Abstract Labor and reading Marx

In the next few posts I will post a close reading of some important works by Marx that explore his concept of ‘abstract labor’. In a past post from last summer I wrote about some revelations I had from reading Ilenkov that I thought helped me come to terms with Marx’s use of the term ‘abstract’ when he speaks of Abstract Labor. Since then, however, I have become convinced that that line of inquiry was not as helpful as it could have been. I had this idea that there was something very complex going on with the abstract-concrete distinction and that I needed to understand a lot of complex dialectical ideas in order to really make sense of what Marx is doing with the concept of abstract labor. And while I do think it is useful to think about the way Marx handles abstractions in various dialectical ways, I now think that coming to terms with his use of ‘abstract’ in the context of ‘abstract labor’ does not require so much extra-reading, as if one needs to read all of Hegel in order to get ‘abstract labor’.

(As an aside, if I could go back and change anything about the way I have pursued my studies of Marx it would be to read less Marxists and more Marx.)

As I mentioned before, I have not been satisfied by my own understanding of the concept of abstract labor. I believe the confusion crept into my mind a long time ago when I read I.I. Rubin’s “Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value.” Rubin questions the idea that abstract labor can refer to physiological aspects of the labor process and instead argues that it is the process of exchanging commodities for money which makes labor abstract, a line of thought that has become known as the ‘value-form’ school. The issue is tricky because one can find passages in Marx like this from chapter one of Capital, “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.” Such a sentence, in the past, led me to think that there was a case for arguing that exchange bestows social qualities (like abstractness?) onto commodities and the labor that creates them.

However, my recent close readings have helped me clarify these issues. I read through relevant passages in the Grundrisse, Critique of Political Economy and Capital. The latter two are ready for posting. I may or may not get around to polishing the Grundrisse notes enough to post (I have not had much time for the blog as of late). My main questions in the readings were these:

What is abstract labor and how does Marx make use of the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’?

How does abstract labor relate to simple labor, universal labor, homogenous labor, general labor and other terms that often appear side by side?

How does abstract labor relate to socially necessary labor time?

How does indirectly social labor realize its sociality and how does this process relate to the category of abstract labor? How is the concept that all labor is abstract related to concept of money as an embodiment of universal general labor that renders private labor social?

As always, I hope that those who have the time to read my posts feel up for posting their thoughts. I always find comments helpful.


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4 Responses to Abstract Labor and reading Marx

  1. Sheldon says:

    Glad to see that you are back and posting. Have you ever took the audio of your videos and put them into a .mp3 format?

  2. Norman Pilon says:

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and venture what is probably an all too precipitous and oversimplifying interpretation of what Marx may perhaps be aiming at with the concept of ‘abstract labor.’ Marx, if I’m not mistaken, borrows most if not all of his analytical categories from classical political economy. “Abstract labor” happens to be one of those categories. How does the capitalist mindset conceive of people employed for the purpose of commodity production and bookkeeping? Quite simply as ‘abstract interchangeable inputs’ and certainly not as concrete individuals in all of their variety or idiosyncratic qualities, desires, aspirations, talents and so on. Men and women and children become in a capitalist universe ‘equivalent interchangeable cogs’ in the machine, whether on the shop floor, so to speak, or in the various administrative ‘slots’ of the bureaucracy overseeing and managing the enterprise’s system of production, everyone being reduced to the function in units of time he is made to assume in the framework of his employment. “Abstract labor” is the capitalist solution not only to micro-managing labor but of ‘quantifying’ its unit cost-price as a commodity. Capitalists think of ‘labor’ and ‘units of labor’ where the reality is, qualitatively speaking, real flesh and blood individuals. I may be mistaken, but to my mind, reading the phrase ‘abstract labour’ in this sense seems to make Marx’s analysis more accessible to me especially if I keep in mind that what Marx is doing is ‘laying bare’ the intricacies, details and far raging implications of the capitalist worldview. If ‘abstract labor’ is both ‘real’ and ‘concrete,’ it is so only in a capitalist context because it is not merely a way of ‘thinking’ about ‘labor,’ but also a real and concrete ‘social relation’ created by and imposed by the capitalist mode of production. The following quote, for example, only makes sense on the presuppositions that inform the unique and peculiar ‘capitalist’ manner of ‘conceiving’ social reality and imposing its version of social relations:

    “The labour . . . that forms the substance of value is homogeneous labour, expenditure of one uniform labour-power. The total labour-power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour-power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour-power of society, and takes effect as such.(I)”

    Marx, here, isn’t in my opinion elaborating his ‘objective’ theoretical perspective on capitalist reality somehow apart from and above that reality, but rather is elaborating the ‘truth’ of capitalism on the basis of its own presuppositions and the ways in which it embodies itself in concrete social relations. To borrow some Freudian lingo, Marx is the analyst, capitalism the analysand, and Marx’s theory about capitalism an explicit rendering of how ‘capitalism’ itself sees and understands the world and thus why it behaves as it does.

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