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Last time we were introduced to two basic concepts, commodity and use-value. So far the definition of each looks something like this:

commodity: An object of consumption or a means of production (an object of productive consumption) produced specifically to exchange for its value. Definite quantities of congealed labor-time, the objective form of exchange-value. Commodity production forms the basis of the capitalist mode of production.

Use-value: 1. The physical properties, qualities, of a commodity that make it useful, and that are realized in use or consumption; the body of the material form of wealth, which in capitalism is expressed as exchange-value. 2. A piece of natural material adapted to human needs by means of a change in its form.

Woo-hoo! What wonderful definitions these are turning out to be, and we’re only a couple pages into chapter 1. The next matter to discuss is clear. If the expression of wealth in the capitalist mode of production is exchange-value and if use-values constitute ‘the body of the material form of wealth’ expressed, then what is exchange-value? 

“Exchange-value appears first of all as the quantitative relation, the proportion, in which use-values of one kind exchange for use values of another kind” (126).

Exchange-value is how one commodity relates through exchange to any another commodity. This is expressed as a quantity. n paper will exchange for x pencils, y chocolate bars, or z liters of cola. A commodity then has many exchange-values, and these ‘relations change constantly with time and place.’ Nevertheless, all these varying exchange values (the paper to chocoloate, the chocolate to pencils, the paper to pencils, etc.) express something equal. All commodities have the same exchange value in the right quantities.

“…the valid exchange-values of a particular commodity express something equal, and secondly, exchange-value cannot be anything other than the mode of expression, the ‘form of appearance’, of a content distinguishable from it.”

Exchange-value is not a property intrinsic to the commodity, it exists by virtue of a third thing. If we say that 1000 pieces of paper = 10 chocolate bars “It signifies that a common element of identical magnitude exists in two different things….Both are therefore equal to a third thing, which in itself is neither the one nor the other. Each of them…must therefore be reducible to this third thing” (127).

“…the exchange relation of commodities is characterized precisely by its abstraction from use-values. Within the exchange relation, one use-value is worth just as much as any other, provided only that it is present in the appropriate quantity.”

“As use-values, commodites differ above all in quality, while as exchange-values they can only differ in quantity, and therefore do not contain an atom of use-value” (128).

Abstracting from use-value and exchange-value all that is left of the commodity is that it is a product of labor. Abstracted as well, in this process, are the specific forms of labor that went in to producing the commodity.

“It is no longer a table, a house, a piece of yarn or any other useful thing. All its sensuous characteristics are exinguished. Nor is it any longer the product of the labor of the joiner, the mason or the spinner.”

At this level, they are all reduced to the same type of labor –abstract human labor, “human labor-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure”. Commodities tell us that human labor-power was expended in their production, and that human labor is accumulated in them. ‘As crystals of this social substance common to them all they are values -commodity values.’

“The common factor in the exchange relation, or in the exchange value of the commodity, is therefore its value.”

And there we will stop until next time.


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