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Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society
Alienation and the Law of Value
The idea that Capital is a work about alienation has struck many people in the years since the publication of the 1844 Manuscripts.1 There is little to be gained, therefore, in simply repeating this claim, but perhaps a great deal in making a case for it. Too much of the dispute over the role of alienation in Marx's later economic writings has centered on the use of the term "alienation" and certain stock analyses that occupy a prominent place in the Manuscripts. The logic of the theories concerned, the actual relations between them, has received altogether too little attention. It is the purpose of this essay to exhibit the connections between the theories of alienation and value by examining some of the components of the latter, by seeking for the theory of alienation in the theory of value itself.2
At the core of Marx's economics, it is generally conceded, is the labor theory of value and the adjoining theory of surplus-value. Marx offers what is probably the most concise statement of his theory of value where he says: "That which determines the magnitude of the value of any articles is the amount of labor socially necessary, or the labor-time socially necessary, for its production. Each individual commodity in this connection is to be considered as an average sample of its class. Commodities, therefore, in which equal quantities of labor are embodied, or which can be produced in the same time, have the same value. The value of one commodity is to the value of any other, as the labor-time necessary for the production of the one is to that necessary for the production of the other. As values all commodities are only definite masses of congealed labor time."3
The theory of surplus-value is best seen as an appendage to the theory of value; for, according to Marx: "If we now compare the two processes of producing value and of creating surplus-value, we see that the latter is nothing but a continuation of the former beyond a definite point. If on the one hand, the process be not carried beyond the point where the value paid by the capitalist for the labor-power is replaced by an exact equivalent, it is simply a process of producing value; if, on the other hand, it be continued beyond that point, it becomes a process of creating surplus-value."4
Before trying to explain what Marx is saying here, we must know what kind of thing is being said. What in other words, is the labor theory of value about? It is most often viewed as a theory of price determination, holding that the cost of any article is determined by the amount of labor-time given to its production. More sophisticated critics see it as a theory which explains existing exchange relationships, price being but a handy indication of what these generally are. A variation on this theme has Marx's labor theory of value expressing a view as to what ought to determine exchange relationships rather than what actually does. The theory of surplus-value is usually seen as a theory dealing with profits, and, sometimes, simply as a way of highlighting capitalist exploitation.5
Marx's theories are criticized or defended differently, of course, depending on which interpretation is adopted. In our opinion, there is a degree of truth in each of themMarx's theories of value and surplus-value have some application in all these areasbut the purpose for which these theories were constructed lies elsewhere. Paul Sweezy has underlined what should be obvious but unfortunately is not, that the problems great economists have directed their attention to are not the same. He gives as examples, "'the nature and causes of the wealth of nations' (Adam Smith); 'the laws which regulate the distribution of the produce of the earth' (Ricardo); 'man's actions in the ordinary business of life' (Marshall); 'price and its causes and its corollaries' (Davenport); 'human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses' (Robbins)."6 Marx's preoccupation was different still. In every case, we can only comprehend the person's theories after clearly grasping the problems he set out to answer, what he wants his theories to do. Yet, this preliminary task, particularlyit seems to usas regards Marx's writings, is frequently shirked. The result is that a lot of the comment on his economic theories is simply beside the point, that is, the point that Marx was trying to make.
Marx's declared aim in Capital is "to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society."7 His is an attempt to establish how capitalism works. There is no other economist who has undertaken a similar task. Viewing society as an organic whole, Marx is concerned with men's relations to all their activities, products, and others, and not only with those found in the economic sphere. For him, all human relations in capitalism are part of the necessary conditions and results of what occurs in production and exchange, and, hence, a proper extension of their subject matter. The ways in which factors throughout society are mutually dependent on one another, both for what they are and are becoming, is "the economic law of motion" that Marx sought to reveal.8
Capital I approaches this problem from the vantage point of economic life narrowly understood, and makes use of the categories which are generally applied to this subject. The labor theory of value emerges as Marx's conceptualization of capitalist economic life, in which are included the ties he sees to its necessary conditions and results, and in particular to the totally alienated people who inhabit this period. It was chiefly to describe, explain, and condemn their situation that this theory was given birth. In the labor theory of value Marx welds together the main economic categories of capitalism, their links with each other and with categories far distant from economics proper, his conceptualization of the sum of these relations as alienation, and his belief that a truly human society is the next stage in man's development. The very terms, "labor" and "value," as we hope to show, are only applicable to the kind of society Marx believes capitalism to be, both "factually" and "morally." With words such as these, Marx is saying, in effect: "This is how capitalism works, and this is the workings of an alienated society soon to be supplanted by communism."
Labor is the center piece of the theory which bears its name. In the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx asks: "What, then, constitutes the alienation of labor?" He replies: "First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it."9 We also learn that "the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else's, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another."10 And, finally, the other major quality which Marx ascribes to such labor is that it necessarily results in a product from which the worker is alienated or, in Marx's words: "The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him."11
Marx always understands productive activity in capitalism as alienated labor with all that this entails regarding the individual's relations to his activity, product, other men, and the species. Thus, for example, we find Marx stating in Capital that before entering the process of production the laborer's "own labor has already been alienated from himself by the sale of his labor-power, has been appropriated by the capitalist and incorporated with capital." As a consequence, "it must, during the process, be realized in a product that does not belong to him."12 Wherever the term "labor" appears in Marx's economic writings, therefore, what is conveyed is something more and different than what this same term conveys in the works of bourgeois economists.13 The widespread misconception that in his later life Marx left the theory of alienation behind him bears most of the responsibility for the equally widespread misunderstanding of his term "labor." Grasping "labor" in Capital as alienated labor is the key to understanding Marx's economic theories.
In Capital, Marx separates out the potential for engaging in labor from the term "labor" and refers to it apart as "labor-power." This conceptual bifurcation does not effect the character of the productive activity involved; "labor-power" is the potential for doing that kind of work which the worker in capitalism can do, i.e. alienated labor. Thus, when Marx says: "By labor-power or capacity for labor is to be understood the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description," he has in mind the capabilities of alienated men.14 "Use-value," we shall soon learn, means far more than that which people value because someone wishes to use it. For our present purposes, it is only necessary to declare that the use-value of labor-power (potential productive activity) is labor (actual productive activity). This innovation was introduced, because, as Marx states: "Labor itself in its immediate being, in its living existence, cannot be directly conceived as a commodity, but only labor-power, of which labor itself is the transient manifestation."15 Labor disappears, is used up, as soon as it appears, and, hence, is not available for trading; labor-power, which is more stable, is.
Therefore, it is the potential for work which the worker sells and the capitalist buys. In this transaction: "The former receives the value of his commodity, whose use-valuelaboris thereby alienated to the buyer."16 "Alienate," here, means to give up the use-value of one's productive activity; the most essential of all human functions is put under the control of another.17 The worker sells his labor-power in order to acquire the means of subsistence to live. To keep from dying the worker sells his life. While the capitalist buys the worker's labor-power in order to make a profit. Labor-power is unique among all commodities in having a use-value which creates a greater amount of exchange-value than its own exchange-value. That is, labor, the use-value of labor-power, creates a store of commodities, shoes, steel, etc., which exchange for a greater value than that which hired the labor-power expended in their production.
The human result of the worker alienating the use-value of his labor is the alienated worker.18 Both his person and mind exhibit its effects. And, as always for Marx, the mountain is capped when the individual himself misconstrues what appears to be the case for what really is. Thus, "The capitalist epoch is, therefore, characterized by this, that labor-power takes in the eyes of the laborer himself the form of a commodity which is his property; his labor consequently becomes wage-labor."19 "Wage-labor" is society's label for productive activity that has become alienated, really and ideally, from the producers.
But if the worker's alienation follows from the sale of his labor-power, it also precedes it. This emerges clearly from Marx's frequent claim that the labor-power involved in the aforementioned sale is "abstract" and "general." For him, wage-labor is always "indifferent to the specific character of its labor and must submit to being transformed in accordance with the requirements of capital and to being transformed from one sphere of production to another."20 It is only such productive potential not tied to any particular activity that the term "labor-power" conveys. Hence, Marx's criticism of Ricardo that by using "labor" instead of "labor-power" he "forgets the qualitative characteristic that the individual labor, through its alienation, must present itself as abstract, general, social labor."21 No other labor could do and be done to in this manner.22
Marx has frequently been criticized for treating labor as an abstraction, as productive activity in general, not taking into account where and how it is exercised. However, this innovation is not Marx's alone, but belongs to the whole school of political economy which began with Adam Smith. Marx's contribution to the discussion was to exhibit the ties between this use of "labor" and the particular social conditions it is meant to describe and out of which it arose. The question is not how could Marx treat labor as an abstraction, but how could society do so. It is in virtue of his response to this question (and others like it) that Marx can describe Capital as "a critique of economic categories or, if you like, the system of bourgeois economy exposed in a critical manner."23
By introducing "labor in general" into economic discourse, Adam Smith is said to have found an expression for the special character of productive activity in capitalism, where people pass easily from one kind of work to another and are generally indifferent to what they do. This, in turn, presupposes a situation where there are a great many highly developed productive tasks, none of which is clearly dominant. Thus, though "labor" also expresses productive activity in the simple, uncomplicated sense in which it must go on in all societies, the concept "labor" (meaning abstract productive activity) could only be formulated at a time when the common quality of all such activity had become evident, and conveys for Marx the full set of conditions that make it so. Accordingly, "labor" is declared to be "a product of historical conditions" and only "fully applicable to and under those conditions."24
Marx's conception of labor as alienated productive activity also lies behind his claim that labor has "socially a two-fold character": it can satisfy a definite social want, and all its particular forms are on a part with one another, i.e., measured for worth on the same scale. The former characteristic derives from the nature of productive activity as invariably purposive, and the latter from its abstract quality under capitalism, where all labor is directed toward producing wealth in general rather than particular objects.
To the individual worker, however, these distinctive features of his productive activity appear "only under those forms which are impressed upon that labor in everyday practice by the exchange of products. In this way, the character that his own labor possesses of being socially useful takes the form of the condition, that the product must be not only useful but useful for others, and the social character that his particular labor has of being the equal of all other particular kinds of labor, takes the form that all the physically different articles that are the products of labor, have one common quality, viz., that of having value."25 Hence, we may say that the qualitative aspect of labor creates use-value and its quantitative aspect creates exchange value, the two-fold character that Marx sees in labor being responsible for the two-fold character he attributes to value.26 Labor becomes use and exchange-value when its product is treated and understood as such, and that this does occur is a function of labor's quality of alienation. But, before we focus attention on the different aspects of value, the total relation between labor and value must be clarified.
If alienated labor is at the center of Marx's economics, value is not one wit closer to the perimeterfor the two are "identical," different facets of the same whole, contrasting expressions for the same social relations. According to Marx, "Value is labor"; it is "materialized labor in its general social form."27 Or, again, he claims, "Value as such has no other 'material' than labor itself."28 There are other such forthright statements of the equation of labor and value, but they seem equally to have missed their mark.29 For most readers of Capital, "value" remains an economic expression synonymous with "worth," an approbation strictly measurable in monetary terms. Its tie with labor is believed to be capable of conclusive empirical demonstration; this applies to most defenders of the labor theory of value as well as its critics.30 However, Marx's conception of value is of an altogether different nature. Its unity with labor is definitional, and the rich assortment of facts that he brings forward on this subject are for purposes of illustration and not proof. For Marx, value, or, as he sometimes says, "value in general," is transfigured labor, and no manner of evidence could serve him as a counter argument.
Thus, while Marx frequently declaims what value is, he never sets out to discover it, nor is he interested in proving it. Indeed, he treats the "necessity of proving the concept of value" as "nonsense."31 In Capital, Marx tries to measure value, to chart out where it goes, and to detail the forms it takes, but he devotes little time to uncovering its basic character. His chief concern is with a question other political economists have never asked: "Why is labor represented by the value of its product and labor-time by the magnitude of that value?"32 Rather than presenting the case that value is labor, he is attempting to explain why in our era labor is expressed as value.
Marx's is an investigation into social philosophy rather than economics proper, though only we would make such a distinction, and Marx bring the whole of his social philosophy to bear in providing the answer. It has only proven necessary to affirm the "identity" of labor and value, because Marx's assumption, albeit a stated assumption, has been generally overlooked. What Marx could take for granted, with some justification, in a period where labor theories of value dominated economic thinking must be made fully explicit now that these views have been widely discarded.
In a sense, all the labor theory of value economists, Smith, Ricardo, etc., accepted in practice the equation of value of labor, so it wasn't necessary for Marx to stress this point. Since, however, the political economists also equated value with price, the relation they saw between value and labor was open to empirical rebuttal. For them the concept of value arose from price every bit as much as from labor, and any one of the three was readily quantifiable in terms of the others. In effect, theirs was an empirical generalization that products tended to exchange in proportion to the average amount of labor needed to produce them. Marx, who would not have denied this claim, arrived at his concept of value from what he took to be the relations bound up in alienated labor. Value's connection with price, therefore, isas we shall seeof an altogether different order.
Besides Marx's few direct statements that labor is value, the definitional tie between the two also emerges from his treatment of what are widely held to be exceptions to his value theory. For example, though land may have a price, not being a product of labor, it can have no value. Consequently, Marx claims that rent is irrational.33 His critics frequently confuse value with price, but Marx is adamant that there are items which have prices but not values, "i.e., are not the products of labor."34 In such cases, prices are said to be determined by "fortuitous combinations." Land, antiques, and works of art are offered as instances of this.35
Also indicative of the equation of labor and value is Marx's claim that machines add to the value of their product only what they lose in exchange-value. The exchange-value of any machine is the amount of labor-power, measured by labor-time, which went into its production. With each increase in the value of the product for which it is held responsible attributed to a decrease in its own exchange value, and, hence, indirectly to the efforts of those who made these machines, the equation of labor with value is left intact. Whatever other benefits these machines confer, such as shortening that part of the day the laborer works to produce his own means of subsistence, is viewed in the same light as a gratuitous gift of nature.36
But simply to assert that labor is value is not to tell how it could be so. What is the essential character of value which allows Marx to equate it with the labor that goes into its production? The answer is pointed to when Marx calls value "the most abstract form of bourgeois wealth."37 Value is the abstract product of abstract labor, where "abstract" refers to the absence of specificity. Value could only be the form of the product, therefore, where it is nothing in particular but, instead, everything which all the products of capitalism have in common. Marx maintains, "the value form of the product of labor is not only the most abstract, but is also the most universal form, taken by the product in bourgeois production."38
However, robbed of all specificity, these products have nothing in common besides the fact that they were produced by alienated labor. Hence, value is the relations of alienated labor, transmitted by such labor, as they appear in the product. The "identity" of labor and value is the identity of two major forms of capitalist production relations which entail one another, each expressing form its own special vantage point the set of conditions that makes their particular interaction both possible and necessary. All the factors which come into Marx's analysis are actually social relations with internal ties to one another, facets of the same organic whole which constitutes the full sense of each one. Consequently, rather than an independent entity, value is dependent in what it is on all that made it that and nothing else. It is best grasped as a vantage point from which to view (and begin an analysis of) the complex conditions of which it is part and which are part of it. From the perspective of what happens to all the products of capitalism, value offers a view of capitalism itself. It may also be seen as the power to do and be done to in ways which characterize all capitalist products, ways which themselves express the relations of alienation out of which they arose. This is the meaning of Marx's declaration that capital "produces value as the power, alienated from labor, of labor's own material conditions over labor, only as one of the forms of wage-labor itself; as a condition of wage-labor."39
Though labor creates value, valueas the relations embodied in labor transferred to its productsconstitutes the most general conditions in and through which future labor must be exercised. In this manner, value may also be said to create labor; i.e., transform man's potential for productive activity into alienated labor. Thus, we saw in the citation given above that value is not only a product of capital but serves as well as "a condition of wage labor."
It should be clear from the foregoing that Marx's concept "value," like "labor" itself, is especially tailored to fit capitalist society. Marx says that "to stamp an object of utility as a value is just as much a social product as language."40 Value could only be produced in capitalism; and capitalism had to issue in the production of value.41 Granted that some elements of the capitalist mode of production, such as wage-labor for example, have existed from time to time on the fringes of older societies, value, as we have described it, could not have resulted. If Marx uses the term "value" in such cases, it is to express but part of the relations this term generally conveys, to indicate resemblance, just as "labor" when applied to pre-capitalist societies refers to but the universal element of what is meant by "labor" in capitalism. In Marx's eyes, the existence of value "presupposes: the dissolution of 1) primitive communism (India, etc.); 2) of all undeveloped pre-bourgeois modes of production not completely dominated by exchange." He says of value, "Although an abstraction this is an historical abstraction which could only be adopted on the basis of a particular economic development of society."42 It is simply that the most general expression of capitalist production relations could not exist before capitalist production relations.
Likewise, it is only in late capitalism, the stage of society in which Marx believed he was living, that the equation of "labor" and "value" became apparent. According to Marx, "The secret expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labor are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labor in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice."43 Where slavery or feudalism exist, the productive activity of different people appears manifestly unequal, and the notion of human equality, which is the basis of understanding value, can hardly arise.
So far we have only been concerned with "value in general." What of its better-known facets, exchange-value and use-value? Exchange-value, which Marx oftimes rather misleadingly calls "value," is the "ideal" ratio at which a product exchanges for others, i.e., its trading power, or ability to relate to other products on the basis of embodied labor-time. Exchange-value, which corresponds to the quantitative aspect of labor referred to earlier, is said to have the qualitative characteristic "that the individual labor, through its alienation, must present itself as abstract, general, social labor."44 As the labor in all products is the same alienated labor, value can be measured by the amount of labor-time expended in production. Commodities would not be sufficiently alike to be measured by one standard if the labor in them were not the same abstract, general labor (alienated labor) that Marx sees constituting the soul of value. Thus, it is the theory of alienation, with its insight into the worker's relations to his activity and product, which provides Marx with the answer to his question: "Why is labor represented by the value of its product and labor-time by the magnitude of that value?"45
The external events of trading, i.e., price rations, correspond so closely to the results of Marx's a priori arithmetic, because the items exchanged, coming from the same source, are qualitatively the same. They are all abstract wealth, the only possible product of alienated labor, and are exchanged as such. Their individual concrete forms determine, of course, who buys what, but don't count for purposes of exchange ratios. The "fluctuations" in price that occur in the market place, which result in some commodities exchanging at more or less than the amount dictated by embodied labor-time, is explained by competition, whether of buyers or sellers. Given this fluctuation, however, Marx maintains that the price of any commodity will be determined by the amount of labor-time necessary to produce it.46 From this, it follows that when supply and demand cancel each other out a commodity sells at its value.47 This leads Marx to the further conclusion that over the long run, where for any given commodity this does occur, price will equal value.48 It must be stressed, however, that Marx's main contribution to this discussion is not in rehashing what Smith and Ricardo had said before, but in making clear why such exchanges occur, in treating the entire process as an historical development based on specific social conditions.
In ascribing a major role to competition in effecting actual prices, Marx is taking account of the realities of the market place which so many of his critics have accused him of dismissing.49 However, competition, for Marx, always has a point of reference from which it takes its start. This is the exchange-value, or "ideal" trading power of the commodity. When supply is equal to demand, it is what makes the price of one pair of shoes equal to the price of one pair of trousers, and not more and not less. It is the median around which the actual price of shoes and trousers, swayed by various market factors, will always gravitate.50 The exchange-values themselves can only be altered by technical advances which affect the amount of labor-time required to produce one or the other commodity. Hence, a new invention which enable workers to produce twice as many shoes in the same amount of time will reduce the exchange-value of a pair of shoes to one half that of a pair of trousers. The prices of these two commodities may not immediately reflect this drastic alteration in their exchange value ratios, but, according to Marx, over the long run they will.
Exchange-value, however, is more than the ratio at which the products of alienated labor exchange; along with value itself, it is a definite social expression for the underlying relations of alienation. The need to work and to distribute the social product exists in every society; only the forms differ. And, Marx claims that "the form in which this proportional division of labor operates in a state of society where the interconnection of social labor is manifested in the private exchange of the individual products of labor is precisely the exchange-value of these products."51
Thus, exchange-value is a "form" taken by the division of labor in societies where there is "private exchange of the individual products of labor." It is not only that which facilitates such exchange, but is an expression of the conditions in which it occurs. "It can," as Marx says elsewhere, "have no other existence except as an abstract one-sided relation of an already concrete and living aggregate."52 As such, it isin his speecha "form" of each of the other main elements in the situation. We have already seen Marx refer to "value in general" as a "form of social labor," and we shall shortly discover that capital, money, and commodities are also presented as "forms" of one another, or of value, or labor. Only by conceding that these factors are internally related, such that each is actually conceived of as part of the others, can Marx's practice be adequately explained. On this model, it is logically impossible for any of the factors which distinguish capitalist production to appear without the others.
It pays to examine in this connection what seems to be a major exception to this dictum. In an isolated comment in volume III of Capital, which Engels later develops at some length, Marx declares, "It is quite appropriate to regard the values of commodities as not only theoretically but also historically prius to the prices of production. This applies to conditions in which the laborer owns his means of production, and this is the condition of the landowning farmer living off his own labor and the craftsman, in the ancient as well as in the modern world."53 In other words, some products were traded at their exchange-value before the modern era, and it is only under conditions of capitalist competition that all prices have strayed as far from exchange-value as is now the case. To understand Marx's position here it is essential to distinguish what he is talking about from the way he talks about it. Certainly, exchange, in some sense, has existed from earliest times. So, too, Marx is probably right that labor-time was the operating measure by which people, who owned their own means of production, exchanged their products (it is important to note that the qualification of owning that with which they produced leaves out more classes than it includes).
Given that such was the case, the question which remains to be asked is"In what sense can we speak of the existence in precapitalist times of 'exchange-value'?" And Marx's answer, it appears to us, is that exchange-value may be said to exist but in a very limited sense, where its concept conveys but a small part of what it does when applied to capitalist society. This is the same thing we saw earlier in regard to the concept of "labor." Insofar as products in any period exchange in proportion to the labor-time that goes into their production, we may expect to find suitably altered for the occasionalienated relations between the worker and his activity, product, and other men. Alienation, as Marx frequently makes clear, is not peculiar to capitalist society. It is in the modern era, however, that is has become so thorough-going and evident that concepts have been formulated to mark its more prominent features. Such is "labor" (meaning labor in general) and such is "exchange-value." In focusing attention on particular facets of man's alienated life situation in capitalism, such concepts also instruct us regarding the undeveloped character of these same facets in earlier times. In Marx's words, what "had formerly been intimated has now developed to complete significance" in the categories of bourgeois society. It is in this sense, too, that he declares that "the bourgeois economy furnishes a key to ancient economy," and that "the categories of bourgeois economy contain what is true of all other forms of society" (though they contain this truth in a much modified form, i.e., by incorporating in their meanings the developments which have occurred since).54
Thus, though exchange on the basis of exchange-value took place in pre-capitalist times, "exchange-value" is a modern concept, arising out of modern conditions and conveyingin virtue of Marx's relational conceptionthe whole state of affairs which made its appearance both possible and necessary. It conveys, in effect, the situation where exchange-value is the dominant principle governing the exchange of products. In slave owning and feudal societies (leaving aside the people who owned their means of production), products coming out of the division of labor changed hands on the basis of force or right; while, in communism, products will be secured by everyone on the basis of need. Only in the modern period, where production relations are completely alienated, has exchange-value become the dominant principle governing the exchange of all man's products. Thus, exchange-value, in its full sense (which is how Marx generally understands it), does not exist in pre-capitalist societies, cannot because of all that is meant by its concept.
Our earlier conclusion that the major "forms" of capitalist society logically entail one another still holds. Exchange-value can no more appear independently of labor, capital, commodities, interest, etc., than they of it, each factor expressingas part of what it isthe full conditions which make it that and nothing else. In the instance cited, however, we see that this does not preclude Marx from using "value" (in the sense of exchange-value) to refer to an element in its full definition in order to mark some feature which different stages of social evolution have in common. Only by allowing that Marx meant much more by "value" than is suggested when he uses it to refer to precapitalist societies can we reconcile this practice with his repeated assertions that value is a special product of capitalism. The fact that Marx devoted so little attention to recounting what occurred in periods when some goods actually traded at their exchange-values, and so much to unraveling the relations expressed by "exchange-value" as a category of modern political economy (at a time when all prices fluctuated from it) demonstrates clearly what he considered to be the priority task.
As already indicated, besides exchange-value, another facet of value is use-value. A commodity is a use-value, because it has the power to satisfy some human need. It received this quality from the workers who have produced it, who have engaged in purposive productive activity, and in so doing have transferred something of what they are to their product. On one occasion, Marx defines "use-values" as "the reproduction of the individual in certain definite relationships to his community.55 (Marx's emphasis.) A use-value, therefore, is not simply that for which an article is used, but a specific relation between the worker and his activity, product, and other men.
The worker in capitalism, being who he is, creates what he does; and what he doesincluding many of the physical characteristics of his productindicates clearly who he is, being, in fact, the extension of his person in society. Given Marx's conception of social factors as relations and his belief in the worker's alienation, the attempt by workers to produce useful objects must, of necessity, result in objects whose very usefulness bespeaks the alienated relations of the workers involved in their production. Even the notion of utility, we saw Marx declare, is a definite social product. Thus, whereas exchange-value corresponds to what was referred to as the quantitative aspect of labor, use-value corresponds to its qualitative aspect, to what kind of labor it is.56
How does use-value bespeak the alienated labor that goes into its production? In capitalism, no commodity is a use-value for the workers who make it. A worker does not produce what he wants, but what will earn him sufficient money to buy what he wants. He produces use-values for others, and only further degradation for himself, the price which he must pay for his extraordinary generosity. Thus, his product becomes a use-value only after it is exchanged, and must contain such abstract and general labor as qualifies it for exchange.57 According to Marx, "To become use-values commodities must be universally alienated; they must enter the sphere of exchange... Hence, in order to be realized as use-values, they must be realized as exchange-values."58 Putting the use of one's own products under the control of others, producing them with this aim in mind, lies at the core not only of use-value but of alienation itself. The production of use-values in capitalism is the production of articles from which the workers who made them are alienated; it could only proceed from alienated workers and is the self-same action which perpetuates their condition.
The alienated character of use-value also stands out in many of the physical traits of the products produced by alienated labor. Production is said to "put the finishing touch on consumption" because its "object is not simply an object in general, but a definite object, which is consumed in a certain definite manner prescribed in its turn by production."59 In producing for sale to people who lead alienated lives, what kind of articles does the worker produce? He produces, first of all (and on instigation of the capitalist), articles whose qualities are intended to attract customers rather than to give satisfaction. Hence, we find in all capitalist societies a great emphasis on design and little attention paid to durability. The worker will also produce some articles which are only suitable for alienated societies; such are locks of all sorts, guns, most advertisements, churches, etc. Finally, many products which have their equivalent in a non-alienated society are here made in a way which indicates the alienated social relations in which they are found. Thus, houses are made in family units; washing machines, automatic dish washers, and most other household durables are generally quite small and can service only a few people; automobiles are mass produced in preference to minibuses, and so on. In all these ways, the alienated character of capitalism can be read from the real physical characteristics of the goods produced, form their use-values, from seeing how they are made to be used.
Though use-value, as we have said, is predicated on production for exchange, exchange-value is also predicated on production for use, and use by others: "Thus, while a commodity can become a use-value only after it has been realized as an exchange-value, it can on the other hand, be realized as an exchange-value only if it proves to be a use-value in the process of alienation."60 The two facets of value presuppose one another, and really cannot be conceived of apart. Like exchange-value, therefore, use-value expresses capitalist production relations.
Still, on occasion, Marx uses the concept "use-value" to refer to only the universal party of its component relations, and this can be misleading. For example, he states: "So far as work is a creator of use-value, is useful work, it is a necessary condition independent of all forms of society for the existence of the human race; it is an eternal nature imposed necessity, without which there can be no material exchanges between man and nature, and therefore no life."61 In this case, use-value enters the theory of alienation which it becomes the "material depository of exchange-value."62 The explanation for this practice has already been given as it applied to "exchange0value." It remains the case that Marx almost always uses "use-value" to refer to a situation where what is useful has already been given over to another and is, in fact, being produced with this end in mind, i.e., as a component relation of capitalist production. Consequently, neither use-value nor exchange-value ever come into Marx's descriptions of Communism, where each individual, as a conscious and fully cooperating member of the community, produces what he wants and consumes what he needs.
At the beginning of our discussion of the labor theory of value, we spoke as well of the adjoining theory of surplus-value. The latter is indeed an extension of the former, but only now can we judge their common substance. Like so many of his expressions, "surplus-value" has a long history, but the sense that Marx gives it is unique.63 For him, surplus-value is the amount of the abstract product of alienated labor which is not returned to the worker in the form of wages. It constitutes that part of the use and exchange-values created in capitalist production which goes to everyone other than the workers. Marx considers it one of his original contributions to political economy that he works with the general form of surplus-value rather than any of its specific forms, such as profit or rent.64 But Marx could only regard surplus value in its pure form because "value" meant something more to him than what is usually understood by "exchange-value." Without a conception of value as the abstract product, he could not treat surplus-value in its concrete, exchange-value forms.65
Marx seems to believe that the mistake of his predecessors in not dealing with surplus-value in its pure form is less excusable than our own account of this matter would suggest. For in order to operate with the pure form of surplus-value, Smith and Ricardo would have had to grasp value as the abstract product, and, this, in turn, would have required an understanding of alienated labor. In believing all this was within the range of the classical economists, Marx seems to have though that the real world and, especially, the plight of the proletariat could exercise the same effect on other honest men seeking for the truth that it did on him. We are well aware of his great respect for Ricardo. Furthermore, though the political economists had no conception of labor as alienated productive activity and its division, as such, into use and exchange-value, this distinction, according to Marx, "is practically made, since this school treats labor, at one time under its quantitative aspect, at another under its qualitative aspect."66 Could the intellectual realization of what they were being forced to do in practice really be so long in forthcoming?
Our own conclusion on this subject is more severe. We would consider the theory of value exposed here a closed book for anyone who has not mastered the theory of alienation of which it is part and the conception of internal relations which serve it as a necessary frame. Marx's revolution in economics consists in providing a full answer to a question only he asked, and stating it with concepts which partake of the originality of his analysis. Immersed as they are in capitalist assumptions, whose import is only indifferently grasped, no one is less qualified to understand the unique contribution of Marxian economics than the economists.67
Having grasped labor-power as potential for alienated productive activity and the equation of labor and value, we are now in a position to explain the most striking feature of Marxian economics, the metamorphosis of value. Labor, as we saw, is embodied in all its products. Hence, as its equivalent in capitalism, the same applies to value. The worker produces an article which contains his labor in the form of use- and exchange-value. Then, according to Marx: "The actual process of production, as a unity of the direct production process and the circulation process gives rise to new formation, in which the vein of internal connections is increasingly lost, the production relations are rendered independent of one another, and the component values become ossified into forms independent of one another."68 (Our emphasis).
The guises assumed by value in its merry-go-round journey through the economy include capital, commodity, landed property, profit, interest, rent, wages, and money. Marx would maintain that these are "more concrete economic determinations from which value is abstracted and which from another point of view, can therefore also be regarded as a further development of it."69 All derive from the worker's alienated productive activity, and each expresses the full set of conditions in which it exists. As component of value, they are facets of the same organic whole, capitalist society. On this view, too much of orthodox economics has been devoted to trying to explain how such apparently distinct entities are related. For Marx, the reverse was the problem: he sought to show how such essentially identical entities differ, or what is each value form's peculiar function in the economy. Their "identity" is definitional; whereas the distinctiveness of each form, which includes the unique ways in which it is related to others, is the subject of his empirical research.
No doubt the most important of these concrete economic determinations is capital, which lends its very name to the period. Marx declares that capital is "value that sucks up the value-creating power."70 It is that part of surplus-value which re-engages labor for the production of further value. A more complete account is given where Marx says, "capital is not a thing but rather a definite social production relation, belonging to a definite historical formation of society, which is manifested in a thing and lends this thing a specific social character. Capital is not the sum of the material and produced means of production. Capital is rather the means of production transformed into capital, which in themselves are no more capital than gold or silver in itself is money. It is the means of production monopolized by a certain section of society, confronting living labor-power as products and working conditions rendered independent of this very labor-power, which are personified through this antithesis in capital. It is not merely the products of laborers turned into independent powers, products as rulers and buyers of their producers, but rather also the social forces and the future ineligible form of this labor, which confront the laborers as properties of their products."71
Capital, in short, expresses the major economic relations of capitalism from the standpoint of the products of former labor which now constitute the means of production. It is the use of such means to produce value, and presupposes all those conditions necessary for it to operate in this way, subsumes them as component relations.72 Hence, Marx speaks of the alienated worker as "variable capital," and says the capitalist himself "is contained in the concept of capital."73 So, too, money, commodities, and interest are all spoken of, on occasion, as capital.74 In so far as each expresses the alienated relations bound up in labor, each is a "form" of value; but in so far as each functions in a way associated with the core notion of capital, i.e., contributes to the production of value, each is also a "form" of capital. Thus, money, for example, may be viewed as value, capital, commodity, etc., depending on which of its potential functions in capitalism Marx takes it to be fulfilling, which depends, in turn, on the problem he is then considering.
The difference between Marx's concept of "capital" and that ordinarily used in political economy is clearly set out by Marx himself when he criticizes Ricardo for thinking of capital as simply the material means of production, "only distinguishable as 'accumulated labor' from 'immediate labor.'" Because he understands it as "something purely material, a mere element in the labor process," Marx says, "the relation between labor and capital, wages and profits, can never be developed."75 For Ricardo, these relations cannot be developed out of capital as a "definite social relationship," which he describes on this occasion as "the material conditions of labor confronting the laborer as a power that had become independent of him."76 A component of this relationship, without which it could not be what it is, is the relation referred to above between "labor and capital, wages and profits." Marx is able to develop these complex ties out of capital because they are covered by his concept "capital."77
Capitalism is a tale that Marx could approach from many angles. In his earlier writing, his chief port of entry, in so far as he had one at this time, was the concept of "alienated labor." In the Critique of Political Economy, which was written as the first installment of the opus that later became Capital, "money" served as the central concept. He then chose "capital," because, as he tells us, it is the "dominant category" of the capitalist era, "its determining production relation."78 "Determining" is to be understood here, as elsewhere in Marx's work, in the sense of "most important." For Marx, the use of the means of production to produce wealth in general is the most striking of capitalism's many unique features, and, therefore, the relation the unfolding of which offers the clearest insight into the whole.
Taking "capital" as the pivotal concept of the system which bears its name also permitted Marx to enter the economic debate with the fewest preliminary qualifications. To have chosen "alienated labor" would have required at least as extensive an investigation into philosophy and anthropology as appeared in the 1844 Manuscripts. Without such qualifications, however, it is all too easy to mistake key categories, such as "capital" and "value," for their equivalents in the works of other economists. If we view Marx as treating his subject on two interrelated levels, that of economics proper as reflected in the writing of Smith and Ricardo, and that of alienation, then, it has proven the bane of his theories that by transferring commonly accepted meanings to his terms enough sense could be made of what he was saying on this first level that most people deferred trying to make sense of what was being said on the second. However, given their interrelated charactereven the idea of two levels is misleadingthe result has been widespread misunderstanding of the whole corpus of Marx's economics.
Having grasped how value is embodied in capital, such other concrete products of capitalism as commodity and landed property should offer little difficulty; but in what sense, it may be asked, is value embodied in money, whether cash or in one of the guises in which it is distributed to the populationprofit, interest, rent, and wages? Marx would maintain that money contains value in the same sense that capital does; both result from alienated labor and both, therefore, possess a use as well as an exchange-value. In the case of money, its use-value is its facility in being exchanged; whereas its exchange-value, as with capital, is the amount of value it exchanges for.
As a product of alienated productive activity entering into exchange, money, like capital itself, is a commodity. It differs essentially from other commodities, first, in being the form in which all the rest "appear as exchange-values to each other," or, as Marx says elsewhere, money is "the commodity in its continually exchangeable form."79 According to him, "The particular commodity which thus appears as the specifically adopted expression of the exchange-value of all other commodities, or the exchange-value of commodities as a particular exclusive commodity, is money. Money is a crystallization of the exchange-value of commodities which they themselves form in the process of exchange. Thus, while commodities become use-values to each other in the process of exchange by casting off al definite shape, they must assume a new form, viz., proceed to the formation of money in order to appear as exchange-values to each other."80 To facilitate the comparison of commodities on the basis of a single standard, value, money is evolved. According to Marx, it is a form of commodities themselves, that in which they exchange for one another, and expresses the same alienated conditions which make the exchange of equivalents both possible and necessary.
As the substance in which their relative worths are reckoned, money replaces over time all other commodities as the object of practical effort. This is a second distinguishing feature of money as a commodity: people work to make money. As the necessary mediator between man and his wants, money has come to be what he wants.81 Furthermore, by possessing the power to buy everything, money puts the individual into relations with other commodities and people that he could not enter into on the basis of his own needs and personal characteristics. Money enables him to buy the food which his hunger cannot secure, to occupy the hearth to which his numb limbs give him no right, to possess the woman whom his personal traits cannot win, etc.
It is the same alienated labor, which makes it impossible for workers to appropriate the world of objects, that enables money to do so. The ability of money is man's own, man's potential for entering into relations with nature, including other men, which has been taken from him in labor and incorporated in his products. Money's power to buy is a function of people's necessity to sell what they have (labor-power, products, virtue); this is a function of their inability to acquire what they need as human beings by simply manifesting their needs; and this, in turn, is a function of a situation in which those who control what is needed have interest other than and hostile to the interests of the persons in need. By producing a product which he gives over to the control of another, the worker begins a chain reaction that culminates (on this scale, at least) in the particular role that money plays in capitalist society.
What money is able to buy, therefore, is no more than what people potentially can do, but actually cannot. For if they were doing it, then money could not buy it; and if they could never do it, then there would be nothing for money to buy. It is in this sense that Marx declares that "money is the alienated ability of mankind."82 (Marx's emphasis.) Without alienation there would be no money; people would not offer a sterile metal for what they want and would refuse to accept it for what they have. In describing the dictatorship of the proletariat, where the worker's alienated relations to his activity, product, and other men have already been seriously modified, Marx dispenses with the concept of "money" and speaks instead of "labor vouchers."83 In communism, of course, even these have disappeared.
The metamorphosis of value from one form to another occurs through the alienation in exchange of use-value. To alienate the use-value of labor-power, capital, money, etc., means, in every instance, to give up all control over it to another. This presupposes, of course, that individuals have such control over the value forms in their possession, and accept that others do as well. According to Marx, exchange becomes possible whenever "men, by a tacit understanding... treat each other as private owners of those alienable objects, and by implication as independent individuals."84 All acts of exchange, then, are characterized by the mutual transfer of the power to use-value forms. Afterwards, both the buyer and the seller "have the same value they had before the transactions"; only the form of value is different, as each has acquired what the other had.85
In answer to the question, "What is alienated in an ordinary sale?" Marx replies, "Not the value of the sold commodity, for this merely changes its form... What is really alienated by the seller, and, therefore passes into the individual or productive consumption of the buyer, is the use-value of the commoditythe commodity as a use-value."86 Value cannot be alienated in a sale, for all capitalist products continue to express, both before and after their sale, the relations which underlie their production. However, the form of value changes in the sense that the object of value performs a different function for the buyer than it did for the seller, and for Marx, changes in function betoken changes in the concept which applies. Hence, the value form of a machine in the hands of a merchant is the commodity; he uses it to make money. In the sale, the merchant gives up its use-value to a capitalist, who uses it to employ workers to produce value. The machine owned by the capitalist remains a value (it continues to express the alienated relations involved in its production), but its value form has changed to capital with the new function that it serves. According to Marx, each form of value has a unique mode of alienating its use-values: "A special sort of commodity, capital has its own peculiar mode of alienation," which is transferring the value that went into its production to its products.87 And, elsewhere, lending is given as the mode in which the banker alienates the use-value of his money to the capitalist.88
The whole process of transferring use-value has its start when the worker alienates his labor-power to the capitalist in order to earn enough money to buy means of subsistence. Labor-power, we will recall, is the only commodity whose use-value, labor, is capable of creating a greater exchange-value than its own. The capitalist sells the workers' products, i.e., alienates their use-value to buyers, for money, i.e., to obtain the use-value of their money. He, then, alienates the use-value of party of the money he receives to a landlord, in the form of rent, and of another part to a banker, in the form of interest. This is really the exchange, though in this instance not an equitable one, of a new for an old value, the product of previous workers, whose use-values were initially alienated to the capitalist by the landlord and the banker. In this way the surplus-value is distributed. What the capitalist retains for himself is his profit, part of which he will undoubtedly alienate to workers to obtain more labor-power.
From the foregoing discussion it may appear that the sense of "alienate" has shifted somewhat from what it was when we began. To give up all control over use-value does not seem at first glance to be the same thing as what was treated above under this concept. It is from such evidence that some critics, who note the appearance of "alienation" in Capital, have concluded that Marx intends something completely different than he did in his earlier writings. Aside from the fact that this concept is frequently used, particularly in the Grundrisse (1857, 8), to convey exactly the same information that it does in the 1844 Manuscripts, our discussion of use-value should make it clear that the difference which does exist is more apparent than real.89
When, in Capital, Marx speaks of "alienating" any commodity, he does not simply mean the act of selling it; he means giving up all control over its use-value. And, as we have shown, this transaction could only take place because the workers, who create all value, engage in alienated activity on a product from which they are all alienated and on behalf of a capitalist from whom they are alienated. To transfer use-values is one facet of alienation and is logically dependent on the entire way of life that goes with it. By referring to such a sale as "alienation," Marx is using this concept, as he does so many others, to express only part of the structured information which comes under it in order to meet some immediate purpose. In this instance, the universal practice under capitalism of giving up the right to use what one has for a practice is called "alienation," first because the act itself is an alienated one, and, second, to draw attention to the source of such exchange (and, hence, the entire metamorphoses of commodities which evolves from it) in the alienated labor of workers.
Capital is a treatise on the law of value, and, consequently, could only be a work about alienation. Like all other laws in Marxism, the law of value has to do with the necessary development of an entity through the temporal relations Marx sees bound up in it. It concerns not only what happens but what must happen to value given its "essential nature," a nature which is bound up with its production by alienated labor. The transformation of value into capital, wages, rent, money, etc., as well as its transformation into prices of productions and eventually into market prices, all come under this law. In following value in and through the various forms it takes in capitalist circulation, Marx is charting the law of its development. He is uncovering what is referred to at different times as the "inner relations," "hidden substratum," "physiology," and "organic coherence" of capitalism. He is describing the life processes of an alienated society. It is this which makes Marx's workon his own understanding of the terma "science": "The science consists precisely in working out how the law of value operates."90
Marx's labor theory of value, therefore, unlike Smith's and Ricardo's, is not the claim that labor produces value, but the whole panorama of faces exposed in the metamorphosis of value, in which the equation of labor with value is the underlying assumption.91
The 'fetishism of commodities' refers to people's misconception of the products of labor once they enter exchange, a misconception which accords these forms of value leading roles in what is still a human drama.92 The metamorphosis of value is a tale about man, his productive activity and products, and what happens to them all in capitalist society. Misreading this story as one about the activities of inanimate objects, attributing to them qualities which only human beings could possess, positing living relations for what is dead, is what Marx calls the "fetishism of commodities.'93
According to Marx, "This fetishism of commodities has its origins... in the peculiar social character of the labor that produces them."94 This character, as we saw, is reproduced in the product, value. As the abstract product of alienated labor, value expresses the relations of the individuals engaged in such labor. However, though value contains human relations, it actually conveys them as relations between their products. Hence, the remark, "When, therefore, Galiani says: Value is a relation between persons... he ought to have added: a relation between persons expressed as a relation between things."95
For Marx, it is through the monetary expression of exchange-value that the ties between people at work have remained so carefully hidden. He maintains that it is this ultimate money-form of the world of commodities that actually conceals, instead of disclosing the social character of private labor, and the social relations between the individual producers. When I state that coats or boots stand in a relation to linen, because it is the universal incarnation of abstract human labor, the absurdity of the statement is self-evident. Nevertheless, when the producers of coats and boots compare these articles with linen, or, what is the same thing, with gold or silver, as the universal equivalent, they express the relation between their own private labor and the collective labor of society in the same absurd form.96
With the relations between people so artfully disguised as relations between things, we should not be surprised that this is how they are grasped. In the fetishism of commodities the appearance of the metamorphosis of value is mistaken for its essence. By treating value solely as the ratio at which their products exchange, people attribute to these products the personal ties which make such an exchange of equivalents possible. Accordingly, Marx declares that character of men's labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor.97
In this manner, a commodity is seen to have a "natural price," a relation to money and other commodities independent of the human factors involved. This price, whichas an indication of exchange-value based on the alienation of use-valuesimply expresses relations between people in production, is taken as a non-social quality of the commodity on a par with its physical character. Shoes have openings for the feet, and cost five dollars a pair. So it is with other forms of value, where this same phenomenon is better described as "reification." Capital, for example, is seen to "earn" a profit; this is taken as its proper, natural, and, therefore, deserved product.98 Admittedly, this way of speaking is sometimes no more than a shorthand for presenting a complex situation, but Marx believes that it usually is not, that most people who speak of capital earning a profit actually grasp the relation between the two in terms of cause and effect.
Capital is also reified in its relations with workers. For Marx, capital exploits workers as an instrument of the capitalists. Dead matter dominates living labor because it is in the hands of men whose interests are diametrically opposed tot hose of the producers. Though Marx speaks of the capitalist's actions as a "mere function of capital," it is the capitalist and not capital who is endowed with a conscience and a will.99 Only because machines, factories, etc., are used for the purpose they are does alienation result. However, in the course of experiencing exploitation, workers are prone to confuse the means with the people who direct them, and to attribute to inanimate objects the social character of an exploiting agency. In this way, machines are seen to need workers, and factories blamed for making the life of the proletariat intolerable.
Reification also occurs with landed property, which is invested with the natural ability to produce rent.100 According to Marx, "One of the objective condition of labor alienated from labor, and therefore confronting it as the property of others" is land, which in our era takes the form of "monopolized land, or landed property."101 Like profit, rent is a social relation, in this case, that part of value which is siphoned off to landlords. Marx maintains, "Just as products confront the producer as an independent force in capital and capitalists who actually are but the personification of capitalso land becomes personified in the landlord and likewise gets on its hind legs to demand, as an independent force, its share of the product created with its help."102 As in the case of capital, the domination of landed property over men is misconstrued as deriving from the land itself, rather than from its owners.
The reification that Marx uncovers is not limited to the concrete products of labor but applies equally to all the forms touched upon by the metamorphosis of value. We saw earlier all that money was able to do in capitalism, but, instead of seeing this as the expression of man's relation to his products being turned on its head, money is taken to possess these colossal powers as natural attributes. People's attitude toward money is, undoubtedly, the outstanding instance of capitalist fetishism, reaching its height in interest bearing capital (money lent at interest). Here, people think they see "money creating more money, self-expanding value."103 When money "grows" in this way, Marx says, "This result of the entire process of reproduction appears as a property inherent in the thing itself."104 Workers, machines, raw materialsall the factors of productionare downgraded to mere aids, and money itself is made the producer of wealth.
Finally, the labor relation itself is reified, made into a "ghost," wage-labor, an abstraction divested of its unique character. People in capitalism see labor, their distinctive alienated labor which produces value, as the productive activity of all men at all time and as an activity which is responsible for only the part of value that is returned to them as wages. Hence, labor is thought of as having a "natural price," a conception Marx considers "as irrational as a yellow logarithm."105
In treating the social production relations, capital, landed property, and labor, as things, their integral unity is lost, and the society in which they exist united hopelessly distorted. According to Marx: In capital-profit, or still better capital-interest, land-rent, labor-wages, in this economic trinity represented as the connection between the component parts of value and wealth in general and its sources, we have the complete mystification of the capitalist mode of production, the conversion of social relations into things, the direct coalescence of the material production relations with their historical and social determination. It is an enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world, in which Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre do their ghost-walking as social characters and at the same time directly as things.106
What could only have been expected once the different forms of value are reified, the very connections between them, the time sequences on which they are hung, are also given lives of their own. In this case, where production relations appear to people as things, their interrelations due to the world market, its conjecture, movements of market prices, periods of credit, industrial and commercial cycles, alternations of prosperity and crisis appears to them as overwhelming natural laws that irresistible enforce their will over them, and confront them as blind necessity.107
People tend to view these recurring economic events, which they dignify with the label "law," as natural attributes of nature. But neither god nor nature demands their occurrence. What appears as "blind necessity" is but the unchecked development of the social production relations of capitalism.108
The practical effect of all such fetishism, of course, is the blanket ignorance it imposes on anyone trying to understand the capitalist economic system. With its origins, real mechanisms and future possibilities so well hidden, criticism is misdirected and action that would alter the situation rendered ineffective. As Marcuse rightly points out:
If wages... express the value of labor, exploitation is at best a subjective and personal judgment. If capital were nothing other than an aggregate of wealth employed in commodity production, then capital would appear to be the cumulative result of productive skill and diligence. If the creation of profits were the peculiar quality of utilized capital, such profits might represent a reward for the work of the entrepreneur.108
By dismissing the essential human relations, the basic relations of alienation which underlie capitalist production, its surface relations become everything.
So far, I have been proceeding as if reification had necessarily to be based on faulty evidence. However, by attributing an independent life to the various forms of value, people succeed in transferring to them certain powers for regulating their own existence. In a situation where all entities are related to each other as both cause and effect, to be viewed as an initiating force is to become one in fact. To conceive of money as having the power to buy everything is indeed to have money which has the power to buy everything. The laws of capitalism operate as eternal necessity in the same manner. They become necessary in virtue of everyone thinking and acting as if they are. For all practical purposes, that is for purposes of life in capitalism, reification brings about the very mistake it embodies.109
The difficulty in grasping this notion comes from the impossibility on what I have called the common sense view of treating man's objects as "subjects" without falling into the error of personifying the inanimate. Man, it is said, uses, needs, and has power over his products; he may misuse them, be ignorant or ineffective, but these products cannot easily use, need, nor have power of him. Yet, as we have seen, these are claims that Marx often makes. By holding that the relation between man and nature is an internal one, Marx is able to transfer qualities usually associated with one to the other to mark some special feature. The power man has to affect his relations with nature, for example, is a quality he has as a facet of the whole, which includes nature; hence it is also a quality of the whole (what applies to any of its parts applies to the whole); and so, too, of other facets (what applies to the whole applies to all its partsassuming internal relations between them). Thus, as explained in Chapter 2 above, the qualities of one factor are applicable to another (whether offered as part of the meaning of its concept or ascribed in separate adjectives) whenever the latter functions in ways associated with the core meaning of the former.
Through his alienated productive activity in capitalism, the worker has established relations between himself and his products (both parts of human nature for Marx) which enable each to function in some respects like what is generally meant by the other's concept. The worker has needs for objects to fulfill his powers as a human being but cannot acquire these objects. Instead, he passes his days producing value, satisfying the profit needs of his employer, behaving in short as "variable capital." His product, which is meant to satisfy human needs, serves instead to re-order the lives of the people who come into contact with it, getting them to act in ways that affirm its character as a capitalist product. The worker has no claim to a machine when he is unemployed, while the machine has a claim to the worker when it is unemployed. Hence, a machine (as capital) is said to need the night labor of workers; the relation between the two is such that what the product is determines what the worker does rather than the reverse.
All forms of the worker's product are, on occasion, spoken of in terms that we ordinarily reserve for men, but it is money which is most frequently characterized in this way. Money, as we saw, is the mediator between man and all his objects in capitalism; he can get nothing he needs without paying for it. Cast in this role, money is said to have "changed into a true god, for the intermediary reigns in real power over the thing it mediates for me. Its cult becomes an end in itself.110 The notion that the mediator between man and his object (the means which enable him to make use of it) is something that exercises "real power" over him comes up againas we shall seein Marx's discussion of religion and the state.
Thus, for Marx, the relations between men are not only reified in their products, but these reified products interact with men so as to make what appeared false true. Rather a contradiction, this is perhaps the most important example in Marxism of reciprocal effect: people acquire their conception of reality from what they experience (they reify the forms of value because of what occurs in the metamorphosis of value), and their conception of reality helps determine what they experience (the metamorphosis of value only occurs through the reification of the forms of value). The power of capital, or of any of the worker's products, over the worker always reflects the power of the people who dominate it and use it as an instrument. However, through reification and inside the context of capitalism capital itself may exercise certain powers. Marx is not guilty of the fetishism he discovers in capitalist society, because the powers he ascribes to products are never considered theirs as natural qualities.
To exclude either side of this internal relation between man and his products (such that each may be seen to dominate the other) is to arrive at a dead end, in one instance of "vulgar determinism" and in the other of equally vulgar "free will." To admit only one of these perspectives is to treat Capital as a work on fetishism or a fetishized work. Though Marx, here, as in his historical essays, emphasizes the effect until then neglected proceeding from material factors, the full cloth, Marxism, is the product of the dialectical interweaving of the two.
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