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.