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Friday, April 2, 2021



My Interpretation of the Thought of Karl Marx


Part Five: The Mysterious Nature of Commodities


(I refer interested readers to my book Moneybags Must Be so Lucky for a more detailed discussion of what follows.)


In the simple case to which Marx is restricted himself in volume 1, commodities according to Ricardo exchange in proportion to the quantities of labor required directly or indirectly for their production, or what came to be called “embodied labor.” But if we think about that for a moment we realize there is a very elementary problem. Suppose that we are talking about the exchange of 10 yards of woolen cloth for a wooden chair. The labor required to produce the woolen cloth is quite different from the labor required to produce the chair. Making the woolen cloth involves shearing sheep, washing and drying wool, carding the wool, spinning it into thread, weaving the thread into cloth, and cutting the cloth into a piece 10 yards long. Making the chair involves sawing wood, turning it on a lathe, sanding it, nailing it or joining it with pegs, and so forth. Clearly if we are to compare the labor that produced the cloth with the labor that produced the chair we must abstract from all of these differences. So at the very least, we must be claiming that the wool and the chair exchange in proportion to the quantities of abstract labor required for their production.


Now then, Marx writes in the famously mysterious section 4 of chapter 1 The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof, “when I state that coats or boots stand in a relation to linen, because it is the universal incarnation of abstract human labor, the absurdity of the statement is self-evident.” Marx goes on: “nevertheless, when the producers of coats and boots compare those articles with linen, or, what is the same thing, with gold or silver, as the universal equivalent, they express the relation between their own private labor and the collective labor of society in the same absurd form.”


But even this is not enough to capture what is mysterious about Ricardo’s seemingly transparently clear theory. For not all abstract labor counts when we are comparing boots and linen or wool and chairs. Suppose that a chair has been made by an apprentice carpenter who has not yet learned the trade. That young man (carpenters were always men in those days) might spend 10 hours making a chair that a master carpenter could make in five. The buyers of chairs in the market would laugh at a carpenter who charged a higher price for chair because it had taken his apprentice longer to make. Only such labor as is “socially necessary” at any given stage in technological development counts when calculating the relative price of goods in the marketplace. Indeed, the problem is more complex even than I have suggested. Suppose that the carpenters making the chairs are averagely expert in their woodworking skills but find themselves under the direction of a novice manager who has not yet mastered the technique of combining the labor available to him in an averagely efficient manner. The time spent by the carpenters making the chairs may be devalued not because of any lack of skill on their part but because of problems elsewhere in the firm.


Thus, when Ricardo says that in the simple case (remember, we are still in volume 1) goods exchange in proportion to the quantities of labor directly and indirectly required for their production, he must be interpreted as actually meaning (although he himself failed to recognize this fact) that goods exchange in the market in proportion to the quantities of abstract socially necessary labor embodied in them.


Such talk is, Marx argues, thoroughgoingly mystified but, he insists, we must not commit the error of supposing that it is therefore mistaken. Quite to the contrary. In the paragraph immediately following the one from which I quoted above, Marx writes “the categories of bourgeois economy consists of such like forms. They are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite historically determined mode of production, viz., the production of commodities. The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labor as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore, so soon as we come to other forms of production.”


What does Marx mean when he says that this absurd form of thought has social validity? His meaning is profound and goes to the heart of his critique of capitalism. The form of thought whose absurdity he has just revealed has social validity both on the side of the capitalist and on the side of the worker. This mode of thought has social validity for the capitalist because only by conforming his thought and action to it can he function in a competitive marketplace and earn the going rate of return on his investment. If he makes the mistake of thinking of these commodities actually as useful objects made by the labor of real men and women and designed to satisfy human needs, he may become distracted by the reality of the factory or workplace and find himself lavishing more labor on a fabric than will be justified in the market by the price he can get for it. As I say in Moneybags, he will become like a tailor seduced by the feel of fine cloth between his fingers or like a whiskey priest drunk on sacramental wine.


On the side of the workers, the necessity that they stifle their natural desires, instincts, and creative efforts in their labor in order to work steadily, efficiently, and in a fashion that produces an adequate profit for their employers will of course have a severely destructive effect on their human being. But in so far as they yield to that necessity and even embrace it, they will be sought after by employers, praised by their families as good workers, blessed by their priests, and even publicly celebrated as Stakhanovites. 


Thus the capitalist way of viewing productive labor, assumed without question by Ricardo or the other classical Political Economists, is a form of thought that has, in Marx’s felicitous phrase, “social validity,” despite being absurd.


Jerry Brown said...

This is probably not the exact same thing as you (or Marx) are talking about, but maybe there are some similarities that would help me understand. So I am a carpenter-contractor so to speak. Occasionally I will get requests to build say a bookcase that would fit in a specific space in someone's home. Maybe that space is 41 and 1/2 inches wide and they would like it to be built in for that particular space. So I will give them an estimate of what it will cost them to have me build their particular bookcase and it is shockingly high compared to the somewhat similar 42 or 36 inch bookcase they can order from stock at Home Depot or Ikea or where ever. Which I can't do anything about since a lot of time just the raw materials cost to me to make it (let alone my time and labor) is more than what they are selling that finished product for.

Its kind of disheartening because I like making things like bookcases. Well I sort of lost wherever I was trying to go here with this comment but I will post it anyways and hopefully it won't distract you too much.

Dave Powell said...

This description now and I suspect even in Marx's time does not reflect reality for workers: "..the necessity that they stifle their natural desires, instincts, and creative efforts in their labor in order to work steadily, efficiently and in a fashion that produces an adequate profits tor their employers.." Production surely depends on the steady output of workers, but most workplaces encourage suggestions and ideas that would improve efficiency. The input of those most engaged in the process is a great source of innovation. Openness to such suggestions is always a boost to general morale. All the emphasis on "Corporate Culture", backed by prizes and promotions turns on this.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Dave Powell, if that is really what you believe, you might want to spend some time reading the parliamentary factory inspectors reports submitted by Leonard Horner and his associates and cited at length by Marx.

s. wallerstein said...

In my varied experiences in workplaces there is almost always some assistant manager or supervisor who first of all, doesn't give a fuck about your ideas and suggestions, whose chief pleasure in life seems to be to break your spirit and your balls, to humiliate you, to show you that he or she is in charge. The goal is, first of all, to enslave you and to
make as much money as possible, but second of all, to exercise power for the pure pleasure of power, as much Nietzschean as Marxist. The natural desires, instincts and creative efforts of labor don't count at all.

I've worked as professor in two public institution of higher education, one in the U.S. and one in Chile and there the experience was more positive.

Dave Powell said...

There's no doubting that the life of the factory worker in the 19th century was miserable for the great majority. Horner's descriptions are certainly awful. Does he really address the phenomenon of workers making suggestions about the process and getting sadistically humiliated for it as S. Wallerstein describes? I can't find that. I guess I was thinking of Robert Owen who is famous for introducing the idea of trust between workers and management, so workers having input in the process was at least not unknown.

s. wallerstein said...

Dave Powell,

You might want to take a look at this interview with Elizabeth Anderson, a philosopher, not a Marxist, but a liberal. Anderson studied work situations in contemporary United States and finds them to be tyrannous. I agree with her.

LFC said...

I looked again at ch. 1 of Capital, and on this kind of "look" (i.e. admittedly not an extremely close study) there seem to be some problems, for lack of a better word, in the exposition.

Just to take one example, M. says "the absurdity of the statement is self-evident," but is it? M. himself sees commodities as, among other things, repositories of "congealed" labor, which is really all that the statement he says is absurd amounts to.
More perhaps to the point, the explanation of exploitation and profit (surplus value) offered later in vol. 1 seems to depend on some of the same assumptions that he calls "absurd" (albeit "socially valid") here.

Does he perhaps want to have it both ways? On the one hand, he says at the end of ch.1 that bourgeois economists' formulas "bear the unmistakable stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite..." On the other hand, he will use these formulas to explain, or help explain, the source of profit (and the character of exploitation).

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