From activity to labour commodification, labour power and

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From activity to labour commodification, labour power and

    From activity to labour: commodification, labour power and contradiction in activity theory

    stPaper presented to the 1 International Congress of the ISCAR “Acting in Changing Worlds:

    Learning, Communication, and Minds in Intercultural Activities”, Seville, 20 24 September


Paul Warmington, University of Birmingham, UK


    In outlining the principles of activity theory, Engeström (2001) identifies internal contradictions as „the driving force of change and development in activity systems.‟ Contradictions within activity systems therefore become „a guiding principle of empirical research‟ (Engeström, 2001). Elsewhere Engeström defines the „primary inner contradiction‟ of use and exchange value as a „Level 1 contradiction‟: one that exists within each constituent component of the central activity. This raises two key issues. Firstly, despite Engeström‟s definition, current literature on activity theory sometimes uses the term „contradiction‟ loosely, equating it simply with „tensions‟, „problems‟ and „conflicts‟. Secondly, can the contradiction between use and exchange value be said to exist within each

    component of an activity system?

    Marx posits two categories of commodity: the „general class of commodities‟ and the other class of commodity, which is labour power: „the capacity to labour …the skills, attitudes, knowledges and

    attributes that are used in the production of use-values‟ (Rikowski, 2001). In contemporary capitalism,

    with its emphasis upon „service industries‟, „knowledge economies‟, „reflexivity‟ and „learning organisations‟, work activities are as much about the (re)production of labour power as they are about marshalling concrete, actual labour to produce general commodities. Labour power exists in diverse aspects: as actual labour (expended in the production of general commodities), as abstract labour (upon which value is predicated) and as potential labour power (the capacity to labour). It is the last of

    these which pervades every component of an activity system. Young (2001) states that, in its concern with expansive learning, activity theory focuses upon organisational learning developed in contexts where „the outcome is a better service …and where learning is crucial but incidental to the main goals

    of the organisation‟. However, while learning may not, for employers, be the intended outcome of organisational activity, it may be argued that raising the quality of labour power (potential) is an intended outcome; indeed raising the quality of organisational labour power potential is, in one sense, a definition of „expansiveness‟. Explicit attention should, therefore, be given to the „intentional‟ place of labour power production within activity systems. In particular, analysis of work-related learning should be located within coherent theories of work/ labour.


    This paper considers the consequences for the concepts of contradiction, commodification and motivation that might flow from affording labour power greater visibility within activity theory. It draws, in particular, upon the UK‟s Learning in and for Interagency Working study, which aims to develop

    professional learning in multiagency settings, wherein education, health and social services professionals are concerned with supporting „at risk‟ young people. Since multiagency or „joined up‟

    working is currently, promoted within UK social policy as a „better‟, more „effective‟ form of social provision, arguably the very notion of multiagency working is concerned with developing activity systems that are capable raising the quality of professional labour power potential. Moreover, the category of labour power potential is related to notions of expansive learning because labour power is expansive in a way that general commodities are not; it has the potential to create value and its dynamic is unstable. It is never „finished‟; it is always expanding.


    In outlining the principles and successive generations of activity theory, Engeström (2001, p.135) emphasises the „idea of internal contradictions as the driving force of change and development in activity systems. Drawing upon Il‟enkov (1977, 1982), Engeström (2001, p.135) underlines

    contradictions as „…a guiding principle of empirical research‟. He proceeds to describe:

    „…the central role of contradictions as sources of change and development. Contradictions

    are not the same as problems or conflicts. Contradictions are historically accumulating

    structural tensions within and between activity systems. The primary contradiction of activities

    within capitalism is that between the use and exchange value of commodities. This primary

    contradiction pervades all elements of our activity systems.‟ (Engeström, 2001, p.137)

    This paper considers some of the problems and possibilities contained in Engeström‟s (1987, 1999,

    2001) analysis of the role of contradictions in the application of activity theory as a tool to analyse and transform learning in practice (through what is termed „expansive learning‟). In doing so, it builds upon

    Engeström‟s explicitly stated concern with theorising activities in capitalism. Despite tendencies

    elsewhere to depict activity theory‟s Marxist derivations as atavistic (Jonassen 2000; cf. Agayev, 2003), Engeström has continued to foreground Marx‟s key categories of „contradictions‟, „commodities‟, „use-

    value„ and „exchange-value‟. Activity theorists should, of course, also note that in Marx‟s writings

    „activity‟ and „labour‟ are used more or less synonymously (Jones, 2003). Engeström defines the

    „primary inner contradiction‟ of use-value and exchange-value as a „Level 1 contradiction‟: one that

    exists within each constituent component of the central activity‟ (CATDWR, 2004, italics added). In

    offering explanation of the „contradiction‟ between use- and exchange-value, Engeström customarily

    invokes Leont'ev‟s example of a medical practitioner‟s work:


    „The primary contradiction can be found by focusing on any of the elements of the doctor's

    work activity. For example, instruments of this work include a tremendous variety of

    medicaments and drugs. But they are not just useful for healing - they are above all

    commodities with prices, manufactured for a market, advertised and sold for profit. Every

    doctor faces this contradiction in his or her daily decision making, in one form or another.‟

    (Leont‟ev, 1981, p.255)

    The usage of these categories to explain the role of contradictions within activity systems raises a series of salient issues. Firstly, despite Engeström‟s distinction, there seems to be a tendency,

    particularly in the literature on the practical applications of activity theory in work-related research to equate „contradictions‟ per se simply with problems or conflicts‟ and, moreover to blur distinctions

    between logical contradictions and dialectical contradictions (cf. Bhaskar, 1983; cf. Allman et al, 2000).

    Secondly, in what sense might use-value and exchange value be said to exist within each component

    of an activity system? Leont‟ev‟s medicinal example provides a clear-cut example of the double use-

    and exchange- form of a commodity, as described at the outset of Capital (Marx, 1976/ 1883, pp.125-

    177). However, while it is easy to see how this „double nature‟ might exist, for instance, in the object

    or outcome of an activity (or in the form of certain tools), it is less clear how use- and exchange- value might be present in the other components of an activity system, such as „community‟, „rules‟

    or ‟subject‟. In what sense might nodes such as „subject‟, „rules‟ or „community‟ be said to be

    commodified? Moreover, is it possible to work with notions of value, commodification and contradiction without reifying the independent character of the different constituent elements of an activity system and, thereby, shifting away from activity „as the molar unit of analysis‟ (cf. Roth et al,

    2005, p.5)?

    This paper draws upon contemporary Marxist theory, notably Postone (1996), Rikowski (1999, 2000a/b, 2001, 2002a/b) and Allman et al (2000) in order to expand the notion of contradictions and

    commodification contained within Engeström‟s depiction of activity systems. In doing so, it returns to the starting points from which Marx (1976/ 1883, 1973/1858) develops his critical theory of activities in capitalism: the categories of labour and the commodity. For Postone (1996, p.7) the limitation of traditional‟ Marxist theory lies in its „transhistorical conception of labour‟, wherein:

    „Marx‟s category of labour is understood in terms of a goal directed social activity that mediates

    between humans and nature, creating specific products in order to satisfy determinate human

    needs. Labor, so understood, is considered to lie at the heart of all social life.‟ (Postone, 1996,


    Postone (1996) argues that this conception of labour, which resembles the definition of „activity‟

    customarily proffered in literature on activity theory, constitutes a transhistorical error, in that it


generalises features of labour that Marx attributes specifically to labour in capitalism (or activity in

    capitalism). As a consequence, the tendency of traditional Marxist theory has been to develop a critique of capitalism from the standpoint of labour, emphasising forms of oppression and exploitation. In contrast, Postone‟s (1996) claim is that Marx‟s mature critical theory constitutes a critique of labour

    within capitalism: that is, labour within a commodity-determined society. Orthodox Marxism

    presupposes a contradiction between the elements of the form of social life that is capitalism (for

    instance, the market, private ownership) and the social sphere constituted by labour; for Postone

    (1996), however, labour in capitalism is the essential structure of capitalism. He argues, therefore,

    that what Marx offers is not simply a theory of capitalist exploitation but a critical theory of modernity itself as a commodity-determined social universe, sinewed with contradictions generated by value-creating activity, the drive to create value through labour. Thus the consideration of activity in capitalism must begin from the understanding that „activity in capitalism‟ equates to „activity as

    capitalism‟. In the world of work-related learning, of learning in practice, activity/ labour is the fabric of capitalism‟s social universe. Implicit in this understanding is the conception of capital not as a „thing‟

    but as a social relationship, a social substance. In capitals social universe, labour and its products

    become forms of social mediation

    „Everyday life in capitalist society is contradiction-ridden and Marxism brings these

    contradictions to the fore and explores their origins and effects for everyday social existence,

    everyday life…‟ (Rikowski, 2002a/b, p.5)

    The position of this paper is that Engeström‟s „second generation‟ model of activity theory,

    emblematically represented in his extended triangle of mediations (Figure 2), can be usefully read as a depiction of the social relations that mediate commodity-determined, contradiction-ridden activity. The consequent argument is that, within any activity system, the primary contradiction resides not in the use-and exchange value of general commodities (such as the doctor‟s medicine) that may be utilised

    as tools or produced as outcomes but in what Marx termed the „other great class of commodity‟ (Marx

    1976/ 1883; cf. Rikowski, 2000a) labour power. This has implications for the practical application of

    activity theory in work-related research, since it suggests that, regardless of the specific, momentary object of a particular activity (e.g. the development of specific workplace practices), the „object‟ of an

    activity system is the expansion of labour power, or rather labour power potential. The paper draws

    upon the analyses of labour power that Rikowski (1999, 2000a/b, 2002a/b) and Allman et al (2000)

    have employed to critique labour within capitalism. In analysing activity systems as „systems‟ of social

    reproduction of labour power the perennial thorn in the side of research into work-related learning is also addressed: the fact that the primary purpose of organisations is the production and maintenance of goods and services, rather than learning per se (cf. Young,2001). While learning may not, for

    employers and managers, be the principal intended outcome of organisational activity, it may be


    argued that raising the quality of labour power is an intended outcome; indeed raising the quality of organisational labour power potential is, in one sense, a definition of „expansiveness‟. Explicit attention should, therefore, be given to the „intentional‟ place of labour power production within activity


    The paper begins by outlining Engeström‟s (1987, 1999, 2001) activity theory model, suggesting that

    the expanded notion of activity contained therein offers a gloss on the social relationships that constitute activity within capitalism. It refers both to Roth et al’s (2005, p.6) cautionary note on the

    need to understand the transactional nature of the entities that Engeström foregrounds in his

    triangular representation of activity systems and to Postone‟s (1996) analysis of Marx‟s critical theory

    of the social universe of capital, a social universe predicated upon value-creating labour/ activity. It then outlines the contradictions produced by the commodification of labour within capitalism, drawing upon Rikowski (1999, 2000a/b, 2002a/b) and Allman et al (2000). The conclusion of these lines of

    discussion is that activity systems form units of analysis of the social production of labour power. Therefore, the application of activity theory in work-related learning should be informed by labour power analyses and, consequently, analysis of contradictions should seek to understand the antagonisms that exist in activity as a social relationship (not simply a form of production) in capitalism. In sum, this paper comprises an exploratory melding of emergent Marxist theory with cultural-historical activity theory; it is also a polemical call for the (re)insertion of labour power theory into activity theory derived analyses of work-related learning.

    Activity theory and triangles of mediation

    „Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his

    own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and

    nature …Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way

    he simultaneously changes his own nature.‟ (Marx, 1976/ 1883, p.283)

    Activity theory offers a restatement of Marx‟s „transhistorical definition of labour (in Engeström as

    much as in Vygotsky or Leontev). Engeström (1987, 2001) outlines the genealogy of activity theory via the expansion of the notion of activity systems. The first generation of activity theory drew upon Vygotsky‟s (1978, 1986) concept of mediation between subject, tool (artefact) and object. Vygotsky‟s

    „activity theory‟ is, in fact, not so much a theory as an analytical framework predicated upon Marx‟s dialectical materialist concept of the symbiosis between activity and consciousness. Activity and learning are taken as mutually dependent and the system of object-orientated, tool-mediated activity becomes the focus of analysis (cf. Jonassen, 2000). Marx‟s Theses on Feuerbach (Marx, 2000/ 1845)


are often invoked by activity theorists but Capital Volume 1, (1976/1883) is where the triadic dynamic

    of activity is more starkly rendered:

    „The simple elements of the labour processes are (1) purposeful activity, that is work itself, (2)

    the object on which that work is performed, and (3) the instruments of that work.‟ Marx

    (1976/1883, p. 284).

    Mediational Means (Tools)

    (machines, writing, speaking, gesture, architecture, music, etc)

    1Subject(s) Object/Motive -->Outcome(s)

    (individual, dyad, group)

    Figure 1: first generation activity theory model

    Figure 1 represents Vygotsky‟s initial framework, which brought together human actions with cultural artefacts (Marx‟s „instruments‟) in order to dispense with the individual/social dualism and create a Marxist social psychology. Engeström (2001) describes Vygotsky‟s advance thus:

    „The insertion of cultural artifacts into human actions was revolutionary …the individual could

    no longer be understood without his or her cultural means; and the society could no longer be

    understood without the agency of individuals who use and produce artifacts…‟ (Engeström,

    2001, p.134)

    Engeström‟s (1987, 2001) second generation of activity theory draws upon Leont‟ev (1978).

    Engeström (1987) advocates the study of tools or artefacts „as integral and inseparable components of

    human functioning‟ and argues that the focus of cultural-historical analysis should be on tool mediation, the relationship between tools and other components of the activity system, which Engestrom (1987) here expands to include „rules‟, „community‟ and „division of labour‟.


    Mediating Artefacts:

    Tools and Signs




    Figure 2: second generation activity theory model

     RulesCommunityDivision of Labour

    In order to progress the development of activity theory Engeström (1987) expanded the original

    The structure of a human activity system Engestrom 1987 p. 78triangular representation of activity to enable an examination of systems of activity at the level of the collective and the community in preference to focusing on the individual actor or agent operating with tools. This expansion of the basic Vygotskian triad, it can be argued, represents the activity system as a social relationship - a social universe - through the incorporation of the elements of community, rules and division of labour and emphasis upon the importance of analysing interactions between the system‟s entities (Figure 2). Crucially, Engeström‟s model draws upon Il‟enkov (1977, 1982) to

    foreground contradictions within activity systems (within and between components) as the driving force of change and development.

    Engeström‟s triangular representation (Figure 2) has been widely used and adapted. This „triangle of

    mediations‟ (Roth et al, 2005) presents activity theory as a „framework for understanding the totality of human work and praxis‟ (Jonassen, 2000). However, Roth et al (2005) caution that:

    „The downside of heuristic representations is that they tend to reify the entities they have set in

    relation. They appear to suggest an interaction of different entities whereby each can be

    meaningfully understood in isolation. To underscore the mutually constitutive relation of pairs

    of entities, the notion of transaction is more appropriate.‟ (Roth et al, 2005, p.6)

    Roth et al (2005) seek to make explicit the dialectical relation of transactional structures by employing expressions such as subjectΙobject and individualΙcollective, using the Sheffer stroke „Ι to indicate an

    idea containing a contradiction. For example, as Vygotsky‟s conceptualisation stresses, individualΙcollective are „mutually excluding yet mutually presupposing concepts‟ (Roth et al, p.6).

    Roth et al’s (2005) analysis emphasises the importance of the entire activity system as the unit of analysis, in which the elements of the activity system exist in dialectical „unity‟. The principal definition

    of system „contradictions‟ is rooted in a dialectical logic that Roth et al (2005) suggest, is too often


    relinquished. For example, adaptations of Lave and Wenger‟s (1991) concept of „legitimate peripheral participation‟ often give inadequate attention to „communities of practice‟ as a dialectical relation

    between the individual and the collective; researchers often isolate notions of „legitimate‟ and

    „illegitimate‟ forms of participation and notions of „marginal‟ or „core‟ activity, rather than thinking in

    terms of marginΙcore:

    „From a systemic perspective, an individual might be viewed as an element that possesses

    specific abilities or properties in her corporeal body and therefore takes a certain position such

    as margin or center in a given structure. But to the same individual, systemic entities such as

    tools, rules or division of labor appear as a set of salient possibilities available to her action.

    The systemic elements unfold through her actions, her acting body.‟ (Roth et al, 2005, p.7)

    Thus systemic analysis of activity should be grounded in a clear grasp of interdependence and social mediation. „Thinking dialectically,‟ Roth et al (2005, p.7) add, „means that we must stop pursuing the

    notion of whether the chicken or the egg came first and begin understanding them as mutually presupposing.‟

    Interdependence and social mediation

    Roth‟s et al (2005) comments on Engeström highlight three important points: firstly, the dialectical, mutually constituting form of contradictions; secondly, the interdependence of what may appear to be distinct systemic entities within the activity system; thirdly, the notion that, systemically, actors may be simultaneously marginal and central and that the systemic elements of the activity system „unfold through …actions … (the) acting body‟. There is a commonality between the social universe implied

    here and that implied in Leont‟ev‟s (1981) definition of activity‟s „primary contradiction‟. Leont‟ev‟s

    (1981) example of the „double form‟ a medicine takes, in so far as it is a commodity, returns to Marx‟s

    starting point in Capital, which is the commodity produced by labour (by activity) in capitalism, rather than the contradiction per se:

    „The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an

    “immense collection of commodities”; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form.

    Our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity.‟ (Marx, 1976/1883,


    Postone‟s (1996, p.148) criticism of orthodox Marxism is that the categories of labour‟ (or activity) and

    commodification are routinely treated „too narrowly as political-economic categories‟ that presuppose

    the social interdependence that Marx is, in fact, attempting to explain. In fact, Marx does not merely offer a theory of production but a theory of social relationships, of the social fabric of capital‟s universe.

    Caution should be applied, therefore, in regarding activity systems only as production frameworks.


Postone (1996) characterises Marx‟s critical theory as a critique of a historically specific social form,

    which is constituted by labour in capitalism. This social formation comprises „a new sort of interdependence‟, in which social relations are constituted by labour, by activity, but in which „social

    interrelatedness …cannot be grasped adequately in terms of the overtly social relations between people‟ (Postone, 1996, p.153).

    This new form of interdependence is the social formation implied in Leont‟ev‟s „primary contradiction‟. The drugs to which Leont‟ev refers exist in double form as use and exchange-values because these

    medicines are a commodity. In a commodity-determined society producers do not, by and large, subsist on what they consume. In short, the chemist who produces and sells medicines cannot live on medicine alone and will not produce the range of particular goods that she requires to satisfy her accumulating needs, such as clothes, food, cars, holidays, I-Pods. These goods will be produced by others. The medicines that the chemist produces are her products, the objectification of her labour,

    of her activity within capitalism. One the one hand, her medicines are the qualitatively specific products of concrete labour expended in creating them; that is, the medicines are, as Leont‟ev points

    out, „useful for healing‟ and will be purchased by others who have momentary need of the healing quality. Thus they will be bought by others as a use value („Use values are only realised in use or

    consumption‟, Marx, 1976/ 1883, p.126). The money exchanged for these products will enable the chemist, in turn, to purchase the products of others‟ labour. In other words, the medicine commodity,

    which has been bought as a use-value has been sold by the chemist as a means of exchange, a means of enabling the medicine producer to acquire the objectified labour of car, clothes and computer producers. Postone (1996) summarises Marx:

    „In commodity-determined society, the objectifications of one‟s labour are means by which

    goods produced by others are acquired; one labours in order to acquire other products. One‟s

    product …serves someone else as a good, a use value; it serves the producer as a means of

    acquiring the labour products of others. It is in this sense that a product is a commodity …This

    signifies that one‟s labor has a dual function: On the one hand, it is a specific sort of labour that

    produces particular goods for others, yet, on the other hand, labor independent of its specific

    content, serves the producer as the means by which the products of others are acquired.‟

    (Postone, 1996, p.149, italics added).

    Labour in capitalism has a dual function. Insofar as it serves as a means of acquiring goods, as well

    as producing them, the labour that the chemist expends producing Leont‟ev‟s medicine is abstracted

    from the cars and clothes that she acquires by means of her medicine production. In short:

    There is no intrinsic relation between the specific nature of the labor expended and the

    specific nature of the product acquired by means of that labor.‟ (Postone, 1996, p.149)


This is why Postone (1996) describes Marx‟s social theory not as a theory of exploitation and

    domination within modern society but as a social theory of modernity, of capital‟s social universe.

    What is described in Marx‟s concept of the commodity form (1976/1883, 1973/1858) is „a new form of

    interdependence‟, one in which labour and its products replace overt social relations (Postone, 1996, p.150). In social formations that are not dominated by commodity production, the distribution of labour and its products is effected by diverse ties, customs and power relations. By contrast, in commodity-determined society labour serves as the means by which people acquire the labour products of others. Therefore, labour takes over the distributionary function which, in non-capitalist societies is performed by overt social relations (such as kinship, custom, tribute). In capitalism labour performs both its basic „concrete‟ social function as creator of goods but also acts as an „abstract‟ mechanism of exchange

    and distribution:

    „Hence rather than being mediated by overtly or “recognizably” social relations, commodity

    determined labor is mediated by a set of structures that …it itself constitutes. Labor and its

    products mediate themselves in capitalism; they are self-mediating socially.‟ (Postone, 1996,


    Thus when Marx, Leont‟ev or Engeström depict the double form of commodities (use- and exchange-

    value) they are referring to the double dimension that commodities acquire: they are qualitatively particular (having particular usages as medicine or clothes or cars) but they are also „socially general,

    as abstract labor‟ (Postone, 1996, p.151, italics added). Abstract labour is the means by which labour

    enables the acquisition of the specific products of others; abstract labour is general, in that it is a general means of exchange and acquisition; regardless of the specifics that one‟s labour produces (medicine, clothes or cars), one‟s labour and its products also contains a general dimension, wherein

    medicine, clothes or cars perform the same function as forms of exchange:

    „…it is the social function of labour which makes it general …the labor of all producers serves

    as a means by which the products of others can be obtained. Consequently, “labor in general”

    serves in a socially general way as a mediating activity ...commodity producing labor, in the

    process of objectifying itself as concrete labor in particular use values, also objectifies itself as

    abstract labor in social relations.‟ (Postone, 1996, pp.152-153)

    Thus Postone (1996) is at pains to emphasise that Marx‟s categories of labour/ activity,

    commodification and use- and exchange-value are not narrow economic categories but categories that offer an analysis of the social character of labour/ activity in capitalism and the historically specific form of interdependency that structures capitalism. It is a social formation in which the specific and social relations of non-capitalist societies are replaced by a social formation in which a „single, abstract, homogenous …relation underlies every aspect of social life‟: the mediating activity that is labour in


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