Abstract labour and concrete labour
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Abstract labour and concrete labour refer to a distinction made by Karl Marx in his critique of political economy.
Marx first advanced this distinction in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and it is discussed in more detail in chapter 1 of Capital, where Marx writes:
"On the one hand all labour is, speaking physiologically, an expenditure of human labour power, and in its character of identical abstract human labour, it creates and forms the value of commodities. On the other hand, all labour is the expenditure of human labour power in a special form and with a definite aim, and in this, its character of concrete useful labour, it produces use values. [...] At first sight a commodity presented itself to us as a complex of two things – use value and exchange value. Later on, we saw also that labour, too, possesses the same twofold nature; for, so far as it finds expression in value, it does not possess the same characteristics that belong to it as a creator of use values. I was the first to point out and to examine critically this twofold nature of the labour contained in commodities. [...] this point is the pivot on which a clear comprehension of political economy turns"
The origin of the distinction between abstract and concrete labour can be traced back to Marx's 1857 Grundrisse manuscript, in which he already distinguished between "particular labour" and "general labour", contrasting communal production with production for exchange.
Abstract treatment of labour-time
In order to make this distinction, it must be possible to think abstractly about human work, and consider it separately from any particular worker performing it. Only on that basis, it is possible to conceive of separate quantities of labour (X amount of labour hours, or Y amount of workers) and work tasks (the kinds of jobs which need to be done, or functions which must be performed, irrespective of who actually does it). As soon as we ask, "how much work is necessary to produce something?", we begin to think abstractly about human labour.
In statistical reports, for example, reference is made to "the labour force" and quantities of total hours worked are calculated. This is an abstract way of viewing human work, and the workers that perform it. Or, if we take the concept of an output/labour ratio (the ratio of the value of output and the number of hours worked or the number of workers), this is again an abstract way to view labour.
Another example is the concept of unit labour costs, i.e. the cost in labour per product unit, expressible in hours or in money-prices. In time use surveys, a statistical attempt is made to quantify and average out the different types of activities people normally spend their time on.
In official economics, workers do not exist anymore; they are just an abstract "factor of production" or a "labour input" or a "consumer". Workers enter into the analysis only in management theory. Managers of course often have to estimate the number of paid working hours that a job will take to do, hire and fire workers, and keep track of the number of paid hours worked. Managers have to be concerned with the "human face" of the market, because they have to make workers work together effectively, so that the workers produce enough in the available time.
Abstract labour and exchange
Marx himself considered that all economising reduced to the economical use of human labour-time; "to economise" ultimately meant saving on human energy and effort.
"The less time the society requires to produce wheat, cattle etc., the more time it wins for other production, material or mental. Just as in the case of an individual, the multiplicity of its development, its enjoyment and its activity depends on economization of time. Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself. Society likewise has to distribute its time in a purposeful way, in order to achieve a production adequate to its overall needs; just as the individual has to distribute his time correctly in order to achieve knowledge in proper proportions or in order to satisfy the various demands on his activity."
However, according to Marx, the achievement of abstract thinking about human labour, and the ability to quantify it, is closely related to the historical development of economic exchange in general, and more specifically commodity trade (the trade in wares and merchandise).
The expansion of trade requires the ability to measure and compare all kinds of things, not just length, volume and weight, but also time itself. Originally, the units of measurement used were taken from everyday life - the length of a finger or limb, the volume of an ordinary container, the weight one can carry, the duration of a day or a season, the number of cattle. Socially standardized measurement units began to be used probably from circa 3000 BC onwards in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and then state authorities began to supervise the use of measures, with rules to prevent cheating. Once standard measuring units existed, mathematics could begin to develop.
In fact, Marx argues the abstraction of labour in thought is the reflex of a real process, in which commercial trade in products not only alters the way labour is viewed, but also how it is practically treated. In other words, when labour becomes a commercial object traded in the marketplace, then the form and content of work in the workplace will be transformed as well. This transformation is practically possible, because labour already contains the potential to adapt to the requirements of capitalist business.
If different products are exchanged in market trade according to specific trading ratios, Marx argues, the exchange process at the same time relates, values and commensurates the quantities of human labour expended to produce those products, regardless of whether the traders are consciously aware of that (see also value-form).
Therefore, Marx implies, the exchange process itself involves the making of a real abstraction, namely abstraction from the particular characteristics of concrete (specific) labour that produced the commodities whose value is equated in trade. At first, the relationship between quantities of traded commodities symbolically represents the relative costs in labour time. Next, money-prices begin to represent symbolically the commodities being traded. In this way, a system of symbolic representation emerges which can facilitate the exchange of the most diverse products with great efficiency.
Closely related to this, is the growth of a cash economy, and Marx makes the historical observation that:
"In proportion as exchange bursts its local bonds, and the value of commodities more and more expands into an embodiment of human labour in the abstract, in the same proportion the character of money attaches itself to commodities that are by Nature fitted to perform the social function of a universal equivalent. Those commodities are the precious metals."
In a more complex division of labour, it becomes difficult or even impossible to equate the value of all different labour-efforts directly. But money enables us to express and compare the value of all different labour-efforts - more or less accurately - in money-units (initially, quantities of gold, silver, or bronze). This is illustrated by the popular saying, "time is money" (after Benjamin Franklin). Marx then argues that labour viewed concretely in its specifics creates useful things, but labour-in-the-abstract is value-forming labour, which conserves, transfers and/or creates economic value (see Valorisation). Quite simply, a quantity of labour can earn, or be worth, a certain amount of money. The young Marx observed in 1844 that:
"As money is not exchanged for any one specific quality, for any one specific thing, or for any particular human essential power, but for the entire objective world of man and nature, from the standpoint of its possessor it therefore serves to exchange every quality for every other, even contradictory, quality and object: it is the fraternisation of impossibilities. It makes contradictions embrace."
In the feudal society of medieval Europe, Marx comments,
"The natural form of labour, its specific kind - and not, as in a society of commodity production, its universality - is here its immediate social form. The corvee can be measured by time in just the same way as the labour which produces commodities, but every serf knows that what he expends in the service of his lord is a specific quantity of his own personal labour-power. The tithe owed to the priest is more clearly apparent than his blessing. Whatever we may think, then, of the different character masks with which people confront each other in such a society, the social relations between individuals in the performance of their labour appear at all events as their own personal relations, and are not disguised as social relations between things, between the products of labour. (...) For a society of commodity producers - whose general social relation of production consists in the fact that they treat their products as commodities, hence as values, and in this business-like form bring their individual, private labours into relation with each other as homogenous human labour - Christianity with its religious cult of man in the abstract, more particularly in its bourgeois development, i.e. in Protestantism, Deism, etc., is the most fitting form of religion.")
Abstract labour and capitalism
If the production process itself becomes organised as a specifically capitalist production process, then the abstraction process is deepened, because production labour itself becomes directly treated and organised in terms of its commercial exchange value, and in terms of its capacity to create new value for the buyer of that labour.
Quite simply, in this case, a quantity of labour-time is equal to a quantity of money, and it can be calculated that X hours of labour - regardless of who in particular performs them - create, or are worth, Y amounts of new product value. In this way, labour is practically rendered abstract.
The abstraction is completed when a labour market is established which very exactly quantifies the money-price applying to all kinds of different occupational functions, permitting equations such as:
x amount of qualified labour = y amounts of unskilled labour = z amount of workers = p amount of money = q amount of goods.
This is what Marx calls a value relationship ("Wertverhältnis" in German). It can also be calculated that it costs a certain amount of time and money to train a worker to perform a certain task, and how much value that adds to the workers' labour, giving rise to the notion of human capital.
As a corollary, in these conditions workers will increasingly treat the paid work they do as something distinct or separate from their personality, a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Work becomes "just work", it no longer necessarily says anything at all about the identity, creativity or personality of the worker. With the development of an average skill level in the workforce, the same job can also be done by many different workers, and most workers can do many different jobs; nobody is necessarily tied to one type of work all his life anymore. Thus we can talk of "a job" as an abstract function that could be filled by anybody with the required skills. Managers can calculate that with a certain budget, a certain number of paid working hours are required or available to do the work, and then divide up the hours into different job functions to be filled by suitably qualified personnel.
Marx's theory of alienation considers the human and social implications of the abstraction and commercialization of labour. His concept of reification reflects about the inversions of object and subject, and of means and ends, which are involved in commodity trade.
Marx regarded the distinction between abstract and concrete labour as being among the most important innovations he contributed to the theory of economic value, and subsequently Marxian scholars have debated a great deal about its theoretical significance.
For some, abstract labour is an economic category which applies only to the capitalist mode of production, i.e. it applies only, when human labour power or work-capacity is universally treated as a commodity with a certain monetary cost or earnings potential. Thus Professor John Weeks claims that
"...only under capitalism is concrete labor in general metamorphosed into abstract labor, and only under capitalism is this necessary in order to bring about the reproduction of class relations."
Other Marx-scholars, such as Makoto Itoh, take a more evolutionary view. They argue that the abstract treatment of human labour-time is something that evolved and developed in the course of the whole history of trade, or even precedes it, to the extent that primitive agriculture already involves attempts to economise labour, by calculating the comparative quantities of labour-time involved in producing different kinds of outputs.
In this sense, Marx argued in his book A contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) that
"This abstraction, human labour in general, exists in the form of average labour which, in a given society, the average person can perform, productive expenditure of a certain amount of human muscles, nerves, brain, etc. It is simple labour [English economists call it "unskilled labour"] which any average individual can be trained to do and which in one way or another he has to perform. The characteristics of this average labour are different in different countries and different historical epochs, but in any particular society it appears as something given."
Marx repeats this point in Capital, Volume 1 (1867):
"Simple average labour, it is true, varies in character in different countries and cultural epochs, but in any particular society it is given."
In that case, it seems that the equation of different quantities of labour-time through economic exchange is actually not a necessary prerequisite for the abstract treatment of labour-time; all that is initially required is that different labour-efforts in society are comparable, yielding averages indicating the "normal" labour-time associated with a task. In this sense, an archaeologist comments about the Sumerian economy of ancient Mesopotamia as follows:
"For example, a balanced account of the labor provided by 37 female workers in the year 2034 BC indicates the different activities in which they were involved. Milling work took up 5,986 labor-days. The time dedicated to this task was calculated on the basis of the amounts of their finished products, that is, flour of different qualities. The source tablets for the balanced account provided the total amounts of the different types of flour milled. The time needed to produce these was calculated on the basis of standardized performance expectations. The accountant knew, for example, that 860 liters of fine flour had been produced during the year. As it was expected that one woman milled 20 liters of that type of flour in one day, it was easy to calculate that 43 labor days had been involved."
On the basis of their input, output and labour accounting, the Sumerian analysts, particularly from the Ur III period, were evidently able to estimate, in quantitatively accurate terms, how much labour it took to produce a certain quantity of output, and therefore how many workers were needed for a given interval of time. They lacked a money commodity, in the sense of a universal equivalent for exchanging goods, but nevertheless "The concept of value equivalency was a secure element in Babylonian accounting by at least the time of the sales contracts of the ED IIIa (Fara) period, c. 2600 BC."
In other words, it proved possible already millennia ago to express the value of a quantity of product as a quantity of many other types of products, or a quantity of labour, according to prevailing norms of exchange based on production costs. "This formation and use of grain product equivalencies ... must be considered an important step in the direction of general value equivalencies best attested for in the Ur III period for silver, but then still generally applicable for other commodities such as grain or fish, including finally also labor time.".
What the emergence of a cash economy then adds, is a much more refined and sophisticated quantification of amounts of society's labour-time, reckoned in money-prices - a further development of the abstraction of labour, which, however, was already occurring long before the advent of capitalist industry.
Thus, on this historical interpretation, capitalism universalizes the abstract treatment of labour-time, clearly separating paid work from other activities; through the universal use of money and clocks, all forms of labour become comparable in value, and can be economised and traded on that basis. But this economising occurs in a specific pattern: its capitalistic money-making purpose is to maximise the yield of surplus value to private owners of capital.
Another controversy concerns the differences between unskilled (simple) and skilled (qualified) labour. Skilled labour costs more to produce than unskilled labour, and can be more productive. Generally Marx assumed that - irrespective of the price for which it is sold - skilled labour power had a higher value (it costs more to produce), and that skilled work could produce a product with a higher value in the same amount of time, compared to unskilled labour. This was reflected in a skill hierarchy, and a hierarchy of wage-levels. In this sense, Friedrich Engels comments in Anti-Duhring:
"The product of one hour of compound labour is a commodity of a higher value—perhaps double or treble — in comparison with the product of one hour of simple labour. The values of the products of compound labour are expressed by this comparison in definite quantities of simple labour; but this reduction of compound labour is established by a social process which goes on behind the backs of the producers, by a process which at this point, in the development of the theory of value, can only be stated but not as yet explained. (...) How then are we to solve the whole important question of the higher wages paid for compound labour? In a society of private producers, private individuals or their families pay the costs of training the qualified worker; hence the higher price paid for qualified labour-power accrues first of all to private individuals: the skilful slave is sold for a higher price, and the skilful wage-earner is paid higher wages.
Marx believed that the capitalist mode of production would over time replace people with machines, and encourage the easy replacement of one worker by another, and thus that most labour would tend to reduce to an average skill level and standardized norms of work effort. However he provided no specific calculus by which the value of skilled work could be expressed as a multiple of unskilled work, nor a theory of what regulates the valuation of skill differences. This has led to some theoretical debate among Marxian economists, but no definitive solution has yet been given. In the first volume of Das Kapital Marx had declared his intention to write a special study of the forms of labour-compensation, but he never did so. In contemporary society, a division is emerging between creative, skilled and specialized jobs attracting extraordinarily large salaries, and routine jobs paying very low salaries, where the enormous differences in pay rates are difficult to explain.
Marx believed that:
"It is not money that renders the commodities commensurable. Quite the contrary. Because all commodities, as values, are objectified human labour, and therefore in themselves commensurable, their values can be communally measured in one and the same specific commodity, and this commodity can be converted into the common measure of their values, that is into money. Money as a measure of value is the necessary form of appearance of the measure of value which is immanent in commodities, namely labour-time."
In other words, tradeable products do not all have a value because they can all be equated with sums of money, but because they are the products of social labour (cooperative labour producing things for others); consequently, such product-value exists quite independently of the use of money, and indeed independently of whether the products at any point in time happen to be traded or not (see also value-form). It is just that what the magnitude of that value is, can become apparent and visible only via the comparisons of trading ratios, when products are being bought and sold on a regular basis. Marx did not think there was anything particularly mysterious about the fact that people valued products because they had to spend time working to produce them, or to buy them. However, academics have made many objections to his idea.
Without referring explicitly to Marx's solution of the problems of the labour theory of value of David Ricardo, the marginal utility theorist William Stanley Jevons clearly stated the main criticism of the concept of abstract labour in his 1871 treatise:
"Labour affects supply, and supply affects the degree of utility, which governs value, or the ratio of exchange. In order that there may be no possible mistake about this all-important series of relations, I will restate it in a tabular form, as follows:
- Cost of production determines supply;
- Supply determines final degree of utility;
- Final degree of utility determines value.
But it is too easy to go too far in considering labour as the regulator of value; it is equally to be remembered that labour is itself of unequal value. Ricardo, by a violent assumption, founded his theory of value on quantities of labour considered as one uniform thing. He was aware that labour differs infinitely in quality and efficiency, so that each kind is more or less scarce, and is consequently paid at a higher or lower rate of wages. He regarded these differences as disturbing circumstances which would have to be allowed for; but his theory rests on the assumed equality of labour. [My] theory rests on a wholly different ground. I hold labour to be essentially variable, so that its value must be determined by the value of the produce, not the value of the produce by that of the labour. I hold it to be impossible to compare a priori the productive powers of a navvy, a carpenter, an iron-puddler, a school master and a barrister. Accordingly, it will be found that not one of my equations represents a comparison between one man's labour and another's."
Replying to this type of criticism, the Russian Marxist Isaak Illich Rubin argued that the concept of abstract labour was really much more complex than it seemed at first sight. He distinguished between "physically equal" labour; labour which is "socially equated" by means of consensual social evaluation or comparison; and labour efforts equated via the exchange of products using money as a universal equivalent.
To these three aspects we could add at least five others, which are also mentioned by Marx:
- the existence of normal labour-averages applying to different work tasks, which function as "labour norms" in any society;
- the gradation of many different labour efforts along one general, hierarchical dimension of worth, for the purpose of compensation;
- the universal exchangeability of labour efforts themselves, in a developed labour market;
- the general mobility of labour from one job or worksite to another; and
- the ability of the same workers to do all kinds of different jobs.
The conceptual issues associated with the concept of abstract labour have been one of the main reasons why many economists abandoned the labour theory of value. Possibly, these conceptual issues can be resolved, through a better empirical appreciation of the political economy of education, skills and the labour market. It may be that the problems have never been resolved because they have been approached far too abstractly, using conceptual distinctions not really adequate for the purpose.
One problem with Marx's own theory is, that he never completed a book he intended to write on the subject of wages and the labour market. Nevertheless Marx made quite clear his belief that capitalism "overturns all the legal or traditional barriers that would prevent it from buying this or that kind of labour-power as it sees fit, or from appropriating this or that kind of labour". Clearly, Marx believed that capitalist development itself would establish a normal commercial value for any kind of labour, and thus that all kinds of labour would be judged socially according to the same kind of evaluative standards of effort.
In his book Crack Capitalism, John Holloway (sociologist) considers abstract labour as the most radical foundational category of Marx's theory, and therefore he recommends the struggle against abstract labour as the centrepiece of the political struggle against capitalism.
The British computer scientist Paul Cockshott in 2013 attacked the German Marxist academic Michael Heinrich who, Cockshott argued, wrongly reinterpreted the concept of abstract labour so that it is no longer a scientifically testable concept.
- Working time
- Law of value
- Labour theory of value
- Exchange value
- Socially necessary labour time
- Labour power
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- Ibid., p. 1013).
- John Holloway, Crack capitalism. Pluto Press, 2010.
- Paul Cockshott, "Heinrich's idea of abstract labour". Critique: A Journal of Socialist Theory, Vol. 41 No. 2, 2013, pp. 287-297. Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx's Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012.