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Capital Volume 1 Part 1 Chapter 1 Section 3


This section is called “The form of value or exchange-value”

Page 47: “Commodities come into the world in the shape of use-values, articles, or goods, such as iron, linen, corn, &c.  This is their plain, homely, bodily form.  They are, however commodities, only because they are something two-fold, both objects of utility, and, at the same time, depositories of value.  They manifest themselves therefore as commodities, or have the form of commodities, only in so far as they have two forms, a physical or natural form, and a value-form.”

Lurking within the physical form of a commodity is a value form; that is, it is an expression of value.  It has value and may be treated (indeed, is treated, and was produced to be treated) as a container of value.  Not all things that have value are commodities (ie, undeveloped land); but all commodities have value.

“The value of commodities is the very opposite of the coarse materiality of their substance, not an atom of matter enters into its composition.  Turn and examine a single commodity, by itself, as we will, yet in so far as it remains an object of  value, it seems impossible to grasp it.  If, however, we bear in mind that the value of commodities has a purely social reality, and that they acquire this reality only in so far as they are expressions or embodiments of one identical substance, viz., human labour, it follows as a matter of course, that value can only manifest itself in the social relation of commodity to commodity.”

Value is meaningless in a single, isolated commodity.  It becomes important when that commodity is placed beside another of a different kind; then they enter into a relationship based on their values.  The relationship is, to be precise, exchangeability.

“Everyone knows, if he knows nothing else, that commodities have a value-form common to them all, and presenting a marked contrast with the varied bodily forms of their use-values.  I mean their money-form.”

Check.  Even the most stubborn, ignorant adherent to the Chicago School is aware that commodities are traded for money, and (though he may never have thought about it) that money has little in common with the physical form of the commodity it is buying.

“Here, however, a task is set us, the performance of which has yet even been attempted by bourgeois economy, the task of tracing the genesis of this money-form, of developing the expression of value implied in the value-relation of commodities, from its simplest, almost imperceptible outline, to the dazzling money-form. “


Author: corwin

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


  1. Earlier on, we agreed for the time being to define “value” as an expression of the labour involved in creating something. But now we’re saying that undeveloped land has value, despite no labour being involved, so we’re sunk. We have no working definition of value.

  2. I offer for your consideration my rebuttal to clods who cannot conceive that “value” and “price” are not interchangeable synonyms:
    Do you value your mother?
    What’s her price?

  3. Mike: Hmm. Good point. Does undeveloped land have value? That’s a really interesting question. I start to think about determinates like, “where” and “when” and now I actually don’t know.

  4. May I throw this into the current economics mix?:,_the_Living

  5. Marx has some difficulties here. I don’t remember if it’s later in Capital that this is addressed or in someone else’s derivative work.

    In essence, undeveloped land has no intrinsic value until someone conceives a desire and acquires the ability to use that land for some purpose.

    It’s a resource. Resources that are unused have no value. The value comes from the intent to USE the resource–the first step in converting it into a commodity.

    Real estate is a goofy example, because at some point, somebody somewhere owns pretty much all of the land, usable or not. But it stays in a fallow state until someone figures out a way to use it.

    Human interaction is still required, because titles to land don’t exist without human interaction.

    Just because there’s no labor apparent doesn’t mean it’s not there. The distinction is between obvious physical labor and less obvious mental labor (ie., an idea).

  6. With undeveloped land, there typically is a set of rules in place that at least turn that land into property. The ability to enforce those property rights — to exclude others from the land — can give the land value.

    Take a more extreme example. Does air have value? Normally, no. But it’s pretty easy now to imagine circumstances under which it would be very valuable.

    Also, I’m not sure if Marx here is using the word commodity in its technical sense, or in a more relaxed way. Technically, a commodity is a fungible good, a good for which the buyer is basically indifferent about the source or the supplier, because one lot of the good is functionally indifferent from another. Until recently, it was laughable to think about land as a kind of commodity — modern suburbia has made it, perhaps, not so laughable.

  7. La Rouge and Duffy: Both good posts. I think Marx’s definition of commodity is: something with use-value, exchange-value, produced for exchange (ie, the shirt my friend Andrea knits for her friend Robert is not a commodity, one that she knits to auction off on ebay is. I think).

  8. I don’t think the shirt loses its commodity status merely because the producer chooses not to exchange the shirt for money.

    It was produced from a commodity (cotton, wool, spandex, or some such) with labor (Andrea’s work) and is available on the market should the capitalist (Robert in this case) choose to market the item.

    I’m not suggesting Robert is that crass, but we’re edging towards the appropriation of labor that our dear friends on Wall Street hold as their God-given right and prerogative.

  9. “I don’t think the shirt loses its commodity status merely because the producer chooses not to exchange the shirt for money.”

    No one said anything about money. It is the difference between production for use (I’m making a shirt for my kid to wear) and production for exchange (I’m making a shirt to trade for some shoes my kid needs). The difference is huge. When production in society started being based on exchange rather than use, we entered a different sort of world.

    For one thing, as soon as we have production for exchange, we immediately have the next step–appropriation of labor on a massive scale.

  10. Yeah, not all commodities (goods/services/whatever that enter into a relation of exchange) are initially produced as such. Sometimes it isn’t all that clear when Marx is talking about commodities in general and when he is talking specifically about commodity production, or even more specifically about generalised commodity production (i.e. capitalism).

    Some of this confusion is perhaps a product of the particular critical method that Marx deploys in Capital—starting from and deconstructing the assumptions of the bourgeois political economy of the time. I would guess that most readers these days would be starting off with somewhat different assumptions, which means that certain gaps—many of which Marx will later crack open—appear as oversights or even fatal flaws at this point in his argument. It seems that this can lead to a certain impatience with Marx’s initial schemas, especially when you’re doing such a close reading.

    However, I do think that the appropriation of external values—things like ‘undeveloped’ land which have not been produced as commodities—is a somewhat underdeveloped problem in Capital, even though it is quite key to the whole system (eg. ‘primitive accumulation’ and enclosure, not to mention labour itself). Still, these issues are addressed later on, and feature quite prominently in Marx’s thought as a whole. More recent Marxist theory often places even more emphasis on processes of enclosure (eg. David Harvey, the autonomists).

  11. Production for use didn’t stop the pharaohs from appropriating labor on a fairly large scale. That doesn’t negate your point entirely, but the two don’t necessarily have to be related. On the flip side, excess labor on a small family farm would very likely be turned toward some production for exchange. That might go to raising some cash crops, or to making something (perhaps cloth or yarn or candles) that could be brought to market.

  12. “Production for use didn’t stop the pharaohs from appropriating labor on a fairly large scale. ”

    I don’t believe I ever said that production for exchange was the only time labor has been appropriated. If I did, shame on me. Production for exchange (on a broad scale, as the dominant mode of production in a society) is barely 400 years old; appropriation of labor goes back more than ten times longer.

    “On the flip side, excess labor on a small family farm would very likely be turned toward some production for exchange. ”

    Absolutely! But society did not base itself on production for exchange until rise of capitalism.

  13. I think what I was trying to get at here is the original intention of the producer here is largely irrelevant to the exchange value of the item in TODAY’s society. Because the permeation of the capitalist consciousness extends into every aspect of our lives.

    Andrea may produce an article for use, but the giftee has the opportunity to exchange it, thus granting commodity status.

    It points out one of the great difficulties we have in explaining Marx–you’re literally talking about a different world. Modern-day examples don’t necessarily fit neatly into his categories.

    For instance, one could regard eBay as the greatest socialist tool ever invented (setting aside the fact that every transaction makes Elon Musk & friends a little richer) because it cuts out the middle man and allows the worker direct access to consumers.

    Show me Karl Marx trying to assimilate the entire computer age into his analysis, and I’ll show you a truly perplexed man.

    I think Marx would be the first to say that his work is a beginning, not an end, if Engels hadn’t said it first.

    Circling back to the original point–I’m not sure your example of Andrea’s shirt best exemplifies Marx’s ideas–but it may be the closest we can get in today’s society.

    I’m still chewing on this one.

  14. “Andrea may produce an article for use, but the giftee has the opportunity to exchange it, thus granting commodity status.”

    Uh…no. It doesn’t become a commodity because someone decides to exchange it. That transforms it’s use-value into exchange value, but doesn’t make it a commodity. It was a commodity if it was produced to be exchanged. Our point here is is to define the commodity.

    As for Marx, I think he would have been incredibly excited by Lenin’s analysis of the stage of capitalism marked by the domination of finance capital.

  15. I get what you’re saying. I wonder if it’s a distinction without a difference in today’s society.

    Emphasis on “wonder” — I’m not sure.

  16. skzb: “It was a commodity if it was produced to be exchanged.”

    I don’t think that is quite right; commodity production is production for exchange, but things can become commodities without having been produced as such. Though Marx sometime uses ‘commodity’ to specifically refer to the products of commodity production, and those are the kinds of commodities that he is most concerned with in Capital (with one very significant exception), at other times he uses it to refer to anything that has entered into a certain kind of exchange relation.

    The very significant exception: Marx refers to labour power as a commodity.

    Le Rouge: I think the distinction between commodity production and other forms of production is still important. Capital is totalising, but not total.

    People still make shirts for their own use, and as gifts–which is an important thing in its own right, and gives us all warm fuzzy feelings. But also, if Andrea didn’t make the shirt for Robert, he might freeze to death on his way to work in the shirt factory.

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