The Essential Marx 1: Commodities & Use Value.

Capital: A Critique of Political Economy

The Process of Capitalist Production

I. Commodities and Money

This is a reading of the abridged Capital vol. 1.

Marx commences his critique by looking at commodities, and in particular by looking at them from 2 perspectives: commodities as ‘use values’ and commodities as ‘exchange values’. First, use value…

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.

One thing that can be said for capitalism is that it is incredibly productive. It produces a lot of stuff, a lot of commodities. It produces things we really need like food and chairs and beds, and things we want like TVs and Lego and Stephen Segal movies, and if things are going a bit slow it’ll produce more things and try to convince us we need them too, so as to keep the wheels of industry rolling.

It may seem that Marx is choosing to start by looking at the end product of the capitalist process (is production itself the point of capitalism though?), which may seem a strange place to begin, but rather than dealing with generalities he is focusing on something tangible, something material, the real things that sorround us in our homes and societies: Commodities.

A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference.

A commodity must have independence on the market. It can’t have been ours already, and it must have been made freely available to the market by its producers. For it to exist as a commodity someone must need or want it and be prepared to pay for it, for whatever reason, whether it be a brussel sprout or a jumbo jet.

Every useful thing, as iron, paper, &c., may be looked at from the two points of view of quality and quantity. It is an assemblage of many properties, and may therefore be of use in various ways. To discover the various uses of things is the work of history.

A commodity, such as glass, can be considered qualitively (what its various uses to people are) and quantatively (the proportions of elements which make up the glass, and how much glass is needed for a certain purpose etc).

Marx’s materialist view on history places great importance on how things are used. He sees society as being defined by the material relations between the tools (the means of production), the producers (the workers) and the produce itself, how it is distributed etc. How things are used in various ways, everything from a flint scraping tool to a personal computer, is therefore of great significance to Marx’s view of the history of societal development that has been termed (although not by Marx) ‘historical materialism‘.

The utility of a thing makes it a use value. But this utility is not a thing of air. Being limited by the physical properties of the commodity, it has no existence apart from that commodity. A commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far as it is a material thing, a use value, something useful.

Marx emphasises that ‘use value’ is not intended as some abstract category or designation for the purposes of analysis: A thing is really a use value because we actually use it, and it is useful as it is because of the object’s physical properties.

One thought on “The Essential Marx 1: Commodities & Use Value.

  1. I’d be looking for Arnie every time myself, but then I’ve not seen the one with the carrot – perhaps I’m missing something…

    It’s interesting to read about historic materialism and also that statement from The German Ideology – partly because one of the things I really struggled with in the Communist Manifesto was the nagging feeling that in many ways it didn’t really account for the nature of men. I thought it *was* idealist, did have an element of “fantastic isolation” to it sometimes in failing to consider the “empirically perceptible” fact that different people behave differently under the same circumstances. It just seemed reductionist at times… though perhaps that is just the nature of this kind of social theory. I know I read somewhere that Engels found he had to make a few adjustments to account for things like the emergence of trade unions and the capacity of workers to use the advent of mechanisation, which had been predicted to be a repressive force, to their advantage to some extent, initially at least. Saying that, breaking the unions certainly seems to have been something that was very much a priority for accelerated neoliberal capitalism so I suppose you could argue it’s working out for mammon in the end, albeit with the TUs as a hiccup along the way.


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