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Capital & Class http://cnc.sagepub.


A historical approach to the question of abstract labour

David Gleicher
Capital & Class 1983 7: 97
DOI: 10.1177/030981688302100106

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What is This?

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Few topics in

David Gleicher political economy

have enjoyed as
much attention, or
have been the
center of such
controversy as the
"labour theory of
value" - a theory
which gained
prominence in the
writings of the
classical school of
the late-eighteenth
and nineteenth
centuries, and
which continues to
be a major topic of

A historical approach Marxist political

economy into the
present period . The
to the question object of this paper
is to outline a
coherent approach
of abstract labour to the labour theory
of value by
addressing one
THE PAPER IS divided into five sections and a brief concluding
central problem
summary . In the first section, Marx's distinction between the form that has long
of value and its substance is addressed through an exposition of the plagued Marxist
"commodity as such" ; that is, the product as it appears in the theoreticians, and
sphere of circulation (market) without any identification with a whose various
particular set of relations of production . The interpretation offered solutions underlie
draws heavily from the works of the Japanese Marxists, Kozo Uno the stances that
have been adopted
(1977), Makoto Itoh (1980) and Thomas Sekine (1980) . On the by different schools
basis of an understanding of the commodity as such, the second toward virtually all
and third sections advance the argument that abstract labour is the of the other
substance of value of the commodity only in the specific context of important topics of
capitalist relations of production . After a discussion of Bohm- Marxist thought.
Bawerk's critique of a labour theory of value derived directly from That problem is the
the commodity as such, a linkage is forged between Uno's con- sense in which what
Marx termed the
ception of value and the findings concerning the capitalist labour "abstract labour"
process which have been articulated by the us Marxist Braverman representing the
(1974), and Aglietta (1979) . I will assert that abstract labour has value of
been the ongoing historical result of the development of capitalist commodities, is an
relations of production, where the latter is understood to mean a extant social
structure of "generalized commodity production" - labour power phenomenon in
itself being a commodity sold by wage labourers to industrial capitalist
economies; in short,
capitalists . This ongoing result is what I mean by the "historical the problem of the
abstraction of labour ." The theory that abstract labour is the "ontology" of
substance of value, therefore, I contend is specific to capitalism . abstract labour.
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Capital & Class

98 The fourth section if the paper then notes, in relation to a con-

troversial passage from the first edition of Capital I, a fundamental
difference between the ontology of abstract labour that I am pre-
senting, and that which is advanced by a school of contemporary
Marxist theoreticians whom I call the "Rubin school ."' These are
writers who argue that money is the sole measure of abstract
labour; that labour only becomes abstract in the act of exchange
between the commodity and money. I suggest that this ontology is
congenial to Bohm-Bawerk' critique in modern guise . The final
section completes the ontology of abstract labour by pointing to
Babbage's principle as that which governs the initial abstraction of
labour, as well as the deepening abstraction of labour in the course
of capitalist development .
Before proceeding to the first section, it should be noted that
the concern of this paper will be limited to the ontology of abstract
labour . In particular, it is not the intention here to directly confront
Marx's other well-known and equally controversial qualification to
the labour said to be the substance of value - namely that it is the
"socially-necessary labour" embodied in the commodity . A justi-
fication for such a procedure is that the problem of socially-
necessary labour involves the proper attribution of quantities of
value to commodities, which itself presumes that labour is abstract,
i .e, that the units in which labour is expressed must be quanti-
tatively comparable across different use-values . Thus, the problem
of abstract labour is logically prior to that of socially-necessary
labour. At the same time, it should be stressed at the outset that the
rendering of an ontology of abstract labour is by no means a
complete solution to the general problem of value .

THE A guiding principle of Marxist political ecomomy is that the

COMMODITY investigation of production as a labour process is properly occupied
AS SUCH with the social determination of the latter; this is a principle which
serves as a critical guide to Marxist historiography. The worker
must be specified as either a slave maintained by a master, a peasant
paying feudal dues to a sovereign lord, a wage labourer selling
his/her labour power to capital, or some other determinate social
being - the particular laws governing production in each instance
being the proper realm of political economy . "Man?" Marx asks
rhetorically, criticising the orthodox economist Wagner in notes
written toward the end of Marx's lifetime,
'if this means the category `Man', then in general he has 'no'
needs ; if the man who confronts nature in isolation, then he
has to be conceived as a non-gregarious animal ; if a man
already present in some form of society . . . then the deter-
minate character of his social man should have been set out
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Abstract labour

at the beginning, i .e ., the determinate character of the com- 99

munity in which he lives, for here production, that is, the
process of making a living, already has a social character .'
(Marx, 1972 : 45-6) .
Marx's analysis of capitalism begins with the commodity -
defined as any useful object which appears in a market for exchange
- because capitalism is that mode of production whose species
differentia is generalized commodity production . In capitalist
society the human capacity to produce useful objects, labour power,
appears as a commodity, delineating the worker as a wage labourer
free to sell his/her commodity to any would-be employer of it . The
relation of production between wage labour and capital is grasped
by Marx as tightly woven into the fabric of generalised commodity
production, the reproduction of each class being dependent on the
existence of markets for labour power, means of production and
means of subsistence .

Uno's Analysis

One of the great contributions made by Uno to Marxist

political economy has been to articulate the necessary connections
between capitalism as a distinct object, generalized commodity
production, and the commodity as such . The latter has existed
within, and between a wide variety of modes of production . Com-
modity relations are therefore understood by Uno to exist as a
pre-condition of capitalism, which in turn is thought of as a mode of
production penetrated by the commodity (Uno, 1977 : xxiv) .
Uno's project begins with the deduction of the category of
value from an initial, `naive' conception of a given heterogeneous
stock of goods, which are periodically offered for sale in markets .
This conception is naive in the sense that the goods which appear in
the sphere of circulation must also be products of some labour
process, and hence are not in reality `given' at all . . The premise that
human needs do not exist independently of the particular mode of
production is not contradicted, however . To the contrary, the
knowledge of the nature of capitalism in particular, requires that
the nature of the commodity be first explored apart from that mode
of production ; the commodity as such being not specific to capit-
alism . The deductive nature of this initial enterprise, whose only
prerequisite is that many goods be regularly exchanged, follows
from the nature of Uno's project as a whole . Within what he terms
the `doctrine of circulation' the value forms common to all modes of
production in which commodities appear, are deduced from the
sphere of circulation so as to comprehend generalised commodity
production - in which production is penetrated by those value
forms .
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Capital E5 Class

100 The conception of a stock of goods appearing in the sphere

of circulation - the commodity as such - points to the analysis
which occupies Marx at the outset of Capital. Each commodity is,
on the one hand, a `use-value' - a distinct object (or human activity)
capable of fulfilling some human need . Insofar as it is only con-
sidered as a use-value, however, the commodity is realized (con-
sumed) outside the sphere of circulation . On the other hand, each
commodity comes to be represented by an 'exchange-value' in the
market, and hence evinces another existence other than that of a
use-value . The exchange value of any commodity is measured by
an ideal quantity of money per unit of use-value : the price which it
commands in the market . (The price is ideal to the extent that the
money listed is not necessarily capable of being realized by the
seller . A `market equilibrium price' ultimately obtains, however, at
which the list price and actual price coincide .)

Money E5 the Commodity

Money is seen to be the single good in whose units exchange

value is expressed; conjointly, it commands any of the use-values
that appear in the sphere of circulation . Two forms that money has
taken historically are commodity money (e .g. gold) and credit
money (e .g . commercial paper). The chief point to be made about
money in the present context is that here its existence is deduced
from the commodity as such - that is, prior to any specification of its
historical form, and hence to the particular mode by which the
commodities in the sphere of circulation are produced . This is the
same as the viewpoint taken by de Brunhoff, who remarks in her
work Marx on Money, `To determine the nature of money, the point
of departure must . . . . be a deductive analysis, without regard to its
concrete forms and its role in capitalism .' (de Brunhoff, 1976 : xiv) .
Like the commodity as such, from which it is deduced, money is
also not specific to capitalism .
The characterisation of the commodity as a use-value and
that which is represented by an exchange value underlies Marx's
conception of value. Reviewing his procedure later in the `Notes on
Wagner' Marx explains (referring to the first chapter of Capital),
`What I start from is the simplest sociall form in which the
labour product is represented in contemporary society, and
this is the "commodity." I analyze this, and indeed, first in
the form in which it appears . Here I find that on the one
hand it is in its natural form a thing of use, alias a use-value,
on the other hand a bearer of "exchange-value ." Further
analysis of the latter shows me that exchange-value is only a
`phenomenal form,' an independent mode of representation
of the value contained in the commodity, and then I proceed

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Abstract labour

to analyse the latter .' (Marx, 1972 :50) . 101

Value, in the first instance, is deduced from the existence of
exchange value attached to commodities in the sphere of circu-
lation . The commodity's price indicates the comparability of het-
erogeneous use values . What is meant by value is this existence
along a single dimension of use-values found in the market . To
repeat the definition of value provided by Uno,
The value of a commodity refers to its quality of homogeneity
to other commodities and the use-value to its quality of
heterogeneity from others . This quality of homogeneity
stems from the fact that every commodity must be ex-
changed by its owner for a definite quantity of other com-
modities that he might choose . It is this requirement of
exchange that endows the commodity with its value ." (Uno,
1977 :5) .
In contrast to the subjective theory of value adopted by
contemporary neoclassical economists, this conception stresses
that the value of a commodity, while predicated upon the
commodity being a use-value, is nonetheless that aspect of the
commodity wherein its individual use-value disappears . Each
commodity being capable of commanding other use-values in
exchange means that the fact that a good appears in the market
signifies that its particularity as a use-value is of interest only to the
extent that it attracts exchange value (money) and consequently
other use-values to its owner, and not to the extent of the subjective
`utility' realized by its immediate consumption.
Money is conceptually distinct from the initial stock of
heterogeneous goods that appear in the sphere of circulation in that
it is a form of value which does not possess exchange value ;
exchange value being the particular use value of money . Since
money is "essentially a value-reflecting object which releases all
other commodities from the constraint of their specific use-values"
(Uno, 1977 : 11), reference to the "exchange value of money" is as
meaningless as reference to the "length of an inch," or the "weight
of an ounce ." It is true that orthodox theory includes a conception
of the exchange value of money as the series of use-values that a
monetary unit commands in the market . However, being of infinite
dimensions, such a series is not strictly speaking an exchange value
in the sense of a price, comparable to the prices of all other
commodities in the sphere of circulation ; hence, as Uno comments,
"such a value expression is nowhere observed except in the par-
ticular case of a literal "ten-cent store' ." (Uno, 1977 : 8, n. 3) .
The initial conception of value, as articulated by Uno, is seen
to constitute solely a negation of the commodity as an individual
use-value . Value is not, as yet, attributed a positive substance . As
Levine remarks in this regard,

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Capital & Class

102 "value emerges originally as the indifference to need which

results from the multiplication of need in wealth society .
Value, taken in this sense, remains a relation of need to need
so that that relation which transcends the particularity of
need and constitutes particular use-values as components of
wealth is reducible to a relation of need . Value possesses,
from this standpoint, a purely negative determination as that
substance which goes beyond the particularity of need by
relating different particular needs .' (Levine, 1977 : 13) .
It follows that money - the unit in which exchange value is
expressed - enters the sphere of circulation as that which has as its
use the articulation of this negation ; it is that which commands any
use-value in the market, and on that account is a more highly
developed form of value than the commodity. However, this does
not mean that money is value ; rather, money is a form that value
takes . Thus, for instance, it is the use-value of a commodity which
allows its owner to command other use-values in the market, and
for this reason it is obvious that the stock of heterogeneous goods
which appears in the sphere of circulation is no less `valuable' than
the exchange value to which it ideally corresponds .' To quote
Marx's celebrated assertion midway through the first chapter of
Capital :
`When at the beginning of this chapter we said in common
parlance, that a commodity is both a use-value and an
exchange-value, we were, accurately speaking, wrong . A
commodity is a use-value, or obiect of utility, and a value. (my
emphasis) It manifests itself as this two-fold thing, that it is,
as soon as its value assumes an independent form - viz ., the
form of exchange-value .' (Marx, 1967 : 60) . 3
Here, Marx makes explicit a central tenet of political economy -
that the existence of money, while evincing the homogeneity of
commodities, is not itself the substance of that homogeneity . It is,
as Marx writes, `an independent form' of value, not value in its own
We are now in a position to pose the problem of value which
the present ontology of abstract labour is intended to address . That
problem concerns the substance of value which comes into being in
conjunction with the capitalist mode of production. Such a sub-
stance is, on the face of it, necessary to a system of generalised
commodity production, where the structure of prices regulates the
proportion of means of production and labour power allocated
between the production of various use-values, as well as the dis-
tribution of means of subsistence between the different economic
classes . In order for such a system to be reproduced it is clear that
price must become a determinate social form . By setting out the
doctrine of circulation prior to investigating capitalism as a distinct

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Abstract labour

historical object, we avoid confusing the substance of value as a 103

positive element of capitalist reproduction, with the value forms, the
commodity and money, which come to be governed by that sub-
stance .

As a purely logical deduction from the doctrine of circulation, BOHM-

whatever the substance of value is, it must have the property of BAWERK'S
being homogeneous with respect to use-values ; since exchange CRITIQUE OF
value enters the sphere of circulation as a general equivalent, THE LABOUR
indifferent to the individuality of commodities, its substance must THEORY OF
be homogeneous if it is to regulate commodity prices, and through VALUE
them, generalised commodity production . The neoclassical con-
ception of utility, central to a subjective theory of value, has proved
to be quite problematic precisely because value stubbornly remains
identified with heterogeneous bundles of use-values within the
circulation of the commodity - the result being an extremely
truncated discussion of the problem of value in modern orthodox
texts . By the same token, the doctrine of circulation is not sufficient
to provide an understanding of capitalism as a distinct historical
object, since it is not specific to the relations of production which
generate the stock of goods that appear in the sphere of circulation
(see Uno, 1977 : 32-4, n.2) . Thus, opposing a central thesis of the
Rubin school, I also contend that the doctrine of circulation - i .e .,
the commodity as such - is not sufficient to articulate the labour
theory of value . In particular, an account of value which is not
grounded in capitalism as a distinct set of production relations falls
prey to one of the critiques of Marx's formulation for the theory in
the first chapter of Capital : a critique initially advanced in the
famous work of the neoclassical economist Bohm-Bawerk . The
labour theory of value, Bohm-Bawerk claims, constitutes an arbit-
rary abstraction, which has no necessary validity with regard to
historical phenomena (1949 : 34-6, 75-7) . On this basis, Bohm-
Bawerk asserts that abstract labour can be logically substituted for
by any other entity capable of being deduced from the commodity
as such (for instance, if properly defined, utility) . Extending Bohm-
Bawerk's critique further, countless critics of Marxist theory have
contended that the true grounding of the labour theory of value is
therefore moral rather than scientific necessity, although it is clear
that Marx himself did not consider that to be the case .

The Commodity as Such/Abstract labour response to Bohm-


One response to Bohm-Bawerk's criticism has been to try to

establish the historical necessity of the theory by positing a "law of
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Capital & Class

104 value" governing all instances of commodity relations - identifying

abstract labour, in other words, explicitly with the existence of the
commodity as such, rather than with generalised commodity pro-
duction . The regulation of exchange value is said to be non-specific
to capitalist relations of production in a fashion parallel to the value
forms : the commodity and money.4 The difficulty with this
approach is that, when it is applied to the investigation of capitalism
in particular, the analysis can be challenged on epistemological
grounds as being an example of Hegelian idealism, or, to be more
precise, as collapsing into what the Marxist philosopher della Volpe
(1980) terms "hypostasis ." 5 In order to investigate capitalism as a
distinct object the analysis must be qualified to state that the
phenomenal unfolding of the general law occurs only when the
commodity as such has, in fact, become generalised, i .e ., only when
capitalist relations have been established . Della Volpe makes the
point that Marx criticised Hegel's theory of the State for reasons of
exactly this sort, writing in an essay on Marx's early works,
`As Marx explains . . . "Hegel is not to be blamed for depict-
ing the nature of the modem state (of his time) as it is, but for
presenting that which is as the nature of the state.' Hegel
makes the historical state generic, makes it the most universal
essence, and yet puts himself in the position of being unable to
see any longer what there was in its structure and (historical)
origins that was particular or specific, and hence does not
criticize it." (della Volpe, 1978 : 165-9) .
So too, if the extant regulation of exchange value is a universal
principle, a critical understanding of the specificity of abstract
labour - the substance of value - to generalised commodity
production is lost, and Bohm-Bawerk's critique is seen to re-
emerge .

The response that the law of value is a purely logical deduction

A related response to Bohm-Bawerk's criticism has been to

explicitly treat the law of value as a purely logical deduction,
eschewing any discussion of its historical necessity altogether, and
thus deeming Bohm-Bawerk's criticism not so much as incorrect,
as epistemologically misplaced . Abstract labor, according to this
view, is logically abstract. It has no substantive existence apart from
the value form, money . Exchange value is equated wih value - that
is, the homogeneity of use-values in the sphere of circulation -
while the act of exchange itself, wherein use-values are realized as
exchange value is said to be simultaneously the abstraction of
otherwise heterogeneous ('concrete') labour units embodied in the
various use-values found in the market .' The grounding of abstract
labour in exchange value is problematic, however, in that it does not
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Abstract labour

actually answer the question of historical necessity, but merely 105

displaces it, since, as we have seen, money itself is deduced from
the commodity as such, and hence is not specific to capitalism .
Along these lines, the notion that labour is logically abstract, in that
it draws only a formal distinction between the commodity's ex-
change value and its value, raises a serious "dimensionality pro-
blem" - one that has had a long history within the value theory
literature .' By conflating the units which express commodity prices
with those that express values, the theory of value is reduced to a
tautology. It has no power to explain the determination of prices by
values, since the latter are measurable only in units of the former .
Marx himself criticises just such an interpretation of his theory, as
indicated by statements of his already cited, from Capital
1(1967 :60) and `Notes on Wagner' (1972 : 50) . A more extended
discussion of this matter by Marx, however, is found in his critique
of the anti-Ricardian, Bailey, in Theories of Surplus-Value III (1971 :
124-48). There, Marx comments,
When commodities are exchanged in the proportion in
which they represent equal amounts of labour-time, then it
is their aspect as materialized labour time, as embodied
labour-time, which manifests their substance, the identical
element they contain . As such, they are qualitatively the same,
and differ only quantitatively, according to whether they
represent smaller or larger quantities of the same substance,
i .e ., labour-time . They are values as expressions of the same
element; and they are equal values, equivalents insofar as
they represent an equal amount of labour-time . They can
only be compared as magnitudes because they are already
homogeneous magnitudes, qualitatively identical ." (1971 :
127-28) .
Similarly, referring to Bailey's critique of Ricardo, Marx writes,
`(Bailey) accuses Ricardo of having transformed value from a
relative attribute of commodities in their relationship to one
another, into something absolute. The only thing that
Ricardo can be accused of in this context is that, in elaborat-
ing the concept ofvalue, he does not clearly distinguish (my
emphasis) between the exchange-value of the commodity as
it manifests itself appears in the process of commodity ex-
change, and the existence of the commodity as value as
distinct from its existence as an object, product, use-value .'
(1971 : 125) .

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Capital & Class

106 ABSTRACT The responses cited to Bohm-Bawerk's critique reflect an

LABOUR IS approach taken by many contemporary Marxist thinkers, who en-
HISTORICALLY deavor to ground the labour theory of value in the commodity as
SPECIFIC TO such . Here, we will advance an ontology of abstract labour which,
CAPITALIST while fulfilling the logical requirement that the substance of value
RELATIONS OF be homogeneous across various use-values, nonetheless identifies
PRODUCTION that substance with capitalism as a distinct historical object, i .e .,
generalised commodity production . An implication of such an
ontology is that within the specific context of capitalist repro-
duction, value is an entity other than merely the negation of use-
value deduced from the commodity as such . Value becomes,
instead, a social substance capable of regulating the price structure,
and hence reproduction as a whole . The process by which labour
comes to possess this separate social existence as value is what I
refer to as the historical abstraction of labour ; it is the central
conception within the approach being offered herein .

DefiningAbstract Labour

It is one of Marx's great contributions to have explicated the

worker, amongst all the so-called `factors ofproduction,' as the sole
subject of any labour process . The means of production, lacking
any independent will, enter into no relation other than a technical,
engineering relation involving the physical interactions by which a
particular output is generated, and whose laws are those of physics .
By contrast, the worker's labour, though it obeys the laws of
physics, is also an aspect of a specific social relation of production,
and hence is directed by forces which exist along an altogether
different - i .e ., social - dimension." Labour from a social
standpoint is the purely subjective activity of producing use-values
mediated by a class structure that has been engaged in by slaves,
peasants, wage labourers, and others over the course of human
history . It is governed, in each of these cases, by laws of political
economy, not physics . Delineating the sphere of inquiry in Capital,
Marx writes along these lines,
"The labour process resolved . . . . into its simple ele-
mentary factors, is human action with a view to the pro-
duction of use-values, appropriation of natural substances to
human requirements; it it the necessary condition for effect-
ing exchange of matter between man and Nature ; it is the
everlasting Nature-imposed condition of human existence,
or rather, is common to every phase . (However) as the taste
of the porridge does not tell you who grew the oats, no more
does this simple process tell you of itself what are the social
condition under which it is taking place, whether under the
slave-owner's brutal lash, or the anxious eye of the capitalist,

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Abstract labour

whether Cincinatus carries it on in tilling his modest farm or 107

a savage in killing wild animals with stones .' (Marx,1967 :
183-4) .
Abstract labour, then, is subjective activity of producing
use-value that is not specific to the production of any single use-
value, but which, to the contrary, represents the possibility of
producing a wide variety of use-values . It must be stressed that the
abstractness of labour is not taken to be a logical abstraction, where
"abstract" labour is opposed to "concrete" (meaning actual)
labour. This point of view, which has its origins in Marx's famous
deduction of labour as that which is common to all commodities
appearing in the sphere of circulation (1967 : 41-6), is rejected here
on the basis that it endeavours to deduce abstract labour from the
commodity as such (see Itoh, 1980 :47-52) . Rather, the question of
the abstractness of labour is taken here to be an historical one,
having to do with the nature of the relation of production under
consideration . In other words, abstract labour is taken to be actual
(concrete) labour that has become independent of, and hence
homogeneous across, various use-values, and which comes into
existence, I argue, only with the advent of capitalism . From the
standpoint of political economy, therefore, abstract labour is labour
as such . It is, in Marx's words, `the general possibility of wealth as
subject and activity .' (1973 : 295-6) .

PrimitiveAccumulation andAbstract Labour

The initial problem posed by the above formulation con-

cerns the historical processes by which the abstraction of labour
occurs. The solution lies in what Marx called the `primitive accum-
ulation of capital' ; that is, the emergence in England of the seven-
teenth and eighteenth centuries of a significant class of wage
labourers, characterised by their sale of labour power to industrial
capital in the sphere of circulation . The reproduction of a class of
workers through the sale of labour power as commodity marks an
historic separation of the worker's labour from the goods which it
generates (see Marx, 1967 : 713-60) . It signals the identification of
use-values with individual capitalist industries, which employ wage
labour in the production of commodities on the basis of the rate of
profit . (The use-value of labour power to its consumer, industrial
capital, is the creation of 'surplus-value .') It signals the identi-
fication of use-values with individual capitalist industries, which
employ wage labour in the production of commodities on the basis
of the rate of profit. (The use-value of labour power to its con-
sumer, industrial capital, is the creation of `surplus value' .)
The primitive accumulation involves, on the one hand, the
separation of the workers from the means of production . Histori-

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Capital E5 Class

108 cally, this is the dispossession of the English peasantry from its land
that occurred roughly between the fifteenth and eighteenth
centuries (see Lazonick,1974) . Control of the product thereby
came into the grasp of capital, the workers being rendered in-
capable of independently producing their means of subsistence .
While a necessary condition, however, the separation of workers
from the means of production is not sufficient to institute capitalist
relations of production . The relations between workers and capital
must be mediated within the sphere of circulation for such relations
to be fully instituted; the commodity must penetrate the relations of
production . Capital must be capable of selling means of subsis-
tence in exchange for wages of workers (simultaneously the means
of reproducing the commodity labour power), and also must be
capable of realising labour power as a use-value in the production
of commodities for profit, the latter being either distributed to
capitalists for purchase of means of subsistence, or used to pur-
chase additional means of production and/or labour power for the
expansion of industrial capital .

Maufacture and theAbstraction of Labour

Equally necessary then for the institution of capitalist

relations of production in addititon to the separation of the worker
from the means of production is the separation of the worker's
activity itself from its own product . Historically, this occurs with the
development of the `manufacturing' division of labour from
roughly the mid-seventeenth to mid-nineteenth centuries in
England . Manufacturing involves the reduction of the individual
worker's activity to "detail labour" - labour which confines its
subjects to elemental tasks within the operations of a single
`collective labourer,' the firm . Under these circumstances wage
labour and capital appear as distinct commodity-owning classes for
the first time . The worker's activity has no use (produces no
use-value) save that of its employment by capital . The commodity is
the product of capital. Of this second aspect of the primitive
accumulation, Marx asserts,
`If at first the workman sells his labour-power to capital,
because the material means of producing a commodity fail
him, now his very labour-power refuses its service unless it
has been sold to capital . Its functions can be exercised only
in an environment that exists in the workshop of the capit-
alist after the sale .' (Marx, 1967 : 360) .
Concerning the historical significance of manufacturing,
Braverman notes,
`The earliest innovative principle of the capitalist mode of
production was the manufacturing division of labour, and in

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Abstract labour

one form or another this division of labour has remained the 109
fundamental principle of industrial organization . . . . While
all known societies have divided their work into productive
specialities, no society before capitalism systematically sub-
divided the work of each productive specialty into limited
operations . This form of the division of labour becomes gener-
alised only with capitalism . '(my emphasis) (Braverman, 1974 :
70) .
It is important to draw a clear distinction between the manu-
facturing and the `social' division of labour (Marx, 1967 : 350-68) .
The latter, being a feature of all societies, refers to the division of
labour processes according to the use-values needed for the repro-
duction of the whole . The 'occupations' of individual workers vary
according to the particular good he/she is engaged in producing ;
or, to put the matter in the obverse, individual workers do not each
engage in the production of every use-value needed for the re-
production of the whole . The historical foundation of every social
division of labour (and hence all societies) is the division between
`town and country', or, more generally, between the production of
means of production and the production of means of subsistence .
In the context of generalised commodity production, the social
division is that between capitalist industries, each made up of one
or more capitalist firms, and each, as has been said, associated with
one particular use-value .' The relations between the different
industries are, of course commodity relations .
By contrast to the social division of labour, manufacturing is
an aspect of a particular kind of labour process, which becomes
generalised across the social division only in conjunction with the
emergence of capitalism . The effect of the manufacturing division
is that the subjective activity of the worker is appropriated by capital
only after labour power has been purchased on the market . Prior to
that point, the worker is free to sell his/her labour power to firms in
any industry; beyond that point, capital is free to realise the com-
modity labour power at its will . 'What, . . . , characterizes division
of labour in manufacture?' Marx rhetorically inquires, and
`The fact that the detail labourer produces no commodities .
It is only the common product of all the detail labourers that
becomes a commodity . Division of labour in society is
brought about by the purchase and sale of the products of
different branches of industry, while the connection
between the detail operations in a workshop, is due to the
sale of the labour-power of several workmen to one capita-
list, who applies it as combined labour-power . The division
of labour in the workshop implies concentration of the
means of production in the hands of one capitalist ; the

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Capital & Class

110 division of labour in (capitalist) society implies their dis-

persion among independent producers of commodities .'
(Marx, 1967 :355) .
It is important as well to draw a clear distinction between
manufacturing and the so-called `technical' division of labour .
This third division refers to the a priori separation of a single labour
process into constituent elements or tasks . The technical division
of labour certainly reduces the time necessary to produce a quantity
of use-values in comparison to producing each unit of the good
individually ." Like the social division of labour, the technical
division is characteristic of virtually all historical periods . As
Braverman remarks, `such methods of analysis of the labour pro-
cess and its division into constituent elements have always been and
are to this day common in all trades and crafts, . . ." (Braverman,
1974 : 76) . Considering, for example, a blacksmith engaged in the
production of pins, it is clear that he/she will devote a certain block
of time exclusively to drawing out of wire, another block of time
exclusively to straightening the wire, another exclusively to point-
ing it, etc . etc . It is unlikely that he/she will produce each pin
individually . It is to be observed, however, that while the labour
process here is technically divided, the blacksmith is not a detail
Manufacturing is a specific social form taken by the tech-
nical division of labour, in which the individual worker's activity is
limited by capital to a few constituent elements of the collective
labourer taken as a whole . In the famous example of the pin
manufactory proffered by Adam Smith, one set of workers is
employed exclusively in straightening the wire, another exclusively
in pointing it, another in grinding it, etc . etc . No single worker can
be identified as the producer of pins . To quote Braverman again,
`Not only are the operations separated from each other, but they are
assigned to different workers . . . . The worker may break the process
down, but he never voluntarily converts himself into a lifelong
detail worker . This is the contribution of the capitalist .'
(Braverman, 1974 : 77) . Thus, while manufacturing presupposes a
technical division of labour, it is characteristic only of capitalist
relations of production . Unlike the blacksmith who technically
divides his/her own subjective activity, but who nonetheless is the
producer of a use-value (pins), the wage labourer employed in
maufacturing expends abstract labour : labour which is not par-
ticular to a use-value . The worker's own labour power is the sole
use-value which (so to speak) the wage labourer does produce, and
which, as such, is not manufactured . Alternatively, all manu-
factured goods are products of capital .
Through the reduction of the worker's activity to abstract
labour, labour comes to be the substance of value determining

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Abstract labour

commodity prices; simultaneously, value ceases to be merely the 111

negation of use-value manifested in the sphere of circulation, but
now acquires a positive social existence . Marx alludes to this
historical abstraction of labour, in which a homogeneous substance
of value comes into being, in the Grundrisse. There, he writes, `the
relations of labour to capital, or to the objective conditions of labour
as capital, pre-suppose a process of history which dissolves the
various forms in which the worker is a proprietor, or in which the
proprietor works .' The result of this dissolution is that `the worker
can be found as a free worker, as objectless, purely subjective
labour capacity confronting the objective conditions of production
as his not-property as alien-property, as value for itself, as capital .'
(Marx, 1973 :498) .
The advent of the wage labourer, then, means a complete
appropriation of the subjectivity of the worker by capital ; once
having purchased labour power in the market, capital is free to
realise it at its will . By the same token, however, with the reduction
of the worker's activity to abstract labour, rather than the pro-
duction of a particular use-value, labour power becomes capable of
being employed across different capitalist industries in varying
proportions . The effect of this is that labour can flow between
commodities (as well as into and out of the sphere of production via
a `reserve army') . The worker in capitalist society becomes
uniquely free to sell labour power as a commodity to competing
capitalist industries, even as his/her subjective activity within the
labour processes has become completely appropriated by capital .
The fluidity of labour, in this sense, many have argued, is what
grounds generalised commodity production by enabling industries
to expand or contract based on the rate of profit; the market
equilibrium price being no longer arbitrarily given by conditions of
supply and demand, but now having as its centre of gravity the
`price of production .' (see Marx, 1970 : 31-4; Uno, 1977 : n .3 ;
Levine, 1977 :49-52 Brenner, 1977 :32 ; and Sekine, 1980; 295-6) .
The implication of this is that abstract labour is measurable along a
different dimension than that along which the price structure is
measured, so that it is not tautological to affirm that quantities of
abstract labour regulate the price system, and via the price system,
regulate generalised commodity production .
At this juncture it is useful to discuss an important passage from the BOHM-
first edition of Capital I; a passage which has been the subject of BAWERK'S
much controversy. The ontology of abstract labour being presented CRITIQUE AND
here yields a new interpretation of this passage, and in so doing THE RUBIN
sheds light on the different conception of value being advanced SCHOOL'S
here from that of the Rubin school . In this passage, Marx makes an REPLY
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Capital & Class

112 analogy to the ontological status of abstract labour as follows : `It is

as if,' he asserts, `alongside and external to lions, tigers, rabbits, and
all other actual animals, which form when grouped together the
various kinds, species, sub-species, families, etc . of the animal
kingdom, there existed also in addition the animal, the individual
incarnation of the entire kingdom.)' In the spirit of Bohm-
Bawerk's critique, one modern critic has observed that the logic of
this analogy succumbs to idealism - a movement in thought being
confused with the historical existence of a value substance (Moore,
1963 : 1971) . Marx himself is cited as having attacked the exact
same logic in an earlier work ; there, Marx makes a similar analogy
as a means of criticising speculative philosophy ; in particular,
Hegel . He states,
`If from real apples, pears, strawberries and almonds I form
the general idea "Fruit," if I go further and imagine that my
abstract idea "Fruit, " derived from real fruit, is an entity
existing outside me, is indeed the true essence of the pear,
the apple, etc ., then . . . I am declaring that "Fruit" is the
"Substance" of the pear, the apple, the almond, etc . I am
saying therefore, . . . that what is essential to these things is
not their real existence, perceptible to the senses, but the
essence that I have abstracted from them and then foisted on
them, the essence of my idea -Fruit' (Marx, 1975 : 68).
Marx avers in no uncertain terms that reasoning of this sort is a
chief error of speculative philosophy . Thus, it would not seem to be
the reasoning from which Marx derives his ontology of abstract
labour, as the passage from the first edition would seem to suggest
is the case .
Members of the Rubin school have responded to such criti-
cism by endeavouring to resolve the apparent inconsistency btween
Marx's materialist ontology, and the conception of value expressed
in the passage from the first edition of Capital I. The resolution is
achieved through a characteristic conflation of the money form of
value and the substance of value . Abstract labour, it is argued, is
ontologically different from `animal' or `fruit' in that it does actually
acquire an historical existence ; it appears historically as the social
form, money, which within the sphere of circulation is the general
equivalent with respect to use-values . Arthur writes in this vein,
As values commodities are equatable with one another . So
much so that a universal equivalent may be substituted for
them all - the money commodity . In the reproduction of
animals a bull cannot stand in for a goat just because some
metaphysician declares that it contains the essence of `the
animal' . But, in the reproduction and accumulation of
values, it is immaterial what natural form the value-body
(money) has . . . . In sum, as values the essence of com-
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Abstract labour

modities `stands outside themselves' and acts as mediator in 113

their circulation .' (1976 : 12).
But this response depends upon a conception of value
wherein the abstraction of labour occurs exclusively within the
sphere of circulation ; in the act of exchange by which a use-value is
realized is exchange value. This conception, as we have indicated,
fails to adequately address the question of the historical necessity of
value, and so raises a serious dimensionality problem that reduces
the labour theory ofvalue to a tautology. For this reason then, it is of
theoretical interest to present an alternative response from the one
of the Rubin school with respect to this matter .
The initial direction our response takes is similar to that of
the Rubin school, in that according to our conception of the
substance of value, it follows immediately that abstract labour must
be ontologically different from `animal' or `fruit' - we explicitly
state that the substance of value acquires an historical existence . It
is therefore a very peculiar phenomenon indeed . We concur with
Arthur that
`the `animal' analogy is meant to show up the strangeness of
the situation under discussion in the case of the universal
value-body. It is as if `the animal' existed as well as dogs and
cats . It is as if `fruit' existed over and above apples and
pears . . . But whereas in the `fruit' example Marx was car-
icaturing a metaphysical theory, in `the animal' case he is
illustrating . . . a real social relation .' (Arthur, 1976 : 12) .
Where our response differs from that of the Rubin school is
in our rejection of the claim that labour is abstracted within the
sphere of circulation through the very act of exchange . The ontol-
ogy of abstract labour being advanced herein asserts that, to the
contrary, it is through the development of capitalist relations of
production that labour - which is otherwise abstracted from the
technical aspect of the labour process only in thought - becomes
the substance of value ; i .e ., a real social phenomenon . With the
manufacturing division of labour a homogeneous substance comes
into being . Each commodity appearing in the sphere of circulation
embodies a quantity of that substance, and it is that substance
which comes to regulate the relative prices of the commodities .
While money is the form of value manifest in the sphere of circu-
lation, its substance is abstract labour, which, unlike `animal' or
`fruit' does (in the context of capitalist relations) exist . Braverman,
concluding a discussion of Taylorism (the first major development
in the maufacturing division of labour) suggests just this when he
`This mechanical exercise of human faculties according to
motion types which are studied independently of the par-
ticular kind of work being done (i .e . Taylorism) brings to life
C & C-21-H
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Capital & Class

114 the Marxist conception of `abstract labour .' We see that this
abstraction from the concrete forms of labour - the simple
`expenditure of human labour in general,' in Marx's phrase -
which Marx employed as ameans of clarifying the value of
commodities (according to the share of such general human
labour they embodied) is not something that exists only in the
first chapter of Capital, but exists as well in the mind of the
capitalist, the manager, the industrial engineer .' (Braverman,
1974 : 181) .

THE I hope to have indicated thus far why the conception of an historical
HISTORICAL abstraction of labour supports an ontology which neither involves
NECESSITY OF the deduction of the substance of value from the commodity as
VALUE such, nor the equation of abstract labour as an extant social
phenomenon solely with the existence of money ; hence the labour
theory of value is not, as Bohm-Bawerk would have it, an arbitrary
abstraction, nor does it reduce to a tautology in the manner of the
Rubin school's approach . The formulation is incomplete, however,
unless it can be shown that the abstraction of labour is an ongoing
result of capitalist relations of production manifest in the historical
development of the capitalist labour process .

Abstraction of Labour is not synonymous with Deskilling

One of Braverman's central insights is the identification of

Babbage's principle as that which underlies the initial abstraction
of labour apparent in the emergence of the manufacturing enter-
prises, as well as being a source of the deepening of that abstraction
over the course of capitalist development . According to that
principle, the specialisation of individual workers vis a vis tasks
within a larger technical division of labour, depresses the wages
advanced by the individual capital (independent of any other
change in the technique of production in use) . This is because each
worker, who would otherwise require skills to carry out each of the
tasks dictated by the technique in use, now requires skills associ-
ated with a limited number of tasks . As Braverman explains,
`Insofar as the labour process may be disassociated, it may be
separated into elements some of which are simpler than
others, and each of which simpler than the whole . Trans-
lated into market terms, this means that the labour power
capable of performing the process may be purchased more
cheaply as disassociated elements than as a capacity inte-
grated in a single worker.' (Braverman, 1974: 81-83) .
The operation of Babbage's principle is therefore equivalent to the
simplification of the collective labourer . It is specific to capitalism,

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Abstn,ct labour

where labour power is a commodity, and the labour process is 115

organised by capital . Through Babbage's principle, the worker's
activity becomes detail labour, no longer being the production of a
use-value .
It is to be noted that in conjunction with the abstraction of
labour, the labour power sold by individual workers comes to be
differentiated in the market not according to particular use-values
produced by different workers - but instead, varies according to the
scarcity (relative to want) of workers capable of performing a given
task ; a hierarchy of skills is established to which a scale of wages
comes to correspond (see Marx, 1967 : 349-50). Capitalism en-
genders a heterogeneity of labour power, in other words, even as
labour - subjective human activity - is abstracted from particular
use-values . It follows that the abstraction of labour should not be
confused with a tendency for all workers' activity to be reduced to
unskilled labour, and therefore for the value of labour power to be
equalised between workers (cf. Bowles and Gintis, 1977 :173-6) .
While Babbage's principle does imply that any re-organisation of
the labour process by capital (including a change in technique) will
have a strong tendency to increase the proportion of tasks requiring
relatively unskilled labour, this does not mean that there will
necessarily be any tendency for the hierarchy of skills itself to be
eliminated . The simplification of collective labourers might very
well be achieved historically through the creation of a relatively few
tasks requiring great skill, but which are necessary to the creation
of a relative expansion in the tasks requiring little or no skill . For
example, as one researcher into the development of the capitalist
labour process has written with regard to the engineering pro-
fession :
`Modern electric engineering was invented by the science-
based industries to provide specialists who could apply the
advances of science to the production process . Its chief task
was to standardise and routinise the organization of the
production process as a whole, as well as the work of par-
ticular individuals. Electrical engineers, in short, were
skilled workers whose job was to use science to render the
skills of other workers unnecessary .' (Kraft, 1979:6) .
The example of the engineering profession also illustrates the
co-existence of an increasing disparity in the value of labour power
on the other . While highly skilled in a particular set of tasks, and
hence possessing a relatively high value, the engineer is none-
theless capable of being employed across a wide range of in-
dustries .
An important inference that can be drawn from the above is
that the hierarchy of skills is not a ranking of the relative product-
ivity (units of use-value per hour) of individual workers engaged in

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Capital & Class

116 the different tasks associated with a labour process . The individual
worker, no matter what rank he/she occupies in the hierarchy of
skills, is not the producer of a use-value . Each worker's labour is
abstract. The engineer is no more the producer of automobiles
than the assembly-line worker for instance . The labour time nec-
essary to produce a particular use value is, from this standpoint
then, the subjective activity of the collective labourer as a whole
entity - including labour tranferred from constant capital - and is
comprised of the (homogeneous) sum of hours of subjective activity
per unit of use-value produced, as indicated by the technique of
production being employed ." Thus there is no meaning to the
attribution of productivity to individual workers on the basis of the
task performed, nor to the expression of skilled ('complex') labour
as a multiple of unskilled ('simple') labour . " On the contrary,
although the composition of skills will differ from one industry to
the next with differences in the technique of production, these
affect the relative wages advanced across industries, and not the
relative labour time necessary to produce the various commodities .

Abstraction and the Simplification of Collective Labour

The final consideration here will be the sense in which the

deepening abstraction of labour over the course of capitalist de-
velopment is the result of simplification of collective labourers by
capital via Babbage's principle ; the latter operating in the context of
capitalist relations of production . `Applied first to the handicrafts,'
Braverman writes, 'Babbage's principle eventually becomes the
underlying force governing all forms of work in capitalist society,
no matter in what setting or at what hierarchical level .' (1974 : 81).
We have observed that the manufacturing enterprises of seven-
teenth and eighteenth century England mark the initial abstraction
of labour; formerly autonomous petty commodity producers being
brought together by capital and reduced to detail labourers . In this
process, a hierarchy of skills does become established, distinguish-
ing the labour power of different workers along a dimension other
than the use-value produced. The proportion of skilled workers
required by the techniques available to the early manufactories,
however, proved to be too great to yield a rate of profit across the
entire social division of labour. The manufactory was for this
reason a transitory form of the capitalist labour process - one which
never governed capitalist reproduction as a whole (see Marx, 1967 :
368-9) . In the second half of the nineteenth century England (and
other capitalist economies) witnessed the mechanisation of labour
processes ; a general transformation which overturned both the
manufacturing and petty commodity forms characteristic of the
primitive accumulation . The unit of production becomes the

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Abstract labour

factory - the form of the capitalist labour process par excellence - 117
which is coupled with the application of `scientific management'
(Taylorism) by capital (see Marx, 1967 : 371-86; Aglietta, 1979:
Mechanisation eliminates tasks requiring extraordinary
(scarce) attributes of workers by incorporating complex activities
into the independently powered movements of a system of
machinery. Thus, obeying Babbage's principle, the proportion of
unskilled workers employed by collective labourers is increased
greatly . As expressed by Aglietta,
`The machine system is a complex of productive forces in
which a series of tools is set in motion by a mechanical
source of energy, the motor, via an appropriate transmission
system . . . . Instead of wielding tools, the workers become
appendages of the machines . By transferring the qualitative
characteristics of labour to the machine, mechanisation re-
duces labour to a cycle of repetitive movements that is
characterised solely by its duration, . . .'(Aglietta, 1979 :113) .
Since the activities of the vast majority of workers come to involve
the simple tasks of operating and maintaining the machinery - the
latter being that which acts directly upon the raw materials -
collective labourers are simplified considerably . By contrast to the
manufacturing enterprises, therefore, factories enable capital to
derive a rate of profit across the social division of labour, sufficient
to ground a system of generalised commodity production ; that
ground being the value substance, abstract labour .
The statement that the abstraction of labour is `deepened'
through mechanisation means that, not only is the subjective act-
ivity of the factory worker detail labour, but also the labour power of
wage labourers throughout the hierarchy of skills becomes, for the
first time historically, capable of being employed across industries
in the proportion dictated by the rate of profit (see note 11) . Given
the techniques available to the early manufacturing enterprises, the
hierarchy of skills established within any one industry typically
included many tasks involving skills specific to that, and only
perhaps a few other industries . Thus, the activity of many workers
remained linked to a particular use-value being produced . Al-
though abstract, labour during this initial phase of capitalist de-
velopment is not fluid with respect to use-values ; it cannot readily
flow across the social division of labour .
With the wholesale simplification of the collective labourers
across the social division through mechanisation, since the number
of tasks requiring little or no skill is expanded enormously-coming
to include in it most workers - a large pool of labour power
necessarily comes into existence which can be employed in any
capitalist industry, regardless of the particular use-value it pro-

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Capital & Class

118 duces . In addition to multiplying the tasks which require no skill,

mechanisation tends to deepen the abstraction of highly skilled
labour as well. The differentiation of human activities manifest in
the hierarchy of skills is no longer determined by the nature of the
direct subjective interaction of a worker and a use-value in the
process of being produced . Rather-as is codified in the doctrine of
Taylorism - the hierarchy of skills comes to correspond to the
differences in activities operating, maintaining, and designing
systems of machinery . The latter activities are then amenable to
being analysed `objectively' i .e., in terms of general physical pro-
perties . As such, they come to be common to virtually all industries .
Thus, as we have already had occasion to remark, the industrial
engineer (unlike, let us say, a skilled detail labourer in a seven-
teenth century watchmaking manufactory) both occupies the
upper-reaches of the hierarchy of skills, but is also capable of being
employed across the social division of labour .
From the available evidence, the mechanisation of labour
processes has continued into the modem period, with the onset of
assembly-line production in the 1920s, coupled with mass con-
sumption (Fordism), and the institution of automated factories
(neo-Fordism) in the post-War period (see Aglietta, 1979 : 116-
30) . A detailed treatment of these developments cannot be under-
taken here . It suffices to say, however, that to the degree that
mechanisation is extended to labour processes throughout capit-
alist society, the existence of abstract labour, and conjointly, the
labour theory of value, are confirmed . Not only is the subjective
activity of each worker divorced from the production of a use-value,
but the labour power of each worker, no matter what its rank in the
hierarchy of skills, is capable of being employed in any capitalist


The primary thesis of this paper has been that abstract

labour is an historically necessary phenomenon which emerges in
conjunction with capitalist relations of production . Abstract
labour, according to this view, is not simply a logical abstraction
from the commodity as such, and is therefore not an arbitrary
abstraction, as is claimed by those in the tradition of Bohm-
Bawerk; nor is the abstraction of labour acquired in the act of
exchange when the use-value is realized as money, as is claimed by
the Rubin school . Value, which is solely the negation of use-value
when deduced from the commodity as such, I have argued is a
homogeneous social substance, abstract labour in the context of
generalised commodity production . Implied by this ontology is that
the substance of value, abstract labour, and exchange value, the
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Abstract labour

money realized for commodities, exist along different dimensions . 119

In principle, therefore, abstract labour is a measurable pheno-
menon in its own right, and it is not tautological to affirm - as the
labour theory of value does - that it is quantums of abstract labour
associated with commodities, which underlie the price structure
through which capitalist society is reproduced .


I am especially grateful to Duncan Foley and Paul

Swanson for their patience and guidance in numerous dis-
cussions of the issues treated herein . I would also like to
thank John Alcorn, Suzanne de Brunhofl, John Ernst, David
Levine, Thomas Sekine, Anwar Shaikh and the referees from
Capital & Class for many helpful comments on earlier drafts of
this piece .

1. While not self-defined as such, the school represents a tradition NOTES

based on the works of the Russian Marxist, Isaak Illich Rubin (1972,1978)
(see Bradby, 1982 ; Fischer, 1982) . Certain contemporary articles which
follow Rubin's contention that labour becomes abstract only in the act of
exchange between the commodity and money are : Pilling (1972), Row-
thorn, (1974), Arthur (1976), Gerstein (1976), Kay (1976), Fine and
Harris (1977), Himmelweit and Mohun (1978), Banaji (1979), Elson
(1979), Eldred and Hanlon (1981), de Vroey (1981, 1982), Foley (1982)
and Lipietz (1982) .
2. Indeed, use-value can exist as a form of value without there being
any exchange value attached to the commodity . This is true in the case of
isolated (barter) exchange, in which the value of one commodity is ex-
pressed by the use-value of another . A heterogeneous stock of more than
two goods appearing in the sphere of circulation requires the more highly
developed value form, money, measuring exchange value (see Krause,
1982 : 27-44) .
3. The history of Marx's distinction between a commodity's exchange
value and its value is traced by Young (1976) .
4. The primary source of this position is Marx's `Letter to Kugel-
mann' of 1868 (Marx, 1977 : 33-5) .
5. Della Volpe writes, `The non-rigidity, or dialectical character, of
thought either signifies the rigorous extirpation of every hypostasis, in which
case the dialectical character of thought is its functionality, and the concept
(or category) recovers its normal value as predicate of a subject distinct from
this concept; or else we inevitably fall back into hypostasis, into the sub-
stantified predicate, in which case it is difficult to see any possible anti-
metaphysical and anti-dogmatic significance of the instance of the non-
rigidity or dialectical character of thought .' (1980 : 176) .
6. This response is characteristic of the Rubin school . Its most un-
ambiguous formulations are to be found in Himmelweit and Mohun
(1978), Elson (1979), Eldred and Hanlon (1981) and Lipietz (1982) .

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Capital & Class

120 7. The question of dimensionality is addressed pointedly by Lowe

(1938) and Dickinson (1956) . In more recent years it is discussed by Itoh
(1980 : 68-74) and Sekine (1980 : 290-95).
8 . The means of production clearly do not `expend labour' -which
implies subjective activity ; rather, they are directed by workers (albeit in a
very passive manner in some instances) in the production of use value . It is
absurd, for example, to say that in the production of food, the plough and
oxen employ the peasant, while to say the opposite - the peasant employs
the means of production to generate food - expresses the commonplace
understanding of labour as subjective activity . Conversely, where food
grows `in the wild' - meaning apart from any human intervention - this is
not, properly speaking, a labour process, and has no social determination .
(see Uno, 1977 : 23-5) .
9. This is not to suggest the impossibility of `joint production,' where
one firm is associated with more than one industry . However, questions
arising from joint production, which properly concern the determination of
socially-necessary labour, are outside the purview of the present paper .
10 . The reasons for this were, of course proffered by Smith in 1776 :
`First . . . the increase in dexterity in every particular workman :
secondly . . .the saving of the time which is commonly lost in passing from
one species of work to another ; and lastly, to the invention of a great
number of machines which facilitate and enable one man to do the work of
many .' (1976 : 11) .
11 . The essential aspects of such a price mechanism were first adduced
by the classical economists, notably Smith and Ricardo, and have been
formalised in the literature on the transformation problem' (see Medio,
1972 ; Itoh, 1980 : 66-79) . The dynamic of price determination in capitalist
society is understood to be the expansion and contraction of industries
based on inter-industry differentials in the rate of profit on capital .
Adjustments in the relative scale of production between industries creates
a tendency toward a uniform rate of profit via the formation of `prices of
production' (or what Smith called "natural prices") in the sphere of
circulation ; this is to say, prices which yield, per unit, the cost of production
marked up by a general rate of profit on industrial capital . An adequate
theory of value, then, must account for the determination of a structure of
prices of production . In relation to the ontology offered herein it is seen
that the movement of a market price toward a price of production is
fundamentally the relative flow of (abstract) labour into or out of an
industry on the basis of its rate of profit . This flow is comprised of the
`living labour' expended by the workers employed directly by the industry,
and the `constant capital' transferred to the product . Per unit of use-value
this sum is then what constitutes the value of the commodity ; it is the
quantum of abstract labour necessary to generate units of a given use-value
for the purpose of transforming them into exchange value (money) in the
sphere of circulation.
12 . This passage is quoted by Arthur (1976 : 12), Rubin (1978 : 120)
and Fischer (1982 : 31) .
13 . The 'socially-necessary' labour time within the industry as a whole
is then the measure of the commodity's value . The problem of determining
socially-necessary labour lies outside the scope of this paper .
14. The view that the reduction of skilled labour (logically and/or
historical) to unskilled labour is equivalent to the abstraction of labour, is
widespread amongst Marxist theoreticians . Its classic expression is by

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Abstract labour

Hilferding (1949 : 138-46), based on remakrs of Marx in Capital 1 (1967 : 121

197) . It has been the prevalent response to Bohm-Bawerk's criticism that a
hierarchy of skills is equivalent to the heterogeneity of labour . A general
critique of Hilferding's position, which includes a survey of much of the
literature along these lines, is found in Harvey (1983) . The ontology
presented here renders both Bohm-Bawerk's critique and Hilferding's
response moot by drawing a sharp distinction between the heterogeneity of
labour power brought to the market based on relative scarcity, and the
homogeneity of labour with respect to the production of different use-
values .

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