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Wednesday, February 27, 2013


The quintessential embodiment and presentation of the mystification of capitalism is the commodity, and that, therefore is where Marx begins his analysis.  I am reminded of that lovely old movie, The Gods Must be Crazy, an South African movie.  Here is Wikipedia's rather elegant and compact plot summary:

"Xi and his tribe of San/Bushmen relatives are 'living well off the land' in the Kalahari Desert. They are happy because the gods have provided plenty of everything, and no one in the tribe has unfulfilled wants. One day, a glass Coca-Cola bottle is thrown out of an aeroplane and falls to earth unbroken. Initially, this strange artifact seems to be another boon from the gods—-Xi's people find many uses for it. But unlike anything that they have had before, there is only one bottle to go around. This exposes the tribe to a hitherto unknown phenomenon, property, and they soon find themselves experiencing things they never had before: jealousy, envy, anger, hatred, even violence.  Since it has caused the tribe unhappiness on two occasions, Xi decides that the bottle is an evil thing and must be thrown off of the edge of the world. He sets out alone on his quest and encounters Western civilization for the first time. The film presents an interpretation of civilization as viewed through Xi's perceptions."

Echoing the writings of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Marx observes that a commodity may be understood in two ways, either as a useful physical object capable of satisfying some human need or desire [a "use-value" in Smith's odd locution], or as a quantum of exchange value, as something produced to be exchanged for other commodities in the market, and as having an exchange value determined by how much labor it took to produce it.  As a use-value, the commodity is entirely without mystery.  It is a bushel of corn, or a hammer, or a yard of linen, or a peck of potatoes.  Its ability to satisfy human needs is determined by the laws of chemistry, biology, and physics, and it possesses that ability regardless of where or how it has been produced, regardless of whether it has ever been to market at all.  A coat will warm me, a potato will nourish me, and a bandage will bind up my wound no matter who or where I am.

But a commodity, Marx says, is "a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties,"  for as a commodity, an object is stripped of its natural properties, which matter not at all from the point of view of an economist.  That is why, in Economics textbooks, one never finds the slightest useful information about the types of wool best suited to weaving, or the temperature to which coal must be raised before it will burn, or the number of kilocalories in a Twinkie.  A commodity is an abstract entity, significant solely as a quantum of embodied exchange value.  Sensible of this fact, corporations, in referring to the goods they make and sell in the market, regularly refer to those goods as "product," without even the grace of the definite article [rather in the way that the pretty girls and boys whose faces suit them to appear before the cameras as news readers on a cable news program are referred to as "talent."]

Marx understands [in a way that no one before him did] that a lengthy historical process is required to transform useful objects into commodities, a process that transforms the objects as much as it transforms how we think about them.  In pre-capitalist craft production, the tables and robes and silver salvers made by the craftspeople bear the individuating marks of their distinctive styles of work, just as the food brought to the market carries with it evidences of the farm on which it was grown.  But capitalism requires standardization, so that careful calculations can be made of the costs of production and the profit margins yielded by each quantum of commodity.  Thus we get indistinguishable loaves of bread, shirts, and television sets, the quirks and idiosyncrasies having all been carefully removed by "quality control engineers."  Every MacDonald's Big Mac must have exactly the same indistinguishable "two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun," to quote the jingle that my wife and I would recite as we drove down from the Berkshire hills to Northampton for a MacDonald's lunch.  Eventually, identifiably different loaves of bread or rounds of cheese come to be considered up-scale luxury items produced by artisanal craftspeople for specialty upper-middle class customers.

A corresponding homogenization of productive labor takes place, as traditional crafts give way to routinized factory labor performed in measurably identical temporal units before machines that churn out identical units of product.  Competition reduces the multiform varieties of actual laboring to units of "abstract socially necessary labor."  This is Marx's answer to the question asked in every course by a bright student who wants to know why, if the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of labor embodied in it, is it not the case that slow, lazy, inefficient clumsy laborers embody more value in their products that fast, industrious, efficient, deft laborers.  [I like to think of this as the question why we pay skillful brain surgeons more than we pay brain fumble-fingered brain surgeons who are forever dropping their scalpels and leaving sponges in their patients after the incisions have been sewn up.]

[At this point, I shall incorporate into this narrative some pages taken from Moneybags.  Having managed to say this right once, I see no need to attempt that feat a second time!] 

The development of the concept of abstract labor begins in the opening section of Chapter I of Capital.  We start with concrete particular objects whose natural properties make them capable of satisfying various human wants, and whose existence results from particular concrete acts of human laboring -- specific acts of weaving, sewing, spinning, and so forth.  We "make abstraction from" or "put out of sight" both "the useful character of the various forms of labour" embodied in those physical objects, and also "the concrete forms of that labour."  What is left when we have completed this process of abstraction is merely "what is common to them all," namely "human labour in the abstract."

Thus far, we are describing a familiar process of intellectual or conceptual abstraction, of the sort that is required to bring many concrete instances under one general heading.  But as the chapter unfolds, a series of quite complex conceptual and theoretical shifts take place.  Elaborating on "the two-fold character of the labour embodied in commodities," Marx observes that the coat and the linen in his simple example are, insofar as they are values, "things of like substance, objective expressions of essentially identical labour."  But tailoring and weaving, taking them as actual concrete human activities, are "different kinds of labour."  So if exchange is based on equating the quanta of abstract labour whose concrete instantiations are quite diverse, some sort of process of real abstraction must take place.

There is a linguistic oddity in Marx's discussion which, if we subject it to a strenuous construal, is revelatory of a very profound and important conceptual shift.  Marx says not that the coat and the line have value, but they are values.  Now this is a peculiar diction.  We might at first be inclined to treat "the coat and the linen are values" simply as elliptical for "the coat and the linen are objects that have value."  But that would be a mistake.  To say that the coat and the linen, qua commodities, are values is to say that the coat and the linen, qua commodities, are not natural objects at all.  Indeed, it signals the possibility that commodities, strictly so-called, are not substantives, save in a quite superficial grammatical sense, and that, in the language of the logic I learned as a boy, they are syncategorematic terms that can be defined only by explicating the contexts in which they characteristically appear.  If this is the case, then the question "what is a commodity?," would be grammatically misleading, and the "correct" answer, namely, "a commodity is a crystallization of abstract homogeneous socially necessary labour," would be thoroughly metaphysically misleading.


Bjorn said...

Isn't it "The Gods Must Be Crazy"?

Great film, though.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

You are right, of course. I will change it right away.