This section is called “The Equivalent form of value”
Page 55: “We have seen that commodity A (the linen), by expressing its value in the use-value of a commodity differing in kind (the coat), at the same time impresses upon the latter a specific form of value, namely that of equivalent. The commodity linen manifests its quality of having a value by the fact that the coat, without having assumed a value-form different from its bodily form, is equated to the linen. The fact that the latter therefore has a value is expressed by saying that the coat is directly exchangeable with it. Therefore, when we say that a commodity is in the equivalent form, we express the fact that it is directly exchangeable with other commodities.”
So far, just a recap of previous sections. Commodities express their equivalence insofar as they can be exchanged, and to assert that commodity A can be exchanged for commodity B is to say that they are equal in that sense. The significant thing, for now, is that the value of commodity A is now being defined in terms of commodity B. Now we’re going to explore the implications of this equality.
“When one commodity, such as a coat, serves as the equivalent of another, such as linen, and coats consequently acquire the characteristic property of being directly exchangeable with linen, we are far from knowing in what proportion the two are exchangeable. The value of the linen being given in magnitude, that proportion depends on the value of the coat. Whether the coat serves as the equivalent and the linen as relative value, or the linen as the equivalent and the coat as relative value, the magnitude of the coat’s value is determined, independently of its value-form, by the labor-time necessary for its production. But whenever the coat assumes in the equation of value, the position of equivalent, it’s value acquires no quantitative expression; on the contrary, the commodity coat now figures only as a definite quantity of some article.”
Whew. Okay. The real value of the coat is determined by the labor necessary to produce it. This value is expressed in some other commodity. When we are determining the value of some commodity in terms of coats, then the role of coats is to express the value of that other commodity. There. I think I got that right. Let’s go on and see where it leads us.
Page 56: “For instance, 40 yards of linen are worth–what? 2 coats. Because the commodity coat here plays the part of equivalent, because the use-value coat, as opposed to the linen, figures as an embodiment of value, therefore a definite number of coats suffices to express the definite quantity of value in the linen…when the commodity acts as equivalent, no quantitative determination of its value is expressed.”
Right. To say 40 yards of linen = 2 coats is to say nothing of the quantitative value of the coats; it is to express the quantitative value of the linen. The coats become the measuring stick. Of course, we can reverse the equation, and then we are expressing the quantitative value of the coats in terms of linen. What I don’t get, is why this matters. Let’s go on.
“The first peculiarity that strikes us, in considering the form of the equivalent, is this: use-value becomes the form of manifestation, the phenomenal form of its opposite, value.”
Okay, well, for those of us with a fascination for philosophy, that is actually kind of cool. But the economic importance hasn’t hit me.
“The bodily form of the commodity becomes its value-form. But, mark well, that this quid pro quo exists in the case of any commodity B, only when some other commodity A enters into a value-relation with it, and then only within the limits of this relation…every commodity is compelled to choose some other commodity for its equivalent, and to accept the use-value, that is to say, the bodily shape of that other commodity as the form of its own value.”
Right. A use-value (ie, a physical object, the commodity) becomes the expression of an abstraction, value, in another commodity, by the act of the exchange.
“A sugar-loaf being a body, is heavy, and therefore has weight: but we can neither see nor touch this weight. We then take various pieces of iron, whose weight has been determined beforehand. The iron, as iron, is no more the form of manifestation of weight than is the sugar-loaf. Nevertheless, in order to express the sugar-loaf as so much weight, we put it into a weight-relation with the iron. In this relation, the iron officiates as a body representing nothing but weight. A certain quantity of iron therefore serves as the measure of the weight of the sugar, and represents, in relation to the sugar-loaf, weight embodied, the form of manifestation of weight…were they not both heavy, they could not enter into this relation, and the one could therefore not serve as the expression of weight of the other…just as the substance iron, as a measure of weight, represents in relation to the sugar-loaf weight alone, so, in our expression of value, the material object coat, in relation to the linen, represents value alone.”
I love this. Makes perfect sense.
Page 57: “Here, however, the analogy ceases. The iron, in the expression of the weight of the sugar-loaf, represents a natural property common to both bodies, namely their weight; but the coat, in the expression of value of the linen, represents a non-natural property of both, something purely social, namely, their value.”
And important distinction: because something is not natural (ie, because it is social), does not mean it isn’t real.
“Since the relative form of value of a commodity…expresses the value of that commodity, as being something wholly different from its substance and properties…we see that this expression itself indicates that some social relation lies at the bottom of it. With the equivalent form it is just the contrary. The very essence of of this form is that the material commodity itself–the coat–just as it is, expresses value, and it is endowed with the form of value by Nature itself. Of course, this holds good only so long as the value-relation exists, in which the coat stands in the position of equivalent to the linen. Since, however, the properties of a thing are not the result of its relations to other things, but only manifest themselves in such relation, the coat seems to be endowed with its equivalent form, its property of being directly exchangeable, just as much by Nature as it is endowed with the property of being heavy, or the capacity to keep us warm. Hence the enigmatical character of the equivalent form, which escapes the notice of the bourgeois political economist, until this form, completely developed. confronts him in the shape of money. He then seeks to explain away the mystical character of gold and silver, by substituting for them less dazzling commodities, and by reciting, with ever renewed satisfaction, the catalog of all possible commodities which at one time or another have played the part of equivalent. He has not the least suspicion that the most simple expression of value, such as 20 yds of linen = 1 coat, already prepounds the riddle of the equivalent form for our solution.”
Whew! Okay, before tackling this, I want, just for fun, to include a footnote. Marx says, “Such expressions in general, called by Hegal reflex categories, form a very curious class. For instance, one man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They, on the contrary, imagine that they are subjects because he is king.”
Anyway, let’s look at that monster paragraph. Remember, we are dealing with the relative form, and the equivalent forms of value. The relative form is the expression of the value of one commodity in terms of the use-value of another; the equivalent form is, um, what? Here we go back to that short paragraph that I thought was interesting, but didn’t see the point of: in the equivalent form, we express value in terms of a physical object, a use-value.
So, okay. The equivalent form expresses value as a social substance, that is, the labor embodied in it. The equivalent form is the expression of value contained in the commodity itself. The relative form finds value relative to other commodities, the equivalent form refers to the value of the commodity itself. I think I have that right. I may be way off here. This shit is hard.
So, okay, if I’m right, what he’s saying is that the properties of a thing (in particular, a commodity) are actually contained in the thing, but manifest only in relation to other things. A character in a story (or in reality, but never mind) has certain inherent aspects of his personality, but you only actually see them when he is interacting with another character. I might be full of shit here, but that’s how I’m interpreting it.
P58:”The body of the commodity that serves as the equivalent, figures as the materialisation of human labour in the abstract, and is at the same time the product of some specifically useful concrete labour. The concrete labour becomes, therefore, the medium for expressing abstract human labour. If on the one hand the coat ranks as nothing but the embodiment of abstract human labour, so, on the other hand, the tailoring which is actually embodied in it, counts as nothing but the form under which that abstract labour is realized. In the expression of value of the linen, the utility of the tailoring consists, not in making clothes, but in making an object, which we at once recognize to be Value, and therefore to be a congelation of labour, but of labour indistinguishable from that realized in the value of the linen. In order to act as such a mirror of value, the labour of tailoring must reflect nothing besides its own abstract quality of being human labour generally.”
Okay, that part I think I got. If I own a factory making computer chips, then, during production, it matters to me very much that they are computer chips. At the market, what matters to me is they are commodities I can sell. Similarly with the labor to produce them. At the point of sale, all that matters is that it was abstract human labor, which has value.
“In tailoring, as well as in weaving, human labour-power is expended. Both, therefore, possess the general property of being human labour, and may, therefore, in certain cases, such as in the production of value, have to be considered under this aspect alone. There is nothing mysterious in this. But in the expression of value there is a complete turn of the tables. For instance, how is the fact to be expressed that weaving creates the value of the linen, not by virtue of being weaving, as such, but by reason of of its general property of being human labour? Simply by opposing to weaving that other particular form of concrete labour (in this instance tailoring), which produces the equivalent of the product of weaving. Just as the coat in its bodily form became a direct expression of value, so now does tailoring, a concrete form of labour, appear as the direct and palpable embodiment of human labour generally.”
Right. Just as a specific commodity contains value in general, so a specific form of labor produces value in general.
“Hence, the second peculiarity of the equivalent form is, that concrete labour becomes the form under which its opposite, abstract human labor, manifests itself.”
I just said that!
“But because this concrete labour, tailoring in our case, ranks as, and is directly identified with, undifferentiated human labour, it also ranks as identical with any other sort of human labour, and therefore with that embodied in the linen. Consequently, although, like all other commodity-producing labour, it is the labour of private individuals, yet, at the same time, it ranks as labour directly social in its character. This is the reason why it results in a product directly exchangeable with other commodities. We have then a third peculiarity of the equivalent form, namely, that the labour o fprivate individuals takes the form of its opposite, labour directly social in character.”
A man living alone in the woods might well do some work to kill an animal, skin it, and make clothing for himself. But what happens in a society based on commodity exchange is that labor, as we use the term, only has meaning socially. He isn’t making clothes for himself, he’s making clothes for a wage so that the owner of the clothes can exchange them. This is a social activity.
P 59: “The two latter peculiarities of the equivalent form will become more intelligible if we go back to the great thinker who was the first to analyse so many form, whether of thought, society, or Nature, and amonst them also the form of value. I mean Aristotle.
“In the first place, he clearly enunciates that the money-form of commodities is only the further development of the simple form of value–i.e., of the expression of the value of one commodity taken at random; for he says–
5 beds=1 house
is not to be distinguished from
5 beds = so much money.
(I’m leaving out Marx’s quotation of the original Greek — SB)
“He further sees that the value-relation which gives rise to this expression makes it necessary that the house should qualitatively be made the equal of teh bed, and that, without such an equalization, these two clearly different things could not be compared with each other as commensurable quantities. ‘Exchange,’ he says, ‘cannot take place without equality, and equality not with commensurability.’ (more Greek quotations here – SB) Here, however, he comes to a stop, and gives up thefurther analysis of the form of value. ‘It is, however, in reality, impossible (Greek) that such unlike things can be commensurable’–i.e., qualitatively equal. Such an equalization can only be something foreign to their nature, consequently, only ‘a makeshift for practical purposes.’
“Aristotle therefore, himself, tells us, what barred the way to his further analysis; it was the absence of any concept of value. What is that equal something, that common substance, which admits of the value of the beds being expressed by a house? Such a thing, in truth, cannot exist, says Aristotle. And why not? Compared with the beds, the hosue does reprsent something equal to them, in so far as it represents what is really equal, both in the beds and the house. And that is–human labour.”
This seems clear enough to me, and, also, fascinating.
“There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from see that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour-powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man i, is that of owners of commodities. The brilliancy of Aristotle’s genius is shown by this alone, that he discovered, in the expression of the value of commodities, a relation of equality. The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, ‘in truth,’ was at the bottom of this equality.”
Perhaps I need not have added the Aristotle stuff to this already long post, but I am always fascinated by the relationship between the material conditions of life, and the ideas they produce.