Abstract Labor- Critique of Political Economy

Critique of Political Economy , Chapter One
[I am using some obscure edition from 1904 by International Library Publishing Co. NI Stone translation. So I’m sure the page numbers will be of no use to anyone. Sorry. However a few of the quotes are from the MIA translation, since that saves me time on having to type out quotes.]

The argument in the Critique has many similarities to Chapter One of Capital. (The most glaring theoretical difference between the two chapters is the absence of the distinction between exchange-value and value in the Critique, a distinction that Marx had apparently not yet made in his own mind. ) First Marx demonstrates that certain properties of exchange value clearly point to the existence of a common substance that allows commodities to be commensurable. This common substance is the fact that they are all products of social labor. As in Capital he immediately proceeds to an examination of this substance with a focus on its abstract character.

Since commodities are equivalents “they represent equal volumes of the same kind of labor,” which he calls, “uniform, homogenous, simple labor.” When we consider commodities and the labor that creates them from the perspective of use-value we see heterogeneous uses and heterogeneous labors. But when considered from the vantage point of exchange-value we see a homogenous value substance and homogenous labor, “i.e. labor from which the individuality of the worker is eliminated. Labor creating exchange value is, therefore, abstract general labor.”

In the next paragraph Marx uses the phrase, “simple, homogenous, abstract, general labor”. This leads us to wonder about the relation of each of these words to each other. Is this a list of synonyms or are all of these words separate terms modifying ‘labor’? If they are not synonyms then what exactly is the relation of simple labor to abstract labor? What is the relation of the homogenous quality of labor to its abstract nature? Do ‘abstract’ and ‘general’ belong together in the way that a Hegelian ‘abstract universal’ is a two-word term? Later Marx will use the word ‘universal’ and ‘social’ to modify ‘labor’. What is the relation of ‘universal’ to ‘abstract’? I’ll try to keep these questions in mind as I proceed through the chapter and as I consider Capital and the Grundrisse.

Given that all labors are of the same homogenous quality, time becomes the measurement of the value created by labor. Marx writes that in order to understand how value is determined by labor time we have to understand 3 things: 1. the reduction of labor to simple labor; 2. the specific ways in which commodity producing labor becomes social labor; and 3. the difference between labor as producer of use-value and labor as producer of value (or, in other words, concrete and abstract labor, though he doesn’t put it this way here.) He then proceeds to explain each of these 3 aspects.

Callcentre2

The reduction of all labors to labor which is qualitatively the same, “uniform, simple, homogenous labor” is an abstraction. But this is not an abstraction that happens in our minds. Rather “it is an abstraction which takes place daily in the social process of production.” If we make an abstraction in our mind we mentally abstract away certain qualities of a class of things until we select the quality that we feel captures the real essence of the thing. But if a social process carries out this abstraction then it is the social process which whittles the thing down to a basic essence. Capitalist production reduces labor to an abstract, homogenous state by reducing most labors to simple labor. Simple labor is unskilled labor, the average labor that an individual in a given society can perform, “a certain productive expenditure of muscles, nerves, brain, etc.” This is the bulk of all labor in a capitalist society. In this way labor doesn’t appear as the labor of different individuals but rather individuals appear as mere organs of labor.

Marx is very clearly linking ‘abstract labor’ to the unskilled, generic labor that forms the bulk of all labor in a capitalist society.  “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.” (p.25) With phrases like “this abstraction of human labor in general” Marx clearly links the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘general’. This helps clarify some of the relations between adjectives that I mentioned above. Also, here we see the direct link between unskilled (or ‘simple’) labor and abstract labor. The “abstraction which takes place daily in the social process of production,” is a real material abstraction which renders all labors qualitatively the same. This real material process is the reduction of most labor to simple labor. The question then arises: “Are simple labor and abstract labor the same thing?” This passage in Marx seems to be saying that they are two different aspects of the same thing. Simple labor “varies in different countries and at different stages of civilization…”(p. 25) while abstract labor refers to human labor in general, “labor which is qualitatively the same and therefore differs only in quantity.” (p.24) It is the reduction to simple labor, whatever the actual set of skills that comprise simple labor in a given society, that renders all labor homogenous so that we may refer to it as ‘abstract labor’.

After discussing the reduction of skilled labor to simple labor Marx proceeds to the second of the above points, the specific way in which commodity producing labor becomes social labor. He broaches the topic through a discussion of socially necessary labor time (SNLT). It is not individual labor time which sets the value of commodities but rather the average labor time required by society given the current conditions of labor. In addition to labor being social in the general sense capitalist labor has a unique sociality in which it is only social to the extent that it is equal labor. Here Marx reiterates his statements about the reduction to simple labor making labor homogenous thus allowing it to enter into relations of equality with other labors. The addition of SNLT to the picture further refines this notion of equality. In addition to labor being simple and homogenous it now also is only social to the extent that it measures up against against the SNLT. Wasted labor does not become social labor. SNLT and social labor are not the products of individuals but are objective magnitudes/categories given by the social conditions of labor.

i-am-a-man

Since labor is qualitatively the same (homogenous, abstract, general labor) and reduced to a quantitative equality via SNLT, the “labor-time of a single individual is directly expressed in exchange value as universal labor-time, and this universal character of individual labor is the manifestation of its social character.” (p.26-7) “It is the labor-time of an individual, his labor time, but only as labor-time common to all, regardless as to which particular individual’s labor-time it is.” This then is ‘universal labor time’.

This helps us relate two more terms, “social” and “universal”. Social labor seems here to be identified with SNLT, abstract labor. It is labor which measures up to this average social labor. It can be done by anyone and therefore is not dependent on any one laborer. Social labor is also useful labor, labor which contributes to the reproduction of society. Commodities have to be exchanged before they can be used and thus labor only realizes its social quality when its product is sold. In this chapter Marx clearly relates the exchange of commodities with realizing the social nature of labor.

When the labor-time of an individual is expressed in exchange-value it becomes universal labor-time “and this universal character of individual labor is the manifestation of its social character.” This is bound up with the role of the universal equivalent, the commodity which all other commodities measure their value in, thus serving as a manifestation of universal, abstract labor time. When commodities exchange with the universal equivalent their private labors are realized as universal labor. After a comparison with directly social labor of prior modes of production Marx says that the unique thing about the capitalist mode of production is that private labor “becomes social labor only by taking on the form of its direct opposite, the form of abstract universal labor.”

Because part of this long paragraph deals with commodities realizing their value through exchange I could see how a cursory reading might make one think that Marx is saying that it is the exchange of commodities for money which renders the labor embodied in them abstract labor, or universal labor. However I do not take this paragraph to be saying that exchange is what makes the labor abstract or that exchange creates value. First of all, he talks about private labor being “directly expressed in” universal labor through exchange, and of private labor “manifesting” its social character.  Furthermore, he doesn’t actually use the word “abstract” in this discussion. Instead he uses ‘social’ and ‘universal’. Marx has just gone through a long explanation of how the simplification of labor renders labor abstract and how SNLT makes labor quantitatively equal. It would be contradictory to then turn around and say that exchange is what makes labor abstract. Rather, exchange is the final stage where the social realities of production are ‘realized’. If what is required for labor to be social labor is given by the conditions of production (the reduction to abstract labor, the establishment of SNLT then exchange can in no way create SNLT or abstract labor. All exchange can do is realize what already exists in a potential state.

I think the same holds true for ‘universal’ even though it is perhaps tricky to see immediately in the paragraph. By ‘universal’ Marx means labor which is common to all but not dependent on anyone persons’ labor. In some ways the ‘universal’ character of private labors already seem to have been established by reducing labors to abstract labor and to SNLT. However, they are still private labors which only realize their relation to the abstraction ‘general social labor’ when commodities are sold. Exchange is not what makes it possible for a persons’ labor to be entirely replaceable by another’s in this universal sense. Rather, what Marx is after in his paragraph is, amongst other things, to explain how this universal quality is expressed in exchange through the exchange with the universal equivalent.

Finally Marx comes to the 3rd thing which we must understand about the labor that creates value, the difference between labor creating use-value and labor creating exchange-value. He expands on this point for some time, beginning with a bit on commodity fetishism, although he doesn’t actually use that term yet. “Labor, which creates exchange-value, is, finally, characterized by the fact that even the social relations between men appear in the reversed form of a social relation between things.” This juxtaposition of social relations and their “material cover” leads to Marx’s discussion of abstract and concrete labor. “Whereas labour positing exchange-value is abstract universal and uniform labour, labour positing use-value is concrete and distinctive labour, comprising infinitely varying kinds of labour as regards its form and the material to which it is applied.” While it’s not said as explicitly as in Capital, it seems clear labor is both abstract and concrete at the same time.

Expanding on this theme Marx explains how changes in productivity affect the value of commodities. He then moves into a discussion of exchange-value. Because commodity A must measure its value in commodity B, the use-value of B (by which he means the physical body of B) becomes the means of expressing the value of A. This finds its highest expression in the universal equivalent, the money commodity, which comes to express the value of all other commodities.

Use-value is realized in exchange. By itself a commodity is just an embodiment of individual labor time, not universal labor time. Through an exploration of exchange and the universal equivalent Marx will argue that it is the role of the universal equivalent to allow individual labor time to take the form of universal labor time. But with phrases like “It is not directly an exchange value, but must become one” the lack of distinction between value and exchange-value really mar the text and leave Marx open to various interpretations. Since exchange-value is a relation between two commodities it is obvious that the commodity must be in an exchange-relation in order to have exchange-value.

On 46 Marx says that private labors only become universal and social once they are exchanged as equivalents. He doesn’t use the word abstract. Social labor exists in a latent state, to be revealed in exchange. “Thus a new difficulty arises: on the one hand, commodities must enter the exchange process as materialized universal labour-time, on the other hand, the labour-time of individuals becomes materialized universal labour-time only as the result of the exchange process.” p.47

concrete

Marx also says that prior to exchange, exchange value and universal labor time are an abstraction which must find “concrete expression” through the actual process of exchange. (“Linen thus becomes the universal equivalent through universal action..”48 ) Here ‘abstract’ refers to an ideal or potential quality that must become concrete through real action. This passage could be seen as conflicting with Marx’s previous remarks about abstract labor if we take ‘universal’ to mean the same thing as ‘abstract’. But if we treat the two terms as referring to different aspects of labor then we do not run up against a contradiction. If abstract labor refers to the homogenous, impersonal nature of labor, a generic expenditure of muscle, brain and nerve, created by the capitalist labor process then this category of abstract labor doesn’t necessarily explain how private labor becomes social labor. It merely explains why all labors are of a similar quality and thus commensurable. But they are still private labors which must realize their social nature only in exchange, when commodity values are measured in money. The question of how private labor time becomes universal social labor time is a different question. Marx solves this latter question through his analysis of the money commodity which resolves the tension between use-value and value and between private and social labor by externalizing value, universal labor, in the form of the money commodity which all other commodities measure themselves in.

Working definitions from CPE:

abstract labor: a generic exertion of muscles, brain, nerves, etc. That which is most common to all labor and that which capitalist labor is reduced to through the deskilling of work.

simple labor: the basic, ‘unskilled’ labor that comprises the bulk of all labor in a given capitalist society. This changes as production changes.

universal labor: aspects of labor that do not belong to any one worker but are set by society through SNLT and AL.

homogeneous labor: the quality that capitalist labor has of being interchangeable and indifferent to the specific concrete labors that comprise it. This is a result of the reduction of work to simple labor and of capital’s indifference to the use-values it creates.

social labor: labor that is necessary for the reproduction of society. In order for labor in a capitalist society to be social it must produce something that is used and it must produce it at the SNLT.

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4 Responses to Abstract Labor- Critique of Political Economy

  1. Norman Pilon says:

    I hope you don’t mind if I jump in from time to time because you have me reading and thinking and hopefully learning something as I go along. Just so you know what text I’m working from, it’s this version, Karl Marx: Critique of Political Economy. 1859, online at MIA. (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/ch01.htm)

    Re. the relation between ‘abstract labor’ and ‘concrete labor:’

    Abstract labor and concrete labor differ in this way: ‘concrete labor,’ it seems to me, is a concept that has as its referent “. . .labour [that] is a natural condition of human existence, a condition of material interchange between man and nature, quite independent of the form of society.” In other words, concrete labor refers to a condition that is a constant for human beings in all times and in all places: people, whether they like it or not, have to exert themselves in certain ways in order to live, and that quite independently of the kind of society in which they happen to live. And to underscore this particular observation, Marx is able to write that “[l]abour as a source of material wealth was well known both to Moses, the law-giver, and to Adam Smith, the customs official. [8]”

    On the other hand, ‘abstract labor,’ which specifically serves the purpose of producing commodities for exchange, “… which posits exchange-value …” is a special case or sub-category or sub-species of ‘concrete labor,’ “…is a specific social form of labour[,]” or in other words, belongs to a historically specific kind of society, namely the kind that ‘conceives’ labor as an ‘abstract essence or substance’ inhering in and homogeneously common to all individuals and which can be extracted or appropriated from them in the course of getting these individuals to produce objects that incidentally have use-values, but ultimately for the purpose of selling these objects as commodities on the open market, for the ultimate purpose, that is, of producing ‘exchange-value.’ Marx writes: “For example, tailoring if one considers its physical aspect as a distinct productive activity produces a coat, but not the exchange-value of the coat. The exchange-value is produced by it not as tailoring as such but as abstract universal labour, and this belongs to a social framework not devised by the tailor.” In other words, not until people enter into an era where it is natural to think of their productive effort, of their labor, as being an ‘abstract universal essence’ is ‘concrete labor’ – the work that they have to perform in order to live, however prescribed or defined by their specific social context – is concrete labor harnessed to the purpose of producing commodities or exchange-value.

    So the relation in Marx’s mind, it seems to me, between “concrete labor” and “abstract (universal) labor” is the following: “concrete labor” is ‘labor’ in the most general sense of work being performed in order to keep body and soul together. Wherever humans have lived and will live, there will always be “concrete labor,” because there will always be a need to perform tasks without which life ceases to be possible. “Abstract labor” is a very specific kind of ‘labor’ which exists only in a society which a) conceives of ‘labor’ in abstract terms such that every individual is believed to be able to provide it to the same degree and in the same quality as anyone else and b) on the basis of this conception and ‘social category’ (i.e. being a laborer (employee) is a ‘social assignation’), directs or subsumes labor to the production of commodities for sale or what is the same, the production of exchange-value. From this it follows that to the degree that “abstract labor” incidentally also serves the purpose of keeping people alive, it is special instances of what Marx calls “concrete labor,” or on the conceptual plane, a sub-category of “concrete labor.” Of course, historically speaking, the only kind of society which has ever conceived of labor in abstract terms and specifically for the purpose of producing commodities is capitalist society. “Abstract labor” is a capitalist conception and a social category and therefore underpins a host of social relations constructed around the status of the laborer or employee, or in short, the status of labor.

  2. Norman Pilon says:

    Hi Brendan,
    You write (and I will only quote what is relevant to my purpose, my intention not being to distort your meaning but to highlight an aspect of what I think you are saying; of course, you can and will set me right if you deem that I am distorting what you meant to say, albeit inadvertently):

    Quote begins:
    “The reduction of all labors to labor which is qualitatively the same, “uniform, simple, homogenous labor” is an abstraction. But this is not an abstraction that happens in our minds. Rather “it is an abstraction which takes place daily in the social process of production[,]” […] a social process [that] carries out this abstraction […] which whittles the thing down to a basic essence. Capitalist production reduces labor to an abstract, homogenous state by reducing most labors to simple labor. Simple labor is unskilled labor, the average labor that an individual in a given society can perform, “a certain productive expenditure of muscles, nerves, brain, etc.” This is the bulk of all labor in a capitalist society. In this way labor doesn’t appear as the labor of different individuals but rather individuals appear as mere organs of labor.

    Marx is very clearly linking ‘abstract labor’ to the unskilled, generic labor that forms the bulk of all labor in a capitalist society. “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.” (p.25) With phrases like “this abstraction of human labor in general” Marx clearly links the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘general’. […] [H]ere we see the direct link between unskilled (or ‘simple’) labor and abstract labor. The “abstraction which takes place daily in the social process of production,” is a real material abstraction which renders all labors qualitatively the same. This real material process is the reduction of most labor to simple labor. The question then arises: “Are simple labor and abstract labor the same thing?” This passage in Marx seems to be saying that they are two different aspects of the same thing. Simple labor “varies in different countries and at different stages of civilization…”(p. 25) while abstract labor refers to human labor in general, “labor which is qualitatively the same and therefore differs only in quantity.” (p.24) It is the reduction to simple labor, whatever the actual set of skills that comprise simple labor in a given society, that renders all labor homogenous so that we may refer to it as ‘abstract labor’.”
    Reading this, I get the sense that you are imputing to Marx, amongst other things, the following observation as being made by him in the section of “Critique of Political Economy” to which you are referring: 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. ”
    Quote ends.

    Granted that this is in fact the case, that the capitalist process tends to deskill labour, and that elsewhere in what he has written Marx does indeed make that observation, I don’t think that he is attending to that particular fact in the exposition at hand.

    The ‘reduction’ that he has in mind, I believe, is of a conceptual nature but of one that is, so to speak, ingrained and cultural, a sort of ideological reflex or ‘customary’ way in capitalist society to think about ‘labor’ and thus treat it as it does. One hint that this is so arises here:

    “But what is the position with regard to more complicated labour which, being labour of greater intensity and greater specific gravity, rises above the general level? This kind of labour resolves itself into simple labour; it is simple labour raised to a higher power, so that for example one day of skilled labour may equal three days of simple labour. The laws governing this reduction do not concern us here.”
    (Source: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/ch01.htm)

    I don’t think that we are to understand Marx, here, as suggesting that though in capitalist society the legacy of ‘skilled labour’ lingers, the capitalist production process will in time efface it given its inexorable tendency to rationalization. Rather, he means to suggest that ‘all’ labour, however simple or complex, is ‘regarded’ by ‘capitalist rationality’ as being of one and the same kind, so that ‘skilled labour’ ultimately becomes a quantitative derivative of ‘unskilled labour’ for the purposes of adjudicating its pay-scale. And how that ‘equivalence’ is obtained in practical terms, he says, need not detain us here, though he uses the word ‘reduction’ where I used ‘equivalence,’ because as he puts it, “skilled labour may equal three days of simple labour.”

    Another hint that Marx wants his reader to attend to a cultural fetishistic peculiarity and not the ‘rationalizing tendency inherent to capitalist production,’ if only for the moment, is provided in “Capital, Volume One” in a paragraph that I’m fairly certain is an incorporation and re-write of the text at hand. The paragraph occurs in Capter 1, in the section titled: “2. THE DUAL CHARACTER OF THE LABOUR EMBODIED IN COMMODITIES.” My copy of “Capital, Volume One” is the Vintage Books Edition, August 1977, and under consideration is page 135. Pretty much everything that Marx writes here pertaining to ‘simple labor’ is repeated there if not exactly word for word, and interestingly he writes the following (in which I will insert my comments as I type it out),:

    “The various proportions in which different kinds of labour are reduced to simple labour as their unit of measurement are established by a social process that goes on behind the backs of the producers [that is, the “reduction” happens without their being aware that it is being, in fact, carried out (and already we have a hint that we are dealing with a ‘mental process,’ here, otherwise how is it happening ‘behind the backs’ of anyone?)]; these proportions therefore appear to the producers to have been handed down by tradition. [And repeating a thought that we have already quoted, Marx immediately adds:] In the interest of simplification, we shall henceforth view every form of labour-power directly as simple labour-power [i.e. including, as the capitalist mindset does reflexively, “skilled labour”]; by this we shall simply be saving ourselves the trouble of making the reduction [i.e. of having to go into a long and tedious analysis involving actual examples of how “skilled labour” is reckoned in units of “unskilled labour,” a thing that is most assuredly done if only fetishistically under capitalism (yes, I’m adding a bit of my own, here, but I’m of the opinion that Marx wouldn’t mind, and anything emphasized in ‘bold type’ is mine].”

    Thus, to my mind, attending narrowly to the text at hand, Marx wants to convey, here, to his reader, that under capitalism, all forms of ‘labor,’ which in their astounding varieties are really not at all ‘equivalent’ and thus reducible to one another, are reductively deemed to be qualitative and thus numerical equivalents and, therefore, treated as such.

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