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Massimo De Angelis 107

Beyond the Technological

and the Social Paradigms:
A Political Reading of
Abstract Labour as the
Substance of Value

Despite many differences, there seems to be an underlying De Angelis proposes

agreement among Marxist writers that Marxs work deals with an approach to value
social relations, and, in particular, social relations within which gives central
capitalism. This implicit consensus, however, vanishes as soon as place to the capital-
labour relation, and
different authors move from a general illustration of Marxs work
specifically to the
to particular studies centred around Marxs different categories: category of abstract
value, commodity fetishism, rate of profit, and so on. In most of labour as the form
these studies, the categories employed take on a life of their own, taken by work under
and their social character, the fact that they represent social capitalism
relations, acquires only a marginal heuristic validity. alienated, imposed,
In this paper I offer a line of approach to the category of value and inherently
which makes central the capital-labour relation in Marxs concepts. boundless. This
In particular, I will argue that the category of abstract labour, the approach is counter-
posed to alternative
substance of value, is the analytical representation of the
readings of the
antagonistic class relation of work. This interpretation is different labour theory of
from those which for simplicity I characterisefollowing de Vroey value in both the
(1982)as the technical and the social paradigms. Although these technological and
approaches differ from each other, they both suffer a basic social paradigms.
misconception, that is, they represent the class struggle outside
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108 Capital & Class 57

abstract labour, whereas in my formulation abstract labour is the

basic kernel upon which capitalist society is built. By re-establishing
the centrality of abstract labour in Marxs discourse, and by
showing how this defines the general character of capitalist
command and of the struggles against it, I hope to contribute to
a reintroduction in the value debate of a political reading of Marxs
categories. This was defined by Cleaver (1979: 11) as a reading
that self-consciously and unilaterally structures its approach to
determine the meaning and relevance of key concepts to the
immediate development of the class struggle. Thus, the question
that this paper seeks to answerwhat is abstract labour?raises
other more crucial questions which I will not be able to address in
this paper: Which forms does abstract labour take today?; What
are the strategies that capital is attempting to implement in order
to transform life-activity into abstract labour?; What are the new
forms of struggles against abstract labour?.
Although I share the basic tenets of Cleavers approach in his
seminal work Reading Capital Politically, I must point out that in
this paper I do not follow his method of analysis which consists
of using all our knowledge and interpretation of Capital and its
analysis of the class struggle to make sense of Chapter One.
Instead, I move from the definition of abstract labour and dissect
its meaning by simply interrogating Marxs text. The question is:
what is the significance of abstract labour for the labourer, given
Marxs definition of abstract labour? I then see how the answer
may shed light on other categories used in Capital. This method
has the advantage of addressing more strictly Marxs fundamental
category of value and its link with other categories, and therefore
better enables me to address critically the debate on value theory.
Clearly, this approach is quite biased, as the act of interrogating
Marxs categories presupposes the belief that these may indeed
have a meaning for the workers standpoint. I offer of course no
apology for this line of enquiry. After all, Marxs explicit definition
of the critique of political economy is that of a critique that in so
far as it represents a class, [represents] the proletariat (Marx
1867a: 98).
In section two I show two interrelated things. First that the
substance of value, being abstract labour, is work in the capitalist
form. Second, that abstract labour, being work in the capitalist
form, is a relation of struggle. This means that the category of value
used by Marx is a category of the class struggle. I will discuss the
link between abstract labour, and therefore value, and the form of
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Abstract labour and value 109

value, exchange value and money, in section three, while critically

reviewing what has been called the social paradigm. The question
of the relation between value and form of value obviously
introduces the issue of commodity-fetishism which I will not be
able to discuss in this paper and I have analysed elsewhere (De
Angelis 1994). In section three I also provide a critical assessment
of the so called technological paradigm.


2.1 Abstract labour is work in the capitalist form

Marxs criticism of Ricardo is a useful starting point because it
illustrates the way in which Marxs ideas and those of the classical
economists comprise two distinct paradigms, corresponding to
two different and irreconcilable political perspectives. It therefore
helps us in identifying Marxs concern. Ricardos shortcoming in
not addressing the essential character of capitalism must be taken
back to the determination of relative values by the quantity of
labour. Right from the start [Ricardo] is only concerned with the
magnitude of value, i.e., the fact that the magnitudes of the value
of commodities are proportionate to the quantities of labour
which are required for their production. What Ricardo does not
examine is the formthe peculiar characteristic of labour that
creates exchange value or manifests itself in exchange-values the
nature of this labour (Marx 1968: 164). I wish to call the
readers attention to the fact that Marxs focus here is not yet on
the value-form or on the form of value, but the particular form
of labour creating value and manifesting itself in exchange values.1
If labour is a definite social mode of existence of human activity
(Marx 1963: 46) and therefore is constituted only through
relations between people, Marxs interest in the particular form of
labour must be taken back to his interest in the particular form
acquired by social relations in capitalism. It is precisely at this
juncture that Ricardo shows his weakness.
The emphasis on form is crucial here. I here understand form
in terms of mode of existence: something or other exists only in
and through the form(s) it takes (Bonefeld, Gunn, Psychopedis
1992: XV). Thus, when Marx points to the need to refer to the
peculiar characteristic of labour creating value, he is actually
pointing out the mode of existence of labour, that is to say, the mode
of existence of this human activity within the context of the
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110 Capital & Class 57

capitalist mode of production.2 It seems therefore that in order to

fully understand what is at stake in Marxs criticism, it is necessary
to turn to Marxs own category defining what kind of labour does
produce value and, as I discuss in section 3.2., the relation between
this kind of labour and its form of appearance. A clue to the
character of labour as substance of value may be found in Marxs
criticism of Ricardo himself. Ricardos mistake is that he is
concerned only with the magnitude of value But the labour
embodied [in the commodities] must be represented as social labour,
as alienated individual labour (Marx 1968: 131). In Volume One
of Capital the character of this alienated individual labour creating
value is defined in terms of abstract labour. We also know from the
first chapter of Capital that the labour that manifests itself in
exchange value is abstract labour. Abstract labour thus, the
substance of value, must be for Marx the capitalist form of work.
What are then, for Marx, the characteristics of capitalist work,
of abstract labour? Marx defines abstract labour as human labour
power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure
(Marx 1867a: 128, my emphasis). This definition is central. The
abstract character of labour forming the substance of value is
defined by abstracting (that is, by posing as secondary in so far as
the determination of value is concerned) from the form of this
expenditure. This means obviously abstracting from the concrete
determinations of useful labour which constitutes its useful
properties (the work of the weaver, spinner, tailor etc., in Marxs
examples). But it means more, much more, than this. Abstracting
from the concrete determinations of useful labour also necessarily
means abstracting from those concrete determinations of labour
which constitute the realm of workers sensuousness firstly in
relation to, and secondly, in the context of that work activity. It
means, in other words, to abstract from the lived experience of the
For example, in the first case (in relation to), abstract labour
means human labour-power expended without regard to the
pain, suffering, human brutalisation, boredom, stupidity, etc, that
work may imply. If abstract labour abstracts from this lived
experience of the workers, there is nothing in this activity as such
which contributes to overcoming all these inhuman characteristics
of work. Furthermore, abstracting from this lived experience
means that workers are put in a position of indifference in relation
to the final product they are producing and what they are doing
and why. In other words, the sensuous experience of working is
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Abstract labour and value 111

restricted to the experience of exhaustion and emptiness of

meaning. The worker turns into Marcuses One Dimensional
Man.3 In the second case, (in the context of), abstracting from
the form of the expenditure of human labour power means that
workers lived experience is secondary in defining the form of
collective expenditure of labour-power that is, the forms of
organised production, of social cooperation of labour. This
implies that the social organisation of labour, its development, its
technological devices, are posited as external conditions of labour
and therefore they appear to follow a natural, and hence necessary,
pattern of development.
From this definition of abstract labour I want to show now that
abstract labour is alienated, imposed, and boundless in character.
Marxs analysis of alienation offered in the Economic and
Philosophical Manuscripts is a useful starting point. In this work the
young Marx understands the general character of work in
capitalism although he does not yet grasp how this character of
labour manifests itself in economic categories, a question that will
be fully elaborated in his later analysis of fetishism (Dunayevskaya
1958: 100). In this analysis, Marx explicitly distances himself from
the analysis of political economy by providing what we may well
call a political reading (Cleaver 1979), that is, by rejecting a purely
objectivist investigation of production and instead asking what is
the meaning of production from the workers standpoint. In fact,
Political economy conceals the estrangement in the nature of
labour by ignoring the direct relationship between the worker
(labour) and production. (Marx 1844: 325).
In general terms, labour is alienated because the work activity
and the product, the extension of work (e.g. how much work)
and the useful qualities of production (e.g., what and how to
produce; how to relate with other producers), present themselves
to the workers as an external power, outside their direct control
(Marx 1844: 324334). In both cases it is not the satisfaction of
a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself (Marx
1844: 326). This of course has wider implications which I will
not discuss here. What I want to point out is that since abstract
labour is abstracted from the lived experience of the workers, it
must present itself as something alien, as power external to the
workers themselves. Abstract labour therefore is alienated labour.
One of the conclusions that the young Marx derives is that
alienated labour, by presenting itself as power external to the
worker, is not voluntary but forced, it is forced labour (Marx
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112 Capital & Class 57

1844: 326). Marx does not examine here the means through
which labour is forced, nor is this discussed in Chapter One of
Capital. However, two observations need to be made here. First,
on a general theoretical level, I have already observed that Marxs
analysis starts with the commodity as the elementary form of
capitalist wealth (Marx 1867a: 125). His object of investigation
is therefore, from the start, the capitalist mode of production.
Thus, the historical process of enclosures through which the
generalisation of commodity production occurred is also
presupposed. This historical process is nothing but the process of
violent separation of people from the means of production, which
gave rise to the capitalist class system.4 Second, the character of
abstract labour as forced work is present in all parts of Capital, in
which different forms of compulsion are analysed at length,
starting from the historical presupposition of this compulsion, the
imposition of the commodity-form, in the analysis of the so called
primitive accumulation, to the various strategies of capital on the
wage and labour process front.
Abstract labour is not only alien and imposed work. It is also
inherently boundless. This is because by definition it abstracts
from concrete labour, that is, from the useful character of concrete
labour as broadly defined before, and therefore it is not limited by
a set of needs. When labour is not limited by the concreteness of
needs, it must be boundless in character. If we allow for a moment
the introduction of the money-form, that I will discuss in more
detail in section 3.2., it is clear that this form represents the
boundless character of work both in a synchronic and diachronic
way. In the first case, the form of general equivalent (Marx
1867: 157) is the representation of boundless work across society,
because the list of possible commodities representable by the
money formand therefore the list of concrete life-processes
necessary for their productiondoes not have any inherent limit.
In the second case, the boundless character of work is clearly
expressed in Marxs M-C-M' formulation where the quantitative
increase in M is the result of production of surplus value. Also
here, there is no inherent limit to the drive for expansion of the
realm of capital. Thus we have M-C-M'-C'-M''-C''-
M'''M nth : the movement of capital is therefore limitless
(Marx 1867: 253). Thus Marx (1867: 254) can write that the aim
of the capitalist is not much the profit of any single transaction,
rather the unceasing movement of profit making. This boundless
drive for enrichment, this passionate chase after value and its
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Abstract labour and value 113

substance, abstract labour. As far as the production of values is

concerned therefore, work becomes work for works sake, as no
concrete determination in relation to human needs is posited to
limit the amount of work. This formulation is qualitatively the
same as the other used by Marx many times in Capital in which
he refers to capitalism as production for productions sake or
accumulation for accumulations sake. Once the central role of
this alienated substance of value is recognised, it becomes clear
that capitalist development is by definition unsustainable because
of its human impact (Dalla Costa 1994). This discussion of
abstract labour as inherently boundless supports Cleavers (1979;
1989) formulation that capitalism is a system that, as it develops,
every aspect of life is increasingly organised around or
subordinated to work. The imposition of work as imposition of
abstract labour thus represents capitals attempted transformation
of the multi-dimensionality of life into the one-dimensionality of
work. The potentially boundless and qualitatively distinct forms
of human activities and human relations are turned into the
potentially boundless different forms of the same thing: work.
It goes without saying that a complete illustration of this point
would require a potentially boundless paper. Some of the human
activities which are turned into work for capital, besides the ones
which are generally recognised and involve the transformation of
nature into product (Marx 1867a: Chapter 7), include the
transformation of potentially fulfilling human relations such as
sex into prostitution or house work; or hospitality into work in
the service and tourist sector; or caring into house work or
hospital work; or the generational transmission of knowledge,
memory, and experience into schooling. The transformation of
all these activities into work means first, the reduction of human
activities to despotic social relations, since abstract labour is also
alienated and imposed. The original material source of this
despotism is the fact that people do not have direct access to social
wealth, due to capitals imposition of the commodity form, or, as
it has also been called, the implementation of the strategy of
enclosures. Once this separation has occurred, the market, as
encountered for example by the self employed truck driver
(Bologna 1992), or the immediate power of the foreman, as
confronted by blue collar workers, can both serve as means to
discipline the working class to labour.
The imposition of the one-dimensionality of work across
society opens up the problem of the heterogeneity of work as well
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114 Capital & Class 57

as the problem of the hierarchical structure of the working class.

This is not the place to analyse in depth these aspects. However,
the previous analysis of abstract labour gives insights not so much
into the historical processes by which heterogeneity and hierarchy
are possible, as this would require the wealth of historical analysis,
but into the meaning acquired by them in the context of a social
system based on abstract labour.
Borrowing from Marxs analysis of the capitalist character of
manufacture, it is clear that the division of labour at the point of
production and generalised in society as a whole (Marx
1867a: 484) which converts the worker into a crippled
monstrosity by furthering his particular skill as in a forcing-house
(Marx 1867a: 481), is only possible in a social system based on the
imposition of abstract labour, of activity which abstracts from the
lived experience of the workers. It is also clear that this social system
not only subjects the previously independent worker to the
discipline and command of capital, but creates in addition a
hierarchical structure amongst the workers themselves (Marx
1867a: 481). In fact, from the perspective of abstract labour the
dichotomies black/white, gay/straight, woman/man, youth/senior,
etc., are not the expression of different ways of being which offer
the opportunity of mutual social exploration, exchange, and
growth, but are the terrain upon which to classify people as
different kinds of labour power, to distribute amongst them
different social roles and functions formalised in a wage hierarchy in
society. This is because abstracting from peoples lived experience
means also abstracting from the lived experience of their open-
ended and constitutive reciprocity. Reciprocity, mutual
interdependence, acquires meaning for capital only to the extent
that it is work, it contributes to value production, and it furthers
capitalist accumulation. Unable to obliterate differences, capital
must therefore subsume them in a wage hierarchy. Within this
wage hierarchy one hours work of a stressed out teacher is paid
more than one hours work of a stressed out nurse, and infinitely
more than one hour of a stressed out housewife or student. This
is the case even if for all these social subjects, the lived experience
of stress leads to the same neurosis. Of course, bourgeois economics
introduces the link between marginal product and wage, thus
legitimising higher wage in terms of higher contribution to
production. But in a world in which the great bulk of the
productive power of labour is associated with the form of social
cooperation of labour rather than the individual contribution
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Abstract labour and value 115

(Gleicher 1983), this link reveals its disciplinary role in promoting

greater intensity of work and legitimising class division.
The constitution of different layers of power in the hierarchical
structure of society thus first, taylorises society through a
hierarchical social division of labour; second, diffuses the sense of
resentment and frustration against capital and capitalist work,
while directing it against a particular concrete form of work; and
third, creates the impression of social mobility. It is clear therefore
that the variety of struggles against the various forms of oppression
are struggles that, while giving voice to the aspirations of different
sectors in society, at the same time, undermine capitals divide and
rule strategy on which the imposition of abstract labour is based.
To emphasise the boundless character of work for capital is not
to say that, in a given time and area, the work which is imposed
under capitalist rule is unlimited in its intensity and length across
society. What is important, though, is to recognise that its limits are
set by working class struggles.5 For example, in a given time the
length of the working day is determined by the clashes between
capitals attempt to impose more work and working class attempts
to reduce it. The net result, as in the sum between two opposite
forces (Cleaver 1979), is what defines the empirical fact in a given
time and area. Thus, the boundless character of the imposition of
work under capitalism refers to its inherent capitalist character, rather
than a mere empirical phenomenon. It defines the nature of capital,
and indicates what would be the effect over peoples lives if capital
was to rule unconstrained by working class resistance of any kind.
Thus, the boundless character of the imposition of work under
capitalism represents the principle of capitalist rule, although not the
dynamic principle of capitalist history, which also includes working
class struggle attempting to overcome this rule.
Finally, a point that is very important to underline is that the
boundless character of the imposition of work under capitalism
as specified by the abstraction from real concrete needs, stands at
the centre of Marxs differentiation between the capitalist mode
of production and other class based systems based on exploitation.
Capital, according to Marx,

did not invent surplus labour. Wherever a part of society possesses the
monopoly of the means of production, the worker, free or unfree, must
add to the labour time necessary for his own maintenance an extra
quantity of labour time in order to produce the means of subsistence
for the owner of the means of production (Marx 1867a: 344).

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116 Capital & Class 57

So, what is the distinct character of capitalist exploitation? Simply

its boundless character, the inexhaustible thirst for surplus labour,
that is to say, the inexhaustible thirst for life energy transformed
into work:

It is however clear that in any economic formation of society

where the use-value rather than the exchange-value of the product
predominates, surplus labour will be restricted by a more or less
confined set of needs, and that no boundless thirst for surplus labour
will arise from the character of production itself. Hence in antiquity
over-work becomes frightful only when the aim is to obtain
exchange-value in its independent monetary shape, i.e. in the
production of gold and silver. The recognised form of over-work
here is forced labour until death (Marx 1867a: 345).

The central political implications of this result has been already

pointed out. If capitalism is not defined by the existence of surplus
labour, the end of capitalism cannot be defined by the end of
surplus labour (Cleaver 1993: 61). A post-capitalist society must
see an end to the boundless character of work, the subordination
of all life to work, and must be constituted by new social relations
which subordinate work to the multidimensionality of the needs
and aspirations of its people.

2.2. Abstract labour is a relation of struggle

My next point is that if abstract labour is alienated, imposed and
boundless in character, then it follows that the mode of existence
of labour in capitalism is a mode of existence of the class struggle. It
also means that the transcendence of the capitalist mode of
production, that is the transcendence of its substantial character,
is posed with the negation of this work.6 Every constitutive
process of new social relations beyond capitalism must have this
negation as a starting point (Marx 1894: 958-959). Let us
investigate a little further why abstract labour is a category of the
class struggle.
First of all, human labour-power expended without regard to the
form of its expenditure defines immediately a relation of power
between classes, because, as discussed above, the alien character of
labour can only be the result of an imposition. However, wherever
you have imposition you have resistance. As the concept of death
presupposes necessarily the concept of life, thus the alien and
imposed character of abstract labour as the source of value
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Abstract labour and value 117

presupposes the activity of the working class aimed at escaping and

moving beyond capitalist enclosure.
Second, let us take the twofold character of labour producing
commodities upon which Marx puts paramount importance
(Marx 1867b). Marx begins Chapter One of Capital by noting
that a thing, the commodity, presents a dual character: value and
use-value. But then he immediately goes on to show that this dual
character corresponds to the dual character of a life-process, labour.
While with reference to use-value, the labour contained in a
commodity counts only qualitatively, that is, it is a matter of the
how and the what, with reference to value, labour counts
only quantitatively, that is, it is a matter of the how much, of
the temporal duration of labour (Marx 1867a: 136). What is the
meaning of this separation? Concrete labour, what and how to
produce, can be defined only in relation to peoples needs and
aspirations. Abstract labour can be defined only in terms of a
quantum of life, life-time. This analytical separation between
abstract and concrete labour in the commodity form is possible
only because it reflects a real separation. However, it is important
to point out that from the perspective of the workers as human
beings all these elements, the how, the what and the how much,
are important in constituting their lived experience of the labour
process. The fact that these elements can be separated constitutes
the material basis of the class struggle. This is the difficult point,
that fact that the commodity is not value (abstract labour), nor
use-value (concrete labour), but the unity of the two opposites.
The split between abstract and concrete labour therefore does not
define two different activities, but an opposition within the same
activity, within the same life-process, capitalist work. How to
reconcile this separation with the fact that these elements that the
commodity separates are, from the workers point of view, all
constitutive elements of a lived experience of production?
To better conceptualise the class meaning of this separation,
let us consider the general character of production activity from
the only human point of view, that is from the point of view of
the producers. Peoples how and what to produce can only be
constituted through an expenditure of life-energy, and life-energy
can only result in a form of production (how) and a product
(what). In this example producers have direct autonomy in
defining all these elements constituting their life activity of
production, the hows the whats, and the how much. These
elements are not opposed to each other, because each is important
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118 Capital & Class 57

in defining and constituting workers lived experience of

production. Certainly, there are trade-offs among these elements.
A form of production may lead to a higher or lower level of
output, and therefore satisfy more or less needs. At the same time,
different forms of production also satisfy different needs. The
producers may well be faced with the dilemma of whether or not
to reduce consumption today in order to be able to reduce the
amount of work they do tomorrow. In all these cases it is a choice
between different constituting elements of their lived experience.
The important point is that the how much, the quantum of life-
energy devoted to production is not abstracted from needs and
aspirations, but is one of their fundamental constitutive elements.
In the commodity form, however, there is instead a dichotomy,
abstract labour vs concrete labour. Thus, on one side there is the
concreteness of needs and aspirations or, at least, an incomplete
concreteness, because concrete labour is here defined in abstraction
from life-energy. On the other side, there is abstract labour, this
life-energy stripped of its organic link with the other constitutive
elements of the workers lived experience: boundless work, the
subordination of life, and therefore of needs and aspirations, to
work. Thus abstract labour as opposed to concrete labour can be
defined as abstracted from the concreteness of needs and aspirations.
At the same time, the unity between abstract and concrete labour
encapsulated in the commodity-form can only be defined as a
clashing opposition between those holding the clock and having
the power to subordinate producers life to the rhythm of the
seconds hand, and the producers themselves. This opposition
however embodies the seeds for its resolution, a future in the
present (James 1977). Capital cannot have abstract labour (value)
without at the same time acknowledging needs and aspirations of
the working class (concrete labour) and the working class cannot
fully actualise needs and aspirations without getting rid of abstract
labour. The struggles against boundless work are thus the kernel
around which a post capitalist society is constituted.
To conclude this section, it is useful to redefine some of the
terminology in use in the Marxist literature in terms of the analysis
I have elaborated so far. I want to provide a definition of the terms
value, law of value, labour theory of value. By value I understand a
term designating the class relation of work as discussed above. As
such, value has substance (abstract labour), measure (socially
necessary labour-time), and form (money form). By labour theory
of value, I understand the general theoretical appraisal of this class
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Abstract labour and value 119

relation of work. By law of value I understand capitals imposition

of work and working class resistance in and against capital. This
involves the social process leading to the formation of socially
necessary labour timethat is, capitals use of competition,
capitals migration, restructuring, and unemployment on one side
and the struggles against all this on the other. The realm of the law
of value therefore is a realm of the antagonism of the class relation of
work. To the extent that working class autonomy in its struggle
within and against capital is also beyond capital, to the extent that
the working class is able to develop patterns of auto-valorisation,
then its struggles are also beyond the law of value.


3.1 The Technological and the Social Paradigm

In this section I want briefly to survey current readings of the
labour theory of value and show their limitations in relation to
the class nature of Marxs categories. De Vroeys (1982) distinction
between a technological and a social approach by the modern
interpreters of the labour theory of value provides a useful starting
point of this brief critical review. It must be stressed that I use this
distinction as illustrative device, and I do not mean to under-
estimate differences among authors in both approaches. I want
here to discuss how the notion of abstract labour as the substance
of value is treated in the two approaches.7
In the technological paradigm value is linked to the difficulty
of production (de Vroey 1982: 39). One of the major concerns
of this approach is to show the proportionality between the
amount of labour spent in the production process and prices. In
a very Ricardian fashion, Shaikh (1981), for example, shows for
US data the accuracy of Ricardos 93 per cent labour theory of
value. Although the dual character of labour in commodity
production is recognised, abstract labour is understood as a
solution of an aggregation problem. Shaikh (1981: 272) thus
writes that the social process of equating different use-values and
hence abstracting from their concrete qualities is at the same time
a social process of abstracting from the concrete qualities of the
labours whose results are these use values Thus labour too
acquires [the] additional aspect of abstract labour, and from
this point of view all commodity-producing labour becomes
qualitatively alike and quantitatively comparable.
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The focus on the homogeneous character of abstract labour

well suits mathematical formalisation. As a matter of fact, the
technological paradigm has been very prolific in developing
formal mathematical treatments of value and price systems.
Abstract, socially necessary labour time as the substance of value
has thus been formalised in mathematical terms through a vector
representing inputs of (commensurable, homogeneous) labour in
a system of linear equations representing the different sectors of
the economy. This formalisation has then been used to discuss
the dynamic properties of the economic system and issues such
as the transformation of values into prices, heterogeneity of
labour, etc.
Considering value essentially as embodied labour in the way
discussed above has attracted criticism from those who seek a
social paradigm for the neglect of the form of value, that is money.
As de Vroey puts it, in the social paradigm the notion of value
refers to a social property of commodities: rather than being
linked to a mere embodiment of laboura technical process
value refers to the validation of private labour through the
exchange of commodities against money (de Vroey 1982: 40).
While in the technological paradigm, abstract labour exists
prior to the process of exchange, independently of the latter and
is only related to the problem of aggregation, or
commensurability, in the social paradigm abstract labour cannot
have an existence independent from exchange. Abstract labour is
what gives commodities exchange value, is the labour that
remains in abstraction from the labour that produces use-values.
The reality of this abstraction is confined to the process of
exchange, since this process carries on as a real process the
commensuration of the products of labour under commodity
production (Himmelweit and Mohun 1994: 158).
Although value has substance, and this substance is abstract
labour, the amount of abstract labour embodied in a commodity
cannot be defined independently of the exchange of commodities
through which private labours are reduced to their common
substance (Clarke 1989). The process of abstraction occurs after
production, in the social validation of the product of labours.
Under capitalism, this process of social validation takes the form
of exchange through the mediation of money. Hence, the
importance in this approach of the money form.

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Abstract labour and value 121

3.2 The Limitations of the Modern Interpretations of Value

The shortcoming of both approaches discussed above is that the
abstraction identified by the category of abstract labour is not seen
as the character acquired by work in capitalism, that is the
character which identifies the specificity of the capitalist class
relation of work. In other words, they both fail to recognise that
abstract labour as the substance of value identifies a social relation
of struggle of a particular nature.
Writers in the tradition of the technological paradigm are right
to point out that commodities must be commensurable in order
to be exchangeable. And they are right to insist on the fact that
this commensurability reflects a common property of commodi-
ties, that is, the fact that commodities are all products of abstract
human labour. But while making explicit that commensurability
presupposes abstract labour, in the technological paradigm the
particular social characteristics of abstract labour is entirely lost.
In particular, abstract labour is considered as the formal
requirement of commensurability and not a particular class
relation of work as it is played out at the point of production8
which therefore makes commodities commensurable. When a real
process of abstraction is pointed out, this is confined to the
historical process of de-skilling obtained through the Taylorist and
Fordist organisation of work as illustrated for example by
Braverman (1974). In this formulation it is evident that capital
is seen only as a top down relation of domination,9 and not as a
social relation of struggle, which includes, but it is not limited by,
Abstract labour as a social relation of struggle is also disguised
in the mathematical formalisation of values used within the
technological approach. The concept of labour which appears
in this context is that of one input of production among others.
The issue of working class subjectivity is obviously totally outside
the realm of investigation of value thus defined. Capital is
presented here as having already reduced, overcome, and
obliterated working class resistance. In the vector of labour any
hint of the imposition of work, and therefore, any hint of the
resistance and struggle against this imposition is erased. What
is left is only a phantom-like objectivity. The fetishised character
of value reigns supreme without any possibility of going beyond
it. Abstract labour comes to be considered only as homogeneous
labour, that is a lifeless common substance of value. By repre-
senting abstract labour simply as numerical quantities, as pure
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122 Capital & Class 57

objectivities, the analysis leaves out the process of objectification, that

is to say the historical process of confrontation between classes in
defining the substance of value.
Starting from embodied labour rather than abstract labour,
writers in the technological paradigm emphasise the magnitude
over the substance of value. Marx however defines the magnitude
of value not in terms of abstract time, and not even in terms of
labour time, but in terms of socially necessary labour time. Although
there may be an empirical correlation between labour expended
and relative prices of commodities, the magnitude of labour thus
defined acquires relevance not in relation to the actual amount of
work that goes into the production of a particular commodity, as
the transformation of value into prices of production shows
(Kliman and McGlone 1988, 1995; Freeman 1995). Instead, it
finds meaning in relation to the social process of power between
classes which forces the workers in a particular branch of
production to conform with the productive rhythm of other
branches of production, under the blackmail of competition and
unemployment (Cleaver 1990; De Angelis 1994). Also it finds
meaning in relation to time motion studies, to the development
of technical design, and, essentially, to the ticking of the factory
clock and of the wrist watches most of us must wear to conform
with the rhythms of the social factory.
Another problem with this approach is that its particular
emphasis on embodied labour prevents its adherents from
recognising the way the imposition of work in capitalism tends to
become general. That is, it cannot recognise that the particular
relation of capitalist work is not limited to wage-labourers in the
commodity producing sector of society, but includes also the non-
waged proletariat.10 In other words, this approach tends to regard
production simply as the material process of the transformation
of nature into product, and not as boundless work, which is a
particular social relation which can be imposed in a variety of
different forms, including, but not limited to, the wage form. This
has serious political and theoretical implications. It means that the
struggles of non-waged sections of the working class cannot find
an appropriate interpretative framework in relation to other
struggles of both waged and non-waged sections vis--vis capital.
Also, following this approach we are unable to understand
capitalist strategies of decomposition of the working class such as
those which attempt to promote self-employment and the
constitution of portfolios of jobs.
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Abstract labour and value 123

It is evident that in the technological approach the social

character of categories is absent, and the category of abstract
labour as embodied labour assumes a fetishised character. The
point is that the embodiment of labour, when regarded as a
process, a class relation of work, is not a technical process. Instead
technological relations are social relations, class relations of dead
to living labour in production (Kliman and McGlone 1988: 56).
In this sense, the writers in the social paradigm have the
advantage of locating themselves on more solid ground. For
example, Diane Elsons stress on a value theory of labour instead
of a labour theory of value is useful. She is right to stress that the
object of Marxs theory of value was labour. It is not a matter of
seeking an explanation of why prices are what they are and
finding it in labour. But rather of seeking an understanding of
why labour takes the forms it does, and what the political
consequences are (Elson 1979: 123). The point is though, what
kind of labour was at the centre of Marxs analysis. What Elson
and the writers in the social paradigm miss, is the fact that this
labour at the centre of Marxs problematic is a class relation of a
particular nature, and that the category of abstract labour, like the
category of value, characterises, qualifies, and substantiates the
capitalist nature of this relation of work.
The social paradigm thus seems to suffer a similar shortcoming
to the technological paradigm when asserting that it is only in
exchange that heterogeneous concrete labour is rendered
homogeneous and abstract. Here the social aspect of the capitalist
relation is limited to relations in the market. Thus money in the
context of the social paradigm is not discussed as a fetishised form
of the capitalist relation of work and therefore as the indispensable
link between production and circulation, but this indispensable
link tout court. Again, as in the case of the technological paradigm
we have here an inversion. Instead of pointing out that labour is
abstract and therefore it must take the form of value and be
expressed in a sum of money, it is argued that labour becomes
abstract in taking the value- and the money-form.
I believe this question of money and the relation between
production and circulation can be understood correctly within
Marxs framework only if it is taken back to its link to value and
its substance, that is the capitalist relation of work. It is the
peculiar character of the commodity-form of the products of
labour 11 to express the antagonistic social relation in the form of a
relation between things, that is, exchange values. Let us go back to
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124 Capital & Class 57

Marxs criticism of Ricardo. I have pointed out in section 2.1. that

Marx criticises Ricardo for dealing only with the quantitative
aspect of value and not with the qualitative aspect, that is the form,
the character of this labour creating value. This criticism of Ricardo
could be addressed to the authors of both the technological and
the social paradigms. The former obviously because they look at
labour simply in its quantitative side. The latter because despite
their emphasis on form, their concern is not with the form of
labour, but immediately with the form of value. Instead of
showing that, since labour takes the peculiar form of abstract
labour, then value must be represented in money, or must take the
money-form, authors in the social paradigm bypass abstract labour
and define it in exchange through the money-form.
The form of value, the money-form, is but the form of
appearance of the class relation of work. Marx puts it in this way:

Commodities possess an objective character as values only in so far as

they are all expressions of an identical social substance, human labour,
that their objective character as values is therefore purely social. From
this it follows self-evidently that it can only appear in the social relation
between commodity and commodity (Marx 1867a: 138139).

Only by stressing the link between substance and form, can Marx
analyse the secret of money and perform a task never even
attempted by bourgeois economics. That is, to trace the
development of the expression of value contained in the value-
relation of commodity from its simplest to the dazzling money
form (Marx 1867a: 139).
In fact, the value form, that is money, expresses the boundless
character of the imposition of work in capitalism, although in a
mystified form. In the criticism of Ricardo quoted at the beginning
of section 2.1., Marx remarks that since Ricardo does not analyse
the character of this labour which constitutes the source of value,
that is, the abstract character of work as discussed before, Ricardo
is also not able to grasp the connection of this labour with money
(Marx 1968: 164).12 This connection, which is made by Marx in
Volume One of Capital when he discusses the form of general
equivalent, has therefore little to do with the social validation of
labour as expressed by the market-oriented social paradigm.
Rather, money mediates social labour only because it represents the
fetishised form, the mode of existence, of abstract labour, that
is imposed, alien, inherently boundless work. Through the
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Abstract labour and value 125

money-form, the value of every commodity is now not only

differentiated from its own use-value, but from all use-values, and
is, by that very fact, expressed as that which is common to all
commodities (Marx 1867a: 158). What is common to all
commodities is abstract labour as a particular class relation of
work. Money as general equivalent therefore is a form in which
valuethat is objectified forced workpresents itself. The
boundless character of this work, as it relates to the money-form,
is evident in two ways: first, the inherently boundless list of
commodities which express their values into the general
equivalent; second, and because of this,

Qualitatively or formally considered, money is independent of all

limits, that is it is the universal representative of material wealth
because it is directly convertible into any other commodity. But at
the same time every actual sum of money is limited in amount and
therefore has only a limited efficacy as a means of purchase. This
contradiction between the quantitative limitation and the qualitative
lack of limitation of money keeps driving the hoarder back to his
Sisyphean task: accumulation. He is in the same situation as a world
conqueror, who discovers a new boundary with each country he
annexes (Marx 1867a: 231).

The boundless character of the imposition of work is thus

inherent in the value form, money as general equivalent.
Furthermore, as the money form acquires meaning for Marx
only as the expression of capitalist work, also the link between
production and circulation is understood by Marx in relation to
this work. To show this, one must first acknowledge the
important contribution of the social paradigm in putting at the
forefront the relation between production and circulation while
discussing the question of the social validation of labour. This
relation was examined very clearly by Simon Clarke (1980) in
this journal.13 The argument is that although labour time is
expended in production, it can only be socially validated in
circulation. Thus value cannot be determined within
production, independently of the social validation of the labour
expended within circulation However value cannot be
determined in circulation either, for circulation is the form in
which the social mediation of private labours takes place and the
latter provide the material foundation of the social determination
of value (Clarke 1980: 9). The result is therefore that
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126 Capital & Class 57

production and circulation can only be seen as moments of a

whole, as the development of the contradictory unity of value
and use-value with which Capital begins (Clarke 1980: 9). This
is indeed correct, but, I believe, insufficient. Within Marxs
framework, this totality represented by production and
circulation is the totality of the endless movement of capital
founded on value and its substance, the boundless character of
work. Marx puts it in a very suggestive way in Capital:

If we pin down the specific forms of appearance assumed in turn by

self valorising value in the course of its life, we reach the following
elucidation: capital is money, capital is commodities. In truth,
however, value is here the subject of a process in which, while
constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it
changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus value from itself
considered as original value, and thus valorises itself independently
(Marx 1867a: 255).

The same is argued in the Grundrisse, where instead of value the

subject is immediately labour:

Exchange value posits itself as exchange value only by realising itself;

i.e. increasing its value. Money (as returned to itself from circulation),
as capital, has lost its rigidity, and from a tangible thing has become a
process. But at the same time, labour has changed its relation to its
objectivity; it, too, has returned to itself. But the nature of the return
is this, that the labour objectified in the exchange value posits living
labour as a means of reproducing it, whereas, originally, exchange
value appeared merely as a product of labour (Marx 1858: 263).

The unity between production and circulation means therefore

this. In production, labour is the means by which to produce
(exchange) value. In circulation, labour is the end (the product)
of (exchange) value. The formula M-C- ...P C'-M' therefore,
does not stop here. It continues as M'-C'- ...P M''-C'' ...P
C'''-M''' Mnth. Each circulation moment presupposes the
previous production moment, but is at the same time the
condition for the next moment of production. This means that
the unity of production and circulation is centred on labour as
both means and end of exchange value. From the perspective of
the working class this simply means work for works sake, the
boundless imposition of work.
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Abstract labour and value 127

The merit of Clarkes analysis, and indeed of all social paradigm

analyses in relation to the technological one, is to point out the
necessary relation between production and circulation as different
moments of the same process. But this merit falls short of the limit
of the analysis of the totality on only one cycle of the M-C- ...P
C'-M' transformations. Indeed, because of this, Clarke even fails
to recognise class relations in production and circulation. Since
both production and circulation acquire an abstract importance
in his formulation, an importance that is not brought back to the
essence of capitals despotism, and since they presuppose each other,
the class relation between capital and labour is constituted prior
to the circuit of capital, it is the social precondition for that circuit.
Within the circuit of capital Clarke can see only the determination
of other social relations on the basis of common economic
interests. These social relations only presuppose the class relation
between capital and labour but are not forms and moments of it.
The real foundation of the social relation between capital and
labour lies thus in the separation of the labourers from the means
of production and subsistence, a separation that is in turn
reproduced only in the circuit of capital as a whole (Clarke 1980:
The historical presupposition of the capitalist relation of work
is certainly in this separation. However, if the M-C-M' meta-
morphoses are recognised as the endless process of a self-moving
substance, abstract labour, it becomes clear that the unity of
production and circulation does not merely reproduce the class
relation, but accumulates it on a larger and larger scale.14 In turn,
accumulation of the class relation of work does not simply
increase the quantum of capital and the quantum of the
working class, but it shapes the qualitative conditions of class
confrontation. This is history within capitalism, struggles within
defined class compositions, and capitals attempt to disrupt these
class compositions through enforcement of historically specific
strategies of relative surplus value.


In this paper I have discussed the definition of the substance of

value as abstract labour and shown its class character. The
formulation presented here should be seen as an interpretative
starting point of a Marxist theory of capitalism because the issue
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128 Capital & Class 57

of the substance of value as abstract labour is central to all

categories employed in Marxs analysis of capitalism. In the course
of the discussion in this paper I have argued this to be the case for
categories such as the form of value, money, surplus value, and
production and circulation considered as totality. Furthermore,
once abstract labour as the substance of value is understood in the
terms discussed above, it becomes clear how both the question of
the money form, so important for the social paradigm, and the
question of the magnitude of value, so important for the techno-
logical paradigm, assume a class character. Thus it becomes
possible to open the space for a third interpretative paradigm of
Marxs labour theory of value which I call, using Cleavers (1979)
broad formulation, strategic or political,15 and which I have
outlined in regard to the analysis of the substance of value. The
reading of abstract labour I have offered allows us to put at the
centre of theoretical analysis two interrelated issues of paramount
First, the question of the general nature of the despotism of the
social system which goes under the name of capitalism. Being able
to identify this despotism as the imposition of a relation of work
with the characteristics specified in the analysis of abstract labour
allows us to be absolutely clear about the general character of a post-
capitalist society. Accepting this analysis means that there is no
plan versus market dichotomy which can water down our
radicalism. One cannot any longer afford to be enchanted by a
specific social form of the imposition of the same essence. Because
if, as the young Marx says, to be radical is to grasp things by the
root and for man the root is man himself (Marx 1843/44: 251),
a society based on the de-humanisation of life through the
reduction of all life to work, can only be dealt with through its
radical transcendence. Second, to show that, precisely within the
basic category which describes the nature of capitalism, the seed of
revolt is implicitly represented. This fact is of enormous heuristic
and political significance. The entirety of Marxs analysis in Capital
which is based upon the category of value thus presents itself as the
unfolding of the theoretical representation of the class struggle, of
the antagonism between classes, and the specific forms taken up by
this antagonism. Capital therefore is brought back to the purpose
which it originally had in the intentions of its author: not a passive
contemplation of what society is, but a radical critique of political
economy and of the society upon which this discipline is based. It
does so by de-mystifying apparently objective economic categories
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Abstract labour and value 129

and showing their character as capitalist strategies vis--vis the

working class (De Angelis 1994). It is for this reason that the
critique of political economy in so far as it represents a class,
[represents] the proletariat (Marx 1967a: 98).


Many thanks to Paresh Chattopadhyay, Harry Cleaver, Andrew Kliman, Acknowledgement

the editorial collective of Aufheben, and the reviewers of Capital&Class
for their helpful comments and editorial suggestions on various drafts of
this paper.

1. Marx says exchange value in the quote cited but in the light of Notes
Chapter One of Capital he evidently means value. Here the two
factors of the commodity are use-value and value as Marx
(1867a: 125) titles the section. A few pages later in the same chapter
he says: exchange-value cannot be anything other than the mode of
expression, the form of appearance, of a content distinguishable
from it, (Marx 1867a: 127) and later: The common factor in the
exchange relation, or in the exchange value of the commodity, is
therefore its value. The progress of the investigation will lead us back
to exchange-value as the necessary mode of expression, or form of
appearance, of value (Marx 1867a: 128).
2. The old orthodoxy derived from Engels (1906) and taken up by
Meek (1956) regarded the starting point of Capital as an analysis of
precapitalist simple commodity production. However, Marxs
analysis in Capital is, from the start, an analysis of the capitalist mode
of production. His opening paragraph is self-explicatory: Since the
wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails
appears as an immense collection of commodities, and the
individual commodity appears as its elementary form, therefore our
investigation begins with the analysis of the commodity (Marx
1867a: 125). In recent years this is now beginning to be widely
recognised. See for example the essays collected by Moseley (1993).
3. One-dimensionality is only one element of working class experience
in the daily relation with capital. The search for meanings, the
outburst of subjectivity, the constitution of communities, etc., are
others. Managerial concern about job satisfaction is an example of
how capital must superimpose meanings to accommodate the
absence of meanings of work for the workers, and therefore attempt
to recuperate their motivation. But it is clear that such strategies can
be only short lived. No strategy of capital can definitively substitute
the relative fiction of job satisfaction based on the partial and
hierarchical distribution of meanings with the ontological emptiness
of meaning corresponding to production for productions sake.

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130 Capital & Class 57

4. The process of enclosures, which Marx discusses in Chapter 27 of

Volume I of Capital in the context of so called primitive
accumulation in England, is the process of separation between people
and the means of production, a process constituting a fundamental
prerequisite for the enforcement of the capitalist relation of work.
This process, however, is not confined to capitalist pre-history but has
been shown to be an ongoing strategy which capital attempts to
enforce in various places around the world at different levels of
capitalist development. For a discussion of the modern enclosures see
Midnight Notes Collective (1990).
5. Hence, in the history of capitalist production, the establishment of
a norm for the working day presents itself as a struggle over the limits
of that day, a struggle between collective capital, i.e. the class of
capitalists, and collective labour, i.e. the working class (Marx
1867a: 344).
6. The introduction of the concept of the transcendence of capitalism
opens the Pandoras box labelled new society or new life as
discussed in different categories as communism as defined by Marx
and Engels (1946); or as the realm of freedom (Marx 1894); or as
the future in the present (C.L.R. James 1977); or as time as
rupture (Benjamin 1955); or as lived space-time [as] the space-
time of transformation, whereas the space-time of roles is that of
adaptation (Vaneigem 1983: 170); or as absolute negativity as new
beginning (Dunayevskaya 1982); or as self valorisation (Negri
7. Classical versions of each of the two approaches indicated by de
Vroey can be found respectively in Meeks Studies in the Labour
Theory of Value (i.e., the technological) (Meek 1956) and in Rubins
Essays on Marxs Theory of Value (i.e., the social) (Rubin 1928, see also
Rubin 1927). De Vroey (1982: 39) also suggests alternative names
for these two approaches: the Ricardian or the embodied-labour
interpretation, and the post-Ricardian or abstract-labour inter-
pretation. More recent contributions to the technological paradigm can
be seen for example in Shaikh (1984), Erhbar and Glick (1986), and
Dumnil (1983), among others. Work in the social paradigm can be
found for example in Elson (1979), Kay (1979), Arthur (1979),
Clarke (1989), Himmelweit and Mohun (1994), Mohun (1994).
8. By point of production I mean to refer to the particular site of the
capitalist relation of work. This may not necessarily be identical with
the factory. As long as capital is able to transform every aspect of life
into workand therefore every aspect of life becomes the realm of
the class strugglethen the point of production becomes diffused
so as to recreate the relation of work in different forms including
traditional forms and others such as schoolwork, housework, etc.
9. If working class subjectivity and resistance is not included in the
definition of a relation of domination, this relation cannot be said
to be social, as a relation between a human being and a stone cannot

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Abstract labour and value 131

be said to be social. In this sense therefore, all emphases on the

social character of Marxs categories which do not centre on the
inherently antagonistic character of the social relations in capitalism
are limited.
10. See for example the analysis of the social factory provided by
different authors including, among others, Tronti (1966), Dalla
Costa and James (1972), Cleaver (1979), Negri (1984).
11. Whence, then, arises the enigmatic character of the product of
labour, as soon as it assumes the form of commodity? Clearly, it
arises from this form itself (Marx 1867a: 164).
12. In a recent paper, Murray (1993) affirms that Marx criticised Ricardo
for having stressed only the essence of value (labour) and not the
form of value (money). This is incorrect, and I must stress this point
again. According to Marx Ricardo does not have a theory of money
because he does not fully grasp the character of labour creating value
but deals only with the quantitative aspect of this labour. In the next
sentence after the quote cited at the beginning of the previous section
Marx in fact argues: Hence [Ricardo] does not grasp the connection
of this labour with money or that it must assume the form of money
(Marx 1968: 164).
13. This and other articles in the debate on value in Capital&Class are
collected in Mohun (1994).
14. In chapter 25 of Capital on the general law of capitalist
accumulation Marx writes: As simple reproduction constantly
reproduces the capital-relation itself, i.e. the presence of capitalists
on the one side, and wage labourers on the other side, so
reproduction on an expanded scale, i.e. accumulation, reproduces
the capital relation on an expanded scale, with more capitalists, or
bigger capitalists, at one pole, and more wage-labourers at the other
pole. The reproduction of labour power which must incessantly be
re-incorporated into capital as its means of valorisation, which
cannot get free of capital, and whose enslavement to capital is only
concealed by the variety of individual capitalists to whom it sells
itself, forms, in fact, a factor in the reproduction of capital itself.
Accumulation of capital is therefore multiplication of the proletariat
(Marx 1867a: 763764).
15. Some have called this, following the work of Raya Dunayevskaya,
Marxist-Humanist (Kliman and McGlone 1988). It is not here the
place to discuss differences and similarities between these two

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132 Capital & Class 57

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