And more…

How to Read Marx by Peter Osborne— and Perdue’s modules on theory.

1- Commodity: Fetish and Hieroglyph:

This book begins by looking at how commodities take on the form of a hieroglyph by becoming symbols for society in the manner a hieroglyph is a symbol.

Osborne lets us know that a commodity is, at first sight, a trivial thing, without any special properties other than its use-value. Humanity, through its activities, changes the material of the commodity in order to make it useful. The example given is a wood, which can be altered to make a chair or table (9). The table is merely wood though, until humans make a thing out of it, create it as a commodity. However, “The mysterious character of a commodity does not therefore arise from its use-value” (ibid.).

This explanation leaves me confused, so here is what Marx said:

commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far
as it is a material thing, a use-value, something useful. This 
property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labour
required to appropriate its useful qualities. […] Use-values 
become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute
the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of 
that wealth” (my emphasis, Marx 46). A commodity then is separate from its use-value and only acquires value through human consumption. The value is determined only when the object has entered into the system of exchange.

Osborne goes on to explain the commodity-fetishism, which is not a fixed desire on an object, as he claims the term is commonly misread, rather “Marx’s account is not about fetishism as a psychological condition of a subject, whose desrie transforms the significance of particular objects. It is about the fetish character of the commodity itself, a special kind of object: specifically, the fetish character of ‘form’, the commodity-form” (11). The fetish is not on the object but on the value placed on the object, the “value-form of the commodity.”

I must pause here to note that Osborne’s prose, I feel at times, is much more dense than Marx’s prose. The book is sloppily written, but I will try to get out of it what I can, always going back to the original. Anyway—onward…

We have to step back: commodity- all commodities have exchange-value-value of the commodity in relation to other commodities.

All commodities have use-value- a property that satisfies needs.

Marx states that labour also has two characteristics:

Concrete labor: the skills to produce an object, such as planning, hammering, sawing, etc.
Abstract labor: the power put into making something (the man-hours). What happens in capitalist society is that abstract labor gets transformed into concrete labor when abstract labor gets bought and sold as a commodity, which means that abstract labor then has to produce exchange value, and of course, means that the employee will want surplus value from this commodity. (See previous post on Marxism).

Another explanation of use value vs. exchange calue (thanks to Perdue’s modules)

USE-VALUE vs. EXCHANGE-VALUE: The usefulness of a commodity vs. the exchange equivalent by which the commodity is compared to other objects on the market. Marx distinguishes between the use-value and the exchange value of the commodity. Use-value is inextricably tied to “the physical properties of the commodity” (126); that is, the material uses to which the object can actually be put, the human needs it fulfills. In the exchange of goods on the capitalist market, however, exchange-value dominates: two commodities can be exchanged on the open market because they are always being compared to a third term that functions as their “universal equivalent,” a function that is eventually taken over by money. Exchange-value must always be distinguished from use-value, because “the exchange relation of commodities is characterized precisely by its abstraction from their use-values” (127). In capital, money takes the form of that equivalence; however, money in fact hides the real equivalent behind the exchange: labor. The more labor it takes to produce a product, the greater its value. Marx therefore concludes that “As exchange-values, all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour-time” (130).

[Side note—again from Perdue: On commodity: “COMMODITY: “an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind” (Marx, Capital 125) and is then exchanged for something else. When Marx speaks of commodities, he is particularly concerned with the “physical properties of the commodity” (126), which he associates closely with the use-value of an object. However, use-value does not automatically lead to a commodity: “He who satisfies his own need with the product of his own labour admittedly creates use-values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use-values, but use-values for others, social use-values” (131). Commodities, therefore, “possess a double form, i.e. natural form and value form” (138). (See Use-Value vs. Exchange-Value.) The physical body of the commodity is made up of 1) the material provided by nature (e.g. linen, gold, etc.); and 2) the labor expended to create it (see Marx, Capital 133). Note that a commodity can refer to tangilble things as well as more ephemeral products (e.g. a lecture). What matters is that something be exchanged for the thing.” ]

Osborne explains how a commodity acquires “mysterious” or “super-sensual” qualities, becoming “Das Ding” or “Thing” (which relates to Lacan’s use of Thing for the Real, with similar qualities—qualities that cannot be put into words, that are outside of verbalization, with mysterious power). The commodity has both perceptible properties easily seen and non-perceptible properties (14). The super-sensible aspect of a commodity is expressed through price so that we believe that an objects price embodies the object—not the labor. As Osborne explains “When we encounter a car, a computer or a washing machine, we see its price as an expression of the value of the sensible object itself, rather than of the labour it embodies” (15). We fail to notice the labor put into the product and merely look at its price as a reflection of the product. This relationship reveals society: the price arises out of society’s relation between objects, like hieroglyphs, these relations and commodities need special interpretations.

Commodities become a fetish when money gets involved and so the object is imbued with “special power” in the monetary value of the object, rather than on the labor of the object. This relation reveals the exploitation of the workers, who remain mostly invisible. We encounter the objects of our purchases only in a market where we exchange money and with the corporations who sell us our products, and we never really come into contact with the workers who created the product. As the modules explain: “In capitalist society, gold and then paper money become “the direct incarnation of all human labor” (187), much as in primitive societies the totem becomes the direct incarnation of godhead. Through this process, “Men are henceforth related to each other in their social process of production in a purely atomistic way; they become alienated because their own relations of production assume a material shape which is independent of their control and their conscious individual action” (187). Although value ultimately accrues because of human labor, people in a capitalist system are led to believe that they are not in control of the market forces that appear to exist independently of any individual person.

All of this control in capitalist society occurs because of ideology, which is where I will turn my attentions to soon—I think…

I don’t know if I will return to the How to Read Marx book–the writing makes concepts more confusing and I don’t feel I am getting much out of reading it.