Week 3: Chapter 1

Pages 152-178

With these notes we will be closing out Chapter 1 of Capital. The content of this chapter requires this sort of depth of reading, for a really core reason; the ontological argument made in Chapter 1 completely realigns a number of assumed givens in the discussion of capitalism and resistance.

The first realignment, and I mentioned this in past notes, is a realignment in how we understand capitalism. Far from the monolithic system that is often portrayed in radical literature, the understanding of capitalism developed here begins at the core level of the universe capitalism creates conceptually, the commodity. From this perspective we can see how the development of the commodity form not only forces a certain series of relations into being, namely those of ownership and exchange, but does so through the construction of an odd sort of ontology.

This ontology of the commodity is centered around an impossibility, the generalization and rendering equivalent of the particularized actions that occur in unique present moments (which are all present moments). The construction of this structure of conceptual equivalence in itself does not mean anything, all concepts participate in this sort of process. What emerges, however, is a structure in which the abstraction of the object must come to substitute for the object in exchange, and to the degree that value is displaced in exchange value, the ability to exchange the object reduces the object to this quantitative value. As such, the object does not come into being as a result of need, but, rather, emerges from the abstract imperatives of commodity circulation. We will discuss this much further in following chapters.

Secondly, this positing of a paradox between the object and the concept of the object, embodied in this case as abstract value, also has to realign how we understand the resistance to capitalism. We will begin to approach this question in this week's notes, and will expand on our prior discussions to enumerate the ways that the framework Marx lays out disrupts the traditional concepts of revolution, the overthrow of “systems”, and completely forecloses on the argument for historical materialism.

So, without any more delays, here is the end of the first chapter.

-With the movement of the value away from use value and into exchange value, the value of the object in exchange for other objects, the particularities of qualitative value are eliminated, and replaced with quantities of equivalent abstract value. If we remember back to past weeks, the use value of the object is directly in relation to the qualitative value that object has for the participants of that moment in relation to their needs in that moment. When we combine this with earlier arguments, around the particularity of the object in the moment, the object itself is only expressed through this particularized value. Now, these particularized values are understood by all parties differently, and cannot be the foundation for commodity exchange. What typifies the commodity, then, is not economics. Rather, the commodity is a sort of existential category, a paradoxical category, and this forms the basis, the conditions of possibility, for capitalism as such.

Value, in a general sense, for Marx is created through labor; it is labor that turns materials into use values or exchange values. When value becomes an abstract quantity this reduces labor to a quantity as well, which accumulates in the value of the object through production, destroying the qualitative distinction between forms of labor, and therefore alienating labor from itself. “The linen, by virtue of the form of value, no longer stands in a social relation with merely one other kind of commodity, but with the whole world of commodities as well...At the same time, the endless series of expressions of its value implies that, from the point of view of the value of the commodity, the particular form of use-value in which it appears is a matter of indifference” (155).

The first objection, and the less relevant issue in the political reading of Capital, is grounded in economics. In theory, two objects which require the same amount of labor would carry the same value, and objects that do not require as much labor would carry less value. In the realm of particularized use values, this is fine, all value is relative. But, when we move into commodity exchange, where value has to be standardized as a quantity, this leads to some odd outcomes. For example, gold is a component in computers, and that would mean that the value of gold would be added into the computer, but, somehow the computer costs less than the gold. This is a problem that is related to the abstract of abstracted exchange value into money, and then into price, which involves larger market dynamics, and which we will discuss more in Chapter 3.

The second issue centers around the elimination of the uniqueness of moments of labor, action and history as it relates to this particular object in this particular time and space. “And, lastly, is, as must be the case, the relative value of each commodity is expressed in this expanded form, it follows that the relative form of value of each commodity is an endless series of expressions of value which are different from the relative form of value of every other commodity” (156). The commodity, as a product of a particular historical time and space becomes alienated from this particularity to the degree that it is rendered in the commodity form, or to the degree that its value exceeds this particularity and begins to be constructed around abstract conceptual equivalences. The object is removed from this complexity of history, and becomes rendered in a form that can be considered equivalent across time and space.

The implications here are critical. Marx is arguing that to abstract a moment, act or object into a conceptual form, which we all do, is to alienate the particular thing from itself. Each moment becomes, in this view, a convergence of the effects of everything that has ever happened ever, and each act changes those dynamics entirely. As such, history is not some sort of deterministic and understandable form of objective reality, which Leninism relies on for both claims of authority/legitimacy as well as the foundations for historical materialism. Rather, it is a chaotic, dynamic, contingent dynamic typified by activity and effect, and not some singular deterministic, understandable reality. To render history in that form is to fundamentally remove history from itself and render it in an alienated form. This element of Marx is ultimately by people like Debord identified as Marxists but rejected Lenin (this is not my position, I identify as a nihilist, but this is a valid argument to make).

On the level of exchange value, the commodity must come to function, materially, as equivalent to all other commodities, only separated by magnitude, or the amount of abstract value carried by the object. This requires the establishment of a universal equivalent value, a thing that can carry and mark that value, and that can be exchanged for all other things. “Finally, the last form, C (this is from a prior example), gives to the world of commodities a general social relative form of value, because, and in so far as, all commodities except one are thereby excluded from the equivalent form” (161). In other words, the equivalent form of value, where all commodities are rendered equivalent to one another, has morphed into a new form. Now, the ontology of the commodity is asserted and valued in relation to a single commodity which marks this abstract value. Conceptually this functions by reducing the object to this equivalent form. But, socially, this involves a social agreement, where the relevance of this universal commodity is accepted, and becomes exchangeable for all other objects. To mirror an argument Milton Friedman, the father of neoliberalism, made, money only exists because of the social agreement around its existence. To put it another way, this universal commodity has value to the degree that we posit, socially, that it has value.

The object is typified, therefore, by a social-political structure, which assumes the positionality of objectivity. Each object affirms this objectivity to the degree that it is rendered as a commodity, and becomes affirmed by the social operation of this supposed objectivity. This removal of the object from the material world, and its reinsertion back into the world as an expression of a conceptual framework is what Marx refers to as commodity fetishism, the study of which is political economy.