Sunday, February 2, 2014

Commodities and World

The whole first chapter focuses on the relationship between private individuals (their use and production of material things) and the web of society that acts on the individuals both prior to and after that labor. What society does prior to the individual is provide a meaningful world: it teaches the individual how to understand the things and their uses—what is good to eat, how to make linen or coats, why have coats to stay warm and not snuggies or anoraks or those chemically activated handwarmer packets or whatever. It shows the individual what is useful/meaningful in that culture and place. Then the individual does her magic on the world, takes a thing, applies her specific and particular labor, and objectifies herself as a product: 20 yards of linen, a coat, 100 mass produced snuggies, a few jars of homemade bourgeois applesauce. Then society gets to work again, and starts its free-market weighing of things—exchanging them for other forms of labor, for porridge or mukluks or BeyoncĂ© albums. This is the “world of commodities”—which is really, it seems to me, a world of human uses which is always appearing (Capital 155). Through this process of exchange, the things reveal their dialectic nature: they all contain each other negatively because they can all be exchanged for each other in varying proportions—this is their “two-fold nature” (152). And its because of the people. Money is the realization of that abstract property of equivalence. Prior economic systems mostly functioned by C-M-C exchange and circulation. Capitalists turn money into commodities to turn it into more money, harvesting the worker’s surplus labor.

I find especially interesting the beginning of the section of commodity fetishism where Marx points out some of the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” of things we exchange. He talks about how labor transforms wood into tables, from a sensuous thing into a thing which “transcends sensuousness” (163). To explain this odd occurrence, which is “nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things” he points us to religion and fetishism (165). But doesn’t this whole concept complicate his earlier claim of a material conception of history, and the vulgar Marxist version of history? I know this resonates with our discussion last week, and certainly with the formal qualities of dialectic thinking, but I’m still unsatisfied with the idea of a giving material things primacy, of that being the thesis and social interactions be the antithesis. What about the socialness of the world that Marx keeps acknowledging? How do we know that’s not the thesis and the material world is the antithesis? Am I just being too Heideggerian for Marx? Do my questions here even make sense or am I just importing skepticism as a brainwashed apologist for capitalism? What do you think Jameson say, and is this just me understanding hegemony wrongly?


  1. I have to concur that there is room to question Marx's (over?)reliance on the material. While I think that his metric of value (time of labor needed for production) offers interesting insight into how and where profit is generate, his steadfast assertion that money must also be measured by a strict interpretation of this metric seems to open the door for the more subjective influences on valuation.

    Specifically, he repeatedly argues that money must be linked to a physical thing (most often gold or silver, see footnote 1 on page 189 for an example or 223-225). He asserts this is because the process of mining and smelting gives the mineral value. However, while the US -- and much of the rest of the world -- have left the gold standard, currency seems to function and fluctuate much in the way he describes. Without some material backing, currency becomes only a symbolic representation of value. This seems to suggest that there is some level beyond the pure material that valuation is allowed to occur.

  2. I was also considering this complication within Marx's thought, especially with his notion (in both "Value, Price, and Profit" and Capital) of value being a "crystallization" of specifically "social labour" that is determined by "social average conditions of production, with a given social average intensity" (Value, Price, and Profit, VI). Thought of in this way, it seems value becomes solely dependent on relations-- between both the workers to other workers and to the machines with which they work. As a result, we cannot think about the value of a commodity without giving primacy to the social conditions (at least in terms of how society functions in relation to production). While still in the material realm, this seems to call into question what triad Marx is analyzing; aren't we actually moving down the dialectical rabbit hole instead of ascending it?


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