Comment on abstract labour and the method of abstraction

I tried leaving this as a comment on ‘The Real Movement‘ but for some reason WordPress mangled it so here it is in full. It relates to my previous notes on Marx’s method of “rising from the abstract to the concrete.”

I agree, Heinrich’s conflation of wealth with value isn’t particularly helpful, but looking at his Introduction to capital (p.68), it may be justified:

“Whereas the various commodities in their material existence repre­sent particular use values and their value (“abstract wealth”) can only be imagined, real money is the “material being of abstract wealth” (MECW, 29:358, corrected translation).”

He seems to be quoting Marx (“abstract wealth”) and interpreting it as “value” (seems fair enough to me), of which money is the material form or “being”. From this, abstract labour can be said to be the substance of (abstract) wealth or value.

On another of your points, you say:

“By inventing an additional category distinct from value, called abstract labor, Heinrich does not have to address Marx definition of value.”

I don’t think that Heinrich has invented an additional category. Marx uses the category of ‘abstract labour’ on a number of occasions, as you know. By calling abstract labour the ‘substance’ of value, the relationship is clear. It’s not distinct. It’s the substance of value. It’s “congealed”, “jelly”, a reduction into “a definite quantity of equal, general, undifferentiated, social, abstract labour”; or, “labour pure and simple, abstract labour; absolutely indifferent to its particular specificity.”

Here’s a nice, helpful riff from Marx:

“The coat is value only to the extent that it is the expression, in the form of a thing, of the human labour-power expended in its production and thus insofar as it is a jelly of abstract human labour – abstract labour, because abstraction is made from the definite useful concrete character of the labour contained in it, human labour, because the labour counts here only as expenditure of human labour-power as such.”

He’s saying:

Value ← abstract labour ← concrete labour ← labour ← labour power

So, we have value, which is derived from abstract labour, which is derived from concrete labour, which is derived from labour, which is derived from labour power. In his analysis, Marx starts with the abstract to arrive at the concrete.

Expressed the other way, we have:

Labour power → labour → concrete labour → abstract labour → value

As Marx indicates elsewhere, depending on which way you think it through, abstract labour might be seen as the expression of labour power, or labour power might be seen as the expression of abstract labour: “concrete labour becomes, therefore, the medium for expressing abstract human labour”.

To arrive at something that is “abstract”, is the result of “abstraction” i.e. abstract thinking. It is not just a category of thought but also a method for Marx, “rising from the abstract to the concrete.

‘Abstract labour’ is not a substance in the sense of a kernel or essence of a thing, it’s a way of articulating something socially active that normally goes unspoken, so that we understand capital better. Because Marx’s approach is historical materialist, thought is understood to be derived from the real experience of life rather than existing independently. In that sense, abstractions are “real abstractions” and the meaning of “abstract labour” is a matter of life and death.

2 thoughts on “Comment on abstract labour and the method of abstraction”

  1. I find this to be an interesting response — so far 🙂 I was wondering about it implications for the concept of value as socially necessary labor time.

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