Just a fragment tonight – very tired… A quick look at the introductory section of the first chapter of Capital, from the online version here.
Marx begins this chapter with what looks to be a fairly straightforward definition of the commodity:
The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.
A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference. Neither are we here concerned to know how the object satisfies these wants, whether directly as means of subsistence, or indirectly as means of production.
Every useful thing, as iron, paper, &c., may be looked at from the two points of view of quality and quantity. It is an assemblage of many properties, and may therefore be of use in various ways. To discover the various uses of things is the work of history. So also is the establishment of socially-recognized standards of measure for the quantities of these useful objects. The diversity of these measures has its origin partly in the diverse nature of the objects to be measured, partly in convention.
The utility of a thing makes it a use value. But this utility is not a thing of air. Being limited by the physical properties of the commodity, it has no existence apart from that commodity. A commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far as it is a material thing, a use value, something useful. This property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labour required to appropriate its useful qualities. When treating of use value, we always assume to be dealing with definite quantities, such as dozens of watches, yards of linen, or tons of iron. The use values of commodities furnish the material for a special study, that of the commercial knowledge of commodities. Use values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth. In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange value.
Exchange value, at first sight, presents itself as a quantitative relation, as the proportion in which values in use of one sort are exchanged for those of another sort, a relation constantly changing with time and place. Hence exchange value appears to be something accidental and purely relative, and consequently an intrinsic value, i.e., an exchange value that is inseparably connected with, inherent in commodities, seems a contradiction in terms.
I’ve previously suggested that this opening definition is not meant to represent Marx’s own position, but is instead intended to express the way in which the wealth of capitalist societies is intuitively perceived by social actors embedded in this context. By examining the implications of these intuitive perceptions, Marx will gradually unfold more complex categories – with the intention, ultimately, of looping back and “grounding” the sorts of definitions with which he starts: showing that these apparently simple and pristine beginnings presuppose, and express, the much more complex social and historical process that he will analyse throughout Capital.
In this opening passage, Marx suggests that capitalism presents itself in terms of a bifurcation between nature and society. On the one hand, in discussing use value, Marx suggests that capitalism presents us with (or sensitises us to the possibility of) a “thingly”, objective, material world that possesses timeless intrinsic properties. We can study and eventually uncover the properties of material objects over time, and we can also project human desires and meanings onto them, but the material world fundamentally sits “outside” of us.
On the other hand, in moving from use value to exchange value, Marx suggests that capitalism presents us with (or sensitises us to the possibility of) our current social arrangements as only the most recent instance in an ever-changing, accidental, relativistic historical succession – a succession of human conventions that may wrap themselves arbitrarily around, or project themselves contingently on, the “outside” material world. The material world figures by contrast as intrinsically devoid of anthropological determinations, as what remains behind when arbitrary human social arrangements have been stripped away – as a “true” content, which then comes to be covered over or masked by arbitrary social forms.
Why do I suggest that this is not Marx’s own position? Am I suggesting that Marx doesn’t believe that human social conventions are historical to their core? Am I positioning him as some kind of radical constructivist who sees in the natural world nothing but a human invention? No, to both questions. But something about the ways in which nature and society “give” themselves to us intuitively under capitalism, strikes Marx as in need of further investigation: after he outlines the definitions above, he invites: “Let us consider the matter a little more closely”.
Where he goes next is to a series of deductions or “conceptual abstractions” (the significance of this term will become clearer over time). Here, once again, I would suggest that Marx is not entirely speaking in his own voice, but is instead attempting to remain immanent to the phenomenological perspective he is trying to analyse.
So, still speaking in this immanent voice, Marx begins to analyse the process of exchanging two commodities. He presents an argument that runs along the following lines: The material forms of the commodities you intend to exchange are qualitatively different from one another: the goods aren’t in any qualitative sense the same. You would hardly desire to exchange one for the other if the goods were identical: what would be the benefit? Yet exchange makes an equation: it determines that the goods must be exchanged for one another in some specific quantitative proportion – the goods must therefore be “equal” in some sense.
But what is being equated? Not the determinate, qualitative, material properties of the goods – we have already established that we do not exchange goods that are qualitatively the same and, Marx adds, in a context in which any good can in principle be exchanged for any other, we are clearly willing to abstract from every material property of a good for purposes of exchange.
If we aren’t equating a material property of the goods, then we must be equating something else – Marx suggests that this must be a purely social property – without “an atom of use value”. Marx nominates the social property of being the products of human labour, “arguing” (remembering, again, that we aren’t yet reading Marx’s own position, but rather his exposition of what is “given” to a particular phenomenological perspective) that the only possible thing diverse commodities could have in common, is their common origin in human labour.
This common property, however, can’t refer to any specific kind of labour: if the determinate qualitative characteristics of particular labouring activities were taken into account, then we still wouldn’t have a common property, something homogeneous and uniform, to render possible the exchange. We must therefore be talking about labour abstracted from all its variegated concrete forms – abstract labour – a measure of the human labour power congealed in particular objects – a “social substance” that Marx calls “Value”.
But how is this labour power measured, such that it becomes possible to equate commodities in various exact proportions? Marx suggests (again not in his own voice) that abstract labour, devoid as it is of any qualitative characteristics, can only be measured by its duration – as labour-time. The measurement of the labour-time congealed in particular commodities enables the equation required for exchange.
Yet different amounts of labour are expended in the production of particular goods of the same type – and, if the actual labour time empirically invested in production were to determine the Value of a good, then the least efficient production process would generate the greatest Value. What prevents such a thing from happening? Marx answers: Value is not measured by the labour time empirically spent in particular individual acts of production, but rather by the labour time required, on average, in a given historical and social context, to produce a particular good.
Value therefore acts as a coercive social standard, which operates independently of particular empirical processes of production, which may be more or less efficient than the social norm expressed in Value. Producers labour as they do, at the level of productivity their skill and equipment allow. Value then determines how much of the labour they empirically spend in production, gets to “count as labour”. The producers can’t reliably know in advance how much of their labour will “count”:
The value of a commodity would therefore remain constant, if the labour time required for its production also remained constant. But the latter changes with every variation in the productiveness of labour. This productiveness is determined by various circumstances, amongst others, by the average amount of skill of the workmen, the state of science, and the degree of its practical application, the social organisation of production, the extent and capabilities of the means of production, and by physical conditions.
And, even where producers have reasons to suspect that much of their labour won’t “count”, they may be powerless to avert the situation:
For example, the same amount of labour in favourable seasons is embodied in 8 bushels of corn, and in unfavourable, only in four. The same labour extracts from rich mines more metal than from poor mines.
The labour time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time. The introduction of power-looms into England probably reduced by one-half the labour required to weave a given quantity of yarn into cloth. The hand-loom weavers, as a matter of fact, continued to require the same time as before; but for all that, the product of one hour of their labour represented after the change only half an hour’s social labour, and consequently fell to one-half its former value.
In summarising Marx’s text above, I have suggested several times that he is not quite speaking in his own voice: I should clarify here the sense in which I mean this. Marx does retain the notion that socially-average labour-time constitutes the “social substance” of the Value congealed within commodities. The voicing in this section – the deductive form of the presentation that suggests that this social puzzle could be reasoned through with a detached and decontextualised logic – is something Marx will explicitly call into question in section 3, by asking the simple question of why, if logical reasoning were all that were required to deduce the existence of Value, Aristotle rejected the notion and viewed market exchange as a mere “makeshift for practical purposes”. As the chapter unfolds, Marx will therefore suggest that something other than a “conceptual abstraction” is at stake in the recognition of Value – that this conceptual breakthrough of political economy may owe an unrecognised debt to historical shifts – specifically to the constitution of a “real abstraction” enacted in collective practice.
More on the notion of a real abstraction, the concept of abstract labour, and the argument about the fetish (which will bring us back to the nature/society dichotomy with which I started this piece), as I have the time…
The previous instalments in this series are:
Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital
Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”