Studying Karl Marx’s Capital From a Libertarian Perspective, Chapter 1, Section 2: The Two-Fold Character of the Labor Embodied in Commodities.

(audio source: Libravox via Internet Archive)

Coats are not exchangeable…

Beginning section 2, Marx employs, with scant explanation, the new concept of the relative commodity.  I don’t recall from the previous chapter any concise definition of the term commodity, but the definition is not too difficult to extrapolate: A commodity is a useful item produced trough human labor for the purpose of being exchanged.  If I made a coat for the purpose of exchanging it for something I wanted more, I suppose Marx would consider that to be an “commodity in the absolute”, although he has not (yet) used that term.  But suppose that I hated the sound of trumpets so much that I would never under any circumstances exchange one of my coats for any number of trumpets.  Because my coat was not produced for the purpose of being exchanged with trumpets, my coat would not be a commodity relative to trumpets, although it would remain a commodity for other purposes.  Under this framework, Marx derives the following rule about like commodities:


A flash of sober reflection reveals the difficulty with such a general pronouncement.  I imagine Marx would never assert such a patent absurdity as “baseball cards are not exchangeable for baseball cards.” Why then does he assert, without qualification, that “coats are not exchangeable for coats”?  I imagine also that Marx would not assert such an equally patent absurdity as “frocks are not exchangeable for tailcoats”.  As well as I’m aware, frocks are perfectly exchangeable for tailcoats, despite their both being coats.

…for coats.

I can almost assent to Marx’s proposition that one use value is never exchanged for another of the same kind.  Two identical black frocks are not exhangeable under normal circumstances.  What would be the point?  A black frock may be exchangeable for a blue frock because the two have different aethetic uses.  Yet the labor required to make each coat is qualitatively identical.  In any case, the quality of the labor involved in making both coats is irrelevant as to whether the parties would agree to exchange them.  All that matters to them is their subjective desires regarding the colors of the coats.  I sense, however, that this plain observation will not deter Marx from lumbering through yet another self-gratifying exegesis, this time on the effects of a variety of labor qualities on the exchangeability of commodities.

Indeed, without substantiation, Marx generalizes his rule regarding the exchanegability of like use values to the exchangeability of all commodities produced through labor of the same quality:

The assertion is questionable.  As far as I’m aware, a black frock can perfectly well confront a blue frock as a relative commoditiy, even though I am unable to discern an appreciable difference between the quality of labor required to produce each frock.  I would not preclude the possibility, however, that an expert in the art of dying fabric could demonstrate such a difference.

Skilled labor counts…

Consider baseball cards, alternatively.  I am aware of no special qualitative difference between the quality of labor used to produce Jose Canseco baseball cards and the quality of labor required to produce Nolan Ryan baseball cards.  Both require gathering photographs and statistics of notable athletes and printing them on a small piece of cardstock. Yet, as any child could tell you, the two cards are exchangeable.  Until Marx can explain away this apparent deficiency in his above lemma, I would treat any conclusions he draws from it as suspect.  Marx uses the lemma in this section to describe some rudiments of the evolution of the division of labor.

Following this discussion, Marx clarifies that the variation in the quality of labor required to diverse commodities affects only their use values.  Their values, on the other hand, are determined through an assessment of average, distilled, labor time.  Again, Marx discards “value” added through superior diligence, experience, and skill as so much offal from a prime cut of beef.  Value is more conveniently calculated through a simple function of the most crude, base forms of human productive activity.  Marx makes no effort to account for time saved through diligence and skill:


The remainder of the section is spent describing the two-fold nature of labor as announced in the section heading. Labor has both a qualitative aspect that gives rise to its use value, and a quantitative aspect that gives rise to its value. Beginning around 14:25 of the recording, Marx uses the term productiveness to describe only the quality of labor. An increase in the laborer’s productiveness, in Marx’s sense, affects only the use-value of the commodity she produces, and does not affect the value. This usage of the term productiveness differs from that of my previous understanding. As I understood the term, it could be applied to either the usefulness of the commodity a laborer produces or the quantity of a commodity that the laborer is able to produce in a given time. This confused me until I accepted the change in definition. By the time we reach Engels’s end editorial note, productiveness, or the quality of labor, came to be labelled work, whereas the pure quantity of labor retained the label labor.

Finally, I’d like to address Marx’s invocation of Adam Smith’s understanding of the Labor Theory of Value:

I’ve occasionally heard socialist apologists invoke Adam Smith’s acceptance of the Labor Theory of Value and concerns about class struggle as a strike against the foundations of capitalist thought. I will not defend Adam Smith on these grounds simply because he was Adam Smith. If Adam Smith believed that labor is the source of value, then he was as wrong as Marx was on that issue. As Issac Morehouse at the Prometheus Institute cogently explained:

…only as simple labor intensified…. (Photo: Singh)

[S]ound reason can’t be sacrificed on the altar of great men – and Smith was a great man…. His conclusions and prescriptions were correct, even though his methodology was sometimes flawed. However, the lessons to be gleaned are to never let admiration for a great mind blind you to areas in which they are in error; and that even correct conclusions, if based on incorrect reasoning, can be dangerous.

Labor is not the source of “value”, no matter what Adam Smith said. Labor does, however, play a role in determining property rights. With some reservations, I generally accept Locke’s formulation of the origin of property rights:

Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other Men. For this Labour being the unquestionable Property of the Labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joyned to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.

Although the source of the labor determines who owns the property, the amount of labor does not affect the “value” of the property. That is determined only by what the owner is willing to accept, and what others are willing to give up, in exchange for it.

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