(updated Jan 21, February 24, 25 2016)
The commodity perspective of value: use value, exchange-value and value
Marx begins his mature analysis of capitalism (A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, 1859) with the commodity as a simple thing or abstraction which contained the germ of the capitalist contradiction between use value and value on which the whole of his argument could be built. See notes at the end which outlines the timeline of this evolution in Marx's thought.
A commodity is a useful thing (a use value) for others (not the producer, since they produce commodities in bulk), a social use value, which is the product of labour (which creates value) and is transferred to another person by exchange in a marketplace. So commodities have both a use value and an exchange value)
Use value is a natural form. In any society (capitalist or pre capitalist) labour is used to make useful things, starting from natural raw materials. Use values are independent of the amount of labour. They are realised only by consumption. They constitute the source of all wealth.
But value or exchange value is not natural, it is a creature of capitalism. Value is an emergent (historically contingent) social form specific to capitalist commodity exchange. Value is an emergent social form which takes on a universal material form (gold, money).
It is just that we are so used to shopping that exchange value feels natural. But Marx imagined a future society, communism, where there was no scarcity and people simply take what they needed from a public pool. In communist society the needs of people come first. Value and its forms, money, and its measurement (socially necessary labour time) have withered away.
Back to capitalism. Value is measured by the quantity of human labour added to the commodity. If productivity increases due to improved technology then the value or cost of the product should decline proportionately. eg. Power looms in England in Marx's time doubled productivity and so the cost of cloth produced by yarn should have halved.
Marx talks about materialized or crystallized or embedded or congealed or abstract human labour adding value to a commodity. Abstract here means general or simple labour. Contrast abstract with concrete, which means a particular type of labour. For example, teaching or engineering is concrete, particular labour. Abstract labour is reducing all the different types of labour to a common type. Marx assumes this can be done without going into detail of how to do it.
But a commodity cannot be dissected to find the elements that makes it exchangeable. Exchange values do not contain one atom of use value. Value is a social reality. It is a social form. It's very existence depends of the capitalist marketplace where commodities (another social form) are exchanged.
Value and exchange value are more like a mirror. A commodity has to see another commodity (or money) before an exchange can take place. This is a social process. Moreover, socially necessary labour time can't be measured at the point of production. If a commodity is not sold or exchanged then it doesn't have value.
But the mirror metaphor makes the embedded crystals of labour approach seem contradictory or absurd. How can value be added to a commodity, through labour, on the one hand and yet only be discerned through comparison with another commodity on the other? The commodity has a dual nature. We have to adapt our thinking to incorporate this dialectic, to hold contradictory images of a concept in our minds. The source of this is Hegelian dialectics which is used extensively in Marx's method.
Some people have tried to imagine life without money. Can you imagine life without commodities? There is a difference between commodities and products! Products are things made for use in any society. Commodities are made for sale. They are part of capitalist society. It could be said that commodities create capitalism. As such they have both a use value and an exchange-value. To us they are as normal as going shopping. But the contradiction between use value and exchange-value has enormous implications. Marx had the imagination to grasp this.
In primitive society people produce mainly for their own needs and not for others. There is very little exchange. From a historical perspective you could say that a use value slowly struggles to achieve a recognition of value (which is seen as exchange-value in the exchange process and which is theorised to be abstract human labour by Marx). At that point historically, as the market develops, the use value becomes a commodity. Commodity production arrives big time when products are produced in bulk for the purpose of exchange. The producer has no personal need for those products, s/he produces them to sell them.
What a commodity is not
When a peasant produced quit-rent-corn for a feudal lord he is make a product but not a commodity because exchange is not involved. To become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use-value, by means of exchange. This commodity definition was inserted by Engels into the 4th German edition of Capital (at the end of Chapter 1, section 1) due to this misunderstanding: not everything produced by or consumed by another is a commodity.
A thing can be a use value without having value.
This can happens whenever its utility (usefulness) is not due to labour. eg. air, virgin soil. Land is a major capitalist category. Many forms of production require land. From the point of view of the average worker buying a house and the land it sits on is a major purchase. But land is part of nature, it exists without labour inputs, and so strictly speaking is not a commodity.
It also happens when personal, private production produces use values without producing value. eg. the labour involved in building a cubby for your child or mowing the lawn at home produces use values but is not part of the capitalist marketplace.
Stolen goods are intended commodities which are not paid for and if they are not subsequently sold, by the thief, do not have their value realised. This introduces the case of goods that are produced but not sold due to overproduction, which leads to an economic recession. Are they commodities? By my reading they are commodities in waiting but not true commodities until they are sold and their value is realised.
The difference between exchange-value and value
Early on the distinction between exchange-value and value was not clear to me. I later discovered that Marx did not distinguish between them himself in his earlier important introductory work, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. See Simon Clarke's Reading Notes on Capital in his Publications. Finally, I found a place where he did spell it out in an Appendix he added to the first German edition of Capital at the request of Engels.
In Section 4 of that Appendix Marx says that a commodities “existence as value is revealed by the exchangeability of the body of another commodity” and that “exchange-value is the independent form of appearance of commodity-value”
My understanding of this is that exchange is what we see on the surface (“form of appearance” ) and that value is the underlying category. It was another piece of what felt like a jigsaw puzzle, put into place.
Note on Marx's timeline about starting with the commodity
1857- Marx began Grundrisse (Rough Draft). This wasn't published until 1939-41 in German (limited edition), then 1953 (German fuller version) and 1973 in English (Martin Nicolaus translation)
In Grundrisse the sequence goes like this: money → Capital → Surplus value → Circulation process of Capital → theories of surplus value → profit → Value (this section to be brought forward)
1859 In A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (published), Marx does begin with the commodity
1861-5 Capital volume one was written and then published in 1867
(part 3, to be continued)
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