Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Human Labour in the Abstract

So I’ve decided that I’m not quite ready to let go of the first chapter of Capital. My provisional thought, very much subject to change, is that I’ll write something brief tonight on abstract labour, then at some point soon take up the complex discussion going on in the section on the form of value, and then write something on whatever bits of the section on commodity fetishism I haven’t managed to roll into the other posts.

In my last post in this series, I suggested that:

  • the first chapter was driving toward the argument about commodity fetishism,
  • significant aspects of the earlier sections of the chapter were intended to express fetishised forms of perception and thought, rather than Marx’s own “position”, and
  • fetishised forms of perception involve the attribution of supersensible social qualities to material objects.

In previous posts in this series (I’ve included a full list at the bottom of this post), I’ve suggested that this argument doesn’t simply involve the claim that “supersensible” qualities are inappropriately “projected” onto material nature. First, since this is a reflexive argument, Marx is seeking to ground, rather than simply debunk, the forms of thought he is analysing (including the forms of thought mobilised in his own critique). He therefore won’t treat the fetish as a “mere” conceptual error or a simple “illusion”. He will instead position fetishised perceptions as “forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production”. He will also present the fetish as arising from a particular way of enacting our collective lives, such that fetishised forms of thought are related to determinate qualitative characteristics of social “realities” enacted in particular forms of collective practice:

the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things. (emphasis mine)

This reflexive strategy enables Marx (in principle) to construct a socially immanent critique that accounts for the practical genesis of the forms of thought it opposes, while also using the same analysis to demonstrate that such forms of thought are partial, and thus fail to grasp emancipatory potentials necessarily generated through the same practical, collective process that reproduces capitalism.

Second, I have suggested that the argument about the fetish is not concerned solely with explaining the “supersensible” properties that are perceived to inhere in material objects: it also lays the foundation for grasping the conviction that there are “material objects” – problematising the conception (expressed in many places in the first chapter) that our perception of a “material world” represents some kind of “demythologised” form of thought that arises quasi-automatically, once artificial social determinations have been stripped away, leaving “nature” behind. Instead, the “material world” is grasped in this argument as its own practically constituted “positivity” – as the product of determinate kinds of collective practice. (As a side note, to avoid confusion: This kind of argument is not intended to position human practice as somehow generative of the entirety of the non-human world – evoking a sort of radical social constructivism – but rather to explore connections between our current sensitivity to specific potentials of the non-human world, and other dimensions of our contemporaneous historical experience.)

Note that, since I’m suggesting that Marx is unfolding a reflexive critical theory, this sort of analytical move does not invalidate his own critical deployment of a (grounded) notion of “materialism”. Instead, this move enables Marx to deploy a concept of materialism (or other normative standards) non-dogmatically, in a way that symmetrically applies the same critical framework to his own position, and to positions he criticises, and thus does not rely on critical standards that float above the context being criticised.

I therefore see the “denaturalising” move made by the argument about the fetish as cutting “both ways” – as encompassing concepts of use value and exchange value, sensuous material nature and supersensible laws, subjects and objects, and a constellation of other dichotomies that will be unfolded as having interrelated, practical bases in the course of this analysis. And I see this argument opening up the possibility for an analysis of capitalism as a peculiarly “layered” social context, constituted by intrinsically bound and yet conflictual dimensions of collective practice that mutually differentiate one another to constitute a practical dichotomy between, on the one hand, a “secularised” impersonal world of “material” objects whose interactions are governed by “universal” laws, and, on the other, a contingent, historically-variable, intersubjective realm of human custom.

But I said I was going to write about abstract labour… ;-P I’m realising as I pause here that I’ve become extremely tired, but I likely won’t have much time to write for the next couple of days, and I’d rather not let this line of thought go completely cold. As a least-worst option, I’m going to dash something out that I suspect won’t manage to express what I’m after. Apologies for the confusion this will probably cause, but my hope is that folks will be patient enough to offer criticisms in the gamble that my next attempt might be a bit clearer and closer to the mark.

I’ve already suggested in previous posts that the “deduction” of the existence of abstract labour, as presented in the early sections of this chapter, does not represent Marx’s own position, but rather a form of fetishised thought. Thus, in the first section, Marx writes as though commodities can be exchanged because, as objects, they possess the supersensible property of containing equal quantities of abstract labour:

A given commodity, e.g., a quarter of wheat is exchanged for x blacking, y silk, or z gold, &c. – in short, for other commodities in the most different proportions. Instead of one exchange value, the wheat has, therefore, a great many. But since x blacking, y silk, or z gold &c., each represents the exchange value of one quarter of wheat, x blacking, y silk, z gold, &c., must, as exchange values, be replaceable by each other, or equal to each other. Therefore, first: the valid exchange values of a given commodity express something equal; secondly, exchange value, generally, is only the mode of expression, the phenomenal form, of something contained in it, yet distinguishable from it.

Let us take two commodities, e.g., corn and iron. The proportions in which they are exchangeable, whatever those proportions may be, can always be represented by an equation in which a given quantity of corn is equated to some quantity of iron: e.g., 1 quarter corn = x cwt. iron. What does this equation tell us? It tells us that in two different things – in 1 quarter of corn and x cwt. of iron, there exists in equal quantities something common to both. The two things must therefore be equal to a third, which in itself is neither the one nor the other. Each of them, so far as it is exchange value, must therefore be reducible to this third.

A simple geometrical illustration will make this clear. In order to calculate and compare the areas of rectilinear figures, we decompose them into triangles. But the area of the triangle itself is expressed by something totally different from its visible figure, namely, by half the product of the base multiplied by the altitude. In the same way the exchange values of commodities must be capable of being expressed in terms of something common to them all, of which thing they represent a greater or less quantity.

This common “something” 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. But the exchange of commodities is evidently an act characterised by a total abstraction from use value. Then one use value is just as good as another, provided only it be present in sufficient quantity. Or, as old Barbon says,

“one sort of wares are as good as another, if the values be equal. 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.”

As use values, commodities are, above all, of different qualities, but as exchange values they are merely different quantities, and consequently do not contain an atom of use value.

If then we leave out of consideration the use value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labour. But even the product of labour itself has undergone a change in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use value, we make abstraction at the same time from the material elements and shapes that make the product a use value; we see in it no longer a table, a house, yarn, or any other useful thing. Its existence as a material thing is put out of sight. Neither can it any longer be regarded as the product of the labour of the joiner, the mason, the spinner, or of any other definite kind of productive labour. Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied in them, and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract.

In the section on the fetish, Marx explicitly contradicts this claim:

As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things. It is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire, as values, one uniform social status, distinct from their varied forms of existence as objects of utility. This division of a product into a useful thing and a value becomes practically important, only when exchange has acquired such an extension that useful articles are produced for the purpose of being exchanged, and their character as values has therefore to be taken into account, beforehand, during production. From this moment the labour of the individual producer acquires socially a twofold character. On the one hand, it must, as a definite useful kind of labour, satisfy a definite social want, and thus hold its place as part and parcel of the collective labour of all, as a branch of a social division of labour that has sprung up spontaneously. On the other hand, it can satisfy the manifold wants of the individual producer himself, only in so far as the mutual exchangeability of all kinds of useful private labour is an established social fact, and therefore the private useful labour of each producer ranks on an equality with that of all others. The equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator, viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract. The twofold social character of the labour of the individual appears to him, when reflected in his brain, only under those forms which are impressed upon that labour in every-day practice by the exchange of products. In this way, the character that his own labour possesses of being socially useful takes the form of the condition, that the product must be not only useful, but useful for others, and the social character that his particular labour has of being the equal of all other particular kinds of labour, takes the form that all the physically different articles that are the products of labour. have one common quality, viz., that of having value.

Hence, when we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it. Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our own social products; for to stamp an object of utility as a value, is just as much a social product as language. The recent scientific discovery, that the products of labour, so far as they are values, are but material expressions of the human labour spent in their production, marks, indeed, an epoch in the history of the development of the human race, but, by no means, dissipates the mist through which the social character of labour appears to us to be an objective character of the products themselves. The fact, that in the particular form of production with which we are dealing, viz., the production of commodities, the specific social character of private labour carried on independently, consists in the equality of every kind of that labour, by virtue of its being human labour, which character, therefore, assumes in the product the form of value – this fact appears to the producers, notwithstanding the discovery above referred to, to be just as real and final, as the fact, that, after the discovery by science of the component gases of air, the atmosphere itself remained unaltered. (bold text mine)

In between the sections quoted above, Marx scatters a number of indications that the concept of “human labour in the abstract” picks out a very peculiar social entity. In the first section, he argues:

The labour, however, that forms the substance of value, is homogeneous human labour, expenditure of one uniform labour power. 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 human labour power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour power of society, and takes effect as such; that is, so far as it requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on an average, no more than is socially necessary.

When Marx refers to the “total labour power of society”, this initially sounds as though he might be suggesting that “abstract labour” could just be something like “the total amount of goal-directed energy humans expend to transform material nature to meet their needs” – as though the term is just a conceptual abstraction from all the varieties of concrete labouring activities humans happen to undertake. Passages elsewhere in the chapter that speak of labour in physiological terms would seem to reinforce this impression:

Productive activity, if we leave out of sight its special form, viz., the useful character of the labour, is nothing but the expenditure of human labour power. Tailoring and weaving, though qualitatively different productive activities, are each a productive expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles, and in this sense are human labour. They are but two different modes of expending human labour power.

From the beginning, however, it is clear that the concept of “human labour in the abstract” is not just a useful conceptual category for classifying and grouping all different sorts of labour activity. Instead, the concept seems intended to pick out something coercive – a sort of unintended collective normative force that adjudicates what gets to “count as labour”. So, as Marx presents it, labouring activities – human physiological exertion, goal-directed transformations of nature, etc. – get to “count as labour” only if they generate a use value for others, and only to the extent that they conform to a socially average level of productivity. And the producers, although they may certainly strategise, plot and scheme, cannot know in advance whether, and to what extent, their labour will “count”.

Marx is already hinting at the coercive nature of abstract labour when, just after he first notes that value is measured by labour-time, he then immediately explains that there is a difference between the empirical expenditure of time in a production process, and the normative measure of abstract labour. He illustrates the potential consequences of this distinction with a well-chosen example:

The introduction of power-looms into England probably reduced by one-half the labour required to weave a given quantity of yarn into cloth. The hand-loom weavers, as a matter of fact, continued to require the same time as before; but for all that, the product of one hour of their labour represented after the change only half an hour’s social labour, and consequently fell to one-half its former value.

Abstract labour figures in this account as a sort of socially-constituted mass with a qualitatively homogeneous, undifferentiated character. Commodities are treated in social practice as though they “partake” of this qualitatively homogeneous supersensible substance to greater or lesser degrees. Concrete labouring activities therefore “count as labour” only to the degree that these activities are productive of commodities that “participate” in this socially-constituted mass. The empirical efforts expended in the production of particular commodities, the empirical form of concrete labouring processes, do not determine the extent to which empirical products serve as receptacles of materialised value. In relation to concrete “sensuous” elements of material production, value stands as a “counter-factual”, sensuously undetectable, social constraint.

Except. Commodities must also be use values. And productivity pertains to the production of some particular kind of use value. So there are determinate connections – conflictual ones – between empirical labouring processes and “human labour in the abstract”. These connections feed into the coercive dynamic associated with value:

If the productive power of all the different sorts of useful labour required for the production of a coat remains unchanged, the sum of the values of the coats produced increases with their number. If one coat represents x days’ labour, two coats represent 2x days’ labour, and so on. But assume that the duration of the labour necessary for the production of a coat becomes doubled or halved. In the first case one coat is worth as much as two coats were before; in the second case, two coats are only worth as much as one was before, although in both cases one coat renders the same service as before, and the useful labour embodied in it remains of the same quality. But the quantity of labour spent on its production has altered.

An increase in the quantity of use values is an increase of material wealth. With two coats two men can be clothed, with one coat only one man. Nevertheless, an increased quantity of material wealth may correspond to a simultaneous fall in the magnitude of its value. This antagonistic movement has its origin in the twofold character of labour. 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. Useful labour becomes, therefore, a more or less abundant source of products, in proportion to the rise or fall of its productiveness. On the other hand, no change in this productiveness affects the labour represented by value. Since productive power is an attribute of the concrete useful forms of labour, of course it can no longer have any bearing on that labour, so soon as we make abstraction from those concrete useful forms. However then productive power may vary, the same labour, exercised during equal periods of time, always yields equal amounts of value. But it will yield, during equal periods of time, different quantities of values in use; more, if the productive power rise, fewer, if it fall. The same change in productive power, which increases the fruitfulness of labour, and, in consequence, the quantity of use values produced by that labour, will diminish the total value of this increased quantity of use values, provided such change shorten the total labour time necessary for their production; and vice versâ.

At this early point, then, Marx has already begun to hint that increased productivity, in spite of the greater material wealth and command over nature it may generate, can provoke counter-intuitively negative consequences under capitalism, as concrete labouring activities are coercively compelled to comply with a new social norm of productivity. Marx describes this situation as “a state of society, in which the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him”. Significantly, the type of social coercion being described here, while grounded in human practice, is impersonal in character – generated as the unintentional consequence of practices oriented to other purposes. This is one aspect of why, as Marx describes, value is a “social hieroglyphic” that needs to be deciphered: compared with other, more “concrete” social institutions whose intersubjective character renders them “overtly” social, the dynamics associated with value confront people, by contrast, as if they are an asocial “objectivity”. Marx describes this strange, distinctive “relation of production” as “the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour” – the first generation Frankfurt School capture something similar when they discuss the domination of individuals by the social totality.

More – and hopefully more adequate – commentary on all of this, once I’ve recovered from teaching this week… Apologies for the many problems in this piece – just too tired to edit in any form…

The previous posts in this series are:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish


3 responses to “Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Human Labour in the Abstract

  1. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: An Aside on the Category of Capital

  2. Mike Beggs October 3, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    The unspoken (until later) condition of abstract labour is competition between producers. It’s been a while since I’ve read these bits so please let me know if something in the text you are reading so closely contradicts this. But this is how I interpret the statements that value is not created in exchange, but exchange is necessary for value relations. cf “It is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire, as values, one uniform social status, distinct from their varied forms of existence as objects of utility.”

    Exchange proves not only that the commodity has a use for somebody, but also that another producer is not offering an identical commodity more cheaply. In any particular instance of sale, this does not prove all the labour producing the commodity was socially necessary – the producer may be inefficient relative to the average – but over time inefficient producers either become more efficient or are driven out of the market for their commodity. It is only because of this process of general commodity exchange (leaving ‘capitalism’ out of it for a second), which presupposes a social force driving labour processes to be as efficient as is materially possible, that we can talk about ‘abstract labour’. Even then, ‘abstract labour’ cannot be easily located at the level of the individual because labour processes are collective and it is only the collective product that is subject to testing by exchange on the market.

    The interesting question to me is how the discussion of capitalist competition in Vol 3 supercedes the discussion of value in Vol 1, and what this means for the concept of abstract labour. In Vol 1 Marx only seems to discuss competition between producers making the same kind of commodity, when clearly the concept of ‘abstract labour’ requires competition between capitals in all different industries, where the average rate of profit is the enforcer, rather than the going price in any particular industry.

    This still means pressure to make labour processes as efficient as possible, but also to make use of capital as efficiently as possible (the value quantity of capital invested, not in the narrow sense of ‘means of production’). Also it really requires some quantitative consideration of demand (as opposed to whether something has a ‘use value’ or not). Marx doesn’t consider either of these properly until Vol 3, and then he doesn’t explicitly revisit the concept of ‘abstract labour’.

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