The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Capital Volume 1 Part 1 Chapter 1 Section 2 Post 3


Page 43: “The use-value, coat, linen, &c., i.e., the bodies of commodities, are combinations of two elements–matter and labour.  If we take away the useful labour expended upon them, a material substratum is always left, which is furnished by Nature without the help of man.  The latter can work only as Nature does, that is by changing the form of matter.  Nay more, in this work of changing the form he is constantly helped by natural forces.  We see, then, that labour is not the only source of material wealth, of use-values produced by Labour.  As William Petty puts it, labour is its father and the earth its mother.”

Labor, then, is useful and purposeful activity expended upon substances provided by nature in order to change their form.  And, as we’ve seen from before, if we abstract from a commodity the particular material substance, and the exact form of the labor, what is left is human labor in the abstract.

The point is that, for now, we will refer for the sake of simplicity to labor, rather than doing the reduction of skilled labor to simple labor, as this will not change anything for this part of the investigation.

“So far as they are values, the coat and the linen are things of a like substance, objective expressions of essentially identical labour.  But tailoring and weaving are, qualitatively, different kinds of labour.  There are, however, states of society in which one and the same man does tailoring and weaving alternately, in which case these two forms of labour are mere modifications of the labour of the same individual, and no special and fixed functions of different persons.; just as the coat which our tailor makes one day, and the trousers which he makes another day, imply only a variation in the labour of one and the same individual.  Moreover, we see at a glance that, in our capitalist society, a given portion of human labour is, in accordance with varying demand, at one time supplied in the form of tailoring, at another in form of weaving.”

Again, different kinds of labor, insofar as they are labor, can be equated as quantities; this is how commodities can be exchanged.

Page 44: Productive activity, if we leave out of sight its special form, viz., the useful character of the labour, is nothing but the expenditure of human labour-power.”

To get an idea of what Marx means by labor-power, it is useful to consider the difference between  potential and kinetic energy.  Labor-power is the ability to labor–when labor-power is expended, it becomes labor.  So far, what we have read is little more than what has been discovered by earlier political economists (albeit expressed with exceptional clarity and precision); the important distinction between labor and labor-power constitutes one of the most important discoveries by Marx.  In retrospect, of course, it is obvious: the ability to take an action is not the same as the action.  But uncovering this distinction was as important to economics as changes in the form of energy was important to physics.

“The value of a commodity represents human labour in the abstract, the expenditure of human labour-power in general.  And just as in society, a general or a banker plays a great part, but mere man, on the other hand, a very shabby part, so here with human labour.  It is the expenditure of simpler labour-power, i.e., of the labour-power which, on an average, apart from any special development, exists in the organism of very ordinary individual.  Simple average labour, it is true, varies in character in different countries and at different times, but in a particular society it is given.  Skilled labour counts only as simple labour intensified, or rather, as multiplied simple labour, a given quantity of skilled labour being considered equal to a greater quantity of simple labour.  Experience shows that this reduction is constantly being made.  A commodity may be the product of the most skilled labour, but its value, by equating it to the produce of simple unskilled labour, represents a definite quantity of the latter labour alone.”

Here Marx inserts a footnote to remind the reader that, when we speak of skilled or simple labor, we are not speaking of the cost of that labor–ie, wages; which we’ll be getting to later.


Author: corwin

Site administrative account, so probably Corwin, Felix or DD-B.


  1. Very interesting. I wonder if he treats elsewhere with commodities that are the product ONLY of skilled labor. It’s definitely true that for some items, while a more skilled worker will produce the item more quickly or precisely and a very unskilled one will produce an item that simply doesn’t function as well as it should, there’s a point beyond which additional skill doesn’t substantially improve the end product. And there are a great many commodities that ANYONE can make, given enough time. But others…no amount of unskilled labor from me is going to construct a complete automobile or produce an opera. These things are simply beyond me without specialized training.

    In the abstract, you can average that out as skilled labor being the equivalent of a larger amount of unskilled labor, but in the particular, that substitution can’t always take place.

  2. It sounds as though Marx will discuss skilled vs. unskilled later, and possibly the specialization issue Sean raises, so I’ll avoid touching on those for now, since he’s essentially focusing on average labor for a society.

    There are 2 major issues that I don’t see any discussion or foreshadowing on that I think need to be wrestled with, even if we’re just focusing on average labor.

    First, certain types of labor increase OR reduce the average labor value itself. Investments in technology, infrastructure, education, good management are all examples of the former, while bad management or government activity that forces inefficient allocation of that labor, reduce the average labor value.

    Second, the commodities that a nation has available for labor to act upon (obviously) affect the value of that labor. The obvious part of this is that countries that are resource rich can more fully utilize their labor. The less obvious part is that countries that are rich in SCARCE resources are likely to place a premium on skilled labor, because the risks associated with failed transformations of those resources are greater.

    I think both of those issues warrant discussion at this level of conversation.

  3. Jeremy: As to the first, I think we have touched on that. That is, I don’t see that as any different than wasted labor, which, as Marx says, doesn’t add to value.

    As to the second, the richness or poorness of a given resource is what determines the amount of labor necessary to procure it; a rich vien of gold, for example, produces more gold/labor-hour than a poor vein. A given amount of labor will procure more grain from good land in a good year than poor land in a bad year.

    The part about placing a premium on skilled labor is interesting indeed. I hadn’t thought about that. My first reaction, though, is that we’re using the terms differently. It appears you are using “skilled” to mean the opposite of “incompetent.” But generally “skilled labor” refers to work that requires specialized training that cannot be picked up “on the job.” Or perhaps I’m misunderstanding you.

  4. I may have missed it, but if labor that improves other labor is counted as wasted, I think Marx’s terminology leaves something to be desired. If 10 people produce enough food for 20 people, and then one person either invents something (the plow) or organizes labor (crop rotation) and the same people are thereby able to feed 40, I would argue that the innovator’s labor was anything but wasted, since it amplifies the output of generic labor – at least in one given area. As a result, it’s likely to improve the society’s production frontier and influence trade (by affecting both absolute and comparative advantage).

    I agree that “richness” within a given resource determines (or is determined by) the amount of labor needed to procure it. However, when comparing one resource to another resource, this isn’t necessarily the case, as some resources may be impossible for any given society to attain (at least without trade), regardless of the amount of labor devoted to it. This plays into the skilled labor discussion.

    While specialization refers to training, the degree of training that it makes sense to invest in is heavily influenced by difficulty, value, and risk (which in the resource discussion, is impacted by scarcity). A jeweler is more specialized than both a lumberjack (because it’s comparatively easy to pick up an axe and go to work, developing muscles and technique along the way) and a carpenter (because the scarcity of the medium makes the cost of failure higher, so you’re more likely to spend more time honing technique before you try to produce a faceted gemstone).

  5. “I may have missed it, but if labor that improves other labor is counted as wasted, I think Marx’s terminology leaves something to be desired”

    Maybe I missed something. Where did that come from?

  6. Jeremy, I’m guessing you’ve never been a lumberjack. Bad example. You’re mistaking size and working outdoors for lack of technique and specialist knowledge.

    Try it sometime.

  7. I was referring to your comment that Marx covered labor that improves the general labor value as “wasted” – I didn’t get that read, but think it’s bad terminology if so.

    Le Rouge – fair enough – I’ve never been a lumberjack! Still, I think it’s probably reasonable to assert that specialization is a spectrum, and that some forms of labor require significantly more training before they’re allowed to practice. I’d be a lot more willing to someone who wants to be a lumberjack but doesn’t have training or experience practice on the trees behind my house than I would be to let someone who wants to be a cardiologist w/o training or experience practice on me.

  8. Oh, I see. When I referred to wasted labor, I was talking about when you said, “while bad management or government activity that forces inefficient allocation of that labor, reduce the average labor value.”

    That is, I think bad management falls into the same category as wasted labor. Sorry to be unclear.

Leave a Reply