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Karl Marx. Photo: Wikipedia

Karl Marx. Photo: Wikipedia

Understanding Marx's Capital requires a clear grasp of his analysis of the commodity, writes Matthew McManus

While his early works were more explicitly theoretical in nature, Capital represents the mature application of Marx’s theories to the giant subject matter he took on. Understanding Marx, therefore, means looking at how his theoretical ideas and concepts developed when he was at the peak of his intellectual powers, and rigorously dismantling the tensions which wrought the capitalist order.

Capital is a book of epic scope, both in its subject matter, and (occasionally to its misfortune) in its length. Despite this, Marx begins his mature analysis of capitalism with an analysis of a rather small and seemingly less important feature of the economy: the commodity.  While this might at first seem counter-intuitive, there is a dialectical cunning to Marx’s decision. Through the microcosm of the commodity, he will unpack the mysteries of the production process and the inner quantitative and qualitative relations which underpinned bourgeois theories of exchange and value.  While doing so, he draws heavily on the theoretical and methodological architecture developed in the Grundrisse, demonstrating its theoretical tenability in application. 

In the capitalist social form we live in a world of commodities: computers, games, chocolate bars, fast food, televisions and on and on.  But what is a commodity? What gives it value?

Early modern political economists such as the mercantilists and to some extent the physiocrats were largely disinterested in questioning the notion of value with any persistence.  The first person to do so, by Marx’s own acknowledgement, was Adam Smith, who not coincidentally began the Wealth of Nations with a chapter on the production of pins, a very basic commodity if ever there was one.  Smith developed what has become known as the adding up theory of value, which maintained that the value of a commodity could be quantified by considering the value-added of differing forces.  This approach was highly unsystematic, a problem which was rectified by David Ricardo, who was the second great influence on Marx next to Hegel.  Ricardo argued that all value originated from the labour which was embodied within it.    

“That this (labour) is really the foundation of the exchangeable value of all things, excepting those which cannot be increased by human industry, is a doctrine of the utmost importance in political economy; for from no source do so many errors, and so much difference of opinion in that science proceed, as from the vague ideas which are attached to the word value.  If the quantity of labour realized in commodities, regulate their exchangeable value, every increase of the quantity of labour must augment the value of that commodity on which it is exercised, as every diminution must lower it".

Value and Commodity Fetishism

Marx appropriated this claim and developed it to a greater level of sophistication in Capital.  He argued that traditional political economy saw value as originating from two sources: a commodity had an objective “exchange” value, and a subjective “use” value.  This might appear paradoxical, but it was a key point in the development of commodity fetishism.  Use value was subjective because it related back exclusively to what people wanted, in themselves.  Exchange value, on the other hand, determined the ascribed value an object came to possess because of its status in a given social form.

This is a key point for Marx, and also one which (occasionally ambiguously) relates to issues far beyond the economy.   It is the ascribed value given to commodities in an exchange system that least individuals to fetishize them.  This led individuals to fetishize objects affiliated with tremendous exchange value, even where they themselves had little interest in or need for them, and can lead to many paradoxical results, such as the famous water/diamond paradox.  While the use value of water is immeasurably higher, diamonds are fetishized to an almost fantastic degree because of their affiliation with wealth and social power. This produces stunted individuals in the grip of alienation, and who attempt to compensate for this through ascribing almost magical powers to material objects. Take another example of the fashion industry, and the clothes that are draped on to mannequins of almost inhumanly perfect aesthetic proportion.  While superficially we might think we are simply buying the clothes that are draped on them, our fetishistic attachment actually runs much deeper. We covet the lifestyle and social power that are associated with them, and are disappointed when we realize that no object can actually give us the satisfaction we so covet in an alienated world. This, of course, leads to ever greater consumption.[1]

Modern people tended to fetishsize commodities by only regarding them from the narrow perspective of their exchange, in abstraction from the world which produced them.  Here we see Marx incorporate his earlier arguments about alienation into his now systematic approach.  Modern people do not see themselves as the producers of commodities and their value. 

“If I state that coats or boots stand in a relation to linen because the latter is the universal incarnation of abstract human labour, the absurdity of the statement is self-evident.  Nevertheless, when the producers of coats and boots bring these commodities into a relation with linen, or with gold or silver (and this makes no difference here), as the universal equivalent, the relation between their own private labour and the collective labour appears to them in exactly this absurd form.  The categories of bourgeois economics consist precisely of forms of this kind. They are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production i.e commodity production.  The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour on the basis of commodity production, vanishes therefore as soon as we come to other forms of production.”[2]

Against this vulgar conception Marx maintained that underlying the exchange and utility concepts of value was a social qualitative and quantitative relationship which existed between labourers and owners.  To understand the value of a commodity we cannot just examine it at the superficial level of an interaction between buyers and sellers.  We need to understand the dialectical circumstances by which a commodity was produced.

Marx understood the exchange value of a commodity as ultimately arising from the socially necessary labour time that was invested in it.  A commodity’s value could be measured by looking at how much labour power had been invested in it over time, taking into account also the labour invested in the tools and machines a labourer used in the production process.  This conceptualization of the labour theory of value was conceived an economic law which held for all given times and places.  But this implied an important question: if labour was always what gave commodities their exchange value in all historical epochs, what differentiated the capitalist mode of production from those of other epochs?

This is where one moves from the apparently small-scale examination of the commodity, which is the seed from which will sprout Marx’s mature theories on history and the nature of production.  The commodity embodies in its tensions the totality of dialectical movements which brought about its birth.  Marx’s approach to the dialect of history[3] suggests that while much changes, there are also important constants throughout its sweep.[4]  It is here that Marx introduces one of his most important mature theoretical concepts: that of exploitation, and the ideological frameworks which emerge to justify it.

There is no space here to elaborate on the theory of exploitation, which also assimilates dimensions of Marx’s earlier work on alienation.  Part of the grandeur-and frustration!-of Capital is its systematic application of a theoretical architecture that has been worked out earlier and so isn’t presented in the main book.  My focus here has simply been to present a brief analysis of Marx’s theory of the commodity, which appears at the beginning Capital and remains an ideal theoretical concept with which to begin examining Marx’s mature work.  In these final paragraphs, I’ll simply suggest two ways that his analysis of the commodity remains essential for left wing thinkers.

Firstly, Marx’s analysis of the commodity demonstrates the continuing relevance of alienation, both within his own work and for left-wing thinkers generally.  He urges us to think of why so many people, even those with money and the power to acquire commodities, remain dissatisfied and anxious within the capitalist social form. This is because the social function of commodities is not to provide happiness, but to compel further consumption.  We acquire commodities only to realize that they cannot provide the gratification promised. But rather than turning to reflect critically on our social system, we instead are driven to consume more and more.  Many may even feel that the problem lies with them, which engenders ideologies such as the “American dream” of the hard-working white individual with two cars, two houses, and two kids, and the corollary narrative about the lazy poor who are to blame for their situation.  The lie of this narrative is exposed by the cyclical recessions to which capital is prone, and which lays off millions of workers, who may none the less blame themselves for their situation and turn, as always, to consumption as a self-defeating escape.

Secondly, Marx’s analysis of the commodity demonstrates how one can have a critical theory without engaging in the hyper skepticism of what Badiou calls’ post-modern democratic materialism.[5]  We must assert the truth of what a commodity actually is: simply a material object in the world-against its ideological fetishization.  This gesture has tremendous power to push against capital. But Marx simultaneously is dialectical in his approach to this truth.  We must always recognize that it is not enough to simply point out that a commodity is simply an object; the tension is that many will see this as one level, while still fetishizing it a deeper, unconscious one.  The challenge of decoupling these is essential for left-wing thinkers.


[1] Zizek routinely points out that this is why the true materialist must go further than simply pointing out the reality of commodity fetishism and its ideological dimensions. Traditional materialists would say, “you see this as a piece of cloth, but the reality is that you really see it as an object with magical powers.” Zizek’s lesson is that a deeper materialism goes a step further and claims “this piece of cloth you perceive as having magical powers is really just that, a piece of cloth.” There is no magic behind the curtains. See Slavoj Zizek. The Sublime Object of Ideology. (London, UK. Verso Press, 2009)

[2]Karl Marx. Capital Volume I: A Critique of Political Economy. (London, UK. Penguin Classics, 2004) at 169.

[3] How much agency individuals have in this process is a difficult question.  Marx’s account seems to have remained that “men make their own history…but they do so under circumstances existing already.” See Karl Marx. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans. (New York, NY. International Publishers, 2008), 1. This strikes me as philosophically unsatisfying, but perhaps this is where we need to go beyond Marx.

[4] My account here is informed by Cohen. See G.A Cohen. Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. (Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press, 2001) 

[5] See Alain Badiou. Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II, trans. Alberto Toscano. (London, UK. Continuum, 2009), 2

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