What is a Commodity?
Often when discussing with friends, sympathisers and others we use the term, “commodity.” This seems a very simple word, easy to understand, but we wonder how often it is misunderstood. We fear, very often. Let us therefore examine the question for a while.
The first essential characteristic of a commodity is that it is something produced primarily for sale at a profit. That is the object of its production. For the capitalist, if there is no profit there will be no production.
Commodities must, of course, be useful things, otherwise they could not be sold. But all useful things are not commodities. The air we breathe, for example, is the most useful thing of all, but it is not sold. We can have what we want of it without let or hindrance. We do not doubt if capitalists could monopolise the air, they would do so and we should have to buy it at so much a breathful. Also, when we say that commodities must be useful, this statement is capable of some amplification. It would be truer to say that some people consider them to be of use. Take, for example, patent medicines. It has been shown quite often that some patent medicines, far from being useful are, in fact, harmful. But still, Mrs. Jones buys regularly a bottle of Blogg’s Backache Pills which may do her a lot of harm, quite confident that they will make her young and sprightly again. Or take the atomic bomb. This is obviously very harmful to the mass of the population, but for a minority, the capitalist class, it is useful, in that it defends their position of wealth and privilege against rival capitalist powers. And so, the question of use must be dealt with carefully.
We said earlier that a commodity is something that is produced for sale. This does not mean that everything that is produced is a commodity. If, for example, with our simple tools we make ourselves a chair at home for our own use, that is not a commodity. It has not been produced for sale. It may be equal in every way to the chairs on sale in a shop, but not having been produced for sale, it ranks only as a use-value.
Commodities are a fundamental form peculiar to the capitalist system. They only existed in chattel slavery and feudalism as by-products, the motive of production being the satisfaction of needs. It is true that under feudalism and chattel slavery there was a privileged class but their privilege came from the ownership of land, not the ownership of money as under capitalism. Under feudalism the serfs could be certain of the means of subsistence, mean as they were. Under capitalism no worker can be certain of them unless he can sell his mental or physical energies for a wage.
We are sometimes asked if rare works of art are commodities. The answer is, No. Another quality that a commodity must have is that it must be capable of reproduction. If an article cannot be reproduced it cannot rank as a commodity.
All commodities are not necessarily tangible things. There are, for example, services. If we purchase a ticket to enable us to travel on the railway, we are really purchasing a commodity, that is, the use of the railway to carry us from one place to another. The same thing applies to services like those of a chimney sweep, or a hairdresser, or a concert singer and many other things. These services conform to the definition of a commodity in that they are useful, they can be reproduced, but they are produced solely for sale or exchange.
Let us now come to what, for the capitalist, must be the most important commodity of all—the labour power of the workers. This is the point at which we disagree with the non-Marxian economists. They do not recognise the existence of labour-power as distinct from labour. We claim that the worker does not sell his labour to the capitalist, but his energies—his power to labour. When we offer ourselves for employment we have no labour to sell but the ability to labour—our labour power. And labour-power is another commodity like all other commodities, with one important exception. It produces more value than it contains itself. It provides the capitalist with his wealth. It produces what we call surplus value, that is, the value over and above what the worker takes in the form of wages. For the capitalist, all efforts are directed towards increasing the amount of surplus value produced by the workers.
We invite you to join with us in ending commodity production. It is the key to all our problems. It can only be ended by Socialism, when again the motive for production will be the satisfaction of human needs. Just us now—quickly.