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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Re a Grundrisse fragment on social labor/mediation/etc.

In the context of a very long critique of the Proudhonian idea that commodities should exchange for their exact labor content, Marx comes to this bit in which he contrasts the directly social labor of communal production with the indirectly social labor of commodity production.

“…The communal character of production would make the product into a communal, general product from the outset. The exchange which originally takes place in production — which would not be an exchange of exchange values but of activities, determined by communal needs and communal purposes — would from the outset include the participation of the individual in the communal world of products. On the basis of exchange values, labour is posited as general only through exchange. But on this foundation it would be posited as such before exchange; i.e. the exchange of products would in no way be the medium by which the participation of the individual in general production is mediated. Mediation must, of course, take place. In the first case, which proceeds from the independent production of individuals — no matter how much these independent productions determine and modify each other post festum through their interrelations — mediation takes place through the exchange of commodities, through exchange value and through money; all these are expressions of one and the same relation. In the second case, the presupposition is itself mediated; i.e. a communal production, communality, is presupposed as the basis of production. The labour of the individual is posited from the outset as social labour. Thus, whatever the particular material form of the product he creates or helps to create, what he has bought with his labour is not a specific and particular product, but rather a specific share of the communal production. He therefore has no particular product to exchange. His product is not an exchange value. The product does not first have to be transposed into a particular form in order to attain a general character for the individual. Instead of a division of labour, such as is necessarily created with the exchange of exchange values, there would take place an organization of labour whose consequence would be the participation of the individual in communal consumption. In the first case the social character of production is posited only post festum with the elevation of products to exchange values and the exchange of these exchange values. In the second case the social character of production is presupposed, and participation in the world of products, in consumption, is not mediated by the exchange of mutually independent labours or products of labour. It is mediated, rather, by the social conditions of production within which the individual is active. Those who want to make the labour of the individual directly into money (i.e. his product as well), into realized exchange value, want therefore to determine that labour directly as general labour, i.e. to negate precisely the conditions under which it must be made into money and exchange values, and under which it depends on private exchange. This demand can be satisfied only under conditions where it can no longer be raised. Labour on the basis of exchange values presupposes, precisely, that neither the labour of the individual nor his product are directly general; that the product attains this form only by passing through an objective mediation by means of a form of money distinct from itself.

“On the basis of communal production, the determination of time remains, of course, essential. The less time the society requires to produce wheat, cattle etc., the more time it wins for other production, material or mental. Just as in the case of an individual, the multiplicity of its development, its enjoyment and its activity depends on economization of time. Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself. Society likewise has to distribute its time in a purposeful way, in order to achieve a production adequate to its overall needs;just as the individual has to distribute his time correctly in order to achieve knowledge in proper proportions or in order to satisfy the various demands on his activity. Thus, economy of time, along with the planned distribution of labour time among the various branches of production, remains the first economic law on the basis of communal production. It becomes law, there, to an even higher degree. However, this is essentially different from a measurement of exchange values (labour or products) by labour time. The labour of individuals in the same branch of work, and the various kinds of work, are different from one another not only quantitatively but also qualitatively. What does a solely quantitative difference between things presuppose ? The identity of their qualities. Hence, the quantitative measure of labours presupposes the equivalence, the identity of their quality.”
-Marx, Grundrisse 171-172 (Penguin Edition)

This passage is helpful in understanding the categories of directly and indirectly social labor. The labor of individuals engaged in communal production is directly social because the labor does not need to pass through a mediation in order to be part of the social labor of society. Commodity producing labor must produce a product that people want at the socially necessary labor time in order to be considered social labor. All other labor is wasted labor and is not social. Workers in a commodity producing society much purchase their stock of consumption goods with the money they get from selling their labor time. In communal production workers have no product to sell. They do not exchange one product for another. Instead they participate in social consumption to the extent in which they participate in production. Their product is immediately social from the outset because their labor is not only social to the extent in which it measures up to the social average. To say that a worker participates in social consumption to the extent to which they participate in production means that an hour of work earns one an hour of consumption goods, regardless of the efficiency at which one works. This same idea is repeated in the Critique of the Gotha Program and in the fetishism section of chapter one of Capital.

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Capital course 2015-2016

Reading Capital Closely

Livestream Course on Volume 1

During the 2015–16 school year, Marxist-Humanist Initiative (MHI) will sponsor a course on the first volume of Marx’s Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. The course will be taught by Andrew Kliman, author of Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital” and The Failure of Capitalist Production. If there is sufficient interest, subsequent volumes may be taught in the future.

Marx regarded Capital as a theoretical blow to the bourgeoisie from which it would never recover. We will read Capital in that spirit–that is, not only as a work that can help us understand our world, but as a theoretical critique of the political-economic thought of the bourgeoisie and of other Left tendencies (such as Proudhonism). Attention will be given to uncovering the uniqueness and specificity of Marx’s ideas and analyses––things he has to say that are not found elsewhere, and that are largely absent from discussions on the Left today––and to the critical and revolutionary character of Capital.

Against the grain of contemporary academic and popular discourse, the course will emphasize understanding the text rather than “applying” or “using” it. Careful attention will be paid to the specific question Marx poses at a particular point and the argument(s) he offers to answer it, and to the book’s overall argumentative strategy. Secondary literature will be greatly de-emphasized. The book is certainly difficult, but you can understand it, not just understand what others have said about it. What is needed is hard work, perseverance, and attention to detail. Study questions and reading suggestions will be made available ahead of time; you will be expected to have done the week’s reading prior to the class session.

Class sessions will be held weekly between September and early May, with breaks for holidays, etc., from 1 to 3 p.m. on Sundays (Eastern time in U.S.) Class members who are unable to participate at that time, or who must miss a particular session, will be able to view the Livestream video––which will not be available to the general public––and will be expected to do so prior to the next session.

Participants will have the opportunity to ask questions and make comments both during the class session and on a “bulletin board” afterward; the latter questions will be addressed at the start of the next session.

We don’t want money to be an obstacle to participation. The fee for the course will be low––just enough to cover expenses (professional recording, uploading, etc.).

Applying for the course

The Livestream videos will not be released, during the course or in the future, to the general public. Class participants must agree in writing to refrain from (1) transferring or reproducing the recordings; (2) making their own recordings; and (3) communicating to non-participants what others (including the instructor) have said or written during the class sessions or on the “bulletin board,” unless permission is granted ahead of time. Knowledge of Capital is a powerful weapon in the struggle for a new, human society, and it is important that powerful weapons be in proper hands and used responsibly.

The course is open to trustworthy people who will behave in a solidaristic manner and adhere to standard norms of scholarly dialogue (argument rooted in evidence and reasoning), and whose interest in learning Capital isn’t limited to personal edification. Given that the course will be provided at cost, we ask that applicants think of non-monetary ways they can help MHI. (Monetary donations also help MHI, of course.)

To apply for the course, please address the above concerns and write to mhi@marxisthumanistinitiative.org by July 15.

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Abstract Labor- Capital chapter one

Capital Chapter 1

Compared with the Critique of Political Economy, Capital’s opening exposition is much clearer and more powerful, due in large part to the category of ‘intrinsic value’ which Marx introduces. Commodities have an intrinsic value which is expressed in exchange value. Value is different than use-value and exchange value. It is a 3rd thing.

To establish what this 3rd thing is Marx makes some basic but powerful observations. “But clearly, the exchange relation of commodities is characterized precisely by its abstraction from their use-values.” (127) Here “abstraction” refers to a material process as well as a process of eliminating non-essential characteristics to arrive at characteristics/elements that are essential. “If we disregard the use-value of commodities only one property remains, that of being products of labor.” (128) But if we abstract from the use-value of the commodities we must also “abstract from the material constituent and forms which make it a use-value.” In other words, if use-value is inessential to value then so is any aspect of labor which accounts for the specific usefulness of the commodity. (While Marx says “we” must abstract it should be clear that he is still following the actual material logic of commodities themselves and not just performing a mental experiment.) This abstraction “entails the disappearance of the different concrete forms of labor,” leaving us with “labor-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure.” This is abstract labor.

It may be useful to repeat a few points from the above summary just to make it clear what Marx is saying. Abstract labor is “labor-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure.” This means that abstract labor refers to an aspect of actual human labor. “Concrete labor” refers to the aspect of labor which accounts for different use-values. Concrete labor does not refer to all aspects of the material labor process. It only refers to those aspects which account for the heterogeneous use-values of commodities. This seems very clear from the steps in Marx’s method of abstraction here. I point this out because I believe that confusion creeps into conversations about concrete and abstract labor because people (and I myself have been confused on this point) often think that concrete labor refers to all physical aspects of the labor process while abstract labor refers to some loose metaphor for the social nature of labor. It seems clear from a careful reading of these opening paragraphs of Capital that this is not how Marx is using the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete.’


Marx says that exchange-value is the necessary mode of appearance of this value but before getting into this appearance he first finds it important to spend some time investigating “value independent of its form of appearance.” He can do this because value exists outside of its form of appearance. But this existence isn’t an ideal existence. It is a real material existence. It is the abstract labor time that is materialized in commodities. Thus it can be examined on its own without devolving into idealistic philosophical reflection.

After saying that the magnitude of value is determined by the duration of labor time Marx moves onto the category of Socially Necessary Labor Time (SNLT). “However, the labor that forms the substance of value is equal human labor, the expenditure of identical human labor power.” What makes this labor identical is not that everyone works at exactly the same level of productivity. What makes the labor identical is that the labor only counts as social labor, “to the extent that it has the character of a socially average unit of labor.” Marx’s example of the English hand-loom weaver makes this clear. The introduction of power-looms halved the amount of labor time required to make a quantity of fabric. Thus the hand-loom weavers had to sell their product at the new price set by the power-looms even though they could only produce at half the efficiency of the new technology. Only half of their labor counted as social. This is how SNLT makes all labor identical.

Stepping back from the text for a moment, it seems that SNLT introduces a further aspect of capitalist labor in addition to the insights given by abstract labor. Abstract labor explains the commensurability of commodities due to the reduction of all labor to an abstract expenditure of human effort. Since all labors share the same abstract quality, the commodities which serve as the embodiments of this abstract labor all share the same essential substance. SNLT explains how different labor, operating at different levels of productivity, can be treated as identical human labor and thus form the substance of value as an undifferentiated magnitude.

Then comes the section on the ‘Dual Character of Labor Embodied in Commodities’. Marx says that this two-fold nature is “crucial to an understanding of political economy, and requires further elucidation.”

The paragraphs on concrete labor are an expansion upon what Marx has already said earlier in the chapter. To make different use-values we need different types of labors. These heterogeneous labors correspond to the division of labor. The division of labor is not specific to capitalism nor is use-value-creating labor. Use-values cannot confront each other as commodities unless they are different and thus the product of different labors.

Turning to the “homogenous substance” which forms the value of commodities Marx says we must “leave aside the determinate quality of productive activity, and therefor the useful character of labor,” so that what remains is “an expenditure of human energy”.

“Tailoring and weaving, though qualitatively different productive activities, are each a productive expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles, and in this sense are human labour. They are but two different modes of expending human labour power. Of course, this labour power, which remains the same under all its modifications, must have attained a certain pitch of development before it can be expended in a multiplicity of modes. But the value of a commodity represents human labour in the abstract, the expenditure of human labour in general.” (p.134)

As in the CPE there is a very close connection between abstract labor and simple labor, “It is the expenditure of simple labour power, i.e., of the labour power which, on an average, apart from any special development, exists in the organism of every ordinary individual.” (p.135) Here though, unlike the CPE, Marx does not immediately allude to changes in the labor process in capitalism which bring about this deskilling.

This leads to an explanation of the way changes in productivity do not alter the amount of value produced by an hour of labor. Productivity refers to an aspect of concrete labor, the amount of use-values produced in a length of time. But in terms of abstract labor, which abstracts from use-value, an hour of labor is an an hour of labor. This distinction, made possible only by an understanding of the dual-character of labor, yields powerful insights into political economy. It explains, among other things, why unit-values of commodities fall as productivity rises.

Marx concludes, “On the one hand all labour is an expenditure of human labour power, in the physiological sense, and it is in this quality of being equal, or abstract human labour, that it forms the value of commodities. On the other hand, all labour is an expenditure of human labour power in a particular form and with a definite aim, and it is in this quality of being concrete useful labour, that it produces use values.” (p137)

Here Marx clearly identifies abstract labor with the equality of labors. He has already explained what forces create this equality. The reduction of labor to simple labor makes private labors qualitatively the same. Socially Necessary Labor Time treats labors as quantitatively the same. These two forces together allow for an equality of labor so that labor can be considered in its most abstract sense, “an expenditure of human labor power in the physiological sense”. Concrete labor does not refer to all physical aspects of the labor process. It refers to those aspects of labor that account for the unique use-values of commodities.

we are worth more

Section 3 on “The Form of Value or Exchange-value

Just as the last section discussed the dual nature of labor this section starts by reminding us that commodities have a dual nature: their natural form which corresponds to their use-value, and a social form which corresponds to their value. Since value is social it only appears in the relation between commodities. This form of appearance is the value-form, or money-form. Marx will show that the money form is only a developed form of the commodity-commodity relation, thus firmly situating the value-form, and thus the theory of money, within the theory of the commodity. The invisible opponents here are Proudhon and his followers like Darimon who sought to alleviate the social ills of capitalism by getting rid of money without getting rid of commodity production. By establishing the necessity of the money-form to commodity production Marx shows the silliness of the entire Proudhonian conception.

Passages like this make is sound as if the process of equating two commodities is also the process which carries out the reduction of labor to abstract labor:

“But the act of equating tailoring with weaving reduces the former in fact to what is really equal in the two kinds of labour, to the characteristic they have in common of being human labour. This is a roundabout way of saying that weaving too, in so far as it weaves value, has nothing to distinguish it from tailoring, and, consequently, is abstract human labour. It is only the expression of equivalence between different sorts of commodities which brings to view the specific character of value-creating labor, by actually reducing the different kinds of labour embedded in the different kinds of commodities to their common quality of vein human labor in general.” (p.142)
But I suspect that Marx is not actually claiming that the act of exchange is what makes weaving and tailoring abstract expenditures of human labor in general. Instead I believe his focus in this passage, as it is for most of this section of chapter 1, is on how things appear in exchange, what the value-form expresses. He is saying that when we look at the value-form, the equating of two commodities in the market, then their common substance is revealed, a common substance which requires that we abstract away from concrete labor. The expression of equivalence “brings to view” this abstraction. Perhaps, if Marx had been writing Capital knowing of the ways in which ‘value-form’ theorists would cast his theory of abstract labor he might have chosen his words more carefully! Yes we make this abstraction with our minds. But this mental abstraction is made possible by by the material reality that labors are already considered abstract in production by capital.
The next page, I believe, helps to clearly situate what is going on.
“We see, then, that everything our analysis of the value of commodities previously told us is repeated by the linen itself, as soon as it enters into association with another commodity, the coat. Only it reveals its thoughts in a language with which it alone is familiar, the language of commodities. In order to tell us that labour creates its own value in its abstract quality of being human labour, it says that the coat, in so far as it counts as its equal, i.e., is value, consists of the same labour as it does itself.”
This seems to clearly state that what Marx has previously established about abstract labor is merely being ‘revealed’ and ‘expressed’ in the process of equating two commodities. ‘Being abstract labour’ is a quality of labor which can only be expressed by commodities when one commodity stands for the equivalent of another.
Despite the complexities of the value-form which Marx explores in detail in this section, these opening observations pretty much sum-up the basic relation of abstract labor to the value-form.
The concrete/abstract theme returns when Marx comes to the peculiarities of the equivalent form of value where “concrete labor becomes the form of manifestation of its opposite, abstract human labor.” (150) Both linen and coat are only values because they are embodiments of abstract human labor. When the use-value of the coat is used to measure the value of the linen then this also means that the concrete labor which creates the use-value of the coat, tailoring, serves as the “expression of abstract human labor.” (150) Again, this line of thought explores the way in which abstract labor reveals itself, or is expressed, in the value-form. Marx clearly holds that the abstract nature of the labor contained in the coat and the linen is already abstract before they enter into the relative-equivalent expression: “Both therefore possess the general property of being human labor, and they therefore have to be considered in certain cases, such as the production of value, solely from this point of view. There is nothing mysterious in this.” (150)
The following bit about Aristotle further establishes that Marx is talking here about the expression of abstract labor in the value-form, and the way this expression leads to certain mental conceptions about the world. More importantly, it shows that abstract labor, as a category, cannot exist without the capitalist mode of production, despite the existence of commodity exchange in ancient Greek society. Because Aristotle’s society was based on an inequality of labor it was not possible for a concept of intrinsic value, based on abstract human labor, to exist. But if it was merely the exchange of commodities that rendered labor abstract then Aristotle should have had no problem solving the riddle of the commensurability of commodities.
This also clarifies Marx’s intention in relation to the claim by Rubin and others that a “physiological” definition of abstract labor, that is, one that defines abstract labor in relation to certain physiological characteristics of work, necessarily leads to an ahistorical conception of abstract labor. Of course, all human labor, throughout history, is, in some sense, “a certain productive expenditure of muscles, nerves, brain, etc.” But it is only in capitalist society where this aspect of labor is value producing, and in which this abstract aspect produces certain mental conceptions about the equality of labor and the equality of people.
In discussing the expanded relative form of value Marx notes “It becomes plain, that it is not the exchange of commodities which regulates the magnitude of their value; but, on the contrary, that it is the magnitude of their value which controls their exchange proportions.”(156) Since abstract labor is the substance of value and since value is what “controls” the exchange ratios of commodities, it would not make sense to posit that it is exchange which makes labor abstract.
When Marx finally gets to the ‘general form of value’ we see where this was all headed. It must be stressed that the entire point of the argument is to show how it is that one commodity comes to be the expression of human labor in general, of abstract labor. When, as in the simple or accidental form of value, the linen expresses its value in the coat, the value of the linen is expressed in the use-value of the coat. In the expanded form of value the value of the linen is expressed in the use-value of whatever commodity it exchanges for. In both cases the value of the linen seems to be expressed in only a specific use-value, and thus to be expressed via the specific concrete labor that went into the equivalent. It is only in the ‘general form of value’, when all commodities express their value in one commodity, that one commodity takes on the ability to express ‘human labor in general’. But this does not mean that general form of value is what creates human labor in general.
“It thus becomes evident that because the objectivity of commodities as values is the purely ‘social existence’ of these things, if can only be expressed through the whole range of their social relations; consequently the form of their value must possess social validity.” (p.159)
Again, Marx’s goal is to counter the Proudhonian conception of money as the root of so many social ills by showing that money is just an inevitable product of the commodity form. Money’s function is to express abstract labor in a “general social form”. The labor that makes the general equivalent (linen) is converted into “the general form of appearance of undifferentiated human labor.” The wording here is very precise. Establishing linen as the general equivalent does not convert concrete to abstract labor. Instead what is happening is that the private labor of the weaver becomes the “general form of appearance of undifferentiated human labor”. This is all about appearance, about expression.
“In this manner the labour objectified in the values of commodities is presented not just presented negatively, as labor in which abstraction is made from all the concrete forms and useful property of actual work. Its own positive nature is explicitly brought out, namely that it is the reduction of all kinds of actual labour to their common character of being human labour in general, of being the expenditure of human labour power.” (159-160)
We must pay careful attention to the wording. Marx is writing about “bringing out” and “presenting” the positive nature of this labor. These abstract qualities already exist. The general form of value is just allowing us to see them.
4. Fetishism
Toward the beginning of the fetishism section, in enumerating the unique qualities of the commodity form  Marx says “The equality of all kinds of human labour takes on a physical form in the equal objectivity of the product of labor as values.” (164) Again, human labor is qualitatively equal (in a capitalist society) and this labor takes the form of commodities which share the same value substance.
The unique aspect of commodity fetishism is that the social relations between producers are taken for objective relations between things. Commodities have two ‘objectivities’. They are material objects with concrete use-values and they are “socially uniform objectivity as values”.(166) This dual nature of the commodity is a reflection of the dual nature of labor, which takes place historically, “only when exchange has already acquired a sufficient extension and importance to allow useful things to be produced for the purpose of being exchanged, so that their character as values has already to be taken into consideration during production.”(166) Only when production is production for exchange does labor have this “two-fold social character”.
“It is only by being exchanged that the products of labor acquire a socially uniform objectivity as values, which is distinct from their sensuously varied objectivity as articles of utility.” (166) In the past this sentence has seemed, to me, as if it suggests, contrary to what I have argued here, that exchange is bestowing value on commodities, and/or making labor abstract. However, after the preceding close reading of Section 3 on the Value Form it now becomes clear to me that this sentence is referring to the need for a commodity to express its value in an equivalent, to acquire a socially recognized form of expression distinct from its own physical body. The general equivalent is this “socially uniform objectivity” which expresses the pre-existing value of the commodity in an objective form.

This, I believe sums up most of the relevant material from Chapter 1 as it relates to abstract labor. I have found this useful in making sense of the Critique of Political Economy and the Grundrisse, where in the past it seemed to me as if there coexisted two different lines of thought as to the relation of concrete to abstract labor. It seems clearer, after a closer re-reading of Chapt 1 of Capital, that the explorations of the general equivalent in the CPE and Grundrisse were not meant to make a claim that the exchange of commodities for money was what made labor abstract, or created value. Rather, the analysis of the value form is meant to explain how the pre-existing value of commodities is necessarily expressed in a use-value independent of the commodity, a use-value which is the socially recognized embodiment of general human labor.

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Abstract Labor- Critique of Political Economy

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Working definitions from CPE:

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

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

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

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

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

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Abstract Labor and reading Marx

In the next few posts I will post a close reading of some important works by Marx that explore his concept of ‘abstract labor’. In a past post from last summer I wrote about some revelations I had from reading Ilenkov that I thought helped me come to terms with Marx’s use of the term ‘abstract’ when he speaks of Abstract Labor. Since then, however, I have become convinced that that line of inquiry was not as helpful as it could have been. I had this idea that there was something very complex going on with the abstract-concrete distinction and that I needed to understand a lot of complex dialectical ideas in order to really make sense of what Marx is doing with the concept of abstract labor. And while I do think it is useful to think about the way Marx handles abstractions in various dialectical ways, I now think that coming to terms with his use of ‘abstract’ in the context of ‘abstract labor’ does not require so much extra-reading, as if one needs to read all of Hegel in order to get ‘abstract labor’.

(As an aside, if I could go back and change anything about the way I have pursued my studies of Marx it would be to read less Marxists and more Marx.)

As I mentioned before, I have not been satisfied by my own understanding of the concept of abstract labor. I believe the confusion crept into my mind a long time ago when I read I.I. Rubin’s “Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value.” Rubin questions the idea that abstract labor can refer to physiological aspects of the labor process and instead argues that it is the process of exchanging commodities for money which makes labor abstract, a line of thought that has become known as the ‘value-form’ school. The issue is tricky because one can find passages in Marx like this from chapter one of Capital, “It is only by being exchanged that the products of labor acquire a socially uniform objectivity as values, which is distinct from their sensuously varied objectivity as articles of utility.” Such a sentence, in the past, led me to think that there was a case for arguing that exchange bestows social qualities (like abstractness?) onto commodities and the labor that creates them.

However, my recent close readings have helped me clarify these issues. I read through relevant passages in the Grundrisse, Critique of Political Economy and Capital. The latter two are ready for posting. I may or may not get around to polishing the Grundrisse notes enough to post (I have not had much time for the blog as of late). My main questions in the readings were these:

What is abstract labor and how does Marx make use of the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’?

How does abstract labor relate to simple labor, universal labor, homogenous labor, general labor and other terms that often appear side by side?

How does abstract labor relate to socially necessary labor time?

How does indirectly social labor realize its sociality and how does this process relate to the category of abstract labor? How is the concept that all labor is abstract related to concept of money as an embodiment of universal general labor that renders private labor social?

As always, I hope that those who have the time to read my posts feel up for posting their thoughts. I always find comments helpful.

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Discussing Volume 2 on Alpha to Omega

I recently appeared on Tom O’Brien’s excellent podcast ‘From Alpha to Omega’. We discussed Volume 2 of Capital and other matters.


(Apparently WordPress has made embedding podomatic content more difficult so you must follow the link to get to the podcast.)

Posted in Interviews, Uncategorized | 4 Comments