A Note on a passage in Poverty of Philosophy

In an interesting passage from the Poverty of Philosophy Marx discusses the reduction of compound labor to simple labor as well as the transformation of all labor into a similar quality so that value is measured solely by labor time rather than having anything to do with the concrete nature of work. The passage is interesting, to me, for several reasons. It deals with several intertwined issues that Marx revisits in the Grundrisse, the Critique of Political Economy and Capital, yet in the Poverty of Philosophy Marx has not yet discovered the concept of “abstract labor”. However, when in the passage he says, “If the mere quantity of labor functions as a measure of value regardless of quality…” it is clear that he is dealing with the same issue that he deals with in Capital when he derives the concept of abstract labor: if value is determined by labor time, and not effected by the specific concrete qualities of labor, then there must be social forces which create a specific type of capitalist labor process where work is reduced to a mere physical exertion of energy, an abstraction in which concrete labors are interchangeable and meaningless and only labor time is important for the creation of value.

That abstract labor, or at least a nascent concept of abstract labor, is related to the real effect of capitalism on the labor process is relevant to contemporary debates between “value-form” theorists who claim that it is market exchange which retroactively makes labor abstract and their “physiological” opponents who claim that labor is abstract in production as Marx argues in Capital.

In the passage in question however Marx seems to conflate two different processes, the reduction of compound labor to simple labor and the reduction of concrete labor to abstract labor. It is a pardonable error since the two processes are similar in some ways and easily conflated. Indeed, in some criticisms that I have encountered in my advocacy of a physiological theory of abstract labor I have been accused of conflating abstract labor with simple labor.

The passage in question reads as follows:

“Is your hour’s labour worth mine? That is a question which is decided by competition.
“Competition, according to an American economist, determines how many days of simple labour are contained in one day’s compound labour. Does not this reduction of days of compound labour to days of simple labour suppose that simple labour is itself taken as a measure of value? If the mere quantity of labour functions as a measure of value regardless of quality, it presupposes that simple labour has become the pivot of industry. It presupposes that labour has been equalized by the subordination of man to the machine or by the extreme division of labour; that men are effaced by their labour; that the pendulum of the clock has become as accurate a measure of the relative activity of two workers as it is of the speed of two locomotives. Therefore, we should not say that one man’s hour is worth another man’s hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during an hour. Time is everything, man is nothing; he is, at the most, time’s carcass. Quality no longer matters. Quantity alone decides everything; hour for hour, day for day; but this equalising of labour is not by any means the work of M. Proudhon’s eternal justice; it is purely and simply a fact of modern industry.”
-Marx, Poverty of Philosophy, .126-7 (MECW vol. 6)

The passage occurs in the midst of a critique of Proudhon’s claim that, given that labor time determines value, the fact that two commodities exchange for one another means that they represent, always, equal quantities of labor. Marx counters by pointing out that compound labor (skilled labor) creates more value in an hour than simple labor even though both produce commodities whose values are determined by labor time.
“Thus values can be measured by labour time, in spite of the inequality of value of different working days; but to apply such a measure we must have a comparative scale of the different working days: it is competition that sets up this scale.” (ibid 126)
Similarly, in Capital Marx refers to a process which goes on “behind the backs of the producers” to determine how much simple labor is worth an hour of compound labor. The difference is that in Capital simple labor is not the “measure of value”. Rather, abstract labor is the substance that comprises value. Simple and compound labor are two types of abstract labor. The reason we can compare heterogeneous labors to each other is that all capitalist labor is both abstract and concrete on a practical level. Because both simple and compound labor are abstract we can reduce compound labor to multiples of simple labor. If they were not abstract there would be no way to say that a tailor’s labor was a multiple of an hour of simple labor.
[Also missing from the passage in question is the concept of labor as the substance of value. Instead Marx talks about simple labor being the “measure of value”.]
Without these distinctions the passage from Poverty of Philosophy seems to ask simple labor take on the explanatory job of abstract labor. On the other hand this passage does a great job of illuminating the actual material processes which underlie both the simplification of labor and the abstraction of labor. The quest to lower socially necessary labor time sets in motion forces which degrade the worker, taking skill and autonomy out of work, reducing the worker to an appendage to a machine, to a larger labor process out of the control or understanding of the individual worker. Thus each worker’s labor is of the same quality as any other worker. In the Critique of Political Economy Marx states that the “greater part of the labor performed in bourgeoise society is simple labor, as statistics show.” (CPE p.8 MIA edition) This is so because this process of deskilling and dominating the laborer is a central aspect of the capital-labor relation and of SNLT.
Despite the greater theoretical clarity of later passages on the subject of abstract labor and simple labor, this passage from Poverty of Philosophy is quite clear in the way it illuminates capital’s brutal degradation of labor. It also helps us to recognize the continuity in Marx’s thought, from Poverty to Capital, in the way he continued to identify the heterogeneity of value-creating labor with the changes to the material labor process under capital. This calls in to question value-form interpretations of Marx that identify Abstract labor with exchange rather than with the nature of work in a capitalist society.

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6 Responses to A Note on a passage in Poverty of Philosophy

  1. Al Harris says:

    Take two different kinds of labor: a commercial airline pilot and a ditch digger operating a mechanical digger.. The pilot is “worth,” say, $100 an hour, the ditch digger, $10 an hour. Assuming that ditch digging is “simple” labor, then the pilot’s hour is worth 10X the value of simple labor.

    How is it that ten times the value of an hour of simple labor can be contained in one hour of compound or skilled labor?

    Doesn’t Marx answer this question by defining all labor, under capitalism, as commodity labor, and therefore each laborer’s value is determined by the cost of production of that labor. It costs ten times as much to produce an hour of pilot labor as an hour of a ditch digger, considering education, social circumstances, legal status of immigrant, etc. etc.

    And further, there are hundreds of thousands of different kinds or qualities of labor, which all can be reduced or abstracted to a simple quantity of labor. Isn’t it this process of abstraction which makes it possible for all this labor to be converted to “exchange-value,” which makes it necessary that all this labor is exchangeable only for money, the ultimate abstract value? Marx might say that time is money, therefore human labor is reduced to time.

    • Al,

      I’m not sure if I follow all of your questions…

      How is an hour of compound labor worth more than an hour of skilled labor? If it takes me 12 hours of practice to learn Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” on the piano but it only takes a minute to perform it, then my minute of labor represents 12 hours of compound labor time. This is true of any skilled labor in any mode of production. In a capitalist society this compound quality gets quantified in value terms. Also, because all labor is disciplined by socially necessary labor time, thus takine the form of an abstract expenditure of human energy, it becomes possible in a capitalist society to compare the compound labor of a pianist to the simple labor of a ditch digger. Heterogeneous labors are comparable because they are abstract and thus a compound labor can be compared to a simple labor.

      You ask about “cost of production”. I think that is close to correct if by “cost” we mean hours of labor and not “price of the wage.” After all workers produce the value of their wage and more (surplus value.) The value of the commodity is not a function of the cost of hiring the worker it is a function of the work that the worker does. The worker creates the value of the wage in the value of the product. It is not a cost that is just passed onto the commodity in the way that constant capital cost is passed on.

      • Al Harris says:

        No, I meant to ask how are 10 hours of simple labor contained in one hour of compound labor. Although I suppose the answer is intuitive, as you indicate. One minute of a concert pianist’s labor would be worth one hour of a fast food worker (assuming the pianist’s labor is socially necessary.)

        In Capital, Vol III, Chapter 9, Marx says that price is equal to the “cost of production” which is labor costs actually paid (including machinery, etc.) and surplus-value or profit, the unpaid labor. And further, he says that surplus-value is itself is not produced in or necessarily related to the production process of any individual capitalist’s production. It appears to me that Marx is saying that not only is labor a social entity, but also that surplus-value/profit is something that is socially determined BEFORE the process of production actually starts. Thus, profit for each capitalist investment is already determined by the quantity and c/v ratio of each invested capital.

        So, there would be the labor-power, wages, expressed in money/price, the cost of constant capital expressed in money/price, but, more importantly, the profit would also necessarily be expressed in money/price. So, all values are now expressed in terms of price? I keep reading that Marx himself said that he had not solved the value-price transformation problem; but I cannot find in Vol III that he actually expressed such an opinion.

        Also, this: “…And in the same way the sum of the prices of production of all commodities produced in society — the totality of all branches of production — is equal to the sum of their values.” Isn’t this just another way of saying that the Gross Domestic Product is expressed in terms of price?

  2. mreverpresent says:

    Yes, I was also amazed by the Poverty of Philosophy. A number of arguments are very detailed and are crucial to interpret and compare the later Capital works.There is a need for a comprehensive summary of Marx work on political economy. I have not found one single book that passes my test of comprehensiveness.

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