Towards a Concept of Concrete Labour-Time

George Tomlinson


What is ‘concrete labour-time’? If there is, in fact, a dialectic of abstract and concrete labour, in what sense, precisely, is concrete labour-time different from abstract labour-time? Marx offers little by way of an answer to these questions: on the rare occasion when concrete labour-time is considered in its own right, it is either done with vague reference to a ‘qualitative’ labour-time, or as already having been reduced to abstract labour-time, such that ‘the worker is nothing more … than personified labour-time.’ In short, there is in Marx no *concept* of concrete labour-time (as there is of abstract labour-time). The secondary literature on the temporal dimensions of Marx’s work has done little to address this: there are statements to the effect that concrete labour ‘has a concrete temporality’, that its time ‘has a particular content … that is experienced subjectively’, but there has been (to date) no systematic attempt to conceptualise concrete labour as a distinct form of social time inseparable, but ultimately different, from abstract labour-time.

This paper presents what such a concept of concrete labour-time might resemble. It proceeds in four stages. First, it provides a brief overview of Marx’s analysis of the abstract-concrete labour relation and the concept of abstract labour-time that emerges from this analysis. Second, it looks at both Marx’s and his commentators’ characterisations of concrete labour-time; at the forefront of this is a critique of Moishe Postone’s notion of ‘concrete time’. Third, it draws on the modern philosophy of time in order to begin constructing a new concept of concrete labour-time. Essential here is Heidegger’s analysis of ‘being-towards-death’ as the existential ground of temporalisation, which when critically reworked as a ‘being-towards-the-limit’ of the labouring act, enriches the dialectical relationship between abstract and concrete labour, and thereby secures the basis from which labour-time has value. Fourth and finally, this paper reflects on how a concept of concrete labour-time affects Marx’s materialist concept of history, specifically how it reframes, modifies, and extends the historicalising logic of the creation of new needs.

Dialectics - Karl Marx - limits - philosophy of time - labour