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Commodity-form (of labour and product of labour)

Value, use-value, exchange-value, value-form, commodity fetishism, Marx; I I Rubin; Zizek, Ricardo.

'The mystery of the commodity form, therefore, is simply that it takes the social characteristics of men's own labour and reflects them back to men as the objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the social natural properties of these things. It thus also reflects the social relation of the producers to the totality of labour as a social relation of objects, one that exists independently of the producers. Through this quid pro quo the products of labour become commodities and natural supernatural or social things. Thus the light impression something makes on the optic nerve does not appear as a subjective stimulus of the optic nerve itself but as the objective form of a thing outside the eye. But in vision light really is projected from one thing, the external object, onto another thing, the eye. It is a physical relation between physical things. On the contrary, the commodity form, and the value relation of the products of labour in which it is expressed, have absolutely nothing to do with their physical nature and the concrete relations arising from it. Here it is only the specific social relation of men themselves that assumes for them the phantasmagoric form of a relation of things. Hence in order to find an analogy we must take flight to the obscure region of the religious world. Here the products of the human mind appear endowed with their own life, as independent forms that enter into relations with one another and with men. In the commodity world, the same holds for the products of the human hand. This I call the fetishism that clings to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and which therefore is inseparable from commodity production.'

The analysis of the commodity show that it is a doublet yet what appears as an analytical separation exists in reality too. 'The value form of the commodity is its social form', opposed to the 'natural form' of a given thing. (Value Studies by Marx; p. 99 (results of the immediate process of production))

The method of apprehending the role of the commodity is to take its simplest shape as point of departure. This is to be understood through the principles of simple exchange: one commodity relates to another, its exchangeability reliant upon the use-value of another. Yet these simple relations are soon overturned once money or the general equivalent has been introduced (and in capital at least consideration of use-value drops from the analysis). Several misunderstandings have arisen by the conflation of these abstract ideas of simple exchange and a historical idea of simple commodity production. It has been demonstrated (Arthur) that Marx did not have in mind early (i.e. pre- capitalist exchange relations) commodity production nor was he trying to describe the historical genesis of capital at this point. The distinction within the commodity is there in order to advance the understanding of the commodity as social form of value.

'The simple value form of the commodity is the simple appearance form of the oppositions of use-value and exchange value contained in it.' In many places Marx describes use-value as present in all societies, yet its disctintion to exchange value belongs especially to capitalist social relations. Marx in places describes use-value as natural, but this meant for Marx a, 'palpable, sensible form of existence'. Use values are material things whereas exchange values do not contain an ounce of matter. Value has no meaning outside the general social relationships that give rise to it.

One question is: does this distinction still exist in modern capitalist economies? Firstly 'use-values' have undergone major qualitative changes. Namely use-values can not easily be related to as 'natural' in counterposition to the sociality of exchange value. They are arguably now just as social, this at least is the import of anti-productivist critiques of capitalism (Baudriallard). In the latter's case they have a sign-value, a code, a role of social signification that goes far beyond their utility. Yet other criticisms have taken this further. Under capitalism use-value becomes quite simply useless. Capitalism creates social needs that are then supposedly satisfied by consuming certain use-values. Marx himself described many - in his day luxury commodities - as 'crappy shit'. Can we continue to ground the analysis of capital by separating off use-values in the analysis? Does this real separation adequately reflect the way particular commodities are considered or treated in actual capitalist practice?

Further resources
Brief outline of Zizek's comments about the commodity form in the first chapter of the sublime object of ideology

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