Literature Study GuidesCapital Das KapitalVol 1 Part 1 Chapter 1 Summary

Capital (Das Kapital) | Study Guide

Karl Marx

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Capital (Das Kapital) | Vol. 1, Part 1, Chapter 1 : Commodities and Money (The Commodity) | Summary

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Although Marx envisioned a multivolume Capital, he finished only Volume 1 before his death; Volumes 2 and 3 were completed from his notes by his long-time friend Friedrich Engels. Because Volume 1 is the only one completed by Marx, it is by far the most commonly read and studied. Even it, due to its length, is often not studied in its entirety.

Volume 1 comprises 8 named parts, each of which has named chapters. For the purposes of this guide, the more commonly studied parts (Parts 1, 2, and 3) are summarized and analyzed in depth at the chapter level. Each of the remaining five parts (Parts 4–8) is summarized in its entirety.

Summary

The title of Volume 1, Capitalist Production, indicates Marx's focus on examining the constituent parts of capitalist production, explaining how they work together, and then exposing the exploitation inherent in such an economy.

Marx begins Chapter 1 by defining and analyzing the concept of the commodity. He describes it as "an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind." There are three main ways to measure the value of a commodity, and they are interlinked: use-value, exchange-value, and value. The use-value of a commodity is determined by the usefulness of the commodity as it satisfies a human need. Marx explains exchange-value by saying there is always a certain amount of something that can be exchanged for a certain amount of something else. He gives the example of corn and iron, explaining that a certain amount of corn can be exchanged for a certain amount of iron. Unlike use-value, which is based in the properties of the commodity, exchange-value is created by people. Marx outlines their differences in the statement, "As use-values, commodities differ above all in quality, while as exchange-values they can only differ in quantity." Despite their differences the use-value and exchange-value are inherently connected. In order to create an article that has value, a certain amount of labor is necessary. The average amount of time required to produce a commodity is called "socially necessary labor-time." Labor, according to Marx, is the "the substance of value."

In Section 2 Marx further elaborates on the concept of labor with regard to value. He uses the analogy of the value of a coat versus the value of 20 yards of linen. While it could be said that the coat's value is equivalent to the 20 yards of linen, different labor processes go into the creation of each. In the end, however, if one person has a need for a coat and another for linen, these items become equivalent in value and can be traded. Marx details the idea behind the exchange-value of the coat and the linen: he explains that because the coat requires extra labor of tailoring, "the linen contains only half as much labor as the coat." Thus, the linen requires more units to match the worth of the coat.

Commodities are "at the same time objects of utility and bearers of value," according to Marx. He proposes to get to the heart of the concept of money, explaining that money is something that has value because it can be exchanged for commodities but is abstract and not a commodity in itself. In condensed terms, Marx says, the "simplest value-relation is ... that of one commodity to another commodity of a different kind." Marx then goes on to do a series of exercises in which the value of the items from his earlier example—the linen and the coat—fluctuate as a result of changes in labor-time required to produce one or the other item, illustrating how labor can affect the worth of a commodity. Marx designates two types of labor: concrete labor and abstract labor. Abstract human labor is represented in the "body of the commodity." The concrete labor that is required to give a commodity use-value becomes abstract labor in the sense of the exchange-value. The money form eventually becomes an expression of value when a widespread exchange of commodities begins to take place within a society. It becomes the "universal equivalent form."

The character of a commodity is more complex than just its use-value. It becomes something imbued with social labor. Marx explains that commodities are the physical form of types of human labor. There are three ways that labor creates value: 1) different kinds of human labor are equalized, giving common value to the commodities; 2) the "magnitude of the value" of the commodity can be measured by the duration and labor involved in its creation, and 3) the social aspect of the labor (i.e., the "relationships between the producers") determines the social context of the commodity. In this way commodities are "fetishized," because they are given extra meaning by social labor, or their exchange-value. This fetishism becomes a social problem, Marx claims, when people begin to equate commodities with their prices and don't have any comprehension of the labor that went into producing them. Finally, Marx points out what he sees as a critical capitalist economic mistake: confusing the exchange-value of an item with some property inherent in the item itself.

Analysis

Marx defines the concept of "commodity" in the broadest sense. Most readers are likely to think of a commodity in the abstract, speculative sense of the term that predominates today—for example, grain or oil traded on a commodities market. However, Marx has in mind something far more expansive. The "thing ... that satisfies human needs" can be as tangible as food that satisfies hunger or as abstract as a book that satisfies a reader's need for knowledge.

To understand the concept of a commodity's use-value, readers must note Marx's qualification that the use-value "of a commodity is independent of the amount of labor required to appropriate its useful qualities." In other words, when speaking about use-value, only the actual physical properties of the commodity itself are being taken into account, and all other things of value surrounding actually making that object useful (i.e., planting, growing, shucking, and processing a corn plant in order to get corn) are not included in the use-value. The actions in the process of making a commodity actually useful are referred to as "labor," and labor is quantified as simply "value," and not as "use-value" or "exchange-value."

In the end of Section 2 Marx follows some logical steps to a few notable conclusions. One important moment to note is when Marx claims that "all commodities, when taken in certain proportions, must be equal in value." He rationalizes that the real measure of value is in the amount of labor needed to produce a commodity, and that as a result commodities don't have any unique value outside of the labor needed to produce them. For example, if it takes a hundred hours of labor to create one thing, and a single hour to produce a second thing, then a hundred units of the second thing will have the same value as a one unit of the first. This is because the labor will then be equivalent in value.

Value, it is important to note, is something that is best "expressed relatively" in Marx's opinion. By this, he means that the value of one commodity can be best understood in relation to another commodity—that is, a commodity cannot be traded for itself but must be exchanged for different but equivalent value goods. A commodity might have an inherent use-value, but its full value can't be quantified without placing it in relation to other different commodities.

Marx uses the relationship between labor and value to present an interesting solution to a philosophical problem brought up by the classical Greek philosopher Aristotle. He lays out Aristotle's issue with value: that it is actually impossible to take two completely different things and call them "qualitatively equal." Thus Aristotle comes to the conclusion that value doesn't really exist and that coming up with an equation to equate the value of two disparate things is only "a makeshift for practical purposes." Marx's theory of labor as a way to measure and interpret value, though, solves this problem. Marx proposes that Aristotle could not have come to this conclusion because ancient Greek society used slave labor, and therefore there was inherent inequality in the types of labor. No average human labor could be quantified as a result.

Ultimately, the "fetishism" or exchange-value applied to commodities creates a situation where people can simply look at an item and internalize its value—for instance, the way one might look at a price tag—but not any of the processes involved in the creation of that value. For example, in a society that exchanges money for commodities, a person can look at a price tag and understand the value of the item only in the simplest of terms—how much money must be exchanged for the item. But the person doesn't necessarily understand the complex nature of the value of that item: they don't see the different types and amounts of labor that went into making it, only the amount of money they have to pay in exchange for it.

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