Capital: Chapter 1
Before we begin with the notes, I would like to make sure that everyone can follow along. The page numbers will correspond to the Penguin Classics edition of Capital, Volume 1, which is the same version that the Marx Library released some decades ago, with the same page numbers.
I would also like to note that some chapters took/are going to take multiple weeks for us to cover in our reading group, and notes will appear as they were presented on a weekly basis. I will notate what chapter we are in at the top of the notes.
For those that want to follow along we are going to be following a pathway through the text that follows along the lines of a course I was fortunate enough to be able to take during my PhD studies called Actually Existing Communism, which occurred during the fall of 2009 (the same semester as the wide-scale rioting in Pittsburgh during the G-20 Summit, which was definitely an interesting context to be studying this material). This reading includes chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 13, 14, and 15, and will focus on the ontological elements of the discussion.
If you would like a more economics-centric reading I can definitely recommend David Harvey's A Companion to Marx's Capital or the online lecture series he gives, which can be found here:
Also, note, that I am using the American English versions of terms like labor, even though Marx uses the more traditionally British terminology, like labour, for example. This is mostly due to muscle memory and wanting to ease the process of transcribing and expanding slightly on these notes.
Without further delay, here are the notes from the first week of reading, which covered Chapter 1, pages 125-131.
- Capital begins with an interesting, and crucial, statement, “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an “immense collection of commodities”, the individual commodity appears as its elementary form” (125). As we will see as we go along, these sorts of statements, which present complicating factors, are often completely overlooked in more vulgar Marxist readings. What is occurring here is a positioning of the question and analysis of capitalism. By centering the discussion on the commodity form Marx is setting the stage for a specific approach to the concept of the commodity, and by extension capitalism as such.
This repositioning is critical, as it decenters the question of capitalism away from “bad outcomes” (ecological destruction, wealth stratification, resource scarcity, etc) and firmly into a space in which the discussion of capitalism focuses on the ontological outcomes of the operationality of capital. Most of leftist analysis of capitalism, and most simplistic anti-capitalism, is grounded in an attempt to eliminate bad outcomes, to create economics around concepts of fairness, justice, whatever abstract moralistic concept one chooses to insert here. The problem with that analysis, and we see this in concepts like social capitalism, none of the elimination of these bad outcomes actually necessitates a challenge to capitalism, but, instead, only implies a sort of liberal reformism in which the economy continues to exist as a mass form, but in a more “equitable” form. This analysis completely misses the point, and it is this framing of capital around the commodity form that this becomes clear.
The commodity is not simply an object in economic circulation, but, rather, is an object in which a paradoxical, impossible, sort of existential convergence occurs between the particularity of the material existence of this object (the object is a thing here and now) and the conceptual abstraction of the object (object as carrier of value). Now, of course, first and foremost, the commodity is an object that carries with it a concept of use-value, namely it is an object that has a use for a user. This only speaks of the object itself, however, and not its conversion into the commodity form. For that shift to occur something outside of the materiality of the object must be imparted as an ontological condition of possibility for the object.
In its initial form, as an object, the commodity carries use-value, or value in relation to the use of the object for the person utilizing the object. In this form the object is not able to carry a standardized value. Rather, it carries of particularized qualitative value related to the value a user puts to the use of the object in an immediate moment, which is a dynamic that is always in flux. Now, these objects can, and are, exchanged, but they cannot be exchanged as a quantity, but must be exchanged only in relation to the judgement of qualitative value one puts on the item in relation to another item, as it relates to the usefulness of the item.
In other words, for items to be directly exchangeable with one another as quantities (100 coats for 1000 yards of fabric) we have to assume that there is some commonality between the objects, some element of value which escapes the objects as material entities, which are always changing from moment to moment. This element of value must be abstract and defined by some element of the object that we assert both defines the object and which is outside of the object at th same time. This element must be immaterial, and exist outside of any concept of material existence.
- In exchange, value is calculated around an operation in which two items have to be brought into alignment, regardless of whether this is a qualitative or quantitative structure of value. Exchange revolves around the construction of a third element, outside of the two elements involved in the exchange (one exchanging item one for item two). That exchange requires this third element, which is outside of the two elements involved in the exchange, and which comes to posit some sort of equivalence between these objects, or in the least posits a terms of equivalence, in which each item can be valued in terms that are relevant for the other item. This is what Marx refers to as abstract value.
“Such properties come into consideration only to the extent that they make the commodities useful, ie, turn them into use-values. But clearly, the exchange relation of commodities is characterized precisely by its abstraction from use-values” (127).
- From the structure of exchange we can begin to see the displacement of the meaning of the object from itself into the conceptual, and out of the material. By focusing on this element Marx is starting to sketch out an argument that would come to form the core of Marxist influence on post-structuralism, the non-relation between the concept and the object. Before moving forward I am going to focus on this part of the discussion for a moment, and use a simple example to illustrate the point.
Say we are sitting in a conference room and are observing the chairs in the room. On a material level all of those objects are different on a fundamental level. They are all different materially, have degraded at different levels, have had different collisions with other material objects. Not only are they different from one another, they are different from their own existence in a past moment. All objects are particular and constantly in a process of change and becoming. At the same time we create the concept of chairs to make sense of these objects, to organize their existence into a conceptual category. Though this process is critical for our ability to make sense of things, we are still dealing with a fundamental separation, an unbridgable chasm as Blanchot would say, between the concept and the object or the moment.
The object, at this point, is just this simple material object typified by its locatability within historical particularity and contingency. When exchange emerges, as an attempt to trade objects as values, this third element of equivalence must be created, regardless of the form this abstraction takes. This element exists outside of the qualities and use of an object, and reduces the object to an expression of the magnitude of equivalent quantitative value. As such, the possibility of the object begins to be premised on an ahistorical form of abstract value, even though the object and this abstract value exist at a fundamental ontological separation. “As use-values, commodities differ above all in quality, while as exchange-values they can only differ in quantity, and therefore do not contain use-value” (128).
This is a core concept in Capital, and one that is missed completely by Leninists, who have a politics entirely grounded in abstraction, concepts of universal truth that exceed the material and a historical determinism that precludes intention or material effect. What Marx refers to as history is these very same material moments that are abstracted away in the fundamentally ahistorical (in the sense that objects and moments are removed from history) reliance on abstract concepts and notions of universality. The entirety of Leninism relies on the ability to claim that these imprecise, highly speculative forms of conceptual sense are, within their narrative, expressions of universal truth, which attempts to argue that the concept and the world are exactly the same thing; this is the theory of technicians that is expressed in State and Revolution.
The remainder of this section of reading focuses on the beginnings of the formation of the concept of the labor theory of value, which interplays with this discussion of the non-convergence between abstract and material, and will form the foundations for the discussion of wage labor later. Without use-value the commodity needs another basis through which value can be determined, which for Marx is related to labor, or, in other words, activity (Marx uses the term labor to mean any activity, not just work). This production is not concerned with the qualities of the object. Rather, the object's value becomes an abstract calculus of exchange where labor and object are both removed from their material uniqueness and properties, and inserted into a space where the condition of possibility is not need and use, but becomes abstracted into value as determined by the abstractions of exchange. This exchange value is then determined by the labor embodied in the object, reduced to a quantity within a wider structure that attempts to level all difference and render all things equivalent and exchangeable. The individual worker and particular object evaporate, and are replaced by abstract labor as wage labor, or labor-power, and the object becomes crystallized abstract value.
“Commodities which contain equal quantities of labour, or which can be produced at the same time, have therefore the same value. The value of the commodity is related to the value of any other commodity as the labour-time necessary for the production of the other” (130). This is not positing what some less careful readers have claimed, that this is some sort of calculation of labor as a quantity embodied in the object. Rather, Marx is positing a much broader understanding of labor here. When Marx is talking about labor he is discussing the work mobilized to turn a resource into a commodity, to produce the commodity. This commodity, however, is constructed of other commodities, or uses other commodities in its production, all of which is also factored into the abstract value. Then we have to take into account the social possibility of this sort of exchange, which we will return to later, and the costs of the maintenance of logistical infrastructure, security for private property and so on. In other words, labor here refers to the entirety of the conditions involved in the chain of activity bound up in the production of a single object. This begins a process through which the ontology of the commodity begins to double-back onto the material world, as a force that will attempt to maximize labor efficiency and produce the social conditions of capitalist exchange. But, that is a much longer discussion that we will return to as we go forward.
There is a lot in these opening pages of Capital, which present a series of arguments which, when read carefully, completely realign the reading of Capital away from this simplistic economics reading you see in traditional forms of anti-capitalism. Rather than a text about the outcomes of capitalism, as it is often portrayed, Capital is engaging on a different plane, the plane of the ontological conditions of possibility for capitalism, and how that comes to function as a material force within everyday life. The next section, which goes from pages 131 to the middle of 152 will continue to set the stage for the discussions to come surrounding money, the formation of markets and the inherent relation of capitalism to the state.
Enjoy, and if you have any comments get in touch over Mastadon (email@example.com)