Abstract labor

Submitted by vicent on February 20, 2016

[The video production in Part One of Abstract Labor was done my a fantastic film maker/editor who we shall call ‘M’ for now. She did a really great job giving the video a consistent, dark vibe and I’m so happy to have been able to collaborate with her on the project.]

Money can really fuck you up. It can make you lose your home. It can make you go to work. It can topple governments, cause wars, pave the jungles…

Of course it’s really nothing by itself: pieces of paper, digits in a computer… And of course money doesn’t literally take away homes, topple governments, cause wars or fuck you up. People do these things. Money then seems to have a strange power to compel people to do things. It has a certain social power.

What kind of social power does money have? It seems to have any social power we might want it to have. In a society in which social life is coordinated by market exchange money has the ability to buy any aspect of this social life, to compel any action, to coordinate any complex activity. The more money we have, the greater our ability to command this social power. This is a non-specific power: It is not tied to any particular activity, commodity or person. It is social power in the abstract.

This is not social power in the form of guns or tanks. It is social power in the form of these strange tokens of value, used to measure the quantitative relations between commodities. This abstract social power goes by another name: value. The subordination of society to the rule of value we call: The Law of Value.

In other times and places social power took the form of a sword. It was direct, concrete. But value is not like this. It is abstract. We do not know where it comes from or where it is going. It does not come from the 1%. It does not come from the FED. It comes from a specific organization of society. “What sort of organization of society is necessary for the existence of this value in the abstract?”

This is not just an academic question. This question gets to the heart of how we understand capitalism and how we envision alternatives to capitalism. Often times we hear quite different recipes ending the rule of capital: abolishing private property, ending wage labor, capturing the state, smashing the state, democratizing money, ending money, and so on. There are many different facets, many interpenetrating parts of the dense tapestry of inner relations that make up a capitalist society, and they all bear the mark of the dominance of value relations over our lives. How we understand the relation of the parts to the whole effects how we understand an anti-capitalist project.

So when we ask, “What sort of organization of society is necessary for the existence of this value in the abstract?” we are setting the stage for an exploration of the inner relations of capitalist society.

Free Market

Bourgeois theory tends to restrict its view to the market place. This is why it always refers to capitalism as a “free market society” or a “free enterprise system” rather than a “wage-labor society” or a “production for the sake of production system.” From this narrow viewpoint we only see freely consenting individuals making mutually beneficial exchanges. From this viewpoint it seems that value is nothing else than a benign by-product of mutual agreements between market actors. The benign nature of this viewpoint influences not only mutualist anarchists but also some socialists who want to preserve some element of market exchange in their anti-capitalist vision.

But this narrow picture of exchange is not adequate to actually explain the phenomenon of value in the abstract. When two Robinson Crusoes meet in the desert to trade their exchanges are not abstract at all. They are related to very concrete personal desires. It is quite another thing in a society organized through exchange where we can observe regular, predictable exchange ratios between commodities.

In order for us to form predictable, reliable exchange ratios between things there must be some predictable knowledge of the quantity of things we have to exchange, how much we will have tomorrow, and so on. We must have some predictable supply. The force that constantly replenishes these supplies is, of course, human labor.

This brings us to a fuller picture of our society ruled by abstractions. Rather than just a society of free exchange, it is also a society in which this exchange is regulated by production. The production of commodities by people creates both the demand for and supply of these commodities. The exchange ratios between commodities, their values, are signals which coordinate this social labor process. Thus we have a society in which exchange and production constantly regulate each other. Behind the movement of commodity values in the market lies a parallel process of the movement of labor from one task to another. The social power of money, of value, lies in its ability to move about this labor.

Abstract Labor

If the abstract social power of money comes from its ability to measure and command labor, what kind of labor is this labor? Knitting? Building? Singing? [any examples suffice, depending on good images] It is any kind of labor. Labor in general. Abstract Labor.

We began by asking what sort of society makes the rule of abstractions possible, makes the law of value possible. After penetrating the surface appearance of market exchanges we found that it is a society in which the value relations between commodities are directly related to the labor that produces these commodities. And now we have seen that the abstractness of these value relations is paralleled by the abstract nature of labor. Does this answer our question as to what sort of society makes such abstractions possible?


Marx is sometimes taken to task for his concept of abstract labor. “How is it possible,” some ask, “for Marx to theoretically equate all of these different sorts of labors? Manual and intellectual labor? Skilled and unskilled labor? etc?” “Labor is never abstract,” they argue, “but is always a specific type labor.”

Marx’s reply is typical of Marx: We don’t have to theoretically equate all these different labors. Society does it for us. Society already treats all labor as an abstraction. For us as individuals our work seems very concrete and very important. But when we suddenly lose our job because of an economic crisis, when we see jobs move to other countries, when we see entire skill sets replaced by machines, we realize that our own livelihood means nothing to capitalism. For capital our work is just an abstract unit in a giant profit calculator. We are just another digit to be moved around. In this sense, though our work seems very specific and concrete to us, for capitalism it is completely abstract. All that matters is that it produces value.

If abstract labor is not a philosophical idea but a real phenomenon, a real abstraction that is made by capitalism itself then that leads us to ask again: what sort of society makes this possible?

The answer is this:

In order for our labor to become abstract units in the profit calculator of capitalism, capital must own our work. Our working time must be a commodity. A society ruled by the law of value requires wage labor.

People are not commodities but their ability to work is. This is called “labor power”. We said that the buying and selling of commodities regulates the division of labor, sending signals that apportion labor between different tasks. This can only happen if labor power itself is also a commodity to be bought and sold, moved about. Wage-labor is the mechanism by which the “hidden hand of the market” moves labor inputs about.

We finally have an answer that seems adequate to our initial question: what sort of society makes possible the law of value, the subordination of society to the abstraction of value? We see that this abstraction of value is tied to the abstraction of labor. And this abstract labor relies on the existence of labor power as a commodity. When labor-power is a commodity then the specific uses of that labor become irrelevant to capital. All that is important is that profit can be produced by exploiting this labor. It doesn’t matter if this labor knits sweaters or makes guns. It doesn’t matter if we work 80 hour weeks or work dangerous jobs. It doesn’t matter when the mines collapse on us. It doesn’t matter when we are replaced by robots or when our jobs move somewhere else. It doesn’t matter when unemployment drives down our wages. Our work is just an input into the production of value, of social power. Capital is the expansion of this value, of this social power, for its own sake, not for any particular purpose.

Value is a social power because it commands people. It buys their time and commands them to do its bidding. It does this not for the sake of the worker or the consumer. It does this not for the sake of the 99% or the 1%. It does this for the sake of producing value for its own sake. It has no human purpose, though there are some humans that benefit greatly from this process.

The Plot Thickens

Yet our answer to this question still points to other questions. What sort of society is necessary in order for wage-labor to be the dominant form of labor? We must have a society in which people don’t have access to their own means of production but instead must sell their labor power in the market in order to survive. This requires private property, a capitalist state to guard this property, and lots of drugs and smooth jazz to keep us passive. This is why whenever the law of value seems to be breaking down, like in an economic crisis, the state must step in to restore the smooth functioning of value relations.

Rather than a simple answer to our question “What sort of organization of society is necessary for the existence of this value in the abstract?” we have arrived at a complex web of social processes. We haven’t found one fundamental evil to be stamped out. Instead, we see that there are many different overlapping dimensions to the question of value. Social power, value relations, class, property relations, and the state are all bound up in our analysis, each reflecting a different aspect of the law of value.


So what parts of this assemblage of factors need to be gotten rid of if we are to overthrow capital? I would argue that we need to do away with it all: value, money, abstract labor, wage-labor, capital, private property, “the state”, etc. Other folks take less ambitious positions. Different political positions on this issue come from different ways of understanding the way the inner relations of a capitalist society fit together.

For the market-socialist vision, it seems that all we need to do is replace the class-relationships in the workplace with a cooperative workplace, leaving market exchange in tact. But such a cooperative society would still have wage labor, socially necessary labor time, value in the abstract, and abstract labor. Cooperatives would still be compelled by competition to produce surplus value in order to expand production and stay competitive. Production would still be for the sake of producing surplus value, and not for the sake of bettering society. It is probable that the most efficient and successful firms would be those with the least cooperative structure and the highest disciplining of labor.

For the 20th century communism of the USSR and China it was initially the seizure of state power by a vanguard of the working class, the nationalization of property, internationalism and the administration of production by a plan that was thought to be sufficient to break with the capitalist mode of production. Yet the plans of the planners soon began to resemble the most despotic plans of the capitalist workplace. In order to compete in the world market planners found that they needed to extract the highest amount of surplus value from workers as possible. There was still wage labor, socially necessary labor time, surplus value and abstract labor. The same year the conveyor belt was introduced to Soviet Russia they revised their textbooks to claim that the law of value applied to socialism.

This means that if we are to be serious about anti-capitalist politics we have to be serious about our analysis of capitalism. What is it we are really trying to do-away with? And what forms of organization can replace capitalism effectively?

PART DEUX: Abstraction

The word “abstract” can mean many different things. A painting is abstract if it doesn’t have any references to representational objects. An idea is abstract if it moves out of the realm of concrete examples and deals with general principles. When Marx talks about “abstract labor”, as we discussed in video 9, he is using the term in a unique way. For Marx the abstraction that is abstract labor is not one that happens in the minds of philosophers. It is one that happens in reality. It is a “real abstraction”.

This seems an interesting enough proposition to warrant this brief supplementary video on the topic of Abstraction.

To Abstract or Not to Abstract

What does it mean to abstract? We abstract all of the time. When we say “woman” we are not talking about any concrete specific woman. We are talking about women in general. Yet, there is no such thing as a woman in the abstract. We cannot meet her at a bar and buy her a drink. We can only experience concrete women, specific women.

To attempt to look at the complex totality that is a capitalist society only in its concreteness, only in the specific actions of trillions of individuals all happening at the same time, would be madness. We have to separate out the patterns, finding terms that can encompass a broad swath of concrete behaviors into general, abstract terms. Instead of talking about rice, tanks and DVD’s we have to talk about commodities. Instead of talking about carpentry, dentistry, and bicycle repair we must talk about labor.

When we use the word “abstract” we can mean the verb, the act of abstracting, or we can mean the noun, the concept which forms an abstraction.

There are many abstractions which we may choose to extract out of the complex whole of capitalism and label as the most important, fundamental defining abstractions. In forming our abstractions we have choices to make. The way we abstract and the way we piece together these abstractions determines how we understand the whole that we are trying to explain.

In our analysis we found that value is an expression of abstract labor and that abstract labor is a direct result of the organization of production through commodity exchange. We furthermore noted that this organization is only effective when labor power itself is a commodity to be bought and sold. And labor-power only becomes a commodity with a specific type of property relation, and a specific type of state that can guarantee the stability of this property relation. Thus our analysis ‘grounded’ the abstractness of value and abstract labor in a concrete type of social organization.

Rather than an analytical approach that seeks to find an abstract essence behind reality, we took the opposite approach: we moved from the abstract idea of value toward a concrete picture of the sort of world that makes this abstraction possible. Often times in philosophy we see people trying to identify abstract properties or essences that lie behind the concreteness of everyday reality. Marx wants to do the opposite. He wants to identify the specific types of social organization that makes the abstraction of value possible.

This movement from the abstract to the concrete is also a key feature of Hegel’s dialectical method. Yet there is something quite distinctive to the way Marx uses this method: the way Marx’s abstractions are grounded in the real social practices of capitalism.

When we talked about the abstract term “woman” we noted that we cannot ever meet “woman in general”, but only specific women. However we can meet “value in general”. In fact, we carry it around with us everyday in our pocket. It is money. So the abstraction that is value is not a mental or philosophical one. It is a real one. This is why Marx begins his analysis of capitalism with an analysis of the value-form.

This also differentiates Marx’s method from bourgeois methods of understanding capitalism. For Austrian economists like von Mises it is the abstraction of free human action that is the foundational abstraction that frames the theory of capitalism. But we cannot ever see “human action” in the abstract. It is merely a philosophical device and thus appears as an arbitrary starting point for a philosophical system, begging the charge of being an ideologically motivated starting point.

Because abstract labor is a real abstraction this means that the theoretical system that we build out of it is not just a question of logically extrapolating principles and ideas in our heads from a given a starting point, like we would do in bourgeois philosophy. Rather, since the abstraction is a real one, we must proceed by trying to ground this abstraction in real social practice. It becomes an anthropological investigation. This is why, in video 9, the question that always propelled us forward in our analysis was “what sort of society makes this abstraction possible?” We had to uncover a complex system of social practices that allowed such an abstraction to emerge. Such an approach of grounding our analysis in real social practices keeps us from falling into the trap of fetishism.


We have talked about the fetishism of commodities in several videos, uncovering different aspects of the fetish along the way. In one sense the fetish is a bad abstraction. A fetish attaches the social power of the whole to an isolated, abstracted part of the whole. For instance, when we say “money is power” we are taking the social power of labor, as commanded by the value form, and attributing it to little pieces of paper. To treat money like it has some inherent social power is a fetish.

On the other hand, the social power of money doesn’t go away just because we have exposed the fetish with our fancy theories. Money really does have power because value is a real abstraction. This makes Marx’s fetish argument quite mysterious and tricky. It is one thing to make a bad abstraction and attribute the powers of the whole to one piece of the whole. It is quite another when this abstraction is a really existing phenomenon that can’t be changed by theory.

Depending on our vantage point we can argue two different points. One the one hand money and commodities are just objects and do not have any inherent social powers. They derive their value and social power from a specific organization of labor. On the other hand the social power of money and commodities is not an illusion. In a capitalist society they really do have value and social power. The fetish is real.

This strange phenomenon of commodity fetishism leads to all sorts of confusion when we think about capitalism. It can lead people to the conclusion that money has some inherent value, that capital creates its own surplus value without labor, and that exchange value comes from the material properties of commodities.

Marx does not just dismiss such ideas. Instead he subjects them to the same sort of analysis that we have just discussed: he seeks to ground these ideas in real social practices. All of video 9 could be seen as a Marxist critique of the idea that money has some inherent value. Rather than dismissing the idea we acknowledge the fact that money does have power. We then show that this power is not a result of the material properties of money but a result of a specific sort of social organization of labor. Thus we can show that such an idea, the idea that money is power, is the result of a specific type of social relation. In this way Marx destabilized bourgeois theory. He takes bourgeois ideas and shows why they are possible.

A further note on abstraction:

At each step in the analysis it seems like what we mean by “value” is changing. Are we talking about the exchange ratios between commodities? About the relations between the producers of these commodities? About wage-labor? Are we including all of the institutional features of private property and state violence that accompany the law of value? The answer to all these questions is “yes.” When we think dialectically our abstractions have a dimension of flexibility that Bertell Ollman calls “extension”. Our abstractions can contain more or less elements depending on what questions we are looking to answer. When we are talking about the effect of changes in productivity on prices then our use of “value” encompasses commodity prices in their relation to labor time. When we discuss the political crises that have accompanied the current economic crisis then “value relations” refers to the wider set of political institutions as they relate to the contradictions of value production. Our abstraction can extend more or less into theoretical space depending on what questions we are asking.