Alfred Sohn-Rethel – Commodity Form and Thinking Form [4/10]

4. Commodity form and pure headwork

The key to such an approach lies in the Marxian theorem: “As  a  general  rule,  articles  of  utility  become  commodities,  only  because  they  are  products  of  the labour  of  private  individuals  or  groups  of  individuals  who  carry  on  their  work  independently  of each other.” Where a large part of the goods needed by a society are products of such private works, there is developed commodity production. “The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of  society”, Marx continues. The connection between private labour and the overall societal labour requires mediation through the exchange of the products, i.e. by means of actions which are not only qualitatively different from the activity of production, but also temporally and locally separated from it. Such a dichotomy between labour on the one hand and the societal connection of labour on the other is the extreme antithesis to communism, primitive or modern, where the work itself takes place in directly societal forms, and where the societal context, in its entirety as well as in all essential parts, is understandable and controllable by the workers. On the basis of developed commodity production, on the other hand, the cohesion of society is based on functions which are separate from independent production and therefore uncontrollable from the workers’ point of view. Here, therefore, a headwork which is independent of manual labour and resting on a separate form is becoming a societal necessity. In fact, the conceptualization of metaphysical thinking is historically found as a peculiarity of independent headwork. According to our hypothesis, the separate formal foundation of such intellectual labour is to be sought in market traffic, namely in those functions on which the connection between private labour and total societal labour is based. We would hypothesize the categories of separate or “pure” headwork as a form of societal connection where this connection is mediated by market traffic.

Be that as it may, it is clear that research of the connection of the metaphysical concept with the commodity form gives rise to the systematic questioning of the relationship between manual and intellectual labour in different societal structures. For it is scarcely necessary to emphasize that there are manifold intermediate stages and transitional forms between the two extremes of communism and fully developed commodity production, both from the development of primitive communism to commodity production, as well as from it to modern communism. In these intermediate stages various different degrees and forms of cooperative or individual production prevail, hence various forms of social connection connected with production or separate from it, and accordingly different forms of headwork, and various relations between headwork and manual labour. Also, the functions of the socialization of commodity exchange, separated from production, may take various forms, e.g. unilateral forms of acquisition such as tributes, taxes, feudal taxes, surrendered or voluntary, or even distribution and allocation of official or private nature, etc. Such one-sided forms exist everywhere, but in some epochs they play a dominant role such as in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia or in the Feudalist Middle Ages. These types of separation between production and socialization also bring about necessary divorces between intellectual and manual labour. However, they are of a different character and offer much less difficulty of comprehension once the conceptual forms of traditional philosophy have been unraveled.

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