Capital I. Chapter 1: The Commodity. Section 4

4. The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret

  • It is the transformation of the products of human labour into commodities that gives them “grotesque ideas”, or makes wooden tables dance of their own free will. That is when use-values have a double-life as values, this double life takes over; like the monster Edward Hyde, to Henry Jekyll the bore.
  • These grotesque ideas don’t arise from use-values or “the determinants of value”. Not labour itself (a purely physical process: “the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles and sense organs”), nor labour-time (labour has duration in any context), nor that labour has social form.

“Whence, then, arises the enigmatic character of the product of labour as soon as it assumes the form of a commodity? Clearly, it arrises from this form itself” (164).

Marx makes a strong distinction between general and determinate abstractions. Use-value, useful labour, labour-time (“quite palpably different from its quality”), and the social character of labour are general abstractions. They simply say that these are conditions of all sorts of society. Though the last point is telling: “as soon as men start to work for each other in any way their, labour also assumes a social form.” That is to say, there is no such thing as labour without a “social form”. Or again: all human activity happens within a definite culture: it has some quality (it is not simply labour-time). This pushes Marx to a determinate abstraction: it is the historically specific social form of labour that gives the commodity it its grotesque ideas. This distinction is part of Marx’s “materialist conception of history”, and is the way it is expressed in Capital.

  • Value is the fetishism of commodities.

“… this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them” (165).

  • It is exchange that makes distinct use-values uniform in their value-quality; but exchange must have acquired “sufficient extension”, such that it is assumed during production that the product of labour is a value, for the commodity-form to exist. It is only as values that use-values are related as equals, but commodities must still be use-values.
  • The comparison of labour is not conscious and when it is acknowledged it does nothing to break the spell of value.

“The belated scientific discovery that the products of labour, in so far as they are values, are merely the material expression of the human labour expended to produce them, marks an epoch in the history of mankind’s development, but by no means banishes the semblance of objectivity possessed by the social characteristics of labour. Something which is only valid for this particular form of production, the production of commodities, namely the fact that the particular social character of private labours carried on independently of each other consists in their equality as human labour, and, in the product assumes the form of the existence of value, appears to those caught up in the relations of commodity production (and this is true both before and after the scientific discovery) to be just as ultimately valid as the fact that the scientific dissection of the air into its component parts left the atmosphere itself unaltered in its physical configuration” (167).

  • The law of value. The value-relation is constantly in flux. The fact that the value relation is a comparison of concrete labours reduced to the abstract quality of being human labour as such, means that the quantities of labour required to produce the use-values being compared as constantly in flux:

‘… in the midst of the accidental and ever-fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour-time socially necessary to produce them asserts itself as a regulative law of nature. In the same way, the law of gravity asserts itself when a person’s house collapses on him.”

Marx calls this a secret buried within the movement of values. He says that it abolishes the accidental appearance of exchange (the first conceptual moment in Section 3), but again insists that the discovery of a law does not abolish its material form.

  • Science must work backwards. The phenomena must already have been caused for the causes to be investigated. It is only after money, “this finished form of the world of commodities,” is the universal equivalent that the equality of human labour can be found as its cause.
  • Economics is valid within capitalism, because it reflects the comparison of labour through the products of labour, because it studies social relations between things. It becomes invalid if we consider other sorts of society.
  • Robinson Crusoe represents his own labour as if a social division of labour; portioning out his time to producing the different use-values necessary for his survival.
  • Within feudalism labour assumes its natural form, it is personal labour where part of the product is forfeited to lord and priest. The peasant’s life and labour remains the peasant’s own personal relations—they are not disguised.
  • Within a family, commodities are not exchanged. Rather, each person’s labour is part of single labouring unit with its own organic division of labour.
  • Among freely associated producers, labour is immediately social, it is carried on as part of a social plan. Nothing of Robinson Crusoe’s labour is left out, but the total product is a social product, not one individual’s resources.
  • Christianity is the befitting religion of capitalism, because it exalts an abstractly universal human being. Prior societies had much more basic religions, worship of nature etc. The end of religion means: everyday life between people and between people and nature is “transparent and rational”.

“The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process, i.e. the process of material reproduction, until it becomes production by freely associated men [and women!], and stands under their conscious and planned control. This, however, requires that society possess a material foundation, or a series of material conditions of existence, which in the turn are the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development” (173).

  • Political economy did discover the content of the social form of labour: viz. value and its magnitude. But it missed its form; it didn’t ask why the social form of labour is value. The contents of this social form thus appear as necessary as useful labour,  “to the political economists’ bourgeois mind”.

“… it is has never once asked why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product” (174)

The advance on political economy is historical materialism. Economics can’t ask the right question: why does labour appear as value, a question of the historical specificity of capitalist production.

  • The fetishism of commodities is “the objective appearance of the social characteristics of labour,” viz. value. Nature contributes nothing to exchange-value, the belief that it does is an expression of the fetishism of the world of commdities.
  • The commodity-form is the most general form of capitalism and is easy to penetrate. Capitalism’s more concrete forms (capital, etc.) disguise it. But these forms can all be traced back to it; again moving in the opposite direction of their development.

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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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