Re. Indirectly Social Labor in the Critique of Political Economy, chapter one

A few thoughts on the concept of Indirectly Social Labor in The Critique of Political Economy

As far as I know, Marx does not use the term “indirectly social labor” at all in the Critique of Political Economy. However much of the first chapter deals with the unique way in which private labor becomes social in a capitalist economy. In this post I hope to extract the key points from the first chapter in relation to this unique form of social labor.

In the first few pages Marx establishes that when commodities pass as equivalents (when A stands as the equivalent of B) that they therefore represent the same entity. This entity is materialized social labor. Since value is a homogenous substance differing only in number but never in quality so must the substance of value, labor be uniform and homogenous. Though the labor that creates use-values is heterogeneous, corresponding to the different type of work required to make different products, the labor that forms exchange-value is homogenous, resulting in a homogenous value substance.

What is this totally homogenous, divisible substance which labor has? It is time, labor-time. Time is the “natural” measure of labor. Labor-time is the “vital” substance of labor. Regardless of the concrete nature of work, all work can be measured in time.

Still the reader might object various things: Skilled labor produces more value in an hour than unskilled labor. Lazy workers don’t produce as much value in an hour as hard-working workers, etc. Marx addresses such concerns. He says that in order to understand how value (or “exchange value as he says here”) is determined by labor time we must understand three things:

1. The reduction of skilled labor to simple labor

2. The specific ways in which commodity producing labor becomes social labor

3. The difference between use-value producing labor and exchange-value producing labor.

Point 2 is what primarily concerns me in this post. However, much of the first point pertains directly to the second so I will start there.

The reduction of all labor to a uniform, homogenous quality seems an abstraction but it is “an abstraction which takes place daily in the social process of production.” Se we are not dealing with some philosophical ideal abstraction but with a real material process which treats all labor as uniform and homogenous. The result is a system in which “the various working individuals appear as mere organs of labor.” “Human labor in general” is what produces values. Marx doesn’t spell out for us, here, what the material process is that reduces all labor to human labor in general. But he does point out that this general human labor does exist, virtually, in the labor that an average individual can perform. This is unskilled labor.

This is important. The process by which private labor becomes social treats all labor as if it is this average labor. A few paragraphs later when Marx comes to the concept of socially necessary labor time, we see a more explicit demonstration of the material process by which all labor is treated as average labor.

It is in the next paragraph that Marx starts to talk about point 2, the “special sense” in which labor becomes social in capitalism. The private labor of individuals is only social, is only represented in exchange value, to the extent to which it is a “relation of equality with all other individuals”.  If the SNLT to produce a widget is 1 hour, and it takes me 2 hours to make a widget, only 1 of my hours of labor is counted as social. This is capitalist equality. It is equality via inequality.

SNLT tells us how our labor is counted as social. In the next paragraph Marx goes on to explain how this sociality is expressed. “Furthermore, in exchange-value the labour-time of a particular individual is directly represented as labour-time in general, and this general character of individual labour appears as the social character of this labour.” When a commodity exchanges for another commodity, or for money, the private labor that made the commodity is expressing itself in an equation with all other labor. It is expressing its value in relation to this general, average, universal labor time. By expression value in price, by private labor expressing itself as universal labor, labor manifests its social character.

I tend to use the phrase “labor becomes social” when talking about private labor realizing its social value in exchange. Here, Marx uses the term “manifest” rather than “become”. I like “manifest” better because it makes it clear that the social value of the labor existed before exchange, only manifesting its social worth in exchange. I wonder if Marx ever uses the phrase “become social”….

So private labor is expressed as universal labor. This is the unique way in which labor is social, or indirectly social, in a capitalist economy. The exchange value of a commodity represents the labor time that went into it but only in a way in which that labor time is indistinguishable from all other labor time. It is socially necessary labor time. This labor time is represented with the general equivalent, money, which stands for labor in general.

Marx then goes to contrast this unique sociality with other modes of production. The comparisons are quite similar to the comparisons he makes in the Fetishism section of Chapter One, Volume One of Capital. In the patriarchal family of the past labor is also social but it doesn’t need to take the form of universal homogenous abstract labor in order to be social. It is immediately social. The same is true for the middle ages where the particular forms of labor constitute the social ties between people, not some universal form. In communal labor there is no private product and therefore no private labor. Each person’s labor is immediately part of the social organ. It is only in commodity production where private labor must take the form of its opposite, universal labor, in order to manifest its sociality.

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7 Responses to Re. Indirectly Social Labor in the Critique of Political Economy, chapter one

    • Ok. But I am not a Maoist and I think the content of this blog post could serve as the basis of a critique of Mao.

      • Sure. Which is partly why I shared the post; critique is good and no tendency or ideology is ever going to push ahead without critique pushing it forward (hence the importance of self-criticism in Maoism). I think both critique and self-criticism are important building blocks to a stable Leftist mode of thought.

      • Julia says:

        On the same note, what is your opinion on the current Maoist Third-Worldist trend? I’m in the midst of writing a critique of their philosophical background since I don’t know that much about economics. Would you, as someone who knows Marxian econ very well, give your thoughts on their basic premises about the divide between First World and Third World workers and their accusation of workers in the First World earning more for the value of their labor?

        FYI I no longer consider myself mutualist. I’m still an anarchist though.

  1. mreverpresent says:

    Too much philosophy in Marxism. We left that behind when the Wall fell. Time for more science please.

  2. Jim says:

    Hi there. I recently started reading Capital again and realised I needed to supplement my reading with some of your material. You have helped me to clarify my own thoughts on some things. Thank you.

    I also have a question for you regarding property. One justification for private ownership of means of production is if or when the owner was the inventor of the machine itself and therefore is entitled to the profits accordingly. This is often difficult to refute without disrespecting the perceived authority or value of the inventor who commands some measure of respect for expertise, competence, etc., although I still find accumulation of private property a huge source of conflict and litigation in society. However, when the piece of technology is sold to another capitalist, the sale does not include my respect for any authority regarding the value of the machine. The sale of the technology only affords authority with respect to it without any naturally occurring respect for expertise. The sale actually decreases social admiration and personal value. Could you recommend any works which go into this topic of…whatever this is called; maybe it’s just another form of alienation and separation of natural human relations.

    Thanks again.

  3. Patricia X Phillips says:

    Posted 2/8/2017: – New York: Since the author of this post in regarding (” Indirectly Social Labor in the Critique of Political Economy, chapter one”) is unknown it can be references as anonymous. He/she says, ” If the SNLT to produce a widget is 1 hour, and it takes me 2 hours to make a widget, only 1 of my hours of labor is counted as social. This is capitalist equality. It is equality via inequality”
    When I read this comment I was floored of the failure to grasp his one hour widget has become the standard of productivity of labor that would count his two hour widget as 2/100ths of the value of the one hour widget and so on as productivity rises and 200 widgets are produced a corresponding value would be 200/100ths the value below the standard of a one hour widget. This relative strength of productivity power is in motion and forms the basis of a new society is the point of Marx’s critique. The three laws of productivity are in operation behind the veil of capitalist production in Vol I. At its microscopic level, within the act of exchange between buyer and seller is a duality of labor in commodities such as what gravity is to the earth’s core value producing labor is to its opposite.form of labor as a creator of useful things. Not an atom enters into it is a famous line. The author of the reply did correctly distinguish the two kinds of labors, but then lost it with ‘exchange-value producing labor? Doing so loses the essence of the critique as a fluid analysis about where value originates. In mainstream economics the difference between value and exchange value is the difference between productivity of labor and markets into which other categories can be confused as to how they come into being such as, the division of labor in the world market, trade, commerce, society and the formation of classes etc.
    Earlier I read in this reply post, the material process for this reduction of concrete labor into abstract labor as SNLT is not provided in Marx’s critique, but it is provided just not acknowledged correctly by the writer. The material relation is in the act of exchange itself that every act of exchange is an internal relation to the total labor of society takes material form in people becoming separated into buyers and sellers is the first great division to appear in capitalism and literally inverts reality. Humans are in Marx’s view a material form themselves, a tool made by human labor itself which Engels located in the work of the thumb in particular and the hand in general that gave rise to civilizations continuing to transform humans through the interaction between nature and human labor, is a theory anchoring a scientific reason for radical action to reverse climate change.
    Failure to understand the fundamentals for what defines a ‘law of a value’ will lead to failure to understand how capitalism violates the law of value is the short of it, Behind these economic categories are real lives, thus the terms ‘exchange – value producing labor’. relates to a perpetuation of capitalist relations, I must protest the working class in their capacity as ‘value producing labor’ renders puts them in a position in the labor process a means not an end in itself under capitalism. This is the revolutionary essence of Marx’s propositions the burden of emancipating labor from being value producing labor is the work of the laborers themselves not the work of reformers of the market. The US working class is in a position now that the capitalists were in Feudalism as the potential future society, they produce value and reproduce capitalists relations and work with the capitalists but to no avail as their conditions worsen, They are the primary participants in the labor-process to free themselves and the labor-process as the private property of another. The Abolitionists led the fight to abolish slavery the workers must lead the fight to abolish wage labor, The Abolitionist created the underground railroad the workers will have to create an underground railroad not for free slaves but for food. This presupposes work must be done with farmers as workers to begin taking replacing or accessing the entire distribution systems. Really a mass movement can accomplish a self-transformation. This how you take down capitalism by taking down its special commodity, labor-power and abolish value producing labor in its present form and reunite with productive forces to produce use-values. Marx called this a ‘self-emancipation’ of the working class as a whole. This does not mean that markets are abolished it means wage labor is abolished as the negation of human labor in the concrete. How in practice the workers do this is in American under Trump and be successful in freeing themselves from their corporate chains would be best accomplished by massive general strikes of the market. Knowing the workers are dependent on the market for survival a prerequisite to a general strike of all markets is to form a necessary distribution system for food to get the workers in strikes. The closest activity that would resemble exchange value producing labor is the hard work that goes into the selling of a commodity not its production. Value is located in labor and its two forms as it occurs in the labor process through a class struggle which we will begin to see more openly in this Trump administration of 2017.

    Correction to the anonymous reference I believe the author is known and I thank you for hearing me.

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