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Labor is embedded in products and ultimately finds its expression as value – a language of the exchange of commodities. Labor here takes on a characteristic other than when it is simply the creator of a product. In order to create a product the labor is and must be applied with particular tools and a particular activity set to achieve particular results. This aspect of labor Marx calls ‘useful labor’ – ‘labor for whose utility is represented by the use-value of the product’. Whenever we see a coat that implies a process of textile production, we might imagine a person and a sewing machine; when we run a computer application that implies a process of software design and computer manufacture.

Is there maybe a better term than ‘useful labor’? The term implies the existence of a ‘useless labor’, which is not really the case and not, I think, an intended implication. The closest thing I can imagine coming to ‘useless’ labor in the jargon of political economy would be ‘unproductive labor’ by which is meant labor that does not produce commodities and therefore does not produce surplus-value (we’ll get to this term later), such as domestic servants. I am at a loss for a better term, but at any rate this is the aspect of labor related to the use-value of the object produced.

If we take all these different types of labor as a totality we wind up with a particular division of labor, the distribution of people producing throughout time, space, and task. Division of labor is a precondition for commodity production. Once the division of labor is such that something like tailoring becomes a special trade the relationship between the coat and the labor that produced is altered.

“Labor, as useful labor, is a condition of human existence independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself” (133).

The physical bodies of commodities are made of two things: material and labor. The use-value of the commodity is a result of both the labor and the material upon which the labor worked. In most cases labor applies itself to an object which has been worked on before. A coat and fabric have different use-values and exchange values as does a computer without programming versus a consumer ready PC. Depending on the division of labor, the type of labor that made the fabric or the coat/the computer with and without programming could be performed by the same person or by any number and distribution of workers. Furthermore, there is an element of demand in the level of supply of some types of labor.

Whether the coat or computer were made by one person or by many, it is clear that the ‘more complete’ commodity will carry a higher value. But the quality, the particular usefulness of the labor objectified in the commodity, is not relevant to this movement from a lesser to a greater value. The linen and the coat; the two types of computers will still exchange each one for any other in the right quantities. Again, we are brought back to the fact that all of these commodities represent an expenditure of human labor power.

“Tailoring and weaving, although they are qualitatively different productive activities, are both a productive expenditure of the human brains, muscles, nerves, hands, etc., and in this sense both human labor. They are merely two different forms of the expenditure of human labor-power” (134). All labor has it in common that it structures part of the concentration and consumption of our organism.

We must make a distinction, however, between two types of human labor-power: simple labor and complex labor. The distinction is fairly clear. Simple labor is the (potential) expenditure of labor power possessed in the organism of every ordinary person of a given society. Complex labor is simple labor intensified or multiplied in some manner. When dealing with value at the present level of abstraction we pressuppose a common denominator between the value of/created by the simple and complex. For the time being all forms of human-labor power will be considered simple labor. If both the fabric and the coat take the same amount of time to produce the coat will have twice the value of the fabric.

Labor, in reference to use-value, ‘useful labor’, counts only qualitatively; with reference to (exchange) value it counts only quantitatively when it is reduced to simple labor. Since the amount of value represented by the commodity is the common factor of simple labor all commodities can exchange in the right proportions. One would need a lot of pencils to buy a computer, but that does not change the fact that pencils and computers do in fact exchange for each other albeit via money metamorphosis. Clearly more pencils and more computers means a greater accumulation of use-values as commodities and therefore an increase in material wealth, HOWEVER, this may correspond to fall in the rate of value. If there are a lot more coats it implies something changed regarding the productivity of labor.

Labor then comes to have this twofold character:

1. An increase in productivity reduces the value of a commodity

2. A decrease in productivity increases the value of a commodity

“On the one hand, all labor is an expenditure of human labor-power, in the physiological sense, and it is in this quality of being equal, or abstract, human labor that it forms the value of commodities. On the other hand, all labor is an expenditure of human labor-power in a particular form and with a definite aim, and it is in this quality of being concrete useful labor that it produces use-values” (137).

Next time…’the value form, or exchange value’


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