Universal Translator

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Reading Marx – Part VIII

(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 freeon-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 4.  “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof”

Vol. I, Book I, Part I, Chapter I, Section 4 – beginning w/the observation that all commodities reflect Value which is essentially socially useful labor, and that the “ground-work” for the quantitative nature of that value is the “duration of the expenditure of labor” (I wonder if there is more quantification of value than this mere “ground-work”; certainly Marx hasn’t indicated yet that there is), then the exchange of commodities involves a social relationship, i.e., labor assumes a social form during commodity exchange;

--the mutual relations of the producers then relate to each other socially through the exchange of commodities; Marx argues that the exchange of commodities is actually a social relationship b/w people (and their labor?) that merely takes the concrete form of an exchange of commodities; the idea of commodities as something separate and apart from human labor and intelligence Marx calls the “fetishism of commodities,” which has its origin in the social character of the labor that produces them;

--for producers of goods, their own labor takes the character of being socially useful from the fact that the goods produced are useful not only to the producer but to others as well; and that his labor is the equivalent of all other types of labor reduced to their common quality, i.e., having Value (because useful to others);

--although we don’t realize it, when we exchange goods we are exchanging material receptacles of homogenous human labor; Value converts every product unto a social hieroglyphic of that labor; the labor value instantiated in objects may be the case, but we still directly perceive the objects themselves as having value w/out regard for the labor they represent (again, the fetishism);

--when the exchange rate (or, when using money, the price) of a commodity remains fixed for a length of time, we tend to think of the value of the product as fixed, despite the fact its exchange value actually fluctuates as the labor involved in all commodities fluctuates; but only producers see the actual labor that goes into a product; those that sell on the market tend to think of various forces affecting the exchange rate but really it is he labor value changing (sometimes because of changes in productivity), that is always acting even if we don’t see it;

--Marx argues that historically people have been blinded to the fact labor value underlies everything because they have begun w/commodities having fixed values, or w/money having a fixed value, and have been blinded to the truth; Marx argues that his truth is apparent because of how he began (i.e., looking at what a commodity is before trying to measure that commodity’s value or even to define the commodity’s value)

--Hey!  Robinson Crusoe!  Required to work to obtain the things he needs, and required to do different types of concrete labor, Crusoe starts keeping a ledger that lists (i) the useful things he has, (ii) the operations necessary for their production, and (iii) the labor time definite quantities of objects have cost him; this, Marx says, contains all that is essential to the determination of Value;

--Marx contrasts this (Crusoe’s modern, commodities-based approach) to Europe of the middle ages, where commodities were not produced, but labor was traded in kind; Marx argues that there was no “fetishism of commodities” to get in the way of recognizing that what one was giving, whether to the lord or to the church, was one’s own labor and not any particular object with a value independent of one’s labor;

--Marx talks of peasant families, each member of which may be involved in various types of labor, but together form a single “family-unit” of labor producing various goods for its own use and – perhaps – a little extra to be exchanged; he then seems to make an analogous leap to the idea of a community of free individuals toiling in unison as one social product; part of that product is apparently supposed to be exchanged and remains social but some must be consumed; Marx suggests that one way to distribute consumption w/in this community would be by the labor-time expended by individuals as a percentage of the total labor-time of the community;

(NOTE:  Yeah . . . count me skeptical; once a community gets large enough that not everyone knows everyone – I’ve seen estimates that this is at most about 150 members – there is way too much incentive for people to skate on their obligations, to try and get a “free ride”; communal activities might work as a family unit, or as a tribe, but I have a hard time understanding how this would work for a town or a city or a nation or a people; also, Marx leaves blank any idea for calculating “labor-time”; how does that work for an artist, or a poet, or a writer? was that guy thinking and creating, or was he just daydreaming? this is one of the ways Marx gets classified as a grubby materialist:  whereas his very idea of Value is metaphysical, still and all he has limited his examination to the production of commodities and to material things);

--Marx then goes off to talk about religion and suggests that religion is basically the reflection of whatever social relations are prevalent in society; as I understand him, he suggests that a “primitive form of Nature worship” is what one expects to find in societies that have not moved to the commodification of labor, because there workers still understand their labor to be a directly social function; but where societies have entered into the manufacturing/commodification of labor phase, there the direct ties between labor and social relations have been – if not severed entirely – attenuated, and thus more abstract relationships to God (e.g.,Protestantism, Deism) evolve;

(NOTE:  I’m surprised how many parallels I’m finding between Marxian thought and Ayn Rand’s scribblings; Rand too, with her worship of manufacturing and productive capability, had very few kind words for “Nature,” which she seemed to think only a natural resource to be exploited as man wished)

--“The life-process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan.” 

(NOTE:  Okay, where to begin.  First, Marx is clearly describing the life-process of his society, maybe of modern society in general, but not of Society as an unchanging Platonic form.  Which means his pronouncement of what Is already is going to be given an unwarrantedly broad application.  Secondly, it’s interesting to note that the “mystical veil” to which Marx refers here is the fetishism of commodities, i.e., the fact that by the commodification of labor we’ve lost sight of the fact that it is always and only labor that is being exchanged in trade; thirdly, here we begin to see the start of the idea that – having recognized this fact – men should settle down and regulate . . .what? the economy? . . . with a settled plan.  We’ve seen this doesn’t work out and very probably, for reasons we’re only just now beginning to understand through the use of network analysis and Complexity  Science, probably cannot work.  Moreover, I just don’t know where this assertion is coming from.  It seems to spring from Marx’s hypothetical community based on the peasant family, but there is no argument that this hypothetical Marx proposed is somehow superior to what we already have.  Again, I suspect a results-oriented argument is being made here.)

-If commodities could speak they would say that their use-value (physical utility) may be of interest to people, but it is nothing to them as objects.  What belongs to them as objects is their Value, which is made manifest when they are exchanged;

--as translated into economic-speak:  “Value is a property of things.  Riches is a property of man.  Value, in this sense, necessarily implies exchanges, riches do not.”  Essentially, because Value is only realized in the exchange of things, Value must be inherent in the things exchanged.  Riches do not require an exchange:  having a lot of useful stuff – a house, a car, lots of food, a TeeVee – all serve to make a man rich (b/c of their use value) because of their interaction w/man, not because of their interaction w/other commodities;

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS:  Well, this wasn’t nearly as boring as the last section was.  But it also seemed here like Marx is playing fast and loose with the rules.  For example, several times he talks of how it has been “scientifically proven” that all Value in commodities arises out of only labor-time expended.  I haven’t seen anything “proven” in that way.  I’ve read Marx’s theory as to how this works, but even were I to find the theory plausible that plausibility in no way proves the theory to be correct.

For example, one thing that Marx does not address adequately enough for me (at least not yet) is the place of information in capitalist production.  He reduces everything down to natural materials and labor, but obviously the accumulation of information over generations (part of what we call culture) is also reflected in the Value of commodities, particularly when those commodities are being exchanged for goods from another society that does not know how to produce such commodities.  I suppose internal to that society the value of information is subsumed in the idea of “socially useful” labor, i.e., what can be on average produced with that particular society’s technological level, but how does that translate when goods are traded with different societies?  How does “socially useful labor time” translate when, say, Chinese porcelain is being exchanged for North American beaver pelts in the 18th century?  How can one even break down those very different concrete labor methods into any common denominator, except to merely assume – as Marx has here – that one can do so?

Also, massively disappointed by the failure of any werewolves or phantoms to appear in this section.

Next Up:  Vol. I, Book I, Part I, Chapter II.  “Exchange.”  At last, a whole ‘nother chapter!  And it’s a short one, too!  Which is great, because I really need to feel like I’m actually accomplishing something here.  Short chapters in a book like Capital are like long passenger lines at the airport, the ones that contain turn after turn.  You’re still 45 minutes away from actually getting to the ticket counter, but every time you make a turn you feel like you’ve accomplished something.  Short chapters rock!

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