Friday, February 26, 2016

The labour process and different categories of labour

Index for a series of articles about Value
1) Marx and the domains of ignorance
2) Unpacking the value suitcase
3) The commodity perspective on value
4) The labour process and different categories of labour
(to be continued)

Marx loves labour, as human essence, but hates the restriction or confinement or degradation of human labour under capitalism.

In my words from an earlier article about Marx's moral theory:
“Although we originate as part of nature, with our social labour we oppose nature. Our productivity is also imaginative. We imaginatively and self consciously transform nature and in that process also transform ourselves. This is a teleological process. Humans imagine new forms of the material and self and then through social labour bring that imagination into reality”
Or in Marx's words:
“Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be.”
- Capital, vol 1, Ch 7
Labour is fluidity which in any society has to be socially 'fixed' or objectified in the production of particular goods. Human labour, unlike animals instinct, is indeterminate. With industrialisation the fluidity of labour is more apparent – jobs are not completely determined by tradition, religion, family ties etc. - individuals do frequently change jobs, etc.

How is human labour determined? Under capitalism there is individual choice within social limits. This evolves out of the life of definite individuals

Marx's Capital is an attempt to describe the conceptualisation of this social determination, from the indeterminate to the determinant, from the potential to the actual, from the formless to the formed.

Marx says (agreeing in this respect with his predecessors Adam Smith and David Ricardo – but in conflict with the marginal economists who came after Marx) that since use values can be exchanged as equivalents there must be a common denominator. Remember, when we talk of commodity exchange, we are dealing with the capitalist system here and not something set in place for all of time. This common denominator is materialized or crystallized or embedded or congealed or abstract human labour. However, note that these adjectives may give the wrong impression that labour enters a commodity as a physical property of the commodity. This is not a good way to look at it. Commodities exchange as equivalents in the marketplace, this is a social process, not a property of an individual commodity that can be be measured like the taste of tea or the amount of memory on a USB stick.

Labour has both a qualitative aspect and a quantitative aspect. With respect to use value the labour is qualitative (How and What). With respect to value the labour is quantitative (How much? How long a time?)

As capitalism develops labour saving technology also develops, which increases the productivity of labour. An increase in productivity leads to an increase in use values which means an increase in the total wealth of society. But an increase in productivity does not alter the value of labour, since that depends on how much and how long. As industry becomes more high tech and more productive the same amount of labour produces more. The ratio, c/v, between constant capital (c), which includes machinery, and variable capital (wages) increases. The dead labour incorporated in machines comes to predominate over living labour. Marx called this ratio, c/v, the organic composition of capital.

Put simply, the reason a 32GB USB stick cost $60 in 2010 but reduced to $16 by 2015 is that the amount of human labour required to make it is declining due mainly to progressive technological improvements. Despite all the objections to Marx's labour theory this much is fairly obvious.

Under capitalism labour power is just another commodity which is sold in the marketplace. Like other commodities it has a use value and an exchange-value. Use value is represented by the particular skills of the labourer, for example, computer programmer or school teacher. This is categorised by Marx as concrete and / or individual labour. Exchange value is reflected in the fact that all workers sells themselves in the labour market, their value works itself out as part of a social process. This aspect is categorised by Marx as abstract and / or social labour.

Under capitalism the historical tendency is for labour, including skilled labour, to become more general or universal. Capitalism needs technically skilled workers who are delivered through education but capitalism does not like irreplaceable or indispensable workers. Hence, all teachers, for example, are expected to know basic computer applications but creative computing is not encouraged, for most, since such teachers are difficult to replace. So the skilling of workers is at the same time accompanied by an opposing tendency of dumbing down or leveling of those skills. The abstract and social labour categories are not only abstractions arrived at through analysis but also a historical tendency (Harvey quoting Desai, p. 60 FN 16, “the category of abstract, undifferentiated labour is not an abstraction but a historical tendency”)

Capitalism levels labour. Work becomes impersonal. Shopping becomes self expression. These generalisations are a valid description of the direction capitalism takes us even though individual workers may find their jobs rewarding for now those jobs are continually being transformed into more mechanised forms of work. eg. Capitalism would love to replace teachers, who display some creativity, with computerised teaching machines. This process is beginning to happen through MOOCs and online courses (eg, the Salman Khan academy) but in general human to human teaching skills are incredibly complex and can't be emulated by computer interaction, yet.

The contradictions that Marx observes in human labour are between the labour which produces use values and the labour which produces exchange values.

In various places Marx uses the following terms to describe abstract labour which creates exchange values: simple, average, unskilled, homogenous, abstract, general, social (in the sense of producing social use values), universal.

My corresponding list of labour which creates use values is: useful, specific, skilled, heterogeneous, concrete, individual, social in a general sense (meaning sociable workers assisting each other and having some fun at work), creative.

The sense in which Marx uses the word social in creating exchange values needs to be explained and contrasted with the more general use of the word social, as in being sociable, on the second list in the creation of use values. See below.

There is only one labour process but it has these different aspects:

Individual or private labour

Individual or private labour means people working as individuals. Within capitalism individuals appear to have some choice as to their work. They may work in a group or on their own but their work has an individual or private aspect to it as well as a social – group like aspect.

Concrete labour

Concrete labour means that people can perform many different types of work, the diversity and qualitative differences in work. Some workers are engineers, some are teachers etc. In Marx's day he talked about tailors and weavers. Under capitalism there is a division of labour. This division of labour may take an extreme form (Taylorism in factories) or less extreme forms for skilled workers but our education system is geared to create specialists not polymaths.

Social labour

In section Chapter 1.4 of Capital on commodity fetishism Marx starts off by saying that there are things about the commodity that are non mysterious and other things that are mysterious

The non mysterious things are that use values are properties that satisfy human wants and that value is a product of human labour.

The mysterious things are that the social character of labour takes the form of social relations between products and that the social relations between men assume the form of a relation between things

social exchange between things”
By this Marx means that commodities appear as exchange-values, in a mutual relation with other commodities.

The problem here is the lack of clarity by Marx of his use of the word “social”. He is using social to refer to particular aspects that arise or flourish under capitalism and NOT social in the more general sense of any sort of social interaction.

I can discern two aspects of Marx's use of the word social. Value as a social form means that commodities are exchangeable on the market as equivalents. An exchange is a social interaction. Exchanges in the marketplace are a huge and important part of our lives. Products are transformed into the social form of a commodity, a product which is taken to the marketplace. The commodity becomes part of a complex social process, unlike products that are made by individuals for private use and which never enter the market.

The second aspect is that the labour that appears in exchange is also general labour or universal labour. Although the labour is performed by individuals it is irrelevant which individuals perform the labour. Universal labour time produces a universal product. Universal means any labourer, any product. It happens independent of individuals. Hence it is social. The universal is individual, the individual is universal. (Contribution, p. 32)

So social in this sense means both exchangeable and universal (interchangeable) . Universal means that labourers and products are interchangeable.

One way to understand the meaning of social labour is to see it as people working to produce social use values, irrespective of whether they work alone or in a social group, ie. people working to produce things not for their individual use but for the use of others.

Abstract labour

Abstract labour is the opposite of concrete in that different types of labour can still be compared. All work has something in common. This is not an assumption that all work is physiologically identical but that differences in work can be measured and quantified in some way. Abstract labour measures the quantity or duration of work. Abstract labour forms the substance of value

Although individual / social labour and concrete / abstract labour represent two pairs of dialectical opposites there are other helpful ways in which these aspects can be viewed. Individual labour and concrete labour both involve an element of subjective choice. Social labour and abstract labour both involve an element of detachment from the individual.

As capitalism progresses there is a historical process whereby capitalism levels and detaches labour from the individual. Abstract and social labour become dominant over their dialectical opposites of concrete and individual labour. Work becomes more impersonal and shopping becomes self expression. Labour becomes more like an interchangeable part. No one is indispensable. This is because the skilled artisan is anathema to capitalism. ( Harvey, p.59, “they must be subdued or eliminated by transformation of the labour process”) The domination of abstract labour signifies that “the process of production has mastery over man” (Marx,

Labour power, the capacity to labour, has the ability to create a surplus beyond the cost of its purchase by the capitalist. eg. The worker spends 6 hours a day working for himself (variable capital, v) and 2 hours a day working for the capitalist (surplus value, s). The rate of exploitation is s/v, in this case 2/6 or 33%.


Elson, Diane. The Value Theory of Labour. In Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism (Radical Thinkers). Verso (republished September 1, 2015)

Harvey, David. The Limits to Capital. Verso (2006), amazon

Marx, Karl.
- A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)
- Capital Vol 1, Chapter 1 (1867)

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