[Marxism] Abstract labor (long)

johnaimani johnaimani at earthlink.net
Mon Jul 19 15:04:08 MDT 2010

There are two points I wish to discuss regarding Comrade Ehrbar's 
posting on Abstract Human Labor (AHL). The first, since he discusses the 
'two-fold' nature of labor, is the two-fold nature of value. Apart from 
use-value, which has nothing to do with the argument, value is:

1.) the measurement of embodied human labor-time with the AHL as its 
standard (value);

2.) the exchange-ratios between commodities (exchange-value)

The first is a universal (all modes of production) guide to the 
efficiency of effort (labor-time) with the lessening of the embodied AHL 
in each product produced as goal. The second exists only in 
commodity-based economies in which there is exchange between two (or 
more) producers who are independent of each other.

The proof that "abstract human labor" (AHL), according to Marx, exists 
prior to capitalism is to be found in his analysis of Robinson Crusoe:

"Moderate though he be, yet some few wants he has to satisfy, and must 
therefore do a little useful work of various sorts, such as making tools 
and furniture, taming goats, fishing and hunting. Of his prayers and the 
like we take no account, since they are a source of pleasure to him, and 
he looks upon them as so much recreation. In spite of the variety of his 
work, he knows that his labour, whatever its form, is but the activity 
of one and the same Robinson, and consequently, that it consists of 
nothing but different modes of human labour. Necessity itself compels 
him to apportion his time accurately between his different kinds of 
work. Whether one kind occupies a greater space in his general activity 
than another, depends on the difficulties, greater or less as the case 
may be, to be overcome in attaining the useful effect aimed at. This our 
friend Robinson soon learns by experience, and having rescued a watch, 
ledger, and pen and ink from the wreck, commences, like a true-born 
Briton, to keep a set of books. His stock-book contains a list of the 
objects of utility that belong to him, of the operations necessary for 
their production; and lastly, of the labour-time that definite 
quantities of those objects have, on an average, cost him. All the 
relations between Robinson and the objects that form this wealth of his 
own creation, are here so simple and clear as to be intelligible without 
exertion, even to Mr. Sedley Taylor. And yet those relations contain all 
that is essential to the determination of value." Capital. Vol 1. Chap 1.

What this 'true born Briton' logs, times and measures is the hours of 
labor necessary to perform this or that task and it has nothing 
whatsoever to do with capitalism nor exchange, nor competition (as 
Comrade Cox seems to indicate below)..

Indeed, 'value' (i.e. the measurement of embodied human labor in the 
abstract), in this sense, continues to exist after capitalism. As Marx 

"...after the abolition of the capitalist mode of production, but still 
retaining social production, the determination of value continues to 
prevail in the sense that the regulation of labour-time and the 
distribution of social labour among the various production groups, 
ultimately the book-keeping encompassing all this, become more essential 
than ever." Capital. Vol 3. Chap 49.

Thus Comrade Ehrbar is correct when he challenges Comrade Angelus' 
contention that:


"...abstract labour is historically specific to capitalism.."



The second point concerns the nature of this AHL. Comrade Ehrbar writes:

"But all labor processes have something in common: they are the 
expenditure of human labor-power. And labor-power is quite homogeneous. 
90 percent of the population could do 90 percent of all the labors if 
properly trained. This application of human labor-power, Marx calls it 
'abstract labor'..."

I have heard comrades before remark regarding AHL that the tendency of 
modern industrial societies, through the division of labor, is to reduce 
labor to a repetitive, simple, uni-functional tasks (i.e. putting lug 
nuts on wheels in an auto factory. This they cite, as the just above 
from Comrade Ehrbar seems to imply, as 'abstract human labor'. No. That 
may be 'alienated' labor, or it may be Fordism or Taylorism but it is 
not AHL. AHL is nothing more, and there is no mystery to this, than 
average human labor (i.e. labor that exists exactly at the mid-point on 
the bell-curve of human labor-powers in its value-adding abilities):

"..the value of a commodity represents human labour in the abstract, the 
expenditure of human labour in general. And just as in society, a 
general or a banker plays a great part, but mere man, on the other hand, 
a very shabby part, so here with mere human labour. It is the 
expenditure of simple labour-power, /i.e./, of the labour-power which, 
on an average, apart from any special development, exists in the 
organism of every ordinary individual. Simple average labour, it is 
true, varies in character in different countries and at different times, 
but in a particular society it is given. Skilled labour counts only as 
simple labour intensified, or rather, as multiplied simple labour, a 
given quantity of skilled being considered equal to a greater quantity 
of simple labour." Capital. Vol 1. Chap 1.


On 11:59 AM, ehrbar wrote:
> Since I am writing a detailed interpretation of Marx's Capital, I
> consider it my duty to speak up if there are persistent serious
> misinterpretations of Marx.
> Angelus Novus said:
>> abstract labour is historically specific to capitalism

Carrol Cox said on lbo-talk:

>  There was _no_ competition among "commodity produceres" in medieval
>  or ancient Eeurope or anyplace in Asia.

More information about the Marxism mailing list