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The Concept of Abstract Labour in Adam Smith's System of Thought


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  • Eric Rahim


This paper draws attention to the fact that in the Wealth of Nations Smith conceptualises labour as a malleable, adaptable resource, capable of undertaking whatever may be required of it as the economy evolves over time. This conception, equivalent to Marx's 'abstract labour', differs fundamentally from the neoclassical view of the labour force as comprised of individual agents, each with a given endowment of capabilities. In Smith's analysis, the flexible character of abstract labour is essential to allow the progressive extension of division of labour in the course of economic development. It is also an essential underpinning of Smith's explanation of how 'natural balance' is maintained within the economy; this implies an understanding of equilibrium values quite different from that of the later neoclassical conception. Abstract labour is furthermore a necessary element of Smith's claim that individual agents, pursuing their own ends, promote the general interest of society, understood not in terms of the attainment of an 'optimal', utility-maximising allocation of given resources, but in terms of the promotion of capital accumulation and economic development.

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Article provided by Taylor & Francis Journals in its journal Review of Political Economy.

Volume (Year): 23 (2011)
Issue (Month): 1 ()
Pages: 95-110

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Handle: RePEc:taf:revpoe:v:23:y:2011:i:1:p:95-110

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Cited by:
  1. Eric Rahim, 2012. "Marx: From Hegel and Feuerbach to Adam Smith," Working Papers 1206, University of Strathclyde Business School, Department of Economics.


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