Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: A Way of Visualising Abstract Labour and Value

For anyone who doesn’t have the stamina to trawl all the way through the 11,000 words I somehow wrote on Diane Elson’s “Value Theory of Labour” (here and here), there is one bit of my argument that I wanted to reproduce in its own post, partially because it seems to me to belong in the series on Capital, volume 1, chapter 1, and partially because I’m still trying to decide whether I like this way of expressing what Marx is trying to do. I’ve removed everything specific to Elson, and just reproduced the metaphors I’ve been trying to develop recently – particularly as I’ve been trying to express in a more unequivocal way, why the argument about the fetish is not an argument simply about “market relations”. Apologies for the duplication with the Elson posts – I’m just assuming that more people will see this here, than will read all the way to the very end of the argument about Elson… ;-P


I find it useful to think about abstract labour in terms of sets and subsets, each enacted in collective practice.

The main set includes all sorts of activities that are productive or creative of social life in any sense of the term. This set might include working on an assembly line, falling in love, building a house to live in yourself, selling legal services, going on a vacation in New Zealand, etc. In spite of its apparent inclusiveness and genericness, it isn’t an accident that a set with such members should be thinkable to us. There is some practical sense in which our collective practice is – in at least one dimension – so indifferent to the specific activities that we carry out, that we have experiential access to a category that is so large that it can encompass all of these diverse things into an overarching concept of “human practice”. I’ll leave aside for present purposes how I think such a category is suggested by our practices.

Within this set, there is a subset of activities that are grouped together as attempts to assert themselves as commodity-producing activities. The people or groups who engage in this subset of activities can know how much effort they are empirically expending, to undertake whatever activity they are undertaking – manufacturing a car, providing medical services, building houses, etc. They cannot know, however, how successful they will be in getting the empirical effort they are expending to “count” as commodity-producing labour: they will only know this, once they send the products of their labour into the market. At that point, they will find out whether, and how much, of their empirical activity succeeds in making it into the final subset.

The final subset is activities that have successfully asserted themselves as commodity-producing labour – a status that may partially, fully or even excessively recognise the actual efforts empirically expended in production in the previous subset. This final, smallest subset of human activities, comprises those activities that get to “count” as part of “social labour” from the standpoint of the reproduction of capital.

There are other practically-enacted subsets – these three are the ones relevant to the understanding of the first chapter.

Marx’s argument about abstract labour and value relates to our experience of the salto mortale between the second and third subset. In his account, the process that culls from the activities undertaken in the second subset, to generate the activities recognised as “social labour” from the standpoint of the reproduction of capital, is a process that takes place “behind the backs” of social actors: they can experience it taking place, but they are not setting out to create such a process, and they experience this process as (what it is) an impersonal form of coercion on their intentional practices. Moreover, this process communicates its results to social actors through the process of the exchange of their products – through the proportions in which their goods exchange with one another. Productive activities that “succeed” in asserting themselves as part of “social labour”, demonstrate their success by exchanging for greater amounts of other products, which have not succeeded so well. Those activities that get to “count” as “social labour” are therefore rendered manifest to social actors, through a process that establishes relationships among goods. When Marx says that, in capitalism,

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, objective relations between persons and social relations between objects.

he means this in a very literal sense. He is not describing some strange illusion under which social actors are operating, but something more like a very exotic ritual among the indigenous members of capitalist society, for establishing which activities count as social labour. This ritual is socially specific, but it is nevertheless perfectly real – it possesses a social validity for members of capitalist society that is not automatically undermined by the realisation that its reality is only social in origin.

Marx is worried that his readers won’t grasp how bizarre this familiar ritual actually is – that just pointing out the subsets, and indicating that we are regularly engaged in sorts of productive activity without any idea whether those activities will succeed in counting as social labour, will not provide sufficient analytical distance. He needs to jolt his readers out of their familiarity with their own context. He uses the concepts of abstract labour and value to provide this jolt.

Our collective behaviour, Marx argues, is tantamount to acting as though the labouring activities undertaken as part of the second subset, are haunted by a supersensible world that lies behind what we can empirically perceive – a supersensible world of abstract labour. To the extent that our labouring activities partake of this supersensible world, they succeed in being incorporated into the third subset. Our collective behaviour is also tantamount to acting as though the commodities we produce possess an intangible, supersensible dimension – a dimension in which abstract labour is objectified into the property of value. Another way of saying this is to state that abstract labour and value are “real abstractions” – practical truths specific to capitalist society – social entities that are enacted in collective practice.

Fetishised forms of thought, for Marx, express the existence of these social entities – but do not grasp them as social. Value is thus treated as an intangible substance that inheres in physical objects, and becomes manifest in the process of exchange. Abstract labour is treated as an intangible world of social labour that becomes manifest in the culling process of the market. In his argument, we enact entities like value and abstract labour as real abstractions, but the way that we enact such social entities (unintentionally, as side effects of practices oriented to other goals) and the way we manifest these entities (through proportional relationships established between goods) creates an intrinsic risk that social actors will become confused about the ontological status of these real abstractions – the risk that, as Marx jokes in relation to Dame Quickly, they won’t know “where to have it”.

Marx shows off a bit in the first chapter, using this argument very quickly to suggest that major themes in the development of western philosophy are actually expressive of this confusion over “where to have” these real abstractions. His analysis from that point is more careful, less sweeping – but equally oriented to linking conceptual categories as real abstractions back to the moments of the reproduction of capital in which such categories are enacted.

List of posts on Marx below the fold:

Thesis Chapter Drafts

HSS08 Paper – a good distillation and, in some respects, correction, of the thesis chapter drafts listed below

The Greatest Difficulty – programmatic introduction to the thesis concept, and discussion of reading Capital in light of Marx’s relationship to Hegel

From Something, Nothing Comes – on the concept of real abstraction and the problem of apparently transhistorical categories in Marx’s work

Blog Series on Chapter 1, Volume 1:

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

Human Labour in the Abstract

An Aside on the Category of Capital

Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

Subjects, Objects and Things In Between

Not Knowing Where to Have It

Cartesian Fragment

Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History

Random Metatheory

The Universal as Particular

What Is the “Social Character of Labour” in Capitalism?

Fragment on Form and Content

Other Posts on Volume 1:

Modernities Conference Talk

Fragment on the Working Day

The Ghost in the Machine

Devaluing Labour

Turning the Tables

Circulating Perspectives

Self-Quoting in Capital

4 responses to “Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: A Way of Visualising Abstract Labour and Value

  1. Kerim Friedman March 16, 2008 at 2:40 am

    I’m sorry I missed all this earlier. I’ve been so busy this semester I’ve been having a tough time keeping up on my favorite blogs …

  2. N Pepperell March 17, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    Hey Kerim – Nothing at all to apologise for – I’m having the same struggle to keep up with everything I’d like to read. Thanks for dropping in 🙂

  3. Pingback: » Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 3

  4. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: A Close Reading of the Naming of the Fetish

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