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Abstract Labour and Capital

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image of Historical Materialism

As soon as he had observed labour to be ‘first of all, a process between man and nature', Marx turned to conscious determination. ‘Man not only affects a change of form in the materials of nature, he also realises his own purpose in these materials. And this is a purpose he is conscious of. It is purpose which distinguishes labour from the activities of animals. Marx called the purposive character of labour ‘an exclusively human characteristic’ and the term indicates its fundamental importance in his thought. As it is purposive activity, so labour is ‘a specific productive activity appropriate to its purpose, a productive activity that assimilate[s] particular natural materials to a particular human requirement'.3 Since ends are specific by definition, this has to be the case, and neither absence of skill nor indifference effect the issue one way or the other. Work does not cease to be particular (i) because it demands no special capacities - tightening screws and stacking shelves do not stop being different kinds of activity by virtue of the fact that anyone can perform them; or (ii) because no store its set by its distinctive qualities. In its accounts, capital may treat different kinds of labour uniformly as a cost of production, but this does not alter the fact that the labour it employs comprises different types of labour: ‘the fact that the production of use-values or goods is carried on under the control of a capitalist and on his behalf does not alter the general character of that production'.4 In which case, we ask, what is labour which is not particular? If labour is always and necessarily a specific productive activity, what is abstract labour — ‘homogenous labour’ which, by definition, is not specific?


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