I’ve been reading Kapital. Well, actually I havent because I’m not a complete masochist, what Ive been doing is reading a lot of stuff about Kapital so that I dont have to tackle the beast head on by myself, and die cold and alone drowning in a sea of intellectual genius that I cant quite grasp. So, this is what I make of it. If you have any questions or you think its total bollocks, please do let me know and I will be sure to deny any involvement in the production of this overview.
Commodities are all the things around us that are made and manufactured. All this stuff that can be used or sold, we call the Wealth of Capitalist Society. It used to be the case that things were made to be used – cups were made for drinking, clothes were made for wearing. Since the rise of capitalism around the globe, commodities now have another purpose – to be sold. We make more things for sale now than ever, where we used to make clothes to cover our backs now they are mass produced to generate a profit. This is not natural – this is manmade. The commodification of produce is unique to capitalism.
There is a duality in the value of the commodity. It is valuable both in terms of how useful it is and how profitable it is. These values are at odds with each other, so as a commidity becomes more valuable and profitable, its use-value is alienated. As capitalism pushes for ever increasing profit, this clashes with the human need for food, warmth, shelter etc. The use-value of commodities is abused and distorted in order to make it more profitable. To the extent that a commodity is financially valuable, its use-value is lessened.
We can use the example of a loaf of bread sitting on a supermarket shelf. This has a use value in that it can be eaten and fulfill the human need for sustenance. However, unless the value of the product is fulfilled – unless you can pick it up and pay for it, the use-value is totally irrelevant. It will continue to rot on the shelf regardless of its use-value until somebody can afford to buy it. In this way, the use of commodities is abused in order to further profit. This can also be seen from another angle through manufacture – as long as products are being sold, companies are happy to cut costs of production and compromise on the safety of the product and the security of the labour force as long as the result is profitable. The use-value becomes irrelevant.
So. That’s commodity. A thing that is made, which at once is both useful and profitable. As the profitability of a commodity is increased, the use-value of it is decreased.
An inevitable result of this constant quest for profit is overproduction. There comes a point when business produces ‘too much’ of a certain commodity – or rather, produce an amount that cannot be bought up by society. It may be that a building firm for example has built a number of houses, which people cannot afford to buy. This does not mean that there is no longer a demand for housing, just that the people who need it cannot afford to pay for it. As a result of this overproduction – where more things are made than can be sold, prices and profits fall. This is because companies in competition with each other for profit must reduce the cost of the commodities they produce in order to encourage people to buy them.
In order to raise the prices and profits and to tackle this over-production, business destroys part of its produce. Rather than give those houses away to people who need them, they would rather pull them down – causing a shortage, and thereby pushing prices and profit back up. They are not in the business of promoting use-value and fulfilling human need, but rather of making profit. If it is not profitable, it is irrelevant how useful it can be. It must be destroyed to ensure the price hike of the remainder of the produce.
Even though people may be starving, if there is an overproduction of food which causes the price to fall – it will be destroyed rather than distributed to ensure the increasing value of food afterward. Produce is destroyed on the basis that if there is less of a thing for people to fight over, they are inclined to pay more for it, and thereby increase profit for business.
We now know that commodities are produced in capitalist society in order to be exchanged, either for other commodities or money, in order to generate a profit. But how is it decided what is a fair exchange? In a literal sense, there is no such thing as a fair exchange, because no two items are the same. Up to this point, it is simply the case that people have been content to make unfair exchange, but under capitalism where profit reigns over all, we are now talking about ‘systemic commodity exchange’ which must be regulated in order to maximise profit.
That is, the capitalist system is entirely built upon the premise of the exchange of commodity. Whilst all commodities are exchangable and materially unique – as before, no two items are of exact equal worth. However, under this system, there is something that all commodities have in common, and that is the human effort required for its production or appropriation for sale and profit. This measure is what provides the basis for exchange in capitalist society. Using this rule, a table which takes one man one day to make is of equal value to, say, a basket of apples which took one man one day to harvest. Although this is much more complex and Marx explains this much more in-depth, this is the basis of the principle. The exchange-value of commodity is dictated by the value of labour-time.
Useful and Abstract Labour
Useful labour, or Concrete labour, is how we refer to the physical act of labour. This is different and unique to each commodity. A mill workers labour is not equally measurable to a bakers labour, they may differ in terms of intensity and skill. However when the miller looks at a bag of flour, he sees so many hours of work. When the baker looks at a loaf of bread, he too sees so many hours of labour. In this way the labour-time of the two is comparable and the exchange-value of the commodities can be measured.
It does not matter how long it actually takes to make the product. No matter how slowly you work, the commodity you produce is only worth what the average labourer would expend in making it. The actual time spent producing useful labour is irrelevant, only the amount of socially standard labour, or what people would normally expect, dictates the value of the product. When machinery is introduced to a milk farm, for example. The time taken to milk the cow is dramatically reduced, and therefore so is the value of the commodity – milk. Those farmers who do not have the same machinery will find that their milk will be greatly reduced in value regardless of the their concrete labour time, because of the level of socially standard labour has changed. This concept we refer to as abstract labour – a scale whereby all useful labour can be measured equally in order to facilitate exchange.
The alienation of useful labour is a result of this. As society focuses on the abstract concept presented to them, the obvious literal value of useful labour is obscured. In this way, all commodities are equally measurable and exchangeable. The basic principal of buying and selling commodities is a social attribute of a capitalist society.
Part Two: https://redraskova.wordpress.com/2016/01/04/kapital-in-a-nutshell-pt-2/