From the Loomio for the 2020 Zoom study group on Capital volume 1

Comments on: exchange-value and value; “universal social labour”; labour; social relations and material relations; labour vs labour-power; productive and unproductive labour; commodity fetishism.

Exchange-value and value

My response: Exchange-value, I think, is price. Marx develops the distinct term exchange-value only because he wants not to assume that money exists right from the start. He will show in chapter 1 section 3 that a fully-developed and comprehensive system of exchange-value must separate out one commodity (as money) from the others (not money). (Well, maybe, though Marx did not anticipate this, two or three commodities; but usually just one commodity). Once he has developed money as part of the theoretical “model”, exchange-value simply is price. Value is something not just quantitatively but qualitatively different: it is a quantum of social labour-time, not a quantum of money. Marx believes (largely assumes, in fact, as most economists did then) that price is roughly proportional to value, but emphasises that the social representation of value via price is erratic and “inaccurate”.

“Universal social labour”

Matt C writes: I did not remember the use of the term “universal social labour” being in the Critique. I wasn’t going to bring it up there (its side issue and not one that would have clarified anything). (Having had a look, in the Critique, Marx uses both the term abstract and universal, I think what happened is the term universal in this context is dropped in Capital, with some of its meaning being incorporated into an extended definition of abstract and the residue ending up as socially necessary).

My response: I was thinking of the following passage (quite early on in the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy): “the different kinds of individual labour represented in these particular use-values, in fact, become labour in general, and in this way social labour, only by actually being exchanged for one another in quantities which are proportional to the labour-time contained in them. Social labour-time exists in these commodities in a latent state, so to speak, and becomes evident only in the course of their exchange. The point of departure is not the labour of individuals considered as social labour, but on the contrary the particular kinds of labour of private individuals, i.e., labour which proves that it is universal social labour only by the supersession of its original character in the exchange process. Universal social labour is consequently not a ready-made prerequisite but an emerging result.”

That’s p.45 of the Lawrence and Wishart edition. In the original German:

“In der Tat werden die individuellen Arbeiten, die sich in diesen besondern Gebrauchswerten darstellen, nur zu allgemeiner und in dieser Form zu gesellschaftlicher Arbeit, indem sie sich wirklich gegeneinander austauschen im Verhältnis ihrer Zeitdauer. Die gesellschaftliche Arbeitszeit existiert sozusagen nur latent in diesen Waren und offenbart sich erst in ihrem Austauschprozeß. Es wird nicht ausgegangen von der Arbeit der Individuen als gemeinschaftlicher, sondern umgekehrt von besondern Arbeiten von Privatindividuen, Arbeiten, die sich erst im Austauschprozeß durch Aufhebung ihres ursprünglichen Charakters, als allgemeine gesellschaftliche Arbeit beweisen. Die allgemein gesellschaftliche Arbeit ist daher nicht fertige Voraussetzung, sondern werdendes Resultat”.

Matt C said that in referring to Marx’s usage “universal social labour”, in the 1859 Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, I was mixing up abstract labour and socially-necessary labour.

I think, in fact, that abstract labour is socially-necessary labour. Abstract labour is labour reduced to pure quantity of time, and the quantity is the time required by the average worker to do the job, not the individual labour-time.

I think that is what Engels was referring to in his introduction to Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital:

And so, classical political economy found that the value of a commodity was determined by the labour incorporated in it and requisite to its production. With this explanation, it was satisfied. And we, too, may, for the present, stop at this point. But, to avoid misconceptions, I will remind the reader that today this explanation has become wholly inadequate. Marx was the first to investigate thoroughly into the value-forming quality of labour and to discover that not all labour which is apparently, or even really, necessary to the production of a commodity, imparts under all circumstances to this commodity a magnitude of value corresponding to the quantity of labour used up. If, therefore, we say today in short, with economists like Ricardo, that the value of a commodity is determined by the labour necessary to its production, we always imply the reservations and restrictions made by Marx.

(Emphasis added).

In the Contribution Marx uses several different terms for what, in Capital, he refers to by the single term “abstract labour”. Actually, I think his switching back and fro between several different terms makes it easier to understand what he is getting at.

“Uniform, homogeneous, simple labour” (p.29)

“The same homogeneous labour” (p.29)

“Abstract general labour” (p.29)

“Simple, homogeneous, abstract general labour” (p.29)

“Labour… reduced to simple labour, labour, so to speak, without any qualitative attributes… specifically social labour” (p.30)

“Uniform, homogeneous, simple labour” (p.30)

“One day of skilled labour may equal three days of simple labour…. simple average labour” (p.31)

“Uniform simple labour implies first of all that the labour of different individuals is equal and that their labour is treated as equal by being in fact reduced to homogeneous labour” (p.32)

“Universal labour-time” (p.32)

“Abstract universal labour” (p.34)

“Universal labour” (p.34)

“Equal and universal labour” (p.35)

“Abstract universal and uniform labour” (p.36)

“Labour in general, and in this way social labour” (p.45)

“Labour which proves that it is universal social labour only by the supersessio of its original character in the exchange process. Universal social labour is consequently not a ready-made prerequisite but an emerging result” (p.45)

See also the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, written in the same period as the Critique, but not published then,

“Labour seems a quite simple category. The conception of labour in this general form – as labour as such – is also immeasurably old. Nevertheless, when it is economically conceived in this simplicity, ‘labour’ is as modern a category as are the relations which create this simple abstraction… This abstraction of labour as such is not merely the mental product of a concrete totality of labours. Indifference towards specific labours corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labour to another, and where the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence of indifference. Not only the category, labour, but labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form. Such a state of affairs is at its most developed in the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society – in the United States. Here, then, for the first time, the point of departure of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category ‘labour’, ‘labour as such’, labour pure and simple, becomes true in practice”. (Grundrisse p.103-5)

I’d add that to make sense of Marx’s argument about labour becoming abstract labour only through exchange, we have to understand it as routine labour processes routinely becoming abstract labour only through routine exchange. A baker’s daily hours become abstract labour by their imbrication in social relations where loaves are produced and sold routinely, not only minute by minute as individual loaves are (or are not) sold.

In our discussion on 11 April, Matt C also stressed the immateriality of value.

Marx put it this way:

Capital ch.1 sec.3

The reality of the value of commodities differs in this respect from Dame Quickly, that we don’t know ‘where to have it’. The value of commodities is the very opposite of the coarse materiality of their substance, not an atom of matter enters into its composition… The value of commodities has a purely social reality…

I would add that by this Marx does not mean that the reality of value is only fictional and conventional. After all, he stresses elsewhere that capital is a social relation, not a thing, and he doesn’t mean by that if you just close your eyes and force yourself not to think about it, then capital will evaporate.

An issue here, I think, is that the divide between “material” and “immaterial” is nowhere near as clear as some Marxists think when they glibly talk about “historical materialism”. The same point is made clear in a different way by modern physics, especially quantum theory (Why Things Are the Way They Are, B. S. Chandrasekhar, is the book I’ve found best for my school students to start understanding that).

Capital vol.2 ch.4

“Value,” argues Bailey against the acquisition of independence by value, an independence which is characteristic of the capitalist mode of production and which he treats as an illusion of certain economists; “value is a relation between contemporary commodities, because such only admit of being exchanged for each other.”

This he says against the comparison of commodity-values of different epochs, a comparison which amounts only to comparing the expenditure of labour required in various periods for the production of the same sort of commodities, once the value of money has been fixed for every period. This comes from his general misunderstanding, for he thinks that exchange-value is equal to value, that the form if value is value itself; consequently commodity-value can no longer be compared, if they do not function actively as exchange-values and thus cannot actually be exchanged for one another. He has not the least inkling of the fact that value functions as capital-value or capital only in so far as it remains identical with itself and is compared with itself in the different phases of its circuit, which are not at all “contemporary” but succeed one another.

Theories of Surplus Value, ch.17

The comparison of value in one period with the value of the same commodities in a later period is no scholastic illusion, as Mr. Bailey maintains, but rather forms the fundamental principle of the circulation process of capital.

Theories of Surplus Value, ch.20

Bailey is a fetishist in that he conceives value, though not as a property of the individual object (considered in isolation), but as a relation of objects to one another, while it is only a representation in objects, an objective expression, of a relation between men, a social relation, the relationship of men to their reciprocal productive activity.


“[In the future society] direct labour time itself cannot remain in the abstract antithesis to free time in which it appears from the perspective of bourgeois economy. Labour cannot become play, as Fourier [an early socialist] would like, although it remains his great contribution to have expressed the suspension not of distribution, but of the mode of production itself, in a higher form, as the ultimate object. Free time – which is both idle time and time for higher activity – has naturally transformed its possessor into a different subject, and he then enters into the direct production process as this different subject. This process is then both discipline, as regards the human being in the process of becoming; and, at the same time, practice [Ausübung], experimental science, materially creative and objectifying science, as regards the human being who has become, in whose head exists the accumulated knowledge of society. For both, in so far as labour requires practical use of the hands and free bodily movement, as in agriculture, at the same time exercise.”

Grundrisse again (chapter 12)

“Really free working, e.g. composing [music], is at the same time precisely the most damned seriousness, the most intense exertion. The work of material production can achieve this character only (1) when its social character is posited, (2) when it is of a scientific and at the same time general character, not merely human exertion as a specifically harnessed natural force, but exertion as subject…”

One could just as well have said that only in society can useless and even socially harmful labor become a branch of gainful occupation, that only in society can one live by being idle, etc., etc…

Critique of the Gotha Program (criticism of a socialist program of 1875)

[The program said: “Labor is the source of all wealth…”]

Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power… The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission.

[Second part of the paragraph in the program: “Useful labor is possible only in society and through society.”]

[Thirdly: “Useful labor is possible only in society and through society, the proceeds of labor belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society.”]

A fine conclusion! If useful labor is possible only in society and through society, the proceeds of labor belong to society – and only so much therefrom accrues to the individual worker as is not required to maintain the “condition” of labor, society.

In fact, this proposition has at all times been made use of by the champions of the state of society prevailing at any given time. First comes the claims of the government and everything that sticks to it, since it is the social organ for the maintenance of the social order; then comes the claims of the various kinds of private property, for the various kinds of private property are the foundations of society, etc. One sees that such hollow phrases are the foundations of society, etc. One sees that such hollow phrases can be twisted and turned as desired.

Capital vol.1 ch.1 (a footnote, p.46 of Moore-Aveling translation, p.137 of Penguin edition)

“In order to prove that labour alone is that all-sufficient and real measure, by which at all times the value of all commodities can be estimated and compared, Adam Smith says, “Equal quantities of labour must at all times and in all places have the same value for the labourer. In his normal state of health, strength, and activity, and with the average degree of skill that he may possess, he must always give up the same portion of his rest, his freedom, and his happiness.” (“Wealth of Nations,” b. I. ch. V.) On the one hand Adam Smith here (but not everywhere) confuses the determination of value by means of the quantity of labour expended in the production of commodities, with the determination of the values of commodities by means of the value of labour, and seeks in consequence to prove that equal quantities of labour have always the same value. On the other hand he has a presentiment, that labour, so far as it manifests itself in the value of commodities, counts only as expenditure of labour power, but he treats this expenditure as the mere sacrifice of rest, freedom, and happiness, not as at the same time the normal activity of living beings. But then, he has the modern wage-labourer in his eye”.

Social and material relations

Hi All,

Basic one…

Both of the term ‘social’ and ‘material’ relations came up in the discussion today and I realised I do not know what they mean.

Would anybody be able to help define the terms here before I turn to Google?

Good session today, thanks.



When Marx contrasts “social relations between things” and “material relations between persons”, I think he means:

• relations between things which are as if constituting a “society” of things (i.e. of commodities) – relations which exist in and are defined by only that society

• relations between people which work through material things (commodities, and, in fact, money, though he hasn’t brought money into it yet), rather than direct social relations between people (i.e. people relating to each other, benignly, malignly, whatever, as people, in a society of people)

In the original German, by the way, the phrase “material relations between things” is rendered “sachliche Verhältnisse”, and “sachlich” is more like “factual” than “material”. The Penguin translation renders it as “material [dinglich]”, so presumably there is some German version which has “dinglich”, something like “corporeal”. The French edition (which Marx edited line-by-line) omits the “material relations with persons” bit altogether. The usual German equivalent for the English adjective “material” is “materiell”. In short, best not to puzzle too long about exactly what “material” means here. The grey area between “material” and “immaterial” is large, and I don’t think Marx ever looked at that grey area very much.

Mark: That seems like a nice simple definition, thanks.

I might try and re-read the relevant parts and see if it gives me a better understanding.

Thanks again

Martin: Again on what is “material” and what is not (from some notes I wrote a while back).

in Marx’s theory of capitalist production, many of the basic realities are not “material” in the sense of being physical and tangible.

Value (congealed labour-time) has a “phantom-like objectivity”. Price is an “ideal form”. Capital is not a thing, but a social relation. And so on.

A glance at modern science confirms that the definition of material reality is not straightforward. Many everyday things are not measurable. Area can never be measured, only calculated, and in fact for every physical expanse we can calculate only the area of some geometric (“ideal”) approximation. Many lengths (coastlines, for example) cannot even be approximated, let alone measured. It is in principle impossible to measure both the position and the momentum of a sub-atomic particle simultaneously and exactly.

Some everyday “real” things are quite intangible: a kilowatt hour, for example, or a bit of computer software. Some elementary particles, photons for example, have no mass.

I don’t know how to clarify this, and puzzling over it here would be a diversion. Some relevant points do follow, though.

We should not take “materialism” to mean that only physical, tangible, measurable things are underlying reality.

Commodities are not necessarily physical and tangible. Most of the examples of commodities which Marx cites are physical (linen, iron, and so on), but he also cites labour-power as a commodity, and later on in Capital he cites a teacher in a fee-charging school (selling education as a commodity) as an example of a capitalistically productive worker.

Value (congealed labour-time) and price (exchange-value) are both realities, at different levels, and neither is quite “tangible”.

When Marx writes about appearance and essence, both appearance and essence are real – rather as a table-top is both “really” flat and solid, and “really” a swarm of whizzing electrons with vast empty spaces between them.

Labour versus labour-power

A bit from Marx’s Grundrisse (a sort of rough draft of Capital)

The exchange between capital and labour… splits into two processes which are not only formally but also qualitatively different, and even contradictory:

(1) The worker sells his commodity… for a specific sum of money… (2) The capitalist obtains labour itself.. the productive force… which thereby becomes… a force belonging to capital itself…

Instead of aiming their amazement in this direction — and considering the worker to owe a debt to capital for the fact that he is alive at all, and can repeat certain life processes every day as soon as he has eaten and slept enough — these whitewashing sycophants of bourgeois economics should rather have fixed their attention on the fact that, after constantly repeated labour, he always has only his living, direct labour itself to exchange…

The worker cannot become rich in this exchange, since, in exchange for his labour capacity as a fixed, available magnitude, he surrenders its creative power, like Esau his birthright for a mess of pottage. Rather, he necessarily impoverishes himself… because the creative power of his labour establishes itself as the power of capital, as an alien power confronting him. He divests himself of labour as the force productive of wealth; capital appropriates it, as such…

The productivity of his labour, his labour in general, in so far as it is not a capacity but a motion, real labour, comes to confront the worker as an alien power; capital, inversely, realizes itself through the appropriation of alien labour.

The worker emerges not only not richer, but emerges rather poorer from the process than he entered. For not only has he produced the conditions of necessary labour as conditions belonging to capital; but also the value-creating possibility, the realisation which lies as a possibility within him, now likewise exists as surplus value, surplus product, in a word as capital, as master over living labour capacity, as value endowed with its own might and will, confronting him in his abstract, objectless, purely subjective poverty. He has produced not only the alien wealth and his own poverty, but also the relation of this wealth as independent, self-sufficient wealth, relative to himself as the poverty which this wealth consumes, and from which wealth thereby draws new vital spirits into itself, and realizes itself anew.

After production, [labour capacity] has become poorer by the life forces expended, but otherwise begins the drudgery anew…

Productive and unproductive labour

Hello all,

I am still really enjoying the group.

We had a really good discussion yesterday, that included a discussion of ‘Productive and Unproductive Labour’.

As chance would have, I was watching this 10 year old video of the founder of the academic Marxist journal ‘Critique’ this morning and at timecode 1:10:00 he starts talking about productive and unproductive labour.

I thought that it might be of interest to people.

Commodity fetishism

A friend who is not really political asked me to let him know if I had learnt anything interesting from Capital. The last time I saw him in person he was talking about commodity fetishism. Below are extracts from a conversation I had with him via Facebook messenger. If anyone wants to have a look over to see if I have the right idea / I’m telling him the right stuff then it would be appreciated.

You will see that I did not respond to his last message, I was not sure what to say.

Mark: Commodity Fetishism

It is not the same sort of fetish as sexuality.

The big thing so far with Marx is that he thinks that is human Labour (along is with nature) that creates value.

Commodity fetishism is how the value of things in our society being the result of human labour is masked.

The sun appears to orbit the earth, but it does not.

Certain things (gold) appear to be valuable in and of themselves, the fact that it is the ‘socially necessary labour time’ which takes to produce them which gives them value is hidden from us.

That is my understanding.

My Friend: Ok so commodity fetishism could be something like the value of a commodity that is not connected to the ‘socially necessary labour time’, whose perceived value can develop ‘naturally’ eg. like gold (whose value has developed over the year through complex aesthetic and historical value attribution), or whose value can be synthesised, eg like perfume, where the value is almost created by advertising agencies and the like?

Mark: All this is as I understand….

1) For Marx ‘Value’ only exists in capitalist society.

2) there is something called ‘use Value’. This can’t be measured, but it is the usefulness of something. Whether that is a real or ‘imagined’ use. A cup is useful because I can drink from it, a coat is useful because it keeps me warm, Nike shoes have a use if I think they will make me popular. Nice countryside is also a use value.

3) There is also something called ‘exchange Value’. This is the proportion in which use-values of one kind exchange for use-values of another. Price is not the same as exchange value, but is governed by it and then effected by supply and demand.

4) for Marx, ‘Value’ is equal to the amount of socially necessary labour time in something.

5) Gold actually has value due to the socially necessary labour time embodied in it.


Perfume is a use value because it smells nice.

My Friend: But the use value of one perfume over another is explained by the ‘fetishism’ of the brand no?

Mark: No, I don’t think so.

My Friend: why, that would make perfect sense to me

becuase the use value of perfume is fairly arbitary

is all about the fetishism of the idea of perfume.

Mark: I don’t think that it is a fetish in that way.

My Friend: and therefore any product where is be perfume or an idea can gain a higher use value

so what does the ‘fetishism’ refer to then

Mark: Commodity fetishism is how the ‘value’ of things in our society being the result of human labour is masked.

Things just ‘appear’ to have value.

My Friend: yeah that’s exactly what I’m saying

Mark: And Value is not the same as price or usefulness.

My Friend: yeah exactly, so an item is ‘fetishised’ if value is attached to it that is not a direct result of the value of its human labour

Mark: Yeah, I think you are right there. Bread and carrots are also affected by the commodity fetish, because people do not realise why they have a relatively low value.

People do not realise where their value comes from at all

My Friend: Yeah I never thought of it in reverse, like bread being way way cheaper.


Mark: Just to confirm something with you. Perfume is much more expensive than a load of bread because it takes much more socially necessary labour time to make perfume than it does a loaf of bread.

My Friend: True but the price of an off-brand perfume at Poundland is probably closer to the socially necessary labour costs than say channel. Sure Channel has is a more ‘fetishised’ commodity because an image has been constructed around it which elevates it’s worth to the consumer psychologically. Of course you could argue that the cost of creating that image, marketing etc, is counted as part of the socially necessary labour time right? But there’s still a huge disconnect between the actually labour costs if the production of the perfume and the retail value.

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