Marx begins his analysis of Capital with an analysis of the commodity. This is because, as he says in The Preface, although its easier to make a visual analysis of a whole body than it is to make a microscopic analysis of the cells that make up the body, unless you do the latter its impossible to get an understanding of how the whole body works. Commodities are like the cells of a body they are the basic building blocks of Capital. As he says,
“The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities, its unit being a single commodity.”
What is a commodity? Marx describes it in terms of the heading of the Chapter (The Substance of Value and the Magnitude Of Value). It combines two different things. Firstly, anything, in order to be a commodity must satisfy some human want. That doesn't mean it has to be generally considered useful. For example, it might be generally considered that crack-cocaine is not socially beneficial or useful, but the fact that some individuals want it, and are prepared to pay for it, qualifies it as being wanted. For those who want it, it has what Marx describes as Use Value or what orthodox Economics calls Utility. This is one of the elements then of a commodity, its Use Value.
As Marx describes it, it is the Substance of Value, and its nature resides in its Quality rather than Quantity. Just as its not possible to compare apples with oranges, so we cannot compare the quality, the Use Value of any commodity to that of another. For one thing, what is useful to you may not be to me.
Commodities are also not just wanted by final consumers. Commodities are wanted by Capitalists too. Coal is a commodity which is wanted by final consumers to burn, to provide them with warmth. But, coal is also wanted by capitalists to burn in power stations, or to fire kilns.
In short, the first requirement of a commodity is that it is wanted by somebody for something. It does not have to be a physical thing either. Entertainment provided by a singer, an actor or a dancer is wanted by some people to fulfil a need. But, the utility, the usefulness, the quality of the Use Value, cannot be separated from the Use Value itself. The utility of generating heat provided by coal cannot be separated from the coal itself – though, of course a different heat can be produced by different Use Values, for example, gas, wood, oil and so on. The utility provided by the entertainment of a singer cannot be separated from the singer. The utility provided by a recording of the singer is a different utility than that of a live performance. In both cases the utility is a function of the quality and quantity. A high quality coal providing more heat than a poor quality coal. A larger quantity of coal more heat than a smaller quantity of the same coal, for example.
For most of man's history what has been produced is Use Values that were not commodities. They were useful items, including entertainment and the like, which were produced to be consumed directly rather than to be sold or exchanged. Throughout Man's history, it has been the quality and quantity of these Use Values, produced and accumulated, that has been the measure of true wealth. It is only when these Use Values begin to be traded extensively that the other element within the commodity – the Exchange Value – manifests itself. Moreover, the more society organises itself to produce for the purpose of exchange, rather than direct consumption, the more it is this Exchange Value that becomes dominant and becomes the measure of wealth. It is to understanding the nature of this Exchange Value that Marx then turns.
Forward To Part 2
Forward To Part 2