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


  • 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.

Suggested Citation

  • Eric Rahim, 2011. "The Concept of Abstract Labour in Adam Smith's System of Thought," Review of Political Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 23(1), pages 95-110.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:revpoe:v:23:y:2011:i:1:p:95-110
    DOI: 10.1080/09538259.2011.526296

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Young, Allyn A., 1928. "Increasing Returns and Economic Progress," History of Economic Thought Articles, McMaster University Archive for the History of Economic Thought, vol. 38, pages 527-542.
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    1. repec:edn:sirdps:409 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. Rahim, Eric, 2012. "Marx: From Hegel and Feuerbach to Adam Smith," SIRE Discussion Papers 2012-74, Scottish Institute for Research in Economics (SIRE).
    3. 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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