Universal Translator

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reading Marx – Part IV

(Routine Introduction:  For reasons explained here, I’m in the process of slogging through Marx’s Das Kapital.  The plan is to read it in conjunction with watching David Harvey’s free on-line lectures about the book.  I’ll be posting notes and initial impressions as I read.  This will be an extremely long-term project.)

Today:  Vol. I, Book I, Part I, Chapter I, Section 1.

(I had intended to cover Sections 1 and 2 in one sitting, but the book friggin’ broke me.)

 Vol. I, Book I, Part I, Chapter I, Section 1 – being a description of “the two factors of a commodity,” which include “use-value” (the substance of value) and “value” (the magnitude of value).

--As Harvey points out, Marx begins his critique with the idea of a “commodity,” a manufactured thing.  Marx argues that the wealth of capitalist societies consists of “an immense accumulation of commodities.”  Which is interesting, because this seems to exclude from Marx’s subsequent discussion the service sector of the economy, and – more importantly for us today – the financial sector of the economy.  (These days, the “wealth” of a society seems mostly to be held in the form of financial obligations.)  But for purposes of Das Kapital at least right now we’re dealing only with actual manufacturing.

--Marx defines “use-value” as a material thing that has utility.  “Use-value” is the useful physical thing itself, not merely a quality of that physical thing

Important Point:  I cannot stress this enough, because I damned near wasted 2 hours trying to figure this out.  “Use-value” is a noun meaning a utilitarian, physical item.  Because Marx has made clear that we are only concerned w/manufacturing here, and because he started off w/commodities, I am going to use the term “physical commodity” in place of his use of the term “use-value” because “use-value” is just too goddamned confusing.

--Marx points out that physical commodities are usually thought of in quantities, as in “dozens of watches, yards of linen.”  He argues that physical commodities constitute “the substance of all wealth” and are “the material depositories of exchange value.”

--Marx points out that exchange always involves the exchange of particular amounts of different physical commodities.  Marx then points out that a given amount of any physical commodity (say, a suit of clothes) can be traded for differing amounts of all kinds of other physical commodities (a skein of silk, a 12 dozen loaves of bread, one new knife).  Because the exchange value of all these physical commodities is equivalent, that exchange value must be a measurement of some common property shared by all these different physical commodities.    

--Marx points out that physical commodities are of different “qualities,” because they all possess different physical properties.  Some are made of wood, some of metal, some of wool, etc.  But all physical commodities can be reduced to a particular “exchange value.”  A $200 suit is equivalent to a $200 blender is equivalent to a $200 belt-sander.

--Marx asks how it is these physical commodities can be so physically and usefully different, and yet still share the same “exchange value.”  From whence comes this uniform exchange value – what common property do all these physical commodities possess?  His argument is that if one gets rid of all the physical properties of commodities (their “qualitative properties”) then the only common property they have left is that they are products of human labor; accordingly, human labor must be what the exchange value is measuring.

* * *
NOTE:  If this is his argument, it seems pretty silly to me.  The exchange value of physical commodities depends not on the items themselves alone, but on the context in which the physical commodities are exchanged, i.e., the “market.”  Suppose you’ve got two warehouses filled with paper and, across town, two warehouses filled with milled lumber.  Each of these physical commodities (the paper and the lumber) has undergone all the labor they will undergo before being sold.  A certain quantity of each can be exchanged for money, and then that money exchanged for a certain quantity of the other.  Thus, each physical commodity has a particular “exchange value.”

But if one paper warehouse burns to the ground, the “exchange value” of the remaining paper goes up, simply because it is scarcer.  No more labor was expended to increase the surviving paper’s exchange value – its exchange value increased simply because of its resultant scarcity.  The conclusion that labor alone is the ineffable “thing” that exchange value measures can only be reached if one focuses on the physical commodity in a vacuum and does not take into consideration the web of commerce out of which that physical commodity’s exchange value arises.)

* * *

--“A [physical commodity] . . . has value only because human labor in the abstract has been embodied or materialized in it.” 

* * *
NOTE:  Hhhmmm, this is . . . interesting.  At first I thought this also sounded silly.  My first thought was of, say a 2x4 piece of wood I might need to build a deck.  This “physical commodity” consists of the wood itself and the labor necessary to turn it into a 2x4.  But that labor involved a mill, which involved machinery and tools and the walls of the mill itself.  Not to mention all the physical material necessary just to deliver the 2x4 to the lumber yard where I want to pick it up – obviously, that involves capital and not just human labor.

But if you carry it out further back, all of that capital, in turn, was the product of human labor working on raw material.  I think what Marx is suggesting is that the natural world – the world of raw resources – has only potential value and that any realization of value ultimately comes about by labor.  An apple on a tree, for example, has only potential value to me until I expend the necessary amount of labor to pick and eat it, at which point I realize the apple’s value. 

Same/same for all of the material goods used in the production of my 2x4.  Conceptually, they can all be reduced to their constituent parts – ore, forests, perhaps a running stream to provide power to the mill – and only expended human labor gives them value. 

Kind of the way matter can be thought of as an instantiation of energy, capital can be thought of as an instantiation of labor.


* * *

--Key paragraph:

We have seen that when [physical] commodities are exchanged, their exchange value manifests itself as something totally independent of their [useful physical properties.]  But if we abstract from their [useful physical properties], there remains their Value as defined above [i.e., the amount of labor that went into the creation of the commodities.]  Therefore, the common substance that manifests itself in the exchange value of commodities, whenever they are exchanged, is the [V]alue.

It is here that Marx derives Value as the amount of labor expended to create a physical commodity.

--Marx explains that the value of labor is measured by labor time expended, which is a homogenous abstract, i.e., no more than is socially necessary.  He argues that this explains how the value of labor can fall.  When power looms were introduced into England they reduced by one-half the labor required to weave yarn into cloth.  Hand-loom weavers till required the same hour as before to turn a certain quantity of yarn into cloth, but after the change one hour of their labor represented only half an hour’s “social labor” and therefore fell to one-half its former value.

--Marx then argues that the measure of the Value of any physical commodity is the amount of labor socially necessary for its production, i.e., lazy workers who take twice as long to make something do not thereby make their products twice as Valuable.  All physical commodities are only definite masses of congealed labor and “[physical] commodities . . . in which equal quantities of labor are embodied . . . have the same [V]alue.”

--Marx asserts that the Value of a physical commodity changes as the amount of labor necessary for its production changes.  I suppose he is talking about replacement cost here.  If I bought a shirt before the advent of the power loom it would have a particular Value.  Say I put the shirt away in a drawer for 5 years, during which time the power loom was introduced.  Now I take the shirt out (it hasn’t gone out of style and may just as well be brand new).  It still has the same utility, but even though it never has been worn its Value has decreased because it can be replaced for half the price I paid for it.

CONCLUSION/OPINION:  This – this – is exactly what I was afraid of.  Marx’s terminology is dizzying and seems almost deliberately obscure.  For a guy so obviously reductive in his analysis and so seemingly hell-bent on getting things precisely defined, he uses almost identical terms to mean quite different things and moves between ideas with a fluidity that easily loses me and prevents me from following him.

Here’s what I understand.  Commodities consist of (i) the actual, physical properties from which they derive their utility (what Marx describes as their ‘use-value’), and (ii) a metaphysical component that Marx calls “Value.”  Value is equivalent to the social labor necessary to create the commodity.  Commodities that instantiate the same amount of social labor necessarily have the same “exchange value,” because “exchange value” is really only a measurement of “Value” and “Value” – again – is the social labor necessary to create the commodity.

I have my doubts about this.  It seems somewhat circular.  Also, there is the problem of my paper/lumber hypothetical above – although I’ve since thought of three different ways to resolve that seeming problem along Marxian lines:

(i)         There is a time value to having paper right now.  The exchange value of a given commodity is dependent on its marginal cost of replacement.  So in my example involving shirts and looms, the exchange value of the shirt I had purchased went down because it could be replaced with less labor.  In the paper example, the exchange value of paper goes up because it would require a lot of labor to replace the missing paper immediately.

But, no . . . this doesn’t really work, because no matter how much labor one expended it is impossible to create anything – including paper – instantaneously.  So if the amount of labor necessary to instantaneously create another warehouse full of paper was going to be the measurement of how much the remaining paper increased in exchange value, then the remaining paper’s exchange value increase would be infinite.  That clearly doesn’t happen.

(ii)        The second solution is that “exchange value” does and always should be a measurement of labor in the abstract, under normal circumstances (much the way the measure of labor is the amount of time normally required, not the amount of time a particularly lazy person needs), and that sudden shifting circumstances can temporarily change the market value of a good but not its exchange value

I kind of like the second explanation, actually.  Everyone knows, for example, that diamond merchants have been artificially reducing the amount of diamonds on the global market whilst simultaneously increasing demand (by, among other things, launching a campaign less than 100 years ago to convince people that a diamond engagement ring is a necessity if they wished to get married).  The artificial scarcity drives up market value but because diamonds are in fact fairly common, the exchange value (the amount of labor necessary to produce the diamonds) is relatively low.  The difference between these two values manifests as outsized profits recovered by the diamond companies.

(iii)  But probably the correct Marxian solution is to consider it this way.  The amount of labor expended to create two warehouses full of paper is the total exchange value for all that paper.  When one-half the paper is destroyed, that didn’t destroy the Value of all that labor already expended.  But now all of that Value is instantiated in half the amount of paper.  The remaining paper carries the full Value of the labor that had been expended before, so its exchange value should double. 

Yeah, that’s probably it.

Next Up:  Vol. I, Book I, Part I, Chapter I, Section 2.  The March toward our own literary Bataan Continues!  Will our hero make it?  Tune in!

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