The following is the first part of some notes on chapter one of Capital. The second part will follow in the upcoming months.


The Dual Character of the Commodity is the Dual Character of Labor

Marx begins chapter one of Capital by describing the dual character of the commodity. One side of the commodity is defined by how it is used. Marx calls this “use-value.” He defines use by how the commodity “satisfies human needs of whatever kind” (125). The idea of “human needs” plays an important role in Marx’s thought and takes on a number of interrelated meanings. In the German Ideology he argues “The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. And indeed this is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history” (47). Throughout history human beings have produced things, or “uses,” to address their basic and expanded needs, which gives rise to particular forms of society, specific kinds of social relations and subjectivities.

When looked at as merely a use, the commodity is indistinguishable from the process of satisfying needs as a general characteristic of all human societies. So, as various kinds of uses to fulfill our many needs, commodities “constitute the material content of wealth, whatever its social form may be.” However, Marx concludes in Capital that a commodity takes on characteristics that are specific to capitalist society, which only becomes clear when he looks at the other side of the commodity: exchange. “In the form of society to be considered here [in Capital] they are also the material bearers of exchange value” (126).

The production of uses to satisfy needs in capitalist society takes a specific form of exchange. While historically there have been other types of exchange, these reflected non-capitalist forms of society. One of Marx’s tasks is to show how the form of exchange in capitalism, and therefore the social relations or form of that society is historically unprecedented and something new.

So the tendency for the production of uses to satisfy needs to take on a specific form of exchange is the other side of the commodity. What form does this exchange take place in capitalism? “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). As Marx explains:

The totality of heterogeneous use-values or physical commodities reflects a totality of similarly heterogeneous forms of useful labour, which differ in order, genus, species and variety; in short, a social division of labour. This division of labour is a necessary condition for commodity production….Only the products of mutually independent acts of labour, performed in isolation, can confront each other as commodities (132).

Marx suggests that we can only understand the capitalist form of society if we grasp how the creation and use of something for need is related to the need for exchange specific to capitalism. It is important how Marx characterizes these “acts of labour” as “mutually independent,” and yet “isolated” from each other. Under capitalism our association with each other is not only one in which we are alienated from each other, but we are also alienated from our many-sided needs, from are many-sided activity. In the capitalist form of society we, in general, only perform one task, separate from all others. Since we cannot satisfy them, we must exchange to satisfy our many needs. Marx writes, “A thing can be useful, and a product of human labour, without being a commodity. He who satisfies his own need with the product of labour admittedly creates use-values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use-values, but use-values for others” (131).

The commodity is therefore not a thing, but a social relation. It is the relation between the labor for use and the labor for exchange. For Marx social relations are relations of labor and the commodity is the form of labor in capitalist society. Marx argues that the dual character of the commodity is also, at the same time, the dual character of labor in capitalist society.

However, before we get into the dual character of labor, the commodified form of labor, it is worth taking a step back for a moment and looking at what Marx exactly means by “labor.” This is critical because if you don’t understand his concept of labor in its philosophical dimensions you cannot grasp Marx’s concept of the human being and therefore his notion of freedom and liberation.

Labor as Self-Activity

Marx says, from a certain perspective, labor for use or need transcends history. It is the fundamental condition of the human being irrespective of any particular form it takes in a given historical period. He writes, “Labour, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labour, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man an nature, and therefore human life itself” (133). What does it mean that labor mediates “human life itself”?

Marx already began to explore the idea of labor as metabolism in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. In “Estranged Labor,” Marx says if “free, conscious activity is man’s species-character,” then “Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness.” Unlike an animal, which is “immediately identical with its life-activity,” the human being “has conscious life activity” (76). In other words, where animals are bounded by nature, human beings are defined by a different relationship to nature. As a “species-being” they are able to apply their powers of imagination to nature and themselves thereby altering both in significant ways according to their conscious intention.

To be sure, like the animal world, “man is a part of nature,” “Man lives on nature….which he must remain in continuous intercourse if he is not to die” (76). However, because human beings are consciously separated from the natural world, but part of a bodily continuum with it, in reproducing themselves they must transform nature and their own selves and its conditions of life. In doing so, according to Marx, the human being constantly transforms nature and itself into “an objective world by his practical activity.” The metabolic process of “labor” is the realization of the imagination in material forms, the constant and alchemic transformation of nature and oneself (76). The creation of the social world and oneself is the consequence and process of self-activity, which is the essence of the human being. Marx writes, “The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created” (77). In the end, self-activity—the metabolic process—in its ideal state, unrestrained by any forms that do not correspond to its essence, is the state of freedom. For the human being the criteria of liberation must be, Marx concludes, “his own life is an object for him. Only because of that is his activity free activity” (76).

Of course, as Marx makes clear, we do not exist in this state of “free activity,” where our “own life is an object” for ourselves. The reason is the prevailing form of social relations or the social division of labor. In The German Ideology, Marx argues that human beings “distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence.” Here the objectification of self-activity—as he puts it in “Estranged Labor”—takes on a specific social form or organization to produce the uses in order to fulfill human needs. Marx calls this a “mode of production.” However, “This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part” (37). It is a form that mediates the totality of self-activity and the social organization of that self-activity at a given historical moment. The mode of production, a “mode of life,” is the form of existence that mediates self-activity, human labor and essence.

It follows that history, then, is the process and narrative of the successive forms—mode of production, mode of life—that self-activity takes. It is the way in which self-activity is diverted from being “free activity,” and how the metabolic process, the objectification of oneself in the world, creates its own prison, realizes itself in forms that closes off the totality of its potential powers and expression. It is the process whereby the development of the totality of the human personality, the realization of its many-sided powers and needs, becomes disfigured and stunted. The forms it takes or through which it is mediated alienate the content of human activity from itself. Communism is both the constant movement of this content towards the self-abolition of its alienated forms in which it takes shape—such as the proletariat—and the state of freedom where this content—our many-sided self-activity—establishes its corresponding socio-political form in which it finds expression and development.

A valuable picture of Marx’s concept of the human being emerges behind the concept of labor that is at the absolute center of Capital and all his work. “Labor” cannot be understood reductively as an economic category, but has to be grasped in its philosophical dimensions as transformative (metabolic) self/social activity. Marx is not writing “political economy” he is negating it as hopelessly trapped in the categories of capitalist society.

Social Relations and Value

Returning to chapter one of Capital, Marx asks how can these alienated, isolated individuals, producing a single use, reproducing themselves as a one-sided activity, be interrelated and thereby produce the many kinds of uses necessary for their reproduction as a whole? He identifies labor—the “metabolic” process—as the “common
element” which makes the exchange of varied uses, separated as isolated activities, possible.

What does Marx mean? If human beings are unique in that they “produce their means of subsistence” they may do so only collectively. The “means of subsistence,” a “mode of production” is, then, as he puts it in The German Ideology, necessarily a “mode of co-operation” (49). Through this co-operation we come into being as social individuals, existing as relations of “mutual interdependence of the individuals among whom the labour is divided” (52). Our consciousness is constituted by “the necessity of associating with the individuals around” us (49). Society, therefore, is the relations of the interdependent self-activity of its many members. In Capital, Marx argues that this common activity is broken up into separate, atomistic activities, though the exchange of these activities is vital in order to reproduce society and us. With the social division of labor the exchange of our activity—our mutual interdependence—must be mediated by, or take place through, a form that expresses this mutual and internal alienation. Separated from the other kinds of activity that are necessary to fulfill our many-sided needs, the activity of others and the “uses” they create must come to us in this alienated form. Within in these capitalist social relations the commodity—as a relation to our self and others—represents the form of how this interaction is achieved.

Marx says, “the exchange relation of commodities is characterized precisely by its abstraction from their use-values” (127). He indicates that at the end of this process of abstraction there is not “an atom of use-value” as the use loses its “material constituents and forms that make it a use-value” (128). Though it is the specific qualities of a use—what makes it useful—which isolated individuals need, in order to obtain them they must do so through a form exchange where “[a]ll its sensuous characteristics are extinguished.” Marx is clear though—and I’ve already emphasized this above—since the commodity is a form of labor, a form of self-activity, the transformation of labor for use, for needs, into the necessary labor for exchange involves, ultimately, an alienation into something Marx calls “value.” He describes the movement this way:

All its sensuous characteristics are extinguished. Nor is it any longer the product of the labour of the joiner, the mason or the spinner, or of any other particular kind of productive labour. With the disappearance of the useful character of the products of labour, the useful character of the kinds of labour embodied in them also disappears; this in turn entails the disappearance of the different concrete forms of labour. They can no longer be distinguished, but are all together reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the abstract. Let us now look at the residue of the products of labour. There is nothing left of them in each case but the same phantom-like objectivity; they are merely congealed quantities of homogenous human labour, i.e. of human labour-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure. All these things now tell us is that human labour-power has been expended to produce them, human labour is accumulated in them. As crystals of this social substance, which is common to them all, they are values—commodity values. (128)

Something happens to our living metabolic process or self-activity, where its concrete, particular and “sensuous characteristics” take on the features and experience of being “abstract,” “congealed” and “homogenous.” The specific qualities of self-activity and labor are reduced to a mere quantity Marx calls “value,” which takes on a “phantom-like objectivity.” He makes this equation explicit when he says that value is “human labour…objectified” (129). This is a critical transition in only the first few pages of Capital.

In “Estranged Labor,” Marx describes the same transition he does here between concrete, living labor (activity for use and need), and abstract, dead labor (activity for exchange and value). We have to recall that for Marx human essence is the objectification of oneself in the creation of the social world through conscious intention. To the extent this activity or metabolic process takes a social form that corresponds to this essence, it can be characterized as “free activity.” However, in capitalism this process of objectification of oneself is dramatically inverted through the value-form, the commodity-form, which is the social form of capitalist society. As he writes in “Estranged Labor,” here

the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation. (71)

Self-activity is no longer the realization of the object of our imaginations through the transformation of nature, and us, but our realization as objects determined by social imperatives not of our own choosing. It is for this reason that society (and ourselves) feels like an external force that determines or controls us from without. In The German Ideology, Marx again connects the material organization of society to the form its “metabolism” takes: “as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape” (53). Our “own deed” reproduces the form of our own objectification, our own imprisonment in the form of existence of the proletariat. The world takes on a “phantom-like objectivity” because it is nothing but our own ghostly self-activity trapped in the dead body of the commodified, value-form.

When Marx writes about the process of abstraction in the production of value, he is addressing the fact that not only the “sensuous characteristics [of the use] are extinguished,” but also our “sensuous” relationship to others and ourselves as well. It is the case because these relationships are mediated abstractly by value, taking the form of exchange-value. Therefore we experience a loss of “sensuousness” by being separated from our self-activity and mutual relations. We lose concrete, bodily contact with and conscious control of the object of our activity by being converted into an object ourselves—one object, abstracted from our essence, among many others in the capitalist social world of commodities.

That value is human activity “objectified,” according to Marx, takes on a specific character that is a unique consequence of the social division of labor in capitalist society. Individual labor, isolated within a single activity and use, becomes social labor only through the form of our abstract relations with each other reflected in this capitalist division of labor. Value is not a thing. It is the unity or relation of all our individual activities that are at the same time separate from each other because of the capitalist division of labor. Therefore the universal necessity of mutual social relations, as well as our essential self-activity as total and many-sided, can only have in capitalism a necessary unity through value. Thus, as Marx puts it, the “total labour-power of society, which is manifested in the values of the world of commodities, [merely] counts here as one homogenous mass of human labour-power” (129). Value is the sum of all our interrelated self-activity within the form of the capitalist social division of labor—the form our social relations take in capitalist society. Separated from each other and ourselves, yet bound together, the process of mutual self-activity must be conducted through the form of value, that is, exchange measured by the criteria of value.

Since value is a relation and not a thing we can’t see it. It takes form only in the objects produced (uses) as a result of our commodified interactions. In this situation our metabolic process is reduced to—or takes the form of—a merely quantitative relation that Marx calls “socially necessary labor time.” It is the “labour-time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society” (129). Labor time in capitalist society is marked by its own “socially necessary” measure of our mutual activity of what something is “worth” and therefore determine on what basis or value it will exchange. Value becomes the normative social standard that dictates our existence. What is “socially necessary” under capitalism is the organization of society and our labor to produce value and, specifically, surplus value for the capitalist. Therefore our relations our mediated by, or reduced to the abstract form of “exchange-values,” as “commodities [that] are merely definite quantities of congealed labour-time” (130). If the “common element” that makes the exchange of uses possible at all is our mutual self-activity, it takes the alienated form of an abstraction called value: “The common factor in the exchange relation….is therefore its value” and “exchange-value [is] the necessary mode of expression, or form of appearance, of value” (128).

Value and the Reproduction of Alienation

The implication that value is human labor “objectified” is important to dwell on, even if it only becomes more clear in section four. I will discuss it more fully when looking at that section, but a brief note is helpful now in order to understand value. In “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx argues we must “conceive human activity itself as objective activity.” This idea is further developed in “Estranged Labor,” where he says that self-activity is a process where, through the interaction with others and nature we objectify ourselves by reproducing in material form our imaginations. In The German Ideology, Marx writes that this process only emerges collectively as a social process, what he refers to as the social relations of production.

Value is the inversion of this process. The objectifying “metabolic process” ends up being one where we become objectified. The social relations of production have been turned against us, existing as something seemingly external. Yet, as the commodity relation shows, it is also not outside of us. The relationship between use and exchange is dialectical, a unity of opposites, making them mutually dependent upon each other. The need for uses compels us to exchange. Exchange is only possible because what is being exchanged is needed or useful. In capitalism the content of human needs constantly reproduces the form of our objectification. Our own metabolism provides the fuel, so to speak, for the system to function. Our activity, then, objectifying or reproducing ourselves in the world, returns to us as a “phantom-like objectivity,” which is the living content of human activity embodied in the dead form of the commodity relation and value (128). This return of the living dead, existing as we do in a world haunted by our own ghostly presence, a world somehow made by us but without our control and behind our backs, is not an illusion. It is real and “objective.” We exist as value and, at the same time, we do not. We are the proletariat and, at the same time, an essence that constantly struggles toward the abolition of the alienated social forms we take in capitalist modernity.

By measuring social necessary labor time, value mediates the equivalence between different types of labor and the total of all our collective self-activity taken as a whole. It also embodies the abstract, alienated quality of our interactions within the form of capitalist social relations. Finally, it is the abstract power of capital that reduces our capacity to labor—our metabolic process—to the one single goal of producing surplus value for the capitalist. Value becomes detached from use and the necessary satisfaction of human needs, coming to impose its own logic and its own needs. The mode of production becomes separated from the means of subsistence, imposing a logic that is becomes antithetical to human needs.

Thus we must produce to sell, and we sell according to social necessary labor time, to the value of our labor power that is coerced out of us in this particular form through the control of the means of production by the capitalist. Value becomes for Marx, in a transition from the individual producers, the nightmarish self-reproducing, totalizing social power of capital itself. It is the inverse of the many-sided potential of our self-activity and collective humanity, in short, of human freedom, creativity and collective wealth. Marx is speaking here of the objective and objectifying logic of capitalist society, that point in which value as an autonomous, self-reproducing relation determines the life-activity of society and ourselves as a whole. The realization of human powers is of no concern from the standpoint of capital and the capitalist. In terms of class struggle, which is immanent in the categories of chapter one, but not developed until later in Capital, the capitalist embodies the relentless imperatives of value, and organizes society and its reproduction through determining what is socially necessary labor time, which measures our lives on a daily basis.

Value as the Inverted Form of Our Expanding Creative Powers

However, given that value depends upon living labor, in the end it cannot detach itself from the metabolic process of human beings. If it tries to separate itself, then the capitalist system would break down. Therefore Marx ends section two on this critical point. Despite its apparent power to reproduce itself and destroy the world and us to achieve its own seemingly autonomous ends, value cannot escape its dialectical relation with living labor. This is clear in the dialectical relationship between use and exchange as the two poles in the commodity relation, the embryonic relation of capitalist society.

Marx says that since value is objectified living labor, it does not find its source in changing technology of machines designed to increase productivity. That too is produced by living labor, now materialized as dead labor, objects that have no meaning or function accept in relation to living activity. Marx writes that “the greater the productivity of labour, the less the labour-time required to produce an article, the less the mass of labour-crystallized in that article, and the less its value. Inversely, the less the productivity of labour, the greater the labour-time necessary to produce an article, and the greater its value.” Therefore, Marx concludes, “The value of a commodity represents……Simple average labour….More complex labour counts only as intensified, or rather multiplied simple labour, so that a smaller quantity of complex labour is considered equal to a larger quantity of simple labour” (135).

There are important implications here for the understanding of the relationship between labor and value. Marx goes onto explain:

In itself, an increase in the quantity of use-values constitutes an increase in material wealth. Two coats will clothe two men, one coat will only clothe one man, etc. Nevertheless, an increase in the amount of material wealth may correspond to a simultaneous fall in the magnitude of its value. This contradictory movement arises out of the twofold character of labour. By ‘productivity’ of course, we always mean the productivity of concrete useful labour; in reality this determines only the degree of effectiveness of productive activity directed towards a given purpose within a given period of time. Useful labour becomes, therefore, a more or less abundant source of products in direct proportion as its productivity rises or falls. As against this, however, variations in productivity have no impact whatever on the labour itself represented in value. As productivity is an attribute of labour in its concrete useful form, it naturally ceases to have any bearing on that labour as soon as we abstract from its concrete useful form. The same labour, therefore, performed for the same length of time, always yields the same amount of value, independently of any variations in productivity. (136-137)

The “twofold character of labour” in capitalism—the essence of the commodity form—means that only concrete human activity can put to use or realize abstract value embodied in those uses. The less time it takes to make each use means, therefore, there may be more uses, but each one contains less value. To realize more value the capitalist must expand, “intensify” and “multiply” productivity, inevitably leading to increased exploitation. Value remains irrevocably attached to concrete human labor.

The implications are profound and there is a terrible irony here. Greater productivity dramatically expands our power to produce uses and satisfy needs. However, the new social, cooperative and individual dimensions of this new expansive power remain only a potential, struggling within and against the form of production for value. Instead, in the inverted world of capitalism, increased productivity leads to the general immiseration of the proletariat. Marx is thinking here of the kind of contradiction he sees at the heart of capitalist modernity. In “Estranged Labor,” Marx says, “the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production” (69). Rather than the expanded powers of humanity, we have the “intensified” and “multiplied” powers of capital. As Marx argues again in “Estranged Labor,” for the worker, “the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own….the more powerful labor becomes, the more powerless becomes the worker” (72-73).

Such a vision by Marx of our existence in capitalist society is echoed in the relationship between productivity and concrete labor in the passage quoted above from Capital. “By ‘productivity’ of course, we always mean the productivity of concrete useful labour,” Marx writes. Therefore “variations in productivity have no impact whatever on the labour itself represented in value. As productivity is an attribute of labour in its concrete useful form, it naturally ceases to have any bearing on that labour as soon as we abstract from its concrete useful form” (my emphasis). In capitalism, knowledge and tools that enable productivity are separated from concrete labor. Yet as objects of the expanding wealth and capacity of human society they are produced by concrete labor. The collective wealth—the alchemic, expanding and “multiplying” powers of our imaginations and its materialization around and within us—is instead appropriated by capital. In the inverted world of value, humanity’s collective wealth is used to “intensify” and “multiply” its exploitation. The value-form renders this as a separation: a separation between means of subsistence and means of production, manual and mental labor, subject and object, form and content. In the end we are unable to appropriate the expanding powers, objects and social world we create, which is instead appropriated by the capital and the capitalist as surplus value. As Marx concluded at the end of The German Ideology, the objective reality and “necessity” of communism flows from the daily logic of the struggle to achieve such a reappropriation, an explosion of the value-form of existence as the proletariat:

Thus things have now come to such a pass that the individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces, not only to achieve self-activity, but, also, merely to safeguard their very existence. The appropriation of these forces is itself nothing more than the development of the individual capacities corresponding to the material instruments of production. The appropriation of a totality of instruments of production is, for this very reason, the development of a totality of capacities in the individuals themselves. This appropriation is further determined by the persons appropriating. Only the proletarians of the present day, who are completely shut off from all self-activity, are in a position to achieve a complete and no longer restricted self-activity, which consists in the appropriation of a totality of productive forces and in the thus postulated development of a totality of capacities. (96)

4 thoughts on “Notes on chapter one of Marx’s Capital, Part One

  1. Your reading of Marx is amazing! So critical, double-backing on multiple nuances of Marx’s thought. Thank you so much! *Wish for more!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *