Law of Value- 7. Abstract Labor (draft)

This is a draft of a script from my upcoming video series “Law of Value”.

This is a dollar. It is a socially recognized measure of value. And value is the form that human labor takes in a society organized by commodity exchange. Yet when we look at a dollar we have no idea what specific labor it represents. A baker’s labor? A truck driver? A nanny? A miner? A dollar represents any and all labor. Every commodity and thus all labor finds its expression in money.

These private labors of specific workers are “concrete”. To make bread requires a specific concrete labor process. To mine coal takes a different concrete labor process. But when measured in money all of these labors just becomes value in the abstract. They express themselves as parts of the same common social substance. This is called “Abstract Labor”.

When I say “girl” I am making an abstraction. Instead of referring to concrete individuals I am referring to “girls” in general. In order to do this I have to abstract away all of the specific traits of particular girls like their height, color, name, etc, and focus on universal characteristics.

Marx’s concept of abstract labor is a concept which abstracts away from all of the specific concrete labors in society and deals with what is universal about value: that it is an expression of socially necessary labor time. For this reason you often hear the phrase “Socially necessary abstract labor time”. But this is more than just a mental abstraction for philosophers. This abstraction is a real one taking place before our eyes everyday. Money is an abstract representation of social value. It has no concrete meaning until it is exchanged for a specific commodity. When people produce for exchange they are not producing use-values for themselves. They are producing commodities for the purpose of turning them into exchange value, ie into money. For companies it doesn’t matter what concrete commodities they make as long as they can be turned into exchange values. Ford and IBM built tanks and computers for the Nazis. Were they concerned with the use-value of their commodities? No, they only wanted the abstract power of money.

In exchange private labor becomes social labor and concrete labor becomes abstract labor.

Some critics (Bohm-Bawerk) have asked why value is an expression of abstract labor and not abstract use. Marx begins Capital by saying that there is no such thing as use-value in the abstract, that there is no way of reducing the bouncy-ness of a ball and the fire-power of a tank to some common substance. Yet Marx is perfectly content to reduce the labors of ball makers and tanker makers to a common substance called abstract labor. What is the difference between use and labor?

If our goal is to play intellectual parlor games we can abstract away anything we like and form theories of abstract weight, abstract color, abstract smell. But if our task is to explain something about how the world works than we must make useful abstractions. As we’ve seen in video 3: Das MudPie Marx’s method starts from an examination of the way in which people create their own social life through their labor. He is interested in the way production is organized in different societies and sees these different types of production relations as being crucial to understanding the lives of people in these societies.

Another reason that Marx performs the abstract that he does might be illustrated by looking at the difference between changes in labor productivity and changes in consumer preferences. If productivity increases this means that less labor is socially necessary to make a commodity. As we all know productivity increases mean falling values. What happens if demand rises suddenly for a product? It’s price rises. This signals more labor to enter that sphere of production. This raises the supply which causes the price of the commodity to fall back to where it was before. Unless there is a change in productivity the value does not change in the long run. In this example subjective preference has caused a temporary fluctuation in price. This fluctuation hasn’t changed the usefulness of the commodity or the labor that is required to make it. All it has done is signaled a reapportioning of labor so that no industry enjoys privileged advantages. This is another reason why use in the abstract isn’t useful for a theory of value.

This common denominator of value, abstract labor, has a measurable substance: labor time. It is the time which society devotes to the production of a commodity that gives it value in the market. (This basic, average expenditure of labor Marx calls “simple labor”. Different intensities of work and different skills are merely multiples of simple labor.) Use has no common denominator. We can’t reduce use to some common, measurable substance like time. (Neo-classical economists have attempted to theorize imaginary quantum of utility they call “utils”. But in general this project revealed the idiocy of trying to reduce use to an abstract use.)

We see the abstraction that is abstract labor all the time in the world, though it may be so much of the common experience of our lives that we are not aware of it. In Marx’s time the historical memory of capitalism’s revolution of the institutions of feudalism was much more potent. In feudal Europe labor was not abstract at all. People worked as peasants or craftsmen or knights or priests. These weren’t just jobs. There were definite social classes, often inherited by birthright. The labor of these different classes related directly to each other without the need for market abstractions. But with the conquest of capitalism over the European continent came the destruction of feudal class structures and with them the destruction of the idea of peasant work, guild work, etc. The working class, driven off the land they had used to produce their means of subsistence, had nothing to sell but their labor in general, labor that could be put to any use. Work became work-in-general, the various working classes became “the working class”, and the landlord and merchant classes were supplanted by the capitalist class.  And with this new class structure arose the concept of “man-in-general”, of universal-brotherhood, universal rights, and universal equality.

Whereas a peasant worked directly to produce her own means of subsistence or directly for her landlord’s wealth, a worker in a capitalist society produces merely for exchange. From the point of view of her own consumption it doesn’t matter what work she performs as long as it makes money. Workers in a capitalist society are constantly switching occupations, something that is only possible in a world where labor is separated from concrete means of production and has to sell itself in the market in this abstract form.


Often people make the mistake of thinking that Marx’s value theory is a universal theory that attributes value to any product of labor anywhere, anytime. But as we have just seen it is a historically specific theory. Marx was interested in the evolution of human societies through different organizations of production and different class structures. In a market society in which workers are divorced from their means of production, set afloat in the market with nothing to sell but their own ability to work, humans are reduced to a common element: workers in the abstract. When Ford lays off a thousand workers (refer to a specific news event?) does it care about the concrete lives of the workers? No. It only sees them as labor in the abstract. What is the basic message behind our education system if not that our worth as individuals is our ability to perform work, in the abstract, for society? What is the meaning of the right-wing counter-demontrator’s cry “Get a Job!” if not that you should shut-up, put your head down, and accept your lot as nothing but an undifferentiated unit of abstract labor?

There were many positive things that Marx saw in this development. The reduction of diverse cultures to a common material interest meant the creation of a universal class with universal interests. The destruction of local superstitions and feudal classes, the slow march of civil rights movements, are all part of this progressive leveling of society, of the inherent equality in this reduction of all people to their abstract labor. On the other hand, these progressive features only occur within the context of the antagonism between capital and labor. For Marx, the bourgeois revolution was an unfinished revolution. It was a revolution that would require a second revolution in which this universal class could come overcome capital and achieve its true liberation.


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