English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

Marx's Ideas about Commodities and History
Al Drake, UC Irvine

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It is best to begin with a statement about Marx's conception of human society. Marx (1818-1883) largely agrees with his philosophical predecessor Georg W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) that it is essential to human beings to “objectify” themselves in an external world and then to comprehend that external world as an adequate expression of themselves. Work, for both Hegel and Marx, is the main way in which humans accomplish this self-affirming objectification. Labor, that is, brings out the latent potential in human beings and leads them toward an ever-greater realization of freedom within a community of fellow-workers. Human society, for Marx, consists in people laboring to produce what they, as members of society, need for their subsistence and happiness. At one and the same time, their labor both brings out their human capacities or potential and affirms their relationship with all their fellow workers. Work then, is for both Hegel and Marx essential to the very concept of humanity. Both thinkers are aware, of course, that this ideal society has by no means been fully established, and in their analysis of the reasons for the imperfection of human affairs, they part company.

Hegel and Marx use the term “alienation” to describe the cause of human unhappiness and failure to live in harmony. The content of this abstract term, however, shows the great differences between Hegel and Marx. While to the idealist Hegel alienation has to do primarily with the sphere of religion, Marx interprets the concept in accordance with his own materialist philosophy. Hegel, that is, argues that an alienated, “unhappy consciousness” is the result of humans' experiencing themselves as empty and placing “worth” out of reach in a supernatural realm. Marx, by contrast, insists that such idealist formulations only obscure the true cause of human misery, injustice, and alienation. The real reason for these problems, says Marx, can be traced to the material ways in which people work and live--to their economic and social arrangements. Religion, says Marx, is nothing but a reflex of this real world; the misery humans express in religious terms is, therefore, nothing but a reflexive distortion of the misery and alienation they experience as members of an actual, material society. It will not do, then, to look to religion and the realm of the spirit for an understanding of (or a cure to) human ills. One must look to economics and to the “class struggle” that has always--right up to and most intensely in the time of industrial capitalism--characterized human history. After all, as Marx says succinctly in The German Ideology, “men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”

Since Marx argues that economics is the key to understanding how human societies function and change, his task in Das Kapital as an antagonist of nineteenth-century capitalism is to explain the nature and behavior of that system's most important phenomenon: the commodity. Since, in turn, understanding what a commodity is and how it behaves in the marketplace involves an understanding of the term “value,” we must turn first to Marx's analysis of this concept, and then move on to the revolutionary implications which Marx himself draws from this fine-grained economic study.

The three types of value that Marx identifies in Capital, Volume One are use-value, exchange-value, and surplus value. We should consider use-value first. An object becomes a use-value, says Marx, by virtue of its utility, its capacity to satisfy human wants. A useful object cannot become a commodity, however, until we sell it to someone, and so exchange-values come into play. Exchange-value, which we must now consider, is quite different from use-value. While an object's use-value is dependent on its “usefulness” and the labor that went into its production need only be conceptualized as “specific and determinate,” its exchange-value must, says Marx, be determined differently.

The following example will illustrate the difference in valuation: Let's say I have some wheat. Insofar as I simply want to grind it up and bake for myself some bread with it, I am only concerned with the “productive activity of a definite kind and exercised with a definite aim” (Capital 49) that I have put into the growing and harvesting of my wheat. There is as yet no need to determine its value in terms of anything but its usefulness to me. But what if I live in a fairly well-developed market society and so intend to sell my wheat as a commodity? What if I want not to make bread with my wheat but to exchange it for something else that I need? How do I compare its value in relation to that something else? Well, says Marx, I have to recognize that my useful object, once I take it to market, can only function during a given exchange as a manifestation of abstract labor power. I cannot compare two things without reference to a third thing that will serve as a common denominator. How, for example, could I say, “My ten pounds of wheat are equal in value to one coat”? (Use-values or useful objects can only confront each other as qualitatively different; no one would exchange a coat for a coat, but someone might exchange a coat for another useful thing. Nonetheless, such qualitative differences do not establish a common standard of value.) Abstract labor power is Marx's answer--I can compare the two objects because into the making of both went a quantity of homogeneous, “abstract” labor. Notice here that no one cares about the specific, determinate labor that went into the making of a given item, or even about the object in all its glorious usefulness. At the market, at the point of sale, all we care about is the fact that “abstract labor,” however absurd such a concept may in fact be, can serve as a common property for both items. If we started arguing over the quality of the work involved, we would no longer be able to agree on a standard measure of value. Since a commodity can express its value only through exchange, we must measure that value in terms of congealed, socially necessary labor--just as much quantity of time, no more, no less, as it takes efficient workers in an efficient commodity-society on the average to produce a given item. (Adam Smith had explained long ago the benefits of the division of labor, wherein each worker does only one little task with robot-like efficiency. Thanks to the division of labor, ten people making part of, say, a pin can make thousands of pins in a day while those same ten people, each trying to make an entire pin, would have very little to show for their efforts at day's end.) So here we are, gone to market with our useful objects. In order to transform those objects into commodities, we must exchange them as pure congelations of abstract labor power. During the moment of exchange, nothing else matters except that abstract standard; all else is unavailable to us, is bracketed out.

The commodity, to repeat, is no respecter of specific, determinate labor; it requires that we should consider it merely as a portion of general labor. All commodities are equal; all work is equal, when exchanged in certain proportions. A commodity is indeed a useful thing, but that usefulness cannot be realized as value until the thing is exchanged. The commodity then, says Marx, is a peculiarly two-fold phenomenon. We can grasp its value only as an expression of abstract labor, only when it embodies this labor at the point of exchange, only in “the social relation of commodity to commodity” (54). Our own mutual relations and interdependence, our own concrete labor as producers of serviceable objects, says Marx, no longer matter; once a capitalist economy gets going, those commodities might just as well have picked themselves up and gone to the market without us. We exist to produce commodities; they do not exist to serve us, and we cannot hope to commandeer them our way just because we happen to have done some specific piece of work a few days back. In effect, the man working himself to death in a coal mine has no right to demand more from the society he keeps warm than his paltry wages allow. His money represents a given amount of abstract labor, and he may command only that much and no more. Money, of course, is the absolute, universal standard, the congelation of labor by which all other items may be measured as values, and our workman has very little of it to show for his pains, and so no right to live like the capitalist who employs him.

How, indeed, is it that the capitalist lives so well? We must now bring up the third kind of value that Marx discusses, “surplus value.” Simply put, this is the profit that the man of business turns. Whatever certain economists may say, Marx explains, profit is not generated by sharp buying and selling prices. People do, of course, sometimes buy things below their value and/or sell them to some poor devil at an exorbitant price, but we must not equate such practices with profit. No, our capitalist generates his profit not during an exchange of commodities but beforehand, right in the factory. How so? Well, consider that in a given society, the entirety of the workforce only needs to produce a certain quantity of goods to keep itself going. Society X (read “workforce plus dependents”) needs to make only quantity Y of goods, no more, no less, to provide for its own well-being. Let us say that providing this quantity of serviceable things--food, shelter, tools, and the like--takes each worker an average of, say, four hours per day. Thanks to the marvelous technology and division of labor that came into play with the Industrial Revolution, it only takes half a day's work to satisfy all basic human needs. Nonetheless, we must forget any ideas this fact may have given us about producing our way to industrial utopia; the capitalist is intent on turning a buck, and he cannot do it so long as the workers all provide for their own welfare and then go home. He points to the terms of employment laid out in that lopsided contract between himself and his workers. He knows full well that he, the capitalist, owns the means of subsistence (money and the materials with and upon which to labor) so necessary to the worker, who has only his labor power to sell. In practice, this means the worker will have to do a little more work than he might have planned. Does ten or twelve hours sound like a nice round figure? Fine, it's settled. Welcome aboard!

In essence, each extra hour of labor, each extra object or part thereof that the worker provides, goes right into the pocket of old moneybags the capitalist, or at least it will make that familiar jingle when all of his surplus commodities reach the market and get sold at the rate determined by competition. The point is, the worker owns only his labor and is paid in wages for the exercise of that labor; he does not own the products of his labor, and has no right to any of the money to be had from the sale of these products. What the capitalist accumulates, then, is the surplus labor provided by his workers, which surplus labor, conveniently compressed into its money form, he can then venture in exciting new ways to harvest even more surplus labor. For the moment, let us leave aside the obvious question that arises here: since the worker's wages command only a rather small quantity of goods, who is going to buy all the extra things that the dynamic capitalist's ambition brings to market? Some of them, says Marx, will obviously be bought by those who have accumulated a great deal of money and can afford to live well, but it is not as simple as that, so we shall have to return to the problem below.

What does Marx draw from all this economic analysis? Well, he says that the commodity, by its very conditions of existence, has by the nineteenth century transformed the relationship between human beings and the quality and products of their labor. Human relations are no longer valuable until they are expressed in the grotesque exchange of commodities; they have to be “embodied” in commodities, which then take on all the power and ferocity and determining quality of fetish objects. Instead of regulating the great productive capacity that the scientific revolution has given us, instead of making what we need to live well and distributing it on a rational, orderly, and just basis, says Marx, we live chaotically. The old, hierarchical social bonds of feudal Europe have been broken forever, replaced by the Darwinian social environment of capitalism with its two great antagonistic classes, bourgeoisie and proletariat. While the latter class has little to hope for in Marx's day except to work and subsist on what wages it can earn, the former class has for its interest the ceaseless accumulation of wealth, a quest which leads to what Marx calls perhaps the worst “contradiction” of capitalism. Namely, since nearly round-the-clock manufacturing of goods is essential to the capitalist, overproduction, undertaken on far too grand a scale to respond to the Invisible Hand of competition in which Adam Smith put so much faith, is bound to result in periodic crises. The market, that is, will surely suffer through ever-increasing cycles of boom and bust. The owners of capital, helped along by the state they control, will try anything to keep their markets expanding--including subterfuge, colonization of pre-industrialized lands, and war against the capitalists of other nations. (Not that the word “nation” means much within such an international system as capitalism, Marx would point out.) Obviously, even the most cursory look at the first two world wars should convince one that Marx's model, whatever its flaws, has a certain predictive value. This century's wars in Europe surely had much to do with economic crises and empire-building. The great powers became desperate for new markets and jealous of one anther's successes, and hell broke loose.

As for the strictly social effects of capitalism, or what Marxists call the “superstructure” when they are not on guard against being called vulgar, these follow the same fetishistic logic as capitalist economics. Marx, a good materialist who tries to begin with his observations of the world around him, declares in The German Ideology that “men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with . . . their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” (47). However, under capitalism, just as in the economic sphere the mutual relations between human workers are obscured and displaced into the allegedly social exchange of things, of commodities, so in the social sphere the institutions by which humans live are taken as a priori, eternal commands from some supernatural being. The contents of religion, morality, philosophy, law both civil and criminal, politics domestic and foreign, and so on are taken as natural rather than as corollaries, however indirect, of a given economic system, or, in Marxist terminology, of a given “set of material relations between men.” If capitalism dictates that our actions are controlled by the objects we produce, says Marx, it follows that we understand everything else on the basis of our mystified relation to commodities. We become the slaves of abstractions which we ourselves have produced, whether directly in the factory and marketplace or in our minds. The tendencies of the logic described here are perhaps to be summed up best by the Romantic poet William Blake's almost Marxian line, “Prisons are built with the stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion.” That is, we take our religious dogmas and our laws and institutions as unquestionable, eternal truths rather than as the effects of the way in which we relate to one another as human beings, as producers of our material subsistence. This reification and naturalization of certain moral values, says Marx, we then employ to condemn those who do not share in the benefits of a market-based economy. As always, ranking follows reification, and the final equation is just what we might have expected: “whatever is, is right.” The poor, the thief, the prostitute, are born losers, and they deserve whatever happens to them, while the wealthy are considered superior and deserving of all good things.

Finally, we should remember that while the foregoing description of capitalism sounds rather bleak and hopeless, Marx himself is anything but a pessimist. He is a firm believer in “progress” or “historical development.” In other words, Marx is convinced that just as certain historical factors made the development of industrial capitalism inevitable, so will its demise occur almost like clockwork. The increasingly violent economic cycles and imperialist sprees that system is bound to suffer, says Marx, will lead to that system's overthrow. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, he says, the proletariat will realize that they have already attained the capacity to produce enough to make the world a comfortable place, and they will stop obeying the orders of capital. Then the revolution will occur on an international scale, and the path will be open to the full development of that many-sided “communist man.” Remember when you compare Marx to some of the English cultural analysts that for Marx, the proletariat is a class like no other in history. Its appearance on the world stage precludes any attempt to turn back the clock to some falsely idyllic feudal age and thereby defuse the threat that the working class presents to the new, but self-destructive, world order. We could, of course, spend a great deal more time discussing the problems with Marx's historical vision--his ideas about women, race (he says that Asia has no history!), and the time-frame or even the inevitability of capitalism's self-destruction, for example. One thing to keep in mind, however, as we move towards Sigmund Freud, is that Marx has no fully developed notion of the Unconscious, though his analysis of fetishism clearly bears a psychological cast. Perhaps this dark little secret about humanity, the Unconscious, plays a role in the survival of capitalism. At least, that is what Freud would say.

Marx and Engels' Guide to Appearing German, Profound, and Speculative:

First of all an abstraction is made from a fact; then it is declared that the fact is based on the abstraction. That is how to proceed if you want to appear German, profound, and speculative.

For example: Fact: The cat eats the mouse.

Reflection: Cat = nature, mouse = nature, Consumption of mouse by cat = consumption of nature by nature = self-consumption of nature.

Philosophic presentation of the fact: Devouring of the mouse by the cat is based upon the self-consumption of nature.

From The German Ideology, London: International Publishers, 1965. 530.