[OPE-L:528] Re: abstract labor

Alfredo Saad Filho (ASF2@bes.leeds.ac.uk)
Tue, 21 Nov 1995 11:01:05 -0800

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The concepts of concrete labour, physiological labour and abstract
labour can be confusing, and it may be the case (as Tony Smith
mentions in his latest posting) that they may be to some extent
mutually inconsistent.

I tend to look at these concepts as follows:

-concrete labour: produces specific use values (computers, books,
coats ...); ahistorical (because labour is always necessary to
transform nature in a pre-conceived way, etc).

-physiological labour: produces use values in general (this is the
general expenditure of muscular power to which Marx refers in
_Capital_); ahistorical (for the same reason as concrete labour).

-abstract labour: produces value; historically specific (value is a
social relation that exists only is specific historical epochs, and
so on).

Some people may object to this reading, arguing that Marx often seem
to describe abstract labour in much the same way that I conceive of
physiological labour.

I would reply by saying that, in my view, _Capital_ is a book
entirely concerned with a capitalist economy. Therefore - even in
part 1 of book 1 - there is no question of 'simple commodity
production' or anything like that. These chapters discuss a fully
capitalist economy, just like the rest of the book (we have had a
discussion along these lines a few days ago, but I don't have the
references right now).

In this case, abstract labour becomes a typically capitalist
category, in the following sense: it is only in capitalism that
abstract labour is produced within production (labour is both
concrete and abstract in the process of being performed; the sale of
the commodity is irrelevant for the creation of value, it only
matters as far as the realization of value is concerned).

This is because (a) in capitalism labour is performed by workers hired
on the labour market, whose labour power is exchanged for (variable)
capital, and (b) the mode of consumption of the commodity labour
power (the work patterns etc) are set by the needs to valorize the
advanced capital (we can also introduce class struggle without
changing the thrust of the argument).

This is totally distinct from what happens with petty commodity
producers, but I will discuss this later, and only if there is
demand. One point though: I think the reading of Marx that emphasizes
the need to sell in order to assess the quantum of value created (or
even to accept that some value has been created at all) confuses
capitalist production with petty commodity production.

I think there is no danger of inconsistency if we look at the matter
from this angle.

Alfredo Saad Filho
School of Business and Economic Studies
University of Leeds
Leeds LS2 9JT, England

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