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.