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Abstract Labour: Against its Nature and On its Time

Capital & Class June 2010 34: 257-276,

Werner Bonefeld

During the last decade there have been a number of critical studies on abstract labour. Apart from three articles in Capital & Class by de Angelis (1995), Arthur (2001), and Kicillof and Starosta (2007), notable contributions have come from Heinrich (1999), Kay (1999), Kicillof and Starosta (2008), Postone (1996), Saad-Fhilo (2002), Starosta (2008), and Vincent (1991). These works reject Ricardian inspired approaches to value according to which value is labour embodied in commodities. Instead of analysing value magnitudes, the transformation of value into prices, and the allocation of resources to socially necessary branches of production, the works examine value as a specific social form of wealth. Generally speaking, the former partakes in a substantialist approach to value, and the latter in a social and monetary approach.[1] Examination of value as a specific social form entails reassessment of abstract labour as the substance of value.

In place of the earlier physiological conception, the emerging consensus in the contemporary debate conceives of abstract labour as a socially determined, specifically capitalist form of labour. This development goes back to the rediscovery of Rubin (1972, p. 135), who had argued that ‘one of two things is possible: if abstract labour is an expenditure of human energy in physiological form, then value has a reified-material character. Or value is a social phenomenon, and then abstract labour must also be understood as a social phenomenon connected with a determined social form of production. It is not possible to reconcile a physiological concept of abstract labour with the historical character of the value which it creates.’ Rubin’s stance has become the reference point for today’s debate.

In the context of the contemporary debate on abstract labour, Axel Kicillof’s and Guido Starosta’s stance is distinct. They argue against Rubin inspired social form analysis of abstract labour, and instead offer a vigorous defence of its physiological conception. At the same time, however, they treat value as a specifically capitalist category. They see abstract labour as a trans-historical category that in capitalism is ‘represented’ by the value-form. The article focuses on Kicillof’s and Starosta’s intriguing contention. It asks about the trans-historical specificity of abstract labour, its capitalist representation, and explores the political implications of their account, which they summarise as the ‘revolutionary action of the working class’ (Kicillof and Starosta, 2007, p. 41).

Marx’s take on abstract labour is ambivalent. He defines it in physiological terms, and at the same time argues that it is a specifically capitalist form of labour. Keeping this ambivalence in mind, the paper starts with an account of Killicof’s and Starosta’s physiological reading of abstract labour and examines their critique of the contributions by de Angelis and Arthur, who, for different reasons, see abstract labour as a specifically capitalist category. These three contributions represent the spectrum of debate about abstract labour. The paper then explores Marx’s social form account of abstract labour. It will be argued that abstract labour is a specific temporal form of capitalist labour.[2] The conclusion looks at the political implications of these distinct conceptions.

 

Kicillof and Starosta on De Angelis and Arthur

Kicillof and Starosta argue that abstract labour is the material foundation of the human metabolism with nature. Man has to exchange with nature, and they characterise this natural human condition as the ‘generic determination of labour’ (2008, p. 23). However, the circumstance that Man has to exchange with nature does not say anything about the mode of production. Nor is labour in the abstract possible. The reality of labour is always concrete labour. They therefore argue that the transhistorical nature of abstract labour expresses itself differently in distinct modes of production. Thus, in capitalism, abstract labour entails ‘both a generic material determination and a historically-specific role as the substance of value’ (ibid.). That is to say, abstract labour comprises a trans-historical materiality that obtains through specific historical forms. They thus argue that ‘the real “genuine” object of the critique of political economy [is] not the pure realm of social forms, but the contradictory unity between the materiality of human life and its historically-determined social forms’ (ibid., p. 24). Since abstract labour is a natural condition of human existence, as metabolism with nature or materiality of human life in general, and since one cannot subvert or revolutionise nature, the revolution of abstract labour has to do with its capitalist form, that is, with the way in which it is socially ‘represented’ in the form of value (cf. Kicillof and Starosta, 2007, p. 20). Yet, although this is their argument, their exposition understandably focuses only on its capitalist social form, which provides the illustration for both, its historically specific application as substance of value, and its natural, trans-historical materiality.

Their approach, then, begs the question whether it reveals abstract labour as an ontological presupposition of all human life and that therefore functions as an eternal natural law of material necessity independent of history, or whether they naturalise capitalist economic categories. Yet, despite Marx’s biting critique of ‘the economists’ attempt at naturalising economic categories, which, he argues, allows them to smuggle them into their analysis as the ‘inviolable natural laws on which society and history in the abstract are founded’ (Marx, 1973, p. 87), Kicillof’s and Starosta’s argument is on strong textual grounds. On the one hand, Marx conceives of it as a socially determined form that is peculiar to capitalism and, on the other, defines it physiologically as ‘productive expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles’ (Marx, 1983, p. 51). As physiological expenditure, abstract labour appears thus to comprise the expenditure of bodily energy – in production, in exchange with nature, indifferent to concrete purposes, a mere expenditure of ‘corporeal power’ (Starosta, 2008, p. 31).

If abstract labour really is expenditure of bodily energy, of corporeal power, then it can indeed be defined without further ado in precise physiological terms. That is, ‘muscles burn sugar’ (Haug, 2005, p. 108).[3] Muscles have burned sugar since time immemorial and will continue to do so, indifferent to historical development – and in this way expenditure of bodily energy appears indifferent to concrete purposes and distinct modes of production. Like Haug, Kicillof and Startosta therefore hold that the physiological determination is the ‘only meaningful definition of abstract labour, which, as much as its concrete aspect, is a purely material form, bearing no social or historical specificity. And yet, when performed privately and independently, and once congealed in the natural materially of the product of labour, that purely material form acquires the form of value of the commodity, i.e. a purely social form that embodies “not an atom of matter”’ (2008, pp. 34-5). Their critique of Rubin’s form analysis is thus easily understood. Rubin did not ask how, in capitalism, labour ‘in the physiological sense becomes specific in terms of value’ (2008, p. 22.). His mistake was thus to ‘surrender to the self-evident fact that the identity between different concrete labours contains a physiological or material determination (is thus natural determination)’ (ibid.). There is thus need to trace the social form of abstract labour back to its natural determination.

Kicillof’s and Starosta therefore argue that the conception of abstract labour as substance of value ‘does not answer the question about the “specific social character of the labour which produces” commodities’ (2008, p. 22). It merely tells us about ‘the material determination…of that which is socially recognised in the form of value’ (ibid.). In short, ‘the analytical reduction of value to its substance’ (ibid.) reveals only the capitalist representation of abstract labour – it does not tell us anything about its ‘generic materiality’ (2007, p. 16). Marx discovered this materiality in the opening pages of Capital, which tell us that ‘in any form of society human beings productively expend their corporeal powers’ (Starosta 2008, p. 31). At the start of Capital Marx is therefore not concerned with the ‘common property in commodities. Rather, he is searching for (i.e., not yet unfolding) the specific determination defining the potentiality of the commodity as a historical form of social wealth’ (ibid., p. 25). Thus, Marx ‘[discovered] abstract labour as the substance of labour in the first pages of Capital’ (2008, p. 21).[4] This ‘analytical discovery of (congealed) abstract labour’ in the first chapter of Capital ‘revealed…the material determination of that which in capitalist society is socially represented in the form of value’ (ibid., p. 16). In other words, before developing the capitalist categories, Marx first sought to ‘discover’ the general historical presupposition of commodity production, and he found this general presupposition in ‘productive labour in its general character, or abstract labour’ (Starosta 2008, p. 28). Marx is thus said to have discovered the substance of value in something that is not specifically capitalist in character: the apparent generic materiality of labour, its nature, its general existence as ‘homogeneous human labour, i.e., human labour expended without regard to the form of its expenditure’. Once this generic materiality was established, Marx was able to develop the commodity form. Its development entails analysis of ‘the very social determination of the revolutionary action of the working’ (Kicillof and Starosta 2008, p. 41).

In distinction, both de Angelis and Arthur argue that abstract labour is a specific social form of labour that has no trans-historical validity. Massimo de Angelis emphasises abstract labour as a form of class struggle. Like Kicillof and Starosta, he argues against conceptions that confine abstract labour to the process of exchange (de Angelis, 1995, p. 120). He too disputes Rubin’s critical value theory, which is seen to argue that abstract labour is established through exchange. He holds that the abstract character of labour is ‘a direct consequence of the character of labour in capitalism’ (1996, p. 18-9). Abstract labour is expended at the point of production, and is ‘imposed’ on workers (de Angelis, 1995, p. 111). The class struggle over the imposition of abstract labour has led towards an increasing homogeneity of concrete labouring, by means of deskilling and replacement of living labour by machinery. De Angelis thus conceives of abstract labour not only as expenditure of human bodily energy. He also conceives of it as an abstraction from the lived experience of workers in that it relates to subjective feelings such as boredom at work. De Angelis is – rightly - criticised for confusing concrete labour with abstract labour. Chris Arthur (2001) argues similarly in his assessment of Braverman’s notion of abstract labour as monotonous, repetitive, homogenised concrete labour. Abstract labour is not concrete labour, however homogenised, monotonous, repetitive, senseless and boring it might be.[5] That is, boring assembly line work is boring concrete labour, not abstract labour.

 

Kicillof and Starosta agree with de Angelis on the centrality of production, as opposed to exchange, share his critique of Rubin, and commend him for understanding that abstract labour is expenditure of human bodily energy. They criticise him for failing to connect properly abstract labour to class struggle. Since de Angelis conceives of abstract labour as a result of class struggle, he is criticised of ontologising class struggle (2007, p. 22). According to Kicillof and Starosta (2008, p. 34), class struggle rests on and develops the fundamental contradiction between ‘trans-historical materiality and its substantiation in distinct social form’. Class struggle has thus to do with contradictory unity between the materiality of human life and historically specific forms. As they see it, the ‘materiality of the abstract character of human labour negates its generic role’ (ibid., p. 35), seemingly because the ‘material specificity of [capitalism]…consists, precisely, in the development of the human productive capacity to organise social labour in a fully conscious fashion’ (ibid., p. 36). It seems as if the – trans-historically active - forces of production rebel against the socially posited relations of production, seeking to overcome capitalism’s unconscious organisation of abstract labour. It seems as if class struggle articulates the ‘contradictory unity between materiality and social form’ (2008, p. 34). This view is reminiscent of Negri’s bio-power, which describes some sort of residual natural power that despite capitalism’s best efforts at real subsumption, remains trans-historically active as the basis of communist resistance. Kicillof and Starosta appear not to share Negri’s politics, but the manner of their conceptualisation is strikingly similar. In distinction, then, to their robust critique of Arthur’s account, their critique of de Angelis is much less forceful.[6]

 

Chris Arthur develops abstract labour in the context of debates on the ‘New’ or ‘Systematic’ dialectic. He holds that ‘there is not only a split between form and content, but the former becomes autonomous and the dialectical development of the structure is indeed form-determined’ (Arthur, 2004, p. 81). He thus sees the value form as expressing the abstract essence of capitalism, that is, value. Value is essence and essence appears in the value form. Given this perspective Arthur prefers to leave aside any discussion of labour from the opening chapters of Capital (ibid., p. 85). Instead of labour, he argues that the ‘ontological foundation of the capitalist system’ is the material reality of abstraction in exchange (value). This process generates an ‘inverted reality’ in which commodities ‘simply instantiate their abstract essence as values’ (ibid, p. 80). The human participants in this process become the bearers of this determination of the value form – they do not know it, but they do it.

 

Kicillof and Starosta dismiss as pure formalism Arthur’s account. It ‘overlooks the materiality of value-producing labour as a historical form of development of human productive subjectivity’ (2007, p. 17). Arthur’s stance is thus judged to be indifferent to material contents. His notion of abstract labour is disconnected from the material world of production and class struggles. He offers thus a purely formal account of abstract labour and renders material production socially and empirically insubstantial.


Arthur’s ontological conception of value does not interest us here.[7] His delivery of abstract labour as a specific social form reveals important insights. Especially his point ‘that capitalist production posits living labour processes as abstract activity, pure motion in time’ (Arthur, 2001, p. 23) opens up a novel, temporally conceived conception of abstract labour that overcomes not only the – false - dichotomy between production and exchange[8]. It also posits the materiality of abstract labour as a specifically capitalist materiality, a materiality of social time.

 

Marx developed the connection between abstract labour and motion in time in his Critique of 1859. Capital is not as explicit on this connection, but in my view presupposes it. He quotes from his Critique in Capital volume one: ‘As values, all commodities are only definite masses of congealed labour-time’ (Marx, 1983, p. 47, 1987a, p. 272). He argues in his Critique that ‘[o]n the one hand, commodities must enter the exchange process as objectified universal labour time, on the other hand, the labour time of individuals becomes objectified universal labour time only as a result of the exchange process’ (Marx, 1987, p. 286). Time is money, said Benjamin Franklin. And we might add that therefore money is time. If then, capitalism reduces everything to time, an abstract time, divisible into equal, homogeneous, and constant units that move on from unit to unit, dissociated from concrete human circumstances and purposes, then, time really is everything. If ‘time is everything, [then] man is nothing; he is, at the most, time’s carcase’ (Marx, 1976, p. 127). Marx expresses the same idea in Capital arguing that the worker is ‘nothing more then personified labour-time’ (1983, p. 233).

 

In short, Arthur’s argument points towards abstract labour as a specific historical form of social time – a time made abstract. Or as Debord (nd., p. 87) put it, this time ‘has no reality apart from its exchangeability’. Abstract labour is the substance of value not because it has ‘a special utility…but because it is exerted for a definite time’ (Marx, 1983, p. 194). The substance of value is socially necessary labour time, not abstract expenditure of muscles, brain, and nerves. It is expenditure of muscle within time and measures by time. Muscle is not the substance of value. Time is. The expenditure of muscle is expenditure in time. Time is social time. When talking about value, we are talking about the expenditure of ‘definite masses of crystallised labour time’ (ibid., p. 184).

 

Abstract Labour as Social Form

Ordinarily, the distinction between generic materiality and social form is discussed in terms of a separation between first nature and second nature. First nature is the so-called general metabolism with nature. Here labour is a general presupposition of every production process regardless of history, as if posited by nature. Then there is second nature, which comprises distinctive historical forms of the social organisation of natural necessity. The orthodox tradition kept these two ‘natures’ analytically distinct. It argued that capitalist social forms can be traced back to some natural basis, which however does not exist in pure natural form. It always exists through distinct modes of production. One thus cannot find in history ‘pure manifestations’ of posited nature or, in our context, of abstract labour as a pure physiological expenditure of muscles, etc. The appearance of natural necessity is one of manifold historical overdeterminations.

 

In distinction, social form analysis argues that capitalist economic categories do not have a trans-historical validity. They belong to the society from which they spring. Capitalist laws of social reproduction are thus conceived as finite, transient products of the finite and transient reality of capitalism. It rejects the notion of trans-historical laws of development. Instead it argues that historical materialism is the critique of things understood dogmatically. That is to say, existing social structures and social laws are valid only for and within human social relations, and capitalist economic categories manifest the laws of necessity of capitalistically constituted forms of social relations. From this perspective, the orthodox Marxist tradition repressed the whole problem of social constitution. Instead it elevated the ‘laws’ of 2nd nature, the existence of which depends on the continued existence of specific social conditions into laws of history in general. It thus conceived of social relations as developed nature. In distinction, the form analytical approach argues that social categories are socially constituted.[9]

 

What does this hold in relation to labour? In relation to use-value producing concrete labour, its social constitution is easily understood, despite the fact that ‘use-values… constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth’ (Marx, 1983, p. 44). Use-values are the ‘basis of all social progress’ (ibid., p. 181). The increase ‘in the quantity of use-values is an increase of material wealth (ibid., p. 53). Nevertheless, although ‘hunger is hunger…the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and a fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail and tooth’ (Marx, 1973, p. 92). For the capitalist to produce commodities, he has to produce use-values for others, ‘social use-values’. That is, use-value is ‘historically-specific [in] character’ (Marx, 1962, p. 370, see also Marx, 1983, p. 48). Lastly, concrete labour ‘is not the only source of material wealth’ (Marx, 1983, p. 50). Nature produces use-values, too. However, the labour that is decisive in the production of capitalist wealth, value, is abstract labour. This labour is the foundation and substance of capitalist wealth. Its specific social substance is ‘time’. The measure of value is socially necessary labour time. Concrete labour creates material wealth that in capitalism exists as a mere depository of exchange value. In this context, Marx’s physiological definition of abstract labour contrasts sharply with his conception of abstract labour as a ‘specific social form of labour’ (Marx, 1987a, p. 278).

 

For Marx, the distinctiveness of capital is its double character of labour. As he put it in a letter to Engels, ‘[t]he best points in my book are 1. (this is fundamental to all understanding of the facts) the double-character of labour according to whether it is expressed in use-value or exchange-value, which is brought out in the First Chapter; 2. the treatment of surplus value independent of its particular forms as profit, interest, rent, etc. (Marx, 1987b), p. 407). Similarly in Capital, the fetishism of commodities ‘has its origin…in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them’ (Marx, 1983, p. 77). The peculiar social character of labour in capitalism comprises the existence of private labour as ‘directly social in its character’. The point of departure is thus not individual production but ‘socially determined individual production’ (Marx, 1973, p. 83).

 

Concerning the fetishism of the commodity, then, the ‘specific social character of private labour carried on independently, consists in the equality of every kind of labour, by virtue of its being human labour which character, therefore assumes in the product the form of value’ (ibid., p. 79). In short, ‘so far therefore as labour is a creator of use-value, is useful labour, it is a necessary condition, independent of all forms of society, for the existence of the human race; it is an eternal nature-imposed necessity, without which there can be no material exchanges between man and Nature, and therefore no life’ (1983, p. 50). As use-value ‘the bodies of commodities are combinations of two elements - matter and labour. If we take away the useful labour expended upon them, a material substratum is always left, which is furnished by Nature without any help of Man. We see, then, that labour is not the only source of material wealth, of use-values produced by labour’ (ibid.). In contrast, the ‘value of a commodity represents human labour in the abstract’ (ibid., p. 51), which comprises ‘a purely social reality’. Indeed, if we abstract from the useful labour expended on a product, we do not discover the so-called ‘generic materiality’ of abstract labour. What we find is matter, something for use, furnished by Nature.

 

Concrete labour produces use-values, material wealth. But this production is valid only by means of abstract labour. Against Adam Smith, he emphasises that this labour is an abstraction ‘forcibly brought about’ by exchange (Marx, 1987a, p. 299). What Marx means here by exchange is not the ‘exchange with nature’ but the exchange of commodities in capitalist society. Abstract labour constitutes value. Value cannot be the substance of a single commodity. It is a relationship between persons ‘expressed as relations between things’ (Marx, 1983, p. 80 fn. 1). Exchange value expresses a social relationship and the ‘labour which posits exchange value is a specific social form of labour’ (Marx, 1987a, p. 278). Marx thus argues that Smith and Ricardo analysed the commodity in terms of an undifferentiated notion of labour, as ‘productive activity of human beings in general, by which they meditate the material metabolism with nature, divested…of every social form and determinate character’ (Marx, 1992, p. 954). What does productive activity in general mean? In distinction to trans-historical, and in any case ontological conceptions of natural necessity, Marx rejects the idea of production in general as a ‘mere phantom, an abstraction that taken by itself, does not exist at all’ (ibid.). The notion that abstract labour as the trans-historical materiality of all labour assumes different social forms in distinct societies, transposes ‘the truth of the law of appropriation of bourgoies society … to a time when this society did not yet exist’ (Marx, 1987c, p. 463, translation amended). Or as he put it in relation to Ricardo. Ricardo who does not ‘investigate…the specific form in which labour manifests itself as the common element of commodities (Marx, 1972, p. 138) regards ‘the bourgoies form of labour…as the eternal natural form of social labour’ (Marx, 1987a, p. 300).

 

Marx praises classical political economy for its analysis of value and the magnitude of value, and discovery of the hidden content of forms, ‘however incompletely’. Yet, he continues, not once did it ask why this content takes that form and why ‘labour is represented by the value of its product and labour-time by the magnitude of that value’ (Marx, 1983, p. 85). For Marx, then, labour is the material content of social forms, and he asks why that content takes that form. This passage suggests that labour has to be analysed as the ‘content of that form’. Furthermore, he charges that political economy, especially Ricardo, nowhere ‘expressly and with full consciousness, distinguishes between labour, as it appears in the value of a product and the same labour, as it appears in the use-value of that product. Of course, this distinction is practically made…But he has not the least idea, that when the difference between various kinds of labour is treated as purely quantitative, their qualitative unity or equality and therefore their reduction to abstract labour, is implied’ (Marx, 1983, p. 84, fn1). Marx does not differentiate between a general ‘labour that is represented by value’ and a general labour that as the material content of social forms.[10]

 

There is only one social labour and this labour doubles into concrete labour and abstract labour. As use-values, products are the natural form of concrete labour. At the same time, they are commodities because ‘human labour is accumulated in [them]’ (Marx, 1983, p. 58). It is this ‘equivalence between different sorts of commodities that alone brings into relief the specific character of value-creating labour’ (Marx, 1983, p. 57). Abstract labour comprises relations of equivalence. It is not some substance that hides in individual commodities. It is a ‘social substance’, which can be expressed only by means of exchange in relation of one commodity to another (Marx, 1983, p. 54). This exchange is ‘evidently an act characterised by a total abstraction from use-value’ (ibid., p. 45). That is to say, ‘one sort of wares are as good as another, if the values be equal’ (ibid.). Exchange cannot take place without equality, and equality not without commensurability. Equality, too, becomes abstract in that it is indifferent to quality, distinction, specificity, purpose, and indeed judgement and reason. ‘There is no difference or distinction in things of equal value. An hundred pounds’ worth of lead or iron, is of as great value as one hundred pounds’ worth of silver or gold’ (Marx, 1983, p. 45). This equality is the equality of labour in the abstract, of a homogeneous labour that can be divided into equal units, each ‘the same as any other’ (ibid., p. 46).

 

This objective existence of equality as abstract equivalence is ‘a purely social reality’ (ibid., p. 54). It comprises a substance that although common to all commodities ‘cannot be either a geometrical, a chemical, or any other natural property of commodities. Such properties claim our attention only in so far as they affect the utility of those commodities, make them use-values’ (ibid., p. 45, my emphasis). What the commodities have therefore in common is human labour in the abstract and this labour comprises a purely social reality. No chemist ‘has ever discovered exchange value either in a pearl or a diamond. The economic discoverers of this chemical element, who by-the-by lay special claim to critical acumen, find however that the use-value of objects belongs to them independently of their material properties, while their value, on the other hand, forms a part of them as objects. What confirms them in this view, is the peculiar circumstance that the use value of objects is realised without exchange, by means of a direct relation between the objects and man, while, on the other their value is realised only by exchange, that is, by means of a social process.’ (ibid., p. 87). For example, Smith ‘mistakes the objective equalisation of unequal labours forcibly brought about by the social process for the subjective equality of the labours of individuals’ (Marx, 1987a, p. 299, amended translation). As values, commodities are all the same as ‘crystals of this social substance’, that is ‘mere congelation of homogeneous human labour’. They consist thus ‘of the same unsubstantial reality’ (Marx, 1983, p. 46).

 

The unsubstantial reality of value has to do with the double character of labour. The real existence of labour is always concrete. Every physiological expenditure is expenditure of concrete labour. That is, physiological expenditures of labour entail a specific productive application, and is thus concrete. The ‘productive power has reference, of course, only to labour of some useful concrete form, the efficacy of any special productive activity during a given time being dependent on its productiveness… [P]roductive power is an attribute of the concrete useful forms of labour’ (Marx, 1983, p. 53). Muscles do not burn sugar in the abstract. Labour is concrete labour, not labour in the abstract. What, then, is specific about capitalism, is not abstract labour as such, but the circumstance that concrete labour has to take the form of its opposite, undifferentiated human labour, to count as socially necessary labour. Or as Marx put it, ‘labour which creates exchange value is thus abstract general labour’ and ‘as exchange values all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour time’ and this ‘reduction of exchange value to labour time’ entails abstract labour as a ‘specific social form of labour (Marx, 1987a, pp. 271, 272, 278).

 

Undifferentiated human labour, abstract labour, is not a concrete substance that one can touch, see, smell or eat. As use-values commodities do not contain exchange-value. And as exchange values they do ‘not contain an atom of use-value’ (ibid., p. 45). Their natural form is their concrete existence as use values. ‘Commodities come into the world in the shape of use-values, articles, or goods…This is their plain, homely, bodily form. (ibid., p. 54). They are commodities ‘only in so far they have two forms, a physical or natural form, and a value form’ (ibid.). Finally, ‘the value of commodities is the very opposite of the coarse materiality of their substance, not an atom of matter enters into its composition’ (ibid.). On the other hand, commodities acquire a purely social reality in so far as they are expressions ‘of one identical social substance. Viz, human labour…it follows as a matter of course that value can only manifest itself in the social relation of commodity to commodity’ (ibid.). That is to say, no single commodity has ‘value-objectivity for itself, but each has it only in so far as it is a common objectivity. Outside their relation to each other – outside the relation, in which they count as equal – neither coat nor linen possess value-objectivity as congealed human labour as such’ (Marx, 1987d, p. 30). Marx has great trouble in expressing value-objectivity as a relationship between things. Its reality is both, real and insubstantial, sensuous and super-sensible, a real abstraction. When expressing this non-substantial substance of value he speaks not only of a ‘unsubstantial reality (Marx, 1983, p. 46) or ‘purely fantastic objectivity’ (Marx, 1987d, p. 32), he also says that value is ‘invisible’ (ibid., p. 820) in commodities.

 

What does it mean to say that value is invisible? What sort of expenditure of abstract labour are we dealing with? Actual labour is always labour ‘in motion’, that is, ‘actually expended’ (Marx, 1983, pp. 57, 58). ‘Just as motion is measured by time, so is labour by labour time…[it] is the living quantitative reality of labour’ (Marx, 1987a, p. 271-72, translation amended). This is the time of abstract, constant, and equal time units, measured by clock time. ‘Direct labour time [is the] decisive factor of wealth’ (Marx, 1973, p. 704). Each commodity ‘objectifies general social labour time, a specific quantity of general labour time, is expressed in its exchange value in a series in determinate quantities of different use-values, and conversely, the exchange value of all other commodities measure the use-value of this exclusive commodity’ (Marx, 1987a, p. 288). Clock time is dissociated from the actual human affairs that it measures in homogenous, equal, divisible, constant, temporal units. Yet, however dissociated, it appears as the substance of the very same activity that it measures. Thus ‘time appears simultaneously as a measure of value and as its substance’ (Bensaid, 2002, p. 80). From the tick to the tack, clock time measures human activity regardless of specific contents. In clock time, expenditure of labour does not occur in time. It occurs within time.

 

Conventionally this conception of time is defined as linear time where time exists as an independent framework for motion, events and activities. Time measures activities but it dissociated from them. ‘Homogeneous time is empty time’: it measures what it is not, it measures concrete expenditure whatever its content (ibid., p. 82). It is also a reified time in that it appears timeless, without beginning or end, immanent to itself. As timeless time it is nothing – yet it appears as being whose passing ticks and tacks human activity. Not without reason did Heidegger, in his Being and Nothingness, ontologise time as the foundation of being. Labour time, which is always concrete as an activity in time, appears as its opposite – as infinite time that is founded on itself and passes by itself. It is not Man who meets her needs in time. Rather time subsumes Man, as if by fate or natural necessity, and organises her labour according to an economy of time that never stands still, restless, in constant motion, encompassing no playfulness and lacking in a federated present, from the tick to the tack it measures the duration of labour time ‘in hours’ (Marx, 1983, p. 46; cf. Krahl, 1984, p. 29).

 

The reduction of use-values to depositories of objectified social labour time is an ‘abstraction that is made on a daily basis in every social production process. The dissolution of all commodities into labour-time is no greater an abstraction, but no less real than that of all organic bodies into air’ (Marx, 1987, p. 272). This dissolution is the condition of the social existence of material wealth in capitalism. That is, ‘with reference to use-value, the labour contained in a commodity counts only qualitatively, with reference to value it counts only quantitatively, and must first be reduced to human labour pure and simple. In the former case, it is a question of How and What, in the latter of How much? And How long a time?’ (Marx, 1983, p. 52). Concrete labour takes place in time. In order for this labour to count as social labour, it has to manifest itself as valid-value in exchange. That is, its concrete labour-time has to occur within time. Its measure is socially necessary labour time. Concrete labour time is compelled to occur within the time of its abstract measure. If it does not, it is nothing, valueless.

 

In sum, the labour spent on commodities ‘counts effectively only in so far as it is spent in a form that is useful to others. Whether that labour is useful for others, and its product consequently capable of satisfying the wants of others, can be proved only by the act of exchange’ (Marx 1983, p. 89). Expenditure of labour is expenditure of concrete labour within a certain time frame. In order to be valid and count as such concrete labour, it has to be objectified as abstract labour in exchange. That is to say ‘labour time is the living state of existence of labour, irrespective of its form, its content and its individual features; it is the living quantitative aspect of labour as well as its inherent measure’ (Marx, 1987a, p. 272). Thus the real value of a commodity is its ‘social value; that is to say, the real value is not measured by the labour-time that the article in each individual case costs the producer, but by the labour time socially required for its production’ (Marx, 1983, p. 301). The magnitude of value is measured by ‘the quantity of the value-forming substance, the labour, which it contains. This quantity is measured by its duration, and labour-time is itself measured on the particular scale of hours, days, etc.’ (Marx, 1983, p. 46, translation amended WB).

 

The measure of value is socially necessary labour-time. Marx’s familiar definition – ‘socially necessary labour time is the labour-time required to produce any use-value under the prevailing socially normal conditions of production and with the prevalent socially average degree of skill and intensity of labour’ (ibid.) – expresses the social character of individual labour. ‘Only because the labour time of the spinner and the labour time of the weaver represent universal labour time and their products are thus universal equivalents, is the social aspect of the labour of the two individuals represented for each of them by the labour of the other’ (Marx, 1987a, p. 274). In this sense, the individual characteristics of the labourers are obliterated. As Marx put it in his Critique, ‘labour, which is thus measured by time, does not seem, indeed, to be the labour of different subjects, but on the contrary the different working individuals seem to be mere organs of this labour…[of] human labour in general’ (Marx, 1987a, p. 272). Different labours appear thus as different expenditures of the same social labour time (see, ibid., pp. 273-74). In addition, objectified social labour is the objectified labour of a working individual, an ‘individual indistinguishable from all other individuals’ (ibid., p. 274, translation amended). ‘The total labour power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of labour-power composed though it be of innumerable individual units’ (1983, p. 46). Insofar as all individual labour units are mere organs of social labour time, ‘each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour-power of society…no more time than is needed on an average, no more than is socially necessary’ (ibid, pp. 46-7). Labour time is objectified only once, in the use-values of commodities. This labour time ‘is both the substance that turns them into exchange values and therefore into commodities, and the standard by which the precise magnitude of their value is measured’ (Marx, 1987a, p. 272). The circuits M…C…M’ and M…P…M’ encompasses this reality of labour time. Its elementary form, M…M’, encompasses it, too, as a mortgage on the future appropriation of labour time or as presently fictitious wealth.[11]

 

The reality of labour time as its own abstract measure is not fixed and given. The ‘labour time that yesterday was without doubt socially necessary for the production of a yard of linen, ceases to be so to-day’ (ibid., p. 109). That is to say, whether the concrete expenditure of time can be rendered valid as socially necessary labour time can only be established post-festum. The expenditure of concrete labour is thus done ‘in the hope, rather than the assurance, that the labour they perform will turn out to be socially required’ (Smith, 1990, p. 69). Our capitalist, this personification of ‘value in process, money in process, and as such capital’, is thus spurred into action, frantically seeking to make the expenditure of concrete labour-time under his command count socially as expenditure of necessary social labour time. There he expropriates unpaid social labour time, here he seeks to make his fortune as seller of objectified social labour-time. Time as the measure of wealth is also the substance of wealth. That is to say, time as a measure of its own substance ‘must itself be measured’, in the form of profit, the rate of return on expropriated unpaid labour-time (Bensaid, 2002, p. 75).

 

For the labourer, the consequences are formidable. That is, ‘the time occupied in the labour of production must not exceed the time really necessary under the given social conditions of the case’ (Marx, 1983,p. 183). How much labour went in to it? How long a time did it take? Time is money. No time to waste, more time to catch. This then is the ‘nibbling and cribbling at meal times’ as ‘moments are the elements of profit’ (Marx, 1983, pp, 232, 233). Pace de Angelis, abstract labour is imposed: work has to be performed not in its own good time, but within time. Work that is not completed within time is wasted, valueless, regardless of the usefulness of the material wealth that it has created, and the needs that it could satisfy. From the appropriation of unpaid labour time to the endless struggle over the division between necessary labour and surplus labour, from the ‘imposition‘ of labour-time by time-theft, this ‘petty pilferings of minutes’, ‘snatching a few minutes’ (ibid., p. 232), to the stealing from the worker of atoms of additional unpaid time by means of great labour flexibilty, the life-time of the worker is reduced to labour-time. The worker then appears as ‘nothing more than personified labour-time’ (Marx, 1983, p. 233) – a ‘time’s carcase’.

 

Conclusion

Marx’s account on abstract labour is ambivalent. On the one hand he defines abstract labour in physiological terms, arguing that value is the crystallization and congelation of the expenditure of human muscles, etc. On the other he treats it as a specifically capitalist form of labour, arguing that commodities are such crystralisations and congelation only because they objectify socially necessary labour time. Kicillof and Starosta explicate the first aspect with great clarity and critical understanding, and against form-analytical approaches that stress the veracity of the latter, seek to explain this second aspect as capitalist objectification of the former.

 

I am not at all certain whether nature contains a historical propensity. In my view the strongest point of Marx’s critique of political economy is the critique of ‘economic laws’ as the ontological foundation of history. Without doubt, in capitalism, physiologically defined labour does indeed appear as the ontological foundation of all existence. Further, exchange value is the determination of the commodity, and seems to belong to it, as if by nature. This ‘nature’ is however socially specific, it is a capitalist nature. This historically specific necessity does appear objective, trans-historical, and natural. It might therefore well be, as Postone (1996) and Reichelt (2008) argue, that Marx’s physiological definition of abstract labour is the first step towards his subsequent explication of the fetishism of commodities. Be that as it may, I have argued that the physiological definition of abstract labour presumes a biological condition – as Haug put it with characteristic frankness: muscles burn sugar - as the ontological foundation of social existence. Such account naturalises economic categories ‘as if the [imagined] individual and isolated hunter and fisherman, with whom Smith and Ricardo begin’ is an actual fact, posited by nature, not arising historically in the midst of bourgeois development (Marx, 1973, p. 83). History, not nature, is the point of critical departure.

 

In capitalism, Marx argued, every social progress turns into a calamity. Every increase in labour productivity shortens the hours of labour but in its capitalist form, it lengthens them. The introduction of sophisticated machinery lightens labour but in its capitalist form, it heightens the intensity of labour. Every increase in the productivity of labour increases the material wealth of the producers but in its capitalist form makes them paupers. Most importantly of all, greater labour productivity sets labour free, makes labour redundant. But rather then shortening the hours of work and thus absorbing available labour into production on the basis of a shorter working day, liberating life-time from the ‘realm of necessity’ for the ‘realm of freedom’, those in employment are exploited more intensively, while those made redundant find themselves on the scrap heap of a mode of production that sacrifices ‘“human machines” on the pyramids of accumulation’ (Gambino, 2003, p. 104)[12] .

 

Two issues follow. The trans-historical treatment of abstract labour turns upside down the critical insight that the double character of labour is specific to capitalism. Trans-historically conceived, abstract labour becomes the ontological foundation of all social life. In this round-about-way, concrete labour would figure as a specific capitalist form of labour! Rejecting this clearly bizarre notion would mean that concrete labour, too, is judged to be trans-historically valid. In this way, the double character of labour would cease to be capitalism’s determining characteristic, and all labour processes would in fact be similar in all societies. The differences in the modes of production would thus be reduced to distinctions in the social organisation, say, from the capitalist organisation of abstract labour to its socialist organisation, or from the capitalist implementation of Taylorism to the Soviet implementation of Taylorism. When posited as nature, abstract labour appears as a force of nature, legitimising existing social relations as developed nature and delineating possible futures as idealised derivatives of the existent. Both depend on the deadly notion that ‘freedom is recognition of necessity’. Yet, nature has nothing to do with it.

 

Finally, distinct conceptions of abstract labour involve different political implications. For the orthodox tradition abstract labour accounted for the magnitude of value, and labour was thus seen as an economic resource that a socialist state could plan and allocate, ostensibly on behalf of workers. Rubin’s (1972) turn towards a critical theory of value argued against its trans-historical naturalisation and in favour of its determination as a specifically capitalist form of labour. Politically, this turn rejected socialism as a well-ordered republic of labour. Kicillof and Starosta reject such republicanism, too. Yet, despite their attempt to expunge orthodox political consequences from their argument, the trans-historical notion of abstract labour does not lend itself easily to alternative political outcomes. Their understanding of ‘capitalism as transition to communism’ (Kicillof and Starosta, 2008, p.  37, citing Chattopadhay) remains mired in the illusionary certainty of trans-historical laws of development, which on closer inspection seem in every respect tied to capitalist realities, including its conception of progress. It is not the existing historical form of abstract labour that needs to be abolished in favour of its socialist substantiation. What needs to be abolished is abstract labour, so that human purposes unfold in their own, self-determined time.

 

 

References

Alliez, E. (1996), Capital Times, University of Minnesota Press, London.

 

Arthur. C. (2001), ‘Value, labour, and Negativity’, Capital & Class, no. 75.

 

Arthur, C. (2004), The New Dialectic, Brill, Leiden.

 

Bensaid, D. (2002), Marx For Our Time, Verso, London.

 

Bonefeld, W. (1996), ‘Money, Equality and Exploitation’, in Bonefeld, W. and J., Holloway (eds.) Global Capital, National State and the Politics of Money, Plagrave, London.

 

Bonefeld, W. (2009a), ‘Emancipatory Praxis and Conceptuality in Adorno’, in Holloway, J., Matamoros, F. and S. Tischer (eds.) Negativity and Revolution, Pluto, London.

 

Bonefeld, W. (2009b), ‘Naturalisation versus Critique of Economic Categories’, forthcoming Critique.

 

De Angelis, M. (1995) Beyond the Technological and the Social Paradigms: A Political Reading of Abstract Labour as the Substance of Value. Capital and Class 57.

 

De Angelis, M. (1996) Social Relations, Commodity-Fetishism and Marx’s Critique of Political Economy’. Review of Radical Political Economics, Vol 28, No 4

 

Deboard,G. (nd.) Society  of the Spectacle, Rebel Press, London.

 

Gambino, F. (2003), ‘A Critique of the Fordism of the Regulation School’, in W. Bonefeld (ed) Revolutionary Writing, Autonomedia, New York.

 

Haug, F.W (2005), Vorlesungen zur Einführung ins ‘Kapital’, 6th edition, Argument Verlag, Hamburg.

 

Heinrich, M. (1999), Die Wissenschaft vom Wert, Dampfboot, Münster.

 

Heinrich, M. (2006), ‘Reconstruction or Deconstruction’, paper presented at Re-reading Marx – New Perspectives after the Critical Edition Department of Economics, University of Bergamo, July.

 

Kay, G., (1999), ‘Abstract Labour and Capital’, Historical Materialism, 5, Winter.

 

 

Kay, G.and J. Mott (2004),’Concept and Method in Postone’s Time Labour and Social Domination’, Historical Materialism, 12/3.

 

Kicillof, A. and G. Startosta (2007), ‘Value form and class struggle’, Capital & Class, no. 92.

 

Kicillof, A. and G. Startosta (2008), ‘On Materiality and Social Form’, Historical Materialism, 15.

 

Krahl, H.J. (1984), Vom Ende der abstrakten Arbeit, Materialis Verlag, Frankfurt.

 

Marx, K. (1962), ‘Randglossen zu Adolph Wagners “Lehrbuch der politischen Ökonomie”’, MEW 19, Dietz, Berlin.

 

Marx, K. (1973), Grundrisse, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

 

Marx, J. (1976), The Poverty of Philosophy, MECW, vol 6, Lawrence & Wishart, London.

 

Marx, K. (1983), Capital, Vol. I, Lawrene & Wishart, London.

 

Marx, K. (1987a), Contribution Toward a Critique of Political Economy, MECW vol. 29, Lawrence & Wishart, London.

 

Marx, K. (1987b), ‘Letter of Marx to Engels, 24.8.1867’, MECW vol. 42, Lawrence & Wishart, London.

 

Marx, K. (1987c), ‘From the Preparatory Materials’, MECW vol. 29, Lawrence & Wishart, London.

 

Marx, K. (1987d), Ergänzungen und Veränderungen, MEGA, II.6, Dietz, Berlin.

 

Marx, K. (1992), Capital, volume III, Penguin, London.

 

Postone, M. (1996), Time, Labour and Social Domination, CUP, Cambridge.

 

Reichelt, H. (2005), ‘Social Reality as Appearance’, in Bonefeld, W. and K. Psychopedis (eds.) Human Dignity, Ashgate, Aldershot.

 

Reichelt, H. (2008), Neue Marx-Lektüre, VSA, Hamburg.

 

Rubin, I. (1972): Essays on Marx’s theory of value, Black & Red, Detroit.

 

Saad-Filho, A. (2002) The Value of Marx. London:Routledge.

 

Schmidt, A. (1981), History and Structure, MIT, Cambridge MA.

 

Schrader, Fred E. (1980) Restauration und Revolution. Die Vorarbeiten zum „Kapital“ von Karl Marx in seinen Studienheften 1850-1858, Hildesheim: Gerstenberg

 

Smith, Tony, (1990) The Logic of Marx’s Capital. Albany:State University of New York Press.

 

Starosta, G. (2008), ‘The commodity-form and the Dialectical Method’ Science and Society, vol. 72, no. 3.

 

Vatin,  F. (2004), Trabajo, ciencias y sociedad. Enasyos de socilogia y epistemologia del Trabajo, Lumen-Humanitas, Buenos Aires.

 

Vincent, J. (1991), Abstract Labour: A Critique, Macmillan, London

 

 

 



[1] This insight draws on Heinrich (2006).

[2] See the work of Krahl (1984), Postone (1996) and also Alliez (1996) for a time-based conception of abstract labour. See also Bensaid (2002) who conceives of time as capitalist matter.

[3] Haug’s trans-historical conception of abstract labour does not differ in any way from Kicillof’s and Starosta’s. His biological reference to sugar burning muscles is apt, to the point, and simple in its nature. On Haug, see Bonefeld (2009b).

[4] Schrader (1980) argues that Marx developed the category in his critique of Benjamin Franklin. Unlike the category of labour sans phrase in the Grundrisse, the later category abstract labour would thus refer to the equalisation of qualitatively distinct concrete labours in terms of value. This is what Franklin was after, and following Schrader, it was in this context that Marx left aside his earlier conception of general labour, or labour sans phrase, and instead developed the category of abstract labour. See Marx (1983, p. 57, fn. 3). I owe this reference to Reichelt (2005).

[5] See Kay and Mott (2004) for a neat account of the circumstance that abstract labour has no concrete – labouring – existence. See also Vatin (2004).

[6] The idea of an historically active ontological force can be found across the board – from orthodox conception of historical materialism, to Lukacs’s and Meikle’s notion of historical essence, from Negri’s biopower to Haug’s idea that Capital delivers the capitalist anatomy of trans-historical economic laws. For critical theory, notably Adorno, such views are impermissible: History has no mission that is immanent to itself; neither does it possess and conquer, nor does it reveal posited nature. It is made.

[7] There is only one reality, not two, and content is the content of forms, however split reality might seem. That is to say, there is no two-world distinction between the sensuous world of contents and the super-sensible world of value-things. Rather, the sensuous world subsists through the super-sensible world and belongs to it (cf. Reichelt, 2005). Arthur’s ontological conception of value is similar to Adorno’s negative ontology, that is, the self-moving essence of value is the social necessity of a negative world. Its necessity appears like a force of nature. Yet, it is a solely social necessity. On this, and its implications for praxis, see Bonefeld (2009a).

[8] Arthur’s ‘process of abstract activity’ does not connect with de Angelis’s reading of abstract labour. The one conceptualises the movement of the world behind the backs of its producers, the other describes a specific concrete labour.

[9] On this in connection with history, see Schmidt (1981).

[10] This point draws on Reichelt (2008, pp. 97-98).

[11] On this, and its crunch, see Bonefeld (1996).

[12] The social calamity of capitalist development is taken from Marx (1983, p. 416).

 

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