A World Without Commodities
In explaining the conditions under which commodity production and money exist, Marx helps us understand the characteristics of a new society in which they would no longer exist.
A new society without commodity production, money, and markets? A society where production is carried out solely to meet our human needs, with all the social wealth held in common. Why is this idea still so widely ridiculed as a utopian daydream, even by those who are deeply dissatisfied with the ‘status quo’? ‘That sounds nice but it’ll never work’—is the predictable response we hear.
It seems to our critics that we socialists are offering nothing more than wishful thinking. But the notion that commodities, money, profit, private property, wages, etc. would no longer exist in a socialist world is actually premised on understanding why such things exist under capitalism in the first place. Once we have understood the why (and how) of such economic forms, it becomes possible to imagine the social conditions in which they would no longer have any room to exist.
This crucial relationship between understanding the fundamentals of capitalism and grasping the essence of socialism as its alternative points to the continued importance of Karl Marx’s Capital, particularly its first volume, which was first published 150 years ago. Even though Marx—as many have pointed out—does not provide a ‘blueprint’ for socialism in his book, his critique of capitalism brings the characteristics of that new society into view by clarifying the fundamental boundaries and limitations of capitalism as one historical ‘mode of production’ among others that had existed or might exist in the future.
A short article like this cannot cover all the ways that Capital traces the boundaries of capitalism beyond which lies a new and unprecedented society, so here we will limit ourselves to the crucial first chapter in which Marx analyses the commodity, which he describes as the ‘elementary form’ of wealth under the capitalist mode of production.
Use-value and exchange-value
Today the terms ‘commodity’ and ‘product’ have become almost synonymous because we are so accustomed to the reality of production for the market, but Marx clearly distinguishes between the two. He uses the term ‘commodity’ to indicate products that are produced for exchange, so that they not only have a ‘use-value’ that meets a particular human need (as any product does), but also an ‘exchange-value’ on the market.
Under capitalism, the vast majority of products take the commodity form, as Marx notes in the opening sentence of Capital: ‘The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”’.
There is ‘wealth’ in any mode of production, which is to say material products that meet human needs, but only when capitalism has taken hold of a society do the vast majority of those products take the form of ‘commodities’ bought and sold on the market. Although commodity production existed under some of the pre-capitalist modes of production, it was subordinate to the dominant production relations in which the products of human labour did not take the form of commodities.
And even under capitalism we can see some examples of products of labour that do not take the commodity form. The tomatoes grown in a family’s garden for its members’ own consumption, for instance, would have the use-value of satisfying their hunger, but no exchange-value under those circumstances.
At the end of the first section of Chapter 1, Marx sums up the distinction between product and commodity, noting that to produce commodities one must not only produce use-values, but use-values for others or social use-values, and that these useful things must not only be produced for others but also transferred to them by means of exchange. He notes, in contrast, how the ‘quit-rent-corn’ and ‘tithe-corn’ produced by the mediaeval peasant for the feudal lord and parson, respectively, are not commodities, even though produced for others, because there is no exchange between the two sides.
The distinction between product and commodity (and between use-value and exchange-value) is not at all difficult to grasp, but it has great significance to the case for socialism: it reminds us that there is nothing eternal about production for the market, which has, in fact, been the exception, not the rule, over the course of human history.
‘Social relations between things’
Marx explains the conditions under which products take the commodity form, writing that, ‘as a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other’; adding that these ‘producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products’. Since these private individuals or groups operate apart from each other, with an eye only to the market, it is only in the act of exchange that the ‘specific social character of each producer’s labour . . . show itself’.
This state of affairs is quite different from the examples raised earlier of the gardening family or the medieval peasant. In such cases, the social relations between those involved in production and distribution are clear from the outset, rather than being established by means of exchange. The family members already form a unit, just as the (subordinate) relationship between peasant and feudal lord is clear to begin with, and the products of labour produced under those conditions are then distributed in line with those specific relations
Instead of ‘direct social relations between individuals at work’, what we have under capitalism, as a system of generalised commodity production, are ‘material relations between persons and social relations between things’. This creates what Marx calls the ‘fetishism of commodities’, where ‘definite social relations between men’ assume ‘in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things’.
An overriding characteristic of capitalism as a society of generalised commodity production is the roundabout way in which production is carried out. Instead of the members of society directly producing useful things to meet their own individual and common needs, we have production carried out for the market. And only those goods that are successfully sold can meet those human needs and constitute a part of the aggregate social labour. This is an almost ridiculously complex way to organise production.
Yet those who take this system for granted dismiss a more straightforward and transparent approach to production and distribution as infeasible. Part of the reason is the notion that without the ‘invisible hand’ of the market to regulate production and exchange, a society would bog down in hopeless inefficiency or descend into the despotism of a select group dictating production and consumption. But really it is the capitalist system itself, as a system of commodity production, that is mired in inefficiency and inequality.
As already noted, objects of utility can only meet human needs under this system if they are successfully sold—otherwise they will rot or rust on the shelf. On top of this, society is unequally divided between a small minority of those who own and operate the means of production (whether as individuals, corporate directors, or state bureaucrats), on the one hand, and the overwhelming majority of workers obliged to sell their labour-power to those owners in return for a wage.
But even the ruling class under capitalism is not the master of the market economy. Marx explains in chapter one that the exchange of commodities is fundamentally determined by the labour time socially necessary to produce them, rather than being under the conscious control of human beings. In this way, the economy manifests itself as a force of nature, whose behaviour is far more difficult to anticipate than the weather. We live in a social world that is beyond human control, even though production is carried out by human beings.
Getting along without commodities
Near the end of chapter one, Marx contrasts the absurdly complex and roundabout system of capitalist commodity production with other ways to organise production, where products would not take the commodity form. These are some of the most illuminating passages in all of Capital regarding the possibility of a new society beyond capitalism.
Marx begins, tongue-in-cheek, by looking at the fictional case of Robinson Crusoe, who is producing for his own needs, using the resources available on his island. He must do a ‘little useful work of various sorts’ to satisfy his wants, but he knows that ‘his labour, whatever its form, is but different modes of human labour’. ‘All the relations of Robinson and the objects that form this wealth of his own creation are here so simple and clear as to be intelligible without exertion.’ None of the objects of utility that Robinson creates would confront him as commodities, since there would be no need for any sort of exchange.
The second example Marx raises is production in Europe in the Middle Ages. What ‘characterises the social relations of production’ here is ‘personal dependence’. That is, ‘instead of independent man, we find everyone dependent, serfs and lords, vassals and suzerains, laymen and clergy’. But precisely because these social relations of personal dependence exist from the outset and form the ‘ground-work of society’, Marx explains, ‘there is no necessity for labour and its products to assume a fantastic form different from their reality’; rather ‘they take the shape . . . of services in kind and payments in kind’. The social relations between the individuals engaged in production ‘are not disguised under the shape of social relations between the products of labour’.
In his next example, Marx looks at production in the case of ‘labour in common or directly associated labour’, taking as his example the ‘patriarchal industries of a peasant family’ that produces some articles for their home use’. ‘The labour-power of each individual . . . operates in this case merely as a definite portion of the whole labour-power of the family’, much like the example raised above of a family growing tomatoes in its garden. The aim of production is to meet the needs of the family members, rather than supply the market, so once again we are dealing with simple products or objects of utility—not commodities.
If we expand the case of Robinson or the family to a social scale, we have in essence the production relations in a new socialist world. This is what Marx sketches in his next example, where he describes an ‘association of free men’ who are ‘carrying on their work with the means of production in common’ so that the ‘labour-power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour-power of the community’.
The only difference in the characteristics of labour in this society with the example of Robinson on his island, Marx explains, is that now everything is social instead of individual. One portion of what is produced would be ‘consumed by the members as means of subsistence’, while another portion would serve as ‘fresh means of production’ and thus remain social.
There is no need in this society for its members to confront each other as individual commodity producers or to first come into a relationship via exchange because they are already in a relationship from the outset as the common holders of the wealth and resources of society, much like the ties between family members in Marx’s earlier example. In socialism, therefore, the ‘social relations of the individual producers’ are ‘perfectly simple and intelligible’ and there is no need for commodities or money to exist.
Here we have only scratched the surface of how Marx’s analysis of capitalism can stimulate an understanding of the characteristics of socialism as a commodity- and money-free world. The better we understand the essential characteristics of capitalism and how they determine the social problems we face, the clearer will be our image of socialism as a realistic alternative and means to overcoming those problems.