Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Logic of the Commodity

Marx’s aim in the first chapter of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is to interrogate a theory according to which the essence of the commodity consists in its possessing use-value and exchange-value. Something has use-value insofar as it satisfies a particular want or need, and it has exchange-value insofar as one could exchange a quantity of it for a quantity of another thing, irrespective of the particular wants or needs it satisfies. For example, the use-value of a pair of shoes is that they are worn to protect the feet from damage by the ground, they’re comfortable, and they’re fashionable. By contrast, the exchange-value of a pair of shoes is the proportion in which they can be exchanged for another use-value. One pair of good shoes has the same exchange-value as 100 tins of shoe polish or 1/100 a Cadillac. Use-value is primarily (though not solely) a qualitative aspect of the commodity, determined by the particular physical properties it has which satisfy particular physical needs. Exchange-value is primarily (though not solely) quantitative in nature. As Marx says, “Considered as exchange-value, one use-value is worth just as much as another, provided the two are available in the appropriate proportion. The exchange-value of a palace can be expressed in a definite number of tins of boot polish.” According to the theory Marx is interrogating, since we now know what use-value and exchange-value are, and since use-value and exchange-value make up the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a commodity, then we now know what the essence of a commodity is.

One might object that Marx's starting point is arbitrary. We have no good reason to believe that use-value and exchange-value make up the essence of a commodity. Indeed, the only support Marx offers in favor of this view is a quote by Aristotle. Marx's starting point succumbs to the fallacy of appeal to authority. Clearly everything that follows from here is invalid.

Yet Marx’s starting point is only provisional. His purpose is not to show that the commodity in fact is use-value and exchange-value simpliciter. Indeed, as Marx proceeds to show in the first chapter and even more emphatically in the second chapter, this view of the commodity as being composed simply of use-value and exchange-value is rife with contradictions, and so the initial appearance the commodity gives off of being composed of exchange-value and use-value cannot be in fact what the commodity is. By developing this inadequate, abstract account of the commodity through its series of contradictions, we can finally arrive at what the commodity in fact is. Therefore, at least for right now, it is not necessary that this account of the commodity be absolutely true, only that it be prima facie true.

So assuming at least provisionally that the commodity really has two aspects, use-value and exchange-value, it follows that the labor that produces the commodity must also have two aspects, one qualitative, the other quantitative. A shoe has use-value because it is made of leather, rubber, and thread, materials capable of withstanding the normal wear and tear of walking. The labor required to make a pair of shoes consists in cutting and shaping rubber and cutting and sewing leather. This labor is qualitatively different from the kind of labor that goes into making a jacket, a car, or even a pair of sneakers. Just as when we consider commodities in terms of their respective use-values each appears qualitatively different from another, so too does the labor which creates the commodity qua use-value appear qualitatively different from other forms of labor which produce other use-values. Therefore, qua use-value, a commodity is materialized particular labor.

Yet in order to consider the commodity solely in terms of its exchange-value, we have to abstract completely from its use-value. It does not matter that shoes are for walking and palaces are for habitation by princes; considered solely in terms of their exchange-value, we can measure the value of a palace in terms of pairs of shoes. But this means we must abstract from everything qualitative in the commodity, including the labor that produced it. “As exchange-values in which the qualitative difference between their use-values is eliminated, they represent equal amounts of the same kind of labour. The labour which is uniformly materialised in them must be uniform, homogeneous, simple labour; it matters as little whether this is embodied in gold, iron, wheat or silk, as it matters to oxygen whether it is found in rusty iron, in the atmosphere, in the juice of grapes or in human blood.” Just as when we consider commodities in terms of their respective exchange-values each commodity appears to represent an identical, quantitative proportion to other commodities, so too does the labor which creates exchange-value appear as mere concatenations of identical units of simple labor. Qua exchange-value, a commodity is materialized abstract, general labor.

At this point one might object that Marx’s argument for the exchange-value of the commodity rests upon the validity of the labor theory of value. Classical political economists came up with the labor theory of value in order to explain the value of commodities in terms of the labor-time that was contained in them, but allegedly neo-classical economics has since shown that the labor theory of value is incoherent. Surely we cannot trust anything Marx says beyond this point, because his entire theory of value is infected by an antiquated notion of value.

And yet again it is necessary to point out that the essence of the commodity Marx is constructing here is not the one Marx intends to hold to without qualification. Marx adopts this model not because he thinks it is the correct model of the commodity.; on the contrary, he adopts it in order to show that it is inherently contradictory and therefore cannot be a self-sufficient description of what the commodity in fact is. Again, all that is required at this point is that the essence of the commodity appear prima facie true, not that it in fact be absolutely true. This is not the foundation upon which Marx intends to construct his theory; rather, it is the view of the commodity which appears (or appeared in Marx’s time) to be immediately correct and which Marx intends to show is in fact not true in the unqualified sense in which its proponents take it to be. That the commodity is simply use-value and exchange-value, individual labor and general labor, is assumed from the start in order to expose its contradictions and lead us to a more concrete, more adequate account of the essence of the commodity.

With that in mind, let us now more closely examine this account of the commodity, specifically as it appears in action. Assuming the commodity really is just the unity of use-value and exchange-value, could it ever fulfill the function of an actual commodity that we find out in the world, like a loaf of bread? That is, if the loaf of bread were just use-value and exchange-value, materialized particular labor and materialized general labor, would the bread in fact ever be eaten or exchanged? If not, then we know this cannot in fact be what a commodity is like. It must be like something else.

Immediately after producing the commodity, the commodity is both a use-value and not a use-value. It is a use-value insofar as it has properties that potentially satisfy human needs, but it is not a use-value insofar as the one initially in possession of the commodity will not use it to satisfy his needs. For example, if the bread in the bakery were tasty to the baker, he would eat it. But if he ate it, it would not be a commodity, since commodities are produced to be exchanged for other commodities of equal exchange-value. Instead, the bread is a means of exchange for the baker, a means to his livelihood. It is something he can sell. The “use” of the bread to the baker is that it can be sold. So at this point, no one has yet regarded the bread as a use-value. The commodity in the shop has yet to become a use-value.

To become a use-value, the commodity has to encounter the particular need it satisfies (in this case, hunger for bread). So to become a use-value, the commodity has to switch hands, say, from the hands of the baker to the hands of the man who wants to make a sandwich. In order to switch hands, it must be exchanged. In order to be exchanged, the commodity must be an exchange-value. In order to be an exchange-value, both parties involved in the transaction have to abstract from its use-value and consider it purely quantitatively, in terms of its price. Marx calls this abstraction from all use-value of the commodity the “alienation of the commodity”. Only by means of alienation (by not considering it a use-value at all) does the commodity become a use-value (since that is the condition under which it can be exchanged and fall into the hands of someone who will use it). Only by abstracting from the use-value of bread (i.e., that it can be eaten) does the bread ever really become eaten. So under capitalism, only by being exchange-values do commodities ever become use-values.

Our view of the commodity has already undergone significant revision from our first take on it. We initially regarded the commodity as simply being the unity of exchange-value and use-value. Use-value was something a commodity had by virtue of its ability to satisfy human wants and desires, and this ability seemed to be based solely in its immediate, physical properties. But when we look at actual commodity production and exchange under capitalism, we find this is not the case. In fact, the commodity is not a use-value at the beginning of its existence but rather has to become one by means of exchange. Only once the commodity has passed into the hands of the consumer does it finally become a use-value. Therefore, what initially appeared to be a freestanding property of the commodity is actually a property that is “mediated”. It is a property that comes into being only by means of a social process in and through which it is “alienated” from itself.

At this point it appears as though a commodity becomes a use-value only by means of being an exchange-value, but we have already seen that a commodity has exchange-value only because it is materialized labor-time. Yet the particular commodity (say, our loaf of bread again) only comes into existence and subsists in this world by means of particular labor. The loaf of bread is not “just any” loaf of bread. It is this particular loaf of semolina wheat bread on this particular shelf of this Italian bakery in Hoboken, NJ. A loaf of bread is materialized individual labor, not materialized universal labor-time. But the commodity has exchange-value only insofar as it is materialized universal labor-time. Therefore, the commodity is not yet an exchange-value.

Now our view of the commodity has undergone yet another shift. A moment ago we treated the commodity as though just by virtue of sitting in the baker’s shop, it was an exchange-value, and by virtue of being an exchange-value, it could become a use-value. But now it appears as though the commodity is not immediately exchange-value, either. The commodity has yet to become exchange-value. But the commodity which has yet to become an exchange-value or a materialization of universal labor-time (in this case, a loaf of semolina wheat bread in a shop in Jersey), is a particular existing object. Bakers don’t create “just any” loaves of bread. All loaves of bread which are to become exchange-values are particular, actually existing loaves of bread, produced by particular people under particular circumstances. This is the only sort of thing that can have a price. But what we have just described is a use-value. So only something which is a use-value can become an exchange-value.

Our analysis of the commodity as the unity of exchange-value and use-value has led us in a circle. To be exchanged, commodities must have exchange-value, but commodities don’t immediately have exchange-value just by virtue of existing in the baker’s shop. They have to become exchange-values. To become exchange-values, commodities must be materialized universal labor-time. The only thing that can embody universal labor-time is a particular thing, a use-value. But commodities are not immediately use-values, either. In order to be use-values, they have to be exchanged. But to be exchanged… etc.

Our analysis of the commodity has led us not only to a circle in which exchange-value and use-value presuppose one another; it has also led us to a contradiction. As use-values, commodities are inherently unequal with one another. A bottle of water does not fulfill the same exact need as a loaf of bread or even a different bottle of water. And yet as exchange-values, commodities must be equal to one another, since it is possible to express the value of a loaf of bread in terms of the value of a bottle of water. To become equitable (to become exchange-values), commodities must first become unequal: to become an exchange-value, a commodity has first to be a use-value. But once the commodity becomes a use-value, it cannot be exchanged, since being a use-value includes being qualitatively different from other things. But qualitatively different things are not equitable (and so cannot be exchange-values). But to become unequal (use-values), commodities have to be exchanged, since the commodity is not immediately a use-value (to its producer). The commodity only becomes a use-value in the hands of its consumer. So in order to be unequal (use-values), commodities have to be equal (exchange-values) and vice versa. This is the contradiction inherent in the commodity considered as the unity of use-value and exchange-value.

At this point Marx invites us to ask ourselves what would have to change in this account of the commodity in order to allow the commodity to be what it purports to be. Let’s imagine for a second that the commodity already made the salto mortale, that it made it through the process of exchange and passed from the baker’s hands into the hungry man’s stomach. What would have allowed that to come about? The answer, says Marx, is money.

Money resolves the contradiction inherent in the commodity by allowing the commodity to transform from a use-value into an exchange-value and vice- versa. This is because money is a commodity that itself serves as a “universal equivalent” or a “universal commodity”. Its use-value is that it is a measure of the exchange-value of other commodities. The commodity starts as a use-value in the baker’s shop. The baker attaches a price to the commodity. This price is a hypothetical exchange-value of the commodity, what Marx refers to as a nominal price. The baker takes the bread to market with this nominal price in the hope of attracting money with it. Once the exchange takes place, the nominal price transforms into a real price, i.e., the bread is exchanged for actual cash. The commodity has “proved” it was really that price. (If it doesn’t get exchanged, nothing was proved.) The bread has now proved itself to really have this abstract value attached to it (its real price), and as a result, the particular labor which went into the production of the bread proves itself to have really been in fact abstract general labor. Contrariwise, from the side of the consumer, the bread is now able to prove itself as use-value.

Without any details (I’ll provide them in a future post), this account of how money resolves the contradiction inherent in the commodity is murky, but it is still possible to get the general idea of what has happened. The commodity was allegedly the simple unity of use-value and exchange-value. These were purported to be two properties immediately inhering in the commodity, apart from any complex social process. Yet we saw that if we assumed this to be the case, we were forced to assume that one and the same thing was both particular and general at the same time and in the same respects. Money did not fully eliminate this contradiction. On the contrary, one and the same object (the loaf of bread) is still both particular and general. Yet it is no longer particular and general at the same time and in the same respect. Money comes between these two properties of the commodity so that the commodity can be exchange-value at one point, use-value at another. Therefore the essence of the commodity is not simply use-value and exchange-value, but neither is the essence simply not use-value and exchange-value. The essence of the commodity is revealed in the process of exchange. This is the “social metabolism” of the essence of the commodity, and it requires money.

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