Reading Capital Volume 1, Chapter 1: The Commodity

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The following is my notes from reading chapter 1 of Karl Marx’s Capital and chapter 1 of David Harvey’s Limits to Capital – along with lecture notes. They are not particularly structured, nor do I make any assurance that my interpretations are correct.


  • Beginning with commodities appears as an arbitrary choice; he doesn’t give a reason. There is no single defence. Only later on will this choice begin to make sense as to why commodities are a good starting point.
  • The wealth of capitalist societies appears as a gigantic collection of commodities. Is this real, or is this just appearance? He does not account for this either.
  • Here he makes some assumptions, including, we all live in a universal world of commodity exchange and that there is nothing else happening – in the real world this is not happening. For example, growing herbs of use at home. These are not commodities and are not arranged through the form of commodity exchange.
  • We should cast off our own assumptions and preconceptions of capitalism. The only thing you should foreground is your own everyday experience.
  • The only thing that can a priori explain why the commodity is a logical starting place is the subtitle of Capital, ‘A critique of Political Economy’. Other political economists at the time, such as Malthus consider the commodity to be a central part of the economy.
  • In this first chapter, he is looking for the answer to his first sentence. The world appears as a collection of commodities, but at the end, he defines this as a fetishism.
  • The social relationship between people takes the form of a relationship between things – commodity fetishism. If we are fully inserted in a system of commodity exchange, then the way we relate to each other is through commodities. We act as if we do not know the conditions of the workers when we buy a jumper. This is where Marx wants to get. This is how he gets there…
  • Forget about Capital, he does not use this word at all, or classes. He only uses commodities.
  • A situation in which he keeps on insisting, he looks at exchange, the nature of exchange is equivalence. Exchange is equal. This seems odd, Capitalism seems to be about exploitation and class struggle. Marx disagrees, if it wasn’t about equality, the thing would collapse. How does he account for the great inequalities and exploitations that he will account for? This remains a great question mark to be answered.
  • A commodity is an external object that satisfies a human need of whatever kind.
  • It has to simultaneously contain use-value, value and exchange value.
  • If Marx uses exchange value, think of the price, in terms of gold, another commodity, not in terms of cash.
  • Value, we do not know yet.
  • A use-value signifies the usefulness of a thing. An exchange-value is not possible without a use-value. They are both embodied but mutually exclusive in their realisation.
  • Use-value is of all types. Even in societies where it is not predicated upon commodity exchange (hunter-gatherer etc) they too produce use-value. Are they commodities? Not at all, they use them for their own consumption.
  • You cannot simultaneously exercise these two qualities. Yet both have to be there.
  • Use-values are only realised in use or consumption
  • They constitute the material content of wealth. They are also the material bearers of an exchange-value.
  • Exchange-value is the quantitative relationship (the relative proportion) between use-values of one kind and their exchange with use-values of another.
    • This changes in time, place and circumstance.
    • e.g x amount of boot-polish may be exchanged for y amount of corn. x and y are both exchange-values
    • It therefore expresses something ‘equal’.
  • Exchange value makes incommensurable commensurable. Makes every single commodity exchangeable for every other one. This is historically specific. Commodities are not given by god or nature they are historically constructed. This is how historical materialism works. Exchange-value is universal.
  • Use-value is historically transcendental.
  • A key characteristic of dialectics is the quality / quantity shift. Exchange values is about quantities. It is a quantifiable relationship. You can put two bottle of water against one book. 4 against 2. So on.
  • Use-values are specific, but also historically specific. A phone 15 years ago did not exist. There is an obsession under capitalism to create new use-values.
  • What makes use-values under a system of generalised commodity exchange, slightly different, is that when you’re a peasant, you do it for you, irrespective of consequence or use to anyone else. In a system of generalised commodity exchange, there has to be a social use value. Tim Cook has no interest in producing the next iPhone to put in his own pocket, there needs to be social use value. Exchange!
  • You can realise exchange-value, only providing that someone else wants it.
  • A commodity cannot be dissected to find the element that makes it exchangeable – it must come from something else, something that is only discoverable when it is exchanged.
  • Movement and process therefore emerges as crucial.
  • As commodities change hands it expresses something not only about its own qualities but about the qualities of all commodities, that they are commensurable.
  • The amount of corn and boot polish that are deemed equal must also be equatable to a third thing.
  • Exchange is a quantity irrespective of the quality. It MUST involve an equality.
  • The materiality of the commodity can not tell you anything about what makes it commensurable.
  • The thing that they share is value (corn and the boot polish example). This is the third factor.
  • “As use-values, commodities differ above all in quality, while as exchange-values they can differ in quantity, and therefore do not contain an atom of their use-value”.
  • The commensurability of a commodity is not constituted out of its use-value.
  • If use-value is disregarded, only one factor remains, that of human labour.
  • What the corn and boot polish have in common is that they, like all commodities, are bearers of human labour embodied in their production.
  • The necessity for anything to have a price is embedded within. Everything has a price. This does not make everything a commodity, no. Examples where they are not, land and money. But we shall return to this.
  • In a supermarket you can see the exchange value, but you can’t see the human labour – it has a phantom-like presence.
  • The measurement of labour is time.
  • What kind of human labour is embodied in them? It is not the time taken (concrete labour), because commodities that take longer to produce would be more valuable.
  • The labour that forms the substance of value is equal to human labour-power
  • We pay above the odds often, buying bread from the baker instead of the supermarket. Or the craft fair.
  • Time, Marx’s radical departure from the classical political economists, such as Ricardo, in which time became an absolute measurement, … Marx says supply and demand do matter, but it does not account for why a loaf of bread costs £1 and a VW costs £10,000.
  • Labour is a commodity too, it has use and exchange value. Labour is a socio-metabolic relation with Nature. (165) Any kind of labour is of necessity and environmental project. Irrespective of the society. All labour is a transformation of Nature. The very nature of sustainability, maintaining nature as it is is impossible. The production of new socio-natural things. Politics is of understanding what kind of socio-nature transformation.
  • The use-value that labour produces has to be a social use value. You alienate it, you do it for someone else.
  • (Continuing from the last blue point) This is socially necessary labour time, time needed, with an average amount of skill under normal production conditions to produce a use-value. 
  • These categories all change over time. Value is historically dynamic. It is not a fixed given. Takes less time to produce automobiles today than it did 20 years ago. JIT automated robot systems for instance. We don’t know why and how this changes.
  • Eg time to produce a CD player compared to the 80s. £300 -> £30
    • The introduction of power looms to doubled the product of their labour time and as such cut value by about 1/2.
  • “As exchange values all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour time” 130
  • We are not yet talking about the proletariat, only petit commodity production.
  • This doesn’t remain constant as there are changes in the productivity of labour – the workers’ skill, the level of development of the science and its’ technological application,  the social organisation of the process of production,  the extent and effectiveness of the means of production, the conditions found in the natural environment (ie the season for producing corn).
  • A thing can be a use-value without having value – when its utility to man is not mediated through labour. It needn’t be a commodity.
  • Nothing can be an object of value without being an object of utility, if a thing is useless then so is the labour


  • Labour, too, has a dual character
  • “Use values cannot confront each other as commodities, unless the useful labour embodied in them is qualitatively different in each of them. In a community, the produce of which in general takes the form of commodities, i.e., in a community of commodity producers, this qualitative difference between the useful forms of labour that are carried on independently of individual producers, each on their own account, develops into a complex system, a social division of labour” 133
  • Labour is a natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature.
  • Use values are a combination of man and nature.
  • If we subtract the labour a material substratum is left.
  • This substratum is furnished by nature.
  • “Labour is the father of wealth material, Earth is the mother” William Petty
  • “Let us now pass from the coat [Marx’s example] as an item of utility to the value of commodities” 134
  • The value of the coat is worth twice the linen.
  • The is a crucial distinction between wealth, the total use values at one’s command and value – the socially necessary labour time these use values represent.
  • “Concrete labour refers to the use-value that is made. So the concrete labour of shoe-making makes a use-value in the form of a shoe. General/Abstract labour is labour in general, i.e. labour without reference the concrete activity of labour. Abstract labour is to value what concrete labour is to use-value. Without abstract labour there would be no capital”
  • Concrete labour takes a social form.
  • This creation of abstract labour mirrors the abstraction produced by commodity changes.
  • Marx conceptualises value in terms of simple abstract labour.
  • Complex labour (skilled labour) is lie multiplied simple labour. It may therefore be posited as the value of simple labour. [Marx never explains this, he cites experience but never states it, making this passage (135) controversial]
  • Abstract (homogeneous) and concrete (heterogeneous) aspects of labour are unified in the unitary act of labouring. They are codependent – there could be no embodiment of value without the concrete labour of making shirts and we cannot know the shirts value unless we trade it with shoes, apples etc. It is through the multiplicities of concrete labours that the measuring rod of abstract labour emerges.
  • “On the one hand all labour is, speaking physiologically, an expenditure of human labour power, and in its character of identical abstract human labour, it creates and forms the value of commodities. On the other hand, all labour is the expenditure of human labour power in a special form and with a definite aim, and in this, its character of concrete useful labour, it produces use values” 137

A pattern is emerging in Marx’s argumentation, A commodity internalises use-values, exchange-values and values. A labour process embodies useful concrete labour and abstract labour or value (socially necessary labour time) in a commodity that will be the bearer of an exchange value in the marketplace.


  • Things are only commodities because they are objects of utility and bearers of value at the same time.
  • Commodities have a common value form, the money-form.
  • The task, never before attempted by bourgeois economic is to show the origin of this money form.
  • The is a difference between general exchange and relative form. Relative form, trading one coat for lots of things. You have created money. This is a long way from the money in your pocket. The coat now forms as the money commodity.
  • Money is a commodity like any other.
  • The use-value of the coat… It is functioning as the money commodity now.
  • The coat contains value, socially necessary labour time, it has exchange value. But it’s use value is now as money. The specific use value of the money commodity – precisely that it can be used for everything. The universal equivalent.
  • This is problematic.
  • One commodity will establish itself as the money commodity, this may, for instance, be gold.
  • In systems of generalised commodity exchange. Gold becomes to function as the money commodity. It still has the original use value of gold, to decorate oneself, it still contains / embodies the socially necessary labour time.
  • The value (not as money) of gold changes.
  • Trouble! The universally equivalent need to stay constant, but it does not.
  • A fundamental contradiction. Money has to fulfil two functions at the same time. This is why we continuously have crises.
  • To put it simple – gold as the money commodity – it is not owned, it has use as a means of circulation, it facilitates circulation of commodities. A means of payment – a numerical representation. It is a store of value. It cannot function as a store of value and a means to lubricate circulation as well. No, it cannot.
  • We have theorised that something is necessary to make sure that the system of commodity exchange is possible at all. It has to do with the numerous contradictions that we have already spotted with money. We need the state.
  • If I have an ounce of gold, what am I going to do? Use it, or store it. The dickensian miser. Money begets more money. This is but a glimpse of the consequences of what Marx is writing here.
  • There is one commodity that emerges as the money commodity, it has a double function.
  • What is now also absolutely necessary? We have already hinted at the state. What will happen at the debasing of money. Written, notes or data. A symbolic thing. I guarantee that this paper is equal to 5 grams of gold. Nothing guarantees that you will get this exchange-value.
  • Until not long ago, money was exchangeable for gold. 15th August 1971. It was Nixon’s decision, at the end of theBretton Woods.
    • Gold was a specific use-value.  Yet a universal equivalent.
    • Each time the federal reserve printed 33 notes they printed an ounce of gold. Other currencies were fixed to the USD. Dollars were held, as good as gold.
  • Private property – is this something that is established by the individual – engaged in commodity exchange? Yet again, the state.
  • Becomes exclusively articulated through property and ownership.
  • Marx – the superstructure has to … to the material base.
  • Proliferation of things that are not a commodity. Judges, police etc. Their wages come from value, socially necessary labour power. Where does it come from… from taxes.

So far we have gone from a system of general commodity exchange. Made equivalent from socially necessary labour power. Out of that we began to distill the development of the money form, so that in a system of generalised commodity exchange, we get an endless sequence.



In most cases we’re interested in the use value


Under capitalism however, if you throw value in to circulation


The beginning point and the end point are the same! No-one would be interested in this. So, the objective is this


Have we not said that this is impossible, we have established equivalence! We are not interested in money, we’re interested in capital.

What is the distinction, when does gold in it’s money function become capital.

Capital is value in motion. The gold has to be thrown in to circulation. What we have to figure out is how the domain of freedom, equality and equivalence turns in to the unfreedom and the necessity of some people to sell themselves and the inequality that is inscribed in the self expansion.

Marx says when the advocates of liberalism, capitalism is about freedom, justice! They are right! Money is the great cynic and equaliser. Do we need to be free and equal in order to exchange? Yes, or the system can not function. Capitalism should be cherished for this. How can we turn this in to the horror of exploitation and the continuous production of non equivalences? You do this by throwing money in to circulation, thats how it becomes capital. You purchase commodities. Specific commodities for the specific use values that you need. One of the commodities that you’re going to buy is labour power. The aim of throwing money in to circulation is the production of commodities so capital is the production of commodities by means of commodities. So labour power is very important. Use-value his or her capacity to fulfil a very specific function. Why might the capitalist be interested? the capacity to generate ∆M. So there must be somewhere the capacity for the ∆M. Value, socially necessary labour time. Am I going to sell my labour power unless it gives me exchange value to buy other things? There is no connection between the socially necessary labour time and the snlt expended in the period of which the labourer exerts in the time that they work. (This is written really badly!!). This explains the ∆M.

e.g. If I need 4 loaves of bread to live and thats what I get as a salary. In exchange I tell the baker they can have me to bake bread for 8 hours, the worker can produce 8 loaves. So the socially necessary labour time for one loaf is one hour. This system of equal exchange and equivalences leads to the most horrifying, barbaric and unequal outcomes possible.