Commodity Exchange and Abstraction

In my An Introduction To Marx’s “Law of Value”, I briefly talked about “abstract labour” as the substance of value. I wrote:
“What exactly abstract labour “is” has been the subject of much debate. However, I believe the answer is relatively simple. At any given moment, society has a finite amount of useful labour it can perform. A commodity, represents a portion of this capacity to perform useful labour embodied concretely.”

My post gives the impression that “abstract labour” is logically prior to concrete labour, that this abstract labour is “embodied concretely”. This betrays a conceptual confusion – the useful, concrete labour is posterior to the abstract that manifest in exchange. Rather, the abstract labour is the way the concrete labour is expressed in exchange.

Any study of the laws governing exchange necessary involves abstraction from the useful qualities of commodities to a quantitative, homogenous unit that “does not contain an ounce of use value”. This is because the exchange process is necessarily a process of abstraction –qualitatively different commodities are equated as a unit of the same kind, compares quantitatively. This means that the use-value of the commodity (what qualities make it useful) must be distinguished from the abstraction that takes place when two commodities are exchanged. The manifestation of the abstraction from concrete labour to a homogenous labour is value, and therefore value is abstract labour. 

Of course one could then reply that this is only due to the self-imposed opaqueness of Classical Economics – that Marginalism collapses use-value into exchange-value (or vice versa), and thus the conceptual difficulty of pinning down the point of abstraction is completely avoided. This is of course, not accurate. The abstraction is not from the utility, but from the useful qualities. Marginalist simply replace the abstraction of homogenous labour with another abstraction, homogenous utility. The solution to the contradiction between the use value and exchange value proposed by propounders of subjective theories of value completely misunderstands Marx’s argument.

Thus the contradiction lies in the abstraction intrinsic to exchange. As Marx said in his famous letter to Ludwig Kugellman: “On the other hand, as you correctly assumed, the history of the theory certainly shows that the concept of the value relation has always been the same — more or less clear, hedged more or less with illusions or scientifically more or less definite. Since the thought process itself grows out of conditions, is itself a natural process, thinking that really comprehends must always be the same, and can vary only gradually, according to maturity of development, including the development of the organ by which the thinking is done. Everything else is drivel.”

In Capitalism, there is no conscious regulation of the social distribution of labour. Instead, the movement of the quantitative relation of “value” serves this function. However, this quantitative relation must be able to move and equate heterogenous human labours and thus treats all these labours as labour of the same type (as simple, general labour). It must also be able to disregard the individual labours and manifest itself as any kind of labour deemed necessary by the social needs of the population. The absurdity of this abstraction is self evident. But nonetheless it’s indispensable to Capitalist production in ensuring the harmonious work of fragmented individuals.

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