The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Capital Volume 1 Part 1 Chapter 1 Section 1 Post 1

| 0 comments

Part 1 is “Commodities and Money.”  Chapter 1 is “Commodities.”  Section 1: “The two factors of a commodity: use-value and value (the substance of value and the magnitude of value)”

Page 35: “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities,’ it’s unit being the single commodity.  Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.”

The first sentence is especially obvious if we know that money is a commodity.  This will be established later; for now I think we can accept it on faith.  And, even if we don’t accept it, one need only consider the existence of the warehouse to see the point.  At least, I don’t believe the warehouse (as distinct from, eg,  the silo and the smokehouse) existed before the domination of a market economy.

“A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside of us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another.  The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference.  Neither are we here concerned to know how the object satisfies these wants, whether directly as means of subsistence, or indirectly as means of production.”

Okay, I think that’s clear enough.  One aspect of a commodity is that people want it.  If no one wants it, it isn’t a commodity.  Hence, for example, whatever else my puppy is, he is not a commodity.  Nor, is a dinner date with Howard Stern, 8-track tapes of me doing Gregorian chants, or literary criticism by Sarah Palin.

“Every useful thing, as iron, paper, &c., may be looked at from the two points of view of quality and quantity.”  What are the particular properties of the thing, and how much or how many are there?  This seems trivially obvious, but it’s going to be important later.

Page 36: “The utility of the thing makes it a use-value.”  Here we are introducing the term use-value, which becomes important when distinguished from exchange-value.  To pick an example at random, if someone were to write out for me a scrap of paper indicating I’d taken first place in a footrace in which I had, in fact, placed third, this item would have no use-value for me.  This is important, because English uses the word “value” to mean different things that, in fact, have significantly different meanings.

“A commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far as it is a material thing, a use-value, something useful.  This property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labour required to appropriate its useful qualities.”

That seems clear enough.  The cost of a thing (we’ll slip over, for the moment, the relationship between cost and amount of labor) may determine whether I acquire something, and perhaps even how much I value it, but once I have it, its usefulness to me is independent of its cost.

“When treating of use-value, we always assume to be dealing with definite quantities, such as dozens of watches, yards of linen, or tons of iron.  The use-values of commodities furnish the material for a special study, that of the commercial knowledge of commodities (footnote by Marx: In bourgeois societies the  economic fictio juris prevails, that everyone, as a buyer, possesses an encylocpaedic knowledge of commodities).”

I’m getting ahead of myself here, but the point, I think, is this: the use-value of a commodity is a quality, (ie, the particularities of that item), but it only exist as definite quantities.  That is, it is possible to speak about n reams of paper, but when the paper actually exists, there is an actual number of reams.

“Use-values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth.  In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange-value.”

corwin

Author: corwin

Site administrative account, so probably Corwin, Felix or DD-B.

0 Comments

  1. Interesting. You have made me think and laugh out loud with a single post!
    Hmm, puts the relative value of art in an interesting perspective.
    Also reminded me that I’ve been meaning to track down and read John Maynard Keynes, since his economic philosophy seems to be driving so much current thinking.

  2. It’s useful at this point to contrast use-value with theories of general utility developed by Bentham, Mill, Edgeworth, Pareto, et al. Marx’s use-value is a fixed quantity intrinsic to the commodity.

    Utility theory states that this quantity is variant 1)between individuals who have different preferences, 2)for various potential uses of the product and in combination with changing technologies, 3)at different quantities of the product, all else equal (marginal utility), 4)at different levels of income, and 5)relative to the utilities of other goods.

    For more detail, Wikipedia has very good summaries in its Utility and Use-Value articles.

  3. Scott: “Marx’s use-value is a fixed quantity intrinsic to the commodity. ”

    Actually, according to Marx, it is neither fixed nor a quantity. As for fixed, he specifically says that the use someone makes of it is a matter of indifference to us. “The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference. Neither are we here concerned to know how the object satisfies these wants, whether directly as means of subsistence, or indirectly as means of production.”

    And use-value, though it expresses itself in definite quantities (3 tons of iron, a dozen eggs, 4 pairs of socks), is in fact a QUALITY–the specific characteristics of that commodity.

    If we speak of the EXCHANGE-value of the Rubbermaid Stain Resistant Bristles Angle Broom, we can put a number to it: $12.99 when expressed in U.S. Dollars, or 2.5 if expressed in gallons of whole milk, or .144 if expressed in Capital EXILIM 10.1 Megapixel digital cameras.

    But if we speak of the USE-value of the broom, whether used to sweep, or as part of a child’s Halloween costume, or as kindling for a fire, we cannot express it as a number; it is qualitative.

  4. “…the use someone makes of it is a matter of indifference to us”

    It is precisely this indifference to use that makes the quality “fixed” and grounded tightly to the thing itself.

    If Marx’s objects have a character, it’s one that is very solid. He will always prioritize atoms over bits, action over thought. That attitude is one of the great strengths of his writing, but it’s also going to dictate some very particular choices down the road. It sits on the mantle, like Chekhov’s gun. Later, we’ll see it go off in all sorts of ways.

Leave a Reply