Does it not strike you as a little odd that talk of commodification has been so prominent - so fundamental - in the Marxist tradition? Surely most people who are attracted to Marxism begin with the judgment that working people are being exploited and treated unfairly. But in the works of Marx and Lukacs, for instance, talk about exploitation and unfairness seems less central than talk about commodification. This can certainly seem odd so here we want to go back to Max's writings and later those of Lukacs to look again at what is said about commodification to try to figure out why it is given such prominence.
First we recap what Marx says about commodities in the earliest sections of Capital.
Commodities and their effect on labour
In the first chapter of volume one of Capital Marx describes what a commodity is. It is something which can be exchanged for other things on the market - something which thereby has an exchange value. Marx then distinguishes between the seemingly obvious appearance of that exchange value and its deeper, concealed truth.
At first sight exchange values appear to be completely arbitrary. Marx, however, argues that if we look at the matter more closely we will see that all commodities have a property that explains their particular exchange values: the labour power that has been invested in them.
At first sight, of course, there is no such thing as labour power (in general); there are different forms of work done by people with different skills. But again, if we remain at this level, it seems arbitrary that the labour of the plumber is worth so much more than the labour of the hack writer. Marx, however, insists that appearances are - once again - deceptive. Beneath the superficial differences there is "human labour in the abstract".
Marx isn't simply making a blunt assertion that there is such a thing. Rather he is arguing that there must be such a thing in order to explain the phenomenon of exchange value. If there weren't human labour in the abstract, then exchange values would really be as arbitrary as they first appear. So: whether we realize it or not, when we exhange commodities and think about their exchange value we are necessarily disregarding the fact that the things in question are (also) the products "of the labour of the joiner, the mason, the spinner, or of any other definite kind of productive labour." (Just so that there is no confusion (because this is a bit confusing): When we exchange so much thread for a wooden stool we necessarily ignore the different kinds of labour expended by the spinner and the joiner, and focus instead on roughly equal quantities of some abstract form of labour that both the spinner and the joiner have expended in producing their goods.)
Since exchange value is numerical there has to be a way of quantifying the abstract human labour that accounts for it. And, says Marx, there is: the duration of the labour expended. So: commodities that can be produced using the same number of labour hours (not Marx's term) will have the same exchange value.
A qualification Marx makes: In practice, this can be very different from the time it actually took the labourer to make something because what counts in the market is the number of socially necessary labour hours. As an example Marx mentions the introduction of power looms after which the value of the cloth produced by hand looms dropped dramatically. Mechanisation had lowered the amount of socially necessary labour time and so lowered the exchange value of the product regardless of the fact that some producers were still expending a heck of a lot more time without any added reward.
Marx is laying the groundwork here for a scientific study of the economy. If exchange values are functions of socially necessary abstract human labour measured in hours and minutes, then beneath the apparently chaotic market is a system determined by an interplay of quantifiable factors, which is what the object of a science must be.
An aside: Is it just my imagination or is there a real tension in Marx's work between railing against a fragmented society and being seduced by science so that the greater intellectual challenge seems to be to push forward the boundaries of the science of economics?
Does Marx not ignore the role of judgement?
Back to Marx's description of the scientific basis of exchange value: What if crucial estimations of value require acts of judgement? Take the art market as an example. Buyers are not even implicitly weighing up the length of time expended on the production of a work of art. In the first instance they are making judgements about how good the work of art is, and for this the amount of labour involved is really irrelevant. The question is: Is this an exception that can be ignored or is this an example of a general phenomenon on the market? Given the right marketing (which effectively alters the criteria in terms of which people judge things) brands, designer labels and the design of products generally add to their value regardless of whether or not more labour time has been expended. The same is true of organic groceries, which people are prepared to pay a premium for simply because they are judged to be better, not because the farmer must work harder when he chooses not to spray his crops.
A clarification: Marx's talk of abstract human labour only applies to commodity producing economies. The reality of human labour in commodity production is the reality of an abstraction whereas in fuedal society (which Marx refers to by way of contrast) social labour invoves a direct personal relation between lord and master.
Marx keeps referring to the way commodification conceals or mystifies the true nature of economic activity. What, though, is being concealed and why does the concealment matter?
Marx refers to the fetishism of commodities but he isn't referring to the aura certain commodities have perhaps because they are commonly taken as status symbols. So what does he mean by commodity fetishism?
In the section entitled "The Fetishism of Commodities" Marx begins by eferring to the "mysterious" quality of commodities, which he also calls their "mystical character". The mystery is the ground of their exchange value. The reason why commodities have use values is obvious; the reason why commodities have particular exchange values is not. That is the mystery - a mystery solved finally (to Marx's satisfaction) by the "discovery" of abstract socially necessary labour time.
Marx draws an analogy between the commodity and "the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life." The fetish is something in which a thing is thought to have powers which really belong to people. The commodity is a fetish insofar as it is thought to have a quality (exchange value) which seems to have a life of its own while in truth it is really a product of the equivalence between qualitatively different forms of human labour.
In Marx's explanation of why he calls this fetishism he initially highlights the mystery of exchange value and the failure of those without the right scientific understanding to see the connection with (abstract) human labour. However, without making this crystal clear there is another aspect to the analogy. Just as religious fetishism erects a power over the believers, commodity fetishism allows the market "to rule the producers instead of being ruled by them," or as he puts it later on: "the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him."
But before we move on, what exactly did Marx mean by saying that "the relation between men assumes the form of a relation between things"? At the point where this appears (four sentences before Marx first uses the term "fetishism" in the text) he is simply reiterating the point that exchange value (which is an equivalence of things) conceals its ground in the equivalence between the different forms of labour of the two producers.
The social character of labour: the obvious and the hidden
Clearly Marx wants to say that a market economy is a form of social life at odds with itself and so he wants to highlight the conflict between individual goals and the life of the social whole. What is not clear, however, is why he goes to such lengths to identify the social character of private labour in the most obscure place: hidden beneath the quantitative form of exchange value. Wasn't it obvious from the beginning that except in the simplest societies producers labour to satisfy the wants of others in the wider society? Why rely on such a non-obvious analysis of exchange value to identify the social character of labour? In Marx's early writings he felt able to refer directly to our "species being" but now it seems we have to go on a long detour through the obscure workings of exchange value in order to appreciate our species being in a market economy. Why?
I cannot find a clear answer to this in Marx but I suspect that the following is the case: Talk of our species being - when it is intended to spark a sense of overriding solidarity - doesn't cut much ice when the differences and conflicts between individuals and groups are all too evident. However, it we buy into Marx's analysis of exchange value, we come to see that we are all, as labourers, fundamentally identical - we share the same identity as agents who expend different quantities of the same abstract socially necessary labour. Although the market sets us against each other, if we look beneath the surface with the scientific insights that Marx advances we will see that the market etablishes a (deeper?) identity - an identity which (one imagines) gave Marx grounds for hoping that the proletariat could overcome its divisions and unite as an agent of revolution.
The commodification of labour and social fragmentation
As Marx puts it: the "ultimate money form of the world of commodities ... conceals ... the social character of private labour, and the social relations between the individual producers." No worker in a factory, however much of a commodity fetishist he may be, can fail to see that labour is something social since he is certainly not alone in the factory, so Marx must have something else in mind. However, when labour is a commodity the individual can think that she works for her own ends. In truth she provides a service to society (producing the goods and services that satisfy other people's needs) but this will be ignored/concealed if what really matters is the wage (the exchange value of the labour). The social character of the labour (the needs that it satisfies and the kind of society that it helps to create/perpetuate) falls away as an irrelevant issue when people have to compete in the labour market to secure the wage that will give them the means of supporting themselves.
When Marx talks about concealment here it can seem as if what matters is that people come to appreciate the social role of their labour. Surely, though, this is not the issue here. Surely what matters here is the split between the individual and the social whole. The labour market forces me to look after number one, especially in an economy where there is a continual threat of unemployment. I might even realize the social role my labour plays when I am lucky enough to find paid work, but I can't afford to pay much attention to it because I must simply do what has to be done to postpone my return to the dole queue. Although the word "contradiction" has long been a terrible cliché amongst Marxists it is tempting to talk here of a contradiction between the private ends I am forced to pursue and the social role that I perform in doing so. Whether or not this deserves to be called a contradiction it certainly indicates an unreconciled relationship between the individual and society.
The fact that this is the real issue here (and not simply tearing through another veil of mystification) is evident in an oddly utopian moment at the end of the first chapter of Capital in which Marx pencils in the barest outline of a society in which the individual and the social whole are reconciled. in this utterly unscientific moment Marx describes "a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour power of the community." There are two aspects here. Firstly, individuals are consciously and willingly social: they see their labour as a social service instead of unwittingly doing a social service while only having their private ends in view. Secondly, the organisation of society becomes something that is consciously deliberated and planned. Instead of allowing an unconscious play of forces in the market play a determining role, society gathers itself up and takes charge of its historical development.
A labour theory of equality
Marx clearly had in view a harmonious unification of humanity. This presupposes a strong notion of human equality. What is interesting is that Marx felt this was to be found in the phenomenon of labour. For liberals it is enough to insist that we are born equal and for philosophers it is enough to assume that we are equal bearers of rationality or equal participants in language, but Marx felt he had to look elsewhere. Why?
If the concern from his earliest writings is really the reconciliation of individual and society, then it makes sense for him to devote most of his attention to the sphere of social activity that sets individuals against each other and undermines the basis for a more meaningful social life, and in practice it is not reason or language that sets us against each other but the economy - a market economy in which we are forced, whether we like it or not, to look after number one.
It might have been the case that the market economy is simply a social catastrophe but it seems that Marx saw in it the seeds of what ought to replace it. Hence his rather complicated analysis that claims to find a concealed and more fundamental identity beneath the social antagonism.
Marx's attitude to abstractions
Marx brings out the difference between exchange value and use value and emphasizes the abstract, relational character of exchange values. He also describes the way that (on his account) the market really does reduce qualitatively different forms of labour to comparable quantitites of abstract labour. By comparison he describes a feudal society in which the social relations between individuals are still personal relations (unlike the mystified social relations that are the obscure substratum of exchange value in a market society) and it can sometimes seem as if the mystifying abstractions of the market society are as bad as capitalist exploitation - abstractions that will have to be thrown off in any meanginful revolution so that we can get back to spontaneous relations between individuals in all their particularity.
But is Marx really anti-abstraction? Surely the thrust of the argument is that we ought to be embracing the abstraction and setting aside our differences once and for all. As the market spreads it establishes a real (albeit concealed) equality. Although this is an abstraction it is a real abstraction (not just a figment of our imagination) and one that must be affirmed if we are to make any further progress.
When Marx very briefly sketches his utopia he mentions that in the early stages at least it is likely that "the share of each individual producer in the means of subsistence [will be] determined by his labour time." Now this would involve exactly the same kind of abstraction as the one effected by commodification: very different kinds of labour are treated as equal and treated as equal quantities of some uniform, abstract labour power. So it is clearly not abstraction as such that is at issue here for Marx.