This is draft of my script for Abstract Labor, the 9th video in my Law of Value series. I always appreciate the comments, suggestions and criticism on these drafts. They really help me focus the scripts. This video has a different format. It is broken into two short parallel videos. Video A discusses the concept of ‘abstract labor’. Video B discusses the method of abstraction in Video A. It deals with the concept of abstraction and explains the way Marx uses the concept to capture the totality of capitalist social relations and destabilize his bourgeois opponents.
[everything in brackets is a note about possible visual images for video production]
(everything in parenthesis is something I’m considering cutting out and relegating to footnotes)
Law of Value 9A: Abstract Labor
Of course it’s really nothing by itself: pieces of paper, digits in a computer… And of course money doesn’t literally take away homes, topple governments, cause wars or fuck you up. People do these things. Money then seems to have a strange power to compel people to do things. It has a certain social power.
What kind of social power does money have? It seems to have any social power we might want it to have. In a society in which social life is coordinated by market exchange money has the ability to buy any aspect of this social life, to compel any action, to coordinate any complex activity. The more money we have, the greater our ability to command this social power. This is a non-specific power. It is not tied to any particular activity, commodity or person. It is social power in the abstract. [word ‘abstract’ appears]
This abstract social power goes by another name: value. The subordination of society to the rule of value we call: The Law of Value.
Value, then, is quite an abstract substance. It does not refer to any specific concrete thing. It is just value in the abstract, social power in the abstract. Our society is ruled by an abstraction. But it is certainly not true that all societies in all times were ruled by abstractions, by value. Only in a certain type of society is social life ruled by abstractions. This begs the question: “What sort of organization of society is necessary for the existence of value in the abstract?”
(We ask this question not for fun but because the answer will allow us to figure out how to create a society not ruled by the law of value. There are several possible answers to this question but not all of them are complete answers. We will move through several answers, several perspectives, the incompleteness of each vantage point driving us to probe further into the social fabric of a capitalist society.)
The existence of value implies the free exchange of things between people. Perhaps this is the essential feature of a society ruled by the law of value, by abstractions. In bourgeois theory this free exchange is often deemed all that is necessary to characterize the fundamental elements of our society. We are told that we live in a “free market society” (or that we should live in one), or a “free enterprise system”. Since this narrow picture seems only to show consenting individuals freely engaging in mutual agreements it is often used by apologists of the status quo to defend the system. After all, what is wrong with freely making mutual agreements with others? The positive aspects of this vantage point have influenced some anarchists that seek to build mutualists societies of freely exchanging individuals, as well as market socialists who want to cooperatize the workplace yet leave market exchange in tact.
But we need more than just the phenomenon of free exchange to explain the existence of value in the abstract. It is one thing for two isolated individuals to make one exchange [this could be any image of two isolated people exchanging something… dudes in a desert, etc. I would change the text to fit the image]. But it is quite another thing in a society organized through exchange where we can observe regular, predictable exchange ratios between commodities.
A boat equals a thousand cigars. A book equals 4 pears. These are relations of value between things. In order for us to form predictable, reliable exchange ratios between things (in order for us to know how many boats to exchange for cigars) there must be some predictable knowledge of the supply of these things. And in order for exchange to continue everyday there must be a regularly recurring supply that we can predict to some degree. The force that constantly replenishes these supplies is, of course, human labor.
This brings us to a fuller picture of our society ruled by abstractions. Rather than just a society of free exchange, it is also a society in which this exchange is regulated by production. The production of commodities by people creates both the demand for and supply of these commodities. It determines (at one level of abstraction) the exchange ratios between these commodities.
At the same time the exchange of commodities is the means by which the division of labor is regulated. It is only the raising and lowering of prices that can apportion labor between different tasks. Thus we have a society in which exchange and production constantly regulate each other. Behind the movement of commodity values in the market lies a parallel process of the movement of labor from one task to another. The social power of money, of value, lies in its ability to move about this labor.
If the social power of labor comes from its ability to measure and command labor, what kind of labor is this labor? Knitting? Building? Singing? [any examples suffice, depending on good images] It is any kind of labor. Labor in general. Abstract Labor.
We began by asking what sort of society makes the rule of abstractions possible, makes the law of value possible. After penetrating the surface appearance of market exchanges we found that it is a society in which the value relations between commodities are directly related to the labor that produces these commodities. And now we have seen that the abstractness of these value relations is paralleled by an equally abstract aspect of human labor, abstract labor. Does this answer our question as to what sort of society makes such abstractions possible?
Marx is sometimes taken to task for his concept of abstract labor. “How is it possible,” some ask, “for Marx to theoretically equate all of these different sorts of labors? Manual and intellectual labor? Skilled and unskilled labor? etc?” “Labor is never abstract,” they argue, “but is always a specific type labor.”
Marx’s reply is typical of Marx: We don’t have to theoretically equate all these different labors. Society does it for us. Society already treats all labor as an abstraction. For us as individuals our work seems very concrete and very important. But when we suddenly lose our job because of an economic crisis, when we see jobs move to other countries, when we see entire skill sets replaced by machines, we realize that our own livelihood means nothing to capitalism. For capitalism our work is just an abstract unit in a giant profit calculator. We are just another digit to be moved around. In this sense, though our work seems very specific and concrete to us, for capitalism it is completely abstract. All that matters is that it produces value.
If abstract labor is not a philosophical idea but a real phenomena, a real abstraction that is made by capitalism itself then that leads us to ask again: what sort of society makes this possible?
The answer is this:
[OWS sign that says “people are not commodities”] People are not commodities but their ability to work is. This is called “labor power”. How does the exchange of commodities apportion labor? This apportioning takes the form of the buying and selling of labor power. Wage-labor is the mechanism by which the “hidden hand of the market” moves labor inputs about.
We finally have an answer that seems adequate to our initial question: what sort of society makes possible the law of value, the subordination of society to the abstraction of value? We see that this abstraction of value is tied to the abstraction of labor. And this abstract labor relies on the existence of labor power as a commodity. When labor-power is a commodity then the specific uses of that labor become irrelevant to capital. All that is important is that profit can be produced by exploiting this labor. It doesn’t matter if this labor knits sweaters or makes guns. It doesn’t matter if we work 80 hour weeks or work dangerous jobs. It doesn’t matter when the mines collapse on us. It doesn’t matter when we are replaced by robots or when our jobs move somewhere else. It doesn’t matter when unemployment drives down our wages. Our work is just an input into the production of value, of social power. Capital is the expansion of this value, of this social power, for its own sake, not for any particular purpose.
Yet our answer to this question still points to other questions. What sort of society is necessary in order for wage-labor to be the dominant form of labor? We must have a society in which people don’t have access to their own means of production but instead must sell their labor power in the market in order to survive. This requires private property, a capitalist state to guard this property, and lots of drugs and smooth jazz to keep us passive.
So the institution of wage-labor which forms the foundation of the social power of the law of value require a whole host of political, institutional and social factors. In searching for an answer to our question we have encountered, rather than one simple answer, an assemblage of factors, like pieces in a complex puzzle.
We’ve heard demands to “end capitalism”, “end exploitation”, “end private property” and “abolish class”. That all sounds great. We don’t usually hear people talk about “abolishing Abstract Labor”. It certainly sounds like an obtuse philosophical demand. But, as we’ve seen, Abstract Labor is a very real thing, not just a philosophical idea.
When critiquing capitalism it can sometimes seem difficult to identify what it is we want to end- what exactly would be required to break with the capitalist mode of production. Different political positions on this issue come from different ways of seeing the way the complex array of pieces of capitalism fit together. (Here we’ve traced the abstract social power of money and value to wage-labor. But we’ve also seen that this wage-labor is dependent on a complex assemblage of social and political arrangements.)
For the market-socialist vision, it seems that all we need to do replace the class-relationships in the workplace with a cooperative workplace, leaving market exchange in tact. But such a cooperative society would still have wage labor, socially necessary labor time, value in the abstract, and abstract labor. Cooperatives would still be compelled by competition to produce surplus value in order to expand production and stay competitive. Production would still be for the sake of producing surplus value, and not for the sake of bettering society. It is probable that the most efficient and successful firms would be those with the least cooperative structure and the highest disciplining of labor.
For the 20th century communism of the USSR and China it was the seizure of state power by a vanguard of the working class, the nationalization of property, and the administration of production by a plan that was thought to be sufficient to break with the capitalist mode of production. Yet the plans of the planners resembled the most despotic plans of the capitalist workplace. In order to compete in the world market planners found that they needed to extract the highest amount of surplus value from workers as possible. There was still wage labor, socially necessary labor time, surplus value and abstract labor. The same year the conveyor belt was introduced to Soviet Russia they revised their textbooks to claim that the law of value applied to socialism.
This means that if we are to be serious about anti-capitalist politics we have to be series about our analysis of capitalism. What is it we are really trying to do-away with? And what forms of organization can replace capitalism effectively?
Law of Value 9B: Abstraction
The word “abstract” can mean many different things. A painting is abstract if it doesn’t have any references to representational objects. An idea is abstract if it moves out of the realm of concrete examples and deals with general principles. When Marx talks about “abstract labor”, as we discussed in video 9, he is using the term in a unique way. For Marx the abstraction that is abstract labor is not one that happens in the minds of philosophers. It is one that happens in reality. It is a “real abstraction”.
This seems an interesting enough proposition to warrant this brief supplementary video on the topic of Abstraction.
To Abstract or Not to Abstract
What does it mean to abstract? We abstract all of the time. When we say “woman” we are not talking about any concrete specific woman. We are talking about women in general. Yet, there is no such thing as a woman in the abstract. We cannot meet her at a bar and buy her a drink. We can only experience concrete women, specific women.
To attempt to look at the complex totality that is a capitalist society only in its concreteness, only in the specific actions of trillions of individuals all happening at the same time, would be madness. We have to separate out the patterns, finding terms that can encompass a broad swath of concrete behaviors into general, abstract terms. Instead of talking about rice, tanks and DVD’s we have to talk about commodities. Instead of talking about carpentry, dentistry, and bicycle repair we must talk about labor.
When we use the word “abstract” we can mean the verb, the act of abstracting, or we can mean the noun, the concept which forms an abstraction.
There are many abstractions which we may choose to extract out of the complex totality of capitalism and label as the most important, fundamental defining abstractions. In forming our abstractions we have choices to make. The way we abstract and the way we piece together these abstractions determines what full picture of the totality we come up with.
An abstraction by itself will always be an incomplete picture of the totality. In the video on Abstract Labor we began with the abstract power of money. This did not seem adequate to explain capitalism. We were left wondering how there could exist this strange phenomenon of value in the abstract. There was something incomplete, lacking, in our abstraction. We looked to the sphere of exchange, where the exchange of commodities form value relations between commodities. We found that this perspective was still incomplete because it didn’t explain how we could have regularly recurring supplies of and demand for commodities. This led us to examine a labor process that was coordinated by exchange which gave us the idea of Abstract Labor. But this too was an incomplete picture until we introduced the notion of wage-labor which explains how it is that labor can be come an abstract accounting unit in the profit calculator of capital. But wage-labor then implies a certain class relation, private property and a capitalist state. It was only when these political and institutional factors all came together that our initial abstract was grounded enough to give us an adequate answer to our initial question.
This movement from the abstract to the concrete is a key feature of Hegel’s dialectical method. Yet there is something quite distinctive to the way Marx uses this method: the way Marx’s abstractions are grounded in the real material practices of capitalism.
When we talked about the abstract term “woman” we noted that we cannot ever meet “woman in general”, but only specific women. However we can meet “value in general”. In fact, we carry it around with us everyday in our pocket. It is money. So the abstraction that is value is not a mental or philosophical one. It is a real one. This is why Marx begins his analysis of capitalism with an analysis of the value-form.
This also differentiates Marx’s method from bourgeois methods of understanding capitalism. For Austrian economists like von Mises it is the abstraction of free human action that is the foundational abstraction that frames the theory of capitalism. But we cannot ever see “human action” in the abstract. It is merely a philosophical device and thus appears as an arbitrary starting point for a philosophical system, begging the charge of being an ideologically motivated starting point.
Because abstract labor is a real abstraction this means that the theoretical system that we build out of it is not just a question of logically extrapolating principles and ideas in our heads from a given a starting point, like we would do in bourgeois philosophy. Rather, since the abstraction is a real one, we must proceed by trying to ground this abstraction in real social practice. It becomes an anthropological investigation. This is why, in video 9, the question that always propelled us forward in our analysis was “what sort of society makes this abstraction possible?” We had to uncover a complex system of social practices that allowed such an abstraction to emerge. Such an approach of grounding our analysis in real social practices keeps us from falling into the trap of fetishism.
We have talked about the fetishism of commodities in several videos, uncovering different aspects of the fetish along the way. In one sense the fetish is a bad abstraction. A fetish attaches the social power of the whole to an isolated, abstracted part of the whole. For instance, when we say “money is power” we are taking the social power of labor, as commanded by the value form, and attributing it to little pieces of paper. To treat money like it has some inherent social power is a fetish.
On the other hand, the social power of money doesn’t go away just because we have exposed the fetish with our fancy theories. Money really does have power because value is a real abstraction. This makes Marx’s fetish argument quite mysterious and tricky. It is one thing to make a bad abstraction and attribute the powers of the whole to one piece of the whole. It is quite another when this abstraction is a really existing phenomenon that can’t be changed by theory.
Depending on our vantage point we can argue two different points. One the one hand money and commodities are just objects and do not have any inherent social powers. They derive their value and social power from a specific organization of labor. On the other hand the social power of money and commodities is not an illusion. In a capitalist society they really do have value and social power. The fetish is real.
This strange phenomenon of commodity fetishism leads to all sorts of confusion when we think about capitalism. It can lead people to the conclusion that money has some inherent value, that capital creates its own surplus value without labor, and that exchange value comes from the material properties of commodities. We often call these ideas fetishes but it would be more correct to call them ideas generated by the fetishism of commodities.
Marx does not just dismiss such ideas. Instead he subjects them to the same sort of analysis that we have just discussed: he seeks to ground these ideas in real social practices. All of video 9 could be seen as a Marxist critique of the idea that money has some inherent value. Rather than dismissing the idea we acknowledge the fact that money does have power. We then show that this power is not a result of the material properties of money but a result of a specific sort of social organization of labor. Thus we can show that such an idea, the idea that money is power, is the result of a specific type of social relation. In this way Marx destabilized bourgeois theory. He takes bourgeois ideas and shows why they are possible.