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Marx’s Deployment Of The Term Abstraction

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The term abstraction manifoldly pervades Marx’s writing. The heterogeneity of its meaning is related to the fact that Marx understands production within a system of capitalism to be a totalizing process which presides over the finiteness of the individual mind and therefore determinations, particulars and forms must be understood as relations in an ongoing process and they can only be considered in isolation as abstractions.

Nevertheless, these abstractions are real insofar as they constitute the spaces, actions and behaviours of concrete social reality for individuals whether they are experienced as such or not. Using Roberto Finelli’s response to Chris Arthur’s work on abstraction, this essay will focus on a particularity drawn out by Marx in the Grundrisse related to the engagement of exchange and from this, will elaborate on Marx’s deployment of the term abstraction in his critique of political economy.

In The Chapter on Capital, Marx considers the nature of the putative social relations into which individuals must enter in order to engage in exchange. Before particularizing the moment of exchange, Marx tactfully draws our attention to the perceptual limitations induced by the totality of capitalist production, where the subject holds that “a social relation, a definite relation between individuals…appears…as a purely physical, external thing which can be found, as such, in nature and which is indistinguishable in form from its natural existence.” (Marx, 1993, p.240) Marx rejoins this faulty apprehension with the simple fact that “Nature does not produce money, any more than it produces a rate of exchange or a banker.” (Marx, 1993, p. 240) In this discreet move through which the concrete given of social reality is revealed to be the hidden operations of capital, Marx offers an early indication of his method for interrogating abstraction as a way of life.

Looking at the form in which the moment of exchange realizes itself, Marx distinguishes an equality brought to bear on the individuals involved in exchange. The expression of exchange value in commodities through the labour time spent in their production means that the moment of exchange, no matter the use values being compared, rearticulates that equivalence and in so doing transforms the individuals involved in the exchange into equivalent exchangers. Both the exchangers and the commodities they exchange, are by the logic of exchange value, equal; “The subjects in exchange exist for one another only through these equivalents, as of equal worth, and prove themselves to be such through the exchange of the objectivity in which the one exist for the other.” (Marx, 1993, p.242) The content outwith the act of exchange, the natural differences between the exchangers (needs, production, wealth etc.), does not alter the state of equality enshrined in the act of exchange. Rather, it is the natural differences of exchangers outside the act that are the very precondition of the equality expressed in the exchange. The social relation within which individual exchangers find themselves in the act of exchange is one predicated on the fact that each individual needs something from the other and has produced something the other needs in return, whether it is commodities, labour or money makes no difference in this case. The condition where individuals reciprocally produce the objects that service the needs of others and meet as such, determines the equivalence that anchors the act of exchange. Through the act of exchange, individuals acknowledge and realize in each other’s mutual compulsions the general self-seeking interest of human beings. Yet, when thoroughly considered it is forgotten that in the act of exchange, the presupposition of exchange value…in itself implies compulsion over the individual, since his immediate product is not a product for him, but only becomes such in the social process, and since it must take on this general but nevertheless external form; and that “the individual has an existence only as producer of exchange value, hence that the whole negation of his natural existence is already implied; that he is therefore entirely determined by society.” (Marx, 1993, p.249)

What at first appears as a natural and concrete moment in social reality is in fact riven by historical process. The formal determinations expressed in the act of exchange produce equality insofar as they coerce the individual into furnishing the needs of society in general in the form of exchange value through abstract labour.

Roberto Finelli draws attention to this role of formal determinations as much as it concerns a form as something that “is ‘invisible’, something not directly perceptible, unlike ‘material determination.’” (Finelli, 2007, p.4) In Marx’s conceptualisation of totality, Finelli sees the “abstraction-emptying out” (Finelli, p.6) of the concrete. Finelli’s view holds that the surface of concrete reality, including as we saw the example of the act of exchange, is propped up by a repression of abstract processes ongoing in the totality of production. Abstraction, says Finelli, is a “colonisation which is dissimulated and negated through an hysterical over-determination of the surface which, coloured and embellished, always has to display the contrary of that which it is.” (Finelli, p.66) With the concentration and centralisation of abstractions as a way of life, historically configured processes that reproduce social relations are naturalised and become perceived as concrete. The mediations comprising the disjunctive moments in social reality are made invisible by the cult of exteriority where objects don “a superficial appearance in order to strike and seduce that ideological and deceitful organ par excellence which is our eye” (Finelli, p.69), making the abstract symptoms of capital domination appear coherent and real. The predominance of exteriority over material essence is the result of appearance submitting to the “expansive-reproductive logic” (Finelli, p.66) of the totality of capital, which perpetually resumes its own basis in social reality.

The concrete, which is now discovered to be the congelation of real processes abstracted from the totality of capital production, is hallowed, formed and determined to supply the relational totality of capital its iterative force; as Marx says, “Within the value relation and the expression of value contained in it the abstract universal is not a property of the concrete, the sensuous-actual; on the contrary, the sensuous-actual is a mere hypostasis or determinate form of realization of the abstract universal.” (Marx, 1992, p. 32) The final chapter, therefore, in the domination of abstraction over social life occurs when individuals become psychologically inducted into the realm of superficiality, when the mind receives as and responds as if to concretise that which is abstract, “And there, through the abstract activity of many, the concrete is produced.” (Finelli, p.70)

Returning to our consideration of the act of exchange, the freedom promised there, as we saw earlier, proved in fact to be the contrary: “inequality and unfreedom” (Marx, 1993, p.249) The perceived freedom in the act of exchange is the historically produced naturalisation of exchange value behind which is hidden the social force of abstract labour. The social compulsion to embody the so-called freedoms in the act of exchange reinforces the grip of abstract labour over the exchanger, as the satisfaction granted by the former exchange realizes and legitimates abstract labour through exchange value, persuading the exchanger to see as free and beneficial a process that is ultimately coercive. To this, Finelli adds: “In the society of capital, abstraction assumes the explicit contours of matter of fact…it becomes a practically true abstraction…The universal is real only when it is the fruit not of logical intellect or even of theoretical ideation but of collective historical praxis.” (Toscano, 2008, p. 276) The universal realization of abstract processes as concrete objective reality occurs when the perceptual field is conditioned to the dissimulation of abstraction through social and historical mediation. This occurs when individuals internalize real abstractions and behave and act as such and when society binds its members to the capital-subject through their mutual adherence to the lure of the exchange value viz real abstraction, thereby manufacturing a radical reciprocal dependency.

Lucio Colletti notes in his introduction to Marx’s early writing that “The result [of the domination of real abstractions] is – given that ‘labour’ in general is, in Marx’s words, ‘…the everlasting Nature-imposed condition of human existence’ – that the light of eternity comes to be cast upon the particular historical figure of the wage-labourer.” (Marx, 1992, p.28) The concealment of forced abstract labour behind the ostensible form taken up by the act of exchange structures the needs and wants brought to bear on the act by the labourer/exchanger. The obligation attached to the act of exchange forcing the exchanger to labour in order to furnish the general abstract wants of society, produces his social reality in such a way that his desires become caught up with the reproductive logic of capital. His needs become malformed by the guiding principle of reproducing his labour power and the basis of his own subjection. The increasing separation of the labourer from his own concrete basis in reality “which is an expression of the complete domination of dead matter over men” (Marx, 1992, p. 319) results in the pursuit and production of alien objects and, symptomatically, the “loss of and bondage to the object” (Marx, 1992, p.324) The more real-abstractions operate as the governing logic over social life, “the more powerful the alien, objective world becomes which he brings into being over against himself.” (Marx, 1992, p.324) Thus, the obligation of entering into estranged labour, concealed behind the form taken up by exchange (with its promise of mutual satiation) forces the individual to naturalize an alien reality without being aware of its taking place; “What the product of his labour is, he is not.” (Marx, 1992, p.324) The labourer’s alienation resides in his being compelled to embody an ontology that goes contrary to his own nature, or breaks his dialogue with nature, by deceptive abstractions reified as concrete reality.

The worker must continue to produce even when he is liberated from immediate physical need to service the needs of general society and thus continues to produce his own inorganic objective reality until “he regards….his objectified labour, as an alien, hostile and powerful object which is independent of him [and] then his relationship to that object is such that another man – alien and hostile, powerful and independent of him – is its master.” (Marx, 1992, p.331) The alienation generated by abstract labour is one which pervades man’s relationship with nature and others to the extent that a class formation emerges, grouping individuals whose estranged relationship with objective reality is made equivalent under the control of the capitalist.

However, Finelli prudently reminds us that the class, the proletariat, communism have been values and locations, ideal and real, conceived on the basis of the principle of abstract equality alone, or of an equality not vivified and made concrete by differences. It therefore ended up reflecting, in itself, precisely that same abstraction which it wanted to combat and eliminate. (Finelli, p.72)

The ideal function of the proletariat, antagonistic as they are to the reproductive alienation generated by the abstract labour process and the real abstractions structuring social life through exchange value, is built upon the same abstract equality that stabilizes the act of exchange in capitalist circulation. With this threat in mind, Finelli resolves that real change can only emerge when “a new anthropology” is conceived “that knows how to articulate difference together with equality, the right of everyone to see their own strictly unrepeatable singularity recognised, respected and developed.” (Finelli, p.73)

Abstraction continues to be a real reckoning force in modern life, particularly with the acceleration of global flows in our era of multinational capitalism. New forms of dissimulated abstractions synthetically generate the surface of concrete objective reality and condition the perceptual field to validate their hypostatization. Information technology is one obvious example of this process at work on contemporary lives. Comprehensively tracing the evolution of Marx’s writing on the subject of abstraction and the explications and extensions offered by Finelli will, however, give us an opportunity to reveal the real abstractions at work in our lives and salvage the real concrete from complete vacancy.


Finelli, Roberto. 2007. Abstraction versus Contradiction: Observations on Chris Arthur’s The New Dialectic and Marx’s ‘Capital’, in Historical Materialism 15, 61-74

Marx, Karl. 1992. Early Writings. London: Penguin Books

Marx, Karl. 1993. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin Books

Ollman, Bertell. 2003. Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Postone, Moishe, and Brennan, Timothy. 2009. Labor and the Logic of Abstraction: An Interview, in South Atlantic Quarterly 108(2), 305-330

Toscano, Alberto. 2008. The Open Secret of Real Abstraction, Rethinking Marxism, in A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society 20(2), 273-287

Sayer, Derek. 1987. The Violence of Abstraction: The Analytic Foundations of Historical Materialism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell


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