Abstraction, Abstract Labor and Ilyenkov

What reading Ilyenkov helped me understand about Abstraction and Abstract Labor.

All theory makes abstractions. Marx’s abstractions are different than how we often think of the term. His method, a dialectical materialist method, treats abstractions in a different way than other methods. One of these differences is that abstractions appear in reality itself, not just in the mind of those contemplating reality. Abstract Labor is not a result of theory. It is a real phenomenon of capitalism.

For awhile I have been frustrated with my understanding of Abstract Labor and with my understanding of the relation of abstract labor to Marx’s dialectical method. (There is a two-part video in my Law of Value series in which I attempt to deal with both abstract labor and abstraction but I think I really missed the mark completely on both topics in that video.) So I recently turned to Evald Ilyenkov’s classic book “The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital” to straighten me out. After spending several weeks doing a close reading of the book I can now say “I once was lost but now I’m found, twas blind but now I see.” This book does not fuck around. I highly recommend it.

I knew I was lost, that I was missing something crucial about the relation of abstraction to abstract labor, when I came across this passage in Marx’s Value-Form Appendix to the first German edition of Capital vol. 1, a passage that I didn’t understand:

“Within the value-relation and the value expression included in it, the abstractly general counts not as a property of the concrete, sensibly real; but on the contrary the sensibly-concrete counts as the mere form of appearance or definite form of realisation of the abstractly general. The labour of tailoring, which, for example, hides in the equivalent ‘coat’, does not possess, within the value-expression of the linen, the general property of also being human labour. On the contrary. Being human labour counts as its essence (Wesen), being the labour of tailoring counts only as the form of appearance (Erscheinungsform) or definite form of realisation of this its essence. This quid pro quo is unavoidable because the labour represented in the product of labour only goes to create value insofar as it is undifferentiated human labour, so that the labour objectified in the value of the product is in no way distinguished from the labour objectified in the value of a different product.

“This inversion (Verkehrung) by which the sensibly-concrete counts only as the form of appearance of the abstractly general and not, on the contrary, the abstractly general as property of the concrete, characterises the expression of value. At the same time, it makes understanding it difficult. If I say: Roman Law and German Law are both laws, that is obvious. But if I say: Law (Das Recht), this abstraction (Abstraktum) realises itself in Roman Law and in German Law, in these concrete laws, the interconnection becoming mystical.”
Marx, Value Form Appendix to 1st German Edition of Capital vol. 1, 1867

Often, in common language, when we talk about abstraction we are identifying the general properties that all objects of a certain class have, setting aside (abstracting from) differences. For instance, when I say ‘piano’ I refer to the general features that all pianos have (strings hit by hammers activated by keys, etc.) but I abstract away from all differences between particular pianos (size, model, age, etc.). In this everyday, non-dialectical sense of abstraction (Ilyenkov calls it ‘Old Logic’) an abstraction is based on the general features of a class of objects. The abstraction itself, the abstract piano, does not exist in reality. Only particular pianos exist. Therefore the abstract piano only exists in the mind. For old logic abstractions are only in the mind while the opposite of abstract, concrete, refers to the objects of the real world, the particular pianos. For old logic an abstract idea is correct if it adequately captures the general features of a class of objects. It is wrong if there are concrete objects within this class that do not have the general features of the abstraction. Thus, if there is a piano with no hammers (like the Yamaha Avante-Grand) this would challenge our abstraction that a piano is something with strings hit by hammers activated by keys.

But this is not how Marx deals with abstract and concrete. In the quote above he says that “the abstractly general counts not as a property of the concrete, sensibly real; but on the contrary the sensibly-concrete counts as the mere form of appearance or definite form of realisation of the abstractly general.” In our old-logic abstraction ‘piano’ the abstract general features (strings, hammer, keys, etc.) were all properties of the concrete. They were specific features of the concrete that we singled out, abstracted, as the general features of all pianos. Here Marx is saying, quite explicitly, that this is NOT what he means by ‘abstract’ when he talks about abstract labor. Instead he says that the concrete is merely an expression of the abstract. Concrete labors are just the form of appearance of abstract labor. This implies that abstract labor is a real thing, existing in reality, and that concrete labors are merely the various guises that abstract labor appears in.

Clearly this is a different way of looking at abstract-concrete. We could explain this by saying that Marx is being Idealist, that he thinks the Ideal exists in reality and that concrete reality is just an expression of the Ideal. This would be the Hegelian approach. But we know that Marx is not an idealist so that can’t be the explanation.

Let’s put this quote of Marx’s to the side for the moment and return to it after looking at some of the things Ilyenkov clarifies about Marx’s notion of abstract and concrete.

Whereas old-logic sees abstraction as a mental process and concrete as a quality of sensual reality, Marx sees reality itself as having abstract and concrete aspects. Thought can also be abstract or concrete. An abstract aspect of reality is reflected in an abstract concept. A concrete aspect of reality is reflected in a concrete concept. So the first thing we have to rid ourselves of is this notion that abstract-concrete is analogous to mind-matter.

The next thing we have to consider is the way in which meaning, for Marx, is all about the interrelations of things within a complex system. Contrary to positivist notions of reality in which objects can be understood on their own, in isolation from a system of interactions, Marx only understands things relationally. The meaning, the essence of an object, is not found by observing it in a vacuum. It’s essence is found in the role it plays within a larger system. The same object could have a different essence in a different system.

Concrete reality is composed of many interrelations, relations which form laws of motion. The goal of theory, or science, is to understand this concrete reality in all of its interrelations. A concrete concept is one that captures the real essence of these interrelations. The goal of thinking, of theory, is concrete concepts. However we cannot immediately see all of reality and understand all of the complex interrelations all at once. We can only see a bit at a time. We point our camera to the right, then to the left, then we zoom in, then we zoom out, etc. What is this process? It is the process of abstraction. Abstraction means to leave out some detail and focus in on certain aspects at the expense of others.

The goal of this abstraction is to eventually identify the essential connections between different abstract aspects, slowly piecing the pieces together to give us a concrete picture of the whole. However this can only happen if we abstract correctly. There are two senses in with Marx talks of abstractions, a good and a bad way of abstracting. When abstraction has gone bad Marx often refers to the abstraction as ‘one-sided’. This means that the abstraction views an aspect of reality in an incomplete, one-sided way. An essential aspect of the nature of the object has been left out. Often Marx critiques bourgeois economists for making one-sided abstractions that make it seem like capitalism is a universal, a-historical system by abstracting away all of the historically specific aspects of capital. For instance, if we say that capital is just tools used to make more tools we have performed a sloppy, 1-sided abstraction. We are viewing capital merely from the abstract general features that capital has of increasing physical quantities of things while abstracting away the historically specific value-relations that give capitalism its essential nature.

This shows that abstraction can be arbitrary. If we are free to select one general feature over another we can radically change the concept of capital. If we choose only the ahistorical features we can make capital seem eternal. If abstraction is just seen as the identification of general features then we have no choice but to be arbitrary in our abstractions. But if abstraction is seen differently, as identifying the essential nature of an object, as identifying the “relation within which this thing is this thing” as Ilenkov puts it, then we can be scientific about our abstractions.
When we make an abstraction we want to select that aspect of the object which identifies its essence. Since the essence of things is in their relation to other things, we want to identify the essential relations which govern the object, abstracting away other non-essential aspects. Thus capital’s essence is in the increase of value in production through the exploitation of wage labor. A funny thing happens when we make abstractions of this kind: They often cease to be general features of the entire class. For instance, the above abstract definition of capital does not describe the general features of all capitalist activity. For instance, banks have an increase in value over time but they do not engage in production. Neither do landlords. So the abstraction, capital, is not a general property of capital. Instead it is an abstraction that gets to an essential relation. The profit of banks and landlords is a derivative profit, a subtraction from the surplus value created in production by other capitalists. This is a very different sense of abstraction that we are often used to. Here the abstraction ‘capital’ identifies the essential relation which makes all forms of capital possible, wether or not they share the same general features! The same is true with the basic abstract starting point of Marx’s theory: the commodity. As Ilenkov points out, Marx defines the commodity form very abstractly, even abstraction away money at first and just looking at the relation of one commodity to another. But this basic commodity-commodity relation is generative of the whole complex of social forms that exist in a capitalist economy. Even though some aspects of capitalism (credit default swaps for instance) are not the exchange of one product of labor for another this basic C-C relation is the logical and historical cell which is generative of the whole.

This way of abstracting gets us out of the arbitrary nature of old-logic where we chose whatever general features we wanted. Instead when we abstract we must identify the essential relation which defines an object, a relation that is generative of the class. This requires a very careful scientific approach to understanding how one form generates another, etc. This is the process of unfolding contradictions, etc…. but I will not get into that here.

A good abstraction, one that really identities the essential “relation within which the thing is the thing” is called a ‘concrete abstraction’. From the standpoint of old-logic this seems a contradiction in terms. But it makes perfect sense once we jettison the prejudice that abstract-concrete refers to thought-reality. Concrete abstractions don’t just refer to ideas. They refer to real things in the world. Every concept is abstract in the sense that it just refers to one aspect of reality. Every concept (every well-defined dialectical concept) is concrete in that it refers to the specific features that define an object in relation to the whole rather than to abstract general features. So every well-conceived dialectical concept is a concrete-abstraction.

This returns us to our discussion of abstract labor, an aspect of labor that Marx says is really existing in the world, and which appears in the form of concrete labor. At first it seems like Marx’s general use of abstract-concrete does not map onto his discussion of concrete and abstract labor. Concrete labor refers to the specific working activity of people, the use-values they make and the specific type of labor needed to make that use-value. Abstract labor seems at first, given Marx’s definition of “productive expenditure of a certain amount of human muscles, nerves, brain, etc.”(Capital vol. 1), to be a general feature of all labor, a description that doesn’t describe a relation.

Meanwhile concrete labor seems abstract and seems to define the interrelation of labors. Concrete-labor refers to the 1-sided development of specific laborers, the fact that in a developed division of labor people’s specific working activity is developed 1-sidedly at the expense of other skill sets. This 1-sided development leads to the interdependence of labors on one another. So, at first glance it seems like Marx’s use of abstract and concrete labor is the opposite of his use of abstract-concrete in his method in general.

However, though the inter-relation of all labors is a result of the division of labor, this is not the relation which defines the essential capitalist nature of labor in our society. The division of labor refers to a much wider historical category of labors. It is not an abstraction that captures “the relation within which the thing is the thing”. The specific aspect of capitalist labor that needs to be explained is that fact that it is value producing and that this value is a homogenous substance, one value product commensurable with another despite having different use-values and being the product of different heterogeneous labor-processes.

Were Marx to just appeal to old-logic’s method of generalization to identify the homogenous quality of capitalist labor he could be accused of being arbitrary. Marx’s method requires that abstraction refer to a real process or thing, something existing outside of the mind. Theory must trace the development of things in reality, not in the mind. This causes Marx to look to real events, real processes to identify the substance which produces this homogenous value.

When Marx speaks of abstract labor he is referring to the real development of an aspect of the labor process in capitalism. Capitalist labor is developed one-sidedly. It is developed purely for its abstract productivity, productivity developed for its own sake, not related to any specific use-values or social need. This causes labor to be machine-like, to be devoid of any content outside of its physical productivity. The process of social averaging which is socially necessary labor time also abstracts from the differences in productivity between workers so that the product of all labor has a uniform value. This is the essential aspect of capitalist labor that makes “the thing the thing.”

As objectified abstract labor, value takes an independent form, money, which exists as value in the abstract. But abstract labor itself, though it is real, though it is objective, only exists through its manifestations as various concrete labors. Here the concrete becomes a subordinate to the abstract. This is because in capitalism abstract laws dominate individuals. Isolated, independent concrete labors are at the mercy of abstract social forces which dominate individuals.

I hope others find this clarifying. Coincidentally Bruce Wallace has been writing about Ilyenkov on his blog as well.


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18 Responses to Abstraction, Abstract Labor and Ilyenkov

  1. mreverpresent says:

    Interesting. I have not read Ilyenkov yet but I will do now.
    This seems to me also useful to attack the Austrian school (Menger, etc) and their use of the ‘pure type’.

  2. Sean says:

    There is a lot of disagreement as to what constitutes abstract labour. Good overview here: http://cnc.sagepub.com/content/35/3/475.extract

  3. Andrew says:

    I’m curious about this part –

    “When Marx speaks of abstract labor he is referring to the real development of an aspect of the labor process in capitalism. Capitalist labor is developed one-sidedly. It is developed purely for its abstract productivity, productivity developed for its own sake, not related to any specific use-values or social need.”

    So capitalist labor is developed purely for its “abstract productivity” which is unrelated to specific use-values or social needs and this is what Marx is speaking about when he uses the term “abstract labor”.

    This means, I think, that when Marx is talking about abstract labor he isn’t talking about the value creating aspect of labor within the capitalist mode of production. The reason I say this is because labor must produce use-values that meet social needs in some manner in order for this labor to be value creating at all. Is this correct?

    Also, what exactly is meant by “capitalist labor”?

    Overall, interest and insightful. I’ll have to read Ilyenkov now.

  4. Martin says:

    Brendan- I do not think your final section where you return to discussing the Marx quote from the Value Form Appendix is correct.

    The section you have referred to is from the discussion of the simple form of value. Here, it is crucial that Marx is discussing the labour that goes to create the value-form of the linen (in this case the labour that makes coats- tailoring- which is the equivalent form ie the form of appearance of the value of the linen).

    It is only because the coat is the value-form of linen in this example that the specific concrete labour which makes coats counts immediately as abstract labour (the second peculiarity of the equivalent form in the Chapter 1 text)- as the coat is immediately value (social wealth in the abstract) then the labouring which creates it immediately has the form of appearance of value creating labour (abstract labour).

    Marx makes it very clear, at least in the Chapter 1 text with which I am more familiar, that this is only something that happens with the equivalent form and only because that is the equivalent form (p149- “Admittedly this holds good only within the value relation…” where he discusses more the first peculiarity and then p150 where it is clear that tailoring only has this property when the coat is in the value relation with linen).

    I think that you take this very specific point about the labour that makes the equivalent form and then generalise it wrongly in your concluding section. Concrete labour only ever “seems” abstract when it is the labour that makes the commodity which immediately has the form of appearance of value.

    The “one sided” development of capitalist labour you then describe is, as far as I can see, not something to do with the becoming real of abstract labour but is a description of what can happen with concrete labour processes under the command of capital- ie deskilling, breaking up labour processes into compartmentalised parts etc. However, those labour processes still remain entirely concrete labour- just shittier complex labour for those performing it. You description is therefore really about complex labour processes being rearranged and divided into things that are closer to simple labour.

    I think Harvey makes the same mistake in Limits to Capital and Paul Mattick Jr does a much better critique of it than i can manage in his review article here: https://libcom.org/files/mattick.pdf (bit from p216 to 217).

    Given we don’t have commodity money anymore then the second peculiarity of the equivalent form is not something that we need to trouble with too much. However, perhaps, the correct way to understand the paragraphs from Marx you quoted, with reference to the money form would be to say something like this:

    When the purpose of production is the increase of value then any particular concrete labour is only made to happen when there is a calculation that it will fulfil that purpose, The extent to which that concrete labour has created value is judged not by reference to that particular labour but to the socially necessary labour time to make that product.It is this which determine if abstract wealth has been produced and how much abstract social wealth the labour has produced regardless of its real duration etc. That is then measured in money (the general equivalent). So money here represents abstract wealth as such, value – congealed abstract labour. A thing is now the embodiment of an abstraction….

    or something….

    Sorry if I have misunderstood- to be clear, I think it is a useful project to show what the real abstraction means for concrete labour (actual human activity)- that is the point of the critique of capital but I just don’t think you can do it using these particular paragraphs on the value-form.

    Hopefully this is useful (and thanks so much for all the videos and draft chapters which I find really useful).


    • Martin,

      Thank you for this very thoughtful comment. I have been too busy to find the time to fully consider it until now. I think you are correct that I was mistaken to try to make a more general point about abstract and concrete based on this passage. After reading your comment and reconsidering the passage I see that Marx is saying is explaining that in the value-expression of the commodity the abstract labor in a commodity must be realized in the concrete labor of the equivalent. I however was reading the passage as saying that all concrete labor is a manifestation of abstract labor. I was somehow not seeing that Marx was referring to the expression of value. Rather I was thinking about the labor process itself.

      However the other point you make in your comment, if I understand you correctly, seems to be challenging the idea that AL refers to an essential aspect of the labor process under capitalism. I do not agree with you on this point. I think AL definitely refers to an aspect of labor, not just some intangible abstract essence that is arrived at once value is measured in money, as you seem to suggest. I have definitely had a lot of confusion in my own mind about the relation of AL to unskilled or deskilled labor. I have often been unclear how to advance a position that holds that AL is a real aspect of labor without just making AL seem synonymous with unskilled labor.

      Perhaps my foray in Ilyenkov is instructive in clarifying this. Ilyenkov would say that an abstraction refers to an actual real aspect of reality, one that is generative of the whole. This means that AL has to refer to certain aspects of the labor process. When you say (and I paraphrase) “That’s not AL, that’s just shitty concrete labor”, I would respond that Al has to refer to certain concrete aspects of labor. This is what abstractions do. AL indeed refers to the shittiest aspects of capitalist labor.

      But I am curious to hear your thoughts on this. I am still trying to work this all out in my head.

      • Martin says:

        Thanks for your reply Brendan.

        Regarding this point:

        “However the other point you make in your comment, if I understand you correctly, seems to be challenging the idea that AL refers to an essential aspect of the labor process under capitalism. I do not agree with you on this point. I think AL definitely refers to an aspect of labor, not just some intangible abstract essence that is arrived at once value is measured in money, as you seem to suggest.”

        I don’t think that Abstract Labour (I’ll go with AL as well – especially since the UK-English version of labour adds a “u”…) is part of any concrete labour process in a concrete sense (!)- it is not possible to expend effort abstractedly in production but only in pursuit of some definite aim- to produce a hoped for particular useful effect. As such every labour process is always a concrete process. That is not to say that abstract labour is not performed when a concrete labour process is done- if the labour is value-producing then it is also abstract labour (whether that is highly skilled labour done by a worker with a lot of autonomy on the job or the shittiest form of simple labour in some sweatshop that we were previously discussing).

        I will try to explain the sense in which I think AL asserts itself (and shapes all concrete-labour processes that are performed for exchange*) below- hopefully this will show how AL becomes (if you want to put it this way) “an aspect of labor” under capitalism (and therefore maybe our positions are not irreconcilably different):

        1. No concrete labour process of production is performed for the market unless it is intended to be productive of value (well surplus-value or even profit but lets leave things at the level of chapter 1 to make things easier for me).

        2. When production of value is the standard against which any concrete-labour process is judged then the labour-process has to be subordinated to this aim (hence at least as productive as the competition in that branch of industry etc).

        3. That means that every concrete-labour process is judged on the market against the standard of AL – value production.

        4. Thus it does not ultimately matter how productive that labour is of material wealth- all that matters is its production of value (which the productivity of labour does not change)- actual wealth production in material terms (more useful stuff) is not a standard which AL accepts.

        5. The purely negative side of human productive activity (that it requires expenditure of effort) is the standard by which all productive activity is judged.

        Given this one can see how it is correct to talk about AL becoming an aspect of every labour-process under capitalism- it is an abstraction beneath which every labour-process is subordinated. That clearly has a tendency to produce over-work, to break down labour processes so that simple labour only is performed and so on (although to explain such phenomena in more than a very crude way of course we need to introduce the categories of surplus value, the wage, productivity gains as a means for competition that leads to the cheapening of labour-power and so on).

        Just to be clear, I am not wanting to end up with a position that labour is only rendered abstract in exchange etc (eg similar to the discussion elsewhere in these comments about Heinrich’s mistake- although I haven’t read him closely enough to know whether he makes that mistake). I would say against such a mistake:

        1. AL is an abstraction with a material basis – the fact that all labour is the expenditure of effort.

        2. Concrete-labour processes are judged by that abstraction and are transformed because of it (deskilling etc).

        3. AL is performed when value is produced. How much AL is performed determines the magnitude of value which can then be realised in exchange (even if that magnitude is only later determined in exchange that does not take away the fact that the commodity manufactured represents a portion of society’s total available effort that should, on average, have been expended in its manufacture).

        There is quite a nice section in a summary of Chapter 1 that is online here: http://readingcapital.github.io/volume-1/chapter-01-commentary/ which I think captures why (at least from a political point of view) it is important not to see AL as purely a vague thing that is constituted only in exchange (rather than something which exists in production because it is production for exchange) – I know there are other more complex arguments against such a mistake but this makes the point well:

        “So congealed abstract labour as the substance of value and socially necessary labour-time as the measure of value isn’t just another way of saying that people produce stuff. These are statements how they produce. More precisely how they confront each other in this society and what that means for the labour they perform. Abstract labour is performed where commodities are produced. On the other hand, abstract labour does not mean nothing, i.e., one could be tempted to think that if abstract labour is something specific to this society it would have nothing to do with labour as performed under all kinds of different social conditions. A reading, which is perhaps aimed against a reading of abstract labour by Leninists who think of it as a condition of human existence, holds that abstract labour has no physiological side to it, that would be a naturalistic reading. Hence, one doesn’t know much more about value by reducing it to abstract labour: one fairly empty social category is reduced to another. A meaningless reduction, one could drop the mention of “labour” from “abstract labour” and one is not any further in one’s analysis than before the reduction. Yet, it is one thing to explain that the physiological equality, i.e., that people do stuff, does not constitute value, it is another thing to claim value would have nothing to do with it. What is lost in this abstract account are the results about what abstract labour as a social rule does to concrete labour. That is, this way the critique of abstract labour is lost, i.e., the account what it does to concrete labour and the immediate producers if pure expenditure of labour-power, pure toil, something purely negative is what counts. Abstract labour asserts itself against the immediate producers because it turns a physiological quality of their activity against them, reduces their activity to it.”

        As you can see that makes the same point as you (elsewhere in comments) about there being no need for the “L” in AL if one sees AL as only existing in exchange.

        Anyway, hope that is useful- sorry my comments spilled over into the other set of comments on Heinrich etc.


        * AL also shapes concrete-labour processes that are not directly for the market but does so more indirectly- for example housework becomes something that has to be fitted in around paid work and takes on characteristics of capitalist labour processes in that there is never enough time and “time is money”.

      • Martin, I am not entirely opposed to most of what you write here. But I do think that Marx uses Abstract Labor to refer to certain universal aspects of the labor process, that is, “a certain productive expenditure of human muscle, nerve, brain, etc.” I have just posted a few posts in regard to the topic after a rereading of passages in CPE, Capital and Grundrisse.

      • Martin says:

        Sorry- I should also say that re-reading my first reply to this I could be read to have made the mistake of indicating AL is not performed at all in production- I didn’t want to suggest that and hopefully my longer reply clarifies that.

  5. BenP says:

    Labour is a material process – even for mental labour. How is this to be squared with abstract labour without devolving into idealism?

    • Why can’t abstract labor refer to a material aspect of labor?

      Marx: “On the one hand all labour is, speaking physiologically, an expenditure of human labour power, and in its character of identical abstract human labour, it creates and forms the value of commodities”

  6. Very interesting, now I know where Michel Heinrich gets his inspiration from when he discusses the same subject in his “An introduction to the three volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital” (which is more than just an introduction, it is a reinterpretation aswell, in line with this understanding of abstract labor represented and “embodied” in money, that you outline above; where he parts with you and Andrew Kliman is on the theory of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, still worth looking into though). Another author that deals with these questions is Moishe Postone, and his “Time, labor and social domination”, a heavy and challenging book – I can really recommend it (along with fellas like Robert Kurz – that is if you can find anything translated from german).

    I am definitely get a hold of this book by Ilyenkov and give it a read!

    • Alex,

      My argument here is that abstract labor refers to a real aspect of the capitalist labor process. My understanding of Heinrich, and my understanding is somewhat superficial not having read much of him so please correct me if I am wrong, is that he belongs to the value-form approach that thinks labor is rendered abstract in exchange after production has taken place.

      I have not read Postone.

      Ilyenkov does not discuss AL in his book. This blog post applies some of his writing about ‘abstraction’ to the topic of AL.


      • If I understand Heinrich correct, his argument is that commodities have to be produced for exchange in order for the commodities to be abstracted from their use-values, and equated as values; they have to be put in a relation to each other. As they become commensurable an actual abstraction have taken place, a realabstraction. But in his view value does not emerge, or appear, in production or circulation, it does not exist in a certain place isolated from their relation to other commodities and other spheres of society. Value gets “visible” in the act of exchange, where the concrete labor performed is validated as a certain amount of value generating abstract labor; that is, before exchange you can just estimate the amount of value, more or less successful, but it is in exchange where that value is more or less realized. He seems to be thinking that the act of exchange renders a certain amount of concrete labor as valid for a certain amount of value creating abstract labor. Exchange mediates the relation between the concrete and the abstract, and between production and circulation. Because it is in the act of exchange where it becomes apparent to what extent the private laid out concrete labor corresponds to the socially necessary labor time; and if there is demand for all the commodities produced (if it’s not, then the commodity have no value, and it’s concrete labor spent in vain, not valid as any value-giving abstract labor); and to what extent your labor force performes simple or complex laborpower also impacts upon the value realized. His argument is somewhat more nuanced and better built up than this, but I hope you can get a gist of what he is about by this.

        I have not come as far in my reading and understanding of Marx as perhaps you have (i’ve only been studying Marx for about a year), so I haven’t taken a final stand, yet, on all the terms and concepts in Marx’s writings, and how they are related to each other and is to be understood.

        / Alexander

        PS. thanks for delivering interesting posts, keep up the good work!

      • Alexander,

        Thanks for the summary. I agree that it’s important to keep an open mind on these issues. Here is what I think the problems are with what you have laid out about AL:

        This train of thought, in which AL is an abstraction which is made by the process of exchange seems, to me, to actually define AL not as any sort of labor at all, but instead treat AL more as some sort of metaphorical social substance. Why call it “abstract labor” at all and not just “abstract substance” unless the term actually refers to an aspect of labor? And if the term does actually refer to an aspect of labor then we must ask what this aspect is. Just because something is abstract does not mean that it lacks any concrete manifestation. The ‘value-form’ approach to AL seems to be unable to actually define AL as any quality, aspect or essence of labor itself. Rather, as value is assigned to the commodity in exchange, AL comes to be just synonymous with exchange-value. The concept of intrinsic value is completely erased and then we lose one of the most important aspects of Marx’s value theory.

        Marx clearly states that labor is both abstract and concrete at the same time. He does not say that it is concrete in production and then becomes abstract in exchange. How could that even be? How can the labor I do today become abstract after I have done it? This makes AL seem like some sort of philosophical abstraction rather than a real thing, a real aspect of real labor.

        In the opening pages of Capital Marx makes a point to consider value, in itself, prior to a consideration of its form of appearance as exchange value. This is where he develops the dual nature of labor (that is is abstract and concrete at the same time). Only after he has considered value on its own, and abstract labor that is objectified in value, does he then proceed to its form of appearance in exchange value. This suggests that Marx would not have endorsed a view that argues that abstract labor is a result of a exchange.

        I was very fuzzy on this topic for some time, a result of having read a lot of value-form stuff at different times (especially Rubin). I think it is easy to be drawn in to this line of thinking since value-form arguments often reference many truths like the fact that capitalist production is production for exchange, that exchange mediates production and that value is realized in exchange. However none of these truths necessarily mean that labor cannot be both abstract and concrete at the same time, in production.

        “On the one hand all labour is, speaking physiologically, an expenditure of human labour power, and in its character of identical abstract human labour, it creates and forms the value of commodities.”- Marx, chapter 1 of Capital.

  7. sanctus says:

    “This book does not fuck around.”
    Dude, I’ve never seen you say the word “fuck”. I miss you man.

  8. sanctus says:

    How can you exemplify the manifestations of the interconnection of concrete labor? Socially necessary labor constitutes all dimensions of labor necessary to move the capitalist society and is not specific to a certain country or region, it is a worldwide phenomenon. But many people, when they hear about this concept, think about workers assembled in a factory, each one performing their respective role (one worker hammering, the other cleaning, the other piecing things together and etc). So, how does concrete and abstract labor materialize and how can it be defined in reality?

    • I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “manifestations of the interconnection of concrete labor,” or “concrete and abstract labor materialize.” Are asking what abstract labor looks like in our lived experience of capitalist labor?

      • sanctus says:

        “Are asking what abstract labor looks like in our lived experience of capitalist labor?” You got it, that’s exactly what I’m asking. How concrete and abstract labor looks like in our modern lived experience of global capitalism.

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