By Maurizio Bisogno
The Dual Nature of Labour is dealt with in a known and complex paragraph of the Capital. The text is from Karl Marx, Capital, Book 1, Chapter 1, Section 2. It reads:
“An increase in the quantity of use values is an increase of material wealth. With two coats two men can be clothed, with one coat only one man. Nevertheless, an increased quantity of material wealth may correspond to a simultaneous fall in the magnitude of its value. This antagonistic movement has its origin in the two-fold character of labour. Productive power has reference, of course, only to labour of some useful concrete form, the efficacy of any special productive activity during a given time being dependent on its productiveness. Useful labour becomes, therefore, a more or less abundant source of products, in proportion to the rise or fall of its productiveness. On the other hand, no change in this productiveness affects the labour represented by value. Since productive power is an attribute of the concrete useful forms of labour, of course it can no longer have any bearing on that labour, so soon as we make abstraction from those concrete useful forms. However then productive power may vary, the same labour, exercised during equal periods of time, always yields equal amounts of value. But it will yield, during equal periods of time, different quantities of values in use; more, if the productive power rise, fewer, if it falls. The same change in productive power, which increases the fruitfulness of labour, and, in consequence, the quantity of use values produced by that labour, will diminish the total value of this increased quantity of use values, provided such change shorten the total labour time necessary for their production; and vice versa.”
On the one hand all labour is, speaking physiologically, an expenditure of human labour power, and in its character of identical abstract human labour, it creates and forms the value of commodities. On the other hand, all labour is the expenditure of human labour power in a special form and with a definite aim, and in this, its character of concrete useful labour, it produces use values. (16)
Let’s analyse this text and walk through its logical structure from a perspective of political economy. The text discusses the relationship between the quantity of use values, material wealth, and the value of commodities, and relates these to the dual nature of labour as both abstract and concrete.
The text begins by stating that an increase in the quantity of use value leads to greater material wealth, exemplified by the idea that two clothes are more valuable than one. So, an increase in the quantity of use values is introduced as an increase in material wealth.
At the same time, an increased quantity of material wealth may correspond to a fall in the magnitude of its value.
This antagonistic movement is said to originate from the two-fold (dual) character of labour, which is responsible for this antagonistic relationship between the growing mass of material wealth and the decreasing value associated with it.
The concept of the dual nature of labour emphasises on one side that productive force always refers to useful and effective labour force, affecting the efficiency of productive activities. In other words, productive power is linked to useful, concrete forms of labour, affecting the quantity of products. This useful labour can become more abundant or scarcer in direct proportion to the increase or decrease of productive force. However, changes in productive force do not affect the value of labour itself when abstracted from its concrete and useful form.
How does this impact Value and Use-Values? The text highlights that change in productive force can result in the same labour producing different quantities of use-values over the same time frame – more if productive force increases and less if it decreases. This implies that an increase in productivity can reduce the value of the increased mass of use-values if it shortens the total labour time required.
So, more use values are produced if productive power rises. Fewer use values are produced if productive power falls.
Two Aspects of Labour:
The text concludes by reiterating the two aspects of labour: as a physiological expenditure of human labour power, it represents the value of commodities as abstract human labour, while as a specific expenditure of human labour power with a specific purpose, it constitutes use-values. All labour is characterized as the expenditure of human labour power which takes the following two forms:
- As identical, abstract human labour, it creates and forms the value of commodities.
- As concrete, useful labour, it produces use values.
This is the dual nature of labour, as both abstract and concrete.
Based on this text let’s explain the Dual Nature of Labour.
The concept of the “Dual Nature of Labour” discussed in the provided text is a fundamental idea in political economy, particularly within the framework of Marxist economics. Marx introduces the idea that while more use values (material wealth) can be produced, their value may decrease, highlighting a tension between quantity and value. This page posits that labour has two distinct aspects or dimensions, which are essential for understanding the production and value of commodities:
1. Abstract Labour:
Abstract labour refers to labour in its most general and abstract form, stripped of all its particular qualities and characteristics. It is the common denominator that allows different types of labour to be compared and quantified in a uniform manner.
In this sense, abstract labour represents the value of commodities. It is the basis upon which exchange values are determined in a capitalist economy.
Abstract labour is measured in terms of time, such as hours or minutes, required to produce a commodity. For example, if it takes one hour of socially necessary labour time to produce a unit of a particular commodity, that commodity embodies one hour of abstract labour.
2. Concrete Labour:
Concrete labour, on the other hand, refers to labour in its specific and concrete form, where it is imbued with particular skills, knowledge, and purpose. It is the labour that produces use-values, which are the specific, tangible, and useful qualities of a commodity.
Concrete labour is what gives each product its unique characteristics. For example, the work of a tailor in sewing a shirt is a specific type of concrete labour that results in the use-value of a shirt, with its distinct style, size, and design.
Unlike abstract labour, concrete labour cannot be easily compared or quantified across different types of labour because it is tied to the specific requirements of the task. We can conclude that the dual nature of labour recognises that labour has both a universal, abstract dimension (which determines value) and a specific, concrete dimension (which produces use-values). This concept is critical in Marxist economics because it explains how commodities acquire their value and why they have both exchange value (determined by abstract labour) and use-value (determined by concrete labour). The tension between these two aspects of labour is central to understanding how capitalist economies function and how value is created and distributed within them.