Of course, it is these three chapters on commodities, exchange, and money that constitute not the core, but the entry, the vector to the core of Marx's critique which is that capital is a historical relation of production, of property to labor; that value is the expropriation of the powers of labor.
Marx advises the reader that the exploration of value will present the greatest challenge, and then Marx proceeds to give the reader the key to meeting that challenge. He identifies the commodity as the commodity form of the product of labor. The value form of the commodity is labor in commodity form.
Marx assumes that the reader will be willing to struggle through the discussion of the value forms in order to learn something new. In this, Marx was displaying uncharacteristic optimism.
"The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ―an immense accumulation of commodities,..."
The above, the opening sentence of chapter 1, might just be an understatement. It, the wealth of the capitalist mode of production is more than an immense accumulation of commodities. It is a universe of commodities. It is the commodity as the universe. Both product and its means of production are at one and the same time expressions of each other, each other's relation to labor, and the expression of each other's relations to all commodities. Both, all can be exchanged for the other, for an other, for all others. Exchange mediates the expression, the materialization, the realization, the accumulation, and the pocketing of value. Exchange then becomes the purpose of production.
Capital begins where value commands the labor of others. The commodity begins where its production is of no use, satisfies no direct need of the producer, but rather is produced for exchange. Capital begins where labor itself is not for the use of the laborer, satisfies no direct need of the producer, has no value for the laborer save its value in exchange for the means of its own sustenance or an equivalent thereof. Capital expands its reproduction, accumulates, as value commanding the labor of others.
Capitalist production, capitalist organization, ownership of the means of production is measured by its products, is the measure of the products. Production is, of, by, for value.
Social living labor, and the labor objectified, materialized in the private ownership, in the property of the means of production are each reproduced in the existence of the other. The value form of the means of production is the existence of labor as a commodity. This mutual reproduction is based on the historical separation, the opposition of the means of production which are simply the conditions of labor to labor itself. Without that separation, that opposition, there is no organization of labor in commodity form. Value is itself the composed identity of this opposition, where the opposites are mediated.
The commodity in its specific form, as a shirt, a gallon of milk, a locomotive, is useless to the producer. It exists as a sink, a mule, a vehicle for carrying value to market. The capitalist purchaes the use-value of labor, its ability to produce commodities, paying a wage which is calculated and distributed by the time of production. With this purchase, the capitalist obtains the power of labor to reproduce its social organization, its wage, its equivalent of subsistence [and even improvement] in less time than working time required by the capitalist. It is this power of labor to sustain more than its own existence, "more" than just its individual existence and "more" than just the immediate needs of both its individual and collective existence, in less than the total time of its existence, that is purchased by the capitalist. It is this power of labor when purchased that becomes the property of the capitalist, that becomes the basis of accumulation, that is converted into greater masses of the commodities that now command it to labor for the creation of greater masses of commodities that command it. It is this power that is inverted into value.
II. Marx continues his exploration of the commodity with an analysis of "The two poles of the expression of value: Relative form and Equivalent form." Here Marx states, "The whole mystery of the form of value lies hidden in this elementary form. Its analysis, therefore, is our real difficulty."
Using the well-worn example of the line and the coat, Marx begins his critique through the representation of the relation of equivalence, 20 yards of linen = 1 coat. The linen, for Marx, expresses its value in the coat. The linen has value relative to the coat. The coat represents value in the equivalent form.
The relative form and the equivalent form are two intimately connected, mutually dependent and inseparable elements of the expression of value; but, at the same time, are mutually exclusive, antagonistic extremes – i.e., poles of the same expression. They are allotted respectively to the two different commodities brought into relation by that expression. It is not possible to express the value of linen in linen. 20 yards of linen = 20 yards of linen is no expression of value. On the contrary, such an equation merely says that 20 yards of linen are nothing else than 20 yards of linen, a definite quantity of the use value linen. The value of the linen can therefore be expressed only relatively – i.e., in some other commodity. The relative form of the value of the linen presupposes, therefore, the presence of some other commodity – here the coat – under the form of an equivalent. On the other hand, the commodity that figures as the equivalent cannot at the same time assume the relative form. That second commodity is not the one whose value is expressed. Its function is merely to serve as the material in which the value of the first commodity is expressed.
Here is where we get some head scratching-- expressions of the value form that are inseparable, mutually dependent, and mutually exclusive? How can any things be mutually dependent, inseparable, and at the same time mutually exclusive? No things can exist simultaneously that are inseparable and mutually exclusive. But Marx is not discussion the physical quantities of being. He is exploring the expressions, the manifestations, the commerce of and in social relations. In that commerce value has forms, moments of expression in commodities that, while dependent upon the existence of the commodity itself as a value, excludes the expression of that other moment in that particular commodity.
Is it really, can it really be, that simple? Yes, and as Marx explicitly remarks, the very simplicity is the source of such difficulty.
If we look back at a previous iteration of these value expressions in Marx's notebooks, we find what is in my opinion, a much cleaner expression, and resolution, of this apparent antagonism:
Let us consider exchange between linen-producer A and coat-producer B. Before they come to terms,
A says: 20 yards of linen are worth 2 coats (20 yards of linen = 2 coats),
But B responds: 1 coat is worth 22 yards of linen (1 coat = 22 yards of linen).
Finally, after they have haggled for a long time they agree:
A says: 20 yards of linen are worth 1 coat,
and B says: 1 coat is worth 20 yards of linen.
Here both, linen and coat, are at the same time in relative value-form and in equivalent form. But, nota bene, for two different persons and in two different expressions of value, which simply occur (ins Leben treten) at the same time. For A his linen is in relative value-form – because for him the initiative proceeds from his commodity – and the commodity of the other person, the coat, is in equivalent form. Conversely from the standpoint of B. Thus one and the same commodity never possess, even in this case, the two forms at the same time in the same expression of value.
(c) Relative value and equivalent are only forms of values.
Relative value and equivalent are both only forms of commodity-value. Now whether a commodity is in one form or in the polar opposite depends exclusively on its position in the expression of value. This comes out strikingly in the simple value-form which we are here considering to begin with. As regards the content, the two expressions:
1. 20 yards of linen = 1 coat or 20 yards of linen are worth 1 coat,
2. 1 coat = 20 yards of linen or 1 coat is worth 20 yards of linen
are not at all different. As regards the form, they are not only different but opposed. In expression 1 the value of the linen is expressed relatively. Hence it is in the relative value-form whilst at the same time the value of the coat is expressed as equivalent. Hence it is in the equivalent form. Now if I turn the expression 1 round I obtain expression 2. The commodities change positions and right away the coat is in the relative value-form, the linen in equivalent form. Because they have changed their respective positions in the same expression of value, they have changed value-form (die Wertform gewechselt).
So.... so if it's that simple, can it really be that important? Again, the answer is "yes." In exploring the forms of expression of value, Marx is essentially rotating the commodity through the value relationship. Through this rotation, Marx establishes that the value in exchange of the commodity is not produced in the markets. Value is not a result of the relation of the commodity to all other commodities. Value is not the product of all commodities in relation to each other. Value is not the product of any or all commodities relative to the single commodity that exists as equivalent to all commodities but is itself no commodity, money.
The forms of the expression of value are important in the process of exchange in that these forms are moments in the calculus of the realization of the value aggrandized in production.
Further, because all commodities can be expressed in both relative and equivalent forms, all labors are equivalent, all labors are relative. All labors, no matter the advanced or rudimentary level of technique, can be expressed in any other labor. All labors can be expressed in relative and equivalent forms. All labors are equivalent, because they can be expressed, compared, quantified by and in a single measure, a single dimension, a single proportion. Labor is the source of value because labor itself has been transformed, clarified, reduced to a common social substrate, time. Time really is of the essence.
Marx puts it this way in The Poverty of Philosophy: 'Time is everything, man is nothing; he is at most time's carcass.' And he puts it this way in the Grundrisse: 'Economy of time - to this all economy ultimately reduces itself.' He wasn't kidding.
III. Because value has the relative and equivalent forms of expression, because all commodities are values, and because no commodity can simultaneously express its relative and equivalent forms, some representation of value which mediates these forms is required for exchange to proceed. The mediations of value require the services of an inter-mediation. The inter-mediation must embody the disembodied value from the commodity.
What is embedded in the commodity, value, exists in latency, as potential. The commodity's actual existence as both useful article and a value, given the social relations of production that give it life, the social relations that give the commodity the power over the human being, the social relations that give the commodity its existence as private property, is threatened by these exact relations, by its existence as private and not social production.
The commodity may not be useful, and the value goes unrealized. The commodity may be useful, but the market may discount its value based on the average time required for the reproduction of all such commodities. The value aggrandized in production is comes to the market on a wing and a prayer, as wing and a prayer, and money is the answer to all the prayers. It is the ascension of the commodity, its transubstantiation.
Without the inter-mediation, commerce cannot proceed. Accumulation cannot occur. Reproduction ceases. The individual commodities remain individual commodities, oscillating in value forms, but not realizing the value relationship. Barter can continue. Trade can grow. Capital, however, as the expanding universe of commodity production, as the accumulation of value as value is impossible.
And this is where Marx is taking us in this first chapter of volume, to the role of money as the mediator of the value forms; to money as the disembodied embodiment of all the substance of all commodities; toward the conflict between accumulation of value and the growth of the means of production.
November 14, 2010
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