Capital I. Chapter 1: The Commodity. Section 3

3. The value-form, or exchange-value

  • Commodities are only commodities because of their double form: their natural form and their value form.
  • The objective character of commodities as values is “purely social” (139). Value “can only appear in the social relation between commodity and commodity” (139).
  • When money is shown to be a value-form its mystery disappears. (First mention of money.)

(a) The simple, isolated, or accidental form of value.

x commodity A = y commodity B (20 yards of linen = 1 coat)

(1) The two poles of the expression of value: the relative form of value and the equivalent form of value

  • The linen and the coat play two different parts in their equation, active and passive.
  • The relative and equivalent forms of value are “inseparable moments” in the expression of a value but are also mutually exclusive and “opposed extremes”.
  • The commodity’s position in the value equation determines whether it is in the relative or the equivalent form of value.

(2) The Relative form of value

(i) The content of the relative form of value

  • The equation 20 yards of linen = 1 coat is an expression of value because it makes value the common unit of linen and the coat.

“In this relation the coat counts as the form of existence of value, as the material embodiment of value, for only as such is it the same as the linen” (141).

  • Analysis of the commodity as a use-value and a value reduces value to an abstraction; it has no being. Value only emerges in practice in the relation of one commodity to another. Value emerges directly from the relation, not as a separate abstraction.

How does this relate to the idea of “intrinsic value”?

  • The comparison of two commodities says that the labour that produced either was the same; the comparison “brings to view” this sameness (142).
  • Human labour creates value, but is not itself value.
  • Outside the value relation the coat is just a coat; within the value relation it is a bearer of value.
  • The natural form of the coat becomes the value form of the linen; the linen’s value is only relative to the coat; it is the relative form of value.

(ii) The quantitative determinacy of the relative form of value

  • Given that the coat and linen are equated as “objects of value” (144) they each objectify labour; at the same time they objectify the same magnitude of value.

(iii) The equivalent form

  • The equivalent doesn’t assume a value-form distinct from its physical (natural) form; as it is, it is directly exchangeable; the coat with the linen, for instance.

Marx here says that the mistake of economics is to view value as a purely quantitative relationship between two commodities, or between buyer and seller, between supply and demand. Instead, he is insisting on the expression of the linen’s value in the physical body of the coat. “The equivalent-form of a commodity contains no quantitative determinant of value” (148).

  • The first peculiarity of the equivalent form:

“use-value becomes the form of appearance of its opposite, value” (148).

  • Iron and sugar both, as natural objects, possess weight. But this weight only appears when they are brought into relation with each other. On the scales a quantity of iron acts as the equivalent of the weight of the sugar, sugar’s weight is only being expressed relative to the iron. But like the coat, iron is not as such the universal natural form weight; only in its relation to the sugar is it reduced to its sole property of possessing weight. Likewise the coat: the use-value of the coat is reduced to the singular property of bearing a value.

“But in the expression of the linen the coat represents a supra-natural property: their value, which is something purely social” (149).

  • The relative value-form “conceals a social relation” (149).

“However, the properties of a thing do not arise from its relations to other things, they are, on the contrary, merely activated by such relations. The coat, therefore, seems to be endowed with its equivalent form, its property of direct exchangeability, by nature, just as much as its property of being heavy or its ability to keep us warm… the simplest expression of value, such as 20 yards of linen = one coat, already presents the riddle of the equivalent form for us to solve” (149)

  • The second peculiarity:

“concrete labour becomes the form of manifestation of its opposite, abstract human labour” (150).

  • The third peculiarity:

“private labour takes the form of its opposite, namely labour in its directly social form” (151).

Because concrete labour is reduced to its property of being human labour, and is actively treated this way, it is already “identical” with any other act of labour and therefore already social.

  • Aristotle: “There can be no exchange,” he says, “without equality, and no equality without commensurability.” But Aristotle doubts the law: “it is only a makeshift for practical purposes”. The equality of human labour is absent in Aristotle.
  • The concept of human equality allows the law of value.

“The secret of the expression of value, namely the equality and equivalence of all kinds of labour because and in so far as they are human labour in general, could not be deciphered until the concept of human equality had already acquired the fixity of a popular opinion. This however becomes possible only in a society where the commodity form is the universal form of the product of labour, hence the dominant social relation is the relation between men as possessors of commodities” (152).

What does this say about democracy? This is the second time Marx has directly made political reference to say why the value form works. Earlier (143 and 149 note 22) he had referred to kings only existing because people viewed others as kings and themselves as subjects. The ideology of egalitarianism, the “democracy of manners”, only mirrors value.

(iv) The simple form of value considered as a whole

  • Value is not exchange-value.

“When, at the beginning of this chapter, we said … that commodity is a use-value and an exchange-value, this was, strictly speaking, wrong. A commodity is a use-value or object of utility, and a value. It appears as the twofold thing it really is as soon as its value possesses its own particular form of manifestation, which is distinct from its natural form. This form of manifestation is exchange-value, and the commodity never has this form when looked at in isolation, but only when it is in a value-relation or an exchange relation with a second commodity of a different kind” (152).

  • The form of value is not value, or the magnitude of value.

Marx insists on the notion of “intrinsic value”; but also that we have no access to this outside the value-form. How can we think the existence of intrinsic value; value as the indefinite, rather than (exchange-value) as the definite, article? We can say: “there is value”, but we can’t say much more than that outside the value-form.

“The internal opposition between use-value and value, hidden within the commodity, is therefore represented on the surface by an external opposition…. Hence the simple form of value of a commodity is the simple form of the appearance of the opposition between use-value and value which is contained within the commodity” (153)

Previously, Marx insisted that the natural form of the coat, its use-value, as the embodiment of value, for the linen. Now, in saying the same thing, he insists that the linen only counts as its use-value, while the coat only counts as the linen’s exchange-value.

  • It is only within capitalism that labour takes on an objective quality; that value exists.

“The product of labour is an object of utility in all states of society; but it is only a historically specific epoch of development presents the labour expended in the production of a useful article as an objective property of that article, i.e. as its value” (153-4).

  • The simple form lends itself to placing the relative form into relation with an “indefinite” number of other commodities. In the footnote: “the value of a thing is expressed in a series of different things” in Homer’s Iliad (154).

(b) The Total or Expanded Form of Value

z commodity A = u commodity B or = v commodity C or = w commodity D or = x Commodity E or = etc. (20 yards of linen = 1 coat or = 10 lb. of tea or = 40 lb. of coffee or = 1 quarter of corn or = 2 ounces of gold or = 1/2 ton of iron or = etc.)

(1) The expanded relative form of value

  • “The world of commodities”. The linen now takes its place, its social relation, as an equal in this world. But the particular use-value that expresses this social inclusion is “a matter of indifference”.

“… the labour which creates it is now explicitly presented as labour which counts as the equal of every other sort of human labour …” (155).

  • Exactly the diversity of the world of commodities demonstrates some constant. The linen’s value is the same when expressed in tea, corn of coffee. Undifferentiated labour is the same, and equal, across the expanded relative form. The value-relation is therefore not accidental, but determined by the magnitudes of value of the commodities related. But this is value as the indefinite article, as it precedes the value-relation.

(2) The Particular Equivalent Form

  • The coat, tea, coffee, etc., are each reduced from being distinct use-values to many physical objects that contain the value equivalent of the linen. In the same way the useful labour that created these objects is reduced to a matter of indifference.

(3) Defects of the total or expanded form of value

  • Negative infinity: the series of relations the linen makes is never complete.

Marx also says that each commodity in the “chain” can be in the relative form of value to all of the others. He then says that every series, beginning with each different commodity, will have distinct value expressions. But shouldn’t all be equal? From the equation above shouldn’t 1/2 ton of iron = 10 lb. Of tea given that both equal 20 yards of linen? Hmmm.

“It is true that the completed or total form of appearance of human labour is constituted by the totality of its particular forms of appearance [weaving, tailoring, etc]. But in that case it has no single, unified form of apperance” (157).

  • The expanded form is the sum of simple expressions of value: 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, 20 yard of linen = 10 lb. of tea, etc. These are reversible: 1 coat = 20 yards of linen, 10 lb. of tea = 20 yards of linen, etc. This leads to:

(c) The General Form of Value

1 coat,10 lb. of tea, 40 lb. of coffee, 1 quarter of corn, 2 ounces of gold, 1/2 ton of iron all equal 20 yards of linen.

(1) The changed character of the form of value

  • The form of value is now simple and unified.

What of Marx’s speculative history here? Form (a) and (b) emerge, respectively, “in the early stages, when products of labour are converted into commodities by accidental occasional exchanges” and “when a particular product of labour, such as cattle, is no longer exceptionally, but habitually, exchanged for various other commodities” (158)? How does this gel with his earlier comment that, “it is only a historically specific epoch of development presents the labour expended in the production of a useful article as an objective property of that article, i.e. as its value” (153)? How can there be a form of value in these earlier periods if there is no value?

  • It is only in form (c) that use-values are universally treated as instances of value, and not as use-values.

“By this form, commodities are, for the first time, really brought into relation with each another as values, or permitted to appear to each other as exchange values” (158).

“… because the objectivity of commodities as values is the purely ‘social existence’ of these things, it can only be expressed through the whole range of their social relations; consequently the form of their value must possess social validity” (159).

  • This form renders all commodities both qualitatively and quantitatively equal in relation to the linen.

Why wasn’t this the case in the expanded form?

  • Negative and positive character of abstract labour: it extinguishes labour’s actual useful character and makes all labour equal.

Antonio Negri comments somewhere that the concept of abstract labour was necessary for the development of the labour movement … in Commonwealth?

  • The general form of value is the social expression of the world of commodities; the generic character of human labour is the “specific social character” this world.

(2) The development of the relative and equivalent forms of value: their interdependence

  • The development of both the relative and equivalent also develops their antagonism.
  • (a) The poles are hard to pin down, reflexive.
  • (b) The poles are now non-reflexive, as the linen has now expanded the expression of its value beyond the coat: reversing this reverse whole expansion.
  • (c) Linen becomes directly exchangeable with every other commodity, “it has a directly social form”. In the note he says that the antagonism between the poles is like that of a magnet: the positive pole is such because of the negative pole. In this way the linen is directly social, because all other commodities are not.
  • (c) devolves into (b) when the relative form of value is given to linen: “its value is, rather, expressed in the infinite series of all other physical commodities” (161).

(3) The transition from the general form of value to the money form

  • The universal equivalent is banished from the world of commodities.
  • But it returns as money.

(d) The Money Form

20 yards of linen, 1 coat,10 lb. of tea, 40 lb. of coffee, 1 quarter of corn, 2 ounces of gold, 1/2 ton of iron all equal 2 ounces of gold.

“The advance consists in that the form of direct and universal exchangeability, in other words the universal equivalent form, has now by social custom finally become entwined with the specific natural form of the commodity gold” (162).

  • Money can confront commodities because it emerges from the world of commodities.
  • (d) is also the price form. We can work back from the price form to the simple form of value:

“… the simple commodity-form is therefore the germ of the money form” (163).

(Section 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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