Critique of the concept of abstract labor

The attempt of Marxist economists to finally get hold of the concept of abstract labor (in relation to that of concrete labor) was, of course, preceded by Marx’s critique of classical national economics, whose adepts got caught in an extraordinary circle when they defined labor as the source of all value without being able to say anything about the value of this source. If labor were really the source of value, what should be the value of this source, if one does not want to impute an infinite and immeasurable potential to labor from the outset? For in doing so, labor would, in a unique ecstasy, drag the entire economy of equivalence into the turbulence of its own immeasurability and inestimability. (Cf. Lenger 2004: 127) Marx proposes at this point, as he so often does, a “solution” that consists in the fabrication of a new problem, i.e., he not only undertakes a regrouping of concepts, but he develops new concepts, which he in turn transposes into new combinations and constellations in order to generate very specific relations and resonances. It is not labor but labor power that is bought and sold, Marx writes, and this is to be understood as more than a marginal note, what is hinted at there with the introduction of the concept of labor power to continue in the determination of the difference between labor and labor power. In the concept of labor itself, Marx deciphers the writing of a difference in order to discredit from the outset any substance or being that is commonly imputed to labor. From this, in turn, it can be compellingly concluded that labor power, but not labor, is a sui generis economic category. (Ibid.: 112ff.)
Marx’s constant maneuvering when he speaks of dead and living labor, of productive and unproductive labor, of concrete and abstract labor, of manual labor and mental labor, or even of labor sans phrase, all of this shows that for good reason the concept of labor is missing in Marx. Nevertheless, at least the term “abstract labor” seems to have a very special meaning in Marx’s corpus of concepts. Already value, which “constitutes” the relation commodity-money-capital, is – as Marx repeatedly emphasizes – something purely social, into which “no atom of natural substance” enters. (MEW 23: 62) Finally, according to Marx, in capitalism we are dealing with a social representationality, a strangely ghostly value-representationality, which represents abstract labor. The ghostly cannot get rid of its body, it continues to cling to it as an un-thing, with which we have long since found ourselves in the realm of the undead, where one has to do neither with the dead nor with the living. In order to bring clarity to this kind of spectralization of the social (Derrida), Marx recurs to a medium constituting the gespentstian objectivity of value, which he discovers in abstract labor; he alludes to an “immanent measure of value” which, although not directly quantifying quantities, is first and foremost supposed to make possible a (quantitative) comparability of heterogeneous commodities and, as such, is the precondition for measuring quantities by an external measure, which in turn is money. (MEW 23: 559) In this context, Marx writes that labor setting exchange value is a specifically social form (abstract labor). From this, in turn, it can be concluded that when Marx uses the term “social form of labor” synonymously with that of abstract labor, this reflects that abstract labor coheres with value-forms and insists in them, thus already hinting at the decentering of the term abstract labor, which in Marxist discussion is still mostly fundamentally imagined as substance, material, or as a mere expenditure of energy. (Cf. Rubin 1973) As Marx himself states, however, (abstract) labor is permeated by determinations of form, is not itself to be understood as substance that takes on a shape or form, for example, whereby the determinations of form themselves would have to be grasped as medial translations in which abstract labor is integrated in a specific way. (Cf. Lenger 2004: 129) Following Heider’s media theory, it would have to be assumed that loosely coupled elements, media, only coagulate into forms in and with differentiations and disseminations, which then roll on as perpetual streams. Labor is added to the medial translations (production) quasi from the outside, in order to stick to the products through the forms and formations, to fix itself as a trace of a movement, so to speak, and thus to materialize itself in products. And abstract labor is then precisely not to be understood as the substance of value; as such, it can neither be spent nor recorded; rather, what is at stake here is nothing other than the signification of labor as a position/place within a medial-semiotic structure of capital as a total complexion. Signification does not express a validity that has come about in exchange, which transforms private labor into socially necessary abstract labor, but rather the term abstract labor is itself to be understood as the result of a capital-logical complexity, which affirms the self-reference of money to money as multiplication as ever already monetary capitalization. With this determination, the definition of value as constituted by a so-called third (abstract labor understood here as crystallized social substance or as the result of exchange processes), which is predominant in the reception history of Marxism, is undermined.
(Now what is this ominous third thing all about? Aristotle had already searched for a common in the commodities, and he came to the (negative) conclusion that this common was at least not to be found in the physicality, rather the commonality of the exchanged commodities turns out to be a social context of meaning, which is indicated in money as convention. In this context, money is by no means something material; rather, as Aristotle at least foreshadows, the equation of goods with money indicates a social structure of validity. Karl-Heinz Brodbeck suspects that, later on, it was precisely the monetary relations of his time, given the unrestricted domination of gold as a monetary commodity, that did not allow Marx to recognize the pure meaning and validity of money, which is revealed in the reliance on money. The unity of things different in the equation (commodity A= commodity B), as Marx presents it, is here, according to Brodbeck, metaphysically reconstructed by a general substance inherent in them, namely the substance of value inherent in commodities. (Brodbeck 2009: 541) Neither a common value substance of commodities (abstract labor) nor money can be “derived” from the juxtaposition of random exchange processes. Indeed, if by chance two commodities are exchanged in different places by different persons, Brodbeck argues, then there are as many equations as there are places or exchange partners, and the question arises as to what then the same of all these equations is supposed to be as a third thing (substance). (Ibid: 542)
Marx here implicitly refers to the metaphysics of scholasticism, which calls two differentiated things identical with respect to an inherent substance, while they are in turn the same with respect to a Cartesian ego that discovers sameness in things. Marx speaks of sameness, but at the same time finds himself in the haze of scholasticism and its thesis of identical substance.
In addition, the logical break in Capital Vol.1 stated by Brodbeck and Heinrich would still have to be examined at this point, where Marx first examines the equation in the value-form analysis as an objective relation of two things, but then introduces the exchanging commodity owners A and B and shifts the categorical determination of the quantitative relation of commodities to the intersubjectivity of the exchange partners.
Brodbeck is correct in writing that nothing common or abstract can be discovered about the many concrete labors that could be something like a substance of his. The fact that abstract labor could in turn be located in the conext of the exchange processes of commodities in circulation does not appear in Brodbeck’s work in this context. We will come back to this later.
For Brodbeck, labor time is also not an abstract measure of labor; rather, at most, the concrete time of a concrete worker could be measured. But the difference between the various concrete works cannot be eliminated here either, for instance by having an external observer measure the working time with his watch. It is important to note that time measurement as a scientific project lacks, at least categorically, that social content which is supposed to be responsible for value and money. What is supposed to be abstract about work is, according to Brodbeck, owed solely to the calculation with money, which asserts itself on work as an external cost calculation.
In this, money makes everything equal, but does not distinguish whether it is a product developed by highly skilled labor as a design or a product made with simple manual labor. Moreover, the indifference of money does not refer to different processes of bringing forth products, but only to the goods that appear on the market. Their origin, according to Brodbeck, is ever already forgotten and therefore just indifferent. The indifference that can be read from money thus refers only to finished products. And if the calculation with money organizes the production (and not vice versa), and this with regard to the products to be sold first and thus transforms everything into costs, then the qualitative difference between labor and machine, raw material or service disappears as well.
Brodbeck’s criticism is apt at this point. One has noted similar criticisms in Marxist discussion as well, and like John Milios and Michael Heinrich, for example, has located abstract labor in circulation. Here, the comparison of concrete labor as homogeneous abstract labor takes place in the act of exchange, a quantity of given labor with money. In our opinion, however, the concept of abstract labor is only an auxiliary construction that Marx abandons after the first chapters in Capital. It is money that measures “abstract labor” in the markets, at which point, namely that of circulation, the concept itself becomes superfluous.
The term abstract labor, moreover, often seems to be identified with a quantitative part of concrete labor, that which is produced under average conditions of production, for whose product there is a demand and which contributes to production in a certain sense. One cannot measure this before the market and therefore abstract labor has no determinate existence. At most, abstract labor has a temporal dimension, but this cannot be measured unless one assumes that abstract labor equals concrete labor, which cannot be true. This in turn leads to the conclusion that abstract labor cannot be quantitatively implanted in lower levels of abstraction a fortiori. Geert Reuten has referred to this).
In labor-value Marxism the relation to an ontology of concrete labor is torn, which, in the relation of wage labor to capital is always only abstracted, as if we were dealing with an original in the so-called concrete labor and not ever already with determinations, segmentations and stratifications of the processes of production within the framework of capitalist reproduction. (There is an interpenetration between the concrete and the abstract that leaves both terms undefined in some sense. As Hegel has shown, what is called the most concrete is often the most abstract, vice versa). Labor, invented in the game of production-technical transfers and translations, insofar as it is subordinated to the notion of labor power and to it complementary processes generating surplus value. It becomes dynamis or living potentiality only when a techne or technology of transforming labor-power into labor accesses it, that is, the economic system relies here on something it invents itself, without ever being able to symbolize the difference between labor and labor-power that leads to the concept of surplus value, or, finally, without even having to do so. (Cf. Lenger 2004: 131f.)
In this context, what could abstract labor as a kind of socio-economic formation mean at all, if one does not want to completely abandon the term abstract labor? In this context, one should reject from the outset, with Deleuze, any essentialist attempt to misunderstand form, for instance, as a container for matter; rather, matter itself is always already pregnant with a variety of morphogenetic capacities, it is already structured matter, with which it is able to produce differentiated forms out of itself. Forms are not added to matter out of nowhere, but they are formed along physicality, so to speak as an intrinsic component of matter, they are to be understood as relational and plastic or topological, forming and structuring a material network or gestalt of the functions of forces, which in turn permeate further media and are devoid of specific qualities and relate to the adequacy of a problem. In this context, Deleuze/Guattari undertake a shift of the normally reciprocally related concepts of content and form when they ascribe a form and a substance to both content and expression, so that one can say, for example, that with respect to content, the factory as a form of content requires workers as a substance of content, while labor law as a form of statement requires the qualification of labor as the subject of statements (Cf. Deleuze/Guattari 1992: 121f.) And thus it becomes clear that we are dealing with a double process of formation, on the one hand of statements that appear in the fields of sayability, on the other hand of material structures and processes that define fields of visibility in which things or objects appear as reflections or as traces of light. (Deleuze 1987: 75) Marx situated the concept of form in the context of theoretical modes of describing a historical object, the structural process of formation or formation of relations, signifiers, and objects in capitalism itself.1 At this point, one could finally add Luhmann’s or Peter Fuchs’s systems theory, according to which social reality does not imply a simple form, but always a two-sided form in the sense of distinguished distinctions, which in turn refer to further distinctions and thereby always make designations of their object that leave other aspects of the object undetermined or unconsidered, whereby each unit thus established can only be designated by further distinctions. (Cf. Fuchs 2001: 79) Following these theoretical approaches, value-form and capital analysis implies a flooding, mediatized change of form that is not to be sketched primarily as the circulation of fixed units, but which records the translations by which commodities, money, and capital fluctuate, and this is indicated by the structurality or resonance of the terms to each other themselves indicated, up to the relations of virtualization/updating in which capitals process, insofar as both components are unavoidable in order to bring something conceptually into the light. In capitalism, any solidification into entities is obstructive to the structural process until the process finally dominates the structure, i.e., capital would at least potentially be inscribed as absolute movement, whereby its respective fixations, inscribed in the terms of the real economy, may be regarded as temporally and factually limited. (Cf. Schwengel 1977: 209)
By further shifting the form/content problem, insofar as we are not dealing with a content that is simply expressed in a form, Deleuze/Guattari assume, together with Marx, that determinations of form always possess a medial character (statement), so that even so-called abstract labor as a form of social labor ever already undergoes a play of medialized differences, which develops further in translations, transplantations, and displacements and itself already indicates production as one of the instances of differences. Thus, the capital fixe is characterized precisely by the fact that means of production function purely as capital in their form, in that they are at the same time connected to the body of labor as specific “materiality,” but what is ultimately decisive is not the production process, but the process of exploitation with its respective technological and living components, which are subsumed under capital from the material-formal side. That materiality is the hardware of the production process itself, which today, however, is always controlled by software according to monetary capitalization, i.e. algorithms and mathemes of the machine programs that modulate and regulate the operational organization as a medially generated period in the economy. (And we assume, in the context of the problematic of formation described above, that a “measuring measure” is involved here, which formats social reality by producing it, but this always also as fiction, because the immanent measure of abstract labor itself has no value and thus, as self-excluding immanence, does not belong to itself. incidentally, the measured measure, which quantifies/captures states qua statistics, would also have to be examined for its fictional character.2) Thus, of course, the so-called concrete labor, similar to the consumption of raw materials, is to be understood as a kind of additive that passes through specific determinations of form in order to finally stick to the products and the productions. (Cf. Lenger 2004: 129) The so-called determinations of form of abstract labor, on the other hand, are always to be located beyond the operational organization, insofar as abstract labor passes through all determinations of form successively and simultaneously on the level of total capital, in order to finally be able to give off the so-called immanent measure – as distributability of – which, in the categorical setting of the economy, rather suggests a lack of determination that thoroughly subverts any pragmatics, semantics, and statistics of abstract labor. We are dealing here with the question of the unity of a measure for which Marx proposes (abstract) labor time. Social change of form, however, in capitalism ever already refers to monetary utilization, it possesses a content component (social metabolism of products that are passed on), and a propositional component, insofar as the semio-economic structure is necessary to realize production/circulation in the first place, whereby every monetary flow of an expected income is designated as a candidate for capitalization, which, moreover, beyond the so-called sphere of the economic today potentially extends to every aspect of the social.
Which part of the so-called concrete labor attains social objective validity/appearance as abstract labor is always decided on the level of total capital and the differential accumulation explicating it, the competition of plural capitals. And it constantly actualizes potential parts in curved and gravitational spacetime structures of capitalist economy, in that commodities as results of capital “realize” themselves in circulation, and this cannot be captured by a description of capitalist production processes alone. Only the simultaneous consideration of the circulation of money and capital at that level of total capital makes it possible to think of the realization of commodities or the ongoing completion of capital metamorphoses, in which context abstract labor is not a property of human labor per se, but rather the medial-formal of an indirect socialization under the conditions of private capitalist production. How the products of individual capitals undergo adaptation to a socially valid measure in circulation always has to do with questions of the actualization/virtualization of capital, with that differential machinization of money and capital that takes place at different times and in different spaces as processes of structuration and restructuring. This does not at all mean that value now finds something like its final cause in circulation, because of course circulation does not produce value, rather socially necessary labor time is affirmed ex post in circulation. If real exchange, i.e. circulation, is taken into account and if it is true for it that it is quasi-value-creating, in that it sets value, without being able to completely replace the creation of value in production, then its “productive” character comes into view.3 And when Marx speaks of capital originating in circulation and not in circulation (MEW 23: 180), then an indeterminacy is alluded to, which also grasps the concept of abstract labor and keeps it open in view of differential accumulation, because it can always only be shown a posteriori in circulation what has been realized in the formation of value.
Let us now discuss in more detail some Marxist positions on the concept of abstract labor. Dieter Wolf has made a seemingly quite differentiated attempt to break down the concept of abstract labor, namely, a) as a nominal abstraction – abstract labor as a general property of all concrete human labor, and this conceived in universal historical terms, (b) as the problem of the distribution of total labor occurring in any social formation, and (c) as a real-abstraction affirmed by the non-intentional actions of actors who establish an abstract context in exchange, which implies that “individual, concrete labors receive their social-general form in the form of abstract labor.” (Cf. Wolf 2013d) We are primarily interested here in the third definition, since the previous two definitions map onto the labor ontology prevalent in Marxist orthodoxy, which both logically and historically posits abstract labor as a fundamental principle. Moreover, for Dieter Wolf abstract labor is considered the historically specific form of capital (Wolf 2002: 72ff.), when it finally proves to be socially necessary or relevant to capital through the structure of exchange. However, Kurz’ objection against Wolf is valid here, because he argues in a circulation-ideological way by referring to the a posteriori of exchange and underestimating that the specifically social form of abstract labor is already presupposed, insofar as it cannot be thought at all without the quasi-transcendental and at the same time material total complexion of capital, which imposes itself as a differential movement in production and circulation on all strategies and actions of the individual capitals. Nevertheless, Kurz’ concept of abstract labor also remains peculiarly truncated, transforming in the twinkling of an eye Wolf’s or Heinrich’s circulation-oriented argumentation into a substance-logical foundation of abstract labor.
The labor-time spent for the production of commodities has to be realized in capitalism in a specific social way, in a significant process, that of money-commodity transactions in circulation, i.e., to be “translated” into so-called average abstract time, but capital as total capital always remains presupposed. The tendency toward averaging prices in circulation, in which what necessarily counts as socially abstract labor is revealed, always remains related in the account to the quasi-transcendental dimension of capital as a total complexion, as if currently fixed price magnitudes resulted from presupposed value magnitudes. (Strauß 2013: 191) If theoretical representation operates in the medium of “as-if,” then it indeed seems a mystery to embark on a search for the price magnitudes of presupposed quanta of value. In this context, the category of socially necessary, abstract labor time represents something like a general and yet unmeasurable norm of capital, which is at the same time the result of the productions, expenditures, operations and strategies of individual capitals, each of which already takes place within the framework of a differential accumulation process sliding through the corrections of competition on the level of total capital, which is presupposed for the strategies of individual capitals and according to which the individual capitals must incessantly and inexorably orient themselves. If an enterprise wants to survive, it is therefore not only forced to produce commodities representing use-value and to offer them on the markets (products of private labor that do not meet with social demand, because either other products have already met it or the demand is not solvent, cannot be realized), but at the same time it must also ensure, that its own production and circulation time, its own turnover time, tends to at least coincide with the general temporal norm of total capital, if not to undercut it; indeed, the times of the enterprise must be permanently condensed both in terms of production and circulation/realization, and therein consists, above all, the so-called creative performance of the entrepreneur, which Schumpeter recommended to him in such a grandiose way. A certain quantity of concretely material labor of all individual capitals, which should always result in profit-generating commodities, delivers within a given time interval potentially a value-conditioned total labor time in an economy (potentially, insofar as the products must also be sold on the markets, so that we are always dealing with the virtualization of a totality of physical product quantities), which Marx – under the conceptual constraint of assuming value quanta – assumes to be constant with respect to the duration as well as to the value quantity, in order to make the following definitions with it: (a) the magnitude of value is always measured in labor-time as a liquid form of price, so to speak, (b) the magnitude of value is set as constant at the level of total capital in a given period. (Cf. Bahr 1983: 432) And it remains to be noted that Marx assumes a given (physical) production structure in a given time interval, although it would be precisely necessary to show how the modulation of the parameters of the production processes controlled by money and capital also constantly changes the techno-physical production structure. Contrary to Marx’s representation, the virtuality of abstract total labor by no means indicates a fixed quantity, insofar as “virtuality” is constantly actualized via the enterprises competing on the markets and their time policies. Nevertheless, the conceptual representation proceeds as if the currently necessary social labor time would only be re-updated via the virtualization of value, as if it had already provided the indisputable basis of every price formation in the past, whereby actualization of commodities is, however, always produced by overlapping, blending and superimposing frequencies of infinite market events (purchases and sales), which, in turn, have an effect on the production processes, in order to initiate the next frequency-based thrusts of purchases and sales of commodities. All in all, we are dealing here with non-linear concatenations of transactions in multidimensional networks of capital, per shifting differentials. Thus, the concept of abstract labor aims at a mediated form of socialization or encoding. Nils Fröhlich tries to depict this with a simple formalization (albeit with a strong emphasis on the quantitative-circulation-theoretical aspect): “Let K be the quantity of all concretely expended labor (measured in hours), then the quantity A is that subset of K which is accepted in exchange as socially equal labor, i.e., A μ K. The total social value quantity of A therefore symbolizes the sum of all values that result from the social acts of exchange. A is not a true subset of K, because there is the possibility of identity between the two quantities. But since there is no determinant relation between the two quantities within production, this possibility cannot be systematically ensured.” (Fröhlich 2013: 28) The possibility of identity between concrete and abstract labor exists here only as a purely formal and extremely improbable possibility; there exists no rule whatsoever that would allow the two quantities to be mapped onto each other, to which we must add that with the realization of commodities individual labor times are “virtually annihilated” (Strauß 2013: 329).
At this point, we should again keep in mind that Marx subjected his various theoretical plans, his philosophical or his political statements, indeed his economic concepts to a constant shift and critique, one could even say, with Derrida, to a non-terminable deconstruction. Balibar speaks at this point of Marx’s work as a construction site, of a continuous process of rectification that at times would have anticipated not only certain conclusions but also still the critique of these conclusions, so that at this point it is necessary to speak of an ethics of the scientist and the revolutionary. (Cf. Balibar 2013: 177) And so it is not surprising that Marx’s concept of labor sometimes flickers and shimmers strangely, and this not only in the sense of an “intrinisic iridescence” (ibid.: 193) that stands for an open problematic of transformations, extrapolations, and redefinitions in the theory, but also in the sense of an unprocessed legacy of references to one’s own and other theoretical approaches, which of course virtually invites the most ambivalent interpretations. In stark contrast to Marx’s practice of a permanent relativization even of the concept of labor, the social-democratic and Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy has strictly attempted to distill an ontology of labor from Marx’s writings, which, through all social formations, allows labor to flash up as the essence and/or as the basis of the possibility of an appearance of world and, at the same time, holds it as an ontic third, whereas, conversely, Marx had often enough declared that labor simply does not exist at all without taking into account the specific form determinations of capital. Here, to speak with Hans-Joachim Lenger of labor sans phrase, about which nothing can be said, would indeed have become speechless, precisely sans phrase, for the concept of labor staggers around in the rift of the symbolic itself, traverses all the opposites and contradictions of capital, of course the dialectical contradictions. And because the concept of labor itself cannot be subjected to any metaphysics, it traverses all oppositions of inside and outside, and sans phrase labor remains precisely not symbolizable or expressible via the value form. (Cf. Lenger 2004: 130) Instead, by making the symbolic explicit in money, the latter confronts not only all other expressions, but also itself as an expression, whereby money posits itself both as a means and as an end in order to inscribe itself into the economic system via concatenations as magnification, and at exactly this point labor invents itself as it is invented, and in this the difference of labor power, whose exchange value is exchanged equivalently and whose use value qua labor produces non-equivalence, finally proves to be decisive, money becomes surplus money. The money-symbol settles on labor sans phrase and thus, inside the relation money-more-money, a concealed difference will have to be discovered, namely that between labor-power and labor.
Capital-necessary labor-time possesses a second dimension besides the one presented so far, and this dimension refers to all criteria for the recording of the so-called concrete (productive) labor itself, with which the attempt is made to fix an average labor qualification both within a company and on a macroeconomic level. With respect to both levels, the first question that arises in the context of intersectoral and intrasectoral competition is whether it is really possible to compare, to a certain extent, the concrete work performed in each of the different enterprises, which depends on components such as motivation, qualification, competence, intensity and technology. The specific degree of individual labor input in terms of its economic effectiveness is influenced, for example, by the parameter “intensity of the expenditure of labor”, which of course presupposes that, with regard to the signification of a capital-necessary labor time, one can specify a given dimension of the quality or complexity level of labor in each case, the so-called “simple average labor”, as the basis for the different degrees of complicated labor. Capital-necessary labor input then means expenditure of labor power in a given period of production with socially average productivity and intensity, which implies a specific relation of simple and complex labor, and that in so far as this relation is simultaneously objectified in a macroeconomically proportioned extent in the production of corresponding goods. What is given as the respective technologically, calculatively and organizationally average level of labor in an enterprise and what overdetermines the socially necessary average working time is determined not only by internal factors (enterprises as an organization) but also by specific external parameters, such as effective demand, development of productive forces, science/research, by the power relations and balance of forces between enterprises and finally in class struggles. (The class struggle intervenes here in a specific way, as the qualification of the labor force, the cooperation of workers in their relation to factory discipline, and the antagonistic relation between workers and management is always at stake, which is permanently shifted by the class struggle, so that both sides, capital and labor, are involved – on the one hand in the struggle over the relations between absolute and relative surplus value production, where e. g. for example, a fought-for shortening of the working day has implications for labor organization and technological innovation, while on the other side sabotage and struggle against factory discipline are at least latently on the agenda). And regardless of whether it is unqualified or qualified labor, so-called concrete labor must not only be realized in the distribution channels of capital, but concrete labor is ever already “identified” as part of the quasi-transcendental total complexion of capital qua permanent qualification, education, etc., and this before an hour of qualified labor is considered to be many times that of unqualified labor. In the distribution networks of capital, against the background of the quasi-transcendental complexion, it must finally turn out which quantity of the concrete labor of an individual capital presents itself as socially average, abstract labor, or, to put it in other words, how much of the concretely spent labor-time of an enterprise turns out to be socially “necessary” and thus relevant, abstract labor-time. The doubled (external and internal) flow of productive forces determines prices, so to speak, insofar as it “fixes” the constantly changing divisor by which the quantity of products created per unit of time is to be divided, in order thereby to obtain, among other things, the share of an enterprise in the currently relevant total abstract labor time of capital allotted to a respective quantity of products. This process, described as a process, contains a purely fictional story in economics, namely that of a flowing dynamic equilibrium, which is supposed to correspond to an intelligibility principle of capital, an effect which, as can be assumed, Marx did not only conceive as a fiction, but as an objective illusion, and used as a presupposition, which pervades the real and the imaginary, within the framework of the conceptual mode of representation of capital (simultaneity as a newspaper of time, which takes place qua averaging in time). Following on from this, it can perhaps be summarized quite dryly with Georg Quaas that at the level of individual capital its socially recognized, valid value creation is ultimately always identical with the market prices of its output, i.e., that mass of value of an enterprise is conformed on the market for which there is a solvent demand on the basis of an average or above-average productivity performance of the enterprise. (Cf. Quaas 2005: 5) However, it turns out that “at any moment” the structure of the distribution of society’s total labor among the various branches of production is by no means identical with the structure of aggregate solvent demand. At least it can be said at this point that the quasi-transcendental and material total complex of capital and its immanent displacement mechanism, which consists in the differential accumulation of plural capitals proceeding not only by the creation of average sizes but also by the composition of extra profits, cannot be understood without factors such as (objective) productivity difference, effective demand, power relations, and technology, and at the same time, in this unstable fixation, we are always dealing with consequences of social struggles over the distribution of goods and services.
In Marxist discussion, especially since the writings of Sohn-Rethel, a heated debate has flared up about whether the concept of abstract labor should rather be tied to the mechanisms of circulation/exchange (Rubin, Heinrich, etc.), or be substantively located in the context of the pure expenditure of labor energy in capitalist production processes (Kurz), or even be determined as a specific form of wage labor. Karl Reitter, who advocates the latter position, cites some relevant passages by Marx and others from the Grundrisse to support his own point of view. (Cf. Reitter 2012: 54ff.) In an oft-cited passage, Marx describes value as the result of abstract labor, which here corresponds to a general, unqualified, flexible and simple consummation of labor, i.e., abstract labor is considered absolutely indifferent “to its particular determinateness, (but is) capable of any determinateness.” (MEW42: 218) According to Reitter, the fact of a universal applicability of the human labor capacity, which would correspond to the possibility of frictionless transition from one labor to another, and this precisely as a specific expression of the proletarian situation of existence under capitalism, constitutes a necessary condition for capital valorization, whereby this kind of “indifference” of the expenditure of mere labor under capitalism could be defined as characteristic of abstract labor (the content – of labor – is indifferent to the respective form, just as the form is indifferent to the content, whereby the terms are mutually abstract). Reitter understands the term indifference, moreover, entirely in terms of Marx’s concept of alienation, which means nothing other than that the form of abstract labor appears indifferent to the interests of the worker also insofar as it confronts him as an external and alien power (of capital), whereby he remains compelled to work despite his negative solipsism governing himself (he is not interested in the content of labor), i.e. no matter what the content of labor is. (Reitter 2011: 55) To illustrate the smooth transition from one labor to another, a large part of Marx’s reading – like Reitter – repeatedly refers to the introduction in the Critique of Political Economy, which Marx himself rejected. Here Marx writes: “Indifference to a certain kind of labor presupposes a very developed totality of real kinds of labor, none of which is any longer the all-dominating one. Thus the most general abstractions arise at all only in the richest concrete development, where one thing appears common to many, common to all. Then it ceases to be able to be thought only in a special form. On the other hand, this abstraction of work in general is not only the intellectual result of a concrete totality of works. The indifference to the particular labor corresponds to a form of society in which the individuals pass with ease from one labor to another and the particular kind of labor is accidental to them, therefore indifferent. Here labor has become not only in category but in reality as a means of creating wealth in general, and has ceased to be intergrown as a destiny with the individuals in a particularity. Such a condition is most developed in the most modern mode of existence of bourgeois societies – the United States. Here, then, the abstraction of the category ‘labor,’ ‘labor at all,’ labor sans phrase, the starting point of modern economics, first becomes practically true. The simplest abstraction, then, which places modern economy at the head and which expresses an ancient relation valid for all forms of society, nevertheless appears practically true only in this abstraction as the category of the most modern society.” (MEW 42: 38f.) It looks as if Marx, with the concept of real abstraction, which he implicitly uses in this passage, wants to put an end to the fear that the concept of abstract labor could remain without any referent, so that he finally makes empiricism or the historical development of capitalism the referent, in such a way that he claims that the empirically observable dequalification or simplicity of work, which implies an “easy” and smooth transition from one work to another (which, by the way, is actually praised to us today as flexibilization and mobility by letting the conglomerate of precariat, working poor, and skilled blue- and white-collar workers float freely in the labor markets to approximate the state of precarious full employment or full-time activity), would offer something like a characteristic equality for all work, namely the one by which it could be qualified precisely as abstract labor. (Cf. Bahr 1983: 418f.) Moreover, abstract labor is also supposed to be labor par excellence, which Wolf, for example, addresses with his transhistorical nominal definition of abstract labor.
The attempt made by Reitter and other authors to assign so-called simple or minimum-skilled labor in its definition as “average labor” (where mainly the fluid and flexible change from one labor to another is meant) to the concept of abstract labor without circumstance must fail, however, because these admittedly often extremely simple, monotonous labors are always specific partial moments, classifications and compositions of the so-called “concrete labor”. concrete labor, which is also permanently modified and modulated precisely because of the logic of the differential accumulation processes of capital and a number of other micro- and macroeconomic factors as well as techne. And it should be added that in the Grundrisse Marx himself is still subject to the condemnation of having carried out the mixing of concrete labor and abstract, form-determined labor that the classical economists were later accused of in the context of Capital and the surplus-value theories. Reitter, who describes the so-called abstraction of labor as a historical tendency of capitalism that incessantly increases with the dynamics of capital accumulation, tries to escape this mixing with the not at all surprising remark that this kind of abstraction is ultimately due to the figure of reduction, namely the reduction of labor to the purely physiological expenditure of muscle, nerve, and brain, etc., and this happens in very real terms according to the imperatives of capital valorization. (Cf. Reitter 2012: 54f.) Incidentally, a similar conclusion is reached by Robert Kurz, who sees in the mere expenditure of human energy the real “substance of abstract labor,” the quantification of which is time itself, in which precisely human labor energy is expended. (Kurz 2012: 47) The recognition of privately expended labor as general-abstract labor in exchange, however, does not take place via time, but via money as a measure, Kurz claims, contradicting at least Michael Heinrich, although with Harald Strauß it should be added that this recognition of labor in circulation in the course of the realization of commodities is accompanied precisely by an erasure of individual labor times.
That it should depend on the pure disposal of labor assets or labor energy, purely on the possibility of their expenditure, this is true for Kurz or Reitter only within capitalist relations of production themselves. Insofar as use-value and concretely useful labor refer to each other, of course, from the perspective of a social production for use-values, a performance of labor in itself, purely as the expenditure of muscle, brain and nerve, etc., appears as a social absurdity sui generis. However, it is easy to understand that both Reitter and Kurz here only follow the mixture of abstract labor with an ultimately naturalistic view of labor, which can be found in not a few passages in Marx, as, by the way, can also be found in a completely different way in Wolf, who presents the mere expenditure of labor power as muscle, nerve, and brain, etc., without further ado as a description of a transhistorical social (and thus at least encourages an ontologization of the concept of labor), but in doing so offers a threefold fanned-out concept of abstract labor.
It remains, as Hans-Dieter Bahr has shown, Marx’s “dialectical” conceptual step, which is supposed to lead to a correct determination of abstract labor, nevertheless strangely wavering: with the “abstraction” from the usefulness of commodities, i.e. With the “abstraction” from the usefulness of commodities, i.e., their use-value, the diversity and multiplicity of the concrete compositions of living labor disappears at the same time, and what remains is abstract human labor, with which a rather shrewd Marx does nothing else than to separate or ab-stract from the teleological the telic (the use of things or the too), in order to thus advance to the purely logical determination of equality. (Bahr 1983: 417) Work, without explicitly focusing on the telic moment, is thus, from a logical point of view, reduced to pure energy of work, to purely physiological expenditure of muscle, nerve, and brain, and so on. This kind of abstraction, which here leads to equality, is at the same time supposed to express the indifference of real (abstract) labor in capitalism to any content, and moreover, it is also supposed to present labor as an eternal condition of nature. (Ibid.: 418) With this understanding of abstract labor, a subtraction procedure is applied (subtracted from the usefulness and multiplicity of labor) that wants to advance to equality, which hardly corresponds to the definition we gave earlier, “abstraction related to value,” value whose virtual or indeterminate dimension first assigns its place to abstraction. The decisive economic significance of abstract labor in capitalism lies neither in the definition “expenditure of pure labor energy” nor in the statement that today we are dealing with an enormous, real existing fluidity and flexibility of labor, but precisely in a symptomatology of capital that is generally withdrawn from labor and its specifically techno-algebraic forms (mathemes), which nestle within the quasi-transcendental total complexion of the capitalist economy and give so-called abstract labor its place or place value in the economy. In this process, it is money as capital that controls all the transmission paths of abstract labor equal to the return of money to itself. According to Marx, all these mediating movements disappear in the result and leave no traces behind, but labor can only be grasped at all as a differential trace, which thus cannot be grasped by any expressiveness of the forms of value, so that a further shift is necessary here, a transfer or translation that refers to the transformation of labor power into labor. In it, the difference between exchange value and use value of labor power becomes the object of possible exploitation, whose actual movens, however, is money as capital, from which the movement qua money starts and to which it returns not circularly as money, but spirally with more money. Labor remains the trace of a difference, the difference of exchange value and use value of labor power, it is thus neither use value nor exchange value and insofar it is a nothing and therefore not a first or transcendental, but one of the productions in and with which the capitalist economy reproduces itself when it integrates and uses it in the above difference. (Cf. Lenger 2004: 352)

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