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More Notes on Biernacki

This is the remainder of my notes on Biernacki’s Labor as an Imagined Commodity.

Part Two: The Conveyance of Labor in the Factory

The form that abstract labor is held to have does not necessarily translate into social practice; piece work did not hold dominance in Britain, nor did day wages take over in Germany, even though the British considered labor to be a good embodied in products while Germans thought of it as a capacity to work for a given amount of time.

Rather, what Biernacki underscores as being characteristic of capitalist relations is the manner in which labor is supposed to be seeb as a “general, quantifiable substance apart from its specific embodiments” (180). That is, the product of one labor is held to be exchangeable, willy-nilly, with the product of another. However, the way that this belief is expressed is different on account of the differing views about what labor is:

In Britain, abstract labor was compared in the sphere of exchange as embodied labor; in Germany, this form of labor was compared in the sphere of production as the requisitioning and expenditure of labor power. These foundational means of measuring and conveying abstract labor can be enacted in either of two superficial forms of remuneration — piece rate or time wage. In Britain time wages were designed to represent a contract for delivery of a quantity of labor products delivered within certain hours; in Germany piece rates were configured as an index of the extraction and expenditure of labor power. The formal construction of the payment system, and how that system works in conjunction with the other practices on the shopfloor, reveal the conceptions of the substance of abstract labor on which the producers rely. (180)

Biernacki goes on to discuss the factors that allowed for the textile industry to become incredibly quantified in the 19th century:

  1. It had a very large, perhaps the largest, workforce, which provided ample opportunity for the quantification of laborers’ efforts.
  2. The raw material used in textile manufacture is readily measurable in many ways.
  3. The labor process in textile factories was highly standardized, which meant that each action of each labor could be compared with those of his peers.

This led to a situation where output was highly, and mathematically, correlated with standards of labor-effort. But the method of calculating the amount of labor was different in Britain and Germany. In Britain, producers calculating piece wages measured the length of cloth that was produced; in Germany, they took into account the amount of total number of movements that went into producing each length of cloth (see page 181). Biernacki writes

Rather than taking a unit of finished cloth and extrapoliting different kinds of labor from it, the Germans took a unit of motion and equated the values of the motions by the features of the work process. In both countries the dimensions of intelligible (in this case, linear) increases mark the dimensions on which types of weaving were compared and conveyed to the employer as generalized labor. (181)

Note that here, abstract labor is essentially created in the act that postulates it — before workers are paid a wage, there is no abstract value that exists as the social substance of labor. It is the system of waged-labor, which remunerates workers according to a given notional understanding of what abstract labor is, that allows abstract value to function; more, this system is a process that is the result of the actions of agents who are, by and large, divided into groups with like interests — it is a process that is defined by classes.

At any rate, the evaluations of labor in the respective regional economies of Britain and Germany are not analogous — “the payment systems represented fundamentally different ways of conceiving the conveyance of labor,” and, accordingly, fundamentally different ways of regulating the transfer of “value.” And, the organizing efforts of laborers followed their notional understanding of what value was, and how their labor embodied it (182)

In Britain, a “day” was really measured in terms of output considered standard for a “day’s work”; this obviously indicates the conceptual tendency to understand labor in terms of a given quantity of product (183). Likewise, efficiency was seen differently in Britain and Germany: in Britain, efficiency was understood in terms of greater output of products; in Germany, it was seen in terms of greater possible number of labor operations if a machine ran unceasingly. German manufacturers could take this ideal number of motions and calculate, in terms of a ratio of actual vs possible motions, how effecient an individual employee was. Using this information, they would deduct pay from workers who worked inefficiently, as they had paid for the use of the workers’ capacity to labor, and motions withheld due to laziness or ineptness was a contractual breech (183-4).

Biernacki argues that it is not differences in technological development, state regulation, or legal structures that account for the diverging practices of labor evaluation in Britain and Germany; it is rather the “agents’ popular understanding of labor that comprises the explanatory key” (185).

Part Three: Marx’s Thunderbolt

Biernacki notes that the distinction that Marx draws in Capital between labor and labor-power was a commonplace in German economic thought of the time; one notable precursor to Marx in Germany was Hermann Roesler.

Interestingly, Marx, at least so claims Biernacki, was unaware of the notion of labor-power that was advanced by German political economists; in the Grundrisse the vast majority of the theoretical sources he investigates are British. He worked with these theorists because he assumed that the tardy arrival of the bourgeoisie in Germany made it impossible for German theorists to grasp the political economy of more advanced countries (186). Biernacki argues that Marx was in fact ignorant of German thinkers’ understanding of labor by way of the example of the language of the Grundrisse: in that text Marx much hay over the distinction between the exchange and use value of labor, but does not yet use the term “labor-power.”

Biernacki has a long-ish section on the evolution of the vocabulary Marx uses to describe the distinction between labor as a use value and labor as an exchange value from pp 186-188.

At the bottom of p 188, Biernacki points out the section that many people cite as evidence that Marx held that a general capacity for labor, one that is physiologically determined, is at base of abstract labor. This goes against the notion that abstract labor is socially inflected, which is what Marx is supposed to have been trying to argue for; hence it is a strange passage. Biernacki argues, however, that he does so because he is trying to tie his conception into the one popular in Germany:

Part Four: An Agenda for the Cultural Study of Labor

A. Historical contingencies in the Formation of Class Ideologies. Biernacki presents in this section his rationale for including the social understanding of abstract labor into an analysis of value: the put succinctly, he believes that popular conciousness of labor plays a role in the organization of work and the evaluation of labor-time. He offers again the different strategies of German and British workers in debating how to relate to their employeres, and argues that such differences are not contingent so much as dependent on the popular understanding of what labor was.

B. Dynamics of Capitalist Accumulation. Attempts to again link up realm of micro-level conduct to the realm of macro-level economics by developing a hypothesis about how conceptions of abstract labor inflect the operation of capitalism. He goes on to show how the patterns of investment, and method of calculating profit, follow from the popular consciousness of labor.

Concluding Considerations

Biernacki concludes by arguing that since the popular consciousness of what labor is determines the mechanisms that make capitalism work you have to historicize the former to understand the latter. And, if cultural understandings of value, labor, class, etc., do affect the way capitalism as a whole functions, we need to take a second look at how we analyze them. And so,

Once the categories of “labor” and “capital” are recast as historically embedded, local inventions rather than as natural constituents of market capitalism in general, cultural analysis can include them on equal ground with other bases of political identity in contemporary society. (198)

Categories: Notes.

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