Marx’s Concept of Commodities Revisited

(This article is one of the coursework requirements in a sociology course: Classical Sociological Theory)

In socio-economic activities, commodities play an essential role in shaping and affecting social processes. This paper will discuss Karl Marx’s concepts of “commodities,” which will focus on its values, labour embodiment, and the extent to social relations. Entities or commodities are items or articles external to humans, satisfy their needs and wants. When we talk of an item, the first thing that comes into our minds is the goods or merchandise in the market for money exchange for its given value. It is in our modern time, which is an era of a monetized global economy. However, Marx looks at it as a simple thing, yet he tries to see its production complexity to give more sense. Thus, it is an exceptional idea to consider the process of making a particular item instead of just being engrossed by its appearance.

     In a profound sense of looking into a commodity, Marx identifies two factors. First, the use-value, which exhibits the usefulness or utility of the product. In this sense, usage or consumption of a thing translates its use-value. To understand, a plain stool that is unused as a seat has no use-value because it does not serve its purpose. Second, the value that refers to the matter’s substance and the magnitude of value exhibits the expended time to make a material thing. For instance, a simple stool takes three hours to make, so the labour time represents the chair’s value. These factors, as Marx determined, are also bases for exchange-value.  In Marx’s view, the exchange-value denotes the amount or quantity that a product “exchanged” for other trade articles, which he did not clarify if it is of equal measure.

     Given all those ideas, there is still more to dwell on. On the one hand, conceptualizing a particular commodity, for example, a bandana, the concepts of its utility comes together in the process before making it. Considering utility, bandana, a piece of cloth bigger than a handkerchief has various usage such as head cover, headband, scarf, bandage, face cover, and other similar things. In the first place, the idea of creating something out of an object implies a use-value of that thing. That idea of usefulness is the value a producer holds onto to make a particular commodity. In its sense, use-value is a continuum of materials representing a specific product’s abstract toward its consumption, which in turn recognizes its use-value. Hence, use-value is a depository of multiple values of a commodity such as its substance value – the material element, and the magnitude of costs – the consumed time for labour.

     On the other hand, a commodity is a finished product from raw material. In this case, the expended time to prepare the material elements is unaccounted for producing a thing. For instance, a table is a product made of good lumber, yet such lumber came from a log that once a standing tree. Thus, the unaccounted expended time on those series of work is missing values to make the table a commodity. Otherwise, we consider the log or the good lumber as independent finished products or items and not raw materials. The corresponding expended labour time in making a table shows a labour series’s exertion in the preceding example. The question is: Where will the labour-time start to determine its value equitably? Making a genuine leather jacket is another excellent example. Having natural leather involves tedious tasks; for instance, having a deer’s leather consists of a series of jobs such as hunting, skinning, dyeing and drying of the skin, and sewing or tailoring to create a jacket.

     Labor, embodied in commodities, uncovers the hidden usefulness of a matter. For instance, a tree trunk has its valuable characteristic, which can be exposed if made to a mortar and a pestle, and other similar things. Labour is considered fruitful work that materializes an item’s use-value, and its usage or consumption also realizes its use-value. At this point, I emphasize that matters have stored or intact values that only productive labour can discharge. So, fruitful work that creates a commodity adds value to skills, time, and consumption. Those added values, then, are the accumulated values of a thing.  On the contrary, unproductive labour makes no commodity and therefore, the raw material and the work expended become waste.

     Ideally, the exchange-value represents the same value of both commodities for exchange. Let us consider the number of farm products to demonstrate the equal value of an item for trade. For example, ten corn cobs in exchanged for ten potatoes or a bucket of wheat grains for a bucket of corn grains. If the same amount of time the farmer consumed in farming activities to corn and potatoes or wheat and corn, the exchange is so. However, other conditions in growing crops, like drought or flooding, may alter farm products’ exchange-values. Another excellent example of this change in values is the commodity produced during the off-season, wherein time expended in farming might be longer.

     While use-value viewed the uses of things, exchange-value refers to exchanging two different commodities of equal value. However, factors of trade vary, and considerations change. In the context of trading, “what more one can get” supersedes “what one needs.” The transaction means that exchange alters the value of a commodity, which is socially measured. At some point, the trading of things disregards the real value that a worker should have calculated. In comparing items to the change of value, either one of the commodities indeed remains the same. Thus, trading situates the labour value in a disadvantaged position.

     Another point to think about is the social character exhibited in the production processes. Commodity production entails social relationships, which describe the mutual relationship among workers affirmed by their work time. It also forms the social relations between the products they made. Undeniably, a particular commodity is the sum of all the elements put together through the production process. This process, which involves an object to shape into something useful and the time workers spend to create new things as a commodity, is also a chain of social reality relationships. No one can reject that any commodity is a product of both human imagination and fruitful labour that materializes it.

     At first, it is easy to determine that the products’ use-value and consumption demonstrate such a relationship. Nevertheless, Marx describes commodity fetishism as the social connections among the workers’ things and not the workers’ relationship. However, if we look deeply at the relationship between things, it is an inseparable social relationship among the production processes. It means the worker exertion to create something (a commodity) through the worker’s collective efforts t into creation. Only the act of exchange emerges the social relations of things or commodities (fetishism), which also involves interactions among traders.

     Commodities are things made to satisfy human needs or wants, which yield economic exchange and public consumption. More so, items made through the embodiment of substantial elements (raw materials), use-value, labour time, and social relations. Generally, in an exchange event, a thing’s value is viewed on its usefulness and quality, regardless of labour expended in its creation. So, it is merely pointing out its use-value or utility.

     It is important to note that commodities are material products made for exchange and public consumption. Human labour makes those commodities possible to satisfy human needs and wants. Consumptions realize the use-value of such items, while its exchange-value varies in the market and alters the extent of expended labour. Today, it is essential to consider that a specific commodity’s value is difficult to determine due to social conditions surrounding commodities’ production, such as an unsafe workplace, excessive work time, among other unfavourable conditions.

     Given the accounts above, the capitalists have total control of the economic activities, perpetuating inequality and labour exploitation for their profits’ sake. In a capitalist economy, the capitalist’s conditions suppress the workers’ freedom of expression at work, which also describes Marx’s alienation of labour. This suppression of worker’s freedom creates a situation where the labourers themselves cannot give the ideal values of commodities even they have a firmer grasp of the real conditions during production. On the other hand, in a capitalist society, wages trap the workers’ value of time. Therefore, the values embodied in a commodity are manipulated and calculated by production owners, which become the social standard measurement of commodity values.

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References

Ferentzy, A. (28th September 2020). Commodities and Money: A Series of Lecture on Classical Sociological Theory. Synchronous Lecture. Trent University – Durham

Marx, K. (1873). The Critique of Capitalism. The Chapter on Commodities, pp. 303-328.

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