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Let me begin by looking at the first section of chapter 1 in considerable detail.
I do so in part because Marx here lays out fundamental categories in an a priori and somewhat cryptic, take-it-or-leave-it fashion that could do with elaboration.
But I am also interested in getting you, as quickly as possible, familiar with the kind of close reading of Capital that is necessary if you are to understand it. Don’t worry, I will not continue at this level of intensity!
The commodity is Marx’s a priori beginning point.
“The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails,” he says, “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” (125).
But notice something about the language. “Appears” occurs twice in the passage, and, plainly, “appears” is not the same as “is.”
The choice of this word—and watch out for it, because Marx makes frequent use of it throughout Capital—signals that something else is going on beneath the surface appearance. We are immediately invited to think about what this might be.
Notice also that Marx is exclusively concerned with the capitalist mode of production. He is not concerned with ancient modes of production, socialist modes of production or even hybrid modes of production, but with a capitalist mode of production in a pretty pure form.
It is always important to remember this in what follows.
Starting with commodities turns out to be very useful because everyone has daily contact with and experience of them. We are surrounded by them at every turn, we spend time shopping for them, looking at them, wanting them or spurning them.
The commodity form is a universal presence within a capitalist mode of production. Marx has chosen the common denominator, something that is familiar and common to us all, irrespective of class, race, gender, religion, nationality, sexual preference or whatever.
We know about commodities in an everyday way, and they are, furthermore, essential to our existence: we have to buy them in order to live.
Commodities are traded in the market, and this immediately poses the question: what kind of economic transaction is this? The commodity is something that meets a human want, need or desire. It is something external to us that we take possession of and make ours.
But Marx immediately declares he is not interested in “the nature of these needs, whether they arise, for example, from the stomach, or the imagination.” All he is interested in is the simple fact that people buy commodities and that this act is foundational to how people live.
There are, of course, millions of commodities in the world, and all of them are different in terms of their material qualities and how they are described quantitatively (pounds of flour, pairs of socks, kilowatts of electricity, yards of cloth, etc.).
But Marx pushes all this immense diversity to one side, saying that the discovery of “the manifold uses of things is the work of history,” as is the “invention of socially recognized standards of measurement for the quantities of these useful objects” (125).
But he needs to find some way to talk about the commodity in general. “The usefulness of a thing,” can best be conceptualized as a “use-value” (126). This concept of use-value will be vital in everything that follows.
Notice how quickly he abstracts from the incredible diversity of human wants, needs and desires, as well as from the immense variety of commodities and their weights and measures, in order to focus on the unitary concept of a use-value.
This is illustrative of an argument he makes in one of the prefaces, where he says that the problem for social science is that we cannot isolate and conduct controlled experiments in a laboratory,
so we have to use the power of abstraction instead in order to arrive at similar scientific forms of understanding (90). In this opening passage you see this process of abstraction at work for the first, but certainly not the last, time.
But “in the form of society to be considered here” (i.e., capitalism), commodities “are also the material bearers … of … exchange-value.” Be careful about the word “bearer,” because bearing something is not the same as being something.
Commodities are bearers of something else which has yet to be defined. So how do we discover what the commodity is a bearer of?
When we look at actual exchange processes in the market, we witness an immense variety of exchange ratios between, for example, shirts and shoes and apples and oranges, and these exchange ratios vary a great deal even for the same products according to time and place.
So at first sight it seems as if exchange ratios are “something accidental and purely relative” (but note the word “relative”).
From this it would “appear” that the idea of “an intrinsic value, i.e. an exchange value that is inseparably connected with the commodity, inherent in it, seems a contradiction in terms” (126). On the other hand, everything is in principle exchangeable with everything else.
Commodities can keep changing hands and keep moving in a system of exchanges. Something makes all commodities commensurable in exchange.
From this it follows that “the valid exchange-values of a particular commodity express something equal, and secondly, exchange-value cannot be anything other than the mode of expression, the ‘form of appearance’, of a content distinguishable from it.”
I cannot dissect a commodity and find that element within it that makes it exchangeable.
What makes it exchangeable must be something else, and that something else is discoverable only when the commodity is being exchanged (and here the idea of movement and process starts to emerge as crucial).
As the commodity changes hands, so it expresses something about not only its own qualities but the qualities of all commodities, i.e., that they are commensurable with one another.
So why are they commensurable, and whence does that commensurability derive? “Each of them” (the commodities), “so far as it is exchange-value, must therefore be reducible to this third thing” (127).
This common element,” Marx then argues, “cannot be a geometrical, physical, chemical or other natural property of commodities” (127). This leads to a significant turn in the argument. Marx is usually depicted as an unwavering if not fundamentalist materialist.
Everything has to be material in order to be validly considered as real, but here he is denying that the materiality of the commodity can tell you anything you might want to know about what it is that makes them commensurable.
“As use-values, commodities differ above all in quality, while as exchange-values they can only differ in quantity, and therefore do not contain an atom of use-value.” The commensurability of commodities is not constituted out of their use-values.
„If then we disregard the use-value of commodities, only one property remains”—and here we are going to make another of those a priori leaps by way of assertion—“that of being products of labour” (128). So commodities are all products of human labor.
What commodities have in common is that they are all bearers of the human labor embodied in their production.
But, he then immediately asks, what kind of human labor is embodied in commodities? It can’t be the actual time taken—what he calls the concrete labor—because then the longer taken to produce the commodity, the more valuable it would be.
Why would I pay a lot for an item because somebody took a long time making it when I can get it at half the price from somebody else who produced it in half the time? So, he concludes, all commodities are “reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the abstract” (128).
But what does this human labor in the abstract look like? Commodities are residues
“of the products of labour. There is nothing left of them in each case but the same phantom-like objectivity; they are merely congealed quantities of homogeneous human labour … As crystals of this social substance, which is common to them all, they are values—commodity values.”
(128)
What a crisp passage, yet with what incredibly condensed meanings! If human labor in the abstract is a “phantom-like objectivity,” how can we possibly see it or measure it? What kind of materialism is this?
It has, you will notice, taken a mere four pages of rather cryptic assertions to lay out the fundamental concepts and move the argument from use-value to exchange-value to human labor in the abstract, and ultimately to value as congealed quantities of homogeneous human labor.
It is their value that makes all commodities commensurable, and this value is both hidden as a “phantom-like objectivity” and passed on in the processes of commodity exchange.This poses the question: is value really a “phantom-like objectivity,” or does it merely appear that way?
This allows us to reinterpret exchange-value as “the necessary mode of expression, or form of appearance, of value” (128).
Notice the word “appearance” here once more, but now we can look at the relation the other way round because the mystery of what makes all commodities exchangeable is now understood as a world of appearances of this “phantom-like objectivity” called value.
Exchange-value is a necessary representation of the human labor embodied in commodities. When you go into the supermarket you can find out the exchange-values, but you can’t see or measure the human labor embodied in the commodities directly.
It is that embodiment of human labor that has a phantom-like presence on the supermarket shelves. Think about that the next time you are in a supermarket surrounded with these phantoms!
Marx then returns to the question of what kind of labor is involved in the production of value. Value is “abstract human labour … objectified … or materialized” in the commodity. How can this value be measured?
In the first instance, this plainly has something to do with labor-time.
But as I already argued in setting up the difference between concrete and abstract labor, it cannot be the actual labor-time, because then the commodity would be “more valuable the more unskillful and lazy the worker who produced it.”
So “the labour that forms the substance of value is equal human labour, the expenditure of identical human labour-power.”
In order to get at what the “expenditure of identical human labour-power” might mean, he needs, he says, to look at “the total labour-power of society, which is manifested in the values of the world of commodities” (129).
This a priori assertion has huge implications. Marx does not, however, elaborate on them here. So let me do so, lest you misconstrue what the value theory is about.
To speak of “the total labour-power of society” is tacitly to invoke a world market that has been brought into being under a capitalist mode of production.
Where does this “society”—the world of capitalist commodity exchange—begin and end? Right now it’s in China, it’s in Mexico, it’s in Japan, Russia, South Africa—it’s a global set of relations.
The measure of value is derived out of this whole world of human laboring. But this was true, though obviously on a lesser scale, of Marx’s time, too. There is a brilliant description of what we now call globalization in the Communist Manifesto:
„The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country … it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood.
All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed.
They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones;
industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes.
In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.“
It is on this dynamic global terrain of exchange relations that value is being determined and perpetually redetermined. Marx was writing in a historical context where the world was opening up very fast to global trade, through the steamship, the railways and the telegraph.
And he understood very well that value was not determined in our backyard or even within a national economy, but arose out of the whole world of commodity exchange.
But he here again uses the power of abstraction to arrive at the idea of units of homogeneous labor, each of which
“is the same as any other, to the extent that it has the character of a socially average unit of labour-power and acts as such,” as if this reduction to the value form is actually occurring through world trade.
This allows him to formulate the crucial definition of “value” as “socially necessary labour-time,”
which “is the labour-time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society.”
He concludes, “What exclusively determines the magnitude of the value of any article is therefore the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour-time socially necessary for its production” (129).
There is your definition. But it is plainly a contingent definition, because it is internal to the concept of “society”—but where does society begin or end? Is it closed or open? If that society is the world market, as it surely must be, then … ?
One reason Marx could get away with this cryptic presentation of use-value, exchange-value and value was because anybody who had read Ricardo would say, yes, this is Ricardo. And it is pure Ricardo with, however, one exceptional insertion.
Ricardo appealed to the concept of labor-time as value. Marx uses the concept of socially necessary labor-time. What Marx has done here is to replicate the Ricardian conceptual apparatus and, seemingly innocently, insert a modification.
But this insertion, as we shall see, makes a world of difference.
We are immediately forced to ask: what is socially necessary? How is that established, and by whom? Marx gives no immediate answers, but this question is one theme that runs throughout Capital. What are the social necessities embedded within a capitalist mode of production?
This, I submit, continues to be the big issue for us. Is there, as Margaret Thatcher famously remarked, “no alternative,” which in a way is like saying that the social necessities that surround us are so implacably set that we have no choice but to conform to them?
At its foundation, this goes back to a question of by whom and how “values” are established. We all like to think, of course, that we have our own “values,” and every election season in the United States there is an interminable discussion about candidates’ “values.”
But Marx is arguing that there is a certain kind and measure of value which is being determined by a process that we do not understand and which is not necessarily our conscious choice, and that the manner in which these values are being imposed on us has to be unpacked.
If you want to understand who you are and where you stand in this maelstrom of churning values, you have first to understand how commodity values get created and produced and with what consequences—social, environmental, political and the like.
If you think you can solve a serious environmental question like global warming without actually confronting the question of by whom and how the foundational value structure of our society is being determined, then you are kidding yourself.
Commodity values are not fixed magnitudes. They are sensitive, for instance, to changes in productivity:
„The introduction of power-looms into England, for example, probably reduced by one half the labour required to convert a given quantity of yarn into woven fabric.
In order to do this, the English hand-loom weaver in fact needed the same amount of labour-time as before; but the product of his individual hour of labour now only represented half an hour of social labour, and consequently fell to one half its former value.“ (129)
This alerts us to the fact that value is sensitive to revolutions in technology and in productivity. Much of Volume I is going to be taken up with the discussion of the origins and impacts of revolutions in productivity and the consequent revolutions in value relations.
But it is not only revolutions in technology that are important, because value is “determined by a wide range of circumstances; it is determined amongst other things by the workers’ average degree of skill, the level of development of science and its technological application”
—Marx is very taken with the significance of technology and science to capitalism—“the social organization of the process of production, the extent and effectiveness of the means of production, and the conditions found in the natural environment” (130).
A vast array of forces can impinge on values. Transformations in the natural environment or migration to places with more favorable natural conditions (cheaper resources) revolutionize values. Commodity values, in short, are subject to a powerful array of forces.
He does not here attempt a definitive categorization of all of them; he simply wants to alert us that what we are calling “value” is not a constant, but is subject to perpetual revolutionary transformations.
But then comes a peculiar twist in his argument. Right in the last paragraph of this section, he suddenly reintroduces the question of use-values. “A thing can be a use-value without being a value.”
We breathe air, and so far we haven’t managed to bottle it and sell it as a commodity, although I am sure someone is already trying to figure out how to do that.
Also, “a thing can be useful, and a product of human labour, without being a commodity.” I grow tomatoes in my backyard, and I eat them. Lots of people within capitalism actually do a lot of things for themselves (particularly with a bit of help from do-it-yourself stores).
A lot of laboring (particularly in the domestic economy) goes on outside commodity production. The production of commodities requires not only the production of use-values “but use-values for others.”
Not simply use-values for the lord of the manor, as the serf would do, but use-values that go to others through the market.
But the implication of this is that “nothing can be a value without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value” (131).
Marx earlier seemed to dismiss and abstract from use-values in order to get to exchange-value, and it was this that got him to value. But now he says that if the commodity doesn’t meet a human want, need or desire, then it has no value!
You have, in short, to be able to sell it to someone somewhere.
Let us reflect a moment on the structure of this argument. We begin with the singular concept of the commodity and establish its dual character: it has a use-value and an exchange-value. Exchange-values are a representation of something. What is it a representation of?
A representation of value, says Marx. And value is socially necessary labor-time. But value doesn’t mean anything unless it connects back to use-value. Use-value is socially necessary to value. There is a pattern to this argument, and it looks like this:
Consider, then, the implications of this argument. You own a commodity called a house. Are you more interested in its use-value or its exchange-value? You will likely be interested in both. But there is a potential opposition here.
If you want to fully realize the exchange-value, you have to surrender its use-value to someone else. If you have the use-value of it, then it is difficult to get access to the exchange-value, unless you do a reverse mortgage or take out a home-equity loan.
Does adding to the use-value of the house for oneself add to the potential exchange-value? (A new modern kitchen, probably yes; some special construction to facilitate a hobby, probably no.)
And what happens to our social world when the house that was once conceptualized mainly in use-value terms as a home becomes reconceptualized as a way to build long-term savings
(a capital asset) for a working-class family or even as a vehicle to be “flipped” by anyone who has access to credit for short-term speculative gain? This use-value/exchange-value dichotomy is, well, useful!
Consider the argument in greater detail. The commodity, a singular concept, has two aspects. But you can’t cut the commodity in half and say, that’s the exchange-value, and that’s the use-value. No, the commodity is a unity.
But within that unity, there is a dual aspect, and that dual aspect allows us to define something called value—another unitary concept—as socially necessary labor-time, and this is what the use-value of a commodity is a bearer of.
But in order to be of value, the commodity has to be useful. On this link back between value and use-value, we will see all kinds of issues arising around supply and demand.
If the supply is too great, the exchange-value will go down; if the supply is too little, the exchange-value will go up—so there is an element here of supply and demand involved in the “accidental and relative” aspects of exchange-value.
But behind these fluctuations, the value can remain constant (provided all the other forces that determine value, such as productivity, do too). Marx is not terribly interested in the supply and demand relation.
He wants to know how to interpret commodity-exchange ratios between, say, shirts and shoes, when supply and demand are in equilibrium.
We then need a different kind of analysis which points to value as congealed elements of this social substance called socially necessary labor-time.
We have, without noticing it, tacitly abstracted from supply and demand conditions in the market in order to talk about commodity-values (with supply and demand in equilibrium) as socially necessary labor-time.
How has Marx’s dialectical method been working here? Would you say that exchange-values cause value? Would you say exchange-values cause use-value, or use-values cause … ? This analysis is not causal. It is about relations, dialectical relations.
Can you talk about exchange-value without talking about use-value? No, you can’t. Can you talk about value without talking about use-value? No. In other words, you can’t talk about any of these concepts without talking about the others.
The concepts are codependent on one another, relations within a totality of some sort.
I recognize that to use the word “totality” is to wave a huge red flag in certain intellectual circles. Marx had no idea what structuralism might be about and would have had even less idea about poststructuralism.
We should be wary of cramming his thought into these categories (my own view is that he does not fit into them at all).
But Marx certainly had the ambition to understand the capitalist mode of production as a totality, so the only question of interest is, exactly what concept of totality does he have in mind?
What we know from this first section is that this totality can best be approached through the triumvirate of concepts of use-value, exchange-value and value built around the commodity.
But he has acknowledged that use-values are incredibly diverse, that exchange-values are accidental and relative and that value has (or appears to have) a “phantom-like objectivity,”
which is in any case subjected to perpetual revolutions through technological changes and upheavals in social and natural relations. This totality is not static and closed but fluid and open and therefore in perpetual transformation.
This is definitely not a Hegelian totality, but what else we can say about it will have to wait until we have gotten further along in the text.
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