Abstract labour

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Abstract labour (called "general labour") is concrete labour which has undergone a process of abstraction in society.

Distinguishing characteristics of abstract labour include:

  • In a mode of production which produces value (capitalism, pre-capitalist, and socialist to an extent), concrete labour “becomes the form of manifestation” of abstract human labour. This is due to an equilibration of "concrete labour" into a more general form.
  • Abstract, general quality of labour simply does not acquire the same social significance in non-capitalist societies.

Analogy: Abstract labour is to value what concrete labour is to use-value. Thus, there would be no capital without abstract labour.

"That this necessity of distributing social labour in definite proportions cannot be done away with by the particular form of social production but can only change the form it assumes, is self evident. What can change in changing historical circumstances, is the form in which these laws operate." [Karl Marx, *Letters to Kugelmann*]

"With the disappearance of the useful character of the products of labour, the useful character of the kinds of labour embodied in them also disappears; this in turn entails the disappearance of the different concrete forms of labour. They can no longer be distinguished, but are all together reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the abstract.

Let us now look at the residue of the products of labour. There is nothing left of them in each case but the same phantom-like objectivity; they are merely congealed quantities of homogenous human labour, i.e. of human labour-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure. All these things now tell us is that human labour-power has been expended to produce them, human labour is accumulated in them. As crystals of this social substance, which is common to them all, they are values—commodity values." [Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 128.]

"Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied in them and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but what is common to them all . . . human labour in the abstract." [Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, chapter 1, section 1]

See also