Spring 1999

Capital, Volume 1

Preface, Postface


Abstraction and expression


What is meant by science?  laws, abstraction, change.


· science and laws: what is meant by "law"; what do laws determine;

 what governs the laws?

p. 91 - "iron necessity.  The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future."

p. 92 - read "Even when a society has begun to track down ... shorten and lessen the birth-pangs."

Two points here 1) the movement or development of a society has natural laws; 2) the succession is linear.

p. 101 - read Russian economist Kaufman: "For this is quite enough... but rather, determining that will, consciousness, intelligence."

p. 101 - read "But this is exactly what Marx denies ... its own laws."

· not abstract laws but historical laws, evolution

· science and abstraction


The power of abstraction and biology

· read p. 90: Because the complete body ... economic cell-form."  What does abstraction mean here?  How is the study of economics like biology?

· compare to example of butryic acid and exchange of two different commodities.  Read p. 141: "In the same way ... physical formation."

· relate this to the capitalist mode of production in England and Germany.  The physicist conducts experiments to study the process in "its pure state."  "What I have to examine in this work is the capitalist mode of production, and the relations of production and the forms of intercourse that correspond to it."  The question is: how does capitalism in England or capitalism in Germany relate to capitalism in its pure state?

· Althusser, Reading Capital, Part II Appendix, pp. 194-98.  The abstraction can be seen in two ways. One might think of the abstraction as beginning with the actual conditions in England and abstracting from them, purifying them -- as if Marx were moving from the empirical to the ideal.  Abstraction as subtraction.  But Althusser claims the relation is just the opposite.  Marx pursues the capitalist mode of production on a conceptual level.  "What I have to examine in this work ...."  The capitalist mode of production is the "theoretical object."  Read Althusser, p. 196.  Althusser's notion of the "concept of the real" is meant to pose the distinction from the ideal on one hand and the empirical on the other.  Related to "the law of phenomena"? (p. 100).

· Althusser also says in this regard that Marx discovered the concept of the proletariat before discovering its empirical existence.


p. 92 - Träger, bearer of economic categories: the structure of subjectivity.  Read p. 92.  This is a form of abstraction, but also later we'll see its a mode of representation.

· See p. 126: use values bear exchange values.

· p. 143: coat expresses in linen, gold-braided uniform.


· dialectics and change

- opposite to Hegelian: material and ideal.  Read p. 102: "My dialectical method ... forms of thought."  p. 103 "standing on its head"  head metaphor = idealism.

p. 103 - idealist "glorify what exists"; material change, fluidity: "it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state."

p. 96 - political economists view capitalist order as "absolute and ultimate form of social production."  Read p. 96.


Capital, Volume 1, Part 1 (Chapters 1, 2, and 3)


"The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an immense collection of commodities."


What is a commodity?  What is the value of a commodity?  How is that value determined?


Definition #1: a commodity is an external thing that satisfies a need (a need that might be natural or socially determined) p. 125


This definition leads directly to the conception of use-value, satisfying a need.  It is the physical properties of the commodity itself that is its use-value.  Use-values are qualitatively different: iron, corn, diamond.  They form the material content of wealth in all societies.  They are incommensurable.


But in capitalist societies each commodity also has an exchange value.  "in the form of society to be considered here they are also the material bearers [Träger]of ... exchange value" (p. 126).


Hence Definition #2: a commodity in capitalist society is defined by its dual character, use-value and exchange-value.  "they are only commodities because they have a dual nature (read p. 138).

· primarily quantitative rather than qualitative; exchange values are defined by their commensurability.


Abstraction and expression:

· abstraction from use-value (read p. 127 bot)

· exchange value puts two incommensurables in common (read p. 127 top)

((· later Marx will use "value" to mean "exchange-value"))


What is expressed by exchange value and what is the common element that makes exchange-values commensurable?  Labor.  The quantity of labor determines the quantity of each exchange-value.  But all labors are different; they are concrete, material, particular, incommensurable.

The labor that can be viewed purely quantitatively – as “human labor-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure” – is abstract labor.  Read p. 128 top paragraph.


This is the real instance of abstraction and expression.  Read p. 135 bottom.


Quality                         concrete labor             (expression)  —>            use value

                                                |                                                                       |

                                                V                                                                     V

                                    Abstraction (Träger)

                                                |                                                                       |

                                                V                                                                     V

Quantity                       abstract labor                (expression)  —>            exchange value


Darstellung and Forschung:

Don’t get fooled by the progressions of the argument.  These aren’t really causal relations just means of presentation:

1) use-value priority

2) development of money, the “origin” of money.


Some Questions

a)      Do use-values have an existence autonomous from capital?  (See p. 138: “Commodities come into the world ….”  Natural form of commodities.  It is an outside of capital?  Spivak argues that use-value exists only in relation to exchange value, that it is not an autonomous outside.  Use-value is a rhetorical starting-point that has to be canceled out once the argument is set in motion.

b)      Is a commodity really a thing?  Expansion of service industries and the dematerialization of commodities puts this further into question.  Is a video cassette a service of a durable good?  Maybe commodities in general should be thought of not as things but as services or really social relations.  (Affective labor).

c)      Note that abstraction is not all bad: commensuration leads to social unification.



1.3 The Value-Form, or Exchange Value

· The point here is to show the social "origin" of the money-form, or really to demonstrate how money is socially constructed. 

· The value-form "can only appear in the social relation between commodity and commodity" (139) -- or rather it's the sociality of exchange value that leads to the money form. The interesting thing in this progression is expression and sociality.  What is an adequate expression of abstract labor?  What is the social nature of commodities?


A: Relative and Equivalent Forms

· 20 yards of linen = one coat

(relative form) = (equivalent form)

commodity whose value is expressed = commodity that expresses value


· In commodity in relative form we see the movement from use value to exchange value and from concrete to abstract labor in order to realize a qualitative equivalence.

· In commodity in equivalent form we move in the opposite direction.  It is first exchange value and abstract value and only second use value. 

· It needs a commodity of different quality before it to realize its value--this is the social character.  Expression requires difference but what is expressed is what is common (abstract labor).

  Read p. 140: the commodity can only express its value in another - relation to the other is the social character of commodities.

- read p.144 note: Peter and Paul.  Difference  and commonality: In the face of the other each recognizes its common essence.  Language as sociality: read p. 143 bot: abstract labor is the language of commodities.

· The value of commodities is "purely social" - read p. 149. Purely social has two meanings:

  1) it conceals a social relation (concrete labor)

  2) it expresses a social relation (among commodities)


· Hence 1st mystery (p. 149) - use / exchange

  2nd mystery (p. 150)  - concrete / abstract labor

  3rd mystery (p. 151)  - private / social labor

In each case the second term appears as natural and the former appears as a product of it.


· Aristotle example (p. 152) : incommensurability of objects and need for commensurability for exchange. Aristotle couldn't recognize abstract labor because of slavery (historical limitation).  Modern equality and exchange.


B: Expanded Relative Form of Value

  20 yards of linen = one coat = 20 lb of tea = etc

  Read p. 155.  Two things are going on here:

  1) movement toward an adequate expression of abstract labor;

  2) development of the society of commodities. · Defect of expanded form: bad infinity, never stops.  Or really: it is an inadequate expression - read p. 156: "it is a motley ...."


C: General Form

  one coat

  20 lb of tea =  20 yards of linen

  40 lb of coffee

· Read p. 159-60: positive expression of abstract labor.

· Read p. 159 "It thus becomes evident ...."  Purely social existence of commodities.  Again 2 meanings of social.


D: Money Form


the general equivalent is excluded.


Chapter 1.4: Fetishism


1)      What is mysterious about the commodity?  (pp. 163-65)

· The dancing table (use value and exchange value), read pp. 163-164.

· Progression from concrete labor to abstract labor to social relation between the products of labor (commodities)

· Reification - a social relation appears as a relation among things.

· Metaphor of sight, not sufficient because light is external to the eye

· Metaphor of religion: fetish - an inanimate object worshiped as if it had magically qualities, or as if it were animated.


2)      What is the origin of the fetish-like character? (pp. 165-68)  Valid only for capitalist society: Darstellung and Forschung

· reflection and reality, p. 168.

· Robinson Crusoe as individual capitalist pp. 169-70.

· Medieval production as not based on commodity fetishism, p. 170.


3) What political economists do and don't understand, pp. 173-74.  They treat it as eternal, p. 174n.


Again about the fetishism of commodities: dual meaning of “purely social”

  Part of the fetishism is that the commodity tends to hide its own history and appear as something natural.  What is hidden is the labor that went into its production and the social relations implied in that labor.  Dancing table appears as an autonomous subject not the product of labor.  Read p. 187: “The movement through which the process has been mediated vanishes in its own result, leaving no trace behind.”

· Take a pencil for example.  We encounter as something natural and take its existence for granted.  How was it produced, by whom, and where?  In a simple commodity are contained a vast network of social organization.  Think about this morning's breakfast.


Chapter 2 and Chapter 3.1



1)      Träger: in what sense are humans guardians of the commodities?  What is Marx's explanation for treating them merely as "personifications of economic relations ... bearers of these economic relations"? (p. 179 top). 

2)      How is it that a product of labor "becomes" a commodity?  Why was it not a commodity before?  Read p. 181 bottom.  A use-value must become a non-use-value.  Alienation. 

3)      Historical origin of commodities and the development of money.  How does this relate to the logical explanation Marx already gave?  Social and anthropological explanations of the origin of commodities, pp. 182-83.

4)      Money appears as natural, money fetish, p. 187.  Reverse relation. money-form (price) -> social relation -> abstract labor



· Money is "the direct incarnation of all human labor" (p. 187) and thus "Money as the measure of value is the necessary form of appearance of the measure of value which is immanent in commodities, namely labour- time" (p. 188).  What is the mystery of money?  Why money fetish?

· Money serves only in an ideal or imaginary capacity (pp. 189-90): "relation with gold exists only in their heads" (p. 189). 

· attributes of gold that allow it to serve as money: uniformity and quantitative divisibility (p. 184). 

· divergences of price and value (pp. 196-97, 202): overproduction, supply/demand.

· Alienation and metamorphosis (pp. 199-200).  "Money is the absolutely alienable commodity" (p. 205).

· Metamorphosis of commodities = abstraction of labor (p. 204).


READ p. 199-200: what is alienation here?  What is the antagonism between commodity form and money form?  How does one "negate" the other?



· commodities are not exchanged directly for each other money stands between them:  C-M-C  and then continue this out  C-M-C-M-C...