Capital Volume 1 Part 1 Chapter 1 Section 1 Post 2

Page 36: “Exchange-value, at first sight, presents itself as a quantitative relation, as the proportion in which values in use of one sort are exchanged for for those of another sort, a relation constantly changing with time and place.”

Since I was just discussing this with Scott in the previous post, I’ll quote myself, so I don’t have to look up more prices:  “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.”  In other words, yes, exchange value presents itself as two sets of numbers in relation to each other.  And, as Marx said, they change with time and place.  Those were today’s values at, respectively, Office Max, H.E.B., and Best Buy.  In a week they might well have changed, and if I checked another site, they would very likely be different (although not significantly).

“Hence exchange-value appears to be something accidental and purely relative, and consequently an intrisic value, ie, an exchange-value that is inseparably connected with, inherent in commodities, seems a contradiction in terms.  Let us consider the matter a little more closely.”

Here I should digress to a discussion of Brust’s Law; but maybe I’ll make that a separate post.  Forget I said anything.

Page 37: “A given commodity, e.g., a quarter of wheat is exchanged for x blacking, y silk, or z gold, &c.–in short, for other commodities in the most different proportions.  Instead of one exchange-value, the wheat has, therefore, a great many.  But since x blacking, y silk, or z gold, &c., each represent the exchange-value of one quarter of wheat, x blacking, y silk, z gold, &c., must, as exchange values, be replaceable by each other, or equal to each other.  Therefore, first: the valid exchange-values of a given commodity express something equal; secondly, exchange-value, generally, is only the mode of expression, the phenomenal form, of something contained in it, yet distinguishable from it.”

Okay, let’s slow down.  In my example above, one broom can be exchanged for 2.5 gallons of milk, or .144 digital cameras (I’m ignoring money for now).  These things can, therefore, all be exchanged for each other.  In order for them to be exchangeable, there must be something in them that can be expressed as an equivalent.  No matter how you juggle numbers, purple cannot be exchanged for a dozen eggs; nor oxygen for philosophy.  For an expression of equivalence to be possible, there has to be something in common.  Exchange-value, then, expresses something that exists in all commodities, and permits quantitative assessment–ie, a number can be assigned to this common element in a broom and compared to the common element in a gallon of milk, producing the relationship 1 broom = 2.5 gallons of milk.

Marx uses corn and iron as his examples, saying 1 quarter corn = x hundredweight iron.  “What does this equation tell us?  It tells us that in two different things–1 quarter of corn and x cwt. of iron, there exists in equal quantities something common to both.  The two things must therefore be equal to a third, which in itself is neither the one nor the other.  Each of them, so far as it is exchange-value, must therefore be reducible to this third.”

Now Marx is just restating what I already told you.  Fie on him.

“A simple geometrical illustration will make this clear.  In order to calculate and compare the areas of rectilinear figures, we decompose them into triangles.  But the area of the triangle itself is expressed by something totally different from its visible figure, namely, by half the product of the base into the altitude.  In the same way the exchange-values of commodities must be capable of being expressed in terms of something common to them all, of which they represent a greater or lesser quantity.”

Right.  I get it.

“This common  ‘something’ cannot be either a geometrical, a chemical, or any other natural property of commodities.  Such properties claim our attention only in so far as they affect the utility of those commodities, make them use-values.  But the exchange of commodities is evidently an act characterized by a total abstraction from use-value.  Then one use-value is just as good as another, provided only it be present in sufficient quantity…As use-values, commodities are, above all, of different qualities, but as exchange-values they are merely different quantities, and consequently do not contain an atom of use-value.”

In order to find the common element contained in all commodities that permits their exchange, we abstract from them their utility–what it is about them that makes them useful, and in fact all their particular qualities; in just the same way, in order to determine how many insects I have in my house, I abstract from the insects all of their peculiarities, leaving only their number, and I am thus able to count them.  (The bug guy was, by the way, unimpressed with my diligence in this matter).

Page 38: “If then we leave out of consideration the use-value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labour.”

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0 thoughts on “Capital Volume 1 Part 1 Chapter 1 Section 1 Post 2”

  1. If I’m out wandering down a creek bed, and I find a gold nugget, or a diamond, or another desirable natural (not made) thing – say a rare orchid, it has an exchange value out of proportion to the labour I put into finding it. In total these things are valuable because they are rare and require a lot of labour to find, but that doesn’t make the hypothetical one I find easily any less valuable.

  2. Dru: “If I’m out wandering down a creek bed, and I find a gold nugget, or a diamond, or another desirable natural (not made) thing – say a rare orchid, it has an exchange value out of proportion to the labour I put into finding it. ”

    Exactly right. We’ll be getting to that later in the chapter.

  3. The value isn’t the amount of labor you put in; it’s the standard (typical) amount of labor required.

  4. As someone who’s tried reading CAPITAL a couple of times and failed, I really appreciate your doing this to help us less erudite “get it.” :)
    I also love your sense of the dramatic and the way you end this section with the significant punch of the end of a chapter of fiction.
    (I’ve nothing useful to say here…sorry. Just liking what I’m reading.)

  5. It appears Marx is trying to generalize from an abstraction, and then dismiss the specifics. Exchange values (and more specifically, completely fungible exchange values – e.g. monetary price) are an abstraction of many different factors: how common the resources are, how much work they took to refine and ship, and how useful the result is to the person exchanging for it. These are all variable depending on circumstance, and constantly juggling them all in your head is work only a merchant really profits from; money and monetary value are a sufficient reductions for the rest of us. But to say that the highly variable bits of the equation should be ignored when talking economic theory seems like saying that my leather jacket should give me an AC of 9, and then making serious decisions based on that.

    Hopefully he comes back to the more variable parts of exchange value later. I think their variability is part of why our current economic systems are so (inevitably) complex and (unfortunately) inequitable.

  6. Nathan: We should probably hold off on that until we get to money.

    The fundamental aspects of a commodity: use-value and exchange-value, are pretty clearly established. I also think it’s well established that, once the particularities of use-value are stripped away from commodities, the only remaining thing they have in common are that are products of labor. That’s as far as we’ve gotten so far.

  7. Too much of what Marx is saying relies a lot of the fungibility of trade goods, and a lot of things we find valuable are so because they are NOT fungible.

    A ton of wheat might be a decent marker of a sort of standard if all wheat is identical, but it isn’t. And how much is a diamond worth, and to whom?

    Commodities are to value as paint swatches are to fine art – indoicators of potential, at best. What I might find worth [X Value] at present is not really likely to be congruent with what someone in Port Au Prince or Buffalo might find more deirable.

  8. Carl: Very true. An ear of corn at my H.E.B. sells for about 30 cents. To me, it is only worth about a dime. So when I point that out to them, of course they let me buy it for less.

  9. (A note: Steve and I use slightly different definitions of commodity, and mine seems more narrow. His appears to be products involved in common public exchanges. Mine is specifically products which can be substituted for another of their type without affecting the underlying transaction. Money is the ultimate commodity, while most art is not a commodity.)

    Carl @ 7:
    From an trading standpoint, wheat *is* identical; its one of the best examples of a purely commodity market available. Farmers have to take the prices the market offers them, since they can’t make deals with buyers based on quality. The big producers usually win, because their costs to get a ton to market are usually lower than the small producers.

    Diamonds aren’t commodities, as there are enough quality variables to make comparing individual specimens worthwhile. The large scale diamond market is somewhat commodified; diamond grading is a well established system, and within a specific gradation the values are likely to be similar. This is skewed back the other way by the semi-monopoly that the DeBeers family has on the trade; commodification is less profitable for producers, so monopolies try to prevent it where possible.

    skzb @ 8:
    You’re comparing exchange value, which is a complex aggregate of the buyers’ use-value and providers’ production costs, to your personal use value. That only works if the exchange value is sensitive to changes in demand, which isn’t as true for commodities; you can haggle on a piece of art, but not usually on an ear of corn.

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