Universal Translator

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Reading Marx – Part VII

(Routine Introduction:  For reasons explained here, I’m in the process of slogging through Marx’s Capital.  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, Subsections 3(b), (c) and (d).  “Getting from the Elementary Form of Value to the Money Form of Value”

Vol. I, Book I, Part I, Chapter I, Subsection 3(b) – Total or Expanded Form of Value – Marx begins w/linen, again, and posits a world where 20 yds linen is equivalent to 1 coat, or to 10 lbs tea, or to 40 lbs coffee, or to 1 quarter corn, or to 2 oz. gold, or to ½ ton iron, etc.)

            Sub-subsection 3(b)(1) – The Expanded Relative Form of Value – by finding all kinds of different commodities that can be exchanged for the same 20 yds linen, Marx argues that “for the first time” the value of the linen is revealed as a congelation of undifferentiated human labor, because it is exchangeable for all kinds of different commodities that were produced by all different kinds of concrete human labor;

            Sub-subsection 3(b)(2) – The Particular Equivalent Form – because there are innumerable equivalent forms that may be exchanged for the same linen, each particular commodity is only a particular equivalent form, one out of many, as is each physical form (the “use-form”), one out of many, as is the concrete useful labor that creates each equivalent, one out of many;

            Sub-subection 3(b)(3) – Defects of the Total or Expanded Form of Value – the expanded form of value is necessarily defective because it consists of an infinite expansion of the elementary form; the value of linen cannot be expressed completely because it may only be expressed as the totality of all equivalent commodities, which can never be exhausted; similarly, because each equivalent concrete commodity represents a particular concrete expression of labor, we never do get to the general form of labor that Marx wants to express here;

Vol. I, Book I, Part I, Chapter I, Subsection 3(c) -- The General Form of Value – now Marx switches things up; all the other equivalent commodities he places on the left-hand side of the equation, making them all relative values equal to 20 yds linen, which is now the universal equivalent value;

            Sub-subsection 3(c)(1) – The Altered Character of the Form of Value – “the expanded form of value comes into actual existence for the first time so soon as a particular product of labor, such as cattle, is no longer exceptionally, but habitually, exchanged for various other commodities,” i.e. when one commodity is habitually the common commodity of exchange then the expanded form of value comes to be;

            --so, in this example, linen can be made to represent the value of all other commodities by their equality with linen; “by this form, commodities are, for the first time, effectively brought into relation with one another as values, or made to appear as exchange values”;

            -the earlier forms of labor we looked at either expressed the value of a commodity in terms of a single commodity of a different kind, or in a series of many single commodities; but by flipping the equation and expressing the value of the many single commodities in the form of but one equivalent – which becomes the universal equivalent – now therefore all commodities can be related to each other through linen, which therefore reveals their social nature (?) and the social nature of human labor, in this case the concrete form of weaving standing in for all human labor;

            Sub-subsection 3(c)(2) – The Interpendent Relationship b/w Relative and Equivalent Form of Value – the expanded form of value “gives to the world of commodities a general social relative form of value, because . . . all commodities, with the exception of one, are excluded from the equivalent form.  A single commodity, the linen appears to have acquired the character of direct exchangeability with every other commodity because . . . this character is denied to every other commodity” (since no other commodity is the universal commodity);

            Sub-subsection 3(c)(3) – Transition from the General Form of Value to the Money Form –  the commodity that becomes the universal equivalent now serves as money; it is the special social function of that commodity, “and consequently its social monopoly” to play within the world the part of the universal equivalent; in the real world this is gold, so if we now replace linen with gold, we finally get to the money commodity;

Vol. I, Book I, Part I, Chapter I, Subsection 3(d) -- The Money Form – Marx supposes that, in antiquity, gold was a simple commodity that – over time – because the universal equivalent for all commodities; as soon as it monopolized this position (for providing an expression of value of all other commodities) it became the money commodity and the general form of value changed into the money form;

CONCLUSIONS:  Holy crap, was that a nightmare!  I am reminded, reading Marx, of Immanuel Kant and his absolute insistence on drawing lines, boundaries and definitions in an attempt to leave absolutely no space between the steps of his reasoning.  Marx seems to be doing the same thing here and it is damned confusing. 

This entire section about how we get to the money form would have been better off without Marx attempting to invent an entire nomenclature to describe what are – in the end – easily graspable ideas.  Commodities are traded one for each other, revealing an exchange of equivalent value, this value must be human labor, some particular commodity ultimately is made by social convention the universal commodity, and then that is what we call money.

With respect to his thoughts on the identity of money itself, I wonder what Marx would think of the 21st century, with floating exchange rates between currencies that are not tied to gold or to any particular commodity.  Where is the “universal equivalent” here against which all things are measured?  I wonder too whether we might not go back to equating things in a universal equivalent commodity before too long – say, a barrel of sweet crude.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that what Marx describes as the history by which money arose (barter, than a universal equivalent, and then money) is the traditional way of understanding how money was created, the way Adam Smith explained it must have happened.  But as David Graeber and other anthropologists have pointed out, there seems to be absolutely no evidence that this is, in fact, how it came to be.  Graeber calls it a “just so story” that we’ve been telling ourselves for centuries because it makes sense but for which there is no empirical evidence.

Harvey seemed to allude to this in his lecture when he suggested that Marx’s description of the invention of money should be considered as a “thought experiment” and not as an actual recitation of historical fact.

Personally, I don’t really see how it makes much difference.  I know that Graeber is keen to demolish this “just so story,” but I don’t know why it matters now.  Before we all went off the gold standard gold was, in fact, a nearly universal equivalent commodity that functioned as money.  How it came to occupy that position millennia ago is – to me – less interesting or significant than what it means for gold/money to have occupied that position.

Next Up:  Vol. I, Book I, Part I, Chapter I, Section 4.  The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof.  The last section in Chapter 1!  And after all that mind-numbing terminology to learn and keep track of, Harvey promises this is going to be something different, where we finally meet those werewolves and phantoms he alluded to in the first lecture.  Thank God!  ’Cause I need a break.

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