The preponderance of abstract over concrete labor transforms the nature of work, by making it more routinized, machine-like, and abstracted from the sensuousness of the individual. It transforms our relation to nature, since it becomes increasingly viewed as a mere externality that must serve the dictates of capital accumulation. Nature ceases to be seen as having intrinsic value (in the moral sense); natural contingency and human creativity count only insofar as they augment economic value—and if they do not, they are ignored or cast aside. And capital’s drive for self-expansion transforms the meaning of time, since both workers and capitalists become governed by an abstract, quantitative, and invariable time-determination over which they have no control. The more abstract labor becomes, the greater the amount of value produced. And the more value produced, the more that capitalism is driven to augment value (and profit) ever more. In capitalism, “Time is everything, man is nothing; he is, at most, time’s carcass. Quality no longer matters. Quantity decides everything; hour for hour, day by day” (Marx 1976, 127). Capital is an endless quest for an infinite magnitude in a finite world.
None of this may seem to have anything to do with a post-capitalist society. However, Capital’s emphasis on the domination of human activity by abstract universal labor time intimates what must be done to transcend capitalism. It is not enough to simply abolish private property and unregulated markets, since stopping there leaves production relations intact. This is no discovery of Capital, of course; Marx had already arrived at this insight in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in critiquing “crude communism” for presuming that the mere abolition of private property constitutes the transcendence of capitalism. Capital, in its entirety, is the fullest concretization of this critique. And in doing so it poses a far more radical and expansive vision than those who define socialism as the abolition of market anarchy and unorganized exchange. In fact, Capital suggests that the alternative to capitalism necessarily seems to center on organizing exchange because of the nature of value production itself. The value of a commodity can never be known immediately, by looking at it in isolation; its value becomes manifest only in the exchange relation between discrete commodities. Value is therefore a “social hieroglyphic” (Marx 1977, 167) that is deep, dark, and difficult to understand. It is immediately knowable only on the level of its phenomenal expression—exchange-value. It therefore appears—virtually inevitably—that “rationally” organizing relations of exchange is the sine qua non for ending capitalism. Those who remain on the surface of things—which is a great many of us—never get further than this, making it hard to grasp the radical implications of Marx’s critique of capital.