For Use or Profit?
Societies in the past have subsisted without their material wealth being an accumulation of things for sale. This was historically and radically changed by the rise of capitalist production, which, seizing upon the simple domestic industry of the time, transformed it into capitalist manufacture. The handicraft workers who had worked independently of each other now became employed as wage workers in a co-operative effort under one roof, where the tools, workshop and product were the property of a single employer. With the invention of power-driven machinery these manufactories gave place to large-scale production, so that to-day one cannot think of modern capitalism without its factory system, its heavy industry and the resultant flood of commodities seeking a market. Thus Marx’s opening words in “Capital” eminently sum up the wealth of capitalist society as being “an immense accumulation of commodities.” If one therefore wishes to seek the source of capitalist wealth one must first analyse the commodity as a unit of capitalist production.
To begin with, a commodity must have both exchange-value and use-value; it must, in other words, be saleable and satisfy some need or other. We will deal with the usefulness of commodities first. To discover the various use of things is the work of history, says Marx. For example, seaweed that the Highland clansmen watched idly floating offshore, and which appeared to them us quite useless, is to-day, centuries later, the raw material for medicinal and fertiliser compounds. Again, the aborigines of what is now called Canada gazed at the falling waters of Niagara without the dimmest notion that one day this force would be used to light whole communities by hydro-electric power. Social production hud yet to arise and urge the need to investigate these possibilities; it was to use a Marxism not then “socially necessary.” It is worth noting in this respect that in competing on the commodity market the capitalists are ever seeking new use-values in the shape of inventions, their motive being one of profit, a fact usually hidden when they point out that capitalism has given the wage-workers things that not even the richest of men could command in the past, things like electric lighting and radio sets. But to proceed. The qualities that make up usefulness are multifarious — colour, durability, hardness, etc. — some, if not all, having their own terms of measurement in their own sphere of production and use. It is this variability which makes it impossible to measure use-value by any common factor. One cannot, for example, measure the strength or hardness of steel against the heat-giving properties of coal. Neither, for that matter, will exchange-value give any clue to a commodity’s usefulness. Price or exchange value would tell one nothing of the health giving qualities of, say, a pint of milk as compared with a pot of tea, though both may be the same price to the consumer. Again, the usefulness of the ordinary needle is incalculable, for without it austerity Britain might go in worse tatters than ever, yet its price is a few pence per packet
Leaving for a moment the usual level of use-value and looking at the wider social view, what is more useful than the abilities of creators of all commodity use-value — the workers themselves — yet often a worker’s life is assessed in money terms at much less than a race-horse. Again, whole catches of fish were recently thrown back into the sea when the “market” for them showed little profit, their usefulness to hungry people being totally ignored. In the normal sense, the esteem or evaluation of a use-value is a subjective matter, giving service, comfort, etc., to the user, but it is not for this that the consumer pays, because before the consumer can come into possession of a use-value the whole process of capitalist production must be gone through, the motive behind which is not to attend to the wants of individuals, but to realise a profit for a class, the capitalist class. The capitalist process is to produce commodities (which have no personal use to the capitalists as such) and realise a profit by selling them at a greater price than the initial outlay. In this no special concern is shown about the inherent qualities that make up use-value, or even the kind of labour that went to the process. For the average profit a capitalist will supply the labour of skilled or “unskilled” workers, caring little whether the product of this labour be blacking or binoculars, while even harmful and useless things are marketed, necessitating such measures as the “Food and Drugs Act,” etc. If, as is plain from all this, the goods of present-day society are not produced or exchanged on a basis of usefulness, what, then, is the common “something” which can qualitatively measure their value in exchange? Our following article, “ Exchange is no Robbery,” will endeavour to explain this “ something.”