Marx distinguishes between concrete labor that produces use values and abstract labor that produces value.
Concrete labor is the labor that is actually performed. The real problem in Marxist value theory is to determine how actual concrete labor—real world human labor—is converted through the process of exchange of the products of that labor into abstract human labor.
One person can produce far more of a commodity of a given quality in a given amount of time than another person. People produce commodities with different use values involving different types of labor. No two people labor in exactly the same way or with the same productivity. Nor do they labor with the same productivity at all times. Some people work better in the morning than they do in the afternoon.
Does a person who takes more time than average to produce a given commodity of a given quality produce more value than a person who can produce the commodity in the average amount of time?
The case of a lazy shoemaker is often given to illustrate this point. Suppose in a given epoch under average conditions of production a shoemaker of average skill and industriousness can make one pair of shoes per hour. Assuming the workday is eight hours, the average shoemaker can make eight pairs of shoes per day.
But our lazy shoemaker makes only one pair of shoes every two hours, or only four shoes in an eight-hour workday. Does a pair of shoes of a given quality that takes two hours to produce by our lazy shoemaker represent twice the value of a pair of shoes made by an average shoemaker?
No, what Marx called the individual value of a pair of shoes made by the lazy shoemaker represents two hours of labor, but its social value is still only one hour of labor. In the marketplace, our shoemaker can’t sell the pair of shoes for twice the price simply because he or she is lazy. Therefore, over an eight-hour workday our lazy shoemaker is wasting four hours out of every eight hours worked. Of every 40 hours of concrete labor our lazy shoemaker performs, 20 hours consists of socially unnecessary labor.
Things would be no different if instead of a lazy shoemaker we had a lazy gold miner who produces the commodity whose use value is to serve as the money commodity. Suppose an average gold miner working under the average conditions of production of a given epoch can produce two ounces of gold in a 40-hour workweek. If a lazy gold miner produces one ounce of gold instead of the average of two ounces, our lazy gold miner will be wasting 20 hours of labor every week. Again, out of the 40 hours of concrete labor performed by our lazy gold miner, 20 hours would represent socially unnecessary labor.
Suppose, however, we reduce all concrete labor, the different types of labor producing different use values by workers, some “lazy,” some far more industrious than average, some producing gold, others producing shoes, into a common social substance—abstract human labor. This is human labor with all specific or concrete elements of the labor performed abstracted—that is, left out. This is exactly what happens in the process of commodity exchange.
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