Re Indirectly Social Labor and a passage from the Grundrisse

In the context of a very long critique of the Proudhonian idea that commodities should exchange for their exact labor content, Marx comes to this bit in which he contrasts the directly social labor of communal production with the indirectly social labor of commodity production.

“…The communal character of production would make the product into a communal, general product from the outset. The exchange which originally takes place in production — which would not be an exchange of exchange values but of activities, determined by communal needs and communal purposes — would from the outset include the participation of the individual in the communal world of products. On the basis of exchange values, labour is posited as general only through exchange. But on this foundation it would be posited as such before exchange; i.e. the exchange of products would in no way be the medium by which the participation of the individual in general production is mediated. Mediation must, of course, take place. In the first case, which proceeds from the independent production of individuals — no matter how much these independent productions determine and modify each other post festum through their interrelations — mediation takes place through the exchange of commodities, through exchange value and through money; all these are expressions of one and the same relation. In the second case, the presupposition is itself mediated; i.e. a communal production, communality, is presupposed as the basis of production. The labour of the individual is posited from the outset as social labour. Thus, whatever the particular material form of the product he creates or helps to create, what he has bought with his labour is not a specific and particular product, but rather a specific share of the communal production. He therefore has no particular product to exchange. His product is not an exchange value. The product does not first have to be transposed into a particular form in order to attain a general character for the individual. Instead of a division of labour, such as is necessarily created with the exchange of exchange values, there would take place an organization of labour whose consequence would be the participation of the individual in communal consumption. In the first case the social character of production is posited only post festum with the elevation of products to exchange values and the exchange of these exchange values. In the second case the social character of production is presupposed, and participation in the world of products, in consumption, is not mediated by the exchange of mutually independent labours or products of labour. It is mediated, rather, by the social conditions of production within which the individual is active. Those who want to make the labour of the individual directly into money (i.e. his product as well), into realized exchange value, want therefore to determine that labour directly as general labour, i.e. to negate precisely the conditions under which it must be made into money and exchange values, and under which it depends on private exchange. This demand can be satisfied only under conditions where it can no longer be raised. Labour on the basis of exchange values presupposes, precisely, that neither the labour of the individual nor his product are directly general; that the product attains this form only by passing through an objective mediation by means of a form of money distinct from itself.

“On the basis of communal production, the determination of time remains, of course, essential. The less time the society requires to produce wheat, cattle etc., the more time it wins for other production, material or mental. Just as in the case of an individual, the multiplicity of its development, its enjoyment and its activity depends on economization of time. Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself. Society likewise has to distribute its time in a purposeful way, in order to achieve a production adequate to its overall needs;just as the individual has to distribute his time correctly in order to achieve knowledge in proper proportions or in order to satisfy the various demands on his activity. Thus, economy of time, along with the planned distribution of labour time among the various branches of production, remains the first economic law on the basis of communal production. It becomes law, there, to an even higher degree. However, this is essentially different from a measurement of exchange values (labour or products) by labour time. The labour of individuals in the same branch of work, and the various kinds of work, are different from one another not only quantitatively but also qualitatively. What does a solely quantitative difference between things presuppose ? The identity of their qualities. Hence, the quantitative measure of labours presupposes the equivalence, the identity of their quality.”
-Marx, Grundrisse 171-172

This passage is helpful in understanding the categories of directly and indirectly social labor. The labor of individuals engaged in communal production is directly social because the labor does not need to pass through a mediation in order to be part of the social labor of society. Commodity producing labor must produce a product that people want at the socially necessary labor time in order to be considered social labor. All other labor is wasted labor and is not social. The particular labor, represented by a particular commodity, is only social to the extent to which it measures up to the average labor of society. The particular commodity must show its equality to all other commodities through its relation to money, in order to be part of the social labor of society. Workers in a commodity producing society must purchase their stock of consumption goods with the money they get from selling their labor time. In communal production workers have no product to sell. They do not exchange one product for another. Instead they participate in social consumption to the extent in which they participate in production. Their product is immediately social from the outset because their labor does not have to measure up to the social average to be social. To say that a worker participates in social consumption to the extent to which they participate in production means that an hour of work earns one an hour of consumption goods, regardless of the efficiency at which one works. This same idea is repeated in the Critique of the Gotha Program and in the fetishism section of chapter one of Capital.

Another common theme between this passage and Capital, as well as the Critique of Political Economy, is the notion that a quantitative comparison between products implies a qualitative equality of labors. Though labors are heterogeneous, even within the same branch of production as Marx says here, they are considered qualitatively homogeneous from the standpoint of capital. This is because capitalism values all commodities at their socially necessary labor time, thus only counting labor as social to the extent to which it measures up to this average. Thus the equivalence between labors, their qualitative equality.

This passage is also helpful in demonstrating that a communist society which makes labor directly social by eliminating socially necessary labor time need not do away with labor-time accounting or with the goal of minimizing the time it takes society to do some tasks. There are certain aspects of social production which are a-historical, universal, aspects true in all modes of production.  There is only so much social labor to organize at any given time so there are always trade-offs. Increasing efficiency always makes room more labor to go into other areas of production. Society has to organize all of this social labor some way. A communal society needs to know how much labor time society requires to achieve certain tasks in order to plan production. Marx says here that the “economy of time” becomes “law” in communal production to an even higher degree than in capitalism. I assume that by this he means that because economy of time becomes a conscious aspect of planning by society, rather than a diffuse reaction of various firms to competition, that economy of time becomes “law” to a “higher degree”.


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26 Responses to Re Indirectly Social Labor and a passage from the Grundrisse

  1. Steve says:

    What makes the labor “indirectly social” under capitalism is that total social labor — which is actually a very large group cooperative endeavor — takes place within scattered, isolated, fragmented spaces and conditions

    This “private labor” only counts as “social” through exchange of commodities, hence indirect. And only a portion of the ‘sunk’ work effort effectively counts ‘after the fact’ (of production) as “socially necessary labor time.”

    You note Marx foresees a return to directly social labor in a “lower” phase of communism. However, this return to social labor will be different than the small scale communal production in ‘pre-capitalist’ formations.

    This return to directly social labor, you reason, is to be accomplished by reversal of all conditions giving rise to indirect social labor (although this doesn’t seem to be explicitly stated by Marx) . Besides a logical deduction of reversal, you also infer and argue parallelism with other concepts of commodity fetishism and abstract labor (I think I have that right?).

    This deduction and inference seems sufficient to establish the specificity of what Marx intended for the post-capitalist transition period.

    Therefore, the change is not merely juridical — that workers now formally own and can manage the means of production. It’s not just that there is a plan that presumably minimizes individuals’ ‘wasted’ labor and produces a democratically determined output.

    You state that, in addition to these changes, SNLT no longer occurs. No productivity norm for individuals gets enforced through competition (nor through a central planning proxy for the capitalist competition; nor in any kind of “socialist” or state capitalist piecework wage).

    In this view, you seem to differ from Lenin, who thought the ‘lower phase’ would still be value-governed, until further development ended with the forecast ‘higher phase’ after a much greater society-wide productivity growth.

    Apart from SNLT, I suggest there might be other dimensions of this ‘transition’ between capitalism, and also between the lower and higher phases of post-capitalism..

    A different kind of parallel can be drawn for the liberation of post-capitalist labor with the ‘formal’ and ‘real’ subsumption of labor under capitalism.

    The subsumption, Marx says, is where initially, capitalism absorbs work practices that it inherits from feudalism and artisan production, bringing workers together under one roof in order to supervise and extract surplus value, but not otherwise changing HOW work occurs (“formal”).

    Then, in the “real” phase capitalists revolutionize the work process by aggressively shaping it to the system’s self-determined needs. Capitalists progressively transform both form and content of the work process (i.e. a finer division of labor that eradicates craft; using machinery; etc).

    In the same way, couldn’t society in post-capitalism formally decide to allocate work it needed initially on the model of individual compensation? This “formal” proletarian direction would occur because initial conditions for transition were given by the value organization of capitalism.

    Then, as matters progressed, the “working class” as such could disappear in favor of voluntary activity (not coerced work), presumably all made possible by the hyper-automated production that is described in the Grundrisse.

    Non-work compensation and sharing of output would grow relative to the mass of necessary labor. It would become more and more important to shape conditions of the still necessary but shrinking labor time in order to be more attractive and congenial in itself.

    Job enrichment would become a necessity to attract sufficient labor to generate output to support a growing non-work ‘free’ time for the population (which might not be idle time, but rather, creative activity). Another possibility would be a form of labor conscription to fill the necessary labor slots.

    The above are other possible interpretations of Marx’s transition period.

  2. Steve says:

    Individual differential compensation for work, i.e. wages.

    Yes, the stated ultimate aim IS the abolition of the wages system, but what’s actually described in ‘Critique of Gotha’ with the certificates still definitely resembles money for work (wages), insofar as it is an exchange of products for individuals participating in the collective work effort.

    The main difference, as I understand it, would be that these certificates would only circulate once, and get redeemed for an individual share of the collective output. They could not be used in a succeeding circuit of M-C-M’.

    But, contra Proudhon, this would not be the “undiminished” proceeds of labor. A portion of work output would be distributed NOT on the basis of work.

    Rather, some would be held back for the provision of collective goods, for non-work income, or surplus reinvested for growth — all of which is described in ‘Critique of the Gotha Program.’

    The above still bears, I think, a great resemblance to capitalism — with the work, the pay, the income transfers,retained earnings, and growth.

    Marx says this is all transitional to something else, is my reading. The something else tends toward the final phase, of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

  3. Steve says:

    If you don’t pay people for their work, they are either volunteering their labor free of charge, or being coerced (drafted or enslaved).

    Of course, Marx’s entire critique of capitalism rests on the idea that wages are an instrument that disguises a form of coerced labor, so he would want to get away from that.

    I think a fair reading would say he doesn’t think imposed work can vanish right away, nor can humanity ever entirely be spared the need for sharing some drudgery in order to live.

    The key issue for post-capitalist social labor is: how do you fill the work slots you need in the amounts needed without coercion or material incentive. I believe Marx backhandedly acknowledges this in his discussions of freedom versus necessity.

    His main focus there is NOT on incentives versus voluntarism versus coercion in order to elicit the labor needed for plan fulfillment — but, rather, he assumes that will all happen somehow.

    His main focus instead is on productivity increasing progressively over time, thereby shrinking the realm of necessity (labor) and enlarging the realm of freedom (activity).

    Thus, such prodigious growth in productivity would allow for the forecast transition between the lower and the higher phases of communism, enabling a qualitative alteration in the relation to work alongside the quantitative reduction of ‘necessary’ labor time.

    • “Yes, the stated ultimate aim IS the abolition of the wages system, but what’s actually described in ‘Critique of Gotha’ with the certificates still definitely resembles money for work (wages), insofar as it is an exchange of products for individuals participating in the collective work effort.”

      It is an exchange of labors not of products and thus not commodity production.

      Re: the “main difference” between labor certificates and money: Is the defining character of money that it can circulate continuously as a result of some “plan”, by fiat? This is definitely not Marx’s conception. For him money appears naturally within commodity production because private labor must take the form of universal, general labor in order to be social. Likewise in the lower phase of communism, the reason labor certificates are not money is not because some entity declares this but rather because there is no private labor and individual labor does not need to take the form of general universal labor in order to become social. If instead private labors measure their social worth by measuring the value of commodities against universal social labor then it doesn’t matter if you call the representation of this universal labor “money” or “labor certificate”. It doesn’t matter if you declare by fiat that the money can’t circulate. The money will do what it wants and society will bend to the will of value production instead of the other way around.

      “This return to directly social labor, you reason, is to be accomplished by reversal of all conditions giving rise to indirect social labor (although this doesn’t seem to be explicitly stated by Marx) .”

      To eliminate anything you must eliminate the conditions that give rise to it. That’s just basic logic. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here. It’s not an inference just to assume that Marx understands basic logic. Furthermore, in Marx’s examples of different modes of production, in the fetishism section of vol 1 and in the Critique of Political Economy, he is pretty clear about what makes capitalist labor uniquely social in relation to other modes of production. I don’t think I’m making any inference. I’m just saying what’s in the text.

      Re: “transition”

      I am not talking about a transition. I am talking about what makes a communist mode of production distinct from a capitalist mode of production. What sort of transition leads to a different mode of production is a different question. You propose a transition in which SNLT is not eliminated. This is a separate question than what I have been talking about in our recent conversation. Your “transition” would still be a capitalist mode of production because there would still be all of the defining aspects of commodity production. Thus it’s not really a “transition”. In fact it appears that the idea of a transitory mode of production is a nonsense idea.

      “I think a fair reading would say he doesn’t think imposed work can vanish right away, nor can humanity ever entirely be spared the need for sharing some drudgery in order to live.” What text do you base this “fair reading” on?

      “The key issue for post-capitalist social labor is: how do you fill the work slots you need in the amounts needed without coercion or material incentive. I believe Marx backhandedly acknowledges this in his discussions of freedom versus necessity.”

      No. The “key issue” is being clear on what does and does not constitute a break with capitalist production.

      • Steve says:

        Well, why has no commune or nation yet been able to make a break with capitalist production by the simple expedient of scrapping individual material incentives for work, as you suggest?

        you say I suggest a contrived social change by fiat, yet there is still a residual arbitrariness if the certificates yield any entitlement whatever to a definite amount of goods.

        why isn’t this arrangement not equally a fiat measure? won’t an “entity” have to exist in order to issue and/or redeem certificates?

        The certificates only apply towards plan fulfillment, and Marx says they don’t circulate except once – sure, that’s arbitrary restriction but that is his specification, not mine.

        yes, certificates might be used like money for accumulating value if people circulate them outside the collective’s redemption scheme.

        Marx offers no reasons to think this won’t happen, apart from the certificate system ocurring under the political rule of the proletariat.

        saying that its trading labor for labor, rather than labor for goods or goods for goods is only semantics.

        people work an hour, they get a hour token, & trade it in for goods produced by others made within an hour’s time.

        would a service trading economy be any less a commodity exchange than a goods trading economy?

        fixing on goods being traded rather than labors doesn’t seem to get at the fundamental nature of a “change” ( I’m using this word since you don’t like “transition”).

        why is that single attribute the linchpin of a post-capitalist future, and not say, production by central planning, worker self-management or some other priority?

        it seemed to me that a reasonable interpretation would be that a democratically determined plan establishes what is needed as labor in order to get a certain product, and that fact is what makes it a more directly social process as compared to market exchange. however, such a straightforward interpretation, you say, is wrong.

        States basing their rationale on Marxist texts have been unable so far to solve problems of production, productivity or efficiency. These include the two nations with, respectively, the largest land mass and the largest population in the world. there was time, space and resources available. to make it work, so tbat is not the reason for any failure there.

        so the question of efficiency, if not “the key issue,” still remains an important unanswered question.

  4. allanrharris says:

    Does Marx say that a product does not become a commodity until after it is sold?

    • No. Did I imply that somewhere in this post?

      • allanrharris says:

        No. I was thinking of this: ” Labour on the basis of exchange values presupposes, precisely, that neither the labour of the individual nor his product are directly general; that the product attains this form only by passing through an objective mediation by means of a form of money distinct from itself.”

        Thus, labor as exchange value assumes that the the product is not directly general, not a commodity, until it is mediated through a money sale. Also, Engels’ note to Ch. 1, of Capital; “To become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use value, by means of an exchange.” Doesn’t this mean that a product becomes a commodity only by an exchange, i.e. through an exchange of money?

        In other words capitalism produces direct, individual objects which become indirect, generalized, social objects, commodities, through an exchange of money? Or, that a product becomes a commodity only at the time of sale.

  5. Tom says:

    Hello, what do you thinks about this marx criticism:

  6. Regarding what you said here: economy of time becomes “law” to a “higher degree”.

    This struck me as a perfect explanation as to why communist leaders transformed the state into brutal and pervasive dictatorships. They believed they had a higher cause in mind as to what people should labor for and how much will be required of them. This led to a situation where the average person was literally controlled cradle to grave and anyone who spoke out against it was executed.

    • Actually I think the exploitation of labor in the Soviet Union stemmed from the same cause as in the rest of the capitalist world: labor in the USSR was indirectly social. I don’t think the Soviet state broke from the capitalist mode of production. I don’t think Marx is referring to this sort of economy of time in this passage. Rather, I believe he is referring to the ways in which technology could be used to liberate workers rather than dominate them if production was planned for social use rather than value production.

      • A Wise Man says:

        Even if I were to agree with you about the ’cause of exploitation’, the brutality experienced by workers in the USSR is far beyond anything workers experience in capitalist economies. Essentially what your arguing for is the ‘no true Scotsman fallacy’; that for whatever reason the USSR didn’t practice ‘true communism’.

      • I don’t know if that it is true that the “brutality” of the experience of workers in the USSR was “far beyond anything experienced by workers in capitalist economies.” Actually, the sentence doesn’t make sense from the theoretical perspective which I take, that the USSR was a state-capitalist society. If this is the case, then your sentence doesn’t actually make any sense. This also addresses why the supposed fallacy you mention does not hold. I am not arguing that the USSR was some sort of deformed communism that fell short of the mark of true communism. I am arguing that it was not communism in any sense at all.

  7. Do you think the average person is capable of working for the greater whole (producing for social use), rather than for their own personal gain?

    • I’m not convinced that is the issue at stake here, in the discussion of indirectly social labor.

      • Let me put it this way. Market economies appear to create much higher standards of living than do planned economies. Wouldn’t you agree?

      • 1. I don’t see what this has to do with your previous comment. What do standards of living have to do with the motivation of individuals to do work? You don’t seem to be “putting it this way” but instead raising a separate question.
        2. The issue of indirectly social labor has nothing to do with the distinction between markets and planning. It has to do with the capitalist mode of production vs the directly social labor of a communist society. Since a capitalist society could be organized through planning or markets are a combination of the two, I don’t think your question has anything to do with the issues in this post.

  8. I agree that capitalist societies can and are ‘mixed economies’. But can a communist economy be anything other than a planned economy? Based on your material, it seems like your answer would be no because market dynamics make it impossible for a worker to be fully compensated for his labor; e.g. the amount of effort and toil that goes into producing something will not be rewarded if there is no demand for for the fruits of his labor. Forgive me if my comments are off topic from this post. But I’m just trying to have a conversation with you, and unless you have a better place for it, or you aren’t interested, let me know.

    • What I meant by my comment is that when you say “market economies appear to have a higher standard of living than planned economies,” I can only infer that you are referring to some prior, historically existing planned economy like perhaps the soviet union. However the USSR, in my estimation was not communist but state capitalist. The category “indirectly social labor” is developed as a critique of capitalist production and thus applies equally to, say, US capitalism and the USSR. It is not a category that critiques markets vs planning.

      It also has nothing to do with the standard of living in a country. Yes, a communist society has to be planned. But I see no inherent reason why planning would result in a lower “standard of living”. Regardless, your previous comments seemed to be about directly social labor and not planning, and now you seem to have changed the topic.

      When I refer to your comments being off-topic I mean that rather than responding to any of the comments I have written in response to your comments you seem to be introducing different “critiques” of my position with each successive comment, rather than taking the time to engage with anything I’ve written. It doesn’t seem that you are trying to have a conversation at all, but rather just throw out different objections without actually taking the time to try to understand the position I am trying to articulate. When you say “let me put it this way,” but instead you change topics, this is not “trying to have a conversation”. In fact, it is the opposite of a conversation.

      • Alright, so the USSR was not a planned economy. Rather, it was state capitalism. I’d like you to explain that a bit more, but I’ll assume it’s true for the moment. In any case, the USSR made some kind of attempt at a centrally planned economy, and at the very least the spirit of communism was in the people. So even the attempt at a communistic economy, let alone the actual achievement of it, led to a brutal dictatorship and a hierarchy unchecked by the market, democracy, or even the most fundamental of things which is wanting to look for the well being of one’s own people because one’s allegiance to the communistic ideology and all that entails. So even if a communistic society in theory can remedy the what some see as the ‘injustices’ inherent in a market economy; the mere attempt at implementing communism leads to brutal dictatorships because it’s a system that is incompatible with human nature.

      • I don’t think you are following what I’ve been saying. The USSR was a planned economy AND it was state capitalist. The metric of what would make something capitalist or communist is not the planning vs market dichotomy but instead the directly social vs indirectly social dichotomy. In order for you to argue that, “the mere attempt at implementing communism leads to brutal dictatorships because it’s a system that is incompatible with human nature,” you would have to establish not only that the USSR attempted to make labor directly social, but also that it’s failure to achieve this was not due to particular reasons but universal reasons applying to any capitalist country in any time. You would also need to make some argument about universal human nature. I don’t think any of these three things are true so I don’t know how one would argue them, but I am curious to see you try.

  9. Man does not work for the purpose of society, man works for himself. When numerous men do this alongside each other, a market economy organically emerges. If a communist state were to impose a system of ‘social labor’, individual men would no longer be laboring for themselves, but for what the state deems appropriate, e.g. the nation, God, society, etc. This economic system inevitably becomes a brutal dictatorship of coercive work, devolving into a network of forced labor camps. Consequently, any semblance of a market is destroyed as well because the regime also has to control how much access each individual has to the goods and services they produce. The state bureaucracy inevitably grows out of control and becomes ever more controlling and violent. Depression, fear, decreased productivity, black markets, and secrecy become the MO for the average individual in this kind of society.

    • I am once again astonished at the lack of ability of many people to engage with the actual ideas at stake, and rather to have their own conversation with themselves, ignoring everything I write. I can only understand this as trollish behavior, whether or not it is intentional. I have no choice but to block this user. I understand that many of the ideas I am discussing go against everyday conceptions or commonly accepted wisdom. But unless a reader is willing to engage with what I am writing there is no ability to have a constructive dialogue. Instead we just get the juvenile comment graffiti which takes up so much room on the internet.

      • Murciélago says:

        I agree with you. I think most of Marx’s topics are really complex and require a certain degree of discipline and commitment to comprehend. Perhaps I am particularly slow, but I have taken it upon myself to understand Marx’s political economy which took several years of regimented reading and research on my part (including various interpretations from D. Harvey, E. Mandel and I. Rubin). You are one of the very few people I read online who bothered even mentioning “direct social labor” and the “economy of time” (average labor-time as a unit of calculation) as distinctive socialist economic principles that supersede the law of value, and the role of labor certificates instead of money in such organizations. Your videos and writings are phenomenal, but very intense. People are perhaps more educated in the western world, but I have come to believe that it only begets a world of educated stupid people.

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