Abstract Labor, the Substance of Value: Work-as-Social-Control
Chapter One of Volume I of Capital was organized by Marx, as has often been noted, in the manner of Hegel’s Science of Logic, proceeding from the abstract to the more concrete (more concrete in the sense of more determinations). At the same time it is worth noting that Marx’s step-by-step, methodical exposition of his theory – in “the manner of a school text-book” – was chosen so that anyone could understand, including “young people, etc., who are thirsting for knowledge.”10 Whereas in the beginning of his Logic, Hegel strips down being to discover nothingness, and then reconciles the two in the dialectical moment of becoming, Marx’s initial dissection of commodities – concrete use-values, produced by various kinds of labor for exchange – leads not to nothingness but to labor in the abstract. As Sweezy, Meek and many others have noted, Marx argues that we can meaningfully abstract from the concrete forms of labor and see abstract labor as the substance of value. He then goes on to analyze in section two the measure of value and in section three, the form of value. Although most Marxists have been content to accept the logic of Marx’s argument, the key question for me has been what semantic sense does it make to abstract labor from its various, concrete forms? The traditional answer, contained in those passages of Marx cited by Sweezy and Meek, points to the malleability of labor under capitalism, to the ever changing array of labor tasks and associated redistribution of workers among them and suggests that if, over time, the particular content of labor is increasingly secondary then it makes sense to speak of labor abstracted from that changing content. But in what sense is it secondary? Clearly there are some important passages in Capital where the particular content of labor is vitally important to Marx’s analysis.
In Chapters 12-15 of Volume I of Capital, for example, repeated alterations in the technical composition – the shop floor arrangement of workers, tools, machines, and raw materials – are shown to have been historically essential in maintaining or regaining control over the working class. Moreover, “control” means, above all, the ability to keep people working. Although the capitalist class has historically exercised many other kinds of control – some violently coercive, e.g., wars of conquest, slavery, beating, gassing or shooting workers on strike, torture and rape in police stations, prisons and mental hospitals, some more subtle, e.g., the mechanisms of cultural and political hegemony that preoccupied Gramsci, the Frankfort School theorists, the Situationists and many others – the overwhelmingly dominant form of control, around which all others are organized, the form of control that eats up most of most people’s time and energy, is work. Both how people are forced to give up most of their time and energy to working for capital and the particular kinds of work people have been forced to do have been extremely important, but the how has been a means to an end and the kinds of work have been secondary to the mere fact of working. All forms of concrete labor, skilled or unskilled, complex or simple, serve the same basic purpose within capitalism: they provide the fundamental means by which capital organizes, controls and dominates people’s time and thus society. All kinds of labor eat up people’s lives, or as Marx liked to put it in Gothic terms: capital “vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor”. Moreover, capital doesn’t just suck some “living labor”; it sucks as much as it has the power to suck and in the process sucks the stuff of life itself: time and energy. During periods when it has succeeded in expanding its power, it has imposed more and more work – see Marx’s detailed history in Section Five of Chapter Ten of Capital on the working day (where his “vampire-like” comment can be found), or his analysis of the expansion of colonialism. Perhaps more to the point today are the contemporary efforts by capital to reverse decades of success by workers at reducing work by imposing longer and more intense working hours, on the job and off. This is why I say Marx’s labor theory of value is a theory of the value of labor to capital.
To those Marxists who have traditionally argued that the value of labor to capital is the production of commodities that can be sold at such prices as to realize a surplus value or profit, I respond as follows. “Yes, but as some capitalist ideologists, e.g., Irving Kristol in his Two Cheers for Capitalism (1978), and many socially and politically aware capitalists have recognized, in a well-functioning, growing economy where capitalists are in firm command, the primary role of profit is the re-imposition and expanded imposition of work, or, in the terms Marx uses in Chapter 25 of Volume I of Capital: the expanded reproduction of the class relation.” Clearly the realization of surplus value is a necessary condition for the continued imposition of any concrete labor (or set of concrete labors) and thus for the continued realization of value tout court, i.e., of labor-as-social-control. Moreover, as Marx wrote at the beginning of Section Two of Chapter Ten of Capital, “Capitalism did not invent surplus labor.” Obviously, earlier dominant classes imposed work on subservient classes – slaves, serfs, etc. – that went beyond what they had to do for their own survival. What then did it invent? His answer: the endless imposition of labor. Whereas in earlier class societies the amount of surplus labor was limited by the particular concrete work requirements of the masters, e.g., a pyramid for a pharaoh, a temple for a Greek religious cult, a castle for a feudal lord, in capitalism the imposition of work and the realization of value and surplus value goes on endlessly, as long as the system manages to survive. As capital commodifies more and more of life, as it converts more and more human activities into commodity producing, value producing, and surplus-value producing labor, as it sets part of that labor to converting ever more chunks of non-human Nature into mere resources for processing by more labor, as it turns even unwaged activities, e.g., home life and school life, into the work of producing and reproducing the commodity labor power (the ability and willingness to work for capital), it turns society – first local and regional, then national and continental, and finally global – into one giant work-machine, organized according to its own logic.
But as we all should know, the entire history of the construction of this global work-machine has simultaneously been a history of resistance to the imposition of capitalist work and to the logic of its organization, of revolt against the exploitation it requires and against the alienations it produces and of revolutionary struggles to free life from the endless subordination to work in order to gain space, time and energy to elaborate alternatives. Thus the class relations of capitalism have always been antagonistic relations and because work has been the fundamental form of domination the struggle against work has always been at the heart of resistance, rebellion and the search for autonomy – no matter the particular content of the autonomy sought in particular struggles.
The labor theory of value, as formulated by Marx as a theory of the value of labor to capital provides a theory that captures both labor as the substance of capitalist domination and many of the characteristics of the antagonistic class relations it imposes and seeks to maintain. In Chapter 1 Marx’s exposition assumes capital’s dialectical relationships are well managed and stable. But, as he points out later in Chapter 3 of Volume I of Capital, these relationships have the possibility of being ruptured. In the case of the dialectic of “abstract labor” rupture would involve stripping various kinds of human activity of their common usefulness to capital as a means of social control.11
Piecemeal, such ruptures occur every time people engage in activities, either on the job or off, that do not contribute to the expanded reproduction of the social relationships of capital. So, for example, when the workers in 18th Century London shipyards diverted their woodworking skills to “scraps” of lumber they appropriated on the job to make things they could use at home, or sell, or when, in the 20th Century, workers in the Red Star Tractor Factory in Budapest used their machines to make “homers” for similar purposes, those activities ruptured the capitalist appropriation of their skills, energy and time as means of social control.12 When students sitting in class rooms ignore their professors while carrying on text-message conversations with their friends, or shirk their homework in favor of pursuing their real intellectual agenda, they are rupturing the production of labor power and capitalist control over their lives.
Collectively, workers obviously rupture expanded reproduction when they go on strike. Students do the same when they walk out of or shut down schools. And the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism would abolish the material grounds of the concept of “abstract labor” entirely and reduce the meaning of the word “work” to its vernacular sense of putting out a lot of effort. Human activities would continue to exist in all their variety but there would no longer be any reason to lump those activities (that currently fit Marx’s definition of “labor/work” within capitalism) under a single rubric.13
The Measure of Value
As indicated above, in the discussion of Sweezy and Meek’s treatment of the labor theory of value, as in many earlier orthodox treatments, the central problem of measurement was believed to be that posed by the existence of varying levels of skill among different workers and of varying levels of complexity in different jobs. Given my interpretation of the meaning of abstract labor as the substance of value, i.e., as the particular attribute of labor as vehicle of social control, their problem is not one I share. If the substance of value is the mere fact of working for capital and thereby being under its control, then from this point of view, an hour of socially necessary labor, simple or complex, skilled or unskilled, serves the same social and political purpose. Why “socially necessary”? Because when the value of labor to capital is its value as a vehicle of social control and domination, then the value of any particular product to capital is the amount of labor it can impose in its production. Concretely, that amount varies from production unit to production unit, according to varying levels of labor skill and productivity, so for capital at the social level of the class relation (as opposed to mere local worker-capitalist ones) it is the average time labor that can be imposed in producing some commodity that measures its value to capital as a whole. Recognizing this leads to some reinterpretation of other aspects of his theory.
First, as mentioned above, in Chapters 12-15 of Volume I of Capital, the strategy of relative surplus value, driven by working class success in forcing down the working day through the rupture of some particular composition of class power, plays out through capitalist investments in changing the technical (and thus organic) composition of production, e.g., introducing new machines, in order to raise the productivity of useful labor. The results, when successful, are first, the reduction of the per unit value of output, and second, through this, a reduction in the value of labor power and rise in the rate of exploitation. Now, please note: for capital the reduction of the per unit value of some product means a reduction in the average amount of work that can be imposed (abstract labor) to produce each unit and therefore a reduction in the opportunities to use the production of that product as a vehicle for imposing work and social control.
Second, even further along – in Volume III of Capital – we find Marx arguing that this strategy of raising the organic composition of capital and, in the process, reducing the amount of work that can be imposed to produce each unit of output undermines the class relationship itself, which is, after all, based on the imposition of work. As this strategy comes to be applied in production process after production process, in industry after industry, the problem of finding the means to impose work, and the social control it provides, becomes greater and greater. Solving it requires all kinds of off-setting innovations such as the creation of new products (and new production processes) – and therefore new opportunities to impose labor. It hardly matters if the new products contribute only very marginal advantages over existing ones or if they are downright detrimental to the general welfare; as long as they provide profitable new opportunities to impose work, their production helps keep people busy and the system growing.
This contradiction – between the way capital organizes society and the way this strategy undermines its ability to impose that organization – has not been merely theoretical but has become manifest at several different moments in the history of capitalism.
One such moment, within the United States, was in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the rapid spread of automation in manufacturing led economists and other policy makers to worry about where the jobs were to going to be found to maintain the full employment mandated by the working class and judged necessary to avoid the kind of social upheaval prompted by the high unemployment of the 1930s.14 The solution that emerged in the 1960s was the rise of the service sector, whose low levels of productivity provided great opportunities for imposing work. Inevitably, of course, the same dynamic has been developing in the service sector and, once again, undermining the usefulness of that sector as a domain in which lots of work can be imposed.
A second set of such moments in the 1960s that raised the same question arose in the South where the importation of capital intensive technologies in production failed to provide enough jobs to absorb rapid increases in urban populations brought on by rural enclosures on the one hand and by increased mechanization of agricultural production on the other. This problem haunted a generation of “development economists” as well as policy makers in the North fearful that the absence of jobs in the South would lead to political upheavals and mass migrations that would far outstrip the need for immigrant labor in the North. The “solution” in those cases, if it can be called a solution, was provided from below: the rise of the informal sector in which people have found myriad ways of surviving in cities without waged jobs.
A third such moment came with the high and persistent unemployment in the North that followed the Great Recession of the mid-1970s and the Carter-Volcker-Reagan Depression of the early 1980s that, in turn, triggered the international debt crisis and soaring unemployment in both North and South. The failure of the subsequent upturn in production to generate enough jobs to dramatically reduce unemployment resulted, on the one hand, in much debate among policy makers about “jobless recoveries”, and on the other hand, in an “end of work” literature that proliferated in the 1980s and 1990s.That literature included Andrés Gorz’s Adieux au Prolétariat (1980), Les Chemins du paradis (1983) and Métamorphoses du Travail (1988), Toni Negri’s Marx oltra Marx (1979), Jeremy Rifkin’s The End of Work (1995) and Stanley Aronowitz’s Jobless Future (1995). All of these works suggested that if capitalism could no longer impose enough work to guarantee most people income, then income should be increasingly divorced from jobs. Negri, who had already begun to critique the “law of value” in the early 1970s, portrayed these developments as being the historical realization of Marx’s prediction, in the Grundrisse’s “fragment on machines”, that the rising organic composition of capital would eventually undermine labor as the basis and measure of value.15
More recently Negri and his collaborators have argued that the undermining of labor as the basis and measure of value has occurred not because rising productivity has reduced labor to a secondary factor of production, but because the “new nature of work” makes it impossible to differentiate between work and non-work, and thus to measure the former. This argument has evolved through the elaboration of two concepts, one, “the general intellect”, plucked from the above mentioned “fragment on machines” and another, “immaterial labor”, designed to capture what are viewed as increasingly hegemonic forms of labor. This elaboration first unfolded in various issues of the French journal Future Antérieur in 1991-1992 and became central to a whole research agenda whose results have been published in subsequent issues of Future Antérieur, then in the journals Multitudes (2000- ), Luogo Comune (1990-1993) and Derive Approdi (1993- ) and in a whole series of books, including Christian Marazzi’s Il posto dei calzini (1994), Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s trilogy: Empire (2000), Multitudes (2004) and Commonwealth (2009), Paolo Virno’s Gramatica della moltitudine (2001), ) Yann Moulier-Boutang’s Le capitalisme cognitive (2007) and Virno’s Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation (2008).
In the “fragment on machines” Marx used the term “general intellect” to evoke all of the accumulated mental labor, scientific and technological, that was embodied in those machines that capital was increasingly using as part of its relative surplus value strategy to limit and control workers’ power.16 In the literature cited in the previous paragraph, this “general intellect” became a concept that denotes not only the product of scientific and technological mental labor but of other kinds of “immaterial labor” labor as well, such as affective labor, communicative labor, creative labor – pretty much all kinds of labor other than the manual sort said to have preoccupied Marx in the mid-19th Century. As these kinds of labor have become ever more central to the production of wealth in capitalist society – most obviously in the computer industry, in the production and commodification of information, in the various entertainment industries (television, film, computer games), in medical and financial services – “immaterial labor”, it is argued, has not only become hegemonic but has become virtually omnipresent in society. In this view, most clearly expressed by Negri in adapting yet another concept from Marx, capital has been achieving not only the “real subsumption of production”, i.e., the re-shaping of production according to its own needs, but has been achieving the “real subsumption of society”, i.e., reshaping of all of human activities as work that contributes to its expanded reproduction.
But, Negri et al argue, as all human activities are being subsumed by capital as work, it becomes impossible to distinguish work from non-work, “the division between work time and non-work time” breaks down. Under such conditions, he argues, appropriating a concept from Foucault, life becomes “biopolitical labor” and it becomes impossible to quantify and measure labor-that-produces-value (abstract labor) as something distinct from other human activity. Therefore, Negri has written, “When the time of life has entirely become the time of production . . . when exploitation has reached such dimensions, its measure becomes impossible.”17 Of course, Negri goes on to argue that under these conditions exploitation has not disappeared, it has simply been “thrown out of all economic measures; its economic reality becomes fixed in purely political terms.”18
This whole line of argument is clearly premised on an economic concept of labor value quite distinct from the kind of understanding I have laid out above in which the substance of labor value (abstract labor) is precisely its very political usefulness in providing the most fundamental vehicle of capitalist domination and control. From this point of view, the capitalist process of subsuming not only what we normally think of as production but of all kinds of other social activities has certainly involved an extension of capitalist power and control, but hardly an immeasurable one. Moreover, this process has been going on throughout the history of capitalism, but especially since workers began to succeed in forcing down the length of the official working day, e.g., the struggle between English workers and capitalists that Marx analyses in Part 6 of Chapter 10 of Volume I of Capital or much of the history of a parallel struggle in the United States laid out in David Roediger and Philip Foner, Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day (1989). Marx argued that it was precisely workers’ successes in these struggles that forced capital to shift the emphasis in its strategies of control from absolute surplus value to relative surplus value. What he failed to explore, but later generations of Marxists have explored, is how those successes also forced capital to colonize the time workers liberated from waged labor.
However, that colonization has been so studied by such a wide array of scholars, including Marxists, that it is a bit surprizing to read Negri and Hardt present the “subsumption of society” as essentially a Post-Fordist phenomenon of the age of Empire. To study the history of such colonization – and I prefer colonization to subsumption because colonization has always been resisted and has never been complete – is to see, among other things, that because capital has always been well aware of its own limits, it has always sought to measure the degree of subsumption achieved, and continues to do so. Those hired to conduct such measurements – from the managers of waged workers to government bureaucrats – are well aware that such measurement is neither easy nor very accurate. It is harder, for example, to measure the productivity of service labor than it is to measure the productivity of manufacturing labor.19 It is also harder to measure just how much time and energy is actually devoted to the reproduction of labor power in the home than it is to measure official working hours in factories, offices and fields. But even the latter has never been easy, given the heterogeneity of both labor and products, given the ambiguities involved in defining the use-values of commodities, e.g. to what degree does the use-value of a Mercedes lies in its ability to transport one from here to there, or in the status its mere possession accords its owner (or licensee) and given the endless, covert ways waged workers shirk on the job.
The concept of abstract labor, however, short-circuits these problems by seeing that regardless of the productivity of an hour of work time, that hour is an hour of life absorbed in the self-reproduction of capital and turned against workers as a vehicle of capital’s control over them. From this point of view, the capitalist preoccupation with measuring productivity lies in determining, as best it can, just how much control over people can be achieved through the imposition of various labor processes. This is true whether the labor processes involved are those of the factory, field or office, or those of the kitchen, bedroom or school. In the former, the capitalist preoccupation with measure is currently signaled by the pervasive spread of what are called “metrics”, i.e., this or that measure of work accomplished in a given period. But this preoccupation has also long haunted capital outside the domains of waged work.
Let me take just one example: schools. Ever since workers began to succeed in shortening the hours of waged work and extracting their children from mines and mills and factories, capital has succeeded all too well, to use Foucault’s terms, in incarcerating children in schools in order reduce their humanity to the willingness and ability to work for future employers. The school thus became a new terrain of class struggle where battles have been fought over the content of what goes on there. The working class demand that their children have the time and freedom to learn in order to improve their lives so as to exceed, to some degree, their parents’ achievements has been confronted and largely instrumentalized by capitalists who have, on the one hand, sought to define “achievement” purely in terms of one’s job and position in the wage/salary hierarchy, and on the other hand, to structure schools in the same hierarchical manner that they have shaped their businesses. Already in the 19th Century, observers such as Frederich Nietzsche and Thorstein Veblen were critiquing this “subsumption” of learning by capital.20 As the 20th Century unfolded, the capitalists sought to incorporate the latest developments in industrial management into the management of schools. Nowhere has this been demonstrated more clearly than by Raymond Callahan in his Education and the Cult of Efficiency (1962). Moreover, as Callahan discovered while exploring a largely ignored history of school administration, those efforts to transfer the methods of “scientific management” from the factory to the school involved extensive efforts to measure success, i.e., measure the degree to which work was being successfully imposed in the schools. Today, at the very moment that Negri and Hardt pronounce measure to be impossible, state committees and school administrators are devising, and imposing, new methods of measure to determine just how much actual work is going on, by both students and teachers – and they are doing this at every level of the school system right up through the university.
What might it mean to rupture or subvert capital’s measurement of work, of its estimation of socially necessary labor time, of just how much labor can be imposed in the production of any particular commodity? There would seem to be two senses in which this is not only possible but has been widespread: one, in which the very processes of measurement are subverted, and second, by actions which don’t disrupt the processes of measurement but cause changes in the amount of socially necessary labor time inimical to capitalist goals. Capital’s interest in measurement, after all, is not neutral; its various strategies sometimes demand more work, e.g., absolute surplus value strategies for increasing the length of the working day, and sometimes less work, e.g., relative surplus value strategies for decreasing the socially necessary labor time per unit of production.
First, the subversion of measurement is often achieved by workers who succeed in hiding what is actually involved in their work from those scientific managers or industrial engineers tasked with measuring what they do. Details of such subversion can be found in many accounts of struggles at the point of production. Let me give just two illustrations, one from waged labor and one from unwaged labor. In the case of waged labor, an ex-manager of an East Coast plant producing telephones told me the story of how his workers hid what they actually did from the company for whom they worked. They were paid on a piece-work basis, which meant that the more units they produced the more they got paid. To maximize their income they developed work methods more efficient than those designed by the company engineers. The result was that the level of productivity in this particular plant far exceeded that of other plants and the workers earned more than workers at other plants. As a result, the company dispatched engineers to discover how this was being achieved. If they could generalize whatever had changed, they could attribute the increased productivity to technical changes and lower piece rates, cutting wage costs and raising profits. However, when the engineers came to study the situation, the workers (with the tacit approval of the amused manager – he liked his workers to be happy and disliked being an overseer) reverted to following the original instructions given to them by the company. As a result the engineers could find no explanation for the higher productivity and when they departed, the workers went back to using their own methods for generating higher productivity and higher pay. Unlike the workers in the Hungarian factory mentioned above, the organization of a union and negotiated contract made it impossible for the company to reduce piece rates on that one plant, so the workers continued to earn their higher pay and the company’s ability to accurately measure the amount of work required to produce a unit of output was subverted.
In the case of unwaged labor, let me take, once again, the example of students. In resisting the imposition of school work, students often cheat. Now cheating takes many forms but many methods are clearly designed to dramatically reduce the amount of time students have to spend studying, i.e., doing work teachers impose upon them, and because cheating is expressly banned in schools, they must hide their actions from their teachers (and school administrators). Such motivations have clearly been behind long-standing practices of smuggling answers into tests, or copying answers from other students’ answer sheets. They have also been behind the contemporary surge in students using the internet to seek out, download and turn in (often with very little modification) papers written by someone else. In both cases, the amount of time and energy students find it necessary to divert from the rest of their lives into school work is reduced. As a result individual teachers have very little ability to measure the amount of work students actually do so that grades and, ultimately, diplomas turn out to be poor measures of the amount of work students are actually willing and able to do for either teachers or future employers. Not only has measurement been subverted here, but so has the production of labor power.21
Second, in the section on abstract labor, I pointed out how the withdrawal of any time and energy – individual or collective – from activities that capital has sought to shape as commodity producing labor undermines its ability to harness and control people’s lives. In the waged job place such withdrawals may be momentary or chronic, partial or total. Obviously anything less than total – which makes any measurement impossible – would increase the socially necessary labor time of production. For instance, both work stoppages that increase the time necessary to produce some commodity and sabotage that results in work having to be done over again, would obviously have this effect. According to what I have said above, any such increase would require the imposition of more work to successfully produce some commodity and thus an increase in the socially necessary labor time necessary for its production. In the abstract, more work is good for capital, but as the discussion of capital’s relative surplus value strategy should suggest, such increases in the amount of work that has to be imposed contradicts efforts to increase productivity and reduce the per unit value of the commodities being produced (and, indirectly, the value of labor power) in order to lower costs and increase profits. In other words, work stoppages and sabotage undermine capital’s relative surplus value strategy by increasing costs and reducing surplus value and the rate of profit. Moreover, by now it should be clear that the ability of capital to continue the imposition of labor (and of labor-as-social control or abstract labor) in the production of any particular commodity depends upon its ability to impose surplus labor and to realize surplus value and profit; unprofitable forms of production are abandoned and cease to provide terrains for keeping people busy and under control.