Monday, February 29, 2016

The social form perspective of value

Index for a series of articles about Value
1) Marx and the domains of ignorance
2) Unpacking the value suitcase
3) The commodity perspective on value
4) The labour process and different categories of labour
5) The social form perspective of value
6) The equivalent form and the evolution of value into money
7) (to be continued)

What is a social form?

Unknown unknowns: All the things you don't know you don't know

I thought I had understood capitalism, that the bosses owned the means of production and the workers had no option but to sell their labour to the boss. There were rich people, poor people and class struggle.

But I didn't know about Value as a social form and so my real understanding of capitalism was deficient.

Despite my involvement in radical anti-imperialist / communist politics going back to the late 1960s I totally missed that a variety of social forms (formations) that we swim in daily have evolved and materialised from non material things, namely social relations. For example, some people worship money and virtually everyone can't help but adopt a strong interest in money, since it is essential to both survival and a good life. But most people haven't thought through that money originates in a social relation, that is, the need to standardise commodity exchange.

Such social forms are historically contingent, not an inevitable aspects of society. In the late 60s I had looked below the surface of capitalism and understood some of its workings but had missed that there was a lot more happening down there than I had imagined. Sadly, I now realise, my ignorance was and is shared by most other 60s radicals. This ignorance originated in a failure to understand Marx's most important work, “Capital”.

social forms

Social forms are things that emerge (materialise) as social artefacts as society evolves. Their origin is social not material. They become part of that society and are often perceived as part of the air we breathe. But it is social function that has brought them about and not the form which has created the social function. They don’t have any necessary permanence beyond that. Social forms in capitalist society include things of major importance such as value, abstract labour, money, capital, the commodity, commodity exchange, the market, rent and interest. These things emerge from a social process and are not set in stone for all time.

What Marx meant by Value as a social form was the capacity of a commodity to be exchanged as an equal. In terms of social or class consciousness some people have a strong sense of boss – worker relations as a social construct, something that can change, but usually do not have the same sense that Value has arisen socially and will not be around forever. You can imagine a society (socialism, communism) where things are produced for people's needs or wants, that people will receive food, medicine and white goods irrespective of their financial status. In such a society Value as a measure of commodities to be exchanged would whither away.

The social form of value

Commodities have a physical, bodily form (use values) and a value form (a social form). Value does not contain a single atom of matter. Value is a social reality. It comes into being through the social exchange of equivalents. Value hides behind exchange value, what we perceive on the surface.

After establishing that value is materialized or crystallized or embedded or congealed or abstract human labour Marx then starts to discuss the social form of value. By this he means that value is not a natural property of a commodity but arises socially due to the exchange of one commodity for another.

He doesn't emphasise that he is throwing a hand grenade into what he has previously established. Congealed, abstract labour has a concrete, measurable, cut and dried feel to it as a “definition” of value. He now introduces the idea that value is also social, that it exists in the space between the exchange of commodities, that it doesn't belong to a commodity but in the relationship of one commodity to another. This undermines the concrete feel of value.

This was confusing. How could value be BOTH a fluid social thing and a definite, even measurable, concrete thing at the same time?

I think I was vaguely aware that my thinking was being too literal, too linear and this intellectual demand that I hold two contradictory aspects in continual tension in my mind at the same time did require a different way of thinking. This is the Marxist way, his dialectical legacy from Hegel.

Note, however: In nature, the transformation of energy from one form to another (when a stone falls to the ground gravitational potential becomes kinetic energy becomes sound energy etc.) while at the same time the amounts of energy involved can be precisely measured. So the concept of change of form accompanying quantitative measurement, even precise measurement, is not a conceptual game changer in this case. But, of course, in the case of value, the origin of the form is social not natural and that adds another level of conceptual difficulty.

Rubin's definition of value

My confusion about value led me to search for a more complete definition. I thought I had found this in Isaak Rubin's writings and this felt like another AHA moment
“Marx analyses value in terms of its form, substance and magnitude. “The decisive, crucial point consists of revealing the necessary internal connection between the form, substance and magnitude of value” (Capital Volume one, first edition). The connection between these three aspects was hidden from the eyes of the analyst because Marx analysed them separately from each other. In the first German edition of Capital, Marx pointed out several times that the subject was the analysis of various aspects of one and the same object: value. “Now we know the substance of value. It is labour. We know the measure of its magnitude. It is labour time. What still remains is its form, which transforms value into exchange-value.” … In the second edition of Volume one of Capital these sentences were excluded, but the first chapter is divided into sections with separate headings: the heading of the first section say, “Substance of Value and Magnitude of Value”; the third section is titled: “Form of Value or Exchange-value.” As for the second section, which is devoted to the two fold character of labour, it is only a supplement to the first section, ie. To the theory of the substance of value”
- Ch 12, Content and Form of Value p. 112, in Essays on Marx's Theory of Value by Isaak Rubin
So, according to Rubin, the value of a commodity is:
  • a social form or social relation (the capacity for a commodity to be exchanged as an equal)
  • AND a substance or content which is embedded abstract, social labour
  • AND a magnitude (labour time)
Value is BOTH a dynamic social relation and embedded abstract labour. To see only the embedded labour part is to not understand value in motion. Embedded labour implies a static notion of value. But abstract labour and labour time are derived from a social process involving both the production and circulation of commodities. If there is a glut of commodities that are not sold they contain no value, the “embedded labour” counts for nothing.

Socially necessary labour time perspective on value

At some stage I became aware that David Harvey (in his online lectures) was explaining value with the phrase (from Marx) socially necessary labour time.

This is shorthand but, in a way, reasonable shorthand since it contains both the quantitative aspect (labour time) and the social qualitative aspect (socially necessary) in the one expression.

Socially necessary is when you think about it unpredictable. Who can say in advance how much labour is socially necessary? We don't know in advance whether the products will sell (if they don't their labour doesn't count) or whether new technology will be introduced which will reduce the necessary labour time or whether workers will agitate for a wage increase, etc.


Marx, Karl
- Chapter 1.3 The Form of Value or Exchange-value of Capital Vol 1
- Ch. 1 as per First German Edition
- The Value Form. Appendix to the 1st German edition of Capital, Volume 1, 1867

Rubin, Isaak. Essays on Marx's Theory of Value

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