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.