Translation by Joe Keady
Original German available here
It is widely understood that social production in capitalist society takes the form of commodity production. That is why Marx quite rightly regarded the commodity as the “elementary form” of capitalist wealth and chose it as the analytical starting point for his critique of political economy. Economic theory has no idea at all what to do with this theoretical approach. It treats the notion that people mediate their sociality through the production and exchange of commodities as an anthropological truism. It never regards a human being as anything other than a potential private producer who manufactures things in order to exchange them with other private producers while always keeping his or her own particular interests in mind. The difference between wealth production in modern capitalist society and in traditional communities is therefore regarded as merely one of degree, with the caveat that the social division of labour is far more highly developed under modern capitalism due to technological advancements and the clever insight that people become more productive as they become more specialised.
This view is a simple projection that intrinsically legitimises capitalist relations as trans-historical. While commodities and money did exist in many pre-capitalist societies, their social significance was entirely different from that under capitalism. Interactions with commodities and money were always embedded in other forms of domination and social configurations that existed at the time (feudal dependency, traditional norms, patriarchal structures, religious belief systems, etc.), as Karl Polanyi has shown. By contrast, in capitalist society, commodities and money represent the universal form of wealth while simultaneously playing the role of social mediator. That is to say that individuals establish their relationships with one another and with the wealth they produce through commodities and money.
But when things are produced as commodities, the corresponding productive activities take on a very specific form. They are performed in a sphere apart from the diverse other social activities and they are subject to a specific instrumental logic, rationality, and time discipline. This common form has nothing to do with the particular content of the various activities. It can only be ascribed to the fact that they are performed for the purpose of commodity production. Based on this social structure, all these activities fall under a single rubric: labour.
Like the commodity, labour has a dual character. It is divided into a concrete side, which produces use value, and an abstract side, which produces value. Concrete labour is of interest to the commodity producer strictly insofar as he or she can only sell the produced commodity if it is of some use to the buyer. For the producer, use value is only a means to an extrinsic end: the transformation of abstract labour, as embodied by the commodity, into money. This is because money is the universal commodity or, as Marx called it, the queen of commodities or the commodity to which all other commodities refer. Put another way, money represents the abstract wealth of capitalist society or its universally recognised wealth.
In this respect, only the abstract side of labour is universally socially accepted because it alone enters into social circulation as value (represented by money) and remains as such. The concrete side of work, by contrast, terminates with each sale because use value then disappears from social circulation: an object’s utility becomes the buyer’s private affair. The material wealth that takes the form of use value under the conditions of commodity production is therefore always particular.
So we can say not only that labour is a form of activity in which capitalist wealth is produced in its specifically dual form; furthermore, it also fulfils the core function of social mediation. Or, to put it more precisely, it is the abstract side of work that fulfils this function while the concrete side remains subordinate.