[Marxism] Abstract labor (long)

ehrbar ehrbar at lists.econ.utah.edu
Sat Jul 17 13:35:32 MDT 2010

Since I am writing a detailed interpretation of Marx's Capital, I
consider it my duty to speak up if there are persistent serious
misinterpretations of Marx.

Angelus Novus said:

> abstract labour is historically specific to capitalism

Carrol Cox said on lbo-talk:

> There was _no_ competition among "commodity produceres" in medieval
> or ancient Eeurope or anyplace in Asia. The productivity of pot
> makers in a given location had no effect whatever on the "value" of
> pots anyplace; that was because value didn't exist. Even grain,
> which was produ ed for marketing in cities, was not a commodity
> because no competition to reduce costs existed among the producers
> of grain to lower labor costs.

Others have said in recent discussions and over the years, that only
wage labor produces value.  One often hears this nowadays, this almost
seems to be a majority opinion nowadays, although in my understanding
Marx himself clearly says something different.

Allow me to paraphrase Marx's argument in modern terms so that it is
easier for someone living today to follow Marx's logic.

Marx basically says: today's extremely complex social production
apparatus is regulated by market interactions.  On the market, the
mass of all commodities are treated as a one-dimensional quantity,
measured by price.  This can only then be a successful way of
governing the economy if the underlying production structure can be
reduced to one dimension as well.  This one dimension is labor.

What was said in this last paragraph is not yet different from
Ricardo.  But then Marx's own contribution to the labor theory of
value begins.  Some of this was implicit in Ricardo, but Marx lays it
out clearly and systematically.  Marx says: labor itself is as varied
as the use-values it produces, i.e., labor itself cannot be the
one-dimensional skeleton of production.  But all labor processes have
something in common: they are the expenditure of human labor-power.
And labor-power is quite homogeneous. 90 percent of the population
could do 90 percent of all the labors if properly trained.  This
application of human labor-power, Marx calls it "abstract labor", is
what gives production its one-dimensional character.  Basically,
commodity producers have to make only one production decision: they
have to decide which of the many products their labor enables them to
produce should be produced.

In every society labor is the expenditure of human labor-power.  But
if the labor produces commodities, then this labor-power is not
used-up and disappeared at the end of the production process, but
society keeps track of it in the value of the product.  I.e., the
abstract labor is invisibly still present.  Marx calls it a value
quasi-material (Wertgegenstaendlichkeit), "Gegenstaendlichkeit"
meaning something which has similar properties to an object although
it is not really an object.  Society acts as if there was some common
material substance inside the commodities, which manifests itself
in the exchangeability of the commodity (more developed manifestations
are the existence of money, the one commodity which can buy all

Marx says therefore: in dealing with commodities, society acts
as if all commodities were pieces of the same homogeneous substance,
value, although in actuality they are the most diverse use-values.
Their common character of value is only actualized in money --
all commodities can and must be exchanged for money.

Although the value of the commodities is not physical -- it is only a
quasi-material and not a material -- one should not say it is a social
fiction.  It has a physical basis because the process which creates
value is a physical process.  This is how Marx arrives at what he
calls a pivotal insight in volume 1 of Capital: the observation that
the production process of commodities has a double character.  It is
production of use-value but it also accumulates value.  Both are
grounded in physical characteristics of the production process: one
in the skills of the laborer (concrete labor) and the other in the fact
that the laborer gets tired while working (abstract labor).  Note
therefore: although value itself is not something physical but is a
social relation, the production of value has an indispensable physical
component, namely, it is the expenditure of human labor-power.

All this is not yet dependent on capitalism.  It is true, at least as
a tendency, whenever there is commodity production.  Carrol said for
instance that medieval craftsmen did not compete with each other.
Their prices and the access to their market was regulated so that all
of them could earn a fair income -- but they were also prevented
through the same regulations from becoming capitalists and turning
their apprentices into wage laborers.  The guild system was an
institution which counteracted the tendencies inherent in commodity
production itself.  If this is what Carrol means then I agree.  But I
would not be surprised if those regulated prices turned out to be
roughly proportional to labor content.  I am not a medievalist and
therefore I am pretty much guessing here.  If others know more please
speak up.

Throughout antiquity and the middle ages there is also famous prose
and poems decrying the corrosive powers of money, some of it quoted by
Marx in chapter 3 of Capital.  Again, a sign that the inherent forces
coming with commodity production were at work but society counteracted
them.  Marx says that the production process acquires in fact a double
character as soon as commodities were produced for sale rather than
for use.  This is long before capitalism.  Money also arose long
before capitalism.  There were also capitalists long before
capitalism: but they were usurers and merchant capitalists at the
periphery of the economy.  The commodity and capital relation had not
yet conquered the core of the social production process.

Now with capitalism, things are intensified and there is certainly a
qualitative shift.  The double character of labor, which in chapter 1
of capital is a necessary implication of commodity production, becomes
in chapter 7 (German chapter 5) the deliberate strategy how to exploit
labor.  But money and abstract labor already existed long before
capitalism.  Capitalism cannot arise without money, and capitalists
are so eager to buy the commodity labor-power exactly because of its
ability to create value.  If you say that only wage-labor creates
value then you are giving the capitalists too much credit: you are
basically saying they are making labor productive by exploiting it.
The causality is actually the reverse: they are exploiting labor
because labor is productive of value.

Is all this relevant for today?  I would say yes.  Just three examples
how all this helps us understand what is happening today:

(1) The material basis of the social relation "value" in the
expenditure of human labor-power means that value cannot be produced
by political power.  This is the big dilemma of the United States who
are politically, but no longer economically, the dominant power.
Eventually the US must fail economically, but like a cornered tiger
this is no ground for celebration but it makes the US especially

(2) Nowadays it is no longer true enough that production is
one-dimensional.  Labor has become so productive that it has
eliminated itself as the most important factor of production.  The
binding constraint is no longer labor but the binding constraint are
the earth's material resources, especially its limited ability to
absorb CO2.  A simple extension of Marx's theory says that a
one-dimensional market system is structurally unable to do the right
thing about the environment because the economy is no longer
one-dimensional.  The failure of the capitalist system to do respond
appropriately to the environmental crisis seems to confirm this
Marxian insight.

(3) It has been said that everything BP does regarding the oil spill
has two different, often conflicting, goals: (a) stop the spill and
save the environment and (b) diminish BP's financial
losses/responsibility.  To a Marxist this is nothing new.  This is
simply the double character of the capitalist production process.
It happens in all capitalist production, but with the oil spill
it is perhaps better visible.


Hans G. Ehrbar   http://www.econ.utah.edu/~ehrbar ehrbar at economics.utah.edu
Economics Department, University of Utah     (801) 908 6937
260 Central Campus Drive Rm 343              (801) 581 7481 (econ office)
Salt Lake City    UT 84112-9155              (801) 585 5649 (FAX)

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