Value, value, and value

Friday, 16th September, 2016

(in Chapter 1 of Marx’s Capital)

** Three types of value

In Chapter 1 of Capital, Marx describes three types of value: use-value, value, and exchange-value.

*** use-value

Every useful thing has use-value. The use-value of a thing is just the ways people might use it. That use-value might be historically conditioned (e.g. uranium had little use-value until recently), and it might be shall we say abstract (e.g., looks nice on my mantelpiece).

Use-value is a property of useful things in general, and is not limited to commodities. Use-value is not a property of commodities per se. For something to be a commodity that thing must have use-value, but things that are not commodities can have use-value; and things that are not products of human labour can have use-value.

A thing can be a use value, without having value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not due to labour. Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, &c. A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values. Lastly nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.
(Last paragraph of Section 1.)

*** value

Value is congealed homogenised socially-necessary human labour time. “The value of a commodity represents human labour in the abstract, the expenditure of human labour in general” (from section 2). Value is entirely abstract.

Value is a property of useful products of human labour, but still not necessarily of commodities. Value is just human labour, in the abstract.

A couple of points on what I interpret as Marx’s humanism in Capital, in the way that he conceives of labour:

First, for Marx the very definition of labour includes the production of use-values: if the product is useless, “the labour does not count as labour”. So, usefulness, and all that entails about co-operation and togetherness and community, is in there right at the beginning.

Second, an interesting footnote about Adam Smith in section 2. This note is an extended comment on Smith’s labour theory of value. Deep in the middle, Marx says, “[Smith] has a presentiment that labour, in so far as it manifests itself in the value of commodities, counts only as expenditure of labour power, but he treats this expenditure as the mere sacrifice of rest, freedom and happiness, not as at the same time the normal activity of living beings. But, then, he has the modern wage-labourer in his eye.” Marx does not (only) have the modern wage-labourer in his eye; and he sees labour, and the expenditure of labour power, as more fundamental to humanity.

*** exchange-value

Exchange-value is the form value takes in commodity exchanging societies. Section 3 looks at this form in some detail (“20 yards of linen = 1 coat” etc.) before arriving at the universal equivalent, money.

Exchange-value is a property of commodities, and the exchange-value of a commodity has a concrete form (or forms) — two chickens, 50 quid, twenty packets of fags — depending on concrete circumstances.

Putting aside the money form for the moment, two commodities which are equated are (implicitly) judged as having the same value, i.e. as being embodiments of the same amount of abstract socially-necessary labour time.

Exchange value could be thought of as a kind of replacement value.

** The value, value and value of human labour

In the kinds of societies Marx is talking about, human labour becomes a commodity just like any other: it has a use-value, a value and an exchange-value. At the same time (in fact, just because of that reason), it becomes a special commodity unlike any other.

The use-value of human labour is to create value. Value is congealed abstract human labour (measured in units of socially-necessary time). The use or expenditure of labour, congeals that labour into its product.

As with any other commodity, the value of human labour is the (abstract, socially-necessary, etc.) human labour that has been congealed into it. Depending on the amount of labour you want to value, that congealed labour might be the reproductive labour that has reproduced yesterday’s worker, or it might be the extended training that has produced a heart surgeon or a web developer.

The exchange-value of a unit of human labour is just this value given concrete form, e.g., in money: a daily wage or an annual salary.


In order to be able to extract value from the consumption of a commodity, our friend, Moneybags, must be so lucky as to find, within the sphere of circulation, in the market, a commodity, whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labour, and, consequently, a creation of value.
(Cheating slightly as that is from Chapter 6.)

The exciting thing for humanity in general, and for Mr. Moneybags in particular, is that — at a certain point in history, when productive forces rise up to a certain level — the expenditure of a unit of human labour creates more value than the value embodied in (and hence the exchange-value of) that unit of human labour. A unit of labour can then be bought and used at the correct — fair, just — price, and the value returned is greater than the value laid out. The difference between the value laid out and the value returned is a fourth type of value: surplus-value.


5 Responses to “Value, value, and value”

  1. Anthony Wolf Says:

    Good overview, but I do have some criticisms.

    Marx himself admits that exchange-value cannot be explained exclusively by what her terms value for there are things that are commonly exchanged which have no clear value at all: land, unique items such as meteorites, etc. which have no basis in any human labor. One may want to say that there is some unconscious metaphysical calculus that goes on such that the price guesses on these objects are somehow very distant though connected to estimations of human labor which underlies the possibility of encountering such objects, but this is to me an assumption as ridiculous as marginal utility calculations. There are, strangely, things which have exchange value without value, and despite Marx’s own later insistence that value underlies all exchange value in capitalist value realization in the market, there are, however, clearly vestiges of commodities which are not human products which exist on the market and have what is purely arbitrary exchange-value since exchange itself is merely the meeting of two commodity owners who agree to their mutual exchange. I find it hard to not acknowledge that it does seem rather illogical to attribute value a determinative power in mere primitive commodity exchange at all prior to generalized social relations of wage labor and capital.

    Second, one must take care, like Marx, to distinguish labor-power from labor. Labor-power is not a universal ahistorical category of human activity and sociality, but labor is. This is the uniqueness of labor-power as a source of value for capital: labor itself is not bought, but only its capacity to be generated for a limited time. Because labor-power is not labor itself, capital can pay a fair price for labor-power through the work contract and extract labor which exceeds the price of labor-power. Though Marx later attempts to ground labor-power itself as a product of labor, and thus as having a value itself, the fact that the price of labor-power is historically and socially conditioned by the class struggle makes this portion of his theory shaky. One could just as easily take labor-power to have no value, just as land does not, yet accept it has an arbitrary price set by the social conditions of the class struggle and the bargaining power of rare skills.

    • llaisdy Says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      Your disagreements seem to be with the labour theory of value — rather than inter-relationships between value concepts within a labour theory of value —, is that right?

      You write: “Marx himself admits that exchange-value cannot be explained exclusively by what her terms value …”

      Could you give a reference?

      Re your examples: cultivated land certainly contains human labour, and even wilderness contains the labour involved in its primitive accumulation. A meteorite that falls into my back garden is an interesting edge case, but there I might look into disparity between price and value. I don’t think it should damage the central
      theory. Similarly with your second para, I would take wages as a special case of price.

      • Anthony Wolf Says:

        The disagreement is with the way Marx orders the logical relation in Capital, and the primacy of labor as the basis of value in general.

        In petty commodity production there is yet no basis from which to make the claim of socially necessary abstract labor time determining the value of exchanged goods, this is a logical piece that does not follow from this basic exchanges logical necessity.

        “The price-form, however, is not only compatible with the possibility of a quantitative incongruity between magnitude of value and price, i.e., between the former and its expression in money, but it may also conceal a qualitative inconsistency, so much so, that, although money is nothing but the value-form of commodities, price ceases altogether to express value. Objects that in themselves are no commodities, such as conscience, honour, &c., are capable of being offered for sale by their holders, and of thus acquiring, through their price, the form of commodities. Hence an object may have a price without having value. The price in that case is imaginary, like certain quantities in mathematics. On the other hand, the imaginary price-form may sometimes conceal either a direct or indirect real value-relation; for instance, the price of uncultivated land, which is without value, because no human labour has been incorporated in it. ”

        Capital, chpt. 1.

        Marx does not explicitly admit what I claimed, but he implicitly has to. He calls upon SNLT as the basis of exchange, yet empirically and logically this is absolutely not the case since it is indeed obvious that many things are commodities which do not have any labor whatsoever.

        The point I wanted to make with that is that the disparity and even disconnectedness of price and value is explained by the fact that prices logically do not require labor content, only an agreement to exchange which is utterly arbitrary in quantity. This does not dent Marx’s theory much in its course, but it does begin to preclude some of the problems that crop up later beyond volume one.

        For capital, however, yes, the source of its value is indeed labor without question, but which way determination of value is made is actually something I am ambivalent about now. Does labor determine value prior to price, and hence the disparity of values and prices arises, or is it that price reveals the real value of the labor, and then there is no such disparity? This is a topic far beyond what your post is about, so I’ll leave it for some other time.

      • llaisdy Says:

        So that’s a yes then. 😀

        Your quote (from Chapter 3 not Chapter 1) confirms my point — a discrepancy between price and value. Says nothing about exchange-value.

      • Anthony Wolf Says:

        I have said price too much, but it equally applies to exchange value. That one commodity meets another for exchange requires nothing but the acknowledgement of private property and that it should only transfer on agreement of a party to exchange. What is exchanged, and how much es exchanged, is arbitrary at such a point.

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