, in addition to serving as a parody of bourgeois writers, shows that Crusoe’s activity contains all of the determinants of value yet there is no value creation, all of his labor is directly part of the total product, and there is no fetishism of commodities. Crusoe plans:  “His stock-book contains a list of the objects of utility that belong to him, of the operations necessary for their production; and lastly, of the labour time that definite quantities of those objects have, on an average, cost him.” There is labor-time accounting and this planning happens through a consideration of average labor times, yet there is no value creation and thus no indirectly social labor. Why is this the case? The reader might at first assume that this is because Marx is dealing with an economy of one person and thus his labor is automatically directly “social”, or directly counted as part of the total product, because he does not exchange his labor with a larger society.

But in the examples that follow Marx shows that this is not the reason. In the relations of personal dependence that characterizes the European middle ages labors are just as well measured by time. Yet these labors do not take the form of objectified value in the form of commodities. “Here the particular and natural form of labour, and not, as in a society based on production of commodities, its general abstract form is the immediate social form of labour.” By this Marx means that each individual’s labor, just like each of Crusoe’s different forms of labor, immediately counts as part of the social product without needing to take the form of money, the general abstract social form of value, in order to be validated as social labor. If a peasant works 5 days on the landlords land, and 2 on his own, those five days of work are directly part of the landlord’s wealth. The peasant’s labor does not have to be related to a socially necessary labor time and then take the money-form of value in order to be social. It is immediately social in its concrete, particular form.

The interior relations of the peasant family also serve as a social unit, the individual labors of which are all directly social, not needing to be mediated through socially necessary labor time and money in order to be socially valid. That means that if Peasant A produces corn less efficiently than Peasant B this doesn’t mean that Peasant A’s labor is wasted, or that some of his/her labor does not count as social. Everything that Peasant A creates is part of the total product consumed by the family. “The labour power of each individual, by its very nature, operates in this case merely as a definite portion of the whole labour power of the family, and therefore, the measure of the expenditure of individual labour power by its duration, appears here by its very nature as a social character of their labour.”

The labor of the members of the communist society in Marx’s last example is directly social for the same reason: Each person’s labor is immediately counted as a portion of the total social labor rather than the averaging that is required for private labor to become social in a capitalist society. “All the characteristics of Robinson‘s labour are here repeated, but with this difference, that they are social, instead of individual.”

To further clarify Marx points out that labor-time accounting could take two roles in a communist society in both planning of production and serving as a way of distributing consumption goods. Though distribution could be handled different ways Marx shows an example in which an hour of work entitles one to an hour of consumption goods: ” On the other hand, it also serves as a measure of the portion of the common labour borne by each individual, and of his share in the part of the total product destined for individual consumption.”  Of course, in a capitalist society an hour of work does not directly entitle us to a proportionate share of the social product. Rather, on a socially average hour of work does so. Marx makes this clear earlier in the chapter in his discussion of the English hand loom weavers.

This last examples is very much in the same spirit as Marx’s discussion of the lower phase of communist in the Critique of the Gotha Program. There he says:

“Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another….”  “Hence, equal right here is still in principle — bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case.”

Just as Crusoe uses average labor times as a basis for planning his work so too a communist society with directly social labor would use averages to plan production. But this averaging is not the same as the averaging that happens with socially necessary labor time in a capitalist society. In the latter case sub-average labor does not count as fully social. If the SNLT is 1 hour and it takes me 3 hours then only one of my hours counts as social. In the directly social labor of a communist society all 3 my hours would be social because I have the right to an hour of consumption goods for every hour that I work. My labor time has cost society more because all of my labor is social.

This also means that labor in a communist society is not abstract but rather only concrete. An hour of one person’s labor is not the same, is not interchangeable with another’s, in the way it is in capitalism.


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12 Responses to Re Indirectly Social Labor and a passage from Capital 1, chapter 1

  1. Steve says:

    Fascinating. I guess you’ve nailed your point about ‘what Marx meant’ as far as the role of directly social labor in a post-capitalist society.

    While this approach to compensating labor would halt speedup and other negative working conditions of capitalism, would efficiency and productivity be a dilemma for Marx’s communism?

    In pre-capitalist formations, norms of reciprocity and small group sharing allocated tasks and rewards within a family, tribe, or village (so-called ‘primitive’ communism). Everyone deals with each other face to face and the relation of each person’s effort to the whole group’s welfare is pretty transparent.

    In other economic formations that embrace larger and more geographically scattered social groups — as in feudalism and slavery — direct coercion or requisitions of goods both produce a surplus and allocate subsistence.

    With capitalism, a more disguised coercion allocates social labor and forces individual efforts to achieve subsistence, meanwhile and thereby squeezing out more surplus from the working population.

    Capitalist competition becomes a way to allocate social labor between firms, coordinate large-scale production between the many isolated and decentralized work groups, and match the resulting outputs to consumer demand.

    While this system is far from perfect, and shouldn’t be glorified a la orthodox “free market” economics, this is what it does. “Advanced” industrial communism would have to accomplish much the same tasks. How would that happen?

    • A good question. I think motivating people to do work would only be effective if work itself was desirable, if it were life’s “prime want” as I believe Marx says in the GothaCritik.

      • Steve says:

        But if one is working three hours to do what can be done by someone else in one hour, as in your above example, then “motivation” may not be the sole problem for achieving more efficient production.

        Allocating labor across society efficiently would be problematic regardless of personal motivations. The reason someone is laboring inefficiently in a given case might have nothing to do with their actual motivation, but perhaps their lower skill level, or the sub-optimal organization and equipment of their workplace.

        However, incentives and motivation under “socialism” HAS been a problem. Thus, the USSR paying individuals bonuses, waging production campaigns, etc; China attacking so-called shirkers and slackers; Cuba agitating for a “new socialist man” who would be self-motivated, later implementing small collective bonuses for productivity, then individual pay differentials etc.

        Some who grew up under the “actually existing socialism” of collapsed regimes claimed “they pretended to pay us, and we pretended to work.”

        If the only labor that counts as “social” and “concrete” trends inexorably towards work of lesser productivity, that means that implementing the lower phase of communism as you suggest here may mitigate entirely against achieving the higher phase of greater productivity — where labor becomes life’s “prime want.”

      • Why would implementing directly social labor inexorably trend towards lesser productivity?

        Is your reference to “actually existing socialism” supposed to be empirical support of this assertion? For one, the USSR and China did not have directly social labor. Two, they made tremendous advances in productivity in a short time, at the expense of the working class. So I’m not sure what the reference is attempting to prove.

        In regards to your first point, why would implementing directly social labor across various industries, not all equally productive, be “problematic”? In what sense would it be problematic? And why would society not be able to address these problems via planning?

  2. Paul says:

    Doesn’t the labor certificate system still require some form of social averaging? I may be completely missing the point, but if the amount of corn produced per hour varies greatly from producer to producer, yet all are directly social, then when I go to redeem my certificate for one hour of corn, whose hour am I getting? The best worker? the worst? the average? the one closest to my own ability level? The person minding the warehouse has to have some idea of what “one hour” represents in terms of goods, but how is that possible if we’re insisting that whatever each producer manages to get done in that hour, counts?

    • Paul says:

      I guess I could see taking it extremely literally by having each worker’s product split up and labelled as it’s put on the truck in one-hour bundles, so in effect you get a direct realtime empirical measurement of how much of each good an hour represents, and the exact amount your certificate entitles you to depends on whose bushels came in that day and how many other people beat you to the pickup line first thing in the morning to grab the bigger ones. Is that the idea?

    • I am pretty sure I have addressed this question already in the comment thread. Eliminating socially necessary labor time does not mean eliminating labor-time accounting. Society could still calculate the average labor time required to make a widget and use this calculation for planning and for knowing how much labor-time a product is “worth” in exchanging labor certificates. The difference would be that each person would get a 1-hour certificate for their hour or work.

  3. Steve says:

    Under “directly social labor” as you describe it there is individual compensation equal to the time worked, measured as a proportionate share of social production delivered at the average hourly productivity.

    what distinguishes it as directly social is not the exchange of work hours for products, nor working for tokens that exchange for the products. it is that compensation is not tied to productivity at all. it is invariable with skill, effort, or output.

    the reason i think it trends toward lower productivity should be obvious enough: no material incentive to exceed an average output and some incentive to work below the average.

    The experience of the nations that claimed Marxist-Leninist principles seems relevant because they apparently grappled with questions of incentives in production.

    They all initially attempted production by central planning with egalitarian compensation with what seems like sincerity and they all later moved away from it, citing productivity problems.

    • I don’t see how this necessarily creates an “inexorable” trend toward lower productivity. It could tend this way or it could not since now production is collectively run and the goal of communal production is to make the life of the worker better, not to amass a surplus for capital. Regardless it is a different issue than what would allow for directly social labor. I think we are now in agreement that directly social labor requires the elimination of commodity value and thus socially necessary labor time. How society chooses to implement directly social labor depends on many factors, not all of which I can speak to.

      The productivity issue comes up often when discussing directly social labor. I think the issue is often brought up in the wrong way. Marx’s remarks about directly social labor are a logical deduction based on his theory of commodity production. If Marx is correct about what the ingredients that create a system of indirectly social labor then it can be logically deduced what would be necessary to get rid of indirectly social labor. For Marx, money, capital, surplus value, etc are all an inevitable part of a system of indirectly social labor. So if we want a society without all of the social ills of capital then we need to have a society of directly social labor. The specifics of how such a society is organized is not deducible. This is a matter of creative people comparing different methods of planning and hashing it out.

      But Marx’s remarks about directly social labor are not a “plan” to be compared to commodity production. It’s not like comparing the USSR to the USA, two different types of state capitalism, and saying “this worked better than that…etc.” We are dealing with different levels of abstraction.

      I could think of some ways that people might be motivated to work in a society of directly social labor. Compensating people for all of their working time doesn’t mean they couldn’t lose their job for deliberately shirking, for instance. Also, if the goal of production is not to increase surplus value, but instead to better the lives of workers, than perhaps the re-imagining of work, where work becomes something that completes us as humans rather than degrades us, would be the ultimate incentive. I think that the concept of work as a burden is not universal but a product of class society, especially capitalist society.

      It is also not true that commodity production is somehow the ultimate incentive for productivity. There is a tremendous amount of waste in capitalist society. I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of free time that could be liberated in a society that could consciously plan production to eliminate all of this waste.

  4. Steve says:

    not sure what i was thinking when I said it would be “problematic” to compensate all hours of work the same across sectors and types of labor as well as within a category or industry.
    I suppose I was thinking that if an industry is short-handed vis-a-vis fullfilling plannef output differential pay could not be used as a tool to lure more workers or increase their output.

    • Steve says:

      correcting the above typos/omissions :

      “if an industry is short-handed vis-a-vis fulfilling a planned output, [then] differential pay could not be used to lure more workers [to the industry] or [encourage them to] increase their output.”

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