I’ve just learned that Thomas Lord a Berkely activist has passed. I’ve been talking to Thomas on Twitter for years and always respected his point of view. Both of us really enjoyed The Real Movement Blog from Jehu and I would offen bounce ideas off him and he even offered me writing advice for this blog. Thomas will be missed and as a tribute I’d like to publish this draft outline he posted years ago on chapter 1 of Capital Volume 1. Rest in Power and thank you for helping me understand Marxs argument much better.

A summary of chapter 1:

Section 1 – use value and value

The argument Marx makes in Chapter 1 begins with the objective, empirical observations that:

  1. The wealth of capitalist societies is generally in the form of commodities.

  2. Commodities are exchanged, unlike for unlike, in socially objective ratios – noting however that those ratios vary with time and place.

  3. The different types of commodity are distinct use values, each quantifiable in their particular ways. The ratios of exchange are ratios of otherwise incommensurate quantities (10 yards linen = 3 quarts whiskey, etc.)

Marx then reveals the existence of value through an analytic argument:

  1. The ratios are socially objective (even if variable) and thus, somehow, materially real.

  2. The logic inherent in such ratios means that some property common to all types of commodity (let’s call it “value”) is being quantified.

Marx, a materialist, adds an empirical observation:

  1. Since value is socially objective, it must have a material basis.

He then analytically arrives at abstract (or simple) labor time as a (little noticed!) socially objective fact:

  1. The only common material fact to all types of commodities is that they are the product of labor.

  2. Therefore values quantify the labor content of commodities (but this requires further qualification).

  3. Labor is quantified by units of time. Values are (somehow) measures of labor time.

Section 2: The two-fold character of labor embodied in commodities

Marx next elaborates this concept of value as labor time.

  1. The types of labor vary in every concrete detail (e.g. weaving vs. tailoring). Therefore the socially objective quantity of labor in a commodity must be of an abstract sort: simple or abstract labor.

  2. Thus, in a capitalist society, some social process establishes a common measure otherwise unobservable abstract labor time — labor “in the abstract”.

  3. Abstract labor time is not concrete labor time. 1 hour of weaving and 1 hour of tailoring may (and generally will) represent different amounts of abstract labor time.

  4. Nevertheless, at the heart of abstract labor time there are always acts of concrete labor.

A brief digression – a peak ahead:

Marx goes on to talk about money but before I get to that, a remark about the commodity fetish:

Marx has so far argued that society operates on the principle that, somehow, the labor of the candle maker, the weaver, the printer, and the tailor are all equivalent in terms of some “abstract labor”. At the end, he points out that that seems crazy on the face of it.

That is, indeed, part of his point with the commodity fetish. Comparing such diverse labor this way, as a basis for all of society, is both crazy AND it is what we in capitalist society actually do.

But returning to the thread of Marx’s argument:

Section 3: The Form of Value or Exchange-Value

Marx next circles back to his empirical premises about the exchange of commodities. He took as socially objective fact the phenomenon of commodity exchange in definite ratios. He analyzed this to discover value.

This is a bit subtle: Marx has shown so far that capitalist society has somehow brought forth objective measurements of abstract labor time in the form of commodity ratios. Yet, abstract labor time is by definition not directly observable.

What Marx is now obliged to explain who not-directly-observable abstract labor time manifests as objective social fact. Through analysis, Marx observes that:

  1. Commodity values as a social objective fact becomes possible as soon as it becomes possible to know the ratio between any individual commodity, and some common unit of measurement: a price, in other words.

Capitalism is not an eternal natural phenomenon. It arose in a historical process and capitalist prices arrived as part of that process.

As a scientist, Marx is obliged to now explain the origin of prices and, hence, money.

Marx’s analysis resumes (section 3):

  1. In isolation, we have only simple ratios: 1 coat = 10 lbs tea

  2. In extension, the equation expands to encompass all commodities: 1 coat = 10 lbs tea = 1/2 ton iron = 2 ounces gold = 1 quarter corn = “x of commodity A”, etc.

  3. Any one commodity, any at all, can serve as a standard for all the others, as when saying that all of those other commodities have the same value as 1 coat. 1 coat becomes the “universal equivalent” for various amounts of other commodities.

  4. When a society agrees upon a particular commodity as the standard, such as “1 ounce gold”, then the ratios of commodities have become socially objective. Such a distinguished commodity we call “money”. This is the “money form” of expressing value.

  5. Because money is itself a commodity, it embodies a definite quantity of concrete labor. In this instance, the labor needed to extract and refine gold.

  6. That specific concrete labor, the labor congealed as an ounce of gold, becomes the objective standard against which all abstract labor is measured.

Finally, we can turn to the conclusion of the argument made in chapter 1.

Section 4: The commodity fetish.

  1. The analysis of commodities revealed value, reified abstract labor time, as the subject of exchange.

  2. Value – observable only indirectly – has an enigmatic character, a strange metaphysics, mysterious rules for how it moves. It is an almost religious concept, that regard.

  3. The analysis above has shown that the material fact of value is not to be found in the concrete details of any actual act of labor. It is not to be found in the material contents of a commodity.

  4. Where, in material reality then, does value – abstract labor time – reside? What manifests it? What makes it a real thing?

  5. Nothing is left that can explain where commodity value resides but in the social form that exchange takes in capitalist society. Value, abstract labor time, resides solely within the specifically capitalist order of society. The society regulated by commodity exchange.

  6. People, however, do not think of it this way. Rather, they take the facts of capitalist exchange and commodities as timeless, as part of nature itself. Commodities simply have a price. What more do you need to know?

  7. Our relations of production – how we make our own means of survival – is a social process, but the actual social relations are obscure, unconscious to us.

  8. Our subjectivity, instead, contemplates the relations among objects – the relations among commodities. We see our social participation in production solely in terms of objects and their prices.

  9. It is not hard to imagine other ways of viewing production. We can conceive of a society in which when people work to produce, they divide labor and allocate their time based on an understanding of need and how it relates to their possible contributions.

  10. But religion is the reflection of material life and similarly the bourgeois categories of existence – categories such as commodity and price – have this distancing, obfuscating quality.

  11. We are prevented by that mystification from together mastering rather than all being mastered by our social relations.

  12. “The life-process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan.”

  13. That can not occur until we have passed through this and earlier phases of development.

  14. Bourgeois economists, stubbornly mystified by value, are idiots.