The crisis of abstract labor is the crisis of capitalism - Norbert Trenkle

The crisis of abstract labor is the crisis of capitalism - Norbert Trenkle

Norbert Trenkle of the Krisis Group discusses the crisis of abstract labor in which “capitalism now only functions as a gigantic machine for exclusion and marginalization”, characterized by overaccumulation, the resort to fictitious capital in order to valorize capital and “the total diffusion of abstract labor throughout all of life”, resulting in “the brutalization of individual competition, the exacerbation of sexist and racist violence, the spread of nationalist and ethnic identity politics and the growth of religious sects and mafia gangs”, phenomena that “constitute extensions of the dominant, exclusionary and destructive effects of capitalist logic under crisis conditions”.

The Crisis of Abstract Labor Is the Crisis of Capitalism – Norbert Trenkle (Krisis Group) 1

1. Abstract labor is the central principle of organization and domination of capitalist society. This is confirmed for us not only by the fact that the realization of capital depends on the application of living labor power in the process of production, but also for a much more basic reason: abstract labor constitutes and confers the synthesis of capitalist society. For the latter is essentially a commodity-producing society and therefore a society in which human beings establish their social relations by way of the commodity and money forms. Granted, however, that a commodity, considered from its exchange value side, is nothing but the bearer of value—i.e., of “dead labor”—the social mediation or transmission conferred through commodities is identical to mediation or transmission through abstract labor. The most obvious and striking example of this is the generalized obligation to sell one’s own labor power in order to survive. Each person must therefore be transformed into a commodity in order, by way of the purchase of consumer goods, to have access to the wealth of society.

This social synthesis or mediation by way of commodities and labor is essentially reified mediation. That is: social relations (relations between human beings) are established by means of things (commodities) and thus assume a totally demented form: in a way, things communicate about how human beings must live. Or to put it another way: in capitalist society, the products of human labor acquire a life of their own and present themselves to people as a configuration of apparently alien coercions. To describe this state of affairs, Marx coined the famous expression, commodity fetishism. He deliberately chose this expression because it hearkens, by analogy, to animist societies. In these societies, people are dominated by their magical conceptions, the products of their own brains. Something very similar happens in capitalist society, although the latter claims to have put an end to magical thought. In capitalist society, it is their material products which have become independent of people, dominating them like a fetish in the form of labor and the commodity.

2. The social synthesis by way of abstract labor constitutes the general frame of reference for all social relations in capitalism and determines its historical trajectory at the level of its basic dynamic. This does not mean that everything is determined by the logic of labor and commodities in the strict sense. Yet this reified mediation basically constitutes the form of social relations, creating hierarchies and relations of social domination and also defining the boundaries of the capitalist universe, that is, providing the criteria for inclusion and exclusion.

This is why the current crisis of abstract labor is shaking all of capitalist society to its very foundations. This crisis is essentially the result of a fundamental contradiction, which can certainly be interpreted as the contradiction between abstract labor and concrete labor—although in a very different sense than the way this contradiction is understood by John Holloway. The category of concrete labor, according to my analysis, is not vital or productive activity in a trans-historical sense, but the other side of abstract labor, that is, the specific form of productive activity under the regime of capitalist production. This means, on the one hand, that all the features of concrete labor reflect the production of value, both with regard to its pace and its organizational processes (governed by the criterion of “entrepreneurial efficiency”) and its contents (concrete labor in an auto factory, for instance). On the other hand this implies that a great many productive, vital and social activities are excluded from the universe of labor in capitalism and stigmatized as “inferior”, particularly “reproductive” and domestic activities and those that entail some form of emotional nurturing, which in capitalist society have been categorized and delegated primarily to women and defined as “women’s work”.

Analyzing concrete labor in this manner, however, does not mean that we are denying that there is a contradiction between concrete labor and abstract labor. We are nonetheless pointing out that this contradiction is inherent to capitalism—and for that very reason it provokes the crisis of abstract labor. Why? Because, at the same time that the terrible capitalist dynamic was subjecting the whole world to the dictates of the production of commodities and the valorization of capital, the enormous growth of productivity based on microelectronics also led to a reduction in the demand for labor power in the realization process of capital invested in the key high-tech sectors. In the decades of the 70s and 80s, this development led many sociologists of the capitalist heartland to become so optimistic that they predicted an across-the-board reduction in the length of the working day and that labor would lose its role as the central organizational principle of society. In this sense, everyone was talking about “The End of Work” [the title of a book by Jeremy Rifkin published in 1995—American translator’s note].

These predictions, however, have only served to make their authors look ridiculous. The length of the average working day was indeed declining in the major capitalist countries until the early 80s, but since then has been increasing constantly and steadily at the same time that society is becoming more and more attached, politically and ideologically, to labor. This development does not however refute the diagnosis of the crisis of abstract labor, but quite the contrary: it is one of its main consequences. Whereas, viewed from the perspective of concrete labor, the increase of productivity means that in the same labor time more products can be produced, when viewed in terms of abstract labor, this process instead assumes the form of a diminution of the value of each commodity due to the reduced amount of abstract labor time expended on its production. And this, in the logic of capitalist production, implies “a problem”, since the goal is not the production of useful things to meet society’s needs, but the “production” of value, or, to put it another way, the production of surplus value for the realization of capital. This is why increases in productivity do not lead to a generalized improvement of living conditions or to an increase in available free time, but to massive layoffs of labor power, an intensification of the pace of work and an increase in the indices of exploitation, in order to thereby guarantee a lucrative valorization of capital despite the diminution of value contained in each commodity and increasing investments in fixed capital (machinery, technical equipment, etc.).

If during the rise of capitalism and especially the so-called Fordist period, the wage workers in the capitalist heartland obtained a share of the benefits accruing from the growth of productivity (in the form of wage increases, social benefits and the reduction of the working day), this was primarily due to a constant increase in the demand for labor power in the main industrial sectors; and this created opportunities both for the struggles of the organized workers movement as well as for other social movements, which obtained a relative improvement in living conditions and imposed a certain degree of political regulation on the out of control dynamic of capitalism, although without being able to neutralize its structural imperatives, of course.

3. The revolution in the productive forces that was brought by microelectronics and its subsequent contribution to globalization destroyed these opportunities almost completely. The high level of technological-organizational startup costs in the key sectors of production for the world market has caused a large part of humanity to become “superfluous” or surplus for capitalist valorization, because it is no longer needed as labor power. A direct expression of this development is the enormous expansion of the sector of precarious work. This is due to the fact that under the universalized conditions of commodity production, most human beings have no other choice than to sell themselves in one way or another and they are compelled to do this in constantly deteriorating conditions.

As the precarious and marginalized populations are connected to the globalized circuits of valorization, they enter into direct competition with the sectors of cutting edge technology of the world market. The innumerable cartoneros [scavengers, literally “cardboard people”—American Translator’s note] of Buenos Aires, for example, must compete with the workers in the highly rationalized and high-tech timber products industries of Sweden and Canada, countries where this industry has successfully reduced labor power to a minimum and supplies better raw material for paper production. The immense productivity gap that separates these sectors squeezes the incomes of the precarious sector and results in extreme super-exploitation, in working conditions that extend all the way to slavery. We must point out that this productivity gap is no longer as narrow as it was in those periods during the rise of capitalism when, in the core capitalist countries, the non-capitalist sectors of the economy (especially agriculture and crafts) were transformed into segments of Fordist production. The gap that currently exists between the marginalized sectors and the concentrated capitals of the world economy is now itself a product of the generalization of the capitalist logic that structurally produces exclusion and marginalization. And that is why it will continue to grow.

This phenomenon was already analyzed in the sixties and seventies in the context of dependence theory, focusing on the countries of the capitalist periphery (the “development of underdevelopment”). Now, however, this phenomenon has assumed planetary dimensions in the current conditions of globalization and the revolution in the productive forces stimulated by microelectronics. And this implies that: these days every advance in productivity does not enlarge the margins for action for a general improvement in the level of material life in capitalism, but causes more and more people to be driven into the precarious and marginalized sector. Meanwhile, the difference between the working conditions and productivity in the precarious sector and those of the sectors equipped with cutting edge technologies continues to grow. In this way a gradual devaluation of the labor power of the precarious sector takes place, a process that is exacerbated even more by the “oversupply” of this sector at the global level and the competition that this circumstance implies. Under these conditions, capitalism now only functions as a gigantic machine for exclusion and marginalization, leaving the great majority of the world’s population no other choice than to engage in a ruthless struggle for survival in increasingly more difficult conditions.

The centrality of labor in capitalist society therefore is not at all diminished as a result of the crisis of abstract labor. To the contrary: as the process advances, the pressures and coercions it exercises become more intense. What changes is the mode of action: if in the phase of the rise of capitalism the prevalent tendency was inclusion, now abstract labor has become the key moment of the dynamic of exclusion on a massive scale.

4. This is by no means, however, the only effect of the crisis of abstract labor. The generalized depreciation of labor power, generated by the surge of productivity stimulated by microelectronics, also shakes the very foundations of the valorization of capital. This is because, while abstract labor is becoming increasingly more superfluous in the central sectors of commodity production, this results in a reduction of the mass of value that is produced in those sectors.

The developments leading to rising productivity therefore provoke a situation of structural over-accumulation, in which great volumes of capital cannot find possibilities of realization in the sphere of productive capital and are thus threatened with devalorization.

This over-accumulation cannot be resolved by way of the immense increase in precarious labor, not even by the extensive exploitation that the latter is subject to in countries like China. Even though masses of humans must sacrifice all their time and their health, the value that is extracted from them represents only a very small quantity of the global volume of value extracted, because their labor power is exploited at an extremely low level of productivity. In other words: one hour of labor at that level represents only a minimal fraction of the value of one hour of labor in the sectors with cutting-edge technology. Nor is it possible to find a solution to the problem of over-accumulation by expanding to new sectors of production in order to realize capital; for the post-Fordist productive forces are universal productive forces that are based on the heritage of society’s general knowledge (the famous “general intellect”). This is why every new field of production is being organized and structured in advance in accordance with the standards of a global rationalization of labor processes. An example of this is provided by the new biotech complexes. The third industrial revolution, however, has also radically transformed the sectors of administration, distribution, transport and all the other sectors that comprise the economic circuit (here we must point out the correspondence of this phenomenon with a rationalization of thought, feelings and human relations). In this sense the current crisis of abstract labor assumes a new aspect: it definitively undermines the substance of value—and therefore also the bases of valorization—and, as a result, it also undermines the society which is based upon value.

In other words, we are not just facing another cyclical crisis of capitalism, but a fundamental crisis that is inevitably leading capitalist society to its absolute historical limit and—as everyone knows—this also implies the destruction of the natural basis of existence, the victim of the insatiable appetite of capital valorization, which does not mean that capitalism could just “collapse” tomorrow. Instead, this involves a long process that could last several decades, with catastrophic consequences for the great majority of the world’s population, unless we can break with the logic of valorization and its destructive dynamic.

5. One obvious indication of structural over-accumulation which has been evident for more than two decades is the colossal growth of the financial sector. While the capital invested in this sector (a volume that as everyone knows is much greater than the volume of capital that is invested in the real economy) yields immense profits, these profits are not however the result of surplus value obtained in the production of commodities but of surplus value obtained from speculation and credit transactions which, to a great extent, are not embedded in the real economy. This is what Marx called “fictitious capital”, that is, capital which multiplies only formally without having exploited any labor power as is the case in the production of commodities or services.

This fictitious capital, however, which is constantly formed in periods of over-accumulation, is not only the passive effect of the crisis of abstract labor, but itself constitutes an active moment of the process of this crisis and fundamentally determines its development and its dynamic. On the one hand it has the function of postponing the effects of the crisis, because the surplus capital—the capital that cannot be invested in the real economy—offers it possibilities of investment in the financial sector, avoiding its immediate depreciation. In addition, one part of the money from the financial superstructure returns to the real economy and stimulates demand there for commodities and services. Thus, throughout the world, a large part of the expenditures on private and public consumption are today conducted via credit and many investments, especially those in the real estate sector, are financed with profits from the financial markets, investments which in turn are often of a purely speculative nature (one current example is the real estate crisis in the United States).

On the other hand, however, the sphere of fictitious capital acts on the real economy by exacerbating the crisis. The high profits of the financial sector establish the standards for the expectations for real investments, thus increasing the pressure to further rationalize production. This results in an even greater decline in the demand for labor power, more intensive exploitation on the job and a further reduction in wages, which is accompanied by a simultaneous acceleration of the crisis of over-accumulation. In addition, the enormous flexibility and mobility of fictitious capital nourishes the process of globalization. Finally, periodic partial devaluations plunge many nations into profound crises, resulting in an accelerated pace of destruction of economic and social structures with the consequent social marginalization. Here in Argentina I need not dwell at length on the practical implications of this trend for living conditions.

These periodic crises, however, even taking into account the seriousness of their effects in each case, are nothing but “test runs” for the catastrophe that will take place when the avalanche of the financial markets breaks loose on a global scale.

That this catastrophe will take place is ultimately inevitable, since the bubble of fictitious capital cannot be inflated forever.

When it will take place is unknown, since the flexibilization of the mechanisms of the financial market has generated large margins for activity for temporarily compensating for imbalances and postponing the great devaluation disasters.

Each postponement, however, simultaneously increases the potential of the accumulated crisis; thus, for example, the crisis of the “New Economy” was “resolved” by lowering interest rates, which, among other things, led to speculation in the real estate market in the United States, whose crisis today threatens the world economy. The question remains open, as to whether this crisis, too, can be deferred. One thing that is certain is this: a devaluation of fictitious capital on a global scale will have devastating consequences throughout the world, since it will necessarily affect the real economy as well as the government social systems and finances—and not only in the regions of the periphery of the world market but also in the capitalist heartland. We must not, however, commit the error of looking for the causes of this surge of crisis in deregulation of the financial sector, as many critics of globalization have done. This crisis is instead merely another consequence of the crisis of abstract labor that cannot be resolved by way of financial controls or other political measures, because it is the result of a fundamental contradiction of capitalist logic itself.

6. To say, however, that the centrality of labor as the organizational principle of capitalism will be preserved despite the crisis, is not entirely correct, either. We must clarify one more thing: to the degree that abstract labor is transformed into a principle of social exclusion, it loses its capacity for social mediation and synthesis. This is because, although the marginalized and excluded sectors continue to be subjected to the domination of abstract labor and commodity production, this domination is of a different nature than that of the Fordist era, when the exploitation of labor in the industrial sectors constituted the center of gravity. In a way, subordination to the logic of the commodity is today even more intense than it was twenty or thirty years ago. This is quite obvious in the consumerist orientations and cultural practices that are impregnated by a globalized culture industry. Yet it is also true of the everyday struggle for survival: the pressure to make money has been seriously accentuated, while even many practices involving self-help and self-organization are being increasingly monetized (by state subsidies, for example, or because of the influence of NGOs). In this sense, the logic of the commodity and abstract labor is continuously expanding, but at the same time the clear boundaries between the universe constituted by this logic and the activities that were previously defined as “non-work” are beginning to dissolve.

This dissolution of boundaries, however, does not imply an emancipatory supersession of abstract labor, but quite the contrary, the total diffusion of abstract labor throughout all of life, thus configuring a chaotic mixture of its effects of domination and exclusion. One of these effects is the multiplication of contradictions and fragmentations, which in turn provokes very diverse and heterogeneous reactions. This heterogeneity and diversity is not simply a positive development, but includes, in addition to solidarity and demand-based struggles, the brutalization of individual competition, the exacerbation of sexist and racist violence, the spread of nationalist and ethnic identity politics and the growth of religious sects and mafia gangs. It is precisely the latter reactions that are gaining ground in an alarming manner because they constitute extensions of the dominant, exclusionary and destructive effects of capitalist logic under crisis conditions and, as such, represent no less of a danger than state repression for the whole emancipatory movement.

Not a few persons, under these difficult circumstances, dream of a new class unity in accordance with the concepts of traditional Marxism and the workers movement. These concepts, however, have not only revealed their nature as forces of domination in the twentieth century (principal contradiction vs. secondary contradictions, vanguard, party hierarchies, etc.), but today they do not even have a material basis, a basis that undoubtedly consisted in the function of abstract labor as the principle of social mediation and in the resulting centrality of the capital-labor conflict in the epoch of the rise of capitalism. This gave rise to the idea that is both essentialist and metaphysical—which was emphasized in particular by Lukacs—that the working class represented the real social totality and that it must become conscious of this fact. To contemplate the emancipated society as a totality, however, ultimately means conceiving it within the categories of capitalist society. For the latter is the only society that has never tried to establish a totality, as it is a society dominated and constituted by a single universalist principle: value and abstract labor.

The current crisis of capitalism consists—as I have already emphasized—in the negative destruction of this totalizing synthesis, because abstract labor is no longer capable of coherently guaranteeing it. Aside from this process of crisis, however, it is necessary to point out that a society of freely associated human beings can never be constructed as a totality, but only as a heterogeneous social configuration, whose relations are structured by a multiplicity of mediations and organizational forms. The most important task now faced by the emancipatory movements therefore consists in creating new forms of organization and links that in a certain sense will anticipate that new society. Only if we achieve this, will there be a perspective that transcends abstract labor, commodity production and the state.

Norbert Trenkle

Transcript for a conference presentation, “The Crisis of Abstract Labor”, Buenos Aires, November 5-7, 2007.

Translated in January 2014 from the Spanish text available online at:

  • 1. The author is a member of the editorial committee of the journal Krisis, a review devoted to critical theory that has been published since 1986. Other texts from Krisis in various languages may be found at: