The qualitative nature of the commodity in Marx’s Capital

In the opening chapter of Capital, Marx promptly postulates the commodity as the essential constituent of capitalist society then first treats of it in the following way.[i] The commodity is Janus-faced.  It may be considered from either of two exclusive but nonetheless indissociable perspectives, one qualitative the other quantitative. This brief entry critically considers the qualitative nature of the commodity as elaborated in the first page and a half of Marx’s Capital. It is intended as a first, much shorter half of a discourse on Marx’s theory of commodification and its relationship to ideology. The second will focus on the quantitative nature of the commodity. Here I continue a critique of materialism as initiated in the blog entry on Althusser, above.

            To begin with, the commodity is an ‘external object, a thing’ that possesses a variety of perceptual properties that together or individually determine its character in terms of use (125). To be a commodity is to embody some potential for satisfying human needs. (Marx will later explain, when outlining its quantitative nature, that the commodity is any thing transferred through exchange to operate as a use-value (131).) The manner in which each promises to satisfy such needs will determine its particular qualitative nature. It is in this regard that commodities will differ. They may be physical or intellectual. But such difference is not relevant. It ‘makes no difference’ when constituting the commodity, in so far as it is a thing of use (125).

            Although Marx portrays his approach and domain of reference as materialist, it should be noted that he nonetheless registers here non-empirical phenomena, at least at the level at which they are introduced and assumed to exist within and amongst essential postulates. At this initial point, there is no attempt to reduce objects of intellectual use-value to material or instrumental needs. It would seem that, here at least, there is no corporeal base for this ideal form. It will be granted that a thing will have first to tangibly exist so as to possess qualities considered useful for thought. But nonetheless, for some commodities they exist as commodities because they are determined by the very fact that they are intellectually useful, even when useful in this sense alone. It would on Marx’s summation make no difference if the commodity served to sate the rumbling of the stomach.

            A physicalist would clearly object to this observation by remarking that intellectual stimulation by external things is first produced by the sensible qualities of those things, perceived by the sensations and transmitted into neurophysiological impulses. None of these are immaterial. One would nonetheless reply that, first of all, even if one granted the materiality of cognitive activity, at this stage of Marx’s discourse intellectual operations are not reduced to functional operations. In which case, the notion of materiality would have to be significantly broad enough to include that which in quotidian thought is considered immaterial: abstract thought, ideas, concepts, values, etc. 

            Furthermore, the intellect must play a not slight role amongst such postulates. Even when prior to so-called intellectual wants but beyond the most basic animalistic needs, proactive (conscious or unconscious) cognition determines a thing as an item of use, selecting its mode of use from a variety of properties and possibilities. It is thus that we can say that the ‘the discovery of these ways and hence of the manifold uses of things is the work of history’ (125). The commodity must certainly be ‘an external object, a thing’ but nonetheless, to some ineradicable degree, necessarily confirmed as useful by the inside (an inside yet to be defined). Marx practically admits this himself when he denies, against Nicholas Barbon, that all things possess intrinsic use-value, irrespective of time or place:

 ‘Things have an intrinsick vertue’ (this is Barbon’s special term for use-value) ‘which in all places have the same vertue; as the loadstone to attract iron’… The magnet’s property of attracting iron only became useful once it had led to the discovery of magnetic polarity. (125, n. 3; the parentheses are Marx’s)

Later, the qualitative aspect of the commodity will be described as the material recto, to which the quantitative aspect, the exchange-value, will be its formal, immaterial verso. Marx insists, this time in agreement with Barbon, that to conceive exchange-value as inherent to the physical constitution of a thing appears contradictory (126). But if this is the case because of the fundamentality of the determining influences of culture and trend, this must also be the case, to some significant degree, for use-value. 

            This is quite evident if we consider certain operations of thought and language; a point well brought out by way of modal expressions. Consider the lucid illustration of Hegel on this point by Slavoj Žizek in The Sublime Object of Ideology.[ii] For example a table – a simple manufactured object of utility – is conceived and utilised by way of the possibilities and necessities it is believed to contain. A correct understanding of the table – in calling and thinking of it as ‘table’ – is a product of possibilities concentrated upon the properties perceived. One can sit at it, sit on it, stand at it, stand on it, lie on it; it can be moved, turned; it is susceptible to pressure, affected by elements; it stands in relations of possibility with other objects etc. Tables must, furthermore, be a product of early human observation and experimentation, culminating in discoveries that yielded knowledge of potential combinations – of possibilities and necessities – of elements and activities.[iii] And this is an inviting (though incomplete) first characterisation for non-abstract thought: the instantaneous delimitation of raw sense data within and by way of pre-established nexuses of possibilities (where possibility becomes actualised in a physical thing).[iv]

            One must therefore interpret the following critically:

The usefulness of a thing makes it a use-value. But this usefulness does not dangle in mid-air. It is conditioned by the physical properties of the commodity, and has no existence apart from the latter. It is therefore the physical body of the commodity itself, for instance iron, corn, a diamond, which is the use-value or useful thing. (126)

The physical properties of iron do not alone teach us how and why it is to be wrought, let alone discovered and mined – even if those properties will necessarily delimit the manner in which it is to be mined and wrought etc. Nor does the diamond tell us that it should be valued. But such physical properties are the stimulus and locus from and for which the possible configurations of valuation are set and constrained. Thus one cannot deny the existence of a world of things as the precondition for (qualitative) commodification, but they cannot be commodities alone without the activity of a thought (admittedly yet to be defined) which – in some definite but particular sense prior – determines them as such.  At the stage of the capitalist mode of production at least (for that is where Capital begins), cognition is fundamental.




[i] Marx, Karl, trans. Fowkes, Ben, ‘The Commodity’ in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One (Penguin Classics, 1990), 125-178; hereafter referred to by page number in the text.

[ii] Žizek, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology, second edition (Verso, 2008), pp.x-xi; the notion of horizons of possibilities occurs in various writers, notably Husserl, Lewis, Kripke, etc.

[iii] See especially the discussion of the ‘Neolithic paradox’ in Lévi-Strauss, Claude, trans. Weidenfeld, George, The Savage Mind (Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 13ff 

[iv]  Žizek, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology (op cit.), p. xi

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One Response to The qualitative nature of the commodity in Marx’s Capital

  1. It reminds me of the opening chapter on deception in Hegel’s Phenomenology, where appearance becomes the medium for the inner nature of things, the result of initial observation results in arriving through reason at the truth or Notion, the truth however is not purely abstract but takes its que from the failure of the senses to discover what the object is in itself. The table is as you suggest the medium of the thought in this case instrumentality or usefullness. This whole debate is something Heidegger deals with his ‘ready-to-hand-ness’ of the tool and ‘present-to-hand-ness’ of the world.

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