“Schrödinger’s Capital”: Notes on concrete and abstract labor

by Jehu

WARNING: None of this is in any order. I am just making notes as thoughts occur to me. I am setting aside this topic for notes preparing for a future essay titled “Schrödinger’s Capital”, which will be a reading of Marx’s labor theory of value through the lens of quantum theory. The essay will be a response to the value-form school’s attempt to revive the writing of the labor theorist I.I. Rubin and to similar arguments that can be found in David Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital.

schrodingersThe subject, value, seems extremely complex and dense. It is also the source of most of the misreading of Capital I come across these days. Using some of the principles of quantum theory, I hope to clarify why Marx’s concept of value is so little understood by Marxist writers.

Quantum theory has long been subjected to, and misused by, new age interpretations by charlatans. I want to emphasize this effort on my part is not a gimmick; I am not trying to advance a “new age” interpretation for labor theory of value by spinning quantum theory. Rather, my argument is that labor theory is as much a rigorous science as quantum physics and should be subjected to the same rigorous treatment. The insights of quantum theory may be “weird” when first encountered, as one writer put it, but its accuracy in describing the physical universe is not in dispute.

In my opinion, it is not enough to assert, for instance, the collapse of capitalism is inevitable. Labor theory’s accuracy must be challenged and shown to be as accurate as the physical laws of any science.

NOTE 1: Value, Use Value, Concrete Labor and Abstract Labor

CONCRETE LABOR: What is concrete labor? Some people work as a cashier at the checkout counter at Walmart, some work as a medical assistant in a doctor’s office, still others teach introduction to microeconomics at a university or they assemble automobiles in a factory. These concrete forms of labors each have their particular, useful, characteristics. They are concrete, particular, useful labors expended to satisfy a definite human need. As concrete, particular, useful labors they cannot be compared to one another.

For instance, we can’t say four hours at a checkout counter at Wal-Mart is equal to four hours teaching micro at a state university, since the needs satisfied at a checkout counter are not the same as those satisfied by teaching bourgeois economic theory. The two forms of concrete labor have different and incomparable characteristics and each fills a fundamentally different human need. (Imagine, for instance, how useful an autoworker’s skillset would be in a doctor’s office assisting in a delicate medical procedure.)

ABSTRACT LABOR: By abstract labor Marx means labor absent any and all useful qualities we normally associate with work. In Marx’s labor theory, abstract labor has no concrete, particular or useful characteristics. Although it is almost impossible to imagine labor as pure labor apart from some definite aim, this is just the sort of labor Marx argues produces value.

Abstract labor differs from concrete labor in another way: While you cannot compare four hours of concrete labor at a checkout counter at Wal-Mart to four hours of concrete labor teaching introduction to micro at a state university, in their abstract forms the labor of a checkout worker, the medical assistant, the university professor and the autoworker are absolutely identical and comparable. As abstract labors, every aspect that make them unique and, therefore, not comparable is stripped away, leaving …

… Well, leaving behind nothing we would even recognize as labor.

Absent any particular, useful qualities, one form of abstract labor is identical to every other form of abstract labor and thus can be compared to every other form of abstract labor. As concrete labor a cashier, medical assistant, professor and autoworker perform labor that cannot be compared to one another. But as abstract labors — labors that produce value — they are identical to one another and as interchangeable as tires on a car.

Concrete versus abstract labor

Abstract labor must be distinguished from concrete labor, but there is a caveat: I only go to work once, not twice. I do not go to work and perform concrete labor and then go back to my job later perform abstract labor. And my working day is not divided into four hours of abstract labor and four hours of concrete labor. Finally, I do not perform a task in abstract and then do it again concretely. I do both forms of labor at once and together.

According to Marx, the worker at the checkout counter, in the doctor’s office, in the university classroom and on the auto production line performs both types of labor — concrete and abstract — simultaneously. Even as the university professor is performing some definite concrete labor that cannot be compared to the labor of the cashier, medical assistant and autoworker, she is also — at the same time — performing abstract labor that is identical to the labor of the cashier, medical assistant and autoworker. Labor in Marx’s theory has this dual character where one and the same act of labor is both abstract and concrete, particular and universal, useful and without purpose, incommensurable and commensurable.

The two aspects of the act of labor — abstract and concrete — creates a product that also has two distinguishable aspects: use value and exchange value. The concrete labor we perform produces a physical object with the capacity to satisfy some definite particular human want. But this very act of labor also produces something that is as hard to nail down conceptually as the concept of abstract labor itself: it produces value.

Value does not satisfy human needs

How a commodity satisfies a definite human need is obvious: a hamburger or a steak can satisfy hunger; a song can satisfy a mood; a bed can satisfy a tired body. The practical ways in which products of labor satisfy human needs are so obvious, no one challenges this aspect of the commodity.

Not so with the value of the commodity. Value can’t ease hunger, it cannot cure a mood and it cannot comfort a tired body. In truth, there is nothing at all useful about value and no obvious reason why it plays such a large role in our society.

Value is also a bizarre category of labor theory precisely because, in addition to the labor not satisfying any human needs, no one has ever seen the value created by labor and labor theory itself states the value of any commodity cannot be observed. But don’t let this confuse you. This characteristic of value is not in itself unusual in the physical world: For example, we know gravity exists but no one has ever observed it either. What we observe is the effect of gravity when we trip and fall. No one expects to trip and fall up; they expect to trip and fall to the ground. The idea gravity exists is so ingrained in the consciousness of all land animals that if you suddenly found yourself for some odd reason suspended 100 feet up in mid-air, you would react immediately by bracing for an unpleasant impact with the earth.

Although no one has ever actually seen gravity, we know it is not a subjective state of mind; it is a law. Likewise, value is not a subjective estimate of the worth of a commodity, value has its own law that is every bit as real for a commodity producing society as the law of gravity: the law of value. This law states that the price of a commodity is an expression of, and determined by, its value.

Price is not value

Marx defines value as socially necessary labor time required for the production of a commodity. Any commodity, shoes, cars, houses or a bottle of scotch will have a price that more or less reflects the labor time required on average to produce it.

It is important to add the caveat that the price of a commodity is not the value of the commodity; rather, it is an expression of the value of the commodity. In this sense, the price of a commodity is like tripping and falling down in that the falling down part is not gravity, but an expression of gravity.

The price of a bottle of scotch, for instance, can fluctuate quite wildly depending on conditions having nothing whatsoever to do with the labor required to produce it. We will see that this fluctuation too is not unusual in the world of the physical sciences.

Value and labor power

So the value of a commodity is not its price, but what is value really? It is abstract labor time. By the term abstract labor time, I mean, as stated above, labor that has no concrete, particular, useful characteristics, i.e., some definite duration of labor completely abstracted from any the useful characteristics that can satisfy human needs.

This definition is worse than useless to you, I know. So let’s try this one: According to Marx, value is homogenous human labor power; The “expenditure of one uniform labour power … is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society”.

Not very helpful?

Okay, so let’s try it again.

If value is the expenditure of the total labor power of society, what is labor power? Labor power is abstract labor or labor in the abstract, or labor abstracted from from all of its useful characteristics. It is not actual labor, but the potential for labor. Before labor power is actually put to work, it exists as the potential for all the millions of possible concrete, particular, useful labors we perform on a daily basis. We could call labor power “the potential for labor” or “labor potential”.

The concept of labor power as the potential for labor can be compared in physics to potential energy, which physicists define as “the energy that an object has due to its position in a force field or that a system has due to the configuration of its parts.”

8343448_origTo understand potential energy, and by way of analogy, labor power, imagine you carry a rock to the top of a ten storey building. As you carry the rock up the stairs, you are, at the same time, adding to the potential energy contained in the rock. Your work carrying the rock up the stairs is converted into the potential energy embodied in the rock. Upon reaching the roof, you drop the rock off the side. This releases the potential energy stored in the rock into kinetic energy.

Just as the potential energy of  rock is released when you drop it from a ten storey building, every actual expenditure of concrete, particular, useful labor is the expenditure of some definite quantity of labor power or the conversion of the potential for labor into actual labor. The expenditure of this potential labor reappears as the value of the commodities produced by it.

Assuming all labor in society is productively employed, value is the expenditure of the labor potential of society — drawing down on the abstract potential for labor in the act of millions of concrete, particular, useful labors.


I will concede that Marx’s concept of abstract labor is bizarre. But, surprisingly, it is nowhere near as bizarre as it appears. Quantum theory has very similar description of the way the world works. But before we turn to quantum theory, let’s look at the objections to Marx’s argument from the value-form school.