Hostages of value

I’ve been thinking about how to simplify theory into a more reader-friendly format. It is always said that the message should be as simple as possible. In principle, I absolutely agree, but I also have my doubts about this. Can everything really always be presented so plainly? Hardly, if you look at the history of thought. The bricks that have been written by various authors are not really summed up in one or two slogans. Sometimes you just have to go down a painful path and bang your head against a book. 

Of course, you can simplify things if you are sure that the other person is somewhat familiar with the issue. You know that he or she speaks the same ”language” as you, so you don’t have to open every nuance. This is the kind of simplification that I am sure many people are looking for, but it is not possible without a broader knowledge of the matter. There are enough examples in the world of how certain theories or philosophies have been simplified and the recipient (or critic) may not quite have understood what was meant. 

So this time I want to address a topic that is relevant to the subject of the site, and which is often more or less misunderstood. It is the concept of work. Yes, the very thing that we as a society never stop talking about. I will not, however, carry out an exhaustive analysis of the subject, as I do not intend to write a book, but to offer a few pointers to broaden our thinking on the subject.

It is usually easier to understand things through some kind of example. Here I want to use Guy Standing’s criticism of the British Labour Party as a stepping stone. This same criticism could be extended extremely easily to other similar political movements and, indeed, to its opponents. Standing points out that the party’s conception of work is extremely simplistic (a good example of the dangers of simplification). Work seems to be defined as only and exclusively work done in a master-servant relationship, as work where you have a boss. (Standing 2014, 12.)

So what’s the problem? Isn’t this how we usually talk about work? Perhaps we might extend the view to a few other cases, which nevertheless suspiciously tend to fit into this broader concept. In any case, the first shortcoming is that, in order to be able to talk about work in the way that it is commonly talked about, we first have to abstract what is done as such into work and then further subordinate that work into abstract work. (e.g. Holloway 2010, 154-155.) We too often forget that work as a concept is a means of perception, not a thing found in nature as such. The activity, the doing of the organism are ’real things’ and to differentiate them is, again, always a kind of conceptual lassoing.

This may require some theoretical unfolding. The dual nature of work gives us two concepts: concrete work and abstract work. Concrete work is easily understood as work that produces the use value of a good. Abstract work, on the other hand, is work that produces the exchange value of a good. (see Vähämäki 2009, 141.) Abstract work is therefore co-extensive work (homogeneous), while concrete work is always – of course – concrete (heterogeneous). For Marx, abstract labour is therefore precisely an abstraction of what is produced in the extensive exchange of goods. (Harvey 2010, 29-30.) This large-scale exchange also turns mere labour into a commodity. (see Pitts 2018, 13). Exchange thus plays a major role in whether the abstract work will be there in the first place. It is only in that event of exchange that the commodity reveals in itself and in others something common. (esim. Harvey 2010, 7). Abstract work on a commodity does not exist as such, even if it is based on concrete work, which of course always exists (whatever kind of work it may be). However, this concrete work does not leave any ”value atoms” that can be extracted from the commodity, put under a magnifying glass and examined. Value as such only emerges in a particular social interaction. For Marx, the values of goods are not constant because they are subject to many different forces (Harvey 2010, 22), such as the average skill level of the workers, the level of science and its application, the social organisation of production, etc. (Marx 2013, 21). 

 think David Harvey has summed up brilliantly the difficulty of the concept of value. Value is always intangible, but objective. It fights against the conventional notion that value can always be measured. However, Harvey uses as his argument that you cannot determine gravity as such from a stone, just as you cannot determine value from a commodity. It is always a question of relation. Value can be represented or described in terms of money, but it is a very contradictory and complex form. (Harvey 2010, 37.) Holloway, for example, is right to say that the subject of capitalist society is not the capitalist but value. It is capital – accumulated value – that really makes the decisions. Capital has its own dynamics, and every capitalist is subject to them. (Holloway 2002, 34.)

So what is all this jargon supposed to mean? First of all, that work as such is a very fickle concept that can be criticised. On the other hand, to confine the concept of work to certain boundaries is always political in one way or another. Perhaps one could simply say: there is no such thing as work as such, but that does not mean that work as such does not have an enormous impact on society. One should always be curiously critical of the concepts offered to us for framing life and society. What do you want to do with them? How do they want to describe the world? The ancient Greeks, for example, did not even have the concept of general work, but more on that later.


Harvey David 2010. The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. Oxford Univerity Press.

Holloway John 2010. Crack Capitalism. Pluto Press. London/New York.

Marx Karl 2013. Capital – A critical analysis of Capitalist Production, Volume 1 & Volume 2. Wordworth Editions Limited. Hertfordshire.

Pitts Harry 2018. A crisis of measurability? Critiquing post-operaismo on labour, value and the basic income. Teoksessa Capital & Class vol 42. s. 3-21.

Standing, Guy. ”Denizens and the precariat.” A Precariat Charter: From denizens to citizens. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. 1–32. Bloomsbury Collections.

Vähämäki Jussi 2009. Itsen alistus – Työ, tuotanto ja valta tietokykykapitalismissa. Like. Helsinki.