Sunday, March 22, 2009

Karl Marx: Capital: A Critique of the Political Economy Chpt. 1, Section 1

Capital: A Critique of the Political Economy
by Karl Marx.

Karl Marx published the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867. Marx died in 1883 before he had completed editing Volumes II and III, and these volumes were published by his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels in 1885 and 1894 respectively. I’ve not read this book before. So without further advance research, without preconception (other than that it became an influential book for communist thought), I will dive in. In order to assure careful reading, and purely for my own discipline and pleasure, I will keep a log of this book at this blogspot. I hope you will find it entertaining and that my review will also prompt some thoughts along the line that the reader may care to share.

So without further ado . . . let’s get started.


Chpt. 1, Section 1: “The Two Factors of a Commodity: Use-Value and Value (i.e. the Substance of Value and the Magnitude of Value).

1. The wealth of society in capitalist system presents itself as the sum total of all commodities.

2. A commodity is a thing that satisfies some human want. I.e. a thing for which there is a market. Marx discusses, and seems to acknowledge that the exchange value for a thing (market price) is set by supply and demand, and that this exchange value is independent of both the objective usefulness of a thing and the labor that went into producing it.

3. Marx then posits a grand bartering scheme where a bushel of wheat can be exchanged for so much gold, so much iron or, so much milk, etc. ad infinitum. Each commodity a similar multitude of exchange values. Marx presents this as a problem: he suggests that there must be some common denominator to all these myriad different exchange values. For us, money comes to mind: the dollar or whatever currency you want to use. However, that’s not what Marx has in mind. Here is what he says:

“Let us take two commodities, e.g. corn and iron. The proportions in which they are exchangeable, whatever those proportions may be, can always be represented by an equation in which a given quantity of corn is equated to some quantity of iron. . . What does this equation tell us? It tells us that in two different things (x amount of corn and y amount of iron), there exists in equal quantities something common to both. The two things must therefore be equal to a third, which in itself is neither the one nor the other. Each of them, so far as it is an exchange value, must therefore be reducible to this third.”

Yes, the common currency, money, right? No . . . labor. All commodities take labor to produce. The labor used to create a commodity is a value independent of its exchange value. Whatever the exchange value (supply and demand) such value would not exist but for the labor that went into creating the thing. Therefore, the value of a commodity is equal to the labor hours required to produce it.

Marx here is clearly not speaking of market price value. Marx acknowledges that Market price value is a function of supply and demand and is completely independent of the labor that goes into it. Rather, Marx is postulating a grand normative, prescriptive, and entirely theoretical notion of value: the value of a thing in society should be measured by the number of hours of productive labor that is required to make the thing.
“[A ] useful article has value only because human labor in the abstract has been embodied or materialized in it. How then is the magnitude of this value to be measured? Plainly, by the quantity of the value-creating substance, the labor, contained in the article.”

A corollary of this position recognized by Marx is that as the means of production become more efficient, he mentions the power loom, the value of a thing decreases together with the reduction in labor required to produce it. Something useful, like air, water, oil in the ground, that requires no human labor has no value.

Marx concludes by emphasizing the normative nature of his conception: “If the thing is useless,” he says, and we might well ask “useless” in whose eyes, then “so is the labor contained in it; the labor does not count as labor, and therefore creates no value.”


This first section is couched in terms of a logical argument: that somehow the conclusion of labor being an irreducible value inherent in all things is compelled by logic. Marx provides no justification in this chapter why there should b e a connection between the amount of labor that goes into the production of a thing and its inherent social value. Although there is surely a connection between the cost of production and labor, the farther one gets from clearly useful and necessary commodities like iron, ore, copper, and agricultural products, the less self evident the thesis becomes. Although Marx imports a normative basis for this system of values, he does not yet begin to address how to determine the use-value of a thing and who gets to say so (if not the market).

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