Capital Chapter 1
Compared with the Critique of Political Economy, Capital’s opening exposition is much clearer and more powerful, due in large part to the category of ‘intrinsic value’ which Marx introduces. Commodities have an intrinsic value which is expressed in exchange value. Value is different than use-value and exchange value. It is a 3rd thing.
To establish what this 3rd thing is Marx makes some basic but powerful observations. “But clearly, the exchange relation of commodities is characterized precisely by its abstraction from their use-values.” (127) Here “abstraction” refers to a material process as well as a process of eliminating non-essential characteristics to arrive at characteristics/elements that are essential. “If we disregard the use-value of commodities only one property remains, that of being products of labor.” (128) But if we abstract from the use-value of the commodities we must also “abstract from the material constituent and forms which make it a use-value.” In other words, if use-value is inessential to value then so is any aspect of labor which accounts for the specific usefulness of the commodity. (While Marx says “we” must abstract it should be clear that he is still following the actual material logic of commodities themselves and not just performing a mental experiment.) This abstraction “entails the disappearance of the different concrete forms of labor,” leaving us with “labor-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure.” This is abstract labor.
It may be useful to repeat a few points from the above summary just to make it clear what Marx is saying. Abstract labor is “labor-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure.” This means that abstract labor refers to an aspect of actual human labor. “Concrete labor” refers to the aspect of labor which accounts for different use-values. Concrete labor does not refer to all aspects of the material labor process. It only refers to those aspects which account for the heterogeneous use-values of commodities. This seems very clear from the steps in Marx’s method of abstraction here. I point this out because I believe that confusion creeps into conversations about concrete and abstract labor because people (and I myself have been confused on this point) often think that concrete labor refers to all physical aspects of the labor process while abstract labor refers to some loose metaphor for the social nature of labor. It seems clear from a careful reading of these opening paragraphs of Capital that this is not how Marx is using the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete.’
Marx says that exchange-value is the necessary mode of appearance of this value but before getting into this appearance he first finds it important to spend some time investigating “value independent of its form of appearance.” He can do this because value exists outside of its form of appearance. But this existence isn’t an ideal existence. It is a real material existence. It is the abstract labor time that is materialized in commodities. Thus it can be examined on its own without devolving into idealistic philosophical reflection.
After saying that the magnitude of value is determined by the duration of labor time Marx moves onto the category of Socially Necessary Labor Time (SNLT). “However, the labor that forms the substance of value is equal human labor, the expenditure of identical human labor power.” What makes this labor identical is not that everyone works at exactly the same level of productivity. What makes the labor identical is that the labor only counts as social labor, “to the extent that it has the character of a socially average unit of labor.” Marx’s example of the English hand-loom weaver makes this clear. The introduction of power-looms halved the amount of labor time required to make a quantity of fabric. Thus the hand-loom weavers had to sell their product at the new price set by the power-looms even though they could only produce at half the efficiency of the new technology. Only half of their labor counted as social. This is how SNLT makes all labor identical.
Stepping back from the text for a moment, it seems that SNLT introduces a further aspect of capitalist labor in addition to the insights given by abstract labor. Abstract labor explains the commensurability of commodities due to the reduction of all labor to an abstract expenditure of human effort. Since all labors share the same abstract quality, the commodities which serve as the embodiments of this abstract labor all share the same essential substance. SNLT explains how different labor, operating at different levels of productivity, can be treated as identical human labor and thus form the substance of value as an undifferentiated magnitude.
Then comes the section on the ‘Dual Character of Labor Embodied in Commodities’. Marx says that this two-fold nature is “crucial to an understanding of political economy, and requires further elucidation.”
The paragraphs on concrete labor are an expansion upon what Marx has already said earlier in the chapter. To make different use-values we need different types of labors. These heterogeneous labors correspond to the division of labor. The division of labor is not specific to capitalism nor is use-value-creating labor. Use-values cannot confront each other as commodities unless they are different and thus the product of different labors.
Turning to the “homogenous substance” which forms the value of commodities Marx says we must “leave aside the determinate quality of productive activity, and therefor the useful character of labor,” so that what remains is “an expenditure of human energy”.
“Tailoring and weaving, though qualitatively different productive activities, are each a productive expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles, and in this sense are human labour. They are but two different modes of expending human labour power. Of course, this labour power, which remains the same under all its modifications, must have attained a certain pitch of development before it can be expended in a multiplicity of modes. But the value of a commodity represents human labour in the abstract, the expenditure of human labour in general.” (p.134)
As in the CPE there is a very close connection between abstract labor and simple labor, “It is the expenditure of simple labour power, i.e., of the labour power which, on an average, apart from any special development, exists in the organism of every ordinary individual.” (p.135) Here though, unlike the CPE, Marx does not immediately allude to changes in the labor process in capitalism which bring about this deskilling.
This leads to an explanation of the way changes in productivity do not alter the amount of value produced by an hour of labor. Productivity refers to an aspect of concrete labor, the amount of use-values produced in a length of time. But in terms of abstract labor, which abstracts from use-value, an hour of labor is an an hour of labor. This distinction, made possible only by an understanding of the dual-character of labor, yields powerful insights into political economy. It explains, among other things, why unit-values of commodities fall as productivity rises.
Marx concludes, “On the one hand all labour is an expenditure of human labour power, in the physiological sense, and it is in this quality of being equal, or abstract human labour, that it forms the value of commodities. On the other hand, all labour is an expenditure of human labour power in a particular form and with a definite aim, and it is in this quality of being concrete useful labour, that it produces use values.” (p137)
Here Marx clearly identifies abstract labor with the equality of labors. He has already explained what forces create this equality. The reduction of labor to simple labor makes private labors qualitatively the same. Socially Necessary Labor Time treats labors as quantitatively the same. These two forces together allow for an equality of labor so that labor can be considered in its most abstract sense, “an expenditure of human labor power in the physiological sense”. Concrete labor does not refer to all physical aspects of the labor process. It refers to those aspects of labor that account for the unique use-values of commodities.
Section 3 on “The Form of Value or Exchange-value
Just as the last section discussed the dual nature of labor this section starts by reminding us that commodities have a dual nature: their natural form which corresponds to their use-value, and a social form which corresponds to their value. Since value is social it only appears in the relation between commodities. This form of appearance is the value-form, or money-form. Marx will show that the money form is only a developed form of the commodity-commodity relation, thus firmly situating the value-form, and thus the theory of money, within the theory of the commodity. The invisible opponents here are Proudhon and his followers like Darimon who sought to alleviate the social ills of capitalism by getting rid of money without getting rid of commodity production. By establishing the necessity of the money-form to commodity production Marx shows the silliness of the entire Proudhonian conception.
Passages like this make is sound as if the process of equating two commodities is also the process which carries out the reduction of labor to abstract labor:
“But the act of equating tailoring with weaving reduces the former in fact to what is really equal in the two kinds of labour, to the characteristic they have in common of being human labour. This is a roundabout way of saying that weaving too, in so far as it weaves value, has nothing to distinguish it from tailoring, and, consequently, is abstract human labour. It is only the expression of equivalence between different sorts of commodities which brings to view the specific character of value-creating labor, by actually reducing the different kinds of labour embedded in the different kinds of commodities to their common quality of vein human labor in general.” (p.142)
But I suspect that Marx is not actually claiming that the act of exchange is what makes weaving and tailoring abstract expenditures of human labor in general. Instead I believe his focus in this passage, as it is for most of this section of chapter 1, is on how things appear in exchange, what the value-form expresses. He is saying that when we look at the value-form, the equating of two commodities in the market, then their common substance is revealed, a common substance which requires that we abstract away from concrete labor. The expression of equivalence “brings to view” this abstraction. Perhaps, if Marx had been writing Capital knowing of the ways in which ‘value-form’ theorists would cast his theory of abstract labor he might have chosen his words more carefully! Yes we make this abstraction with our minds. But this mental abstraction is made possible by by the material reality that labors are already considered abstract in production by capital.
The next page, I believe, helps to clearly situate what is going on.
“We see, then, that everything our analysis of the value of commodities previously told us is repeated by the linen itself, as soon as it enters into association with another commodity, the coat. Only it reveals its thoughts in a language with which it alone is familiar, the language of commodities. In order to tell us that labour creates its own value in its abstract quality of being human labour, it says that the coat, in so far as it counts as its equal, i.e., is value, consists of the same labour as it does itself.”
This seems to clearly state that what Marx has previously established about abstract labor is merely being ‘revealed’ and ‘expressed’ in the process of equating two commodities. ‘Being abstract labour’ is a quality of labor which can only be expressed by commodities when one commodity stands for the equivalent of another.
Despite the complexities of the value-form which Marx explores in detail in this section, these opening observations pretty much sum-up the basic relation of abstract labor to the value-form.
The concrete/abstract theme returns when Marx comes to the peculiarities of the equivalent form of value where “concrete labor becomes the form of manifestation of its opposite, abstract human labor.” (150) Both linen and coat are only values because they are embodiments of abstract human labor. When the use-value of the coat is used to measure the value of the linen then this also means that the concrete labor which creates the use-value of the coat, tailoring, serves as the “expression of abstract human labor.” (150) Again, this line of thought explores the way in which abstract labor reveals itself, or is expressed, in the value-form. Marx clearly holds that the abstract nature of the labor contained in the coat and the linen is already abstract before they enter into the relative-equivalent expression: “Both therefore possess the general property of being human labor, and they therefore have to be considered in certain cases, such as the production of value, solely from this point of view. There is nothing mysterious in this.” (150)
The following bit about Aristotle further establishes that Marx is talking here about the expression of abstract labor in the value-form, and the way this expression leads to certain mental conceptions about the world. More importantly, it shows that abstract labor, as a category, cannot exist without the capitalist mode of production, despite the existence of commodity exchange in ancient Greek society. Because Aristotle’s society was based on an inequality of labor it was not possible for a concept of intrinsic value, based on abstract human labor, to exist. But if it was merely the exchange of commodities that rendered labor abstract then Aristotle should have had no problem solving the riddle of the commensurability of commodities.
This also clarifies Marx’s intention in relation to the claim by Rubin and others that a “physiological” definition of abstract labor, that is, one that defines abstract labor in relation to certain physiological characteristics of work, necessarily leads to an ahistorical conception of abstract labor. Of course, all human labor, throughout history, is, in some sense, “a certain productive expenditure of muscles, nerves, brain, etc.” But it is only in capitalist society where this aspect of labor is value producing, and in which this abstract aspect produces certain mental conceptions about the equality of labor and the equality of people.
In discussing the expanded relative form of value Marx notes “It becomes plain, that it is not the exchange of commodities which regulates the magnitude of their value; but, on the contrary, that it is the magnitude of their value which controls their exchange proportions.”(156) Since abstract labor is the substance of value and since value is what “controls” the exchange ratios of commodities, it would not make sense to posit that it is exchange which makes labor abstract.
When Marx finally gets to the ‘general form of value’ we see where this was all headed. It must be stressed that the entire point of the argument is to show how it is that one commodity comes to be the expression of human labor in general, of abstract labor. When, as in the simple or accidental form of value, the linen expresses its value in the coat, the value of the linen is expressed in the use-value of the coat. In the expanded form of value the value of the linen is expressed in the use-value of whatever commodity it exchanges for. In both cases the value of the linen seems to be expressed in only a specific use-value, and thus to be expressed via the specific concrete labor that went into the equivalent. It is only in the ‘general form of value’, when all commodities express their value in one commodity, that one commodity takes on the ability to express ‘human labor in general’. But this does not mean that general form of value is what creates human labor in general.
“It thus becomes evident that because the objectivity of commodities as values is the purely ‘social existence’ of these things, if can only be expressed through the whole range of their social relations; consequently the form of their value must possess social validity.” (p.159)
Again, Marx’s goal is to counter the Proudhonian conception of money as the root of so many social ills by showing that money is just an inevitable product of the commodity form. Money’s function is to express abstract labor in a “general social form”. The labor that makes the general equivalent (linen) is converted into “the general form of appearance of undifferentiated human labor.” The wording here is very precise. Establishing linen as the general equivalent does not convert concrete to abstract labor. Instead what is happening is that the private labor of the weaver becomes the “general form of appearance of undifferentiated human labor”. This is all about appearance, about expression.
“In this manner the labour objectified in the values of commodities is presented not just presented negatively, as labor in which abstraction is made from all the concrete forms and useful property of actual work. Its own positive nature is explicitly brought out, namely that it is the reduction of all kinds of actual labour to their common character of being human labour in general, of being the expenditure of human labour power.” (159-160)
We must pay careful attention to the wording. Marx is writing about “bringing out” and “presenting” the positive nature of this labor. These abstract qualities already exist. The general form of value is just allowing us to see them.
Toward the beginning of the fetishism section, in enumerating the unique qualities of the commodity form Marx says “The equality of all kinds of human labour takes on a physical form in the equal objectivity of the product of labor as values.” (164) Again, human labor is qualitatively equal (in a capitalist society) and this labor takes the form of commodities which share the same value substance.
The unique aspect of commodity fetishism is that the social relations between producers are taken for objective relations between things. Commodities have two ‘objectivities’. They are material objects with concrete use-values and they are “socially uniform objectivity as values”.(166) This dual nature of the commodity is a reflection of the dual nature of labor, which takes place historically, “only when exchange has already acquired a sufficient extension and importance to allow useful things to be produced for the purpose of being exchanged, so that their character as values has already to be taken into consideration during production.”(166) Only when production is production for exchange does labor have this “two-fold social character”.
“It is only by being exchanged that the products of labor acquire a socially uniform objectivity as values, which is distinct from their sensuously varied objectivity as articles of utility.” (166) In the past this sentence has seemed, to me, as if it suggests, contrary to what I have argued here, that exchange is bestowing value on commodities, and/or making labor abstract. However, after the preceding close reading of Section 3 on the Value Form it now becomes clear to me that this sentence is referring to the need for a commodity to express its value in an equivalent, to acquire a socially recognized form of expression distinct from its own physical body. The general equivalent is this “socially uniform objectivity” which expresses the pre-existing value of the commodity in an objective form.
This, I believe sums up most of the relevant material from Chapter 1 as it relates to abstract labor. I have found this useful in making sense of the Critique of Political Economy and the Grundrisse, where in the past it seemed to me as if there coexisted two different lines of thought as to the relation of concrete to abstract labor. It seems clearer, after a closer re-reading of Chapt 1 of Capital, that the explorations of the general equivalent in the CPE and Grundrisse were not meant to make a claim that the exchange of commodities for money was what made labor abstract, or created value. Rather, the analysis of the value form is meant to explain how the pre-existing value of commodities is necessarily expressed in a use-value independent of the commodity, a use-value which is the socially recognized embodiment of general human labor.