February 18th, 2010

Steven Brust

Capital Volume 1 Part 1 Chapter 1 Section 1 Post 2

Page 36: “Exchange-value, at first sight, presents itself as a quantitative relation, as the proportion in which values in use of one sort are exchanged for for those of another sort, a relation constantly changing with time and place.”

Since I was just discussing this with Scott in the previous post, I’ll quote myself, so I don’t have to look up more prices:  “If we speak of the EXCHANGE-value of the Rubbermaid Stain Resistant Bristles Angle Broom, we can put a number to it: $12.99 when expressed in U.S. Dollars, or 2.5 if expressed in gallons of whole milk, or .144 if expressed in Capital EXILIM 10.1 Megapixel digital cameras.”  In other words, yes, exchange value presents itself as two sets of numbers in relation to each other.  And, as Marx said, they change with time and place.  Those were today’s values at, respectively, Office Max, H.E.B., and Best Buy.  In a week they might well have changed, and if I checked another site, they would very likely be different (although not significantly).

“Hence exchange-value appears to be something accidental and purely relative, and consequently an intrisic value, ie, an exchange-value that is inseparably connected with, inherent in commodities, seems a contradiction in terms.  Let us consider the matter a little more closely.”

Here I should digress to a discussion of Brust’s Law; but maybe I’ll make that a separate post.  Forget I said anything.

Page 37: “A given commodity, e.g., a quarter of wheat is exchanged for x blacking, y silk, or z gold, &c.–in short, for other commodities in the most different proportions.  Instead of one exchange-value, the wheat has, therefore, a great many.  But since x blacking, y silk, or z gold, &c., each represent the exchange-value of one quarter of wheat, x blacking, y silk, z gold, &c., must, as exchange values, be replaceable by each other, or equal to each other.  Therefore, first: the valid exchange-values of a given commodity express something equal; secondly, exchange-value, generally, is only the mode of expression, the phenomenal form, of something contained in it, yet distinguishable from it.”

Okay, let’s slow down.  In my example above, one broom can be exchanged for 2.5 gallons of milk, or .144 digital cameras (I’m ignoring money for now).  These things can, therefore, all be exchanged for each other.  In order for them to be exchangeable, there must be something in them that can be expressed as an equivalent.  No matter how you juggle numbers, purple cannot be exchanged for a dozen eggs; nor oxygen for philosophy.  For an expression of equivalence to be possible, there has to be something in common.  Exchange-value, then, expresses something that exists in all commodities, and permits quantitative assessment–ie, a number can be assigned to this common element in a broom and compared to the common element in a gallon of milk, producing the relationship 1 broom = 2.5 gallons of milk.

Marx uses corn and iron as his examples, saying 1 quarter corn = x hundredweight iron.  “What does this equation tell us?  It tells us that in two different things–1 quarter of corn and x cwt. of iron, there exists in equal quantities something common to both.  The two things must therefore be equal to a third, which in itself is neither the one nor the other.  Each of them, so far as it is exchange-value, must therefore be reducible to this third.”

Now Marx is just restating what I already told you.  Fie on him.

“A simple geometrical illustration will make this clear.  In order to calculate and compare the areas of rectilinear figures, we decompose them into triangles.  But the area of the triangle itself is expressed by something totally different from its visible figure, namely, by half the product of the base into the altitude.  In the same way the exchange-values of commodities must be capable of being expressed in terms of something common to them all, of which they represent a greater or lesser quantity.”

Right.  I get it.

“This common  ’something’ cannot be either a geometrical, a chemical, or any other natural property of commodities.  Such properties claim our attention only in so far as they affect the utility of those commodities, make them use-values.  But the exchange of commodities is evidently an act characterized by a total abstraction from use-value.  Then one use-value is just as good as another, provided only it be present in sufficient quantity…As use-values, commodities are, above all, of different qualities, but as exchange-values they are merely different quantities, and consequently do not contain an atom of use-value.”

In order to find the common element contained in all commodities that permits their exchange, we abstract from them their utility–what it is about them that makes them useful, and in fact all their particular qualities; in just the same way, in order to determine how many insects I have in my house, I abstract from the insects all of their peculiarities, leaving only their number, and I am thus able to count them.  (The bug guy was, by the way, unimpressed with my diligence in this matter).

Page 38: “If then we leave out of consideration the use-value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labour.”

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