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Capital Volume 1 Part 1 Chapter 1 Section 2 Post 1


Section 2 is “The two-fold character of the labour embodied in commodities”

Page 41: “At first sight a commodity presented itself to us a complex of two things–use-value and exchange-value.  Later on, we saw also that labour, too, possesses the same two-fold nature: for, so far as it finds expression in value, it does not possess the same characteristics that belong to it as a creator of use-values.”

In other words, when we abstracted use-value from the commodity, we were left with exchange-value; to put this in practical terms, when we ignore the particular things a commodity can be used for, we are left with the fact that it can be exchanged for other commodities.  In the same way, human labor can be divided: if we ignore the particular sort of labor (machine-tool operating, baking, &c), we are left with human labor in the abstract.  On the one hand, it produces a particular sort of thing; on the other hand it produces value.

“Let us take two commodities such as a coat and 10 yards of linen, and let the former be double the value of the latter, so that, if 10 yards of linen=W, the coat=2W.”

Take a moment to get used to this coat and the linen, because we’re going to be spending a lot of time with them.

“The coat is a use-value that satisfies a particular want.  Its existence is the result of a special sort of productive activity, the nature of which is determined by its aim, mode of operation, subject, means, and result.  The labour, whose utility is thus represented by the value in use of its product, or which manifests itself by making its product a use-value, we call useful labour.  In this connection we consider only its useful effect.”

So far as I can tell (I’m liable to be missing something), Marx is simply establishing here that useful labor (as opposed to wasted labor) of  a particular kind is what produces particular use-values.  Remember that by use-value we mean the properties of a commodity that make it satisfy a particular human want–it’s shape, size, weight, composition, function, &c.  A particular sort of labor produces use-values, human labor in the abstract produces value.  These things, of course, happen at the same time.

“As the coat and the linen are two qualitatively different use-values, so also are the two forms of labour that produce them, tailoring and weaving.  Were these two objects not qualitatively different, not produced respectively by labour of different quality, they could not stand to each other in the relation of commodities.  Coats are not exchanged for coats, one use-value is not exchanged for another of the same kind.”

Right.  Okay.  The key here is “stand in relation to each other as commodities.”  What does that mean?  It means they can be exchanged, I think.  If the same sort of labor produced them, they would be the same commodity, which means they couldn’t be exchanged (or exchanging them would be meaningless).  So exchange takes place between the products of different sorts of labor.  For the nitpickers out there, yes, of course I might exchange my heavy winter-coat for a snazzy lighter one, but those are different sorts of coats, which means different sorts of labor were expended on them; that we might refer to both forms of labor as “tailoring” or even “coat making” only shows that, for most practical purposes, those of us not in the coat-making industry ignore the subtle distinctions in how coats are made, because, for most purposes, that doesn’t interest us.  Marx could as easily have used 1 Type A coat = 2 Type B coat, but it would have introduced confusion for no gain in understanding, which is something we leave to the post-structuralists.

Page 42: “To all the different varieties of values in use there correspond as many different kinds of useful labour, classified according to the order, genus, species, and variety to which they belong in the social division of labour.  This division of labour is a necessary condition for the production of commodities, but it does not follow, conversely, that the production of commodities is a necessary condition for the division of labour.  In the primitive Indian community there is social division of labour, without production of commodities.  Or, to take an example nearer home, in every factory the labour is divided according to a system, but the division is not brought about by the operatives mutually exchanging their individual products.  Only such products can become commodities with regard to each other, as result from different kinds of labour, each kind being carried on independently and for the account of private individuals.”

I believe that, for our purposes in this case, a corporation counts as a private individual.  What we’re doing here, then, is being clear on just what we mean by commodities, and pointing out that division of labor is vital to their production.  It is interesting to contrast this with Adam Smith, who began his work with division of labor, and, I think, took commodity production as a given.  Marx’s point about the factory is that there is division of labor there: different parts to a greater whole are produced, or a single part is worked over by different people doing different things, or some combination: but they are not producing different commodities.  Until we actually have an object that satisfies a human want and can be exchanged at the market, we have not produced a commodity.  In practical terms, the guy who puts together the front passenger door for the 2010 Prius is not producing a different commodity from the guy who attaches that door to the Prius’s frame.


Author: corwin

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


  1. It’s not that separate components of a certain commodity are inherently without value, or do not constitute at least a potential commodity in and of themselves.

    You could sell the door or frame of a Prius separately, and there could be a need satisfied by doing so (say, by selling it to the man whose Prius door was damaged in an accident).

    In this case, however, the producer is choosing not to sell the part separately, because the exchange-value is higher if the components are assembled together; both in terms of the raw cost of the parts, and even when the cost of the labor to combine them is included.

    To this extent, it would seem to me that what makes a commodity is also influenced by what the producer is willing to sell as a commodity.

  2. I’ve been accumulating political economic revolutions based unexpectedly on specific technologies. (What started me watching was reading that it was the invention of the telephone which made it possible to move the office out of the factory . . . )
    The grain elevator radically changed the sameness of different accumulations of the “same” raw commodity. Instead of buying 50 bushels of corn and taking possession of these fifty sacks, you bought 50 bushels of corn and received a chit for 50 bushels of grade so-and-so from the elevator.
    Leading rapidly to the invention of commodities futures trading.

    (No, this isn’t precisely on topic for your selection, but I was reminded.)

  3. Majikjon @ 1: Agreed. It is certainly the case that someone could start a company building the front passenger door to a Prius, which would then be a commodity. Indeed, we have seen exactly that sort of phenomenon in the computer industry. But that merely pushes it back a step, so then I would say the guy who operates the machine that attaches the rubber strip to the door is not creating a separate commodity. The point doesn’t change: it is not a commodity unless it satisfies a human want and can can be brought to the market.

  4. Just to nitpick, “primitive” societies certainly do produce commodities with their division of labor, because division of labor tends to produce a surplus, and then you have wealth you can dispose of one way or another, whether it’s just shared out or traded or converted into a different form with a different “use-value”.

    So if you grow grain, or even collect wild grain, if you have some extra, you can trade it for meat or furs, or you can turn it into flour or gruel or beer and then get even more value from it. If that’s not a commodity, I don’t know what is.

  5. That which transforms something into a commodity does not necessarily entail any physical transformation of the item itself.

    I see a rock sitting on the side of the road. No one wants it, it is not satisfying any need or want. It is not a commodity. I pick it up, hand it to someone and say “Here, I’ll sell you this ‘pet rock’ for $1”.

    The rock itself has not changed physically, but by simply suggesting a use for it, a way in which it can fill a need, (in this case, an emotional need), it has suddenly become a commodity.

    Was there labor involved in this transformation? Yes, but so far as I can tell, just the marketing “labor” needed to convince someone that the item had value; and whatever transportation labor is required to bring the item to market. (Handing it to my friend.)

    Does merely creating demand for an extant item itself constitute “labor” by Marx’s definition? Or is the only “real” labor here that of transportation?

  6. Miramon:The surplus produced by primitive societies was generally not exchanged, but more often accumulated by the priest-class if there was one, or by what would become the priest-class in the future. Only very rarely was anything produced for exchange, which is part of the definition of a commodity.

    Majikjon: Because I have a fascination for getting things into their proper niche (on bad days, I turn into an Aristotelian), you’ve hit on something that absolutely fascinates me. I don’t know the answer, and am hoping to find it.

    Meanwhile, we can be secure in the knowledge that, while fortunes are sometimes made in exactly the way you describe (with the caveat that they usually hunt up particular sorts of rocks, which is some minimal amount of labor), capitalist society does not FUNCTION based on that sort of thing, but rather on the exchange things which are more clearly commodities.

  7. This analysis seems to ignore the fact that most labour nowadays (though not when Marx was writing), at least in developed countries, produces services rather than commodities. Relatively few people are employed in manufacturing, mining or agriculture.

  8. Mike: A) With the exception of the US and possibly England, that isn’t true. B) Even if it were, the caveat, “at least in developed countries” is a bit like saying, “Except for the oceans, there is little salt water on the Earth.” C) Service personnel use and work with commodities as their essential function; hence even there the exchange of commodities is the foundation of the economy. D) Even aside from all of that, I admit to a fascination with the economy of service industries, and I look forward to trying to understand the specifics.

    Short version: Even with 90% of wage earners involved in service rather than production (which is nowhere near the case, of course), it would still be production that drives the economy. We’ll be getting to more of that later, when Marx deals with what was the equivalent in his age: domestic servants (he sites contemporary Wales, where there were more wage-earners working as domestic servants than in production).

  9. 1. It certainly is production that drives the economy in any sensible system, be that capitalist, communist, or whatever. An evidence for the sickness or at least lack of balance of the American economy is the lack of production in every area except agriculture and armaments. I suppose you can argue that software development is a form of production, that’s something, too. But really, it’s a good thing we have so much land and water.

    2. skzb, do you have any citations for the appropriation of surplus production in primitive societies by a priest class where there was no trade or commoditization of goods? I can’t think of any good examples offhand. It occurred to me that the Mayans might be an example, but some quick googling seems to say they were a merchant society with an obsidian trade economy; possibly this is open to dispute. Ancient Mesopotamian cultures are well known to have been traders, however; cuneiform for example is known to have been developed for merchant account records. I think the ancient Chinese did a lot of jade and silver trading. Even the ancient Egyptians with their necropolises and priest-king rulers had trade routes throughout the Middle East. As regards prehistory, well, who knows, really, that’s the point of it being prehistory…..

  10. The thing is, there are forms of ‘exchange’ (or distribution, at least) which are not commodity exchange, like various forms of gift and tributary exchange. What distinguishes commodity exchange is the degree of universal exchangability and the appearance of a quantitative balance (and thus also alienation and abstraction of value). Gift exchange (and its more exploitative variants, tribute), in contrast, is more about establishing and maintaining enduring social relationships, and thus requires a degree of inalienability; as the goods/services exchanged are never rendered fully equivalent, the exchange is never fully ‘balanced’ or resolved, and thus the reciprocal relationship (or domination-dressed-as-reciprocity) is maintained.

    Miramon: while there certainly were trade-based polities in the ancient world, most of the civilisations you mention were based around various forms of tribute and redistribution, with market-based trade occurring around the edges of that. Commodity exchange certainly did happen–it has been around in various forms for a long time–but was far from being the basis for production or the primary mechanism for extracting surplus value. Tribute could take the form of material goods and wealth, or various forms of labour–and was often symbolically represented as a gift exchange, although the ‘gifts’ that flowed from the ruler to the ruled tended to be somewhat more intangible than the tribute that flowed the other way.

    Basically, there is a fairly wide array of different non-commodity exchange practices, ranging from very egalitarian forms of generalised reciprocity to highly exploitative systems. Some of these forms of distribution even get well away from ‘exchange’ as such, though ‘share everything with everyone’ has been historically pretty rare.

    Anyway, while there are flaws in his understanding of pre-capitalist modes of production, Marx’s point that a complex division of labour does not necessarily rely on commodity exchange is sound, unless you define ‘commodity’ so broadly as to be useless. Further, as he points out, capitalist commodity production itself relies on the existence of socialised forms of organisation which do not operate on the basis of commodity exchange.

  11. If I have a coat that doesn’t fit me, and you have a coat that doesn’t fit you, we can exchange them and both get coats we want even if the same amount of labour was required to make both – in fact, even if the coats are both the same model from the same company, just sized differently (a M and an L).

  12. Dru @11:

    Well, this falls under the same type of idea as the there being two different kinds of coats.

    Since they are different sizes, they are different commodities. More fabric went into making the larger coat, and there were at least some differences in the amount and type of tailoring needed to make each one. This makes a quantifiable difference in the exact type of labor, use-value and exchange-value of each coat.

    If we posit that a L coat is 2x the labor/material to produce than a M coat, we have the same sort of situation that skzb’s original comment suggested; extra confusion for no benefit to understanding.

  13. Dru: What I want to know is, why did you buy a coat that didn’t fit you?

  14. Maybe I gained 50 lbs? Maybe I bought it when I was a teenager and it did fit me then? Maybe my grandma bought it for me? Maybe I’m not trading a M for an L but a brown one for a blue one?

    Having worked in the garment industry – it doesn’t really take more time or labour to produce a large coat than a medium. It does take slightly more materials but the incremental cost is minimal. If you want to be picky, you could say that the manufacturers price based on the L, so the incremental costs from making the , XL and XXL are balanced out by the savings on the M, S and XS sizes I suppose.

    My point being – even among commodities that require exactly the same labour cost to produce, exchange is possible, contra Marx’s claim, because their value is not absolute but relative to the exchangers. The value of the M sized coat is more to the M sized person than the L is and vice versa. Symmetrical exchange, both benefit.

  15. Dru, your argument is identical to one I could have made when reading my math text book in the eighth grade. When it claimed that A=A, I might well have gotten out a microscope, pointed out printing differences, and triumphantly shown up my teacher explaining that, therefore, the book was wrong. However, I wouldn’t have learned any math.

    If you actually believe that capitalism is based taking identical use-values to the market and exchanging them for each other, there just isn’t any point in talking. If you don’t believe that, then why are you even bringing it up?

  16. Dru @ 14:

    You seem to be talking at cross purposes. The point of defining commodities here is to explore what motivates a producer to produce.

    Note: Marx did not claim that coats COULD not be exchanged for coats, just that they ARE not. The implication being that one would not exchange items with identical use values. Hence, pointing out situations where items are exchanged with nearly-but-not-quite-identical use-values misses the point.

    While you may choose to resell or exchange a commodity (your old blue coat) you have invested in because it is not as useful or desirable as it once was, your objective in doing this is not to gain profit; rather, it is to minimize loss.

    You didn’t buy your coat as an investment, hoping to resell it for a higher price later on. You bought it to keep you warm. When it is no longer as useful to you, you want to recoup as much of the initial cost of the item as you can, so that you will then have money to spend on something new. It’s the “something new” that drives production. And it’s the production that drives the economy.

    We can sit around exchanging all our extant tangible assets without producing anything new for just so long before everything wears out, and we need new things.

    Note also that (so far) Marx is not talking about what determines the use-value or exchange-value of the commodity; just what makes the commodity a commodity and not something else. Whether the use-value or exchange value is determined entirely by demand, or the amount of labor required to produce the commodity, or some other factor of combination of factors is an argument he has yet to make.

    I’m looking forward to when we get to that part myself. However, first, let’s make sure we can agree on the basic terms like what makes a commodity.

  17. Interested in a Marxist history of the grain elevator? Check out William Brown’s book, “American Colossus: the Grain Elevator 1843 to 1943” (Colossal Books, 2009).

  18. Nick: I’m just enough of a geek that that sounds interesting.

  19. “A particular sort of labor produces use-values, human labor in the abstract produces value. These things, of course, happen at the same time.”

    The creation of labour and value do not happen at the same time. Value is only produced once the commodity satisfies a human want, or to put it in more practical terms once it is sold.

    In other words one can’t produce a commodity, one can only sell it. In this way a worthless rock becomes a commodity worth 1 dollar.

    There is always a time delay between labour and value as the existence of “usefull” labour can only be determined retrospectively.

  20. Mike is right. According to the International Labour Organisation report—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_101461.pdf in 2003 the service sector became the largest employer worldwide overtaking agriculture. Services then employed 40.7% of the world’s workers, agriculture employed 38.7% and industry employed 20.7%. The 2008 estimates are services 43.3% agriculture 33.5% and industry 23.2%.

    The ILO is a UN agency with 182 member states it was formed in 1919 as a League of Nations agency and is the only LoN agency still in existence, it also won the 1969 Nobel Peace Prize. So it is a pretty credible source.

  21. Miramon @ 9, re: surplus production in ancient societies:

    “The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World” by G.E.M. de Ste. Croix (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.)

    I wish I still had my copy. First ran into it at UCSB in the early 90’s. That’s where I met the only man in the world who has ever made me feel stupid just walking into the room, Cedric Robinson. Been there, done that, wrote the book. Unbelievable intellect.

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