The exchange value of a commodity -- or, more precisely, the exchange value in virtue of which a commodity is a commodity, the exchange value that constitutes the commodityness of a commodity -- is a crystal of abstract homogeneous social labor. The quantum of exchange value congealed or crystallized in each commodity can neither be seen nor felt nor smelt nor tasted. This homogeneous, infinitely divisible, nonsensory stuff, this value, is contained in the products of labor as a consequence of their being produced by workers hired by capitalists in a system of market exchange regulated by competition. In the production process, portions of this stuff congealed in previously produced commodities are transmitted or passed on to newly produced commodities. As the spindle turns, it smoothly, invisibly, magically passes on infinitesimal bits of its value to the thread that collects around it. When the spindle breaks and must be discarded, it is emptied of its crystals of value, exhausted, spent -- unless of course it has yet some resale value as a used spindle, in which case it will be found to have held back a little cache of its secret value to bring, as a dowry, to its new owner.
The passionate aim and single-minded purpose of the hard-headed businessmen from Manchester and Liverpool, London and Sheffield, is to accumulate as much of this transcendent ectoplasmic stuff as possible, as fast as possible. They want it, not for its attractive and gratifying sensory qualities -- for it has no sensory qualities at all -- but for its magical ability to increase in quantity. They want it, that is to say, so that they may get more of it, which they want in order to get more still. When they grow old and weary, these metaphysical entrepreneurs may decline into sensation, and cash in their crystals of value for inferior things of the flesh, for houses and clothes and rare paintings. But so long as they are young and vigorous, they shun all such temptations and pursue the holy grail of self-expanding value.
What can Marx possibly have in mind by advancing so manifestly absurd an account of the commodity? That he does consider this theory of "crystals of abstract homogeneous socially necessary labor" to be absurd is demonstrated by the language in which he chooses to expound it. The chapter on commodities, in which this extraordinary doctrine is introduced, is strewn with religious metaphors. Marx sets himself to trace the "genesis" of the money form of exchange value. As coats and linen change and exchange in a ghostly minuet, the linen, he says, "acquires a value-form different from its physical form," an echo of the miracle of transubstantiation. "The fact that [the linen] is value," Marx observes, "is made manifest by its equality with the coat, just as the sheep-like nature of a Christian is shown by his resemblance to the Lamb of God."
Lest there be any reader so insensitive to even the broadest mockery as to imagine that this account of the inner essence of commodities is meant literally as a straightforward description of what makes anything a commodity, Marx breaks the ironic tone of his discourse momentarily, near the end of the chapter, to tell us that such talk is deranged, crack-brained, crazy -- verrückt:
If I state that coats and boots stand in relation to linen because it is the universal incarnation of human labour, the craziness [die Verrücktheit] of the statement is self-evident. Nevertheless, if the producers of coats and boots compare those articles to linen, or, what is the same thing, with gold and silver, as the universal equivalent, they express the relation between their own private labour and the collective labour of society in the same deranged form.
Why does Marx persist in speaking in a language that he himself characterizes as crazy? Marx gives us the essential clue in the very next paragraph. "The categories of bourgeois economy," he says, "consist of such like forms. They are socially valid, hence objective forms of thought for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of production., i.e., commodity production."
They are socially valid, HENCE objective. In this phrase is encapsulated Marx's revolutionary theory of the objectively crazy [or contradictory] nature of capitalist social reality, and the radically new epistemological, mathematical, and literary standpoint following therefrom. What does it mean to say that crazy forms of thought are socially valid, and hence are the objective forms of thought for commodity production?
Consider the concept of the commodity with which Marx begins Capital. As natural being, a commodity is a material object with a variety of physical, chemical, and other properties which make it more or less useful in the satisfaction of human needs. But a commodity is not, qua commodity, a natural object. A commodity is a quantum of value. Its natural properties are accidental and irrelevant to its true inner essence, which is the crystal of abstract homogeneous socially necessary labor that lies concealed within it.
This is an absurd notion, as should by now be obvious. But Marx insists that it is nevertheless a socially valid notion, and hence an objective form of thought for those participating in and theorizing about the particular social relations of production and exchange characteristic of capitalism. Let us see exactly what this means.
Economic efficiency demands that both entrepreneurs and merchants abstract entirely from the natural properties of the commodities they produce and sell, attending only to their exchange value. [Those of a literary turn of mind may wish to look at the hilarious old novel by Paul Goodman, Empire City, and in particular the scene in which Eliphaz, Goodman's splendid send-up of mercantile capitalism, trades away his dinner table in an advantageous deal even as his family is eating dinner, leaving them with their plates in their laps as workman come into their elegant Fifth Avenue apartment to cart the table away.] The prudent capitalist cannot allow his economic decisions to be influenced by his normal human responses to the accidents of his wares. The tailor in love with his worsteds is no better than a whiskey priest drunk on sacramental wine. A sensuous affection for fine cloth, lingering on from a precapitalist craft pride, may incline him to a more costly suiting than the market demand justifies. Soon he will be driven to the wall by rational tailors whose fingers are numb to the feel of good wool, but whose metaphysical consciousness can discern the exact quantum of value in each yard of goods.
The sense are too coarse to apprehend the miracle of self-expanding value. No mechanic, however keen his eye, can perceive in the bustle of an automatic assembly line the measure of its profitability. Only the accountants, those eremites of capitalism for whom all sensory qualities fall away to reveal the transcendent crystals of value, can discern whether a firm is earning an appropriate rate of return on the value of its invested capital. Romantic entrepreneurs, enticed by the stench and heat and fire of the blast furnaces, will soon yield place to the Pythagoreans of the market, for whom only numbers are real.