Insofar as he passes in silence over the key role modern science plays in the circuits of capital, Saito thinks abstractly in the Hegelian sense of abstracting from or ignoring concrete circumstances. And nowhere is this abstraction more palpable than in his claim that abstract labor is there already in premodern societies, that it is not (like value) a purely social form, which emerges only through exchange of commodities. Doing so, Saito ignores the crucial fact that Marx’s notion of abstract labor presupposes modern science, specifically nineteenth-century thermodynamics.

In order to prove that “abstract labor is also a material element of the labor process”(109), Saito quotes Marx: “All labor is an expenditure of human labor-power, in the physiological sense, and it is in this quality of being equal, or abstract, human labor that it forms the value of commodities.”(109) But does it really follow that abstract labor is “a certain material aspect of human activity, in this case labor’s pure physiological expenditure”(109)? Is it not that, as Marx has shown in his introduction to Grundrisse, abstraction itself is a social fact, the result of a social process of abstracting?

“although the simpler category may have existed historically before the more concrete, it can achieve its full (intensive and extensive) development precisely in a combined form of society, while the more concrete category was more fully developed in a less developed form of society. / Labor seems a quite simple category. The conception of labor in this general form – as labor as such – is also immeasurably old. Nevertheless, when it is economically conceived in this simplicity, ‘labor’ is as modern a category as are the relations which create this simple abstraction.”[i]

Does the same not hold for abstract labor? When Marx writes that ”by equating their different products to each other in exchange as values,” individuals “equate their different kinds of labor as human labor,” does he not indicate that different kinds of labor are equated only through market exchange? Only in a society whose metabolism is regulated by commodity exchange is “abstract labor” posited as such, for itself. In a capitalist society, its “abstraction” is a social fact: workers get a wage for their labor measured in its abstraction. Saito argues that abstract labor refers to what all human labor has in common, a purely physiological expenditure of human energy in time. However, does this not remain a “mute universality,” not an actual abstraction that marks labor in an immanent way, turning the gap between the abstract and the concrete into part of the very identity of labor?

Saito’s main argument for his reading is that abstract labor is physiological “because it plays a social role in a transhistorical fashion in any society”(108): the total quantity of labor is inevitably limited to a certain amount of time, and this is why its allocation is crucial for the reproduction of society: abstract labor is operative in any social division of labor. But does this argument hold? It immediately strikes the eye that Saito’s definition of labor as physiological expenditure is itself historically specific, rooted in the nineteenth-century anti-Hegelian space. Only within this space can one conceive “simple average labor” as a zero-level standard to which all its more complex forms can be reduced:

“More complex labor counts only as intensified, or rather multiplied simple labor, so that a smaller quantity of complex labor is considered equal to a larger quantity of simple labor. Experience shows that this reduction is constantly being made. A commodity may be the outcome of the most complicated labor, but through its value it is posited as equal to the product of simple labor, hence it represents only a specific quantity of simple labor. The various proportions in which different kinds of labor are reduced to simple labor as their unit of measurement are established by a social process that goes on behind the backs of the producers; these proportions therefore appear to the producers to have been handed down by tradition.”[ii]

The key enigmatic term is here “experience.” As David Harvey noted in his classic commentary, “Marx never explains what ‘experience’ he has in mind, making this passage highly controversial.”[iii] The least one can add is that this “experience” has to be conceived as referring to a specific historical situation: not only what counts as simple labor but the very practice of reducing complex to simple labor is something historically specific and not a universal feature of human productivity, limited not just to capitalism but to classic industrial capitalism. As Anson Rabinbach demonstrated, it is operative only within the nineteenth-century break with Hegel. The positing of the thermodynamic engine as a paradigm of how labor force operates, the paradigm which replaces the Hegelian paradigm of labor as the expressive deployment of human subjectivity, was still operative in the texts of young Marx:

“The thermodynamic engine was the servant of a powerful nature conceived as a reservoir of undiminished and inexhaustible motivating power. The laboring body, the steam engine and the cosmos were connected by a single and unbroken chain, by an indestructible energy, omnipresent in the universe and capable of infinite mutation, yet immutable and invariant. /…/ This discovery also had a profound, game changing effect on Marx’s thinking about labor. After 1859, Marx increasingly regarded the distinction between concrete and abstract labor in the language of labor power, as an act of conversion rather than generation. /…/ Put in another way, Marx superimposed a thermodynamic model of labor onto the ontological model of labor he inherited from Hegel. As a result, for Marx labor power became quantifiable and equivalent to all other forms of labor power (in nature or in machines). /…/ Marx became a ‘productivist,’ when he no longer considered labor to be simply an anthropologically ‘paradigmatic’ mode of activity, and when, in harmony with the new physics, he saw labor power as an abstract magnitude (a measure of labor-time) and a natural force (a specific set of energy equivalents located in the body).”[iv]

Within this conceptual frame of the universality of abstract labor, Communism is not just the restored unity of humanity and nature but, simultaneously, the fulfilment of their rift: in capitalism, social production remains “irrational,” not regulated by social planning (which characterizes humanity) and in this sense pre-human, part of “natural history.” The underlying problem here is a philosophical one: Saito misses this rift because he unquestionably accepts Marx’s definition (from Capital) of human specificity: while every living species is involved in metabolism, the exchange of matter between its own organism and its natural environs, only the human species performs this metabolism through labour in the sense of a consciously regulated activity. Here is the well-known passage from chapter 7 of Capital I:

“A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will.”[v]

The obviousness of this definition should not seduce us. The question persists: conscious planning of a work process requires some kind of distance from one’s own natural immediacy, and the form of that immediacy is language, so there is no labor in a specifically human sense without language. This implies a lot: language is not just an instrument of communication; it forms what Lacan calls “big Other,” the substance of our social being, the thick social network of written and unwritten rules and patterns.

Marx goes too fast in his definition of labor, insofar as he obfuscates or ignores another break. Preceding the quoted passage, he writes:

“We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human.”[vi]

The limitation shared by Marx and Saito is clear here: they both posit a progressive line from animality to humans, from instinctual to planned/conscious activity, so that premodern phases are perceived as “primitive instinctive forms of labor that remind us of the mere animal”. However, these “primitive instinctive forms of labor that remind us of the mere animal” already involve a radical break with nature. The “metabolic rift” is already there; the “metabolism” of ancient societies is always grounded in a symbolic big Other of regulated exchanges. Suffice it to recall ancient Aztecs and Incas whose social metabolism was regulated by an enormous symbolic apparatus and whose activity culminated in sacrificial rituals: we have to perform human sacrifices so that the most “natural” circulation of nature would go on (so that sun would rise again, etc.), and sacrifice is by definition a disruption of smooth metabolism. In short, the metabolic rift with (animal) life is culture itself, even if – or especially when – it is grounded on the natural rhythms of seasons, when it projects meaning onto nature. When, in his “anthropological” writings, Freud inquires into the origins of such rituals, his ultimate response is that the true metabolic rift (the cut between nature and culture) is sexuality itself. Human sexuality is immanently self-sabotaging: it involves the paradoxes of desire and imposes its own violent rhythm on “natural” rhythms. Freud’s name for these paradoxes is, of course, the death drive.[vii]

Saito thus proceeds too fast in conceiving the trans-historical metabolism of human and natural life as the base on which capitalism parasitizes. There is a third term between these two, namely the symbolic order itself, the universe of symbolic fictions, the symbolic substance of our social lives, and capitalism is not only destroying our natural habitat, it is simultaneously destroying our shared symbolic substance, what Hegel called Sitten. This ignorance of the symbolic order also affects Marx’s notion of Communism. When, towards the end of Chapter I of Capital, Marx deploys the matrix of four modes of production/exchange, he begins and ends with the imagined example of Robinson Crusoe. And what I find important is that, at the end, he recovers it as the model for a transparent Communist society with no fetishist inversions:

“Since Robinson Crusoe’s experiences are a favourite theme with political economists, let us take a look at him on his island. Moderate though he be, yet some few wants he has to satisfy, and must therefore do a little useful work of various sorts, such as making tools and furniture, taming goats, fishing and hunting. /…/ In spite of the variety of his work, he knows that his labour, whatever its form, is but the activity of one and the same Robinson, and consequently, that it consists of nothing but different modes of human labour. /…/ All the relations between Robinson and the objects that form this wealth of his own creation, are here so simple and clear as to be intelligible without exertion, even to Mr. Sedley Taylor. And yet those relations contain all that is essential to the determination of value.

Let us now transport ourselves from Robinson’s island bathed in light to the European Middle Ages shrouded in darkness. Here, instead of the independent man, we find everyone dependent, serfs and lords, vassals and suzerains, laymen and clergy. Personal dependence here characterises the social relations of production just as much as it does the other spheres of life organised on the basis of that production. But for the very reason that personal dependence forms the ground-work of society, there is no necessity for labour and its products to assume a fantastic form different from their reality. /…/

For an example of labour in common or directly associated labour, we have no occasion to go back to that spontaneously developed form which we find on the threshold of the history of all civilised races. We have one close at hand in the patriarchal industries of a peasant family, that produces corn, cattle, yarn, linen, and clothing for home use. These different articles are, as regards the family, so many products of its labour, but as between themselves, they are not commodities. /…/ The labour power of each individual, by its very nature, operates in this case merely as a definite portion of the whole labour power of the family, and therefore, the measure of the expenditure of individual labour power by its duration, appears here by its very nature as a social character of their labour.

Let us now picture to ourselves, by way of change, a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour power of the community. All the characteristics of Robinson’s labour are here repeated, but with this difference, that they are social, instead of individual. /…/ The social relations of the individual producers, with regard both to their labour and to its products, are in this case perfectly simple and intelligible, and that with regard not only to production but also to distribution.”[viii]

This series of four modes of production – Robinson alone, medieval domination, family collectives, Communism – is surprising and counter-intuitive. The first mystery that strikes the eye is: why do we get a family where we would expect capitalism as the mode which follows the direct domination of the medieval period? Should family not be at the beginning, as a mode that characterizes the pre-class “primitive” societies? Instead of family, Marx begins with the example of Robinson (a sole producer). Why is Robinson the starting point when (as Marx knew very well) Robinson is not a historical starting point but a bourgeois myth? Is it not that Marx has to begin with Robinson so that, in a (pseudo-)Hegelian dialectical circle, he can get back to a collective Robinson, at the end, as an imagined model of Communist society? The parallel with Robinson enables Marx to imagine Communism as a self-transparent society, in which relations between individuals are not mediated by an opaque substantial big Other. And our task today is to think Communism outside this horizon.



[ii] Marx, op.cit.

[iii] David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital,« London: Verso Books 2010, p. 29.

[iv] Anson Rabinbach, “From Emancipation to the Science of Work: The Labor Power Dilemma” (quoted from the manuscript).


[vi] Op.cit.

[vii] We should even take a step further (or, rather, backward) here. It is not only that a metabolic rift happens with humanity; a rift operates already in pre-human nature itself. Just think about our main sources of energy, oil and coal. What kind of rifts had to happen to create these reserves? So, we have to accept the paradox: if humanity ever reaches a kind of harmonious metabolism (exchange with nature), it will be imposed by humanity as a kind of “second nature.” Different ideas of regulating the entire metabolism on earth to prevent ecological catastrophes already circulate, and some of them involve radical interventions into natural cycles (like spraying our atmosphere with chemicals, which would diminish the quantity of sun rays hitting earth).