Marx is always talking about contradictions in the law of value. But these aren’t logical contradictions like “round square” or “military intelligence”. They are contradictions inscribed into the very heart of the social relations of a capitalist society. Some prefer to use the word “antagonisms”.
We are all painfully aware that modern society is full of social antagonisms. There’s poverty amidst great wealth, over-work alongside massive unemployment, banks taking away homes, gentrification, racial tensions, violence against women, labor struggles, environmental apartheid, police brutality, gang violence, hate groups, massive dislocations of populations, and lots of war. Marx was interested in explaining all of these antagonisms, but he doesn’t start his analysis with any of them.
Instead he begins with what at first seems a rather innocuous thing: the commodity. Why? Because the commodity is the most elemental piece of the social relations of capitalism. The productive relations between people take the form of commodity exchanges. The commodity is the basic organizer of social relations. So if we want to understand how all of these different social antagonisms relate to one another we need to start with the commodity.
As we’ve already seen, the commodity contains a contradiction: it has a use-value and a value. (As we saw, value lies behind exchange value. So while at first we said the contradiction was between use-value and exchange-value, we later refined this to use-value and value.) At first glance this does not seem all that antagonistic. Yet as we start to look closer we see more significant antagonisms emerge.
Property, exchange and violence
Why is it that people must sell their labor in the market for exchange value, for money?-Because they can’t produce their own means of subsistence for themselves. This is a distinct aspect of a capitalism. In previously existing modes of production the majority of people had use of some sort of means of production for themselves which they used to make most of the things they needed. (Note that I say “had use of” and not “owned”. This is because much of feudal production happen on common land. This collective use of land has been part of many other pre-capitalist societies.) People sometimes bartered for things but they did so by selling part of the surplus they had created for themselves. (Selling off your surplus product is very different than producing exclusively for exchange.) Over the course of a very long, violent, historical process called “Primitive Accumulation” these means of production were privatized and became the possession of a group of people called capitalists. Whereas before people labored directly for their own use, now they have to enter the market in order to attain their subsistence.
So already the fact that we produce for exchange and not directly for use expresses a social antagonism between the propertied and the propertyless. There is an underlying coercion already at work in the “free market”. And this coercion requires some threat of violence to enforce it whether it be a state, private military, or hired thugs. Violence was necessary to privatize the means of production and it remains necessary to enforce all of the legal aspects of property.
In order for people to buy their subsistence in the market they have to sell something else. Since the means of production are privately owned the only thing they have to sell is their labor. But of course labor can’t really be sold. Instead we sell our ability to labor: our labor power. We sell a definite amount of working time, whether it is measured in hours, weeks or years. This is why value is an expression of labor time.
Our own creative working ability, the very thing that makes us human and links us to society, becomes a commodity that we sell to someone else, a commodity called “labor-power”. Labor power, like any other commodity, has a use-value and an exchange-value, and… you guessed it- there is a contradiction between them. The exchange value is the money paid for our working time, the wage. Wages are set by the cost of our subsistence. They depend on the cost of food, housing, clothes, transportation, etc. But the use-value of our labor power is that it can produce value. These are the two opposing sides of labor-power: On one hand it costs a wage, on the other it produces value. This makes it possible to produce more value than we are paid for.
You could be paid $5 an hour yet produce $20 worth of commodity value an hour. (1) If this happened you would be being exploited. In fact your rate of exploitation would be 400%. Exploitation is made possible by the contradiction between the use-value and exchange-value of labor power.
Exploitation explains a puzzle about capitalism: the existence of profit. Capitalists start off the day with a sum of money which they invest in production. At the end of the day they have a quantity of commodities which they sell for more money than their initial investment. It would seem that they have made a profit just by buying and selling things. Yet profit can’t be made through mere buying and selling. This is because buying and selling is a zero-sum game. When we exchange commodities we are just moving commodities from one place to another. This process does nothing to change the total amount of value in society. Sure it might be possible to rip someone off, to over-charge someone, to charge a monopoly price, etc. But a win for one person in the market is a loss for another. There can be no aggregate profit just be moving commodities around. Yet profit is something that does exist in the aggregate. The total amount of value in society grows each year (GDP) through this expansion of value called profit.
So we seem to have a puzzle, or a contradiction, on our hands. On one hand the market is a realm of equality and symmetry. Market exchange conserves the value of commodities: the total value of commodities is not changed merely by transferring ownership. Any loss by one person is offset with a gain by another so that there is an inherent symmetry to commodity exchange. Yet profit is a phenomenon where value expands through the buying and selling of commodities. Profit is asymmetrical. More comes from less. How is this possible?
To solve this puzzle Marx tells us we must look beyond the market into the mysterious realm of production. It is in production where value is expanded through the exploitation of labor. Exploitation does not break any of the rules of market exchange because it doesn’t happen in exchange. Labor power is bought at its value. The products of that labor are sold at their value. No profit has been made through these exchanges. The profit is not from the market at all but from the labor process. It is the amount of labor preformed over and above the value of wages that determines the amount of profit. While the market remains a realm of equality and symmetry, production is a realm of asymmetry and exploitation. Thus there is a contradiction between production and exchange. And this contradiction is made possible by the contradiction between the use-value and exchange-value of labor power.
This antagonism between the use and exchange value of labor power expresses a social antagonism between capitalists and workers. Capitalists and workers have opposing interests. Workers want their means of subsistence: housing, food, clothes, beer. They want use-values. Capitalists aren’t interested in use-values. They are after exchange-value. They want to expand the size of their capital by making a profit. In order for either class to get what the want they need the other. The workers must sell themselves for a wage in order to survive. The capitalist must hire workers in order to exploit them for profits. Yet despite this codependence their interests are entirely antagonistic. The more the workers are paid in wages the less profit the capitalist makes. The more profit the capitalist makes the more impoverished the working class. (This isn’t because capitalists are bad apples. It’s because they personify the interests of capital.)
Clearly the struggle between capital and labor has always been present in capitalist societies whether it takes the form of day to day struggles over the amount of work we consent to, or long-term battles for better wages and working conditions. But even outside of the workplace the class antagonisms of capitalism are clearly ever-present. The distribution of the value created by the working class into wages, profits, rent, interest and taxes has everything to do with the standard of living we are able to enjoy, the kinds of neighborhoods we live in, the type of life-chances we have, and the quality of our lives. In a society structured to maximize profit for one class rather than produce use-values for social need the quality of our lives is inversely proportional to the needs of capital. In the past 30 years, as neoliberalism broke down barriers to the free flow of capital, massive sums of wealth have been consolidated into the hands of a smaller and smaller class of uber-capitalists, while the standard of living for the rest of the world has steadily worsened.
Society has enough food, housing and technology that the entire world’s population could work a lot less and still have all of the basic amenities of life. (Maybe we couldn’t all have mansions, fancy cars, and all the expensive cocaine we wanted, but we could live comfortable lives.) And they’d probably be more fulfilling if we didn’t spend our whole life working for someone else. But we don’t have such a society because our labor is not aimed at creating use-values for society but at creating profit for capital. The constant revolutions in technology and productivity are not aimed at making work easier or improving the quality of our lives, but in creating more profit by submitting labor to greater control. Thus the workplace becomes increasingly dominated by machines, assembly lines and computers all designed to discipline labor to its task of creating more value.
The Labor Process
As the knowledge of work is removed from the worker it is placed into the machine. The worker loses control over the labor process, becoming just a minor cog in the machine, easily replaceable. Another contradiction is revealed: that between the conception and execution of work. Our own knowledge of the labor process is taken away from us and placed in a machine which dominates us, reducing our work to a job- the carrying out of routine tasks with no meaning to us except that they are a means to a wage. This is a contradiction which fascinates popular culture: man vs. machine. But behind the machine lies a social relation between ourselves and our own creative powers that have been taken from us, alienated from us, standing over us, dominating our work.
And with this steady accumulation of capital in the form of machines comes another contradiction, this one between the capital invested in dead labor like machines and raw materials, and the capital invested in living labor. Though an increase in machinery allows capitalists to better exploit workers (and to appropriate value in competition as super-profit) machines can’t create value. As more and more capital is reinvested in machines and raw materials and less and less on labor, the actual value-creating substance of society is crowded out. This is the starting point for Marx’s theory of crisis. As the mass of capital that must be constantly reinvested in expanding production grows it becomes increasingly invested in dead labor rather than living labor. This sets the stage for massive crisis that require the destruction and devaluation of capital in all of its forms.
All of Marx’s model of a capitalist society is derived from his basic starting point: the analysis of the commodity. From this basic idea of value as the organizing principle of a commodity producing society he establishes the contradiction between the use-value and value of a commodity. And then, over the course of multiple volumes he shows how the unfolding of this contradiction reveals all of these other contradictions: contradictions between classes, between society and itself, between people and machines, and between the conception and execution of work. What begins as a seemingly innocuous distinction between use and exchange becomes the substance of class struggle and crisis.
This doesn’t mean that every problem in society is directly explained by the law of value. Yet, how can we really understand any discussion of inequality without first understanding the way in which social wealth and power is created and distributed? How can we understand violence without understanding the coercive nature of the market, the deep inequalities generated by commodity exchange, and compulsion of capital to accumulate at all costs? How can we discuss a solution to the environmental crisis without discussing the way the productive relations of a capitalist society are organized? The problem with the left is not that there are not enough people who care about these things. It is that not enough people have the theoretical tools to think about these things in terms of the basic structure of our society. That is why the law of value is so important to understand today. If we want to overcome the antagonisms of society we need to understand how these antagonisms are related and to do this we must start at the beginning with an analysis of the commodity.
1. Of course the price of a commodity is more than just the immediate labor that goes into it. There is also the past labor that went into the raw materials and the instruments of production like machines. The price of the commodity is the sum of the money laid out for dead labor (raw materials, machines and other products of past labor) and living labor (wages for workers) plus the amount of surplus value, unpaid labor, performed by workers.