Universal Translator

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Reading Marx – Part V


(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 2.

Vol. I, Book I, Part I, Chapter I, Section 1 – being a description of “the twofold character of labor embodied in commodities.”  (Oh goody.  More diamond splitting.)

--So a commodity consists of a “use-value,” i.e., the physical properties of the commodity itself, and an “exchange value,” which is a measurement of the metaphysical Value the commodity possesses.  Marx claims now that labor, too, has a twofold character.

--A physical commodity is produced by labor, the utility of which “manifests itself by making a product a ‘use-value,’”; Marx calls this “useful labor.”  As I understand this, any labor that is necessary to cause a thing to be useful is “useful labor.”  In the last paragraph of the last section, Marx clarified that all useful things are use-values, although not every useful thing requires labor to be such.  Air, virgin soil and natural meadows he identifies as examples of use-values needing no labor at all to be so.  So useful labor is the labor necessary to make useful something that is not already naturally useful.

--Marx then points out that the production of different types of commodities all require the exertion of different types of useful labor.  Production of a coat is by tailoring, whereas production of 10 years of linen is by weaving.  Marx clarifies that for purposes of his analytic structure, one “use-value” is not traded for another “use-value” of the same kind, i.e., coats are not traded for coats.  It is probably more accurate to say that a coat is not traded for an identical coat.  (It is easy to imagine, for example, a successful clothing manufacturer buying his wife a fur coat.  This is an example of one type of coat being traded for another, different type of coat).

--Accordingly, Marx argues, any trade of commodities is necessarily going to involve a trade in qualitatively different useful labor.  In a community that depends on the production of a lot of different commodities, a complex social division of labor evolves whereby a lot of different useful labor is used to produce a lot of different physical commodities.

NOTE:  I don’t think the first point necessarily follows at all.  If, as Marx says, the useful labor to produce a coat is “tailoring,” then a tailor might produce a wool coat for use in winter.  He may then exchange that wool coat for a linen coat produced by a different tailor for use in summer.  I imagine that the useful labor involved in the production of the two different coats is for all intents and purposes identical, and that it is only the material that has changed.  But I think this first point basically can be elided as a mere bridge to get to the second point, which seems obvious and is really Marx’s goal.  (Marx would probably have been better off just asserting the second point w/out trying to unnecessarily justify it by the first.)

NOTE:  Goddamnit.  “So far therefore as labor is a creator of use-value, is useful labor, it is a necessary condition, independent of all forms of society, for the existence of the human race; it is an external nature-imposed necessity, without which there can be no material exchanges between man and nature, and therefore no life.”  (emphasis added).

See, this is what threw me in the last section.  When we hear the word “value” we are accustomed to thinking in terms of the value of something.  The value of a car, the value of a computer, the value of a house, for example.  That is why it took me so long in the last section to notice that Marx was actually speaking of “a use-value,” meaning the useful physical commodity itself.

But now Marx is talking of labor as the creator not of a use-value, but of “use-value,” which seems to indicate that the term “use-value” denotes the value of something.  I think the only way to reconcile Marx’s different use of the same term is to understand “use-value” in the quote above to mean “use-value in the abstract, as it applies to all useful things.”  But if I am correct about this, then Marx could have been much more clear by simply stating:  “So far therefore as labor is a creator of useful commodities, is useful labor . . . .”  That is much easier to understand.

--Marx restates the conclusion he was leading to in the last section.  Commodities are the combination of (i) matter and (ii) labor.  If the labor were removed, one would always be left with the natural material substratum Nature provides.  Thus labor is not the only source of material wealth, some of that wealth is provided by Nature.  Of wealth, “labor is its father and the earth its mother.”

NOTE:  And doesn’t this give the lie to Marx’s idea (as I understand it from the previous section) that all Value in a commodity necessarily reduces down to the amount of social labor invested to create that commodity?  The amount of labor necessary to create a coat of burlap, or jute, or some other thick abrasive material might in fact be more than is required to create a coat out of linen – but the linen coat is more valuable strictly because of the material involved.

Possibly Marx would resolve this by arguing that the creation of the untailored burlap or the jute requires less social labor than the creation of the untailored linen, and that it all sums up to be different but I don’t know that to be true.  I suppose another possibility is that burlap and jute aren’t intended to be used as coats so those materials are not proper comparators to a linen coat, but I don’t see how “intention” should impact what Marx supposes to be fixed laws governing the production of goods that he claims to have “discovered” apply to all forms that production takes.

--Passing now to the “exchange value” of commodities, Marx supposes a world where the exchange value of 1 coat is twice that of 10 yards of linen, so is equivalent to 20 yards of linen.  Marx then argues that so far as these two commodities are considered only as abstract “exchange values” they are of a like substance, “objective expressions of essentially identical labor.”  Marx points out that weaving and tailoring are, of course, different types of labor but argues they are merely sub-categories of productive “labor-power” in general; that is they are but two different “modes” of general labor-power, the “productive expenditure of human brains, nerves and muscles.”

--Marx then muddies things up by referring to generals and bankers in passing, and the reader is forced to remind himself that Marx’s entire analysis is concerned only with the manufacturing of physical commodities – generals and bankers have no place in these discussion.  Marx goes on to assert that “skilled labor” is only a multiplier of “unskilled labor” – that is, that any amount of skilled labor is nothing more than a time-saving effect, because a certain greater quantity of unskilled labor could accomplish the same thing as a particular skilled laborer.  The point, quite obviously, is to reduce all labor to its constituent atom, what Marx calls “unskilled, simple labor.”

NOTE:  Marx elides here over something that can have a big impact in the world of manufacturing and that is “intellectual property.”  Normally we think of intellectual property as consisting of things like patents, copyrights and trademarks, but “trade secrets” count as well.  I wonder where “trade secrets” fall within Marx’s world.

For example, suppose I have a trade secret for mixing together certain materials in certain quantities in a certain way.  Let’s suppose I have the trade secret Coca-Cola formula.  What I have is an idea – not a material, not labor, just an idea.  One could argue, I suppose, that the transmission of this idea to the workers who actually manufacture Coca-Cola syrup constitutes just another type of “skilled labor,” but then it also is a kind of skilled labor that cannot be replicated by simply throwing a bunch of unskilled labor into the mix.  No matter how much energy, time and effort you want to expend, unless you know the secret Coca-Cola formula you will never be able to make Coca-Cola.

To be sure, that formula imparts some value to Coke products.  But it doesn’t seem to be accounted for in Marx’s analysis.  Interesting.

--Having reduced all labor to its constituent, undifferentiated, homogenous “unskilled, simple labor” form, Marx argues that the labor that goes into creating a coat and weaving 10 yards of linen is essentially the same thing.  (The same way that carbon atoms arranged in a diamond matrix and carbon atoms arranged in pencil graphite are the same thing).

--Now Marx asks how it is that the coat has an exchange value twice that of 10 yards of linen.  He answers by asserting that the coat necessarily contains twice the amount of productive labor-power as do the 10 yds of linen.  (This is an interesting assertion; I’d love to see some empirical evidence to support it.)  When determining Value, which is measured by a commodity’s exchange value, the only question is How long did it take – what was the amount of simple, unskilled labor – to produce the commodity in question?

--If something occurs so that suddenly the amount of labor-power necessary to produce a single coat is halved, then after that change occurs two coats are worth only as much as the single coat had been – although in both cases one coat renders the same service as before, and the useful labor embodied in it remains of the same quality (not quantity).

Key paragraph:

An increase in the quantity of [useful physical commodities] is an increase in material wealth.  With two coats two men may be clothed, with one coat only one man.  Nevertheless, an increased quantity of material wealth may correspond to a simultaneous fall in the magnitude of its value.  This antagonistic movement has its origin in the two-fold character of labor.  Productive power has reference, of course, only to labor of some useful concrete form; the efficacy of any special productive activity during a given time being dependent on its productiveness.  Useful labor becomes, therefore, a more or less abundant source of products, in proportion to the rise or fall of its productiveness.  On the other hand, no change in this productiveness affects the labor represented by value.  Since productive power is an attribute of the concrete useful forms of labor, of course it can longer have any bearing on that labor, so soon as we make abstraction from those concrete useful forms.  However then productive power may vary, the same labor, exercised during equal periods of time, always yields equal amounts of value.  But it will yield, during equal periods of time, different quantities of values in use; more, if the productive power rise, fewer, if it fall.  The same change in productive power, which increases the fruitfulness of labor, and, in consequence, the quantity of [useful material commodities] produced by that labor, will diminish the total value of this increased quantity of [useful material commodities], provided such change shorten the total labor-time necessary for their production; and vice versa.  (emphasis added).

NOTE:  As I understand that paragraph, what Marx is saying is that regardless of any change in productivity, any particular type of labor will always reduce to the same amount of “simple, unskilled labor-power over time”; because the amount of labor-power expended determines the total Value produced, the aggregate amount of Value produced over time per laborer cannot change.

However, the amount of Value instantiated in a particular commodity does change when productivity changes.  Suppose 1 day’s worth of labor-power is denoted D.  At the beginning, it takes one day’s worth of labor-power to produce one coat.  The total amount of Value produced per day is D, and the Value contained in the coat produced per day is D.

But if a change in productivity halves the time necessary to produce a coat, then the total amount of Value produced each day is still D, but the Value contained in each of the two coats produced that day is D/2.  Society has gotten wealthier because now two people can be clothed per day rather than one, but the Value produced is always the same -- it is just spread out over more useful physical commodities.

This indicates to me that my last proposed solution to the paper/lumber hypothetical from the other day was correct from a Marxian point of view.  After half the paper is destroyed the Value of the remaining paper doubles because the  labor-power expended to produce two warehouses full of paper now is concentrated in only one warehouse full of paper.

CONCLUSION:  Well, I at least found this section easier to follow.  Obviously, I’ve made notes where it appears to me Marx’s argument misses something.  One of the things to be on guard against is, as I’ve mentioned before, the idea that just because I am getting better at understanding what Marx is attempting to say that doesn’t necessarily mean I am getting closer to understanding the Truth of capitalism.  In piecing together his thoughts I’m solving Marx’s puzzle; that doesn’t necessarily mean the solution is going to have any value.

From a very basic point of view, it is probably a good idea to keep in mind that everything Marx has proposed so far is – from a scientific analysis point of view – a mere hypothetical, without actual empirical data to back it up.  For example, Marx argues that a commodity that has twice the exchange value of a different commodity must therefore have required twice the labor-power.  It would be nice to see a documented example of this supporting Marx’s contention.

Next Up:  David Harvey On-Line Lecture No. 1 – Second Viewing.  I’m pretty sure this material concludes what was covered in the first lecture and so, having now read this stuff, I’m off to watch the first lecture again to see what it is I missed.

UPDATE:  Well, I went back and reviewed Harvey's lecture.  It does help clarify a few things, which I've made note of:

“Value is socially necessary labor time” – this is pure Ricardo w/one exceptional insertion; Ricardo used labor time as an input, Marx uses “socially necessary” labor time = average amount of time under normal conditions for an average skilled worker;

Harvey:  a commodity consists of its “use-value,” i.e., its physical utilitarian nature, and its “exchange value.”  Exchange value is a measurement of Value, which is the socially necessary labor time required to create the commodity.  But nothing contains value unless it is useful to someone else, i.e., unless it has “use-value.”  If labor is expended to create something that satisfies no one’s want, then the labor is wasted and the commodity has no value.  So Value, by Marx’s definition, requires a commodity with use-value.  The concepts are not causally related so much as they arise together, are interdependent.

Interesting.  Harvey says that there has been a tendency in politics – esp. socialism – to take Marx’s definition of Value (“socially necessary labor time”) as a normative, and then think about how to structure a socialistic society based on that definition.  But Marx isn’t being prescriptive here, he is being descriptive.  Value is what it is because it is inherent in the capitalist system.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that Value would be what it is if we were looking at a different system.  Alternative value theories exist, but capitalism has this value system.

Also . . . “socially necessary” labor-time is determined by a bunch of different factors.  To what degree is it determined by monopolistic, monopsonist practices, colonial slave-labor, etc.  But Marx’s actual discussion is the classical functioning political economy (perfectly rational markets at equilibrium w/state power completely out of the way.)

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