Raya Dunayevskaya, March 1951.

The Cooperative Form of Labor Vs. Abstract Labor

Written: March 2, 1951
Republished: News and Letters, August-September 2003;
Formatted: for Maxists Internet Archived by Damon Maxwell 2009;
Editor’s note: As part of our ongoing discussion of Marx ’s critique of capitalist production, we publish here for the first time anywhere Dunayevskaya’s essay, “The Cooperative Form of Labor Vs. Abstract Labor,” which she wrote on March 2, 1951 as part of her work on what ultimately became Marxism and Freedom, From 1776 Until Today. All boldfaces are in the original. The piece has been slightly edited.

“‘If,’ dreamed Aristotle, the greatest thinker of antiquity,‘ if every tool, when summoned, or even of its own accord, could do the work that befits it, just as the creations of Hephaestos went out of their own accord to their sacred work...then there would be no need either of apprentices for the master workers, or of slaves for the lords.’ Oh those heathens! They understood nothing of political economy and Christianity. They did not, for example, comprehend that machinery is the surest means of lengthening the working day.” (Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I)

In our present society, where humanity is but a cog in a machine, the proof that the division between mental and manual labor – that attribute of all class societies – has under capitalism reached its apex, is self-evident

With this truth shining forth in increasing tensions, crises and wars, it becomes well-nigh impossible to have the worker fulfill the capitalistic function of machine-made higher labor productivity.

The workers’ antagonism to the machine has traveled a long way from the time when they simply wished to smash it. Now what they want to have done with is their very work. They want to do something entirely different – express all their natural and acquired powers in an activity worthy of them as human beings.

They wish to appropriate the science, heretofore wholly incorporated into the machine while they were turned into its appendage. They feel that in a much greater way than seems apparent to the naked eye. Their capacity to engage in a wide variety of activities, change from job to job, tinker with machines in off hours, create things for their own use on government-plus contracts is a good beginning to making the machine an extension of their powers rather than them being slaves to the machine.

All that needs to be done now is that they and their fellow workers engage in a self-activity so different from their present work as to make the scientists in the cubbyholes outside of the plants as unnecessary as is the capitalist inside the factory

In no other way can a fundamental change in society be achieved. In all other ways capital has retained its domination over labor. Marx was right when he insisted that only when cooperative labor replaced private labor from the ground up will social control become the natural attribute of individuals cooperating in labor and who have become thereby truly social individuals

Otherwise cooperation is a snare and a delusion, that capitalistic caricature of social control called private management of industry. That is to say, it is cooperative labor forced into the value form to which all concrete labors have been reduced by the “planned despotism” of capital.

Just as there is no such animal as “abstract labor” – you must be engaged in concrete activity, mining, tailoring, machine production [and so forth] – so there is no cooperative labor where the autocratic control over labor sets the pace the workers must follow

It is the process of reduction of your laboring skill which transforms the labor process into a process of extraction of surplus value – that is, unpaid hours of labor. The capitalist’s “werewolf hunger” for unpaid hours of labor dominates over that labor process and also over technology which is constantly called upon to reduce the hours of labor socially necessary to produce commodities to win the battle of competition on a world scale

Let us take another look at the form of cooperation. Under capitalism it takes the form of value. But value in production means one thing, and in the market something quite different.

In the market it means exchange-value or money and private property. In production it means the time clock which sees to it that no matter what your concrete skills you produce so much and so much – a whole mass of abstract labor no different from that of your fellow workers, no matter what your individual private skills are which fashion concrete commodities.

But the capitalist doesn’t trust the clock in and of itself to set the pace, so he has a foreman over the belt line. But suddenly you find that it isn’t just one foreman but a hierarchy of control over you. Why? You can do the work, so why all these composites of a Frankenstein monster?

It is because neither you nor your fellow workers are interested in the work. It is a question of forcing you to labor and it is because it is forced labor that such a hierarchy is necessary. They are there to see that everything is subordinated to that one function, of extracting from you as much labor as possible.

They are not there because it is not just you but many of you who are working. That is not because labor is social, cooperative. They are not there because they work, or even know how to very often, but only to exercise that despotic control which forces all your labors into that value form

Now the capitalist tries to identify his despotic control over labor with the social character of cooperative labor. But that you know is so much poppycock, only it isn’t a joke because he has all the cards in his hands and the only thing private belonging to you – your capacity to labor – is of no value outside of the factory. So you continue to sweat it out. But you are not fooled. You know that the planned despotism in the factory arises not out of the cooperative form of labor, but out of the antagonistic relationship between you and he who lords it over you. Marx knew that too, and that is why he so sharply separated the nature of the cooperative form of labor from its capitalistic integument or value-form

1. a) Cooperation, in itself, a productive power of social labor, is a power due to cooperation itself. b) Cooperation, under capitalism, is forced into a value mold of undifferentiated abstract labor which hides not only its concrete character but the division between paid and unpaid labor. Indeed cooperative labor is allowed to function only to the extent that it is possible to produce surplus value or unpaid hours of labor. That is what the capitalist’s private property means, the labor of others

2. a) Cooperative labor, in itself, allows the laborer to strip off “the fetters of the individual and develop capacities of his species.” That is to say not you alone make a commodity but you and your fellow workers. In losing a skill you have also acquired however a new, a social power.

b) Cooperative labor, under capitalism, necessitates control by a whole army of foremen, superintendents, straw bosses, big bosses, etc. Planned despotism thus “takes the forms peculiar to itself,” the hierarchic structure due first to the capitalists having been relieved of actual labor and the labor of superintendence, and then due to the necessity of ever greater masses of abstract labor. reducing a human to a cog in the machine you begin to realize is no small matter and it is this which requires the monstrous creation of monotony, speed-up, uniformity, listlessness and more speed-up

3. a) The “peculiar form” of the planned despotism is also due to the fact that the laborers have sold their individual, isolated labor power. But since there are many such laborers, the capitalists must make cooperators out of them, but cooperators who must fructify with their living labor the value of the past labor incorporated in the machine but which is in actuality labor of the laborers themselves in alienated form.

And just as that past labor no longer belongs to the laborers, so the living labor of these cooperators no longer belongs to themselves, having been sold to the capitalist. These cooperators are now appended to the special working mechanism also belonging to the capitalist. This is no longer just a machine; it is capital, a social relationship of production established through this instrument, the machine, which has long ago been alienated from the laborer.

b) So that, while cooperation in itself requires social control by masses, under capitalism cooperative labor means capital’s management of industry, “which is an attribute of capital as in feudal times the function of general and judge were attributes of landed property.”

4. Finally, the new power that cooperation, in itself, is cannot develop freely and fully under such conditions for while it must fit into the value form, its human capacities are thwarted. The social power of labor which appears as the productive power of capital is indeed a capitalist caricature of this new productive power which will release its energies only when it becomes the new center of gravity of a new social order.

We can view cooperative labor from another angle, the division of labor. (We concern ourselves here only with the division of labor under capitalism.) The seeming planlessness of the social division of labor as it is reflected in society, that is the market, is in truth the direct opposite in the factory where it turns out to be the undisputed authority of the capitalist

While the detail functions of the laborer remain a technical necessity in the manufacturing period, in the movement from manufacture to machinofacture, the machine sweeps away the technical reasons for “the annexation of the worker to a detail function.” But while this undermined the subjective authority of the capitalist, it encrusted the planned despotism with the objectivity of the machine which took over the disciplining of labor

It is here, says Marx, that dialectics separates itself not only from the vulgar materialism of capitalism, but also from the abstract materialism of natural science, and in history and its process sees the truth; there is no development of technology outside of the historic process.

And so it happens that technology does not mean the freeing of the laborer from his function as an appendage to the machine, nor of the lightening of his labor, nor of any “abstract” development of the productive forces other than through the sweat of the worker

The fact therefore is that where the capitalist is there “in person” or not, or whether the technology “in itself” needs the detail laborer or a man fit for a variety of functions, the worker is confronted with an already existing material conditions of production. He can do nothing but subordinate himself to it, to this alien force. Management over social labor which in manufacture was “purely subjective” is now “purely objective.”

But here, too, is “the absolute contradiction.” The nature of modern industry necessitates variations in labor, fluidity , mobility, while in its capitalistic form, it reproduces the old, ossified division of labor. The latter is the condition of laboring for one separated from his instruments of labor.

While the workers’ revolt moves from the fight against the instrument of labor to struggles against the capitalistic misuse of that instrument, the capitalist ideologist discovers the “stupidity” of fighting against the machine which gives him power over nature. In other words, while the worker discovers that, although it first enslaved him, his tools can gain him freedom – once the division of mental and manual labor is done away with – the bourgeois economist tries to spirit away the present enslavement:

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 labor, but, when in the service of capital, lengthens them...since in itself it is a victory of humanity over the forces of Nature, but in the hands of capital, makes humanity the slave of those forces; since in itself it increases the wealth of 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 noonday that all these contradictions are a mere show of the reality, and machinery considered in itself, that as a matter of fact, they have neither actual nor a theoretical existence. [Marx’s Capital, Vol. I (New York: International Publishers, 1967), p. 441. – Ed.]

But the contradictions aren’t just “show” but the historic truth. Indeed, there is no technology outside of this historic development of capitalism. The abolition of the division of labor would mean its bursting out of the old value form and an entirely new mode of labor in an entirely new form would appear. The immanence of this breaks down entirely the psychology of civil society. The worker balks at the productivity of labor as a capitalistic function of order, monotony, uniformity, intensity which is entirely at variance with the nature of modern industry which needs variation of labor, a fully developed social individual.

It shows itself in the antagonisms of anarchy and authority, in the order and catastrophes of a society which lives under a Damocles sword: the penalty of death hanging over capitalist production for not having developed the worker’s humanity. But rather than “giving in” capitalism becomes more autocratic, more hierarchic in structure, more monstrous in content