Making Mud Pies: Commodities and Their Values

By Phoenix Cloutier

Marx, in the very first part of his work, lays out what his subject of study is—the commodity. 

A commodity is:

  1. Something useful, that satisfies a need or want, like a car, food, or a jacket
  2. Something that is made not to be used by the person who made it but rather to be sold

Something’s usefulness is called its use-value. As in our examples above, almost everything you see in your life is a use-value. Even air and water have use-value! However, in order to be a commodity, a thing must satisfy both above conditions. If I make myself a sandwich, the sandwich is not a commodity. If I make a sandwich in order to trade it for your chips, the sandwich has become a commodity. In this way the sandwich is not immediately useful for me; I don’t really want to eat a sandwich. Instead, it is useful insofar as it can get me your chips. So, the sandwich’s use-value, its ability to satisfy hunger, is not related to its other quality: its exchangeability, its exchange-value. 

Exchange-value is the ability of one thing to be traded for another. For example,  3 pencils=2 pieces of paper. This seems like a fair trade. How about 3 pencils=1 car? Why does the second seem unfair while the first fair? There is something common to the pencils, the paper, and the car, but it has nothing to do with what they physically are. All are used in different ways: a pencil to write, paper to write on, and a car to drive. The substance that is common to them is their exchange-value. It is purely quantitative, measurable by numbers, and completely separate from their physical qualities and their usefulness. A certain quantity of one thing can be traded for a certain quantity of something else, or at certain quantities our two things embody equal exchange-values. 

What is common to all three of our commodities? They are all products of labor. A car is the product of factory work and the pencil and paper of the cutting down of forests. We are not referring to the individual types of labor that their production may require then, but to labor in general, undifferentiated labor. The amount of labor embodied in the commodity represents its Value.

Value, with a big V, is the subject of the book. We cannot see Value directly; it only becomes visible through exchange, through exchange-values.

If the more labor is in something, the more Value it has, then couldn’t I spend hundreds of hours making mud pies and have someone buy them at an exorbitant price because they embody so much labor? No. Everything in society has what is called a socially necessary labor time, the average time it takes to make something. Most books, shoes, and clothes take about the same amount of time to make. If I spend many more hours above that average time, it is rendered invalid. The only labor that produces Value is that which is at or below the socially necessary labor time. 

Socially necessary labor changes over time, and thus Value changes overtime. Better machines, less waste, and better working organizations can all lower the necessary labor time of a thing. 

Control Questions:

  1. What is a use-value?
  2. Can we see Value?
  3. What makes Value?
  4. Why is a car more valuable than a pencil?

Section 1, Chapter 1 

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