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Norm’s note: I’m merely re-posting this because there appears to be some interest in it, or rather, in the content of it . . .

As an accompaniment to it, there is something that I will also be posting later today or tomorrow, an excerpt from a work by Geoff Pilling, titled, Marx’s Capital, Philosophy and Political Economy, and oddly enough, the excerpt is titled “Marx’s treatment of labour.”  There is another chapter from Pilling’s work, titled “Abstract labour,” that I haven’t yet read through, but that I suspect is relevant to this discussion, what with “that” title, and after reading it, may also post . . . but with the links having already been provided, you won’t have to wait to read them, will you?

But first, for your consideration, something that I submit to you:

Question: how do you know that under capitalism, “necessary labor time” is the basis of the value of all commodities?

Answer: the wage that labor receives on the basis of time is — in the aggregate, as the sum of all wages and salaries received — the overall purchasing power available in capitalist society for purchasing all available goods and services on offer in the so-called “free market.”

(Anyone who spends a bit of time thinking about that question and that answer will eventually grasp at least two things (but hopefully more): a) that if the wages and salaries paid to the working class comprise the purchasing power in capitalist society that is supposed to cover both the costs of producing commodities as well as the profits to be made from selling those commodities, capitalist society ipso facto posits “labor” as the source of all exchange values; and b) that if that is the case, then, in part, capitalist economies are crisis-ridden because any element that is a cost of production, even more so than the total sum of all costs of production, must be in its magnitude always less than a sum that is “of all costs plus a margin of profit,” and since all wages and salaries taken together in a capitalist society are always to be tallied as costs of production, it follows that they cannot be a source of purchasing power sufficient to cover both all of the costs and the expected profits under a for-profit making regime — mathematically speaking, it cannot happen.

But also implicit in the question and its answer is the conundrum of “abstract labor.” In a capitalist society, apologists for the system contend that everyone is justly and proportionately remunerated for his contribution in labor. But if this is so, how is the “value” of a person’s labor to be determined? Marx argues that this is actually impossible because no form of labor is like any other. The concept of “value” always implies a relation of proportion between things, that is to say, an equivalence in qualitative terms. But how is it possible to establish any kind of qualitative equivalence between specialized activities that in concrete terms are nothing alike, other than that they involve people in work? The only way to do this is to gloss over the “facts” of the qualitative “differences” between the multitude of tasks people specialize in and perform. That is to say, concretely different activities can only be equated if one abstracts away their actual differences, if one makes of the concrete labour that people engage in a rarefied simulacrum of the reality of their travails, a simulacrum that Marx calls “abstract labour.” The idea of capitalist “value” is then in “fact” a will–o’–the–wisp if yet a real delusion that translates into and helps to crystallize human practice, the practice of the oppression and exploitation that is capital, an insanity that denies concrete human reality so as to justify inequity.)

(Originally posted 25 February 2015:)


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.


6 Aug 2017

Just a few points of clarification, from another short post (in whole):

What are we to think of a law which can only assert itself through periodic crises?  It is just a natural law which depends on the lack of awareness of the people who undergo it. [Friedrich Engels (Capital, Volume 1, Vintage Books, Aug. 1977, p.168.) (Norm’s emphasis)]


 In their difficulties our commodity-owners think like Faust: ‘In the beginning was the deed.’* They have therefore already acted before thinking. [Karl Marx (Capital, Volume 1, Vintage Books, Aug. 1977, p.180.)]

Hi Brendan,

I’ll begin to respond to your last comment but I do so tentatively.  I’m still acclimating to your point of view and trying to re-read Marx in light of that attempted acclimation.  If I offer some responses now, it’s just that I’m re-reading your last comment and feel the impulse to begin to reply; but since I suspect my original perspective still dominates me, I’ll be replying mostly from that particular angle – still and at least for now.

You ask and you write:

“First, to be clear. Are you arguing that A[bstract]L[abour] does not refer to a material aspect of labor? Are you saying that M[a]rx is only referring to an idea about labor and that this idea does not point to/describe a real aspect of labor?”

Secondly, I do not read the 1st passage you quote in the same way. For one, I do not think Marx exclusively uses the term “form of appearance” to refer to a “cultural construct” as you put it. For instance, the form of appearance of value is exchange value. But exchange value is much more than just a cultural construct, at least in the sense that I understand you to be using the term to refer to ideas as opposed to material relations. Exchange value is a relation between commodities and the result of a specific form of production. I think that makes it more than a “cultural construct”, at least in the common use of the term “cultural construct.” Source: Brendan

To my mind, ‘abstract labour’ is ‘real’ and refers to a material aspect of labor.  But this ‘material aspect of labor’ and ‘reality’ must be carefully qualified.

There is a sense in which ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’ or ‘customary ways of behaving and thinking’ – (these phrases being taken as so many references to the entire array of ‘social relations’ that are embedded in, and are a manifestation of, the ‘customs’ or ‘culture’ or ‘traditions’ or various ‘institutions’ of actual social practices which really ‘exist’ with a kind of inertia of their own that is quite independent of any one individual or even groups of individuals) – is/are a ‘material force’ in the world.  No one person or groups of people are entirely responsible for having created the widespread and established (if in flux) ‘social relations’ embedded in the various social ‘practices’ that comprise their society and the body of their inherited practices.  One inherits one’s culture as a child as well as to the degree and extent that one continues to uncritically (un-reflectively and thus unconsciously) adhere to and adopt practices and attitudes and beliefs which are widespread and common, and for which no one individual is personally responsible.  So these ‘cultural constructs’ do ‘exist’ and are ‘real,’ and most emphatically beyond our control.

People are conditioned by their cultural context: their brains are populated, as a result of education and coercive pressures to conform, by ‘reflexes’ that are ‘cultural’ in nature and therefore ‘cultural constructs.’  What explains, for instance, what people do while they are at work if not a part of their socially conditioned cognitive reflexes?  Is it possible to speak of the ‘material processes of production’ without implying a realm of cultural conditioning (i.e. of cultural constructs) that superintends physically observable human behaviors even if the superintending is ‘reflexive’ and therefore to that degree unconscious and ‘material?’  Whether we realize it or not, then, and to underscore the point: we are to a high degree unconscious cultural automatons, and this unconsciousness, this not being entirely aware of what we do and why we do it, is a ‘material’ force in the world that we do not exactly control and yet a very important part of the ‘material production process.’

So what I have been trying to say — on the basis of very salient textual clues and evidence (see the links: [1],  [2],  [3],  [4]) — that Marx has been saying , is that “abstract labour” is one of those ‘unconscious cultural constructs’ that are a ‘material force’ in our lives.  If capitalism, in its (unreflective) cultural dimension did not ‘regard’ the work that people do in a twofold fashion, if there were not, as Engels points out on Marx’s behalf [see the note below: (*)], two words for what people do for a living, two conceptual (if unreflectively conflated) categories to designate what on the surface appears to be one and the same thing, there would not be ‘abstract labor’ for exchange but only concrete and particular ‘labor’ that creates use-values — (this is not to imply that the weight of causation and influence resides primarily in the realm of the ideological, but that the ideological, a realm of ‘conceptual constructs,’ does carry some of that weight, that it is a ‘force of nature,’ so to speak, a ‘thing’ that has a ‘life of its own’ while also being re-actively determined by factors lying outside of itself). For what is in part the cure to the exploitation that is capitalism?  It is for the majority in a society to arise at the level of culture to the insight that ‘labour’ is in reality always ‘concrete and particular,’ no matter how simple or complex it may be in its particulars, and that it is never, therefore, in ‘reality’ an ‘abstract thing,’ which is the way it is both regarded and handled in a capitalist world.

So ‘abstract labour’ is real: as a ‘culturally inherited’ conceptual category and as a way of ‘treating’ labour in practice on the basis of that ‘unconscious culturally conditioned cognitive reflex’ which as such is part of our ‘material social reality.’  In other words, ‘materiality’ or ‘material reality’ is whatever exists beyond the reach of conscious intentionality and constrains that conscious intent within limits that may thwart that intent.  Culture is as much ‘material’ as it is a set of ‘ideational constructs:’  social relations exist outside my head, but also inside my head as sets of culturally determined reflexes that drive and determine how I behave, a behavior that reproduces both the forms and the contents of the social relations in the midst of which I live out my life in a culturally determinate way.  It is in this sense that ‘abstract labour’ is a real material force in capitalist society.  Destroy capitalist society, undermine what is essential to its mindset, and the social ‘reality’ of ‘abstract labour’ will equally be extinguished, both as a ‘social fact’ and as the ‘conceptual category’ underpinning or superintending that ‘fact.’

I hope that clarifies my take on the ontological status of “abstract labour” as such, a point of view I suspect I share with and borrow from Marx, albeit perhaps not — in which case I would gladly take all the credit.

But you’re busy and I’m busy, so I’ll leave it at that for now. . .

Best regards,


(*) [here]

Consider, for example, this note of clarification by Engels (on P.138. of  my edition of ‘Capital’ (V.B.,August 1977)) to a footnote by Marx (in which Adam Smith’s anonymous predecessor is quoted favorably as saying about ‘labour and time,’ “one man’s labour in one thing for a time certain, for another man’s labour in another thing for the same time”)(I will interpolate my comments in the quote):

“The English language has the advantage of possessing two separate words for these two different aspects of labour [my comment: i.e. the ‘double’ nature of ‘labour-power’ to which Marx wants to draw attention and which he can point to as being a ‘cultural given’ in capitalist culture, but a ‘given’ that goes unnoticed – viz. to paraphrase Marx, ‘I was the first among economists to point to this double nature of ‘labour-power.’ ]  Labour which creates use-values and is qualitatively determined is called ‘work’ as opposed to ‘labour’; labour which creates value and is only measured quantitatively is called ‘labour,’ as opposed to ‘work’ [my comment: i.e., a distinction is being made, and it is a culturally alive distinction.  For otherwise there would not be two words underpinning two different referents; and it is this distinction that Marx wants to emphasize since he quotes Adam Smith’s anonymous predecessor to rebut and rebuke Smith’s failure to attend to this very distinction.  Of the anonymous predecessor, Marx says, he “…is much nearer the mark when he says: ‘One man has employed himself a week in providing this necessary of life . . . and he that gives him some other in exchange, cannot make a better estimate of what is a proper equivalent, than by computing what cost him just as much labour and time: which in effect is no more than exchanging one man’s labour in one thing for a certain time, for another man’s labour in another thing for the same time’ (Some Thoughts on the Interest of Money in General etc., p.39.).]. ”

Note: this is the quote from Marx that I paraphrase:

‘I was the first to point out and to examine critically this two-fold nature of labour contained in commodities. As this point is the point on which a clear comprehension of Political Economy [turns,] we must go into more detail.’

An instance of that quote can be found here: Marx’s Capital – Philosophy and Political Economy by Geoff Pilling 1980, Chapter 2, “Marx’s Critique of Classical Economics” (see the first paragraph). Clearly, for Marx, an understanding of what he means to designate by the phrase “abstract labour” is paramount to an understanding of his critique of capital. Otherwise why would he himself insist upon the point?