Saturday, October 16, 2010

Capital chapter one (Laurence Miall's blog)

Capital by Karl Marx, Chapter 1 - blog by Laurence Miall

Laurence writes in an entertaining (and self deprecating, not claiming to be a Marx guru) manner replacing Marx's commodities of linen and coat with the more modern examples of gasoline, iPads and cat kibbles.

I think his summary of the most difficult chapter of Marx could be improved by a deeper analysis of the value form. I cite some references below which I found particular helpful in coming to grips with this. Here are some extracts from Laurence's article with comments:
para 10: “David Harvey really saved my pea brain from total meltdown here. It turns out that value is socially necessary labour time. This is to say that what gives a commodity value is the labour that went into it”
This is true but incomplete in that it is limited to the magnitude and substance of value. Value also has a social form  (the capacity to be exchanged as an equal with another commodity) as well as a substance (embedded abstract labour) and magnitude (socially necessary labour time).
para 11: “And lastly, what gives my cat kibbles their exchangeability is the fact that they hold value: their value is that they provide a use-value for somebody else (in this case, for James, because he can feed my yummy cat kibbles to his own cats)”
This mixes up value and use value in a way which muddies the concept that value is a historically contingent social form, a social construct which eventually took on the form of money. In another type of society (pre or post capitalist) the cat kibbles would not have value at all. Imagine a society where your neighbor James just took the cat kibbles (no exchange) and that wasn’t regarded as theft. There is enough cat kibbles for everyone, no scarcity. Without exchange there is no value.
para 22: “Furthermore, the quantities are pretty arbitrary too. What makes 20 pounds of linen the basis of comparison? Why not 50 pounds? Or one pound?”
Those quantities in the general value form are not arbitrary. They are equivalents of socially necessary labour time required to produce those various commodities.
para 28 David Harvey quote: “People under capitalism do not relate to each other directly as human beings; they relate to each other through the myriad products which they encounter in the market.”
An issue which I found difficult to understand in Marx – in the same sense that Laurence qualifies Harvey’s quote - was Marx’s use of the word social in phrases like “socially necessary labour time” and in the commodity fetishism section, particularly the phrase “… material relations between persons and social relations between things”. My understanding now is that the use of the word social here relies on:
  • a restricted sense of social to mean exchangeable on the market – not social in the more general sense of human social interaction
  • the historical transformation of things into social forms, eg. products of labour become commodities, which as well as having use values are exchangeable (and hence social in that restricted sense)
So, appreciating value as a historically contingent social form I think adds a deeper dimension to Marx's analysis as well as helping to fathom out some of the ways in which he expresses himself.

Marx, Karl: The Value-Form: Appendix to the 1st German edition of Capital, Volume 1, 1867 (link)
Rubin, Isaak Illich: Essays on Marx's Theory of Value, esp Ch 12: Content and Form of Value (link)

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