Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
Why Everything Costs Money Part 2
[Capital Volume I, Chapter 2, pgs. 178-187 of Penguin Press]
Marx for folks who aren’t trying to read 900 damn pages, by someone who has nothing better to do.
Part 2 of an ongoing series of posts going through Capital Volume 1. See a full introduction to this series here, get caught up with part 1 here, and access free electronic copies of Capital Volume 1 here or here. Continue to Part 3.
Welcome back y’all.
Chapter 2: The Commodity
So I thought I would group this chapter with the chapter after it, at least, since it’s only ten pages. But, re-reading it, I realized that this chapter is deceptively short. A lot happens.
Marx starts this chapter off with a bang. In the first chapter, he said that the relationships that we use math to explain when doing economics are social relationships. Here he gets more specific. What makes an object we produce into a commodity is not just its use value, but the social relationships around these objects. Part of that context is a particular relationship between the “guardians” – owners – of the commodities. For objects to be commodities, the guardians must be in the sort of relationship where we don’t appropriate the other person’s objects except through mutual consent, that is, through contract. That social relationship is a necessary part of the system of social relationships that makes up a system of property, though its not the whole deal. Then objects become commodities not because of something about them but through a particular relationship between people, namely people that own them or could own them. When we start to repetitively produce goods for the sake of exchange, in anticipation of contracts we will make with them rather than for their use value to the community that produces them, that’s when we get commodities and not just use values (182).
Why do these social relationships make this kind of difference? Remember lessons learned from part 1. For example: that my machete is worth $2 and your plantains are worth $1 corresponds to a set of social relations that gives me a strategy for converting my machete into plantains – it means I can get two plantains by selling my machete for money and then handing that money to you. But: it’s also a fucking machete. An alternative strategy: I could use the machete to lop your hand off, or threaten you with it, and that way get two or even more of your plantains. That would require a lot less head scratching about metaphysics than part 1 did, which is tempting.
But if that were my go to strategy, and everyone else’s plan A, we’d be living in a very different kind of world. It would be hard to convince folks to do the work to provide plantains in the first place if folks went around threatening people with plantains with machetes rather than compensating them for the fruits. So we need a system that relates us to each other in such a way that we expect to get useful objects from other people by contract rather than force, and that’s part of what makes those useful objects commodities rather than just use values.
There’s some more interesting stuff said in this chapter about money, but I’ll cover that in part 3 as part of chapter 3, where that’s the main topic.
Why that matters: Commentary on chapter 2
If I can editorialize for a quick second: something important just happened. Philosophically, Marx is what we call a “materialist”, which is to say he thinks there’s something fundamental about physical stuff – everything there is is, in some sense, physical or explained by something physical like matter or energy. There’s a close connection between materialist thought and the modern political phenomenon of “class-reductionism”, the tendency to either explain political issues entirely in terms of things that are considered material (e.g., access to needed physical resources like food water and shelter). This chapter is one of the places where its most obvious that Marx himself didn’t play for that team, at least not in Capital Volume 1. Physical objects don’t even get to be what they are – commodities - without historical and social conditions weighing in. Those conditions are particular political relationships between the people that own them and the system that forms the background for that ownership.
Marx says that, ideally speaking, the “exchange of commodities begins where communities have their boundaries, at points of contact with other communities”. But historically, many of the transfers of objects key to the development of capitalism as a global economic system did not go by way of contract, but instead by conquest. For much of the history of capitalism, many people in the world economic system were not regarded as people with the kind of standing for a contract: most obviously the millions of people enslaved under the peculiar system of racial chattel slavery that developed, but also arguably some of the colonized peoples in the same historical period, and European women may be in this box as well. Critics point out that this is tough to square with analyses of the world rooted in contractual ideals. Carole Pateman and Charles Mills have great books, separately and together, which are (like Marx) critical of the ways political philosophy has dealt with contractual ideals, the social contract in political philosophy, and Frank Wilderson III has an essay that applies it to Marxism specifically, fair warning: its written for a specialist audience and is less accessible than these blogs are aiming to be).
This isn’t to say that Marx is off the hook for some criticisms he’s gotten from folks who oppose class reductionism. This is to say the opposite: Marx is very very on the hook for these criticisms because he’s not himself a class reductionist (in this book at least). As a result his whole picture of everything depends on getting the particular story he's spinning about the social relationships right, and so it would matter (on the terms he agreed to himself!) if he’s gotten them wrong.
Continue to Part 3.