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 3A2.


This subsection is called “The Relative form of value” and begins with ” (a.) The nature and import of this form.”

Page 49: “In order to discover how the elementary expression of the value of a commodity lies hidden in the value-relation of the two commodities, we must, in the first place, consider the latter entirely apart from its quantitative aspect.  The usual mode of procedure is generally the reverse, and in the value-relation nothing is seen but the proportion between definite quantities of two different sorts of commodities that are considered equal to each other.  It is apt to be forgotten that the magnitudes of different things can be compared quantitatively, only when those magnitudes are expressed in terms of the same unit.  It is only as expressions of such a unit that they are of the same denomination, and therefore commensurable.”

We’re looking, then, for the “elementary expression of the value of a commodity” as it exists in the value-relation, or, I guess, comparison, of two commodities.  The first thing, then, is make the observation that, in order for two things to be comparable in quantity, we have to use the same form of measurement, or the same unit, for both of them–trying to compare the height of a tree with the weight of a truck is rarely useful.  We measure the height of trees, or of any two objects whose height we wish to compare, in, for example, feet.

“Whether 20 yards of linen = 1 coat or =20 coats or =x coats–that is, whether a given quantity of linen is worth few or many coats, every statement implies that the linen and coats, as magnitudes of value, are expressions of the same unit, things of the same kind.  Linen=coat is the basis of the equation.”

Page 50: “But the two commodities whose identity of quality is thus assumed, do not play the same part.  It is only the value of the linen that is expressed.  And how?  By its reference to the coat as as its equivalent, as something that can be exchanged for it….in this relation the coat is the mode of existence of value, is value embodied, or only as such is it the same as the linen.”

The value of the linen is determined by the coat, by saying that we can exchange the coat for it and will be exchanging equal values.

“On the other hand, the linen’s own value comes to the front, receives independent expression, for it is only as being value that it is comparable with the coat…”  Thus, the coat reveals the value of the linen.

“If we say that, as values, commodities are mere congelations of human labour, we reduce them by our analysis, it is true, to the abstraction, value; but we ascribe to this value no form apart from their bodily form.  It is otherwise in the value-relation of one commodity to another.  Here, the one stands forth in its character of value by reason of it’s relation to the other.”

When we discuss value by comparing one commodity to another, we find that value because it is makes then equal.  When looking at value by itself, within a single, given commodity, we do so by abstracting out all characteristics of that commodity except that it is the embodiment of human labor.

“Now, it is true that the tailoring, which makes the coat, is concrete labour of a different sort from the weaving which makes the linen.  But the act of equating it to the weaving, reduces the tailoring to that which is really equal in the two kinds of labour, to their common character of human labour.  In this roundabout way, then, the fact is expressed, that weaving, also, in so far as it weaves value, has nothing to distinguish it from tailoring, and, consequently, is abstract human labour.  It is the expression of equivalence between different sorts of commodities that alone brings into relief the specific character of value-creating labour, and that it does by actually reducing the different varieties of labour embodied in the different kinds of commodities to their common quality of human labour in the abstract.”

Here we have a footnote, in which Marx cites Ben Franklin, quoting him as saying, “Trade in general being nothing else but the exchange of labour for labour, the value of all things is…most justly measured by labour.”  The point, here, is that, just as we are able to reduce the linen and the coat to values because they embody human in labor, so, too, the labor of producing them is, economically, reduced to abstract human labor.

Page 51: “Human labour-power in motion, or human labour, creates value, but is not itself value.  It becomes value only in its congealed state, when embodied in the form of some object.  In order to express the value of the linen as a congelation of human labour, that value must be expressed as having objective existence, as being something materially different from the linen itself, and yet a something common to the linen and all other commodities.  The problem is already solved.”

“In the production of the coat, human labour-power, in the shape of tailoring, must have been actually expended.  Human labour is therefore accumulated in it.  In this aspect, the coat is a depository of value.  In this aspect the coat is a depository of value, but though worn to a thread, it does not let this fact show through.  And as equivalent of the linen in the value equation, it exists under this aspect alone, counts therefore as embodied value, as a body that is value.  A, for instance, cannot be “your majesty” to B,unless at the same time majesty in B’s eyes assumes the bodily form of A, and, what is more, with every new father of the people, changes its features, hair, and many other things besides.

“Hence, in the value equation, in which the coat is the equivalent of the linen, the coat officiates as the form of value.  The value of the commodity linen is expressed by the bodily form of the commodity coat, and the value of one by the use-value of the other.  As a use-value, the linen is something palpably different from the coat; as value, it is the same as the coat, and now has the appearance of a coat.  The fact that it is value, is made manifest by its equality with the coat, just as the sheep’s nature of a Christian is shown in his resemblance to the Lamb of God.”

Irony?  Oh, we don’t get that here.

The value of commodities is revealed by their relationship to other commodities.  The bodily form of A is the value-form of B.  This is the form of relative value–ie, relative to another commodity, expressed in terms of another commodity.


Author: corwin

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


  1. And, once again, the failure to differentiate between ‘value’ and ‘price’ makes this discussion totally worthless.

  2. I find it interesting that in this example, the linen (produced by spinning and weaving, a craft traditionally done by women), and the coat (produced by tailoring, a craft traditionally done by men) have such disparate values for hours of labor involved.

  3. Differentiate between value and price? We haven’t even introduced price as a concept yet. Where are you getting this stuff?

    Karen: At the time, I believe both were predominantly done by women. The whole point, however, is that the values of the labor are exactly equal–however disparate the wages may be. Labor time = labor time.

  4. Pingback: CelticBear’s Musings » Blog Archive » Franklin & Marx, Beck & taxes.

  5. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I can’t get over how service sector labor seems to be being discounted here. If in town Xyz both 20 yard of linen and 1 coat are both selling for the same price and a man goes into Xyz-cloth-n-clothing pawn shop and wants a coat he will need 28 to 32 yards of linen to exchange for it. And if a woman comes in with an identical coat she and want linen she will only be able to get around 8 to 12 yards of linen. The difference that is making the exchange values non-transitive is the labor involved in presenting items for retail sale. It seems to me that a labor theory of value that is meant to be valid for an industrial or post-industrial society must take into account the fact that the value of an item varies depending on the manner of it’s presentation for sale. Not to do this discounts the labor of the vast number of people in logistic, retail sales and similar jobs.

  6. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I can’t get over how service sector labor seems to be being discounted here.”

    We’ll be getting to that later. It’s a mistake to think that that having lots of people employed in the service industry is a new phenomenon–in a later chapter, Marx refers to, I believe, Ireland, where over 50% of the workforce is employed in service. At that time, it was generally domestic servants, but the principle is the same.

    “If in town Xyz both 20 yard of linen and 1 coat are both selling for the same price and a man goes into Xyz-cloth-n-clothing pawn shop and wants a coat he will need 28 to 32 yards of linen to exchange for it. And if a woman comes in with an identical coat she and want linen she will only be able to get around 8 to 12 yards of linen. ”

    Um. Can you name a store in a town where the price is different for men and women? I have yet to encounter this.

    “value of an item varies depending on the manner of it’s presentation for sail.”

    But it doesn’t. The price does. Price and value are not the same. We haven’t yet begun to explore price.

  7. Steve, reading (actually – more like “glossing over”) your analyses of Smith, I like many of your readers interpret “value” with “price”.

    I wonder in your next entry on Smith you say up front “The summary differences of Price and Value are this…”.

    It probably breaks your intended flow of where you are going with this but may enlighten a lot of readers up front and reduce your “its Value, not Price” replies in your posting.

  8. schmwarf

    If you have a life-threatening infection and I give you an antibiotic for free what is it’s value?

  9. Marx insists that there must be some essence to value. He then finds that essence in labor and then tries to force the idea everywhere, even where it is a very, very bad fit.

    It may be true that (average) labor may be a fairly good proxy for value with respect to some things. But it doesn’t follow that this model holds true for every use of value.

    It breaks down in areas that involve an enormous amount of talent. It also breaks down where the marginal costs become exceedingly small. And there are probably other areas where it breaks down. The first point comes when talking about things like the “value” of Michael Jordan or Picasso. The second one comes when dealing with the value of very popular information — for example, explaining why the Eclipse novels make so much more than other, more deserving books, like the Vlad books. (Under the Marx theory, the artist’s contribution to a massively popular work should be a relative constant.)

    Finally, when you are talking about price differences and gender at a store, you are probably right. But in a true market situation, where price is set through haggling and something like an auction process, it’s probably fairly common to see differences along lines that should be irrelevant, like gender.

  10. One other problem that arises from this formulation: Marx’s standard unit of labor is an idealized unit. It doesn’t represent the actual labor of any laborer, because of the differing amount actually produced by different laborers over the same period of time. Thus, the value of two laborer’s time can vary significantly. The insistence on a basic unit of labor, despite the observed differences, creates an idea of the time value of labor that is quite abstract, and is not firmly tied to anything real.

  11. Duffy Pratt,

    There is a bit coming up later in Capital that will help illuminate your concern about the works of individuals being “valued” so very much higher than the work of most others. Commodity fetishism is the relevant term, I think.

    Sorry for the spoiler.

  12. I’m trying to figure where the value of “an enormous amount of talent” changes the value of a commodity. Remember, we are speaking, quite specifically, of commodities, with the definition of commodity given.

    And it is not, in fact, an idealized unit, it is an average unit, determined socially by the conditions applying then and there. I thought we had already covered that.

  13. An authenticated painting or print is worth much more than the exact same print without authentication. (This goes for a whole host of collectable items). Similarly, first editions of books have more value than the later edition counterparts. A Picasso is worth much more than a finger painting by a kid.

    As I remember, the excuse for the different value of the Picasso comes from positing that there is a certain amount of time and training that is used as a kind of substitute for Picasso’s talent. Then, the value of the commodity is more because of a kind of amortization of that training (for an average person) to reach the same level of talent. It’s this move that takes the labor unit from something that is averaged, and turns it into something that is idealized. (What I mean to say, is that the amount of training that it takes to turn an average person into Picasso is simply a fiction.)

    And JP. I’m aware that there will be an attempt to squeeze these considerations into his theory. But I don’t think they fit. BTW, sorry if I’m getting ahead of the reading. It’s been a long while since I read this book.

  14. “An authenticated painting or print is worth much more than the exact same print without authentication. (This goes for a whole host of collectable items). Similarly, first editions of books have more value than the later edition counterparts. A Picasso is worth much more than a finger painting by a kid.”

    Yes. And these are not commodities.

  15. As near as I can tell, in Marx, a commodity is anything that is produced for sale or exchange. Paintings and prints would certainly qualify.

    But you don’t need them to make the point. Just take your basic Topps trading card, say a 1959 Mickey Mantle. The correlation between labor and value simply falls apart here. Or for any collectible. Maybe you can say that all of these things just stopped being commodities. But there are tons and tons of these markets, and there are just way too many gradations between stuff that is purely new and interchangeable, and stuff that gets value from other considerations.

    On the other point I was making, lets say that one artist normally sells a million units, while another sells 100,000. The labor done by each artist is the same. Now assume that the cost/unit of each item is also the same. (It would actually be more for the lower selling artist because of economies of scale, but with today’s technology, the cost/unit for delivery actually approaches zero, so its probably a fair assumption). Under these assumptions, using Marx’s theory, it seems that each copy of the lower selling artist has 10 times the value of a work by the higher selling artist. Of course, this simply is not true. The labor that an author or artist puts into his work basically has nothing to do with its economic value. And here, we definitely are talking about commodities in Marx’s sense.

  16. Commodities are interchangeable. Works of art and collectible items are not interchangeable. It should be clear from your very argument that, in analyzing how capitalism functions–how wealth is created and distributed and the necessaries of life are produced and consumed, how far you have gone from the essential mechanisms of capitalism.

  17. Marx says that the value of coat and the value of linen both reduce to the human labor embodied in them.

    Try this experiment. Go to a mall. Take a look at the different coats in different stores. Go to a Walmart too, and look at the coats there. Then go to some discount outlet (it actually takes extra labor to get something to the discounter) and look at the coats in each of these places. Ask yourself whether the labor involved explains the difference in the worth of the coats (even the ones that look very similar). I think the answer is clearly “No”, either that or the word “value” doesn’t correspond to what actually goes on in the various coat stores.

    Here’s the problem more generally. Marx’s labor theory of value, at first blush, looks like its an empirical proposition. The only trouble with it, as an empirical proposition, is that it is pretty obviously false. Then, a subtle trick happens. It somehow goes from being empirical to being definitional. In this context, it becomes more of a moral statement than an empirical one. People want to say, a thing SHOULD be worth the amount of labor it took to get it to market. And perhaps that’s true, but it’s not a statement of fact.

  18. You use the word “worth.” I’m not sure what you mean by it. Are you trying to be cagey in not saying “price?” If so, no, the difference in price is explained by a number of things, which we’ll be getting to later. At this point, we are only concerning ourselves with value. We haven’t even gotten to money yet.

    “Then, a subtle trick happens. It somehow goes from being empirical to being definitional.”

    What saw was a series of conclusions based on facts, all of which match up with observed phenomenon. If these conclusions are then used as the basis for further conclusions, I can see how that might look definitional, but I respectfully disagree.

  19. I’m sure I’m missing something here as it is very late and I stumbled on this article by mistake, but I can’t figure out what measuring somethings value would actually do for you. It obviously only has a small bearing on price, which I see will be covered later. Is it useful in a strictly barter or trade society? Even that seems like an impossible thing to actually measure and is still basically pricing it and not valuing it. I guess my question is what’s the point in measuring somethings value?

  20. Donnie: Value bears the same relationship to price that a cow does to a cut of beef. The point is not to measure it, the point is to understand it, so we can then further our understand of the workings of capitalism.

    The point may appear trivial (and, in many ways, it is), and it might seem silly to do this much work to establish that beef comes from cows; but it becomes important when you are surrounded by people who are convinced that steak grows in grocery stores.

  21. The mechanization of the factory and the production of meretricious crap is one empirical fact which Marx is only able to deal with the bare beginnings of, and I think where the modern factory differs from that of the 19th century factory has some bearings on Duffy’s point about the seeming disconnect between “price” and “value.”

    Commodities, as skzb points out, are interchangeable things, or to use a term from contemporary (capitalist) economics, any one commodity, say a DVD of a particular movie, is an absolutely perfect substitute for another DVD of that same movie.

    Yet consider something, such as a dining table. One could purchase one made by machines with relatively little human contribution, and the perceived value is X. Then take a table of the same dimensions, made by a craftsman who obviously spent X + a lot of labor to create the table, and the value of the table will also be X + a lot.

    In that example, “price” and “value” correlate rather better than simply looking for the best bargain for a coat between one store and another.

    I think this would have its corollary in Marx’s analysis, and which helps support his theory of value, when one compares a shirt made in a factory and one made by a tailor. If it involves 100 people, each of whose tasks is 30 seconds long, to take linen and turn it into a coat, then we’re talking about 50 minutes of direct human labor, and some additional contribution by congealed labor (i.e.,. machines). Contrast that with the several hours a tailor would expend in labor to make a coat of the same dimensions.

    There is a ring of truth to the theory of value when we compare a factory commodity with that made by a craft. Both are coats and therefore potentially commodities, yet we recognize the value of the latter as greater than the value of the former. No extensive analysis needed. We just know. Marx would despise the preceding four sentences, I think, but that doesn’t make them any less true or any less supportive of his theory of value.

  22. Steven-

    1. You’re proceeding from the point of acceptance, and thus are only performing an exegisis, not an analysis (on Chapter 1.)

    2. You can’t dismiss the reality of things not brought up in your book yet. The existence of a person named Jesus can’t be dismissed from a careful reading of the NIV version of Genesis.

    3. Completely apart from the difference between cost and value (which you are ingenuinely dismissing, to your own incredulity) you’re also missing (or simply discounting dishonestly) the amount of skill that goes into tailoring vs. weaving. Skill is a variable commodity that takes more training (at least), and so the amount of labor to be capable of producing is unknown. (The amount of training required is also variable, being based partly on talent, but we can leave that out for now.)

  23. 1. I began with analysis; I have yet to run into something to reject. I can understand why, from someone determined to reject it, this might appear as beginning from acceptance.

    2. No, I cannot dismiss them; but I can exclude them from consideration for the time being, particularly as I have inside knowledge that they will be discussed later.

    3. I am not ignoring the difference between cost and value. On the contrary, that is one of the central points we will be dealing with–when we get to cost. So far, I haven’t brought up cost, and don’t care to engage on it when we are trying to discuss value, because they are different. And if you were paying attention, we went over skilled labor as a multiplier of unskilled labor. Your argument is like saying that I cannot measure a football field in feet because it is measured in yards. As for the amount of training required for different skills, that is, indeed, something we’ll be getting into. For now, suffice it to say that, if labor-power is a commodity, then putting more socially necessary labor into the creation of that commodity, ought to produce a commodity of higher value, n’est-pa?

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