[Marxism] Abstract labor (long)

ehrbar ehrbar at lists.econ.utah.edu
Mon Jul 19 18:35:27 MDT 2010

Dear JAL:

With the Robinson and other examples in the section about the
fetish-like character of the commodity, Marx does not want to prove
that *value* exists in all modes of production, but that the
"determinations" of value (Wertbestimmungen) are universal.  I.e.,
those productive resources, which in capitalism are governed by the
value relation, also play a role in other modes of production.
But Marx tries to show that they are governed by quite different
social relations.

The fact that all labor is the expenditure of human labor-power is
especially relevant for Robinson, because he has only one labor-power
at his disposal (or two, counting Friday), and if he misallocates this
labor in the Summer he may starve in the Winter.  So he must watch it
very carefully, but it does not take the form of exchange relations of
his products.

Marx also says that in the middle ages and in a self-sufficient
peasant family, society regulates concrete labor and not abstract

Labor-time, in socialism, has two social functions: it is needed to
allocate labor efficiently to the different branches of production,
and in early socialism it is also needed to allocate the finished
product to the consumers (to each according to his labor).  But again
it does not become a quasi-material attribute of the products
themselves (value).  Value only exists under commodity production.

Regarding your second point, I agree that the definition of simple
abstract human labor is labor which everybody in society can do.  This
includes showing up on time and following orders all day long, which
is not a natural skill but which has to beaten into the working class
by the school system.  But there is indeed a relationship between this
and the abstract character of assembly line work.  Marx says that in
the specific capitalist mode of production (the machine system) the
relations of production become visible in the technology.  Machines
are very clearly not tools controlled by the worker, but apparatuses
which control the worker, just as in the capital relation dead labor
absorbs living labor.  Marx says this somewhere.  I am not sure if he
also says that machine labor becomes reduced to simple movements
because only the abstract human labor counts for value.  But he does
say that all the skills are taken away from the workers and built into
the machines.  Those who say that in capitalist factories, labor
becomes visibly abstract because only abstract labor counts for value,
are in my view arguing in Marx's spirit.


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