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Capital Volume 1 Part 1 Chapter 1 Section 1 Post 3


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.  But even the product of labour itself has undergone a change in our hands.  If we make abstraction from its use-value, we make abstraction at the same time from the material elements and shapes that make the product a use-value; we see in it no longer a table, a house, yarn or any other useful thing.  Its existence as a material thing is put out of sight.  Neither can it any longer be regarded as the product of the labour of the joiner, the mason, the spinner, or of any other definite kind of productive labour.  Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied in them, and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract.”

Whew!  Okay, let’s see what we have here.

We have established the each commodity has the following properties: It satisfies a human want (a use-value), and it can be exchanged for other commodities (exchange-value).  Removing from consideration the particularities of that commodity, we are left with all commodities being products of labor.  Fine.  But if we removed the particularities of the use-value, we must also remove the particularities of the labor that produced it.  That is, if we are considering an abstract commodity, we must also consider the labor that produced it to be equally abstract.

While this appears at first to be a flight of fancy, in fact it seems to be quite true, and an important revelation about the working of the market.  While each commodity is, in fact, the product of particular labor to produce a particular use-value, these things, under certain circumstances, really do vanish.  That is, the form of labor that produced the broom is unimportant to someone who wants to sweep; and the use to which the purchaser plans to put the broom is unimportant to the individual who wants to realize it’s exchange value.

But even more important is this: If exchange were based on exchanging the labor of the cabinet-maker with the labor of the farmer, we would be living in a drastically different world.  That isn’t how things work.  Instead, the product of the cabinet-maker is exchanged with the product of the farmer.  This exchange works because we are exchanging things with a common element in them, and that is, not the particularities of different kinds of labor, but what is common to them–that they are labor.  Thus we speak of human labor in the abstract.

I have no idea if my restatement has made this clearer, or less clear, or made no difference; but it helped me get a handle on it, which was the point of the exercise.

“Let us now consider the residue of each of these products; it consists of the same unsubstantial reality in each, a mere congelation of homogeneous human labor, of labour-power expended without regard to the mode of its expenditure.  All that these now tell us is, that human labour-power has been expended in their production, that human labour is embodied in them.  When looked at as crystals of this social substance, common to them all, they are–Values.”

And here I run into a brick wall.

I understand what Marx means by use-value; that seems a clear, unambiguous, and useful term.  I also understand what he means by exchange-value; that makes sense too.  But what in the Hell does he mean by “Values.”  Can anyone help?  I hesitate to continue until someone can help me make sense of this.


Author: corwin

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


  1. I could be way off (I often am), but I understand his use of “Values” in that sentence to refer to an almost-objective assessment of worth as predicated on the labor expended to produce, and therefore influence the perceived value of, a service or thing.

    What I do know is that I pay more for hand-made items when I know damned well that the machine-produced are almost as good and cheaper. Go figure.

  2. I could also be way off…but I think Marx is describing the issue of externalities causing problems with perceived value. Let me give an example. If we looked at the real cost of a Big Mack, the cattle herding expenses, transport, impact on the environment…the totality of labor from moo to goo, the real cost would be something like $300.

    But we don’t do that. Commercial goods are only valued by their isolated existence, not by the labor that went into them. The stuff we eliminate are externalities, costs we ignore when making exchanges. Marx argues here that they be completely ignored and only the end “corporeal” worth be classified as “Value,” whereas most of the property laws we have now seek to force us to stop ignoring externalities. (commercial zoning, pollution taxes, anti-discrimination laws etc)

    In fact, I’d venture to say this was the pitfall of communism as it existed in the Soviet Union. Whereas people SHOULD have been more efficient or economical or whatever, the needs of the country as a whole were too abstract when compared to the labor and reward seen by the individual.

    But like I said, I’m not an economist.

  3. The problem I seem to be having is that Marx is willing to abstract both use-value and labor-cost from a product, but then only examines one of them in the abstract, apparently discarding the other. This seems unnecessary, as it’s fairly easy to talk about both abstractly.

    Products have both a labor-cost and a use-value, which end up bracketing their exchange-value. A product which has a labor-cost higher than its use value won’t be produced for exchange (except in temporary, accidental circumstances), but only for personal use. A commodity is something where use value and exchange value are essentially equal, which in capitalism usually means the exchange and use-value have been pushed down to near or equal to the total labor-cost. And so on . . .

    Saying that Value (with its Significant Capitalization) descends solely from the abstraction of labor seems suspicious. As the core of his theories seems to be this fundamental link between Value and labor, I hope he explains his assumption of its primacy more completely.

  4. After reading on, it looks like he’s not done defining value with this paragraph. He’s just barely getting started here, and he spends the rest of the section talking about exactly what he means, qualifying it and narrowing it down.

    I’m not sure value has a real intuitive definition after he gets through qualifying it (sorry, I don’t think I can supply the part you really want), but basically, I think he’s saying that even if no one is using or exchanging a commodity, it still has value, and the reason it has value is because you can’t get those things (the commodities) without labor.

    Value in this sense seems to be a theoretical quantity that can’t actually be observed or measured, because if it could be, it’d be exchange value, but he’s trying to find the source (and according to him the source is labor).

    That’s my reading, at least.

  5. Land is a commodity by all rational definitions — it certainly has both a use-value and an exchange-value. But unworked land embodies no labour at all. So, in fact, not all commodities are the product of labour.

  6. Marx’s Value, with a capital V, is “That which is added to a product by labour”. This is necessary for him to later demonstrate that all Value ultimately derives from labour. There’s no other definition of value for which value is derived from labour.

  7. Nathaniel @ 3: You seem to be determined to show that use-value is a determining factor in exchange value. That’s fine, I don’t have a problem with that. People have been trying to show that since the middle of the 20th Century, and maybe you’ll be the one to make a convincing argument. However, the point of this exercise is not, in fact, to understand economics, but rather to understand Capital by Marx. Therefore, if you keep running that far ahead of the text, people (ie, me) will get confused. At least wait until we’ve established labor as the sole source of exchange-value before explaining why it isn’t, which is only a few more pages. Honest.

    Mike: Including land as a commodity has two problems: first, tracts of land are not interchangeable (see Nathaniel’s comment above) (and admit that you all thought about Monty Python when you read that). Second, I’m pretty sure that we are including as commodities only those things which are products of labor. I believe that Marx will deal later with those things that have exchange value but are not products of labor. Moreover, I don’t think land qualifies as part of the “immense accumulation of commodities” that Marx speaks of in the first sentence of the book.

  8. skzb @ 7:
    I did always have a bad tendency of jumping ahead of the text. Hopefully, he’ll expand his analysis, or defend its narrowed scope more fully.

    Regarding “products of labor”: in the strictest sense, even something like land has labor invested, if only in the surveying of it. Resources underlying various labors is its own whole separate ball of wax, too.

  9. Based on the above, my memory of Ricardo and a a vague recollection of the marginal utility response to Marx, I think the capital V essentially translates to “the interchangeable value of labor without regard for the use to which that labor is put.” In this respect, labor itself is a commodity.

    From a purely philosophical standpoint, this is highly defensible; especially if you don’t consider use-value (which you’ve already stated is out of scope for this post).

    However, even leaving use-value alone, when we move from the philosophical to the practical, this perspective starts to encounter problems more quickly.

    For example, if an hour of a neurosurgeon’s labor has the same value as a day laborer’s, do we include the time the neurosurgeon spent in school as a part of the value? If so, how do we apportion it? Perhaps the cleanest solution is to simply assign the same value to acquiring a skillset as practicing it, but that brings other difficulties with it. Amortizing a non-depreciating asset into a variable lifespan is a serious booger of a math problem.

  10. Jeremy: Thanks. That helps. I don’t want to get ahead, but Marx will later be dealing with the value of skilled labor vs unskilled, and the cost of training skilled labor.

  11. Not sure if you’ve resolved the definition of ‘values’ here to your own satisfaction, but thought I’d have a go at trying to clarify (though I acknowledge that I may just be confusing the issue). You might also want to check out David Harvey’s video lectures on reading Capital; he deals with the first two chapters in his second lecture.

    The thing is, it is hard to properly define what Marx means by ‘values’ here without skipping ahead, because of the way Marx starts from the standpoint of how value appears within capitalism (as market commodities), deconstructing the categories of political economy in order to reveal the underlying logic of the capitalist value-system.

    Anyway, at this stage, Marx needs to introduce a concept of ‘[labour] value’, as distinct from both use value and exchange value, because his version of the labour theory of value does not propose that exchange value directly expresses the value produced by labour. Rather, he argues that commodity exchange mediates, realises, and conceals this value; this becomes clearer through his discussion of commodity fetishism in the last section of this chapter.

    Marx’s key point here is that while value appears as an inherent quality of commodities, as if exchange value were simply the market expression of use value, it is actually a socially-determined measure of human productive activity. Specifically, it is that aspect of human activity which is alienated, abstracted, quantified, and congealed in commodities (and also appropriated by capital, though we haven’t got to that stage of his argument yet).

  12. SeanMI: That was *very*helpful. Thank you!

    I was also a little tickled to hear him, in a sense, echo my own conviction that Capital, even more than a work on economics, is a work on (as well as of) dialectics.

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