Capital I. Chapter 1: The Commodity. Sections 1 & 2

1. The two factors of the commodity: use-value and value (substance of value magnitude of value)

  • “The wealth of societies…” (125). The commodity appears as the elementary form of capitalism. Investigation begins with the commodity.
  • The commodity is an external object, it satisfies our  stomach or our Imagination and can be simply consumed or used productively.

“Every useful thing is a whole composed of many properties; it can therefore be useful in various ways” (125).

  • Use-value is the body of a commodity. It is the material form of wealth no matter what is social form is. In capitalism it is a bearer of exchange-value.

Thus far we have been told about the use-value of the commodity, its physicality.

  • Exchange value appears accidental; intrinsic value appears to be a contradiction in terms.
  • A commodity has many exchange values. If we can say that 1 x exchanges for 2 y and 3 z, we can also say that 2 y exchanges for 1 x and 3 z or that 3 z exchanges for 1 x and 2 y. what gives the equality of these diverse quantities (1, 2, 3) and qualities (x, y, z)?

“The valid exchange-values of a particular commodity express something equal, … exchange-value cannot be anything other than the mode of expression, the ‘form of appearance’, of a content distinguishable from it” (127).

  • The comparison of two commodities (1 quarter of corn = x cwt of iron) compares them to a third thing.

“Each of them, in so far as it is an exchange-value, must therefore be reducible to a third thing” (127)

  • Exchange value derivation compared to the comparison of rectilinear figures; Marx is comparing the derivation of value from exchange-value to proof in mathematics.
  • Exchange-value is determined in abstraction from a commodity’s use-value.

“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” (128).

To here exchange-value is disclosed as standing in for a third thing; this third thing (like exchange value) “does not contain an atom of use-value,” viz. the physical form of wealth. Exchange values don’t refer to the physical form of wealth.

  • “Human labour in the abstract” (128). If we abstract from the material form of wealth the material labour that went into producing this material form is also abstracted from. “All its sensuous characteristics are extinguished” (128).
  • All that remains is homogenous human labour; “human labour-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure” (128). Use of the word labour-power here: is the actual labour indifferent to its expenditure or is the capacity to labour treated with indifference? This homogenous labour is a social substance. As instances of this social substance commodities are values.
  • The investigation of capitalism leads back to exchange-value as the necessary form of appearance of value.

Value is given. It is a social substance. It is homogeneous labour. It is labour-power treated with indifference.

  • How is the magnitude of value of a commodity measured? By the quantity of labour contained in it.
  • The substance of value is not labour, but socially necessary labour. This is not the same as labour at the average technique etc., but refers to the worker, their skill with the technology and its intensity.

“The total labour-power of society, which is manifested in the value of the world of commodities, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour-power, although composed of innumerable units of labour power” (129).

  • The labour-time socially necessary for the production of a use-value determines its value.

“The value of a commodity is related to the value of any other commodity as the labour-time necessary for the production of the one is related to the labour-time necessary for the production of the other” (130).

  • Value varies directly with the quantity of labour and inversely with the productivity of labour.

Substance, Magnitude and Form are only aspects of value. They are distinctions of reasons we make from value as such. What is value? It is human labour in the abstract; it is the homogeneous mass of human labour. An aliquot part of this mass is a value.

  • Commodities are “social use-values” (131). If something has no utility it is not a use-value and cannot be a commodity and, thus, cannot be a value.

“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).

2. The dual character of the labour embodied in commodities

  • Labour that creates commodities is not the same as labour that creates use-values.
  • Example: a coat and 10 yards of linen, the value of the coat is the value of the first, 10 yards of linen = W, the coat = 2 W.
  • A specific kind of “productive activity”, with “aim, mode of operation, object, means and result”, is required to create the coat. “Useful labour” is labour whose utility is represented in the use-value of its product. The coat is a use-value, tailoring is useful labour.
  • Identical use-values cannot be exchanged. That the coat and linen are exchanged says that they are different use-values, it also says that different kinds of useful labour are distinct.
  • The various different use-values of commodities reflect various kinds of labour. All together this makes up a division of labour. This division is a necessary condition for commodity production (though commodity production is not a condition for the division of labour).
  • Useful labour:

“productive activity of a definite kind, carried on with a definite aim” (133).

Marx’s aim here is to say that, if we can say that use-values are confronting each other in exchange, different kinds of useful labour are being compared.

  • Labour as the creator of use-values is a condition of human existence that is indifferent to the social form it is given in a particular society. Labour is the generic mediation of nature in accordance with human “requirements” (133).
  • Use-values are the combinations of material provided by nature and labour. If labour is subtracted nature remains. Labour is itself a natural force and only acts as nature does: rearranging what is given. Both labour and nature are the source of all material wealth.

To here Marx has given an account of labour as such; the sort he returns to in Chapter 7. He has looked at the use-value side of the commodity and stripped it back to a generic labour working up natural materials. This is material wealth. He now moves to the social form of that wealth.

  • From the commodity as use-value to the commodity as value.
  • The coat and linen are both expressions of homogeneous labour. They are both values. Values are expressions of homogeneous human labour. This is the case even though tailoring and weaving are qualitatively different modes of labour. (First instance of the word “capitalism” here).
  • If the different qualities of tailoring and weaving are disregarded the fact of being indifferent human labour remains. “The value of a commodity represents human labour pure and simple” (135). This simple labour-power is the cell form of all sorts of labour. Complex labour is reduced to multiplied simple labour when it is a value. (“Goes on behind their backs…” first said here.)
  • The labour contained in the values of a coat or 10 yards of linen does not count because of its relationship with cloth or yarn, but just because it is an expenditure of human labour.

To here Marx has focused on the different quality of tailoring and weaving in contrast to their identical quality of being human labour: difference and identity.

  • 10 yards of linen = W, the coat = 2 W because the latter contains twice the labour of the former.
  • “How” and “what” refer to use values, “how much” refers to the labour contained in use-values.
  • Value varies directly with the quantity of labour and inversely with the productivity of labour. A change in the quantity, the how much, of labour expended to produce a coat changes its value. If productivity doubles the value of a coat is halved, if productivity if halved the value of a coat doubles.
  • Wealth vs. value: productivity.

“In itself, an increase in the quantity of use-values constitutes an increase in material wealth. Two coats will clothe two men, one coat will only clothe one man, etc. Nevertheless, an increase in the amount of material wealth may correspond to a simultaneous fall in the magnitude of its value” (137).

Productivity is an attribute of useful labour. The same amount of labour always gives the same amount of value even if it gives different quantities of use-values.

  • All labour is both the expenditure of labour-power and useful labour. It produces both values and use-values.

(Sections 3 and 4 to follow)


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Reading Capital in Sydney records reading notes on Marx's Capital I, II and III, and other bits and pieces.

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