Capital chapter I concludes with critique of some of the assumptions of economists re value, and another little bit of The Bard…
“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.”
The production of commodities for sale as items circulating freely on the market necessarily comes hand in hand with a means of production-owning class (a bourgeoisie, or proto-bourgeoisie) that produces more than it needs as exchange values.
“It therefore makes its appearance at an early date in history, though not in the same predominating and characteristic manner as now-a-days. Hence its Fetish character is comparatively easy to be seen through. But when we come to more concrete forms, even this appearance of simplicity vanishes. Whence arose the illusions of the monetary system? To it gold and silver, when serving as money, did not represent a social relation between producers, but were natural objects with strange social properties. And modern economy, which looks down with such disdain on the monetary system, does not its superstition come out as clear as noon-day, whenever it treats of capital?”
Marx seeks to trace the gradual abstraction of value from earlier forms of value. Capital itself does not like limits or limitations and so even the money form becomes a cumbersome impediment in the lofty heights of market trading and finance capital. This is clearly expressed in today’s environment where banks and governments are keen to promote digital/ moneyless transactions and trade in ever more complex and abstracted financial products, including debt (ah, sweet vulture funds!) And yet, for all this complexity, it’s just the same old story: value is created socially, but is distributed in a very peculiar and extremely uneven way.
The physiocrats were an 18th century movement that saw wealth coming from agriculture as part of an innate natural order of the world. Marx is comparing the skewed assumptions which justify and uphold the position of capitalism to such gross misunderstandings of how society works.
Somewhat creepily, Marx has commodities speak again now, so as to give them an objective context free from their use value, or the needs of people; that is, as autonomous market/exchange entities:
“But not to anticipate, we will content ourselves with yet another example relating to the commodity form. 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…” A pearl or a diamond is valuable as a pearl or a diamond.”
This economist has mistaken exchange value as an inherent quality of a commodity, as contrasted to Marx’s (creepy) speaking commodities who have said that their value is shag all to do with their material make-up but is a result of their social position as items of exchange…
“So far no chemist has ever discovered exchange value either in a pearl or a diamond. The economic discoverers of this chemical element, who by-the-bye lay special claim to critical acumen, find however that 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. What confirms them in this view, is the peculiar circumstance that the use value of objects is realised without exchange, by means of a direct relation between the objects and man, while, on the other hand, their value is realised only by exchange, that is, by means of a social process. Who fails here to call to mind our good friend, Dogberry, who informs neighbour Seacoal, that, “To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but reading and writing comes by Nature.”
Dogberry is a self-important buffoonish character from Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing. He often uses lofty words so as to appear intelligent and gentlemanly. In seeing use value as independent of the physical commodity object (not its actual, physical use) and exchange value as something inherent in it (not arising from a social interaction) these economists are as topsy-turvy as Dogberry’s bumbled saying.
That’s the end of Capital chapter 1 now, where Marx has examined the commodity (the distinctive product of a capitalist mode of production) from the point of view of its use value (a useful object that we want and/or need) and an exchange value (the social value of the object as a part of the overall value of society produced by labour). He has laid the groundwork for further discussion of class as it is clear that labour produces value, but that the producer/worker class does not own the means of production and is dependant upon being paid a wage in the very value that they themselves as a class produce – A strange set-up that is obscured by the mysterious fetishised appearance of commodities and money, of wages and prices of necessary commodities as seemingly different values.
A basic point that I take from all this is that exchange value dominates use value to the extent that things will be produced for exchange purely to generate profit, while many go without their basic needs being met. This is all too clear in capitalist societies, particularly those that suffer from radical intensified free market capitalist exploitation (so-called ‘neoliberalism’).
Marx has here explored how such various contradictions and tensions are expressed in and by the commodity itself. 👍