Week 2: Chapter 1
In the first week we discussed the ways in which the commodity form forms the core of the operationality and ontology of capitalism, and how this centers around the shift from use value to exchange.
The commodity form is a strange ontological structure, in which the purely material, the object, and the purely abstract, its exchange value, come to fuse together in a single object, as a paradoxical construction. The object in its material form is unique, particular, contingent, but in its abstracted form it becomes general, immaterial, standardized through the structuring of value. This fusion does not eliminate the material element of the object, but it repositions the object as on which is contingent not on material existence, but on the expression of the object as an abstract value.
Toward the end of the last section of reading Marx begins to touch on the labor theory of value, or the conception that value (whether use value or exchange value) is imparted through labor. Now, labor is a broad category, which does not just speak to the immediate work of producing an item, but also speaks to the entirety of the labor embodied in all elements of the supply chain. In other words, it is through work that raw material is transformed into things with use value, and therefore labor becomes the basis through which the value that is abstracted into abstract value emerges.
Now, later in Chapter 3 Marx will expand on this concept of the labor theory of value, and close an important gap in the concept. As it stands the labor theory of value cannot explain dynamics like supply and demand. Later in the text Marx will talk about the difference between value and price, and use the concept of price to discuss the impacts of market dynamics, but that is a post for another day.
For now, lets jump into the middle section of Chapter 1.
- As with the commodity, the reconstruction of labor around abstract value also fundamentally modifies labor around a paradox. In the construction of the object labor is directly structured around the “aim, mode of operation, means, and results” (132). These dynamics position the activity, termed “useful labour”, around the immediate conditions of the acts of production, in an immediate and material sense. The act can function around a condition of possibility that is, likewise, immediate; the production of the object is immediate and produced to fill a material need, grounded in the imperatives of use-value. “The totality of heterogeneous use-values or physical conditions reflects the totality of similarly heterogeneous forms of useful labour, which differ in order, genus, species and variety; in short, a social division of labour” (132).
This social division of labor is historical, in the sense that it is a dynamic of activities in unique moments, all formed by the contingent effects of past moments. It is a dynamic that manifests differently in each moment, in each space, in each scenario. It is not able to be generalized, spoken about through a singular concept and, just as with the object, something in which the value we place is tied inherently to this uniqueness of the moment; it is different in every moment. In its basic form, outside of commodity production, labor functions to produce things that are needed, with the value of those items, the conditions of their production, the work performed and the use of those objects directly tied to the uniqueness of this unrepeatable moment.
- The social division of labor, or the material dynamics of production of use-values, is essential for the production of commodities, even if the purpose of production is to produce commodities for exchange. In other words, the ontology of capital, which is based on this paradoxical structure of the commodity, and the fusion of material particularity and ahistorical conceptualization, is a process in which the social division of labor is necessary. This both positions the social division of labor as something that can exist outside of capitalism, but also as the mechanism through which the social dynamics of capital begin to operate on a logistical or organizational scale within a broader defining of life within the commodity form. This will become critical later when we discuss the concept of workers being separated from the products of their labor, later in the text.
“Labour, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labour, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between men and nature, and therefore human life itself” (133).
Use-values, therefore, start to be formed through a combination of material and labor, within the spatio-temporal conditions of production. In this structure all labor is heterogeneous and all value is derived from the results of this production as it interacts with the material world, in its use. Once we separate labor from use it is no longer possible to measure value based on the transformative element of labor, or the work to turn a resource into an object of use. In this shift into abstract exchange value labor becomes isolated from its conditions, turned into another quantity related to abstract exchange value, and transformed from labor to labour-power, or labor encompassed and defined by the commodity production process. In this construct of labour-power, or labor separated from the social division of labor, becomes rendered equivalent, in that it becomes valued as labour-power input into the productive act itself, not in relation to its resultant use. Even specialized labor becomes valued in relation to the quantity of simple labor.
In the production of use-values various forms of heterogeneous labor must occur. It is only in this abstraction into labour-power does this heterogeneity devolve into quantitative sameness. When we talk about quantitative sameness we should be clear what we are speaking of, because this is widely misunderstood idea.
When we construct a quantity we are positing that the objects that can be measured in this way share some sort of existential sameness. For example, the number one invokes a uniqueness, but once we use the number two we are talking about a set, and something needs to define that set as a set, needs to define the sameness that allows differences to be within the same set. When we say an object costs $12, we are saying that this object shares an existential sameness with any other object which is represented in this same quantitative structure. So, even if one thing costs $12 and another costs $15, it is still positing a sameness, just a different magnitude of that sameness. “While, therefore, with reference to use-value, the labour contained in a commodity counts only qualitatively, with reference to value it counts only quantitatively, once it has been reduced to human labour pure and simple” (136).
- “Commodities come into the world in the form of use-values or material goods, such as iron, linen, corn, etc. This is their plain, homely, natural form. However, they are only commodities because they have a dual nature, because they are at the same time objects of utility and bearers of value” (138). The commodity, therefore, becomes this sort of Frankenstein's monster, at once composed of heterogeneous production and use, as well as a generalized form of quantitative value which eliminates this very heterogeneity. Though this is the case, however, the very exchange of commodities for value, the exchange value of the commodity, is constructed socially in two senses. Firstly, commodities are exchanged for value, which asserts the existence of the other, the second party to the exchange, which also must share the same assertions that form the basis for the exchange. Secondly, the condition of possibility for the abstract equivalence of labor, and therefore the abstract value of the commodity, is in itself a dynamic of activity; we construct this dynamic, it does not come down from on high as the dictates of deities. The material manifestation of this impossible conceptual process comes in the form of the activity we engage in through production and exchange, and is valorized in every moment of exchange. Nowhere are commodities or capitalism discusses as an autonomous system that we are passively victimized by, contrary to the readings of vulgar Marxism.