For a forthcoming book…. comments welcome.

Abstract Labor

Brendan Cooney


As established in a previous chapter, if a coat and a quantity of linen are equal in value this means that both are products of an equal amount of labor time. However, the tailoring labor of the coat-maker is different in many respects than the weaving labor of the linen producer. If we look at the concrete motions of the tailor and weaver it is rather difficult to compare or equate the two in any meaningful way. However, if we abstract away all of the concrete details of both workers’ labor we are left with nothing but an expenditure of human effort over a period of time. Viewed this way, abstractly, both labors are qualitatively the same, allowing us to say that one hour of tailoring is equal to an hour of weaving.

One might object that the above abstraction, in which we set aside all concrete details of the labor process and view each labor merely as an expenditure of human effort over time, would not make sense if the tailor expended more energy, or was more productive in an hour than the weaver. But if we subject this objection to scrutiny we see an even more difficult conundrum: How can we compare the productivity of weaving to the productivity of tailoring? If the weaver makes 5 bolts of linen an hour and the tailor makes 1 shirt an hour is there any meaningful way of saying one is more or less productive than the other? Just as we cannot compare or equate different use-values, we also cannot compare or equate concrete labors in any meaningful way.

However, in a society governed by the imperative to produce at the socially necessary labor time, we know that each hour of work, regardless of whether it is tailoring, weaving, or any other concrete form, is held to a standard level of efficiency. Even if a worker is less efficient than average, her product is valued at the socially necessary labor time. Thus, in this sense, we know that an hour of tailoring, done at the socially necessary labor time, is equal to an hour of weaving or any other work done at the socially necessary labor time. Through the mechanism of socially necessary labor time all labors appear as equal expenditures of abstract human effort over time.1

This abstract expenditure of human labor over time is what Marx calls “abstract labor.” While the tailor performs abstract labor, this abstract expenditure of effort has a specific concrete form. The concrete labor corresponds to the particular labor process of tailoring. Concrete labor produces use-values. Abstract labor produces value. Labor is both concrete and abstract at the same time.

At first glance, reading through the opening pages of Capital, one might get the impression that abstract labor is a purely theoretical short-cut designed to let Marx equate completely heterogeneous labors. But, as we have already seen, labor is not just treated abstractly in thought. It is treated abstractly by society itself, in reducing all labors to an equal expenditure of energy. This makes abstract labor an important concept in Marx’s theory of the capitalist labor process. Rather than just an academic category, abstract labor is real work that people actually do. As such, an understanding of abstract labor illuminates all of the dehumanizing ways that capital dominates the worker in production, reducing her work to an abstract, cog-like activity.

Since abstract labor creates value, and since value is objectified abstract labor, the concept is also central to Marx’s value theory. It is upon this framework that Marx develops the theory of exploitation, of crisis, and all of the other critical observations of his value theory.

Marx’s critique of capital is a radical critique aimed at penetrating the inner-most categories of capitalist production. Abstract labor is such a category. It is an essential aspect of capitalist social relations and thus also an essential aspect of Marx’s critique of capital. For this reason it is often the subject of much debate and criticism. This chapter attempts to sketch the main contours of Marx’s concept of abstract labor as well as address some of the main areas of criticism which have arisen in response to the concept.

What does Marx mean by abstract and concrete labor?

For Marx an idea is concrete if it encompasses all of the interrelated aspects of the thing which the idea describes. “Concrete labor” refers to a particular type of labor in all of its complexity and detail. The concrete labor of shoe-making involves all of the interrelated tasks required to make a shoe from cutting leather, to making patterns, to sewing, etc. The concrete labor that makes shoes is very different than the concrete labor that makes pianos. However, there are some common aspects that both shoe-making and piano-making share. They are both a “productive expenditure of human brains, muscles, nerves, hands, etc., and in this sense both human labor.”2 But we can only see these common aspects if we abstract away all of the differences between the two types of labor. For Marx, an idea is abstract if it represents only part of the thing it is describing. An abstract idea is a partial, incomplete picture of reality. When we say that both labors are an expenditure of human brains, nerves and muscles we abstract away all of the concrete differences between the two labors and are left with only the most abstract, partial dimension of the labor process.

Labor is both concrete and abstract. A particular labor, shoe-making for instance, is concrete in that it consists of a certain combination of activities that produces shoes and not pianos. But at the same time, considered abstractly, shoe-making is a “productive expenditure of human brains, muscles, nerves, hands, etc.,” and it shares this abstract quality with piano manufacturing and all other labors. The concrete aspects of labor correspond to the distinct use-values of commodities. Abstract labor, the aspect common to all labor, is what produces value.

In some ways this presentation might not seem so different than other common uses of “abstract” and “concrete”. For instance, we might use a similar process in defining a ball. All balls have a common quality: they are a sphere that can be thrown. Each concrete ball is different in size, weight, color, etc. Each individual ball is a concrete object but also a member of a class of objects that we designate with the abstraction “ball”.

But if we look a little closer at Marx’s presentation of abstract labor we begin to see ways in which the way “abstract labor” is abstract differs from the way in which”ball” might be considered abstract. “Ball” is a term used to classify a group of objects by their common properties. “Ball” is a linguistic construct that describes a class of objects. It is another matter with abstract labor. Abstract labor is not just a mental or linguistic abstraction made for the purpose of classification. The force of socially necessary labor time, in the real world, reduces labor to an abstraction. This abstraction emerges from a social process and not just a mind contemplating objects. Individual balls have no necessary relation to each other. They just share common properties. Abstract labors have a necessary, intrinsic connection to one another because socially necessary labor time is the result of a social process in which all labors participate.

If this seems odd it may help to note that Marx’s notion of abstract and concrete are somewhat different than the way these terms often appear in everyday use. It is not uncommon to hear abstract/concrete as a stand-in for mind/matter, where abstract ideas exist in the mind and concrete things exist in reality. Marx’s use of the terms comes from a philosophical tradition inherited through Hegel in which ideas can be abstract or concrete and aspects of reality can be abstract and concrete.3 An idea is concrete if it captures a concept in all of its interrelated determinations while an idea is abstract if it only considers one-side of a thing in isolation. The same is true for the real world, outside of the mind of philosophers. Things exist concretely in a complex tapestry of interrelations which all create and define the concrete thing in question. But sometimes a thing itself can exist abstractly when it is developed one-sidedly, partially. As we will see below, capitalism develops the abstract aspects of labor, degrading work to an abstract expenditure of effort over time, in order to rid itself of its dependency on the concrete skills of workers. By developing labor as an abstraction, capital is able to achieve mastery over the worker, diminishing the worker to an abstract input in an objective production process.

Abstract labor, then, is both a concept and a real thing. It is a concept that describes a real material phenomenon, the abstract labor that workers perform in a capitalist society.

“Physiologically Abstract”?

Some critics charge that Marx’s notion of abstract labor is problematic if it is interpreted as referring to physiological aspects of the labor process. Several times in Capital and the Critique of Political Economy Marx refers to abstract labor as a “productive expenditure of human brains, muscles, nerves, hands, etc.”4 These abstract elements of labor are a “physiological fact” to Marx. There is a line of criticism directed at Marx’s “physiological” definition of abstract labor. We find this critique in its classic form in the writings of the Soviet economist Issac Rubin who argued that a physiological definition of abstract labor implies that all labor throughout history has been abstract, thus “naturalizing” and “reifying” a category of capitalist social relations.5

It is tempting to agree with Rubin. After all, Marx is constantly critiquing bourgeoise economists for projecting categories like “capital” and “labor” back in time in a way that makes the elements of capitalist production seem like eternal, natural aspects of all social orders for all of time. It is true that all labor, regardless of the mode of production, is an expenditure of effort over time. This could make it appear as if all labor throughout history is abstract and therefore all labor has produced value.

However, as explained in the opening paragraphs of this chapter, what allows us to say that the abstract expenditure of human brains, muscles and nerves of the tailor is equivalent to that of the weaver is the fact that both are subjected to the same social process, socially necessary labor time, which disciplines workers to produce at the social average and which only counts their product as social to the extent that it meets this social average. While we can use our powers of mental abstraction to see that the labor of cavemen, Roman slaves, etc. were all expenditures of human energy in the abstract, it is only in a capitalist society that society, not philosophy, performs this abstraction. It is only with capitalism that the abstraction “labor in general” becomes a “practical truth”6. Thus labor can be physiologically abstract and at the same time abstract labor can be a historically contingent category, the result of specific social relations, and not an eternal category of all human history.

Rubin’s difficulty in understanding how a physiological category can be abstract is a product of an artificial division which he erects between social aspects of capitalism and “material/technical” aspects of capitalism.7 For Rubin, social relations between people are the subject of value theory while the technical aspects of production are the subject of science. From this arbitrary dichotomy comes the conclusion that physiological aspects of labor cannot produce value because they are technical aspects of production and not a social phenomenon between people. Rubin’s arbitrary dichotomy of social/technical is similar to the above mentioned dichotomy of mind/matter. Both assume that material things can only be concrete and that abstraction belongs to the mind or to social reality. This way of dividing up philosophy short-circuits the power of Marx’s method, making it impossible to see how a physiological reality can be abstract, social and historical.

Lest the reader think that such debates are purely for the realm of obscurantist philosophers it should be noted that Rubin’s social/technical dichotomy is reflective of the Soviet approach to socialism which treated the development of the forces of production as a purely technical issue while ignoring the fact that the Soviet worker was just as degraded, alienated and exploited as her counterparts in capitalist society. To truly free workers from the tyranny of abstract labor we need an understanding of abstract labor that does not reduce abstractions to purely mental activity and does not treat the labor process purely as a technical process unshaped by the mode of production. We will return to this theme later in the chapter.

Abstract Ideas and Practical Truth

“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.”8

Of course, for all of human history, labor has been “a certain productive expenditure of muscles, nerves, brain, etc.” However, human labor has not always produced value nor have all societies considered all human labor to be qualitatively the same in an economic sense. While the labor of a feudal serf and a guildsman may have both been productive expenditures of muscles, nerves, brains, etc. these societies did not have a notion of “man in general” or of the qualitative equality between labors. An hour of serf labor was not qualitatively equal to an hour of guild labor. While it may have been possible to form a mental abstraction of human labor in general in past societies, it is only in capitalism that such an abstraction becomes a “practical truth”. This is why the notion of labor in general as the source of economic value only emerges with the development of capitalism.9

When Marx says that abstract labor attains a “practical truth” in capitalism he means that labor is treated abstractly in actual social practice.10 Capitalists and workers, as personifications of the economic categories of capital and labor, treat labor abstractly. They do this not because of an idea they have of abstract labor, but because such social practice is an essential part of capitalist production.

There are several overlapping ways that labor is treated abstractly in capitalist production. While socially necessary labor time assures that an hour of work is a uniform expenditure of abstract energy, this occurs within a complex of interlocking social relations which allow for such a practical abstraction.

To start with, the fact that workers are separated from the means of production through the institution of private property means that an individual has no permanent relation to a particular type of labor. Workers in a capitalist society do not own the means of production but instead sell their labor to a capitalist who owns the means of production. Rather than workers being in control of the objects upon which they labor, workers are denuded, empty subjects with no objective connection to any specific labor process. They could be hired by any capitalist to perform any type of concrete labor. Divorced also from their means of subsistence, workers seek a job not to fulfill themselves as productive, creative beings but in order to make money to buy their subsistence in the market. The specific concrete labor they do has no particular bearing on the goal of earning money to buy subsistence goods. All jobs make money and so any job is as good as another, from this perspective, as long as it allows one to purchase the same subsistence goods as any other job. The result is a society in which workers are relatively indifferent to the type of labor they perform. People pass with relative ease from one occupation to the next and society educates the entire workforce in a general set of skills that prepares workers to do a variety of interchangeable jobs. The capitalist mode of production only arises historically when capital “confronts the totality of all labors potentially, and the particular one it confronts at any time is an accidental matter.”11

The skeptical reader may object that, subjectively, workers have a range of attitudes about their work, not all of which reflect an utter indifference to their occupation. It is unlikely that when Marx speaks of abstract labor being characterized by an indifference to concrete labor he is making a claim to describe all subjective feelings about work.12 Rather he is describing certain objective conditions which cause the particular concrete type of work to be a matter of relative indifference to both capitalists and labors. Subjective attitudes exist within what might be termed an “objective indifference” to the particular concrete form of labor. Compared to the rigid class-systems of pre-capitalist society, capitalist society shows a high degree of mobility between concrete labors. People in feudal Europe did not have “jobs”. They were born into a class and performed the labor associated with this class until they died. The relative mobility between occupations in a capitalist society is a reflection of the fact that workers are not tied to a particular means of production and are thus treated as abstract units which can be applied to any production process.

More importantly, separated from the means of production workers do not own the product of their work, nor do they control the labor process. As denuded subjects, all they can do is perform labor at a pace and content dictated to them by the objective organization of production that they confront. This makes it impossible for workers to have an experience of work in which their labor is a true process of fulfilling their creative potential as social beings. Instead work is a task, an imposition, a job, a drag, something to get through in order to survive. Though workers work with means of production these means of production are the property of someone else, a capitalist whose material interest is to control the labor process for the purpose of maximizing exploitation. The means of production confront the worker as an alien being and thus concrete labor appears to the worker as an alien process imposed upon her. With no intrinsic relation to a concrete labor process the worker enters production as an abstract subject.

The imperative to produce at the socially necessary labor time enforces a tendency toward uniformity of production norms. An assembly line worker at Ford might easily replace an assembly line worker at Chrysler because the pressure to produce at the average level of efficiency creates a tendency for the spread of technologies and labor practices across an industry so that work is virtually identical from one job to another. The particular worker is highly expendable, easily replaced by another. This is true between industries as well, as the cog-like activity of labor becomes increasingly similar from one type of work to another.

Socially necessary labor time dictates that an hour of concrete labor performed at the socially necessary labor time is an hour of abstract labor.13 If the socially necessary labor time to make a widget is 1 hour and it takes me an hour to make a widget then I have performed an hour of abstract labor. If I take 2 concrete hours to make the widget then I still have produced an hour of abstract labor. This mechanism imposes a uniform efficiency on all labor so that all labor is valued equally as an abstract expenditure of human energy. By valuing commodities in this way capitalism erases the differences between workers so that any one worker’s labor is just an anonymous input in a giant mass of social labor, the individual pieces of which are indistinguishable from on another.

The imperative to produce at or under the socially necessary labor time is the prime motivator in the mechanization of work and the scientific management of the labor process. Value is measured in hours and thus the vast majority of changes to the production process revolve around the need to decrease the time it takes to carry out tasks. The less control the worker has over the the labor process the easier it is for the capitalist to increase the speed and intensity of work. Machines and scientific management of the labor process are the prime weapons of capital in its quest to take control of the labor process away from workers. Machines free capital from its dependence on the concrete skills of the worker.14 By dictating the pace and intensity of work through a machine the worker becomes a cog in the machine, an abstract input into the production process with no space for the exertion of will or creativity.

Lastly, it should be noted that capitalist production has one goal and this is to extract the maximum amount of surplus-value from workers. The capitalist’s only concern is to invest money in order to make more money. In order to increase surplus-value capital must pass through the stage of concrete labor. Commodities with use-values must be produced. But the specific type of commodity and the specific labor process required to produce this commodity are a matter of indifference for capital. It is the accumulation value for its own sake, abstracting away from use-value and concrete labor, that is the reason for capitalist production. To the capitalist all labor is the same as long as it produces surplus labor time. This absolute indifference to concrete labor contributes to the degradation and domination of the labor process, as discussed above.

Simple and Complex Labor

As we have seen, one of the most crucial ways in which labor is treated as abstract in practice is in the drive to produce at the socially necessary labor time. Socially necessary labor time assures capital that despite the different use-vales made by workers in different industries, each hour of work is an hour of abstract labor expended at the socially necessary labor time. Thus, an hour of one person’s labor is equal to an hour of anyone else’s, allowing capital to confront the totality of labors as one homogenous, abstract mass.

However, the above claim would be more correctly stated as, “an hour of simple labor is equal to any other hour of simple labor.” Simple labor is “the labor-power possessed in his bodily organism by every ordinary man, on the average, without being developed in any special way.”15 It is what might commonly be referred to as “unskilled labor”, though the term “simple” is perhaps more appropriate than “unskilled” since all labor requires some degree of skill, no matter how basic. Simple labor is the labor that any average citizen of a society can perform. This average set of common skills changes over time and varies between societies, “but in a particular society it is given.”16

Simple labor stands in contrast to complex labor. Complex labor is labor that embodies a specialized skill-set that allows it to produce more value in an hour than simple labor. While one hour of simple labor produces the same amount of value as any other hour of simple labor, an hour of complex labor produces more value than an hour of simple labor.

Some critics have argued that the fact that complex labor produces more value than skilled labor contradicts the idea that one hour of abstract labor is equal to any other person’s hour of abstract labor.17

Marx addresses the issue of complex and simple labor with brevity. In social practice complex labor is treated just as abstractly as simple labor. The difference between the two is not a difference of quality (concrete and abstract) but of quantity (how much abstract labor). Complex labor counts as multiples of simple labor. For instance, a doctor’s complex labor might produce five times more value per hour than the simple labor of a barista. But both the barista’s simple labor and the doctor’s complex labor are abstract because both are subject to the imperative to produce at the socially necessary labor time. An hour of doctoring done at the socially necessary labor time is, in this case, equal to five hours of barista labor done at the socially necessary labor time. The quantitative relation between complex labor and simple labor is determined by social processes carried out “behind the backs of the producers”.

Most of the controversy that has surrounded Marx’s reduction of complex labor to simple labor stems from a misunderstanding of what Marx claims. Marx is sometimes misread to be arguing that complex labor is only abstract once it is reduced to simple labor.18 This leads to the charge that Marx should have specified a precise formula for how complex labor is reduced to simple labor. However, this line of thinking immediately sets Marx’s theory up for failure because there is no way to reduce one concrete labor to a multiple of another concrete labor. Like use-values, concrete labors are incommensurable. There is no meaningful way of comparing or reducing the concrete work of a doctor to that of a barista in a quantitative sense. A thing can only be a multiple of another if both are of the same quality. Complex labor can be reduced to simple labor because both are abstract. Both are abstract because both are subject to the imperative to produce at the socially necessary labor time.19

Marx’s comment that the reduction of concrete labor to simple labor is carried out by social forces “behind the backs of the producers”, likens this reduction to all of the other laws of capitalism like socially necessary labor time and the tendential fall in rate of profit which exert themselves without the conscious intervention of society. Primarily, the existence of complex labor is the result of the time it takes to train skilled workers. An hour of this complex labor is a concentrated expenditure of this stored-up energy.20

The Value-Form, Particular-Universal, and Abstract Concrete

The following section of this chapter discusses the relation between Marx’s concrete-abstract labor argument and the particular-universal argument that he makes in the value-form section of Chapter One of Capital. This section would not necessarily be so crucial to include here were it not for the great deal of misreadings on this topic that one finds in the secondary literature. The argument Marx makes about the difference between particular expressions of value and universal expressions of value is often conflated with Marx’s argument about concrete and abstract labor. This section endeavors to make a few constructive points that may help the reader find clarity about the relation of the “value-form” to abstract labor.

In the “value-form” section of chapter one of Capital Marx endeavors to explain how the abstract labor objectified in a commodity expresses itself in exchange-value. It may be helpful to remember that abstract labor is an activity that workers do, that it is objectified in commodities as the substance of their intrinsic value, and that this value must be expressed in exchange-value. While any commodity can express the value of any other commodity through a simple equation (A=B), Marx shows how this process results in one commodity becoming the universally recognized expression of value for all other commodities. This is the money commodity. Money is the “universal equivalent”.21

Commodities have a “natural form” and a “value form”. The natural-form is the physical body of the commodity itself. The “form of value” or the “value-form” refers to the form taken by the intrinsic value of commodities when this intrinsic value, this abstract labor time, is expressed in the physical form of another commodity. This happens whenever we equate one commodity with another. Any commodity can be the value-form of any other commodity. Linen can be the value form of coats. Sweet peas can be the value-form of linen. Bicycles can be the value-form of sweet peas, and so on, in an endless series of expressions of the “simple form of value”. It is easy to imagine the difficulties that would arise if society were to attempt to organize commodity production and exchange only using this method of valuing commodities. When each commodity measures its value in a different commodity there is no one commodity that can stand as a universal expression of the abstract labor embodied in commodities. The abstract labor in coats is expressed in the particular form of linen, in the physical body of the linen. The abstract labor in the sweet peas is expressed in the particular physical body of bicycles. Though these commodities are all commensurable because they embody abstract labor, no one commodity serves as a universal measure of abstract labor. Instead we just have a series of particular expressions of value, each in the form of a different use-value corresponding to a particular concrete labor.

The defects of the simple-form of value lead to the emergence of the money-form of value. When money stands as the general-equivalent of all other commodities, it becomes a universally recognized expression of abstract labor. Abstract labor is expressed in a universal form, as general social labor. Rather than abstract labor being expressed in this or that particular use-value, it is expressed in one commodity.

This move from the particular to the universal is an important theme in Marx’s discussion of the value-form. Marx’s argument about money becoming the universal expression of value is sometimes conflated or confused with Marx’s argument about concrete and abstract labor.22 Since the abstract labor in commodities cannot be expressed as universal social labor until it is expressed in money this has caused some readers to believe that it is the exchange of commodities for money that retroactively turns the labor embodied in a commodity into abstract labor. In this reading, the labor of a coat-maker remains concrete until the coat is exchanged for money. The act of exchanging the coat for money makes the labor that had been expended on it abstract. This line of thinking has spawned a sprawling body of thought loosely lumped together under the moniker “value-form approach”. The Soviet economist Isacc Rubin is generally considered the intellectual originator of this line of thinking. The “value-form approach” has some key differences with the value-form argument that Marx makes in Capital.

It is not hard to see where this confusion might creep in. For instance, when discussing the defects of the simple form of value Marx says, “the specific, concrete, useful kind of labor contained in each commodity-equivalent is only a particular kind of labor and therefore not an exhaustive form of appearance of human labor in general.”23 A sentence like this seems to equate particular and concrete labor so that each person’s particular, private labor remains concrete even in the simple form of value, only becoming universal and abstract in the money form where particular labors are equated with the universal symbol of labor in general. However, a closer reading might catch the crucial phrase “form of appearance” in the above sentence. These three words make all of the difference. They clue us in to the fact that Marx is not discussing a process of concrete labor becoming abstract labor. Rather, he is discussing the inadequacy of the simple form of value as an expression of, a form of appearance of value.

Value must be expressed. It must appear. The form of its appearance depends on what the commodity is equated with. If the coats are equated with linen then coats have a particular expression of value in the form of linen. If coats are equated with money then coats express their value in a universal form. This ability to express value in a particular or universal form is only possible because all commodities are already products of abstract labor, already contain intrinsic value, and are thus commensurable. The “value-form approach” , on the contrary, leads us to the conclusion that labor is solely concrete before commodities exchange and that therefore value doesn’t exist until exchange happens. (The “value-form approach” is often referred to as a “circulationist approach” since it implies that value arises in circulation rather than production.) This eliminates the concept of intrinsic value, so crucial to Marx’s value theory, as argued in a previous chapter.

The debate over the value-form leads to an important question: Is capitalism fundamentally characterized by market exchange or by commodity production? If money is what makes labor abstract, if exchange produces value, then we can eliminate capitalism by replacing the market with state planning. But if abstract labor is rendered abstract by the practical truth of the role of the worker in production, and by the disciplining of production by socially necessary labor time, then a state plan does not necessarily constitute the overthrow of capitalism. This puts an understanding of abstract labor and the value-form at the center of any analysis of 20th century “communism” as well as discussions of how to supersede capitalism in the future.

Marx developed his explanation of the value-form very carefully in order to counter the popular theories of Proudhon and his anarchist-mutualist followers who blamed money for distorting the natural laws of commodity production. Marx wanted to show that money, the universal equivalent, was just a developed form of the simple-form of value and that the form of value was an expression of the intrinsic value already existing in commodities. Thus, money is an inescapable part of any commodity-producing society. The social ills of capitalism are the result of the contradictions of the commodity form, not of some monetary distortion imposed on the natural order of things.

When Rubin and the so-called “value-form school” argue that labor is rendered abstract in exchange, and that therefore value is created in exchange, they undo Marx’s value-form argument against Proudhon. Capitalism is given its distinctive form by exchange and not by commodity production. This point of view produces a politics which focuses on eliminating markets with planning rather than eliminating the capitalist mode of production. Marx’s view suggests a much more radical vision in which we are challenged to create a society in which work is not an alienated abstraction.

Abstract Labor and Communism

As this chapter has argued, although labor can be considered abstractly in any mode of production, it is only in a capitalist society that labor is treated abstractly in practice. This understanding is then crucial for the project of specifying what would be necessary to break with the capitalist mode of production and construct a new society based on the needs of people rather than the needs of capital.

As discussed more fully in the chapter on Indirectly Social Labor, labor in a capitalist society is only counted as social labor to the extent that it is socially necessary labor. In a communist society each individual’s labor would be counted as social labor immediately and fully without having to be mediated through a process of social averaging. Thus, it would not be the case that labor was only counted as social labor in the most abstract sense. Rather, a communist society would treat concrete labor as social labor.

With this understanding that a communist society would treat concrete labor as social labor, we can then ask what sort of social relations, and what organization of production would be necessary for this to be the case. For one, labor must cease to be a matter of indifference to the worker. This implies that workers are not divorced from the means of production, only encountering the means or production when they sell their labor to capital. Rather, workers must be in control of the means of production and shape the labor process in a way that makes their work meaningful and easier. Society must not be geared toward the production of abstract value for its own sake. Rather, communism must aim to provide use-vales for people and to organize the labor process in such a way that work becomes life’s “prime want”.24

The picture of a communist society without abstract labor which begins to emerge when one accepts Marx’s notion of abstract labor as real work rendered abstract by the peculiar sociality of capitalist production contrasts starkly with the picture of communism that can be deduced from the “value-form” interpretation of abstract labor in which labor is rendered abstract in exchange. In the latter case it is the market that is the defining feature of capitalism and thus a planned society which eliminates markets also eliminates abstract labor. This says nothing about the nature of work itself. A planned society could be just as degrading for workers, workers could still be compelled to work at the socially necessary labor time, and labor could still be treated abstractly in the sense that labor is only counted as social to the extent that it is an average expenditure of physical work. The difference in these two notions of abstract labor plays a big role in the debate over whether the 20th century “communism” of the USSR, China, etc. constituted an actual break with the capitalist mode of production or whether these societies were just planned-capitalism.

1. Below this statement is qualified by adding the dimension of simple and complex labor so that the statement becomes, “An hour of simple labor done at the socially necessary labor time produces the same amount of value as any other hour of simple labor done at the socially necessary labor time.”

2Marx, Capital Vol. 1 p. 134

3Ilyenkov, Evald. “The Dialectics of the Abstract and Concrete in Marx’s Capital”

4Marx, Capital vol. 1 p. 134 and 164; Critique of Political Economy – citation needed.

5Rubin, “Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value” p. 135. Rubin, famously, is not able to explain why Marx consistently refers to abstract labor as a “ productive expenditure of human brains, muscles, nerves, hands, etc.”

6Marx Grundrisse p. 33 MIA see below for a discussion of this notion of abstract labor as “practical truth.”

7Kicillof. Axel and Starosta, Guido “On Materiality and Social Form: A Political Critique of Rubin’s Value-Form Theory” in Historical Materialism 15 (2007) 9-43

8Marx, Grundrisse- P. 33 MIA

9Marx, Grundrisse. P. 32 MIA

10“This reduction appears to be an abstraction; but it is an abstraction which takes place daily in the social process of production.” Marx, CPE p.24

11Marx, Grundrisse. p.297

12Marx, Grundrisse. p.38 MIA

13. McGlone, Kliman. “The Duality of Labor” in The New Value Controversy, ed. Freeman, Kliman, Wells. The authors point out a little-cited passage from Marx’s “Resultate” which presents abstract labor as an hour of concrete labor done at the socially necessary labor time.

14 McGlone, Kliman. “The Duality of Labor”

15Marx, Capital vol 1. p.135


17“Karl Marx and the Close of His System” Bohm-Bawerk, Eugene. In “Karl Marx and the Close of His System and Bohm-Bawerk’s Criticism of Marx” ed. Sweezy, Paul. p.80-83

18Again, see Bohm-Bawerk p.80-83

19McGlone, Kliman. “The Duality of Labor” p.138

20As far as I am aware Marx does not explicitly explain the existence of complex labor through the time it takes to acquire skill (or any other reason.) However I believe this explanation makes sense of the concept and is also a common-sense description of reality. If, for instance, I am paid to perform Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” on the piano, this minute of my labor is an expenditure of concentrated, stored-up labor which I undertook in the preparation required to learn the piece. If my job is to play the piano, I would not undertake this labor if I were not compensated for it. Socially necessary labor time presses upon my practice-time just as it does upon any other labor process. Hilferding explores a similar line of thought in “Bohm-Bawerk’s criticism of Marx.” in “Karl Marx and the Close of His System and Bohm-Bawerk’s Criticism of Marx” ed. Sweezy, Paul. p.80-83

21Marx’s value-form argument is deeply influenced by his longstanding critique of the French socialism of Proudhon and his followers, the intellectual ancestors of contemporary mutualist anarchists. The Proudhonists blamed the social contradictions of capitalism on money and thus believed that ridding capitalism of money would alleviate capitalism’s inequalities and crisis. However they believed that this was all possible without eliminating commodity production. Marx’s critique shows that the money-form of value is inherent in the basic relation of value between any two commodities and thus impossible to eliminate without also eliminating commodity production itself.

22For instance, see Rubin p. 144 for an typical instance where Rubin misinterprets a passage from Marx about the generality/universality of the value-form as a passage about the “reduction of concrete forms of labor to abstract labor.” In actuality, the quote from Marx occurs not in a discussion about what social process makes labor abstract, but rather in a discussion of why commodities require a universal equivalent which expresses the abstract labor they already contain.

23Marx, Capital vol. 1 p.157

24Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program”. Page?

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26 Responses to

  1. allan harris says:

    I am glad to see you posting again.
    Here is a comment: You say, “Even if a worker is less efficient than average, her product is valued at the socially necessary labor time.” I think this may be inaccurate. If the worker uses more social time than is necessary (is less efficient), then, by definition,the product must contain less value. So, if the worker uses one hr to produce something that should take only one-half hour, the product is worth half the value of a product made with one half hour of necessary labor.

    Also, it seems from re-reading of Ch. One of Capital, that Marx defined abstract labor as that component of commodities which is common to all commodities, but which is not a qualitative, not a concrete aspect , not a use value, of the commodity. This is why the marginalists claim that what is common to commodities is not labor but their price or their scarcity….thus, for them, economics is the management of scarce resources.


    • Allan, I don’t follow you on your first point. If 1 hour is the SNLT for a widget, and I take ten hours to make it, my ten hours of labor have produced 1 hour of SNLT. Thus my product is “valued at the socially necessary labor time” regardless of my efficiency. I don’t follow your objection.

  2. allan harris says:

    For Marx “abstract labor” was an “unsubstantial reality”, a homogeneous congelation of human labor without regard to its individual concrete content or method of use. Abstract labor has no real substance yet it forms the basis for all wealth created by capitalist society. The bricklayer and the surgeon use their labor to produce different goods or services, yet their abstract labor has no qualitative difference except as to the magnitude of the labor, usually depending on the amount of previous labor (education) contained in their own labor.

    This is truly an incredible achievement by Marx, that all human labor is the same, differing only in the amount of previous labor contained in it. No wonder Marx is so vilified by the bourgeois economists, he destroys the absolute foundation of their understanding of economics.

    What kind of measurement would one use to account for this abstract labor? You would have to lump together, without regard to type or quality of labor, all the products and services produced by all labor. That is now done with the Gross Domestic Product. All products and services are treated as one gigantic mass, differing only in the amount paid for each product or service. There is no special category for the calculation of any specific labor, all are measured in terms of monetary value alone.

    The only way this is possible is if the total mass of labor is treated as an abstract unity measured with an abstract social unit: money.

  3. ReadingCapital says:

    Hey Brendan, my name is Christian and I’m a freshman in college and I’ve been reading your blog just about everyday since a couple months ago trying to comprehend everything you’ve posted to gain a further understanding aside from my readings of the multiple volumes of Capital. When I heard you were making a book, I got really excited and a little anxious haha. I really like what you’re doing and I was wondering if there was a way to privately contact you about questions, information, or stuff like that. But aside from the introduction I have some input and questions,

    1. Back in 2015 (Don’t quote me on that lol) you said you were writing a book and just until a couple days ago you’ve been pretty inactive on the site, so I was wondering when your book was going to be released/finished and about how much would it cost?

    2. I think it would really help me and maybe some other readers to include (not necessarily in the book but maybe a post about it) a “essay” about Marx’s analysis of previous modes of production such as Feudalism, Slavery, Primitive Communism and then contrast those to Capitalism. What are the similarities and the differences. Maybe even add something about how bourgeois economists define capitalism as “private ownership of the means of production” and how that views capitalism as a trans-historical entity and does not show us the differences.

    3. I really like your critique of bourgeois economic value theory in the last episodes of the “law of value” series and I was wondering if you’d be providing a more in depth critique of marginal utility in your book as well. (I find your last couple episodes very very very interesting and eye opening)

    4. Will your book give a well explained walk-through through Marx’s deduction of the labor theory of value? I know you’ve made a few posts regarding this such as “Labor as the substance of value” and other posts but maybe doing a big manuscript on this would really clear misconceptions and provide a very well put together defense and argument.

    Thank you so much for responding, I believe you can email me via the email I put in to comment on this post. Thank you and PLEASE keep posting (and more often) 🙂 (also it would be cool to know some background info about you and why you got into this stuff)

    • thanks for the comments.
      in answer to you first question: life got busy, then Trump happened…. so the book is going to have to wait, even though it’s mostly done.
      2. I wasn’t planning on that
      3. I will probably only mention bourgeois economists which Marx differentiated himself from, and clarify a few things about marginal utility and price in relation to Marx.
      4. Yes it will.

  4. ReadingCapital says:

    I also think you should incorporate your law of value episode 9 video in here as well. You do a very good job explaining

    “If abstract labor is not a philosophical idea but a real phenomenon, a real abstraction that is made by capitalism itself then that leads us to ask again: what sort of society makes this possible?” (You).

    In regards to making the concept of Abstract Labor an easier to grasp concept I really like your explanation of what does it mean to abstract, how to abstract, and why Marx’s abstractions are valid:

    “What does it mean to abstract? We abstract all of the time. When we say “woman” we are not talking about any concrete specific woman. We are talking about women in general. Yet, there is no such thing as a woman in the abstract. We cannot meet her at a bar and buy her a drink. We can only experience concrete women, specific women.

    To attempt to look at the complex totality that is a capitalist society only in its concreteness, only in the specific actions of trillions of individuals all happening at the same time, would be madness. We have to separate out the patterns, finding terms that can encompass a broad swath of concrete behaviors into general, abstract terms. Instead of talking about rice, tanks and DVD’s we have to talk about commodities. Instead of talking about carpentry, dentistry, and bicycle repair we must talk about labor.” (You). This analysis continues but I give a brief quote.

    “This also differentiates Marx’s method from bourgeois methods of understanding capitalism. For Austrian economists like von Mises it is the abstraction of free human action that is the foundational abstraction that frames the theory of capitalism. But we cannot ever see “human action” in the abstract. It is merely a philosophical device and thus appears as an arbitrary starting point for a philosophical system, begging the charge of being an ideologically motivated starting point.”

    In essence, I think something that would help readers, and especially me, is explaining “each” step and going through the “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and Hows” of it as well. Using the “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How” method really helps clarify things better. It is also super helpful when you put this alongside another bourgeois economist’s abstractions (or whatever they’re talking about) and explaining why its wrong (like how you did with Mises in the above quote).

  5. Erik Olofsson says:

    First off, I’m really excited that you’re writing a book! And the text is very, very good. It is clear and precise, and it does what it sets out to do I think. I’ve tried my best to critique some small things here below, most of them probably inconsequential to the general argument. Also, I admit that my understanding of Marx’s own theory is severly lacking, so I may be wrong on some or all of the points. On we go.

    3rd para: “However, in a society governed by the imperative to produce at the socially necessary labor time, we know that each hour of work, regardless of whether it is tailoring, weaving, or any other concrete form, is held to a standard level of efficiency.”

    Shouldn’t this really be “ or below the socially necessary labour time…”? Maybe this is explained elsewhere, but isn’t this really the imperative of capitalist production, which is why we continually see advances in productive technology? It’s not merely an imperative to produce strictly at the SNLT, even if this may be “sufficient”, it is really an imperative to continually produce at or below the SNLT, which continually decreases SNLT itself, meaning that the SNLT for any produced article trends towards zero.

    3rd para: “Thus, in this sense, we know that an hour of tailoring, done at the socially necessary labor time, is equal to an hour of weaving or any other work done at the socially necessary labor time.”

    I’m not certain, but I think there might be a conceptual problem here. Perhaps it would be more correct/rigid to say something like, “…done at the same level of efficiency of production as the concept of SNLT implicates”.

    3rd para: “Thus, in this sense, we know that an hour of tailoring, done at the socially necessary labor time, is equal to an hour of weaving or any other work done at the socially necessary labor time.”

    I’m not sure that this is right. As I understand SNTL, it is a per article phenomenon; “The labour time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time.”

    We could imagine that degrees of skill and intensity of labour varies at least somewhat with articles produced, so that one hour of socially necessary labour producing one article entails more abstract labour than one hour of socially necessary labour producing another article. Right? Of course, this would probably sort itself out trough market competition over time, but still.

    3rd para: “Through the mechanism of socially necessary labor time all labors appear as equal expenditures of abstract human effort over time.”

    I’m not absolutely certain about this, but isn’t it the exchange relation (not actual exchange) that makes “all labors appear as equal expenditures of abstract human effort over time”, and not SNLT? SNLT pushes all productive activity towards realizing what is already “real” in the exchange relation, the fact that all labour “counts as” the same thing. I believe that it is production for exchange, commodity production, that lies at the core of why labours appear this way, and that SNLT follows from this.

    4th para: “This abstract expenditure of human labor over time is what Marx calls “abstract labor.” While the tailor performs abstract labor, this abstract expenditure of effort has a specific concrete form.”

    On “effort”. Let me make a thought experiment on this issue to see if I’m thinking clearly.
    We have two shops, producing the same kind of article, using the same equipment. They each hire five workers, none of whom are particularly “skilled”, and they all work with the same “intensity”, meaning that they produce the same amount of goods during one hour of work. In this particular case however, the workers of one of the firms have to put a lot of effort in, due to who they are as individuals. This does not in any way change the amount of abstract labour that gets embodied in the product, right? Both shops produce at the SNLT, and still, at one shop the workers expend more effort than at the other. In my mind, “effort” can only be a concept relating to individuals, but perhaps I’m not thinking this through correctly.

    5th para: “But, as we have already seen, labor is not just treated abstractly in thought. It is treated abstractly by society itself, in reducing all labors to an equal expenditure of energy.

    I would be careful about using the term “expenditure of energy” here. It is possible to measure the exact amount of energy that any particular, concrete labour-process consumes, for example by measuring the amount of CO2 that any individual worker exhales during the labour-process. Human beings will always consume different amounts of energy performing the same task, due to genetic differences, age, and so on.

    So, it can not be the energy-expenditure of labour that is equalized, if it is a matter of energy at all, which I am doubtful of. If it is a matter of energy, it must be the energy-input into the labouring process. An example:

    One particular labour-process means pushing this boulder up that mountain. This requires a certain definite energy-input, but that does not mean that any particular worker expends just as much energy as any other worker performing the same task, since individuals perform different tasks with different energy-efficiency.

    I think that it is better to understand the abstraction of concrete labours as the ongoing equalizing of labouring conditions to their (lowest?) common denominator, not as an equalization of individual labours themselves (effort, energy-expenditure), which can never really be equalized for individuals in relation to any particular labour-process. Human labour can only be equalized in relation to effort itself, which is a matter of personal perception, or to the actual potentiality of any individual performing any particular labour-process.

    10th para: “All balls have a common quality: they are a sphere that can be thrown.”

    Not ALL balls. Many, but not all. I can think of several kinds of balls that can not be thrown. And other kinds of balls that are not spherical. Most balls are spheres that can be thrown, but not all. Sorry. 🙂

    As an example, here is a more rigid example used in the classification of things: “The eukaryote is any organism whose cells have a nucleus enclosed within membranes.”

    26th para: “The imperative to produce at the socially necessary labor time enforces a tendency toward uniformity of production norms. An assembly line worker at Ford might easily replace an assembly line worker at Chrysler because the pressure to produce at the average level of efficiency creates a tendency for the spread of technologies and labor practices across an industry so that work is virtually identical from one job to another.”

    Yes! This is what I’m getting at above I think. The point being that it is a movement across similar types of industries, producing the same kind of articles, at least at first. Very clear and good.

    49th para: “Rather, workers must be in control of the means of production and shape the labor process in a way that makes their work meaningful and easier. “

    I agree with “meaningful”, but I disagree with the term “easier”. More enjoyable, yes, but not necessarily easier. Many people seek out activities that are really, really complex and difficult to master. I know that I do. The fact that something is difficult to master does not mean it is not enjoyable and fulfilling, in fact many times the opposite is true.

  6. ruzihm says:

    Welcome back! I am so glad you are still publishing works on the topic!

  7. Jehu says:

    This post is weak. Labor power is abstract labor, i.e., labor in the abstract. The potential for labor in all of its concrete forms. You don’t mention labor power even once in the entire post. I am not sure how you managed that.

  8. Where in Kapital does Marx equate labor power and abstract labor as the same concept? Please provide citation.

    • Jehu says:

      Sorry for the delay. I did not realize you had responded. Marx equates labour power with abstract labour directly in chapter one of Capital:

      “Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied in them, and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract.

      “Let us now consider the residue of each of these products; it consists of the same unsubstantial reality in each, a mere congelation of homogeneous human labour, of labour power expended without regard to the mode of its expenditure. All that these things now tell us is, that human labour power has been expended in their production, that human labour is embodied in them. When looked at as crystals of this social substance, common to them all, they are – Values.”

      The idea that abstract homogenous human labour is somehow mysterious in Marx’s labor theory of value is one of the greatest frauds in post-war history foisted on the value-form school professors. It is hilarioous. You guys and gals tickle the hell out of me.

      • I think Guillem sums it up pretty succinctly. Labor power is the capacity to do work. If this was the same as Abstract Labor, then Marx would be saying that the capacity to do work is what forms the value of commodities. This would make no sense. They are discreet concepts, related but different.

        I don’t know how could read the original post and accuse me of putting forward a value-form interpretation of abstract labor. Large parts of the writing are a critique of value-form theory.

      • Jehu says:

        I could be wrong, but I see nowhere in Capital where Marx makes a distinction between abstract labor and labor power. The opposite is the case: he appears to use the terms interchangeably.

      • If they were interchangeable (a claim you have not given a citation for) then, as I said above, this would result in the nonsensical claim that the capacity to do work forms the value of commodities. How does this make sense to you?

        Marx develops the concepts in different chapters because they come at different stages in his argument and because they answer different questions. Abstract labor explains why heterogenous concrete labors create a homogenous value substance. Labor power explains that the capacity to work is a commodity that sells at its value in a capitalist society. I don’t see them as interchangeable, and I see no evidence that Marx used them interchangeably.

        Furthermore, you have claimed that I am making a value-form argument somewhere in the original post. Either provide a citation for this claim or retract it.

  9. Guillem says:

    Huh? He says “labour power EXPENDED”, not labour power period. I would say that’s a big difference.

    • Jehu says:

      Yes, of course. The capacity to work (labor power) is expended in the process of labor. This expenditure is the source of the value contained in the commodity. I am not sure how this is not already given in my answer. Did you think I was suggesting that the labor power of the worker was somehow magically converted into the value of the commodity by osmosis or something?

      • You literally said “This post is weak. Labor power is abstract labor.” If that was the case, then the value of commodities is formed by the ability of people to work. Saying that the value of commodities is formed of labor which has been performed is different than saying that value is formed by the capacity to perform labor.

      • Jehu says:

        Okay. Be stubborn. But remember that you never even mentioned labor power at all — expended or otherwise. Somehow labor power can produce surplus value without producing value? Is that your argument? Is this because having been sold as a commodity its reproduction now becomes a matter of economic calculation, as Chris Arthur suggests? Of course this can’t be right because you oppose the value form school.

      • I don’t discuss labor power or surplus value in this chapter because this is a chapter about abstract labor. Similarly, Marx develops the concept of abstract labor in chapter 1 of Capital, but waits until later chapters to develop Surplus Value and Labor Power. However, my chapter does discuss the fact that in a capitalist society workers are developed for their general capacity to do any labor, rather than for specific labors, which is related to the concept of labor power.

        However, I really can’t respond to any of your criticism as it is a constantly moving target. First you say that I neglect to say that labor-power and abstract labor are the same concept. Then, when pressed for a citation of this, you provide a citation which does not prove your claim. When I point out the logical fallacy of your claim, you now change your argument to be that I should have “mentioned labor power”, without explaining why this is necessary in order to explain the concept of abstract labor. You have never responded to my criticism of the idea that labor power cannot be the same thing as abstract labor. Then you leap to the claim that I have argued that surplus value can be produced with out producing value… I don’t see the connection. Then onto something about Christopher Arthur, which is completely irrelevant and has nothing to do with my original post.

  10. Jehu says:

    “Furthermore, you have claimed that I am making a value-form argument somewhere in the original post. Either provide a citation for this claim or retract it.”
    Fine. I will do this on my blog, since it requires more of your readers’ patience than I can politely demand.

    • OK. Make sure to cite my extensive criticism of Rubin in your post as well as my discussion of “physiologically abstract.”

      • But, I don’t have time to reply to any posts that misrepresent my argument so if you are interested in a real discussion please take the time to actually engage with what I have written here, rather than make up positions that I don’t take.

  11. KentuckyFriedComrade says:

    Hey there Brenden, I’ve been following your work for nearly a decade now, and remember seeing the Law of Value series when it was first being released. I saw you took down the old video for Abstract Labor and certainly understand and appreciate your views have developed / changed somewhat since, I’m commenting to request you reinstate the old videos, with any disclaimer’s you’d like demarcating that they are out of date and more recent material is available.

    While I appreciate this essay in content, I feel like what it gains in theoretical heft it’s lost in accessibility. And I do feel those videos have been a useful tool in providing solid intuitions for newer Marxists / socialists.

    Put another way, they’re useful for people trying to crawl before they can run and I hope you can see a usefulness in that.

  12. Very useful essay. Thank you. Have you written a chapter on stalinism in accord with the final comments about state planning?

  13. Adolfo says:

    Do you have any further reading about abstract labour that could be in your same line of interpretation?

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