Part of this ongoing discussion with Brendan also involves this Post: Reading Marx: on the reduction of ‘skilled labour’ to ‘unskilled labour’ (which if read as the first in a series of posts helps to clarify everything else that ensues)
The follow up to what is below is here: Reading Marx: comparing more notes with Brendan on the meaning of abstract labour
Brendan, you write:
It seems clearer, after a closer re-reading of Chapt 1 of Capital, that the explorations of the general equivalent in the [“Critique of Political Economy”] and [“Grundrisse”] were not meant to make a claim that the exchange of commodities for money was what made labor abstract, or created value.
Source: Brendan M. Cooney
And yet when I read Marx, and specifically the passages and texts to which you refer, what I am reading is precisely the claim that if “commodities exchange for money” or “for equivalent proportions of one commodity for another,” it is precisely because the implication must be that in such a society where such exchanges are made, labor, which also happens to be regarded as a commodity, is conceived and perceived to be “abstract” and “equivalent,” as indeed all commodities must so be conceived when we attend to their “exchange values” in contrast to their “use-values;” and furthermore, it is precisely Marx’s purpose to demonstrate that within this world of capitalist commodity exchange, the “master equivalent” of all commodities – abstractly represented by “money” and in reference to which all other commodities derive their expressions as “values” or “values as ‘equivalents’ if in the abstract” – is labor “abstractly conceived,” and that we can thereby speak of “abstract labour.” Put another way, “concrete labour” is to “abstract labour” what “use-value” is to “exchange value” – very precisely and quite exactly.
Recall that Marx writes:
“…the commodity never has [the exchange-value] form when looked at in isolation, but only when it is in a value-relation or exchange relation with [at a minimum] a second commodity of a different kind.” Source: “Capital, Volume One, Vintage Books Edition, August 1977, p.152.
Marx then goes on to demonstrate roughly the following, which I will paraphrase rather than quote at every step of the way, for the sake of being brief:
Say you have a commodity, an aluminum bowl. I ask you, “how many identically made aluminum bowls can you get for your one aluminum bowl?” The answer, of course, is “one aluminum bowl, of the same kind and quality, for my bowl.” Have you thereby said anything at all about the ‘value’ of the bowl as an ‘exchange value?’ Marx would say no, nothing at all. You’ve at most expressed a tautological identity of the form: ‘one A’ is ‘one A.’ But what if your bowl can exchange in a world of commodities for other commodities: 10 of your cheaply manufactured bowls may get you one cheaply manufactured Cuban cigar. Now we have an expression of ‘value,’ of one thing being in a definite proportion the equivalent of another for the purpose of ‘exchange.’ Marx notes, however, this peculiarity of the “Value relation expression:” on one side you have a commodity that cannot be, in concrete qualitative terms, the same as the commodity on the other side of the equation: one aluminum bowl for another, identical in kind and quality aluminum bowl is not and cannot be an expression of ‘exchange value.’ If I give you one such bowl, and you give me another such bowl in return, what have we ‘effectively’ exchanged? Right. Therefore, “the old man” concludes, the terms of the ‘Value equation’ must involve at least two concretely different commodities: on one side, in type, an aluminum bowl; on the other, in type, a Cuban cigar (or something other, but not another aluminum bowl).
But this is not all:
Marx also notes that the ‘proportion’ expressed by the ‘Value equation’ must always be as ‘one unit of a commodity’ to ‘any number of units of another commodity,’ or in a series, ‘one unit of a commodity’ to ‘any number of units of other commodities.’ The form of the ‘Value equation’ is: 1 X A = (any number) X (another commodity ‘different from ‘A,’ say, ‘B’ – or of even a series of other but different commodities, say, B,C,D,E . . . etc.); or otherwise expressed as a ratio of “one to whatever.” Understanding the ‘form’ of the ‘Value equation’ or as Marx puts it, the “Value relation,” is crucial to understanding Marx. Otherwise you cannot rise to an understanding of the following, namely, that any one commodity can become, so to speak, the ‘anchor expression’ of value of all other commodities in the world of capitalist commodities. And this is a ‘fact’ that we can all understand because, having been raised in a capitalist culture, we intuitively grasp that any commodity is worth so much money, and being worth so much money, any one commodity can become the ‘money expression’ of every other commodity in the capitalist universe: take an aluminum bowl worth ‘one dollar,’ and you can easily compute how many aluminum bowls will ‘buy’ you a ‘twenty thousand dollar’ car and so on until you have exhausted the list of all commodities in terms of their value as expressed in ‘aluminum bowls.’ And here, by the way, we also grasp the historical origins and basis of money specie in its original ‘commodity form’ – but that’s another topic for another day . . .
Now once you grasp the sense in which Marx understands the ‘Value equation’ or ‘Value relation,’ that this ‘relation’ is one involving opposite relative ‘poles’ or a ‘polarity,’ that on one side of the equation you always must have an expression of ‘one unit of something and no more’ to which to relate the ‘relative unit(s) in any number of another different thing’ – then you will understand that Marx, whether he succeeds or not, wants to demonstrate that in our capitalist world, the commodity that is the ‘one’ in terms of which all other commodities are expressed as “Values,” namely MONEY, that this “master equivalent” really represents “labour in the abstract” or as he puts it, “abstract labour,” the ‘real’ or ‘true’ basis – meaning the ‘capitalist (conceptual (if unconscious)) basis’ in practice – of the “Value relation,” or in effect, the “master equivalent” in terms of which all commodities in the Capitalist universe are a measure of “Value.” Put differently, the ‘real’ money basis of commodity exchange in a Capitalist society is “labour” conceived, as are all ‘commodities,’ in ‘abstract terms.’
‘Labour’ is the ‘money commodity’ hidden behind the tokens that we commonly call ‘money’ but which do not in themselves have any ‘intrinsic’ value, either as use-values or exchange-values. That, in a nutshell, is what Marx in the texts at hand is driving at.
Is Marx successful in demonstrating this? I think he is. But that is also for another time.