In our view, Rubin’s confusion (or rather, inversion) stems from the fact that he reads Marx’s passages where he states that exchange (as a necessary mediating form of the essentially private character of the direct process of production in capitalism) manifests outwardly the inner determinations borne by the direct process of production, as implying that it brings those determinations into existence. In other words, he confuses the qualitative determination of those more abstract forms (hence, of the social objectivity of value) with its concrete mode of realisation. For Rubin, then, abstract labour has no existence prior to the exchange process but comes into being through it, by subjecting concrete labour to a ‘social transformation’.it’s worth it to unpack this passage a little.
Rubin's view is that systematic exchange of the product of labor transforms labor from concrete labor into abstract labor. This means that abstract labor only exists in those societies where there is systematic exchange of the product of labor. But systematic exchange of the product of labor only occurs in a commodity or a capitalist-commodity economy. Of course exchange of the product of labor occurs in non-commodity or non-capitalist societies, but it is usually only the surplus product that is exchanged, not the entire product of labor. The laborers get to keep some of the product—usually the means of subsistence. But obviously in a capitalist economy, we don't keep any of the product of labor. We're given a wage, instead. In this consists the difference between mere incidental exchange of the product of labor and “systematic” exchange. In distinction from incidental exchange, this process of systematic exchange reacts back on labor, transforming it from concrete labor into labor with a dual character: labor that is both concrete and abstract. This is because in order to systematically exchange the product of labor, we need to treat the products of labor as generally exchangeable (one quantity of one product for x quantity of any other product). But this requires us to treat the qualitatively different labors as also equal, since only equal labors could produce equal values.
Kicilof and Starosta think this is an error. They believe abstract labor exists in all societies (but it is not for this reason the substance of value, since value does not yet exist as a real social phenomenon in societies where there is no systematic exchange). They think Rubin makes this error because he confuses one actual function of exchange with another imagined function. Exchange is "a necessary mediating form of the essentially private character of the direct process of production in capitalism". Since all labor in capitalist society is carried on privately and independently—since production isn't planned—the only way different labors are coordinated with one another is through the exchange of the product of labor. One doesn't know if he made too many or too few beds until he brings them to market and tries to sell them. The only way we find out how much society needs of this or that is by bringing it to market with a price on it and seeing if we can sell it at that price. There exists no other force in capitalist society capable of directing the production process. Producers are "free" of any other kind of coercion.
This is the real function of exchange in a capitalist society. It "manifests outwardly the inner determinations borne by the direct process of production". Exchange plays the role it does in capitalist society because of the specific, historically conditioned characteristics of the production process. Because production is carried on by formally free, independent producers, uncoerced by any tradition, custom, or plan for production, the process of exchange must coordinate and transform their labors. Indeed, in the absence of any custom or plan, exchange is the only thing that can fulfill that role. This is what Kicilof and Starosta mean when they say that exchange outwardly manifests production. It outwardly manifests labor the same way, since a society in which there is systematic exchange is also one where there is labor with a dual character.
Rubin’s error consists in his belief that this actual function of exchange implies “that it brings those determinations [the characteristics of production] into existence.” Exchange can realize or embody characteristics of the production process without bringing those characteristics into existence. On Kicilof’s and Starosta’s reading, Rubin confuses the thing itself, which can take many outward forms, with its “concrete mode of realization”, and for this reason, according to Rubin, “abstract labour has no existence prior to the exchange process but comes into being through it”.
And yet while this critique is elegant, I’m not sure it hits the mark precisely. Compare Kicilof’s and Starosta’s account with the following passage from Rubin:
In a strictly enforced caste system, the physiological homogeneity of human labor cannot be expressed to a significant extent. In a small community based on a division of labor, the physiological homogeneity of labor is manifested in a small circle of people, and the human character of labor cannot be expressed. Only on the basis of commodity production, characterized by a wide development of exchange, a mass transfer of individuals from one activity to another, and indifference of individuals towards the concrete form of labor, is it possible to develop the homogeneous character of all working operations as forms of human labor in general. The physiological homogeneity of human labor was a necessary presupposition of the social division of labor, but only at a determined level of social development and in a determined social form of economy does the labor of the individual have the character of a form of manifestation of human labor in general. We would not be exaggerating if we said that perhaps the concept of man in general and of human labor in general emerged on the basis of the commodity economy. This is precisely what Marx wanted to point out when he indicated that the general human character of labor is expressed in abstract labor.Rubin appears to say that there is an abstract equality in human labor in all times and in all epochs of production; however, it can only manifest itself as equal labor in a capitalist economy. Before that, it must be treated as unequal labor. So the work of a slave is not the same as the work of a free man. It is only with the advent of a specific mode of production—capitalist production—that this real abstract equality of labor can manifest itself as an actual social phenomenon. Only at that point can it become the substance of value.
I haven’t finished reading the essay yet, but I’m curious to see how Kicilof and Starosta will deal with this. Likely they will point out that Rubin makes a distinction between physiologically equal labors and abstract labor. Rubin believes physiologically equal labor precedes capitalism as its material presupposition, but physiologically equal labor only manifests itself as a real social fact under the capitalist mode of production. The social manifestation of this material presupposition is abstract labor, so while physiologically equal labor precedes capitalism, abstract labor does not. I think Kicilof and Starosta want to argue that abstract labor precedes capitalism, and that Rubin has no good reason to make the distinction (which they see as being merely conceptual) between physiologically equal labor and abstract labor.