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.


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