A Note on Concepts of Abstract Labor

Many of the feuds over the concept(s) of abstract labor seem to be fueled by category mistakes regarding different types of concept-formation that are at play without these latter having been stated or usually comprehended. It’s thus helpful to take up Patrick Murray’s and Moishe Postone’s suggestion that there are different types of concept at work in Marx’s presentation of the category of abstract labor.

Abstract labor as human labor in general, what the heterogeneous variety of concrete labors have in common, the undifferentiated exertion that remains when you deduct specificty, is a nominalistic concept, and thus immanent to the consciousness of the acting and thinking subjects of capitalist society. It is an ordering concept in the heads of these subjects under which all particular laboring activities can be ranged; one could say an ‘ideal type.’ This is why it can be applied transhistorically: once we have access (and said access is an historical result, as shown in the introduction to the Grundrisse) to the cover-concept of labor-in-the-abstract, we can look back and subsume the activity of the artisan, the slave, even the hunter-gatherer picking fruit under it. This is how today’s anthropologists can compare the 8+ hours a day worked by the modern wage slave to the fruit-picker’s leisurely few. But obviously this conception would make no sense to the fruit-picker. It’s an abstraction for us, for the ‘scientists’ who have reduced the fruit-picker’s activity to our term and promptly forgotten the traces of our own hand in the making of our concept.

This is how the concept-formation of the bourgeois nominalist works: it at the same time deflates its concepts to nothing but subjective ordering schemata, but for that very reason overextends them as natural, generally applicable, and objectively valid everywhere it finds phenomena onto which it can stick them. Those who defend physiological exertion pure and simple and transhistorically valid as exhausting the category of abstract labor in Marx are working with a nominalistic concept without seemingly being aware of it or stating it in such terms: there’s talk of concrete labors being ‘treated as’ or ‘reduced to’ abstract labor without them being able to say who’s doing the treating or how the reduction occurs because a certain kind of concept-formation has been presupposed. The treater and reducer is, tacitly, always the one who thought up the concept.

Marx, however, moves on to reveal how heterogeneous concrete labors and the heterogeneous concrete use-values they produce are made practically abstract by being exchanged against a universal equivalent, money, in the context of the total process of generalized commodity production and circulation. This concept of abstract labor is not reducible to the ordering schemata of the scientist’s subjectivity, but has an objectivity and autonomy like the ‘realist’ concept, but in a peculiar (non-mythological) sense: a concept that holds sway in reality because it is constituted unconsciously in practice. This real abstraction, which occurs in an historically specific social form of production based on exchange, is what allows for the formation of the nominalistic concept of abstract labor, which has been revealed as belonging to a limited standpoint.

Teasing these two dimensions out helps to make sense of what’s going on in critiques of labor. Productive activities will no longer be made practically abstract in a mode of production no longer based on exchange against money. However, if we can imagine the strange hypothetical situation of the bourgeois scientist looking forward at such a communist society’s manner of interacting with nature to provision itself, rather than backward at the slave and the fruit-picker, he could range that activity under his transhistorical concept of ‘labor.’ There would presumably be a lot less of it (just as he talks about the fruit-picker doing less ‘labor’), and its concrete shapes would be less unpleasant (and ecologically destructive) than they are now, but the real point is that the practical objectivity of abstract labor, as the ‘realist’ concept that holds sway in reality, would be entirely gone, because exchange, money, value, reduction to socially necessary abstract labor-time, would be no more.

A New Institute for Social Research