Week 2: Chapter 1

Pages 132-152

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.

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.

“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).

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).