Marx and The Commodity


The Two Factors of The Commodity

A commodity satisfies a human need [125]. Use-value is the utility derived from the physical properties of something, only being realized in and through its use or consumption [126]. Exchange-value is the exchange relation between commodities. It is the abstraction from use-values; whereas use-value is wholly qualitative, exchange-value is wholly quantitative [127–128]. When abstracted from their use-values, a commodity is purely reduced down to the quantity of labour time used to produce it; these labour times, which are common to all commodities, ascribe value [128].

  • “A use-value has value only because abstract human labour is materialized into it.” Are raw materials not useful?

— Raw materials are still products of mining, forestry, etc… therefore, human labour.

Value is measured by the (homogeneous) quantity of labour time contained in the commodity, the quantity being measured by its duration (through the number of hours, days, etc. that it takes). Now, to be clear, the value reflects the socially necessary average labour time to produce a commodity [129]. And since labour times mediate the value of something, use-values that do not require labour time (“air, virgin soil, natural meadows, unplanted forests, etc.”) are valueless. Do keep in mind though that a thing can have a use-value, but also contain human labour, without being a commodity — such is the case with those who create use-values for their own consumption. Something only becomes a commodity when something is produced for others’ consumption through the medium of exchange. And finally, as Marx puts it, “nothing can be a value without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, therefore creates no value” [131].

I could prove this through the most simple of examples: say there is a productive society, wherein it takes 2 hours to produce a chair and 1 hour to produce a t-shirt. Also say that this society was willing to trade the chair and the t-shirt’s for a 1:1 ratio. Why would I ever spend 2 hours to make a chair, when I could just spend 2 hours to make 2 t-shirts, then trade those for 2 chairs? This is why, necessarily, the exchange between the chairs and t-shirts is 2:1 — otherwise it is an unequal exchange.

The Dual Character of The Labour Embodied in Commodities

Useful labour is labour that embodies its utility into the use-value produced. A use-value cannot be exchanged for another use-value of the same kind, they must contain qualitatively different forms of useful labour. One would not trade a coat of the same kind unless they contained different forms of useful labour, that of which would embody itself in different use-values. When two objects face each other as qualitatively different, it then can be an object of exchange — allowing the object to express itself as a commodity. This shows that in any economy with commodity production, there necessarily follows a social division of labour; though, “commodity production is not a necessary condition for the social division of labour.” For instance, take a feudal society wherein a social division of labour exists: the labour that produces use-values is merely for others’ consumption, thus they do not become commodities. “Or, to take an example nearer home, labour is systematically divided in every factory, but the workers do not bring about this division by exchanging their individual products. Only the products of mutually independent acts of labour, performed in isolation, can confront each other as commodities” [132]. If we take away the determinate quality of useful labour, we are left with labour-power [134]. Labour-power expresses itself in the varying levels of complexity in regards to labouring, such that a smaller quantity of goods produced with complex labour is equal to a larger quantity of goods produced with simple labour. Though, even if a commodity is produced with the most complex of labour, it is undercut by its value which homogenizes/equates it to commodities made with the most simple of labour [135].

“But what is the position with regard to more complicated labour which, being labour of greater intensity and greater specific gravity, rises above the general level? This kind of labour resolves itself into simple labour; it is simple labour raised to a higher power, so that for example one day of skilled labour may equal three days of simple labour. The laws governing this reduction do not concern us here. It is, however, clear that the reduction is made, for, as exchange-value, the product of highly skilled labour is equivalent, in definite proportions, to the product of simple average labour; thus being equated to a certain amount of this simple labour” (Source).

This quote from Marx shows two things. First, that simple and complex labour are embodied in abstract labour — while simultaneously being concrete. Second, that complex labour is homogenized into value, such that complex and simple labour can be exchanged. If this reduction/homogenization/equivocation was not done, then it would not be possible that objects of complex labour could be exchanged with objects of simple labour; for, how could one calculate the exchange between two concrete use-values with different forms of labour-power exerted — if not through an abstraction and reduction of complex labour?

Complex labour is a multiple of simple labour. If the multiple is 3, then that complex labour = 3C, whereas the simple labour = S. Take a scenario given the former, and also given that there are 2 units of complex labour as well as 6 units of simple labour, such that 3(2) = 6 and (6) = 6. The fact that the complex labour can be exchanged with the simple labour, despite being qualitatively different, shows that they must necessarily be reduced to merely quantitatively different amounts of equivalent abstract human labour; this equivalence of abstract human labour is found through value.

  • If a reduction of complex labour to simple labour is needed, then how are they both abstract labour?

— One must first recognize where concrete and abstract labour stands. Although concrete labour is the labour that is actually done (concretely), abstract labour stands in relation to it as that which creates value. Thus, labour, insofar as it stands in the capitalistic mode of production, is both simultaneously concrete and abstract (value-creating). “Although market processes also enforce the abstraction of labour, it is not exchange of its products that makes labour abstract” (source). Labour is already abstract and value-creating during the production process as it is rooted in its historically specific production relations — that of which is capitalism. And, because of this, one can ultimately deduce that value is created already in the production process, rather than in the market.

— (Continuation of the prior paragraph.) Now that we have an understanding of concrete and abstract labour, we must now establish that “the reduction of complex to simple labour presupposes the independent and prior reduction of concrete to abstract labour” (referring once again to the source given above). Let us say we have 16 hours of simple labour relating to the creation of chairs and 12 hours of simple labour relating to the creation of t-shirts. If one were to try and figure and figure out how much total labour was done, one must presuppose that we are speaking in the abstract — otherwise, in the concrete sense, it would be impossible to figure out how much total labour was done for two separate forms of labour. Because of this, one finds that due to the reduction of concrete to abstract labour prior to the reduction of complex to simple, when one speaks of simple or complex labour they speak of labour as such without any determinate content — for instance, the labour involved in the making of chairs and shirts are reduced to labour as such rather than their particular forms of labour, being left only with labour in a simple or complex sense.

— (Continuation of the prior paragraph.) At this point we have already resolved the contradiction, as I have shown above complex labour is already reduced to labour as such and thus homogenized already within the notion of abstract labour. Though, despite this, it will finally be shown how it is possible that complex labour is reduced to a multiple of simple labour (same source). “Complex labour can be compared to, and thus reduced to a multiple of, simple labour, only because they lack any qualitative difference, i.e., only because both are abstract labour. As Marx [140–41] noted, ‘the magnitudes of different things only become comparable in quantitative terms when they have been reduced to the same unit’.”