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Just to clarify what this post is about: Brendan M. Cooney, who is the author of the most excellent blog Kapitalism101, has unwittingly motivated me to dive into Marx’s ‘Capital, Volume One’ and there to swim as best as I can.  I posted what is below in the comment section of his post titled: Abstract Labor- Critique of Political Economy.  Unfortunately, once you post something as a comment on someone else’s blog, you cannot edit it to your satisfaction if you don’t like your initial result.  So this has nothing at all to do with Brendan per se, but everything to do with me just wanting to tweak this piece more to my liking and simply to re-post it, as it were.  But I don’t want to clutter Brendan’s blog any more than I already have, and certainly not with a second post of a comment I already left, even if in a slightly more polished incarnation.  So I sincerely apologize for what I am about to do without warranted restraint:


Hi Brendan,

You write (and I will only quote what is relevant to my purpose, my intention not being to distort your meaning but to highlight an aspect of what I think you are saying; of course, you can and will set me right if you deem that I am distorting what you meant to say, albeit inadvertently):

“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[,]” […] a social process [that] carries out this abstraction […] 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’.  […] [H]ere 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’.” (Source: Brendan M. Cooney)

Reading this, I get the sense that you are imputing to Marx, amongst other things, the following observation as if it were being made by him in the section of “Critique of Political Economy” to which you are referring:  the capitalist production process has a tendency to ‘simplify’ or ‘deskill’ the tasks of labor and therefore to create a situation in which labor increasingly becomes a sort of embodied (simplified) abstraction.

Granted that this is in fact the case, that the capitalist process of production tends to deskill labour, and that elsewhere in what he has written Marx does make that observation, I don’t think that he is attending to that particular fact in the exposition at hand.

The ‘reduction’ that he has in mind, I believe, is of a conceptual nature but of one that is, so to speak, ingrained and cultural, a sort of ideological reflex or ‘customary’ way in capitalist society to think about ‘labor’ and thus to treat ‘labor’ as it does.  One hint that this is so arises here:

“But what is the position with regard to more complicated labour which, being labour of greater intensity and greater specific gravity, rises above the general level? This kind of labour resolves itself into simple labour; it is simple labour raised to a higher power, so that for example one day of skilled labour may equal three days of simple labour. The laws governing this reduction do not concern us here. It is, however, clear that the reduction is made, for, as exchange-value, the product of highly skilled labour is equivalent, in definite proportions, to the product of simple average labour; thus being equated to a certain amount of this simple labour.” (Source: here) (Norm’s emphasis in ‘bold type’ – and I’ve added the last sentence of that quote, which is missing in my original post at Brendan’s blog)

I  don’t think that we are to understand Marx, here, as suggesting that though in capitalist society the legacy of ‘skilled labour’ lingers, the capitalist production process will in time efface it given its inexorable tendency to rationalization.  Rather, he means to suggest that ‘all’ labour, however simple or complex, is ‘regarded’ by ‘capitalist rationality’ as being of one and the same kind, so that ‘skilled labour’ becomes a quantitative derivative of ‘unskilled labour’ for the purposes of adjudicating its pay-scale (after all, it, too, is a commodity for sale and purchase in a capitalist world, and so it needs to be ‘quantified’ in some way like everything else that possesses some exchange-value).  And how that ‘equivalence’ is obtained in practical terms, he says, need not detain us here, though he uses the word ‘reduction’ where I used ‘equivalence,’ because as he puts it, “skilled labour may equal three days of simple labour.”

Another hint that Marx wants his reader to attend to a cultural fetishistic peculiarity and not to the ‘rationalizing tendency inherent to capitalist production,’ if only for the moment, is provided in “Capital, Volume One” in a paragraph that I’m fairly certain is an incorporation and re-write of the text at hand.  The paragraph occurs in Capter 1, in the section titled: “2. THE DUAL CHARACTER OF THE LABOUR EMBODIED IN COMMODITIES.”  My copy of “Capital, Volume One” is the Vintage Books Edition, August 1977, and under consideration is page 135.  Pretty much everything that Marx writes here pertaining to ‘simple labor’ is repeated as Marx re-wrote it in “Capital” if not exactly word for word, and interestingly he writes the following, which I will comment as I type it out:

“The various proportions [i.e. equivalencies] in which different kinds of labour are reduced to simple labour as their unit of measurement [i.e. ‘simple labour’ as a metric] are established by a social process [not a “production process”] that goes on behind the backs of the producers [that is, the “reduction” happens without their being aware that it is being, in fact, carried out (and already we have a hint that we are dealing with a ‘mental process,’ here, otherwise how is it happening ‘behind the backs’ of anyone?)];  these proportions therefore appear to the producers to have been handed down by tradition.  [And repeating a thought that we have already quoted, Marx immediately adds:] In the interest of simplification, we shall henceforth view every form of labour-power directly as simple labour-power [i.e. including, as the capitalist mindset does reflexively, “skilled labour”]; by this we shall simply be saving ourselves the trouble of making the reduction [i.e. we shall simply be saving ourselves the trouble of having to go into a long and tedious analysis involving actual examples of how “skilled labour” is reckoned in units of “unskilled labour,” a thing that is most assuredly done if only fetishistically under capitalism (yes, I’m going a bit beyond Marx’s implied meaning, here, but I’m of the opinion that he wouldn’t mind, and anything emphasized in ‘bold type’ is mine].”

Thus, to my mind, attending narrowly to the text at hand, Marx wants to convey, here, to his reader, that under capitalism, all forms of ‘labor,’ which in their astounding varieties are really not at all ‘equivalent’ and thus not possibly reducible to one another, are reductively deemed to be qualitative and thus numerical equivalents and, therefore, treated as such.


16 Feb. 2017

I was reading something by Paul Mattick last night and I came upon a section that corroborates my reading, in contradistinction to that of Mr. Brendan M. Cooney, and in that section, Mattick has this quote from Marx that pretty much clinches in my mind the point I was making:

“that finally there has been found the abstract expression for the simplest and oldest of social production relations of general validity. In one sense this is true, of course, but in another sense not, for the modern lack of interest regarding specific types of labor presupposes the great and actual variety of the labor activities of modern capitalism, of which none in particular can be adjudged the ruling type of labor… Labor as such, labor in general, this simple abstraction, which is the starting point and the high point of bourgeois economy, appears as a practical truth only as a category of modern society, even though it also expresses an ancient and for all social formations valid relationship.”

[Marx,Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen OkonomieBerlin, 1953, p. 89 (from here on referred to as Grundrisse)]

And a bit further on, Mattick writes,

It is precisely the difference in the various kinds of labor which is the necessary condition for the exchange of commodities “measured” in terms of abstract labor-time. The reduction of all kinds of labor, regardless of skill and productivity, to abstract or simple labor is not only a postulate of value theory but is actually and constantly established in the exchange process. “A commodity may be the product of the most skilled labor, but its value, by equating it to the products of simple and unskilled labor, represents a definite quantity of the latter alone.”[24]Furthermore, it is not the individual’s productivity which determines the value of any particular commodity but the socially-necessary, or average, productivity required for its production; and it is not the individual’s particular skill which finds consideration in the exchange process but only the social evaluation of this skill. And this evaluation, by the nature of the thing, can only be quantitative – a multiplication of simple labor expressed in money terms.

[The Limits of the Mixed Economy, chapter: III. MARX’S LABOR THEORY OF VALUE, Mattick, 1969.]

So either Mattick and I are ‘reading into‘ the Grundrisse or it is Brendan who has tied himself up into a thorough hermeneutical knot, and, of course, I think Brendan is definitely the one in error.