Karl Marx, “Commodities & Money”


In the beginning of Capital, Marx outlines the necessary conditions for the production of commodities, or useful external objects produced for exchange on a market. Therefore, the commodity necessitates a market for exchange and a social division of labor to create specialized products. Commodities have use value (purpose) as well as exchange-value (worth). The value, Marx asserts, depends on the quantity of social labor required to produce the object. If 2 items are equatable in value, there must be a “third thing” that can be sought as well. Capitalism is unique in its pursuit of profit through the exchange of commodities – how is profit generated? For Marx, it is through labor exploitation – labor is “variable capital” because it is paid less than its worth. Commodities are more “constant capital,” contributing as they do to other, finished commodities without increasing their value. The “surplus value theory” of profit is thus that the labor of the worker exceeds what is necessary according to the value of his wages.

In this model, profit should fall with increased mechanization and industrialization, right? Indeed, this is a major flaw in Marx’s argument and we have not seen the downfall of capitalism or the shrinking of its profits. His theories are most valuable in questioning the teleological model of a stable capitalist economics (he suggests the boom & bust cycle as inevitable) and the idea that the relations between worker and capitalist are harmonious and mutually beneficial (he restages this as a class-based struggle for rights against the capitalist drive for profit).

Some excerpts from “Commodities”:

“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… an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another… from two points of view of quality and quantity… 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” 43.

“We have seen that when commodities are exchanged, their exchange value manifests itself as something totally independent of their use-value… A use-value, or useful article… has value only because human labor in the abstract has been embodied or materialized in it. How, then, is the magnitude of this value to be measured? Plainly, by the quantity of the value-creating substance, the labour, contained in the article” 46.

“Use-value becomes the form of manifestation, the phenomenal form of its opposite, value. The bodily form of the commodity becomes its value-form… some social relation lies at the bottom of it” 62-3.

“Every product of labor is, in all states of society, a use-value; but it is only at a definite historical epoch in a society’s development that such a product becomes a commodity, viz., at the epoch when the labor spent on the production of a useful article becomes expressed as one of the objective qualities of that article, i.e., as its value. It therefore follows that the elementary value-form is also the primitive form under which a product of labor appears historically as a commodity, and that the gradual transformation of such products into commodities, proceeds pari passu with the development of the value-form…. the elementary form of value… is a mere germ, which undergo a series of metamorphoses before it can ripen into the price-form” 67.

“Each commodity such as coat, tea, corn, iron, &c., figures in the expression of value of the linen, as an equivalent, and, consequently, as a thing that is value. The bodily form of each of these commodities figures now as a particular equivalent form, one out of many. In the same way the manifold concrete useful kinds of labor, embodied in these different commodities, rank now as so many different forms of the realization, or manifestation, of undifferentiated human labor” 69.

“Gold is now money with reference to all other commodities only because it was previously, with reference to them, a simple commodity. Like all other commodities, it was also capable or serving as an equivalent… it began to serve, within varying limits, as universal equivalent… The difficulty in forming a concept of the money-form consists in clearly comprehending the universal equivalent form, and as a necessary corollary, the general form of value, form C… deducible from form B, the expanded form of value, the essential component element of which is form A, 20 yards of linen = 1 coat or x commodity A = y commodity B. The simple commodity-form is therefore the germ of the money-form” 75.

The fetishism of commodities:

“In all states of society, the labor-time that it costs to produce the means of subsistence, must necessarily be an object of interest to mankind, though not of equal interest in different stages of development… from the moment that men in any way work for one another, their labor assumes a social form” 76.

“The equality of all sorts of human labor is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labor-power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labor; and finally, the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labor affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products” 77.

“A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labor is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labor… social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses… the fantastic form of a relation between things [compared to the actual form of light reaching our eye in the transmission of the visibility of the object]” 77.

“Articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labor of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labor of all of these private individuals forms the aggregate labor of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labor does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labor of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labor of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers… not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but… material relations between persons and social relations between things” 78.

“Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our own social products; for to stamp an object of utility as a value, is just as much a social product as language…” (think about Freud and close/symptomatic reading here. Also Heidegger’s jar?) 79.

“Labor appears to us to be an objective character of the products themselves… one ton of iron and two ounces of gold appear as naturally to be of equal value as a pound of gold and a pound of iron in spite of their different physical and chemical qualities appear to be of equal weight. The character of having value, when once impressed upon products, obtains fixity only by reason of their acting and re-acting upon each other as quantities of value. These quantitites vary continually, independently of the will, foresight and action of the producers. To them, their own social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them” 79.

“Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of these forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him… The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labor as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore, so soon as we come to other forms of production” 81.

Marx’s fantasy world is one of Robinson Crusoe made into community, which would regulate the quantity of labor and the distribution of products better than capitalism:

“A community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labor-power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labor-power of the community. All the characteristics of Robinson’s labor are here repeated, but with this difference, that they are social, instead of individual” 83.

“The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. And for a society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodities and values, whereby they reduce their individual private labor to the standard of homogenous human labor – for such a society, Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, &c., is the most fitting form of religion” 83.

In sum, fetishism is the social control of objects over subjects to the extent that it appears natural.

“The mode of production in which the product takes the form of a commodity, or is produced directly for exchange, is the most general and most embryonic form of bourgeois production… its Fetish character is comparatively easy to be seen through. But when we come to more concrete forms, even this appearance of simplicity vanishes” 86.

What inheres in commodities is the value, not the use, as Marx proves through a series of ventriloquizations:

“Could commodities themselves speak, they would say: Our use-value may be a thing that interests men. It is no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it. In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange-values. Now listen how those commodities speak through the mouth of the economist. ‘Value’ – (i.e. exchange-value) ‘is a property of things, riches’ – (i.e. use-value) of man. Value, in this sense, necessarily implies exchanges, riches do not.’ ‘Riches (use-value) are the attribute of men, value is the attribute of commodities. A man or a community is rich, a pearl or a diamond is valuable… as a pearl or a diamond.’ So far no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value either in a pearl or a diamond… the use-value of objects belongs to them independently of their material properties, while their value, on the other hand, forms a part of them as objects [so say economists, wrongly, for Marx]… The use-value of objects is realized without exchange, by means of a direct relation between the objects and man… their value is realized only by exchange… a social process… ‘To be a well-favored man is the gift of fortune, but reading and writing comes by Nature'” 87.

The end of this quote converts exchange-value from something relative into the absolute. The true relation is the opposite of what it seems.




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