Let’s talk about people.
When we talk about people as individuals we are talking about biology, neuroscience, physiology, etc. We are talking about respiratory systems, circulatory systems, nervous systems, brain waves- in short we are studying the relationships between the different parts that make up a whole- a whole called “the person”.
When we talk about people in groups we are talking about sociology, economics, politics, religion, philosophy. We are talking about families, classes, rulers and ruled- in short we are studying the relations between individuals that make up a whole- a whole called “a society”.
So if we are going to understand anything about societies we first need to understand some basic things about relationships. Some of what I’m about to tell you about relationships will sound obvious at first but we will soon move from the obvious to the mysterious, so bear with me.
Let’s begin by looking at a relationship that is fundamental to the human condition, a relationship that we all have- that between mother and child.
The first thing we might notice about this is that a mother can’t be a mother without a child and a child can’t be a child without a mother. Each requires the other in order to have their identity. So the relationship is mutually dependent.
Here’s another obvious point: A mother can’t be her own mother and a chid can’t be her own child. Obviously a mother is someone else’s child, but she can’t be her own child. When she stands on the mother side of the relation “mother-child” she is only the mother, not both. So the two sides of this relation are exclusive, opposites. They express their identity through their relation to their opposite. We might call this an “identity of opposites”.
The mother-child relationship is an abstract one. In concrete reality it takes the form of the relation between Tanya and Jermaine, Sarah and Riley, or Martha and Brendan. But despite all of the variations in the way mothers and children can appear, there are certain universal traits that transcend all these specific differences. These universal traits cannot be changed by the individual subjective manifestations of mothers and children. At the same time, this abstract relation doesn’t have a pure form divorced from its concrete manifestation. The mother-child relation has to be expressed through Tanyas and Jermaines, Sarahs and Rileys. Through a mother’s relation with her child she knows something about all children everywhere. Through the child’s relationship with its mother it knows something about all mothers everywhere. Through a concrete relation we learn about the abstract.
So in the same way that we draw an equation that says “mother-child” and discuss the identity of opposites in this equation we might also make another equation that says “abstract-concrete” and discuss this relation. All relations are both concrete and abstract at the same time. The concrete world is the everyday world of infinite variation. But all of these variations are just improvisations upon a basic abstract form- a universal relation standing behind the concrete. But abstractions cannot exist by themselves. They must express themselves in the concrete.
When we study relations we are looking to explain two things: What is this universal abstract form? And what is the relation between this form and the concrete appearances it takes?
There are a lot of relationships that make up a society. When we study economics we are studying the way people relate to each other as laborers in order to create and distribute all of the goods we consume. In different places and different times this relationship has been quite different. But in all societies there have been two main relations: the relation of the individual laborer to a larger group, and the relation of different groups to each other.
In early hunter-gatherer societies work was divided between two different groups, hunters and gatherers. Men went out and hunted. Women went out and gathered. How did the two groups relate to each other? Each group made half of the social product and therefore, neither half could exist without the other half. At the end of the day they met and shared the products of their work. It was only in this sharing between the hunters and the gatherers that each separate group expressed its true identity. How did hunters know they were hunters? Because they weren’t gatherers. How did gatherers know they were gatherers? Because they weren’t hunters.
How did individual hunters relate to their group? -by throwing spears at antelopes, along with all the other hunters. They coordinated their activity collectively to create the hunter’s half of the “social product”. In other words, the individual hunter was just the concrete manifestation of an abstract group called “hunters”. [Without individuals there could be no group. But without a particular hunter, Joe or Ug, there could still be a group.] How did Joe or Ug understand what it meant to be a hunter? In their relation to another hunter they understood something about all hunters: that hunters throw spears at antelopes. [If joe just threw spears at antelopes by himself he would think, "I am a guy that throws spears at antelopes." But when he looks over his spear and sees all the other guys doing the same thing that he is doing he says, "I am a hunter." ] Through the relation between two concrete things, we find the abstract.
Kings and Peasants
In feudal society the two main groups were landowners and serfs. Serfs made most of the social product. Landowners took some of that product even though they hadn’t created it. Unlike the hunter-gatherers, the landowners didn’t offer anything in return. It wasn’t sharing. It was appropriation. The landlords got away with this because they owned all the land. There were other groups too: In order for the landowners to extract their taxes from the serfs they needed a class of knights to poke the peasants with swords if they didn’t work on the landowner estate and a class of priests to tell people God wanted them to work for the landlord. That’s how the groups related to each other.
Within the serf class, how did individuals relate to each other? Serfs worked together on the landlord’s land, and they worked in smaller family groups on their own land. Through their work with each other they identified themselves as part of an abstract class called “serfs.”
In a capitalist society there are two groups: Capitalists and Workers. Workers create the social product. Capitalists take some of this product without offering any social product back to the workers in exchange. Like the landlords, they get away with this because they own the factories.
How do the two groups relate to each other? The workers go to the factory and work for the capitalist. At the end of the day they don’t get a portion of the social product they created. They get wages. They take these wages to the store and buy back the products they created. So the two groups relate to each other through the buying and selling of commodities. The capitalists buy a commodity called “labor power” and the workers buy commodities called “consumer goods.”
How do individual workers relate to each other? Within a company workers cooperate together to create a commodity. But the social product is made of of billions of different commodities made by workers all over the world. These workers all relate to each other through the buying and selling of commodities. They never see each other, they never speak to each other. The social relations between people become “material relations between people and social relations between things.
This is why commodities are so important to the study of economics. Commodities are social relations. When we buy a commodity we are interacting with millions of other people. This doesn’t happen when we use a commodity. When we use a commodity it is just an interaction with ourselves and the commodity. But when we buy a commodity we are exchanging money representing our own labor (for which we were paid in wages) with the labor of another group of people. But we don’t see these relations. We just see ourselves and the commodity we are interacting with. Thus, the process of exchange in a capitalist society obscures the social relations behind this exchange. When a hunter looked at another hunter he understood his identity as part of a group through this relation. Workers don’t see other workers. They just see commodities. This means that the most important questions of economics- the relations between groups, and the relations of individuals to these groups- are obscured in a capitalist society. They are a mystery.
To unravel this mystery we must look closely at the relations between commodities themselves.
Count how many people you interacted with today. Now think about how many commodities you interacted with. Most likely the commodities outnumbered the people tenfold. We wear commodities, eat commodities, drive, sleep and walk in commodities. They dominate our visual space and our thoughts, yet we never ponder where they came from or what abstractions they may represent.
Because our social relations are obscured by commodities they take on a power over us. Instead of needing a coercive army of knights like a feudal landlord, commodities themselves compel us to do things. The need for commodities compels us to work for someone else for a living. The profit we create for capitalists compels them to compete and exploit for a living. “The hidden hand of the market” is the coercive nature of capitalist social relations exercised through the faceless, inanimate form of commodities.
In a capitalist society we often have the feeling that our lives are out of control, dominated by impersonal forces we never really see. But actually those forces are all around for us to see: they are commodities. Through these commodities we can see the abstraction that is the social relations of capitalism. If we looked closely we would see that those commodities are just products of work that we ourselves, as workers, did- that is, we are being dominated by ourselves. This is what it means to talk about alienation in a capitalist society.
[The ultimate goal of those who oppose capitalism- be they anarchists, socialists, communists, etc.-is to replace this alienation with empowerment where people live in a world of their own choosing- not the choosing of blind forces.]
When you eat a potato you are having a relation between yourself and a potato. This is not a very interesting or mysterious relation to discuss: you like potatoes, you eat them, your stomach gets full.
But when you buy a potato you are expressing a very mysterious relation. You are trading money paid to you in wages for your labor in exchange for a commodity made by another worker somewhere in Idaho. When the two things meet in the market place and are exchanged for one another this implies some sort of equivalence. (They must be equal to each other in some way.) A pack of cigarettes equals two hot dogs. A pair of shoes equals three shirts. If we follow along with this process (pack of cigarettes= 2 hot dogs= 1 shirt= loaf of bread= 2 cups of coffee=etc.) we could create an infinite string of relations all expressing the value of commodities in their relationship to one another. This means that there must be some “value” behind commodities- they all must express varying amounts of some common substance.
But what could this common substance be? Smell? Taste? Weight? Bourgeois economists say “use”. But how can use be the substance behind value? Use is just a private experience between oneself and a commodity. It doesn’t tell us about the relations between people. It doesn’t tell us about the way commodities relate to each other.
For a worker, the commodity has no use at all except to be exchanged for a commodity they do need. Thus they produce the commodity not for its “use value”, but for its “exchange value.” Just like the hunter-gatherers who worked with the intent of sharing their labor with the other half of the group, our private concrete labor implies a wider social relationship. Because the hunter-gatherers worked with the intent of sharing their labor with everyone there was no need for a concept of value: There was no exchange, just sharing. In a capitalist society where our labor is coordinated via exchange we need some way of determining the value of the things we exchange so that we know how much labor to devote to what activities.
Now the mystery is already solved… the hidden substance behind value is labor itself. It is human labor, in the abstract, that gives a commodity its exchange value. This idea, that labor is the substance of value is called “The Labor Theory of Value.” It is one of the oldest ideas in the history of economics.
There are just two puzzles left to unravel before we have a complete picture of commodities and their values. They both involve the relationship of the individual laborer to the group, of the concrete to the abstract.
Human labor is diverse. Some people dig ditches. Others give haircuts or serve coffee. How can we reduce all of this concrete work to some abstract notion of value? We do this in the same way that any relation between concrete and abstract proceeds- by identifying what is universal about a relationship. Because the abstraction doesn’t exist by itself, because it must be expressed through the world of the concrete, we must look at specific relations to discover what is universal about the relation.
When we equate digging ditches with serving coffee what is being equated? The only thing that both activities have in common is that they are both expenditures of human labor. Thus the process of exchanging commodities abstracts from the specifics of an individual’s labor and gives it a value only to the extent that it relates to the total labor of the group. Value then, represents abstract labor. As individuals we perform concrete labor. But when we exchange the commodities we produce we are expressing the abstract quality of this labor.
How is this labor measured? Since the specific type of labor doesn’t matter, the only other way we have of measuring labor is through time and intensity. The more time and intensity expended, the more value is created.
In a capitalist society, capitalists are under a lot of pressure to get their workers to be as productive as possible. They try to get the most work out of their workers per hour of work. Thus, the amount of intensity of labor tends toward a social average. Thus the amount of time becomes the primary determinate of value. Commodities that take a large amount of labor to produce (cars) cost a lot more than commodities that take very little time to make (potatoes). Thus, we measure value in labor time.
But what if I take a really long time to make cup of coffee? Does that mean that that cup of coffee is worth more than someone who works more productively at making coffee? No, of course not! The value of a commodity is equal to its “socially necessary labor time”. Because a capitalist society operates under a system of free exchange, people will buy commodities from whomever can make the commodity the cheapest- the most efficiently. This encourages all producers to produce at the same level of efficiency. This average level of efficiency is the “socially necessary labor time”. Even if I take a really long time to make a cup of coffee I still have to sell it at the socially necessary labor time!
We can combine these two terms to say that the value of a commodity is equal to its “socially necessary abstract labor time.” This is a very clear expression of the way the individual relates to the group in a capitalist society. The labor that you as an individual do only has value to the extent that it is part of a larger project of value creation being carried out all over the world by workers everywhere. Like all societies before, the work we do in creating the social product is what unites us as people. It is the foundation of our economic relationships. But unlike other societies, the process of commodity exchange obscures these relations from us. We experience our relationship as workers as a relationship between ourselves and commodities.
What of our relations between groups- between capitalists and workers? This too is obscured through exchange.
In previous societies, when a dominating class appropriated the labor of another class it was easy to see. In feudalism the serfs worked part of the week on the landlord’s land and part of the week on their own land. It was clear that they were giving part of their labor to an exploiting class without being compensated. It was clear that they were only doing this because knights would poke them with spears if they didn’t. In a capitalist society we work the whole week in a capitalist’s factory/workplace and at the end of the week we receive wages. At the end of the week the capitalist has commodities of a greater value than those wages. Profit is the difference between the value workers create for a capitalist and the amount of wages they are paid for that value. But this is much harder to see because of the way in which exchange obscures this process. Exchange makes it appear that profit is something that a capitalists receives through exchange itself, instead of through some domination in the workplace.
If we were to accept this world of appearance and not look behind it to discover the abstract social relations behind it then we could accept the claims of bourgeois economics that capitalism is a system of personal freedoms in which individuals choose which commodities they want to interact with; that because an individual worker chooses which individual capitalist they want to work for, there is no need to look behind this concrete relation to find any abstract form behind it like class. By treating the subjective experience of our relations with commodities as the only relevant perspective bourgeois economics is able to avoid addressing the coercive social relations which lay behind our concrete subjective experiences.
But a useful perspective should take the opposite approach- always asking what concrete experience tells us about the social relations behind it. This is how we should approach an understanding of commodities.