Abstract Labor- Capital chapter one

Capital Chapter 1

Compared with the Critique of Political Economy, Capital’s opening exposition is much clearer and more powerful, due in large part to the category of ‘intrinsic value’ which Marx introduces. Commodities have an intrinsic value which is expressed in exchange value. Value is different than use-value and exchange value. It is a 3rd thing.

To establish what this 3rd thing is Marx makes some basic but powerful observations. “But clearly, the exchange relation of commodities is characterized precisely by its abstraction from their use-values.” (127) Here “abstraction” refers to a material process as well as a process of eliminating non-essential characteristics to arrive at characteristics/elements that are essential. “If we disregard the use-value of commodities only one property remains, that of being products of labor.” (128) But if we abstract from the use-value of the commodities we must also “abstract from the material constituent and forms which make it a use-value.” In other words, if use-value is inessential to value then so is any aspect of labor which accounts for the specific usefulness of the commodity. (While Marx says “we” must abstract it should be clear that he is still following the actual material logic of commodities themselves and not just performing a mental experiment.) This abstraction “entails the disappearance of the different concrete forms of labor,” leaving us with “labor-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure.” This is abstract labor.

It may be useful to repeat a few points from the above summary just to make it clear what Marx is saying. Abstract labor is “labor-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure.” This means that abstract labor refers to an aspect of actual human labor. “Concrete labor” refers to the aspect of labor which accounts for different use-values. Concrete labor does not refer to all aspects of the material labor process. It only refers to those aspects which account for the heterogeneous use-values of commodities. This seems very clear from the steps in Marx’s method of abstraction here. I point this out because I believe that confusion creeps into conversations about concrete and abstract labor because people (and I myself have been confused on this point) often think that concrete labor refers to all physical aspects of the labor process while abstract labor refers to some loose metaphor for the social nature of labor. It seems clear from a careful reading of these opening paragraphs of Capital that this is not how Marx is using the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete.’


Marx says that exchange-value is the necessary mode of appearance of this value but before getting into this appearance he first finds it important to spend some time investigating “value independent of its form of appearance.” He can do this because value exists outside of its form of appearance. But this existence isn’t an ideal existence. It is a real material existence. It is the abstract labor time that is materialized in commodities. Thus it can be examined on its own without devolving into idealistic philosophical reflection.

After saying that the magnitude of value is determined by the duration of labor time Marx moves onto the category of Socially Necessary Labor Time (SNLT). “However, the labor that forms the substance of value is equal human labor, the expenditure of identical human labor power.” What makes this labor identical is not that everyone works at exactly the same level of productivity. What makes the labor identical is that the labor only counts as social labor, “to the extent that it has the character of a socially average unit of labor.” Marx’s example of the English hand-loom weaver makes this clear. The introduction of power-looms halved the amount of labor time required to make a quantity of fabric. Thus the hand-loom weavers had to sell their product at the new price set by the power-looms even though they could only produce at half the efficiency of the new technology. Only half of their labor counted as social. This is how SNLT makes all labor identical.

Stepping back from the text for a moment, it seems that SNLT introduces a further aspect of capitalist labor in addition to the insights given by abstract labor. Abstract labor explains the commensurability of commodities due to the reduction of all labor to an abstract expenditure of human effort. Since all labors share the same abstract quality, the commodities which serve as the embodiments of this abstract labor all share the same essential substance. SNLT explains how different labor, operating at different levels of productivity, can be treated as identical human labor and thus form the substance of value as an undifferentiated magnitude.

Then comes the section on the ‘Dual Character of Labor Embodied in Commodities’. Marx says that this two-fold nature is “crucial to an understanding of political economy, and requires further elucidation.”

The paragraphs on concrete labor are an expansion upon what Marx has already said earlier in the chapter. To make different use-values we need different types of labors. These heterogeneous labors correspond to the division of labor. The division of labor is not specific to capitalism nor is use-value-creating labor. Use-values cannot confront each other as commodities unless they are different and thus the product of different labors.

Turning to the “homogenous substance” which forms the value of commodities Marx says we must “leave aside the determinate quality of productive activity, and therefor the useful character of labor,” so that what remains is “an expenditure of human energy”.

“Tailoring and weaving, though qualitatively different productive activities, are each a productive expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles, and in this sense are human labour. They are but two different modes of expending human labour power. Of course, this labour power, which remains the same under all its modifications, must have attained a certain pitch of development before it can be expended in a multiplicity of modes. But the value of a commodity represents human labour in the abstract, the expenditure of human labour in general.” (p.134)

As in the CPE there is a very close connection between abstract labor and simple labor, “It is the expenditure of simple labour power, i.e., of the labour power which, on an average, apart from any special development, exists in the organism of every ordinary individual.” (p.135) Here though, unlike the CPE, Marx does not immediately allude to changes in the labor process in capitalism which bring about this deskilling.

This leads to an explanation of the way changes in productivity do not alter the amount of value produced by an hour of labor. Productivity refers to an aspect of concrete labor, the amount of use-values produced in a length of time. But in terms of abstract labor, which abstracts from use-value, an hour of labor is an an hour of labor. This distinction, made possible only by an understanding of the dual-character of labor, yields powerful insights into political economy. It explains, among other things, why unit-values of commodities fall as productivity rises.

Marx concludes, “On the one hand all labour is an expenditure of human labour power, in the physiological sense, and it is in this quality of being equal, or abstract human labour, that it forms the value of commodities. On the other hand, all labour is an expenditure of human labour power in a particular form and with a definite aim, and it is in this quality of being concrete useful labour, that it produces use values.” (p137)

Here Marx clearly identifies abstract labor with the equality of labors. He has already explained what forces create this equality. The reduction of labor to simple labor makes private labors qualitatively the same. Socially Necessary Labor Time treats labors as quantitatively the same. These two forces together allow for an equality of labor so that labor can be considered in its most abstract sense, “an expenditure of human labor power in the physiological sense”. Concrete labor does not refer to all physical aspects of the labor process. It refers to those aspects of labor that account for the unique use-values of commodities.

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Section 3 on “The Form of Value or Exchange-value

Just as the last section discussed the dual nature of labor this section starts by reminding us that commodities have a dual nature: their natural form which corresponds to their use-value, and a social form which corresponds to their value. Since value is social it only appears in the relation between commodities. This form of appearance is the value-form, or money-form. Marx will show that the money form is only a developed form of the commodity-commodity relation, thus firmly situating the value-form, and thus the theory of money, within the theory of the commodity. The invisible opponents here are Proudhon and his followers like Darimon who sought to alleviate the social ills of capitalism by getting rid of money without getting rid of commodity production. By establishing the necessity of the money-form to commodity production Marx shows the silliness of the entire Proudhonian conception.

Passages like this make is sound as if the process of equating two commodities is also the process which carries out the reduction of labor to abstract labor:

“But the act of equating tailoring with weaving reduces the former in fact to what is really equal in the two kinds of labour, to the characteristic they have in common of being human labour. This is a roundabout way of saying that weaving too, in so far as it weaves value, has nothing to distinguish it from tailoring, and, consequently, is abstract human labour. It is only the expression of equivalence between different sorts of commodities which brings to view the specific character of value-creating labor, by actually reducing the different kinds of labour embedded in the different kinds of commodities to their common quality of vein human labor in general.” (p.142)
But I suspect that Marx is not actually claiming that the act of exchange is what makes weaving and tailoring abstract expenditures of human labor in general. Instead I believe his focus in this passage, as it is for most of this section of chapter 1, is on how things appear in exchange, what the value-form expresses. He is saying that when we look at the value-form, the equating of two commodities in the market, then their common substance is revealed, a common substance which requires that we abstract away from concrete labor. The expression of equivalence “brings to view” this abstraction. Perhaps, if Marx had been writing Capital knowing of the ways in which ‘value-form’ theorists would cast his theory of abstract labor he might have chosen his words more carefully! Yes we make this abstraction with our minds. But this mental abstraction is made possible by by the material reality that labors are already considered abstract in production by capital.
The next page, I believe, helps to clearly situate what is going on.
“We see, then, that everything our analysis of the value of commodities previously told us is repeated by the linen itself, as soon as it enters into association with another commodity, the coat. Only it reveals its thoughts in a language with which it alone is familiar, the language of commodities. In order to tell us that labour creates its own value in its abstract quality of being human labour, it says that the coat, in so far as it counts as its equal, i.e., is value, consists of the same labour as it does itself.”
This seems to clearly state that what Marx has previously established about abstract labor is merely being ‘revealed’ and ‘expressed’ in the process of equating two commodities. ‘Being abstract labour’ is a quality of labor which can only be expressed by commodities when one commodity stands for the equivalent of another.
Despite the complexities of the value-form which Marx explores in detail in this section, these opening observations pretty much sum-up the basic relation of abstract labor to the value-form.
The concrete/abstract theme returns when Marx comes to the peculiarities of the equivalent form of value where “concrete labor becomes the form of manifestation of its opposite, abstract human labor.” (150) Both linen and coat are only values because they are embodiments of abstract human labor. When the use-value of the coat is used to measure the value of the linen then this also means that the concrete labor which creates the use-value of the coat, tailoring, serves as the “expression of abstract human labor.” (150) Again, this line of thought explores the way in which abstract labor reveals itself, or is expressed, in the value-form. Marx clearly holds that the abstract nature of the labor contained in the coat and the linen is already abstract before they enter into the relative-equivalent expression: “Both therefore possess the general property of being human labor, and they therefore have to be considered in certain cases, such as the production of value, solely from this point of view. There is nothing mysterious in this.” (150)
The following bit about Aristotle further establishes that Marx is talking here about the expression of abstract labor in the value-form, and the way this expression leads to certain mental conceptions about the world. More importantly, it shows that abstract labor, as a category, cannot exist without the capitalist mode of production, despite the existence of commodity exchange in ancient Greek society. Because Aristotle’s society was based on an inequality of labor it was not possible for a concept of intrinsic value, based on abstract human labor, to exist. But if it was merely the exchange of commodities that rendered labor abstract then Aristotle should have had no problem solving the riddle of the commensurability of commodities.
This also clarifies Marx’s intention in relation to the claim by Rubin and others that a “physiological” definition of abstract labor, that is, one that defines abstract labor in relation to certain physiological characteristics of work, necessarily leads to an ahistorical conception of abstract labor. Of course, all human labor, throughout history, is, in some sense, “a certain productive expenditure of muscles, nerves, brain, etc.” But it is only in capitalist society where this aspect of labor is value producing, and in which this abstract aspect produces certain mental conceptions about the equality of labor and the equality of people.
In discussing the expanded relative form of value Marx notes “It becomes plain, that it is not the exchange of commodities which regulates the magnitude of their value; but, on the contrary, that it is the magnitude of their value which controls their exchange proportions.”(156) Since abstract labor is the substance of value and since value is what “controls” the exchange ratios of commodities, it would not make sense to posit that it is exchange which makes labor abstract.
When Marx finally gets to the ‘general form of value’ we see where this was all headed. It must be stressed that the entire point of the argument is to show how it is that one commodity comes to be the expression of human labor in general, of abstract labor. When, as in the simple or accidental form of value, the linen expresses its value in the coat, the value of the linen is expressed in the use-value of the coat. In the expanded form of value the value of the linen is expressed in the use-value of whatever commodity it exchanges for. In both cases the value of the linen seems to be expressed in only a specific use-value, and thus to be expressed via the specific concrete labor that went into the equivalent. It is only in the ‘general form of value’, when all commodities express their value in one commodity, that one commodity takes on the ability to express ‘human labor in general’. But this does not mean that general form of value is what creates human labor in general.
“It thus becomes evident that because the objectivity of commodities as values is the purely ‘social existence’ of these things, if can only be expressed through the whole range of their social relations; consequently the form of their value must possess social validity.” (p.159)
Again, Marx’s goal is to counter the Proudhonian conception of money as the root of so many social ills by showing that money is just an inevitable product of the commodity form. Money’s function is to express abstract labor in a “general social form”. The labor that makes the general equivalent (linen) is converted into “the general form of appearance of undifferentiated human labor.” The wording here is very precise. Establishing linen as the general equivalent does not convert concrete to abstract labor. Instead what is happening is that the private labor of the weaver becomes the “general form of appearance of undifferentiated human labor”. This is all about appearance, about expression.
“In this manner the labour objectified in the values of commodities is presented not just presented negatively, as labor in which abstraction is made from all the concrete forms and useful property of actual work. Its own positive nature is explicitly brought out, namely that it is the reduction of all kinds of actual labour to their common character of being human labour in general, of being the expenditure of human labour power.” (159-160)
We must pay careful attention to the wording. Marx is writing about “bringing out” and “presenting” the positive nature of this labor. These abstract qualities already exist. The general form of value is just allowing us to see them.
4. Fetishism
Toward the beginning of the fetishism section, in enumerating the unique qualities of the commodity form  Marx says “The equality of all kinds of human labour takes on a physical form in the equal objectivity of the product of labor as values.” (164) Again, human labor is qualitatively equal (in a capitalist society) and this labor takes the form of commodities which share the same value substance.
The unique aspect of commodity fetishism is that the social relations between producers are taken for objective relations between things. Commodities have two ‘objectivities’. They are material objects with concrete use-values and they are “socially uniform objectivity as values”.(166) This dual nature of the commodity is a reflection of the dual nature of labor, which takes place historically, “only when exchange has already acquired a sufficient extension and importance to allow useful things to be produced for the purpose of being exchanged, so that their character as values has already to be taken into consideration during production.”(166) Only when production is production for exchange does labor have this “two-fold social character”.
“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.” (166) In the past this sentence has seemed, to me, as if it suggests, contrary to what I have argued here, that exchange is bestowing value on commodities, and/or making labor abstract. However, after the preceding close reading of Section 3 on the Value Form it now becomes clear to me that this sentence is referring to the need for a commodity to express its value in an equivalent, to acquire a socially recognized form of expression distinct from its own physical body. The general equivalent is this “socially uniform objectivity” which expresses the pre-existing value of the commodity in an objective form.

This, I believe sums up most of the relevant material from Chapter 1 as it relates to abstract labor. I have found this useful in making sense of the Critique of Political Economy and the Grundrisse, where in the past it seemed to me as if there coexisted two different lines of thought as to the relation of concrete to abstract labor. It seems clearer, after a closer re-reading of Chapt 1 of Capital, that the explorations of the general equivalent in the CPE and Grundrisse were not meant to make a claim that the exchange of commodities for money was what made labor abstract, or created value. Rather, the analysis of the value form is meant to explain how the pre-existing value of commodities is necessarily expressed in a use-value independent of the commodity, a use-value which is the socially recognized embodiment of general human labor.

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40 Responses to Abstract Labor- Capital chapter one

  1. Norman Pilon says:

    Hi, Brendan

    I’ve responded to your conclusion in a post I’ve title: Reading Marx: Yammering it up with ‘Brendan’ by myself on “abstract labour” and the “value relation”

    You can — only if you have the time and want to of course — read it here: http://normanpilon.com/2015/03/03/reading-marx-yammering-it-up-with-brendan-by-myself-on-abstract-labour-and-the-value-relation/

    If you find you do have the time and care to respond, just post your response here. For I’ve disabled comments on my blog simply because I don’t have the time or even the inclination to moderate. The trolls can just go f**k themselves.

    I refrained from posting my comments here simply out of courtesy. Yes, as long as other comments I’ve left behind.

    Of course, if you want me to append your reply to my post, I will most certainly do that.

    Best regards

    • Norman,

      Sorry to have not gotten around to replying to your previous comments. I appreciate your thoughtful responses. I am responding here to your blog post.

      I think there are a few points of disagreement in how we understand Marx on both AL and the value form.

      1. If I understand you correctly you think that when Marx is talking about AL he is talking about mental conceptions of labor which abstract from the concrete qualities of labor. I do not think Marx is talking about mental conceptions at all, or if he is, only peripherally as they are the result of a real material abstraction. I think the textual support for this interpretation is pretty solid. He begins asking what can be the substance that is intrinsic value and concludes that this must be objectified labor time. Then he asks how heterogenous labors can make a uniform value substance and concludes that abstract labor is the answer to this. He clearly defines AL as a material activity. “This abstraction of human labor in general virtually exists in the average labor which the average individual of a given society can perform-a certain productive expenditure of human muscle, nerve, brain, etc.” This definition is pretty consistent through the Grundrisse, the Critique and Capital. Furthermore, this process, as I believe you yourself quoted in a comment, takes place “behind the backs of the producers”, which I think pretty clearly shows that Marx is talking about a material process that happens regardless of whatever mental conceptions people might have about value. Certainly there are a lot of mental conceptions about value and labor but these varying conceptions change nothing about the functioning of the law of value.

      2. The value-form is a matter of the expression of value. From your blog post I get the impression that you are conflating the expression of value with the forces which either create value or bestow certain properties on value like the homogeneity of the value substance. However, the fact that money expresses the value of commodity A, does not mean that money creates the value of commodity A or that money makes the labor that went in to commodity A abstract post festum. This is why Marx very deliberately arranges the argument in chapter one of Capital so that he talks about first intrinsic value, then the dual nature of labor, and then the value form (the expression of value.. the form value takes when it is expressed as exchange value.) He says that we must understand value and abstract labor prior to exploring how it is expressed in exchange in the value form. This means that value has an existence apart from exchange and that abstract labor has an existence apart from exchange. I actually think this is one of, or the, main argument in chapter one of capital. Marx wants to critique Proudhon by showing that money is nothing special. the money-form of value is no different than any other expression of value between two commodities. And this value expression is the expression of a more fundamental relation of production, not just an expression between things.

      • Norman Pilon says:

        Hey, Brendan,

        Thank you for the reply. And yes, we each have two very different readings of Marx, which is to be expected: every reader comes to any ‘text’ with a different set of contextualizing assumptions and, unfortunately, we are to a high degree the prisoners of our inculcated and personal idiosyncratic cognitive categories. That is as it should be and I have personally profited a great deal already from wrestling with what I take to be your reading and what is emerging in my own mind as my reading. That isn’t to say that there isn’t an ‘objective’ meaning to what Marx is writing and that all readings, on account of the subjective and intruding elements inherent to any reader’s attempts at exegesis, are equal: some interpretations will be more adequate than others. I also want to emphasize that I do not take my reading to be in any sense more adequate than your own, but as with anyone who must make an honest effort to think things through for himself, I will take away what to mind, rightly or wrongly, seems to add up more adequately. So I am aware that I may be misreading Marx and for the reasons you set forth.

        Having gotten the possible reasons for our divergent readings out of the way, I want to speak to the two points that you raise here. But first, so that you don’t miss it, a very revealing quote from my copy of “Capital” (Vintage Books Edition, August 1977) an important footnote ((18) on p.142.) by Marx himself (and since I can’t ‘bold’ or ‘underline’ anything for emphasis, I’ll use two plus signs ++before and after++ what I mean to emphasize):

        “One of the first economists, after Willian Petty, to have seen through the nature of value, the famous Franklin, says this: ‘Trade in general being nothing else but the exchange of labour for labour, the value of all things is …most justly measured by labour’ (The Works of B. Franklin etc., edited by Sparks, Boston, 1836, Vol. 2, p. 267) Franklin is not aware that in measuring the value of everything ‘in labour’ he makes the abstraction from any difference in the kinds of labour exchanged – and thus [he, Franklin, in his head] reduces them all to equal human labour. Yet he states this without knowing it. He speaks first of ‘the one labour,’ then of ‘the other labour’, and finally of ‘labour’, without further qualification, as the substance of the value of everything. [Franklin, too, is confusing ‘conceptual categories,’ as Marx is clearly stating, here.]”

        This as not a negligible piece of textual evidence for my reading of Marx. And he is saying in words that are difficult to read in any other way that A. Franklin is guilty, without being aware of it, of ++ ‘reducing’ all forms of labour to equal human labour, an ‘abstraction’ that he is unwittingly committing.++

        As textual evidence that by the expression ‘abstract labour’ Marx is referring to a ‘real’ situation outside our heads, so to speak, and not so much to ‘a way of regarding labour,’ you quote the following: “This abstraction of human labor in general virtually exists in the average labor which the average individual of a given society can perform-a certain productive expenditure of human muscle, nerve, brain, etc.” And yes, its true, Marx does make many allusions in different places to the abstraction of human labour as ‘virtually’ existing in the manifestation of an average level of ability among the people who comprise any society whatever. But I think that he makes that allusion to show to his reader that the idea of ‘abstract labour’ is not something pulled out of the air. There is a ‘rationale’ for it and one that is ‘common sense’ in capitalist milieu, namely the observation that, indeed, people can and do point to skill sets that are average for any given community. Marx, I put it to myself, is writing a book for fellow citizens who do not recognize in themselves their cultural aptitude for regarding ‘labour’ as being something that they think about in abstract terms. Consider, for example, this note of clarification by Engels (on P.138. of my edition of ‘Capital’ (V.B.,August 1977)) to a footnote by Marx (in which Adam Smith’s anonymous predecessor is quoted as saying about ‘labour and time,’ “one man’s labour in one thing for a time certain, for another man’s labour in another thing for the same time)(I will interpolate my comments in the quote):’

        “The English language has the advantage of possessing two separate words for these two different aspects of labour [i.e. the ‘double’ nature of ‘labour-power’ to which Marx wants to draw attention and which he can point to as being a ‘cultural given’ in capitalist culture, but a ‘given’ that goes unnoticed – viz. to paraphrase Marx, ‘I was the first among economists to point to this double nature of ‘labour-power.’] Labour which creates use-values and is qualitatively determined is called ‘work’ as opposed to ‘labour’; labour which creates value and is only measured quantitatively is called ‘labour,’ as opposed to ‘work.’ [i.e., a distinction is being made, and it is a culturally alive distinction for otherwise there would not be two words underpinning two different referents; and it is the distinction that Marx wants to emphasizes since he quotes Adam Smith’s anonymous predecessor to rebut and rebuke Smith’s failure to attend to this distinction. Of the anonymous predecessor, Marx says, he “…is much nearer the mark when he says” (what I’ve already quoted above).”p.138.

        I will, for now, end this comment here and pick up tomorrow when I have time.

        I hope that you can see that there are good and solid reasons for me to read Marx as I do, at least for the time being.

        And I sincerely appreciate the conversation. That is the only way that we can possibly learn even if in the end participants go away with different ideas. At the very least, I’m reading more attentively than I probably otherwise would be.

        Kind Regards,

      • Norman,

        There are mental conceptions of the world. These mental conceptions are a reflection of actual material processes/actual social relations. Sometimes they are inaccurate, unconscious, partial or fetishized conceptions. Sometimes they are the result of science and thus accurately depict real social processes. I agree that Marx wants to critique the partial and fetishistic conceptions of bourgeois theory, updating them with more scientific concepts. At the same time he wants to locate the source of their misconceptions in real material forces, the inverted social relations of commodity fetishism. But at the same time he is referring to real social relations and real material processes in his science and his critique. I think this is the point of the Aristotle argument in Chapter One of Capital- Aristotle couldn’t arrive at a value theory because he didn’t live in a society with a material foundation of abstractly equal labors.

        Thus abstract labor is a real thing. It is not just an idea. But just like “hammer” is a real thing that we have a word for so too “abstract labor” is a real thing that Marx has a word for. The difference being that a hammer is a very obvious thing and doesn’t require science to understand while abstract labor is more complicated, the result of particular social processes that we are not necessarily aware of. The concept may exist in some unconscious fashion in the thought of some bourgeois thinkers, it also may not exist for all thinkers… marginal utility theory for instance would reject the entire framework of a value theory and, I suspect, deny that labor could have any homogenous substance. However, the absence of the concept in some schools of thought doesn’t stop abstract labor from being a real material thing.

  2. Norman Pilon says:

    Hi Brendan,

    Part 2, so to speak, of “comparing notes with you” is up if probably in a rough form, but we only have so much time to invest in anything. Here is the link — again, only if you have time and care to read it (I don’t expect you to give this any more energy than it deserves or that you feel you want to invest into it; so if this becomes too much of chore, don’t think that I will be offended in any way should you decide to shelve this): http://normanpilon.com/2015/03/04/reading-marx-part-2-of-comparing-more-notes-with-brendan-on-the-meaning-of-abstract-labour/

    Thank you for another reply. At fist blush, there isn’t anything there with which to take issue. But I’m pressed for time just now. I’ll be back and respond if I feel I really need to.

    Many thanks Brendan for your feedback. Much appreciated.


    • Norman,

      First, to be clear. Are you arguing that AL does not refer to a material aspect of labor? Are you saying that MArx is only referring to an idea about labor and that this idea does not point to/describe a real aspect of labor?

      Secondly, I do not read the 1st passage you quote in the same way. For one, I do not think Marx exclusively uses the term “form of appearance” to refer to a “cultural construct” as you put it. For instance, the form of appearance of value is exchange value. But exchange value is much more than just a cultural construct, at least in the sense that I understand you to be using the term to refer to ideas as opposed to material relations. Exchange value is a relation between commodities and the result of a specific form of production. I think that makes it more than a “cultural construct”, at least in the common use of the term “cultural construct.”

      I do not read the sentence about ‘different historical epochs’ the same way you do. I do not think Marx is arguing that AL exists in all historical epochs in some ideal form. I think that here he is referring to the fact that what constitutes simple labor changes from one capitalist society to the next, form one century to another. The simple labor of 19th century capitalist England is different than the simple labor of 20th century China. They involve different skill sets. But because both are capitalist labor they both are characterized by an abstraction from concrete labor because capital doesn’t care about concrete labor.

      This is all made very clear in the famous AL passage from the Grundrise:

      “The last point to which attention is still to be drawn in the relation of labour to capital is this, that as the use value which confronts money posited as capital, labour is not this or another labour, but labour pure and simple, abstract labour; absolutely indifferent to its particular specificity [Bestimmtheit], but capable of all specificities. Of course, the particularity of labour must correspond to the particular substance of which a given capital consists; but since capital as such is indifferent to every particularity of its substance, and exists not only as the totality of the same but also as the abstraction from all its particularities, the labour which confronts it likewise subjectively has the same totality and abstraction in itself. For example, in guild and craft labour, where capital itself still has a limited form, and is still entirely immersed in a particular substance, hence is not yet capital as such, labour, too, appears as still immersed in its particular specificity: not in the totality and abstraction of labour as such, in which it confronts capital. That is to say that labour is of course in each single case a specific labour, but capital can come into relation with every specific labour; it confronts the totality of all labours δυνχμει [4] and the particular one it confronts at a given time is an accidental matter. On the other side, the worker himself is absolutely indifferent to the specificity of his labour; it has no interest for him as such, but only in as much as it is in fact labour and, as such, a use value for capital. It is therefore his economic character that he is the carrier of labour as such—i.e. of labour as use value for capital; he is a worker, in opposition to the capitalist. This is not the character of the craftsmen and guild-members etc., whose economic character lies precisely in the specificity of their labour and in their relation to a specific master, etc. This economic relation—the character which capitalist and worker have as the extremes of a single relation of production—therefore develops more purely and adequately in proportion as labour loses all the characteristics of art; as its particular skill becomes something more and more abstract and irrelevant, and as it becomes more and more a purely abstract activity, a purely mechanical activity, hence indifferent to its particular form; a merely formal activity, or, what is the same, a merely material [stofflich] activity, activity pure and simple, regardless of its form. Here it can be seen once again that the particular specificity of the relation of production, of the category—here, capital and labour—becomes real only with the development of a particular material mode of production and of a particular stage in the development of the industrial productive forces. (This point in general to be particularly developed in connection with this relation, later; since it is here already posited in the relation itself, while, in the case of the abstract concepts, exchange value, circulation, money, it still lies more in our subjective reflection.)”
      I think this very clearly relates AL to a type of activity and to the capitalist mode of production.
      In regard to value-form, I think you are entirely wrong when you say, “First, the value-form is not in and of itself a matter of the expression of value although inseparable from it.”
      But this is precisely what the form of value is. The value-form is the form value takes when it appears in relation to other commodities. Value has an independent existence outside of this value-form and this is the intrinsic value of commodities, the SNLT AL they represent.
      You writ that I have mischaracterized your argument. This could very well be and I ask for your clarification. From your previous post, “Yammring”, I take it that your argument is something like this: 1. AL is a cultural construct that Marx is seeking to locate within a specific material relation. 2. This relation is the value-form where money serves as the equivalent for the abstract value substance of all commodities. 3. This equating of commodities to money is what creates the cultural construct of AL. Please correct me if I am misreading your posts.
      In what sense can “value” have an existence apart from exchange if it is the “form” of “exchange-value?” The best way to answer this question, and I apologize for sounding snarky is to reread chapter one of Capital as this is exactly what Marx does. Take for instance this passage from the 1st edition of Capital: “―Now we know the substance of value. It is labour. We know the measure of its magnitude. It is labour time. The form, which stamps value as exchange-value, remains to be analysed. But before this we need to develop the characteristics we have already found somewhat more fully.” So labor is the substance of value and this clearly exists prior to and aside from exchange. But this value can only appear in exchange. But before even examining exchange Marx finds it crucial to examine the 2-fold nature of labor first. This, I believe, shows that he is prioritizing AL and its relation to intrinsic value over the expression of those material relations.

      To answer your question, “Why do you think Marx spends so much time emphasizing  and elaborating and reiterating the “form” of the “value-relation”?” I think Marx is doing this in order to very clearly show that the money form is directly related to the commodity form. And this is specifically aimed at critiquing Proudhon. In other words, he is doing this to show that the money form is, in many ways, NOT that special, that it is just an extension of the basic form of value, and that furthermore the form of value is just a mode of expressing a deeper relation, that between labors, not just an empty abstract relation between objects. And thus he is able to show the fallacy of the Proudhonian critique of money. He is not, in my reading, doing it to claim that the money form bestows abstraction upon commodities or labor.

      • Norman Pilon says:

        Hi Brendan

        I will take your advice and re-read what you suggest I should and in the manner that you would have me read it in so far as I am able to do that. For I’m not 100% certain that I’m reading Marx as he should be read. Far from it. And the points you raise appear to be valid. So give me a few days to try and more thoroughly assimilate what I think you are saying and then to go and cover the ground again on that basis. If more than a few days pass without you hearing anything from me, it won’t be because I’m not working at this, but trying to sort it out. Maybe sometime next week I’ll be back with an entirely new perspective and one more congruent with your viewpoint. If not, it won’t be for want of trying.

        As for snarky, I didn’t notice. And if I come off that way now and again in print, it was not intended.

        So again, thank you for replying and the heap of time you’ve put into this exchange already.


  3. Norman Pilon says:

    Hi Brendan,

    No, I’m not ready yet to add anything in detail and at length or to respond to anything. I only wanted to say that I think I begin to discern what it is we have hung up on: it’s not a matter of “either / or” but of “also / and.” Their is grist in the textual evidence for both points of emphasis that you and I make, and these are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Anyway, back to musing and reading in the middle of other things.

  4. Norman Pilon says:

    Hi Brendan,

    I’ll begin to respond to your last comment but I do so tentatively. I’m still acclimating to your point of view and trying to re-read Marx in light of that attempted acclimation. If I offer some responses now, it’s just that I’m re-reading your last comment and feel the impulse to begin to reply, but as I suspect my original perspective still dominates me, I’ll be replying mostly from that particular angle – still and at least for now.

    You ask and you write:

    “First, to be clear. Are you arguing that AL does not refer to a material aspect of labor? Are you saying that MArx is only referring to an idea about labor and that this idea does not point to/describe a real aspect of labor?”

    Secondly, I do not read the 1st passage you quote in the same way. For one, I do not think Marx exclusively uses the term “form of appearance” to refer to a “cultural construct” as you put it. For instance, the form of appearance of value is exchange value. But exchange value is much more than just a cultural construct, at least in the sense that I understand you to be using the term to refer to ideas as opposed to material relations. Exchange value is a relation between commodities and the result of a specific form of production. I think that makes it more than a “cultural construct”, at least in the common use of the term “cultural construct.”

    To my mind, ‘abstract labour’ is ‘real’ and refers to a material aspect of labor. But this ‘material aspect of labor’ and ‘reality’ must be carefully qualified. There is a sense in which ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’ or ‘customary ways of behaving and thinking’ – (which refers to the entire array of ‘social relations’ that are imbedded in and are a manifestation of the ‘customs’ or ‘culture’ or ‘traditions’ or various ‘institutions’ of actual social practices which really ‘exist’ with a kind of inertia of their own that is quite independent of any one individual or even groups of individuals) – is/are a ‘material force’ in the world. No one person or groups of people are entirely responsible for creating the widespread and established (if in flux) ‘social relations’ imbedded in the various social ‘practices’ that comprise their society and the body their inherited practices. One inherits one’s culture as a child and to the degree that one continues to uncritically (unreflectively and thus unconsciously) adhere to practices and attitudes and beliefs which are widespread and for which no one individual is personally responsible. So these ‘cultural constructs’ do ‘exist’ and are ‘real.’ People are conditioned by their cultural context: their brains are populated, as a result of education and coercive pressures to conform, by ‘reflexes’ that are ‘cultural’ in nature and therefore ‘cultural constructs.’ What explains what people do while they are at work if not a part of their socially conditioned cognitive reflexes? Is it possible to speak of the ‘material processes of production’ without implying a realm of cultural conditioning (cultural constructs) that superintends physically observable human behavior even if the superintending is ‘reflexive’ and therefore to that degree unconscious and ‘material’? There is a sense in which we are unconscious cultural automatons, and this unconsciousness, this not being entirely aware of what we do and why we do it, is a ‘material’ force in the world and a very important part the ‘material production process.’ So what I have been saying that Marx has been saying on the basis of very important textual clues and evidence, is that “abstract Labour” is one of those ‘unconscious cultural constructs’ that are a ‘material force’ in our lives. If capitalism, in its (unconscious) cultural dimension did not ‘regard’ the work that people do in a twofold fashion, if there were not, as Engels points out on Marx’s behalf, two words for what people do for a living, two conceptual categories, there would not be ‘labor’ for exchange but only ‘labor’ that creates use-values. What is in part the cure to the exploitation that is capitalism? It is to arise at the level of culture to the insight that ‘labour’ is in reality always ‘concrete and particular,’ no matter how simple or complex it may be in its particulars, and that it is never in ‘reality’ an ‘abstract thing,’ which is the way it is both regarded and handled in a capitalist world. So ‘abstract labour’ is real: as a ‘culturally inherited’ conceptual category and as a way of ‘treating’ labour in practice on the basis of that ‘unconscious cognitive reflex’ which as such is part of our ‘material social reality.’ In other words, ‘materiality’ or ‘material reality’ is whatever exists outside of conscious intentionality and constrains that conscious intent within limits that may thwart that intent. Culture is as much ‘material’ as it is a set of ‘ideational constructs:’ social relations exist outside my head, but also inside my head as reflexes that drive and determine how I behave, a behavior that reproduces the content of the social relations. It is in this sense that ‘abstract labour’ is a real material force in capitalist society. Destroy capitalist society and the social ‘reality’ of ‘abstract labour’ will equally be extinguished, both as a ‘social fact’ and the ‘conceptual category’ underpinning or superintending that fact.

    I hope that clarifies my take on the ontological status of “abstract labour” as such.

    But you’re busy and I’m busy, so I’ll leave it at that for today . . .

    Best regards,


  5. Norman Pilon says:

    Hi Brendan,

    If I understand you correctly and to quote myself in something that I already wrote about what I take to be your standpoint on what Marx intends by the expression “abstract labour:” “the capitalist production process has a tendency to ‘simplify’ or ‘deskill’ the tasks of labor and therefore to create a situation in which labor increasingly becomes a sort of embodied (simplified) abstraction.” Or in other words, the phrase, as Marx intends it to be understood and read, “abstract labour,” this expression points to, in the rationalizing tendency of capitalist production, to a tendency to continuously re-organize production in such a way as to increasingly minimize the employment of “skilled labour” by substituting in its place “unskilled labour.”

    Do let me know if I misread you.

    I decided to – alongside my personal reading of Marx – query the published texts of other readers to determine whether ‘my take’ isn’t a mere projection on my part or whether it does not find a footing in Marx’s exposition itself in light of what other completely independent readers are also able to see, read, and understand. I am not alone.

    Consider, for example, this excerpt from I. I. Rubin (to whom you attribute an influence over your original take on “abstract labour” but a take that you now seem to be disavowing. I only read this piece by Rubin this morning, so I know that he has had no influence whatsoever on my reading. Comparing my opinion to his, I find a very striking consonance. And if Rubin came to a view similar to mine based on a reading completely separate from my own, and conversely, I take it that there must be something in Marx’s exposition that we are reading and that appears to be ‘in fact’ there):

    (Beginning of Rubin quote:)

    […] I should like to come back to Franklin. Marx says: “But since he does not explain that the labour contained in exchange value is abstract universal social labour, which is brought about by the universal alienation of individual labour …” etc. (Critique p.56). Franklin’s main mistake consequently was that he disregarded the fact that abstract labour arises from the alienation of individual labour.

    This is not a question of an isolated comment by Marx. We will show that in the later editions of ‘Capital’, Marx increasingly stressed the idea that in commodity production only exchange reduces concrete labour to abstract labour.

    To return to our earlier comments: “Hence when we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever, by an exchange we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them.” (Capital I p.74).

    In the first edition of ‘Capital’ this sentence had a completely opposite meaning. Marx wrote: “When we bring our products into relation with each other as values to the extent that we see these articles only asmaterial receptacles of homogenous human labour …” etc. (p.242).

    In the second edition Marx altered the sense of this sentence completely, fearing that he would be understood to mean that we consciously assimilate our labour as abstract labour in advance, and he emphasised the aspect that the equation of labour as abstract labour only occurs through the exchange of the products of labour. This is a significant change between the first edition and the second. As you will know, Marx did not confine himself to the second edition of the first volume of ‘Capital’. He corrected the text subsequently for the French edition of 1875, and wrote that he was making corrections which he was not able to make in the second German edition. On this basis he assigned to the French edition of ‘Capital’, an independent scientific value equal to the German original. (cf. Capital I p.22).

    In the second edition of ‘Capital’, we find the famous phrase:

    “The equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract” (cf. Kapital p.87).

    In the French edition Marx replaces the full stop at the end of this sentence with a comma and adds “… and only exchange produces this reduction, by bringing the products of the most diverse kinds of labour into relation with each other on an equal footing” (Le Capital I p.70).

    This insertion is highly indicative and shows clearly how far removed Marx was from the physiological conception of abstract labour. How can we reconcile these observations by Marx, of which there are dozens, with the basic thesis that value is created in production?
    (Source: https://www.marxists.org/archive/rubin/abstract-labour.htm)

    (end of Rubin quote)


    • Norman,

      I am replying, briefly to both of your last comments here.

      1. In regard to AL being a ‘cultural construct’. I think we both agree that AL, value, capital and other categories are the product of capitalist societies and that they do not have an independent existence outside of the social organization of production. However I think your ‘cultural construct’ definition, at least as you have put it in the preceding comment, leaves us in danger of putting AL, value, capital and other categories of production at the same level of abstraction as any other product of culture from language to gender to family relations to food. Jesus is a cultural construct. So is ‘Chinese food’ and rock-and-roll. In a very basic way, yes production relations are the product of human society in the same way that all other aspects of society are, by definition. But then we are just saying something rather obvious and basic and not really getting to the important thing about the categories of production. If, for example, you turn to the 1st paragraph of chapter 2 of Capital, Marx argues there that production relations have a categorical importance over other aspects of human social relations, at least when it comes to explaining certain things about human society, things like value, etc. In that paragraph he argues that juridical relations flow from productive relations rather than the other way around (again the target is Proudhon).

      2. In regards to the Rubin quote… I don’t think that Rubin argues that AL is a ‘cultural construct’ or that it exists only in the mind. He argues that labor is rendered abstract by the process of equalizing commodities in exchange, what has become known as the ‘value-form’ approach. If you are also arguing for a value-form approach than, yes, Rubin would agree with you. As I said before, I do not agree with Rubin and I regret that I relied on his interpretation rather than reading Marx more closely first. Somewhere in his chapter on AL I seem to remember Rubin conceding that his take on AL is often contradicted by Marx’s actual statements, and thus he has to scramble to reinterpret or side-step Marx’s actual text which clearly identifies AL with a physiological conception. Rubin’s mistake is to conflate a physiological conception of AL with the idea that AL is trans-historical. However, if we, for instance, take the quote from the Grundrisse that I mentioned before, we can see that Marx thinks that this physiological abstraction only happens when labor power confronts capital as a commodity.

      Ah! Here is the quote from Rubin: “Neither the former nor the latter notice that the simplified conception of abstract labor (which was presented above), at first glance based on a literal interpretation of Marx’s words, cannot in any way be made consistent with the entirety of Marx’s theory of value, not with a series of individual passages in Capital.” (Essays in Marx’s Theory of Value: Abstract Labor) In other words, taking Marx in his own words would invalidate Rubin’s interpretation and so Rubin must create an elaborate and convoluted work-around.

      3. Answering your question as to how I would characterize AL. To abstract is to identify an essential element of a class of things, something which remains the same despite concrete differences. An abstraction can, in many cases, refer to a real aspect of things. Labor in previous societies was primarily considered/treated in its concrete form. This corresponded to a caste system where people were identified with specific types of work and there was little mobility between occupations. In a capitalist society all that matters is that workers produce value in general. Capital has no care for the specific use-values created by work. In addition the worker is divorced from her means of production and therefore is not tied to any particular type of work. Also, the race to lower socially necessary labor time creates a tendency to simplify work, erasing the skilled labor that serves as a barrier to entry between types of work. These social forces all lead to a society in which work is just work, plain and simple. Work is just an abstract expenditure of energy. All that counts for capital is that work is done at the SNLT. Thus even though work is always concrete it is also abstract. Of course, at any stage of human history we could mentally form this abstraction… we could point out that feudal knights and serfs both performed and expenditure of energy. But this would only be a mental abstraction. In a capitalist society this abstraction becomes a defining essence of labor.

      This is very different from Rubin’s definition. Partly this comes from the fact that Soviet labor was still abstract labor, that workers were forced to produce at the SNLT and to produce value. Hence Rubin’s definition of AL is one based purely on the exchange of commodities in the market, rather than on the realities of production. Hence, for Rubin’s definition, to replace the market with a plan gets rid of AL… in a simple formulaic way.

      • Norman Pilon says:

        Hi Brendan,

        Based on a quick read of what you write, here, I don’t see anything with which to quibble. Perhaps things are shifting in my head or I haven’t adequately expressed my meaning. It’s probably both. At the moment I don’t see very much distance between what you write, here, and the general gist of what I think I’m getting from my reading. Anyway, it’s back to writing a piece that once done will probably better disclose to you how far apart or close my point of view is to yours. I don’t expect that there will be points of perfect congruence all the way down the line, but surely some things will resonate.

      • Norman Pilon says:

        Hi Brendan,
        You write:
        “In a very basic way, yes production relations are the product of human society in the same way that all other aspects of society are, by definition. But then we are just saying something rather obvious and basic and not really getting to the important thing about the categories of production.”

        But that is in part the point, is it not, that it is not quite as ‘obvious’ as you make it out to be. In critiquing, for example, Proudhon or B. Franklin, Marx is underscoring that these men are the “unconscious prisoners” – to borrow an expression from Louis Althusser – of their bourgeois ideology. Indeed, most of the people who live under the ‘rule’ of Capitalism are the unconscious prisoners of Capitalism, and that is the larger part of the difficulty of finding a way forward for society as a whole. If a person can read Marx and not ‘notice’ how ‘ideas,’ how our cultural constructs “determine” our lives ‘behind our backs,’ so to speak, that person is missing what is probably one of the most incisive and profound insights that Marx ever came to. And it is an insight that is at work on every page that I have so far read in Capital. But the ‘obvious’ sometimes does go unnoticed in terms of its crucial import.

        To quote Althusser again,

        “Two sorts of readers confront Capital: those who have direct experience of capitalist exploitation (above all the proletarians or wage-labourers in direct production, but also, with nuances according to their place in the production system, the non-proletarian wage-labourers); and those who have no direct experience of capitalist exploitation, but who are, on the contrary, ruled in their practices and consciousness by the ideology of the ruling class, bourgeois ideology. The first have no ideologico-political difficulty in understanding Capital since it is a straightforward discussion of their concrete lives. The second have great difficulty in understanding Capital (even if they are very ‘scholarly’, I would go so far as to say, especially if they are very ‘scholarly’), because there is a political incompatibility between the theoretical content ofCapital and the ideas they carry in their heads, ideas which they ‘rediscover’ in their practices (because they put them there in the first place). That is why Difficulty No. 1 of Capital is in the last instance a political difficulty.” Source: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1969/preface-capital.htm

      • Norman Pilon says:

        Furthermore, what is the title to the last section of Chapter one, which is the ‘summary’ of the chapter? It is: The Fetishism of the Commodity And Its Secret. Otherwise said, The ‘cultural blindness’ to what a commodity is and its relation to what in fact a commodity really is. So ‘ideas’ or ‘ideology’ are not an ‘obvious’ and ‘incidental’ aside to what is important. ‘Ideas’ are the ‘material matrix’ that fix and crystallize “relations of production” as well as everything else. ‘Obvious’ but in a crucial way.

      • Norman,

        But in that section Marx says that the fetishistic nature of the commodity comes from the commodity form itself. This means that the wrong ideas people may have are the result of certain features of the mode of production rather than the result of some sort of purely ideal ‘matrix’. I do not agree that “ideas are the material matrix that fix and crystallize the relations of production”. I think it is clear that Marx, in the fetishism section and elsewhere is arguing the exact opposite: that ways of thinking about the world, fetishized or otherwise, spring from material production relations.

        I think you have also misunderstood what I was critiquing in your notion of ‘cultural construct’. I am not saying that critiquing bourgeois ideology isn’t important, or that Marx isn’t obviously engaged in a process of critiquing the existing categories of bourgeois economy. I’m saying that your notion of ‘cultural construct’ can only be applied to Marx’s concept of AL if it is defined so widely that it simultaneously looses all explanatory power and ends up being the same as typical post-modern critiques of language. Post-modern critiques of language would point out that nobody chooses their language, and that language contains pre-established, built-in prejudices that imprison our thought in certain ways. And it would seek to throw back the mystifying veil of this language through a critique which locates these prejudices in the language itself. Post-modern feminist critiques of gender might do a similar thing in deconstructing the ‘cultural construct’ of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. When you say that AL is just a ‘cultural construct’ it sounds like you think Marx is just doing the same thing that the post-modernists are doing: saying that everything is just a result of ‘culture’. But this is an idealist approach. Marx is a materialist and he thinks that ideas, ‘constructs’, are conditioned by production relations. AL is a concept but it is a concept that points to a real thing, the nature of labor in a capitalist society. I think you are conflating the idea with the actual thing the idea points to and that this makes your formulation idealist.

      • Norman Pilon says:

        And this, from Althusser’s preface to Capital, Volume One, is interesting:

        Marx continued to recognize an important debt to [Hegel}: the fact that he was the first to conceive of history as a ‘process without a subject’.
        Source: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1969/preface-capital.htm

        Which, amongst other things, is a point — that history is a ‘process without a subject — that Marx makes time and again as I’m reading through Chapter One:

        For example,

        “Men do not therefore bring the products of their labour into relation with each other as values because they see these objects merely as the material integuments of homogeneous human labour. The reverse is true: by equating their different products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour” (p.166.)

        That is, because labour is “treated” as a commodity, in practice, men living in capitalist society see all varieties of ‘labour’ as being of essentially the same kind, that is, as “abstract labour.” They do not see, contra your thesis, ‘homogeneous labour’ — which is “abstract labour” — as being something that is the result of ‘labour’ being de-skilled in on the shop floor, so to speak.

        And this,

        “Only a material whose every sample possesses the same uniform quality can be an adequate form of appearance of value, that is a material embodiment of abstract and therefore equal human labour” p.184.)

        That is, because bourgeois ideology thinks it solves Aristotle’s problem of the enigmatic ‘commensurability’ of concrete objects being exchanged as ‘equivalent value’ by finding in ‘labour’ the ‘equivalent’ substance of that ‘commensurability,’ because it TREATS labour as a COMMODITY, as something to be bought and sold, it SEES labour in all of its concrete manifestations as “abstract” and THEREFORE “equal” or in the guise of “simple labour.”

        “Abstract labour” is a cognitive reflex, “ex post facto,” and not “unskilled labour” resulting from “de-skilling” functions in production previously requiring “skilled labour.”

        To quote Marx again,

        “In their difficulties our commodity-owners THINK like Faust: ‘In the beginning was the deed.’* They have therefore already acted before THINKING. The natural laws of the commodity have manifested themselves in the natural instinct of the owners of commodities.”

        Anything can be ‘reduced,’ that is ‘equated’ to anything else, if it is thought of in sufficiently abstract terms. But in Capitalism, as in any historically formed society, there is first the deed — the way of treating something, of dealing with something in practice — and only then is the ‘reason’ which ‘explains’ why a certain practice exists as it does invented. Ask a capitalist, therefore, why he buys and sells ‘labour’ as if all forms of actual travail were one and the same thing, and he will answer that it’s because “the are all indeed one and the same thing if looked at from a certain angle, from the angle of an ‘abstraction’ sufficiently bereft of ‘differences’ that it becomes the equivalent to all other such ‘abstractions.’

      • In regard to this quote:

        “Men do not therefore bring the products of their labour into relation with each other as values because they see these objects merely as the material integuments of homogeneous human labour. The reverse is true: by equating their different products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour” (p.166.)

        My understanding of this is that Marx is making the point that value, AL and the other categories of commodity production are not the result of consciousness but rather consciousness is the result of these categories which exist outside of the consciousness of the individuals that participate in them. If you mean to imply by this quote that exchange creates value or AL, I do not think this is so obvious from the quote. I think Marx is saying: when we exchange commodities we are equating our labors (which he has already established earlier in the chapter to be homogenous as the result of the dual nature of labor) despite the fact that we are not conscious of it. If anything, this quote is a serious problem for your attempt to build an idealist interpretation of AL.

        “They do not see, contra your thesis, ‘homogeneous labour’ — which is “abstract labour” — as being something that is the result of ‘labour’ being de-skilled in on the shop floor, so to speak.”

        But my thesis says nothing about individuals needing to “see” anything.

        To be clear, I have not said that AL and unskilled labor are the same thing. I go through that very carefully in my post on the Critique of Pol. Econ.

        I don’t understand how this quote supports your argument that AL is a “cognitive reflex”:

        “Only a material whose every sample possesses the same uniform quality can be an adequate form of appearance of value, that is a material embodiment of abstract and therefore equal human labour” p.184.)

        Marx is talking about certain qualities of the money commodity here and how these qualities allow money to best serve as the form of appearance of value. What does that have to do with AL being a ‘cognitive reflex”? And after all, are cognitive reflexes a reflex of something… ie they are ideas that refer to actual things? Or do you think ideas float around in our heads without ever referring to real things? I feel like our conversation is devolving into something silly like you are saying “There are no cars only ideas of cars. Cars are a cultural construct.” Is that what you are saying?

        “But in Capitalism, as in any historically formed society, there is first the deed — the way of treating something, of dealing with something in practice — and only then is the ‘reason’ which ‘explains’ why a certain practice exists as it does invented.”

        Ok. I agree with this. It does seem to refute your previous statements about cultural constructs, but perhaps I have misunderstood your point. What is your point then? Is it that you think AL and value are created in exchange? Perhaps a clearer statement of your thesis would help clarify things.

      • Norman Pilon says:

        Hi Brendan,

        I can see that you are misreading entirely. Furthermore, I have offered for your perusal quotes from Marx that cannot possibly be read as stating, in the the texts that we have been reading — in spite of the fact that ELSEWHERE Marx might indeed have pointed to the de-skilling of labour as something that does indeed happen in the drive to automation — that ‘abstract labour’ is the result in the production process of ‘de-skilling’ labour.

        Every quote I have put before you quite explicitly states or implies the category of “abstract labour” as being a ‘conceptual categbory.’ Remind me again how, for example, I am to read the B. Franklin quote, which I’ll put before your again:

        “One of the first economists, after William Petty, to have seen through the nature of value, the famous Franklin, says this: ‘Trade in general being nothing else but the exchange of labour for labour, the value of all things is …most justly measured by labour’ (The Works of B. Franklin etc., edited by Sparks, Boston, 1836, Vol. 2, p. 267) Franklin is not aware that in measuring the value of everything ‘in labour’ he makes the abstraction from any difference in the kinds of labour exchanged – and thus [he, Franklin, in his head] reduces them all to equal human labour. Yet he states this without knowing it. He speaks first of ‘the one labour,’ then of ‘the other labour’, and finally of ‘labour’, without further qualification, as the substance of the value of everything. [Franklin, too, is confusing ‘conceptual categories,’ as Marx is clearly stating, here.]”

        Please indulge me for a moment, and read back to me in your own words what Marx is saying here, and in particular what, here, in this quote, he means by “is not aware;” “measuring the value of;” “he makes the abstraction from any kind of labour exchanged;” and thus REDUCES them all to;” “equal labour; “he states this without knowing it.

        The themes recur: “abstraction;” “equal labour;” “different kinds of labour;” “reduction.”

        How, then, do “you” read this quote. Only this quote. Without bringing in any extraneous material from anywhere else.

      • Norman,

        I do not know how else to explain than to say what I have already said before. Yes of course there is an idea called AL. We know that there is an idea of it because we have a word for it. That is obvious. But the idea points to a real thing, the nature of labor in a capitalist society. In the FRanklin passage MArx is talking about certain bourgeois notions of labor that implied the abstract nature of labor without fully taking into account the implications of this idea. The idea itself only emerges in a society in which labor has been rendered abstract by capital. Feel free to amass as many quotes as you like about the idea of abstract labor. They do nothing at all to demolish the thesis that Marx is referring to actual aspects of labor when he says ‘abstract labor’.

        In the FRanklin passage Marx talks about the ways we perform mental abstractions and says that FRanklin is unaware of the abstract he is doing. But the capitalist production process makes abstractions as well and it is these abstractions which allow out mental abstractions to be something more than just ideal abstractions.

        “Without bringing in extraneous material from somewhere else,” I’d like to bring in relevant material from somewhere else because it is when we pick and chose quotes out of context from Marx and then piece them together to make them say whatever we want that we get in trouble. I’d first point to my post on AL in chapter one of Capital which I think does a decent job of contextualizing the arc of his argument on AL in that chapter. Furthermore, because I think you are conflating the mental process of abstraction with the ‘real abstraction’ that capital performs, I’d bring in this highly relevant passage from the introduction to the GRundrisse, “The Method of Political Economy”:

        “It was an immense step forward for Adam Smith to throw out every limiting specification of wealth-creating activity – not only manufacturing, or commercial or agricultural labour, but one as well as the others, labour in general. With the abstract universality of wealth-creating activity we now have the universality of the object defined as wealth, the product as such or again labour as such, but labour as past, objectified labour. How difficult and great was this transition may be seen from how Adam Smith himself from time to time still falls back into the Physiocratic system. Now, it might seem that all that had been achieved thereby was to discover the abstract expression for the simplest and most ancient relation in which human beings – in whatever form of society – play the role of producers. This is correct in one respect. Not in another. Indifference towards any specific kind of labour presupposes a very developed totality of real kinds of labour, of which no single one is any longer predominant. As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears as common to many, to all. Then it ceases to be thinkable in a particular form alone. On the other side, this abstraction of labour as such is not merely the mental product of a concrete totality of labours. Indifference towards specific labours corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labour to another, and where the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence of indifference. Not only the category, labour, but labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form. Such a state of affairs is at its most developed in the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society – in the United States. Here, then, for the first time, the point of departure of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category ‘labour’, ‘labour as such’, labour pure and simple, becomes true in practice. The simplest abstraction, then, which modern economics places at the head of its discussions, and which expresses an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society, nevertheless achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category of the most modern society. ”

        The rest of “The method of political economy” is relevant to this topic and worth reading.

      • Norman Pilon says:

        I see that we are posting ‘past one another.” I’ll pause for a while and let you finish what you have to say. And honestly, I don’t think we are that far apart. We are misreading each other in some respects. But I’ll let you finish. Apologies. I’ll go smoke me a Cuban cigar that a friend only brought back last night. Back in a while. And good conversation — at least from my end. Appreciated in every way.

      • Norman Pilon says:


        You write:

        “Feel free to amass as many quotes as you like about the idea of abstract labor. They do nothing at all to demolish the thesis that Marx is referring to actual aspects of labor when he says ‘abstract labor’.”

        I can only read this as saying in effect:

        ” the textual evidence that you place before me, that clearly states that “reduction” is ‘mental alchemy’ of a ‘reflexive’ nature will never persuade me that by the term ‘abstract labour’ Marx definitely intends a ‘cultural reflex’ that mirrors a real world practice that entails the buying and selling of all ‘kinds’ of labour in the mode of a commodity. In other words, it doesn’t matter what Marx himself is writing and clearly saying in this instance or that. I’ve made up my mind that whenever I read the phrase “abstract labour,” I understand a phrase designating the process of replacing “skilled labour” with “unskilled lbaour.” And it doesn’t matter how many quotes you can pile up out of Capital that can only actually be read in the manner you say, I’m sticking to my “interpretation” of that phrase.

        Okay. A simple request. And not to worry, I think I understand what YOU take Marx to intend the phrase “abstract labour” — and you certainly haven’t indicated to me that I am misunderstanding you in this respect. In that case, can you quote me a passage where it is “impossible” to understand by the phrase “abstract labour” that this is a process of “skilled labour” being “replaced” by “simple labour” and that this “only” happens in Capitalist production. A passage, that is, that means this in unequivocal terms. Because I don’t think Marx was such a poor writer that if that is what he meant, he would not have stated this quite clearly and quite unequivocally. So far, nothing that you have offered up even comes close to this. “Simple labour” as an average skill set is just that: an average set of skills. This says nothing at all about how “skilled labour” in a capitalist environment is being “replaced” by “unskilled labour.”

        So while you now indicate that you are past reading any “textual evidence” contradicting YOUR thesis, I am not. Because I may be wrong. One quote is all I want, and not form the sections of Capital dealing with “relative surplus value,” where Marx is there quite clearly dealing with the issue of automation, and where the elimination of “skilled labour” is not even the real issue, but rather the unemployment that results from the drive to automation.

        One quote. And more would be better.

      • Norman Pilon says:

        ” In that case, can you quote me a passage where it is “impossible” to understand by the phrase “abstract labour” that this is a process of “skilled labour” being “replaced” by “simple labour” and that this “only” happens in Capitalist production.”

        should read as:

        ” In that case, can you quote me a passage where it is “impossible” NOT to understand by the phrase “abstract labour” that this is [refering to] a process of “skilled labour” being “replaced” by “simple labour” and that this “only” happens in Capitalist production.”

        in my most recent comment abour.

      • Norman,

        I sense that our conversation is degenerating into on in which we are not always taking the time to fully digest each others posts. I apologize if I have contributed to this.

        I do not feel, from reading your last few comments, that you are actually listening to what I am saying. For instance, I said that I did not think that AL was the same as unskilled labor, yet you continued to assert that that was my position. Also, I did not say that I was ignoring all textual evidence. On the contrary, I said that I interpreted the quotes you gave very differently than you interpret them. And further, my comment that “you can amasss as many quote as you like” was contained within a specific argument about why these types of quotes do not contradict my position. I have said that AL is both an idea and a real thing. I have said this numerous times in many different ways. So pointing instances of Marx discussing the idea of AL does not invalidate anything in my position. Hence- amass whatever quotes you like because they don’t challenge my position in anyway. Despite me writing this over and over you have never responded to this, but rather continued to just pile quotes on quotes.

        In reference to your last request for a slam-dunk AL quote I might start with the earlier quote I just offered in my last post from “the method of political economy” in the Grundrisse.

        Also, because this conversation has become perhaps a little heated, I am going to step aside from it for a few days. This is because I respect you as a thinker and I do not want a possibly constructive conversation to degenerate into an accusatory one in which neither side is listening to each other.

  6. Norman Pilon says:

    Hi Brendan,

    Just to let you know: I’m writing a piece to work up in what I hope will be simple, accessible language, my read of Marx on the “value-relation” and “abstract labour.” I am, of course, running ahead of my reading, anticipating where I think Marx is going in terms of demonstrating how “abstract labour,” through its ‘money proxy,’ determines the magnitude of all exchange values in a “non-arbitrary” way. If he doesn’t actually end up there, then I think I’m seeing my way there and want to hammer that out.

    I’m a good part of the way in and don’t want to break the pace. Hopefully, I’m done later this evening or tomorrow, assuming I don’t tie myself up into too many knots.

    Of course, I’d would appreciate it very much if you could have a look at it when I’m done and give me some feedback. There is no one in my immediate entourage who is in the least bit interested in any of this.

    Of course, again, only if you have the time and are inclined to do so. I’ll post it at my blog and let you know.

    I’ll carefully read your latest comment as time permits and reply where appropriate. But I fist want to get what I’m preoccupied with at the moment out of the way. So I will be neglecting your comments somewhat, but only in the meantime.

    And yes, I’m not entirely sure that agree with Rubin in every detail, but in many respects he seems to be seeing what in Marx I’m seeing. But I’ve already said that, haven’t I . . .


  7. Norman Pilon says:

    Hi Brendan,
    I hope I’m not being overly importunate, but I merely wanted to signal to you that the ‘piece’ I was working on is now posted. I’ve titled it:

    A Synopsis of Marx’s Concept of “Value” and how “Abstract Labour” Determines the Magnitude of All “Exchange-Values” in a Non-arbitrary Way – at least according to Norm

    You can find it here:


    Of course and again, I am not demanding anything. Read it or not, as you wish or as time permits, but do know that it came together under the impetus of our exchanges to date – a thought by which you may or may not be flattered, especially (perhaps) after you read what I’ve written. Oh, well.



  8. Norman Pilon says:

    Hi Brendan,

    I don’t know if you’ve read Louis Althusser’s “Preface to Capital Volume One,” that you can find here: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1969/preface-capital.htm

    He makes the following recommendation for first time readers of Capital:

    1. Leave Part I (Commodities and Money) deliberately on one side in a first reading.
    2. Begin reading Volume One with its Part II (The Transformation of Money into Capital).
    3. Read carefully Parts II, III (The Production of Absolute Surplus-Value) and IV (The Production of Relative Surplus-Value).
    4. Leave Part V (The Production of Relative and Absolute Surplus-Value) on one side.
    5. Read carefully Parts VI (Wages), VII (The Accumulation of Capital) and VIII (The So-called Primitive Accumulation).
    6. Finally, begin to read Part I (Commodities and Money) with infinite caution, knowing that it will always be extremely difficult to understand, even after several readings of the other Parts, without the help of a certain number of deeper explanations.

    I’ll give it a go and see what results I obtain.


    • I think you should take Marx’s advice and read the chapters in the order they are in. That’s why he put them in that order.

      • Norman Pilon says:

        Hi Brendan,

        Honestly, I think I suffer from attention-deficit-disorder: it is almost impossible for me to read anything in a disciplined sequential order. I’m always jumping around in what I’m reading, and between things that I’m reading, whether related or not, but somehow or other I manage to put all the fragments together, more or less, or so I like to believe ( though admittedly, we all suffer from our own personal delusions about ourselves). So reading Marx out of chapter sequence actually suits my chaotic style of reading. Consider this to be a fessing up of sorts, then. When I say that I’m in the middle of reading Marx, a person should be taking that literally. I’m in the middle, at the end, back at the beginning, and so it goes. So I’ll try to stick to Althusser’s recommended method, but I know that won’t last, because it’s a sequence, and I don’t seem to be able to do sequence.

        Anyway, a good day to you.


        BTW: I came across this on p.260. of my copy of Capital:

        “The value of a commodity is expressed in its price before it enters into circulation, and it is therefore a pre-condition of circulation, not its result.”

        Well of course! And that’s why Marx can make the claim that profit making does not happen in exchange, but in production (and we may add, through mercantile import operations): the game is to subvert pre-existing or currently stable and entrenched prices. Commodity ‘A’ is now going for on average ‘so much’ and predictively so — and the quintessential capitalist question is always whether at the “current” market price, I can somehow or other figure out a way of making a profit? — rationalize production, get rid of some employees here and there, and so on; or set up the ‘production’ side of the business on the periphery of the home market where labour is cheaper or access to resources, whether in geographical or political terms, are more accessible for a smaller outlay. Of course the game is always self-defeating in the long run, but that’s what it is, that’ the “essence” of it . . .

        What’s nice about reading Marx is that what he writes is actually 100% relevant to what we can directly ‘experience’ and ‘observe’ all around us, right now, at this very hour. For me, that is what makes him accessible to me. I take my head out of his book, and consider whether “that” ain’t so. And most times it fucking is. Well, okay, he’s also a good writer . . .

        But that’s enough of time wrenched out your day already.

  9. Zetrovisky says:

    dude you guys are talking shit about some shadowy concept of a fat man that never worked during his miserable life. fuck abstract labor. let’s deal with the real problems: social inequality, exploitation, the role of money. these things won’t be understood if you keep contemplating philosophycal shit

    • I usually don’t respond to trolls, however this was just so funny I had to respond. The question of abstract labor is directly relevant to the topics of inequality, exploitation and money. In fact, this blog post and the discussion touch on all of these topics. I would counter that you can never understand these things unless you understand abstract labor.

      • mreverpresent says:

        Yes, that comment proved how Bourgeois logic permeates common sense and produces these kinds of reactions

  10. philippe101 says:

    Could you please explain why, if labour creates value, it is possible to work for ages on something which no one else will want to give you anything for, because it is worthless to them, i.e. it has no value as far as they are concerned. Similarly, it is possible to work for ages on something which is worthless to you, or that you decide is worthless at some point.

    This seems to be a basic, obvious problem with Marx’s theory.


  11. philippe101 says:

    Actually I’m not a troll, I am asking you questions because I would like to know.

  12. CB says:

    Philippe101, If you would REALLY like to know, and aren’t trolling, just read Brendans blog, watch his videos, or read Marx. I’ve watched Brendan answer this SAME question for years. So if you were actually serious, a very cursory glance at his work would answer your question.

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