QUESTION: Why do we need communism?
ANSWER: Because people need money
Capital, volume 1, Chapter 1.
The first chapter of Capital is both the most important, in that it introduces the basic concepts of Marx’s theory of value, and the most difficult.
Marx first began to work out his theory of value in the Grundrisse (1857), but the discussion there is very convoluted and incomplete. The first version of Chapter One of Capital is to be found in the Critique of Political Economy (1859), whose first chapter is in many ways the best introduction to Chapter One of Capital. The discussion of the Critique differs in a number of ways from that of Capital:
The version of the first chapter of Capital in the English translations is a revised version that first appeared in the third German edition. In the first two editions the first chapter was shorter (roughly the first two sections of the later version and shorter versions of the third and fourth sections), and there was also an Appendix on ‘The form of value’ that was integrated into the third section in the rewrite. The change was made in an attempt to make the first chapter more comprehensible but it does introduce some differences in emphasis. (A translation of the first version of Ch. 1 and the Appendix is published, in a very tortuous translation, in Value Studies by Marx (A. Dragstedt, ed.). A much better translation of the Appendix has been published in Capital and Class, 4, 1978.)
Chapter One of Capital offers us a sociological theory of the market. Marx does not see the market simply as an institution in which individuals meet to exchange commodities, to be understood in isolation from the production of commodities, for exchange itself has implications for production. It is through the price mechanism that apparently independent producers are persuaded to produce in accordance with social needs: if too much of a commodity is produced, the price falls and less will be produced: producers will direct their labour into the production of other goods. If a producer is inefficient he or she will not get full recognition in the market for the work he or she has done, and so will be compelled to increase efficiency. Thus the market is the place in which the labour of individual producers is brought into relation with that of other producers, and so of society as a whole. The market is a particular way of allocating social labour, appropriate to a particular kind of society in which individuals work independently of one another to produce goods for the use of others. Thus the relation between individual producers in a commodity producing society is not directly recognised as a social relation – the producers do not get together to plan production as interdependent members of society. Instead the social relation between these producers takes the form of a relation between things, between the goods they exchange for one another. The exchange ratio, or exchange value, of commodities, is not, therefore, merely a relation between inanimate objects, but it expresses the relation between the labours of the individuals who have produced those commodities. This idea is the basis of Marx’s theory of value.
Michael Roberts reviews Fred Moseley’s new book, Money and Totality, Brill, 2016
One of the major trends in the world economy in the last two years has been the collapse of the price of oil in world markets. From a peak of over $100 a barrel, the price plummeted to under $30 a barrel and is still only around $40. The explanation for this fall, as provided by mainstream economics, is simple. There has been a change in the supply and demand for oil. Economists then go on to discuss which is the more important factor: supply increasing or demand falling.
But this analysis of the price of a commodity and what is it is worth at the level of supply and demand – as taught in all economics textbooks in colleges – is superficial at best. There is a joke in financial investor circles, when discussing why the stock price of a particular company has suddenly fallen: ‘Well, there were more sellers than buyers’ – true to the point of tautology.
What explains why a barrel of oil is $40 and not $1? Why do 100 paper clips cost $1 and one car costs $20,000? In other words, we need to understand what something is worth in the marketplace beyond just supply and demand; we need a theory of value. From that, we can begin to explain the workings of a capitalist economy, where everything is produced for sale. And if we can measure changes in value we can begin to understand the laws of motion of a capitalist economy – and, Marxist economics would add, its key contradictions, because Marxist economics is not so interested in the changes in the price of one commodity as in the nature and causes of the overall trends and fluctuations in an economy. That is, macroeconomics – with a purpose.
Marxist value theory is based on the view that commodities are priced in the market according to the labour time expended on them. Actually, labour time is basic for all forms of social production by human beings. As Marx wrote,
Every child knows a nation which ceased to work, I will not say for a year, but even for a few weeks, would perish. Every child knows, too, that the masses of products corresponding to the different needs required different and quantitatively determined masses of the total labour of society. That this necessity of the distribution of social labour in definite proportions cannot possibly be done away with by a particular form of social production, but can only change the mode of its appearance, is self-evident. No natural laws can be done away with.1
But Marx goes on:
What can change in historically different circumstances is only the form in which these laws assert themselves. And the form in which this proportional distribution of labour asserts itself, in the state of society where the interconnection of social labour is manifested in the private exchange of the individual products of labour, is precisely the exchange value of these products.
This is why Marxist theory of value applies to capitalism, not previous modes of social organisation.
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