Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On the Charechteristics of Commodites and Its Implications

On this note, I would like to play devil’s advocate. The point I made below has been haunting me for a while. I have not reached a conclusion yet. It would be great to hear your ideas.

It is obvious that the treatment of commodities is very crucial for whole Marxian theory. So, Marx spends a lot of time in explaining it. While he investigates the secrets of commodities he also begins laying down the concepts of his grand theory. At the beginning, when he investigates the nature of commodities, he makes an interesting move. He put great emphasize on exchange value and abstract from use value although he brings use-value to the picture later. I feel that this would be more problematic than is seems to be.

He argues that “if then we leave out of consideration the use value of commodities they have only one common property left, that of being products of labour”.
He iterates this position later in the same page:
He goes on saying: “We have seen that when commodities are exchanged, their exchange value manifests itself as something totally independent of their use value”p.46

Indeed, this move seems to be necessary to argue that:
“There is nothing left but what is common to them all are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract” which is the foundation of labour theory of value.

But, at the end of the section 1 of Chapter 1 Marx reaches the conclusion that “to become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use value, by means of an exchange.) Lastly nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labor contained in it; the labour does not count as labour , and creates no value.”

In this sense, he closes the circle and argues that “being the object of utility” is the necessary condition for defining commodity. This means that, as he clearly accepts, commodities have two common characteristics: i) they are products of labor and ii) they are subject of utility. Therefore, his earlier move (abstraction) which puts all the emphasis on the fact that a commodity is a product of labour, seems to be a choice rather than a necessity. I feel that this opens a possibility of discussion that the value of a commodity cannot be defined independent of the fact that it is a subject of utility. If one introduces this (utility) at an earlier stage, the theory of value may have different form.

1 comment:

Ian J. Seda Irizarry said...

Hi Hasan,

Sorry for the late reply but I completely forgot about this given the raki and Efes that I've been drinking in your beloved country!

I guess Rosdolsky's (The Making of Marx's Capital) observation that Sweezy, in his Theory of Capitalist Development, contributed to this notion that Marx is not interested in utility/use value because it doesn’t constitute a social relation (I don't have the book here in Turkey, but he says something like this) still resonates. The funny thing is that Sweezy becomes an “obscurantist” in Marx's own words: “Only an obscurantist who has not understood a word of Capital...can conclude [that] use value plays no role in [the] work”. And well, in Grundrisse he is very specific: “use value falls within the realm of political economy as soon as it becomes modified by the modern relations of production, or as ir, in turn, intervenes to modify them”- Check the article “The Active Role of ‘Use Value’ in Marx's Economic Analysis” by Groll for the quotes. I think that, for example, in articulating theories of crises, this issue of use and exchange values has to be connected (my joke is that no matter what the topic is, a good marxist must be able to always tie the discussed topic to the much referred contradiction between use and exchange values).

I think Sweezy's interpretation comes from Hilferding's reply to Bohm Bawerk's attack on the so-called inconsistency of Vols 1 and 3- Sweezy translated and edited that exchange (along Bortkiewitz appropriation of Marx)for a book but I can”t remember the title.

In terms of the beginning of Capital with commodities, I've always thought that such a strategy is tied with laying out the evident. Its an ontological statement that wants to start the analysis on very firm ground. Literally look around and see this; things that were produced, not for direct consumption of the producer but for exchange. From this there are may ways to go. (i.e. theoretically, historically, both, etc). And of course in terms of specifying the capital-wage relation within the capitalist mode of production it makes sense. We talk about commodities, we distinguish labor from labor power within the labor theory of value (Marx identifies this as one of his main contributions), and from there we develop the theory of surplus value, talk about exploitation, the form it takes within capitalism (surplus labor becoming surplus value) etc.

It seems to be pretty straightforward, but Marx seems to always emphasize that what seems to be straighforward isn't. That is where the students of Lukacs, like István Mészáros, put a lot of emphasis on commodification and its relation to alieanation, estrangement and other concepts that many post-althusserians consider to be part of the “idealist” baggage that supposedly Marx struggles to get rid of in his quest towards science (paradoxically, Althusser and post-althusserians struggle between themselves about this). And well, that is were money represents such an example. And I'm not talking about any metaphysical thing. Silvia Federicci's book Caliban and the With has a great example, where she talks about struggles during feudalism about the size of the surplus and how the introduction of money, (and the furthering division of labor) obscured the terms of such struggles (my surplus of 5 bags of potatoes was evident before). I could express my surplus in terms of use-values, now I try to express it in terms of exchange value and everything gets fucked. It's like measuring GDP. That's where I get melancholic and like Trotsky's and Lenin's analysis where many times its not about exchange value but about use-values, i/e. Number of tractors, horses, tools etc.

The point is that for me all of this discussion just proves how rich Marx's contribution is, which also explains its potential for going into so many directions. And of course, who doesn't like his sense of humour:-).