Friday, 3 August 2012

Capital I Chapter 1 - Part 5

The General Form of Value

There is an easy solution to the fact that every commodity can be expressed as an inexhaustible list of other commodities. That is turn the expression around. In other words, make every commodity expressible in terms of one single commodity.


1 coat = 20 yards of linen
10 lbs. Tea = 20 yards of linen
1 qtr. Corn = 20 yards of linen
2 oz. Gold = 20 yards of linen

and so on.

Now every commodity can be expressed in terms of one single commodity that acts as a general equivalent.

As throughout Capital, Marx's analysis is set out not just in terms of a logical progression, but also as an historical progression. So, he describes the way in which the first form of expression of Value is what occurs first in history, whereby commodity A exchanges for so much of B. C exchanges for so much of D and so on. He says,

This form, it is plain occurs practically only in the first beginning, when the products of labour are converted into commodities by accidental and occasional exchanges.” (p 71)

What Marx has in mind here is his view based on the work done by Lewis Morgan, and used by Engels in The Origin Of The Family, Private Property and the State, that the first exchanges were accidental or occasional exchanges between communities etc. not between individuals. They arose, for example, as part of rituals or ceremonies, for example, when members of one tribe married members of another. Marx's view here was somewhat speculative, but subsequent anthropological research has shown it to be correct.

The second form of expression of Value corresponds to where trade has developed more and some particular commodity like cattle is regularly traded for other commodities. It acts as relative form of Value, not Equivalent Form. In other words, it is cattle that are being regularly traded, for other commodities, and whose Value is being expressed not vice versa. So, 1 cow = 1 oz. Gold, 1 cow = 20 yards of linen, 1 cow = 2 coats, and so on.

The final form of the expression of Value only arises when many commodities are being regularly traded, and where one of their number is singled out to act as a measure of the rest. In other words, all commodities now express their Values, not in relation to each other, but through their relation with this single commodity, whose role is, and had to be, socially recognised.

Each commodity being equated with this one single commodity, in turn, manifests its relation to all other commodities. If 1 coat = 20 yards of linen, and 2 oz. Gold = 20 yards of linen, then clearly 1 coat also = 2 oz. Gold, or 1 coat has twice as much Value as 1 oz. Gold. As made clear earlier we don't know how much Value that is absolutely from this expression, only its relative size compared to the Value of the Gold. We can only know the actual Value of the coat, and the Gold by knowing how much labour-time is required for their production. Exchange Value only measures relative value, not absolute Value, which can only be measured by labour-time.

The same process which makes this single commodity the general equivalent for all other commodities means that the same is true for the specific concrete labour used to produce it, in relation to all of the other concrete labours used to produce all other commodities. Linen becomes the representative of all human labour because it becomes the representative of Exchange Value – Abstract Labour-time. But, by the same token,

Weaving, which is the labour of certain private individuals producing a particular article, linen, acquires in consequence a social character, the character of equality with all other kinds of labour. The innumerable equations of which the general form of value is composed, equate in turn the labour embodied in the linen to that embodied in every other commodity, and they thus convert weaving into the general form of manifestation of undifferentiated human labour.” (p 72)

In other words, the labour-time expended here by weavers can represent Abstract Labour-time against which all other concrete labour can be measured. If 20 yards of linen takes 10 hours of weavers' time to produce, (this now constitutes 10 hours of Abstract Labour-time) whereas 1 coat requires 5 hours of tailoring labour-time, then if 1 coat exchanges for 20 yards of linen, we can conclude that the 5 hours of tailoring labour is complex labour, which is equal to 10 hours of Abstract Labour. (I've excluded the labour-time embodied in the material of the coat, for ease of illustration).

As soon as one commodity is singled out to play the role of General Equivalent, it automatically excludes all other commodities from that role. But, by the same token it excludes itself from the other side of this relation. It can no longer appear as the Relative Form of Value because it would be expressing itself against itself – 20 yards of linen = 20 yards of linen! Alternatively, its Relative Form could only be expressed against the infinite number of other commodities.

It should now be obvious that we have reached the point both in history, and in logic where this one single commodity, which has been singled out by society, to act as the general equivalent of all other commodities is the Money Commodity, and its role begins in history, for functioning as Money in society.

The Money Form

Is merely the stage whereby Gold (or occasionally some other precious metal) has become the General Equivalent Commodity, and therefore, the concrete labour required in Gold production represents Abstract Labour. The price form is now 20 yards of linen = 2 oz. Gold, and when gold is minted into a currency with a name such as Pound, we have 20 yards of linen = £2.

Commodity Fetishism

The real relation is not the relation of one commodity to another. This relation – the Value relation – is only possible because they are equally products of human labour in the abstract. It is the quantity of this abstract human labour in each that gives them Value, and enables comparison. But, the actual concrete labour is clearly different in each case. How can it be reduced to Abstract Labour to enable comparison?

...the measure of the expenditure of labour power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour; and finally the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products.” (p 77)

So, the real relation has become inverted. What Marx provides is not just a logical exposition, but an historical account of how real human relations become transformed, into an apparent relation between things. Initially, when Man produces for Man the relation is overt, as some of the anthropological examples demonstrate. If I shoe your horse, you work on my field for the same amount of time. The more the division of labour proceeds and labour is more specialised, the more different types of labour are seen as having more Value than others. I Value your Labour as twice mine so I agree to work for you, for twice as long as you work for me. The more commodity production increases, so that production and consumption are separated, so this connection becomes hidden, because what starts out as just I provide you with 20 yards of linen (comprising 10 hours of my time) in exchange for 1 coat (comprising 5 hours of your time) simply becomes 20 yards linen = 1 coat. We now have a relation between things rather than people. The only way of uncovering the actual relation of the labour employed in each is to look at the actual labour-time employed in each and compare it with the exchange rate between the commodities. But, that will not tell us how this labour compares with all other labour used in producing all other commodities i.e. against Labour in the abstract. It is only when we have a Money Commodity that we have the ability to assign the Labour used for its production to represent Abstract Labour.

The setting of each commodity against this single Money Commodity completes the process by which the real relation between Men is replaced by the relation between things. Now it appears that the Value of a commodity is determined by its relation to Money, whilst the Value of Money is manifest in the quantity of commodities it can command.

Hence, when we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them.” ( p 78)

The Law of Value – the law that the Value of any Use Value is determined by the labour-time required for its production continually asserts itself as a Law of Nature. But, this should not be read as meaning that commodities always automatically do exchange according to this Law. As Marx sets out, even though the labour-time required is constantly changing, the actual exchange rates can remain stable for long periods. It is only when the two become qualitatively different that this manifests itself in a sharp break. He quotes Engels.

What are we to think of a law that asserts itself only by periodical revolutions? It is just nothing but a law of Nature, founded on the want of knowledge of those whose action is the subject of it.” (Friedrich Engels: “Umrisse zu einer Kritik der Nationalökonomie,” in the “Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher,” edited by Arnold Ruge and Karl Marx. Paris. 1844.)” (note 1 p 80)

Marx describes by various means this Law of Nature, the Law of Value, which repeatedly asserts itself through Man's history whatever Mode of Production is applied. He set it out succinctly in his Letter To Kugelmann. In Capital, he provides more detail. He begins with Robinson Crusoe whose labour-time is limited and who in order to maximise the benefit from its use resorts to timing various activities. Marx concludes,

Sedley Taylor accused Marx
of falsifying a comment in
Gladstone's Budget Speech.  It was not
a new charge.  Eleanor Marx later
tore Taylor's accusation apart.
All the relations between Robinson and the objects that form this wealth of his own creation, are here so simple and clear as to be intelligible without exertion, even to Sedley Taylor . And yet those relations contain all that is essential to the determination of value.” (p 81)

he moves on to the European Middle Ages. Here the Law of Value is manifest in a form determined by the relations between serfs and lords etc.

“but every serf knows that what he expends in the service of his lord, is a definite quantity of his own personal labour power.” (p 82)

In the same way that Robinson produced his items within the constraint of the time available to produce the different Use Values, so a community faces the same constraint. What changes with each type of society is not this Law of Value, but the form in which it is expressed, the specific means by which the total labour-time is allocated to produce the Use Values required by the society, and the specific means (which Marx later shows are a function of the way it goes about producing) by which the total product of this society is distributed amongst its members, including, therefore, the way in which any surplus is distributed.

For Robinson, everything produced by him belonged to him. Yet, even then, a proportion had to be set aside to replace what had been used. A proportion of Corn produced had to be set aside for planting, if you want corn again next year. And, if you want to increase output, a proportion has to be set aside for that purpose too. Only what is left is available to be consumed.

The same is true for a society. A proportion of its output remains social because it is required to replace means of production. Another part is used for consumption – means of subsistence – by the members. Different societies will bring about this distribution in different ways, and as soon as a society is able to produce a surplus – to produce more than is required to meet these consumption needs, and to replace the means of production – the potential exists for a section of society to receive the proceeds of this production without itself taking part in production.

On the other hand, it opens the possibility for the establishment of a society in which every individual receives back from society in Value, a proportion of total output, equal to the labour-time they have contributed i.e. proportional to their share of total social labour.

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