A passage from Marx. (As in, “here is a passage from Marx,” not as in “What in the hell does tailoring produce? Tailoring produces a passage from Marx.”) Or: tailoring, what’s the use?

Early in Capital volume 1 Marx undertakes an exposition of what he calls the simple, isolated or accidental form of value. This form has two sides or moments – the relative and the equivalent. The relatives is a commodity whose value is expressed in units of another commodity. The equivalent expresses the value of another commodity. Marx’s example is linen and coats. If one is concerned with the value of linen and expresses it in coats, linen is the relative and coat is the equivalent. This equation also equates the labor involved in the production of linen and coats. To equate linen and coats (to express the value of linen in coats) is to equate weaving and tailoring. More specifically, it is to equate these “specific and useful concrete labour[s]” in such a way which treats them as “the expression of abstract human labour,” human labor in general. As a concrete labor, tailoring produces a coat as a use value. As abstract labor, tailoring produces a commodity which is the equivalent to others as being products of abstract labor. When the coat serves as the equivalent, expressing the value of another commodity, then

“the usefulness of the tailoring consists, not in making clothes, and thus also people, but in making a physical object, which we at once recognise as value, as a congealed quantity of labour, therefore, which is indistinguishable from the labour objectified in the value of the linen.” (Page 150 in the Penguin edition.)

I find this line striking. Tailoring and the product of tailoring, the coat, serves to express the value of weaving and the product of weaving, linen. This expression (of the linen’s value by the coat) is a “usefulness.” Since “[t]he usefulness of a thing makes it a use-value” (126), the capacity of the coat to serve as the equivalent form for the commodity linen (the capacity to express the value of linen) is one use value or one aspect of the use value of the coat. (Use value is always multiple for Marx, which is part of what makes it such an interesting category. “Every useful thing is a whole composed of many properties: it can therefore be useful in various ways.” 125.)

This connects to a longstanding question for me about the relationship between use value and exchange value. (Digging up stuff from an old post)

“Use is the activity (by some actor), use value is the potential (of something other than the actor) to enter into that activity. So, labor power as a commodity has, for the capitalists, the use value of being producing more value than its purchased price (the wage), when it is used. (If used successfully, judged from the capitalist perspective. Not a foregone conclusion but a continual matter of conflict.) In this sense, exchange value is a subset of use value, and one which serves to help police other use values from being made use of (ie, any that don’t entail submitting to labor and money). (…)

Use values are relative to actors, of course – the use value of a free blogging site for bloggers might include a sense of connection, a feeling of self-importance, a chance to show off, a chance to try and write better, a way to meet people, something to do other than work while in an office, etc. The use value for employers might include employees who write better, get material published more often, know material better, etc (particularly for those of us whose employers are universities). The use value for the people hosting the site might include advertising revenue, some sense of pride in being a popular site, etc. All of these relate to each other in different ways, of course, some of them potentially antagonistically.”

This means that I think “there’s not an antagonism between use value as such and exchange value, but rather between some use values and exchange value. (…) I think exchange value is a species of use value (…) exchange value is a character in the stage play who at first appears to be one thing and is later unveiled to be another different but related thing.” (from here. See also here on necessary labor in Marx’s economic manuscrips of 1861-63. In a nutshell, I think exchange value is contained within use value as a category. The difference between use value and exchange value is that between a general determination and a specific determination which is a subcategory of the more general, like “book” and “red book”. So there’s no conflict between between exchange value and use value, no more than there is between “red book” and “book”. Rather, the conflict is between that use value called exchange value and other use value[s], or more to the point between different users.)

Leaving aside exchange value and use value, getting back to the quote I started from:

When the coat is the equivalent (expression of value) for the linen, “the usefulness of the tailoring consists, not in making clothes, and thus also people, but in making a physical object, which we at once recognise as value, as a congealed quantity of labour, therefore, which is indistinguishable from the labour objectified in the value of the linen.”

There are two other things I want to comment on here.

First, tailoring in producing clothes produces people. This is an instance in Marx’s writing where one can see production of people, social relations, subjectivity – that which Hardt and Negri call biopolitical production. For Marx here this quality is part of tailoring as concrete labor, not as abstract labor. The making of persons is not part of exchange value or of making labors equivalent. I would say that exchange value and equation is a making of persons and subjectivity as well (this is one way to describe marxist writings on alienation and ideology) but I think the difference is that capitalist making of persons is a sort of (attempt at) top down molding of people, an attempt at determination of people. On the the other hand the making of persons within broader use value of concrete labors is, like concrete labor and concrete products, a multiple. Use value and the concrete is a place where under- or un-determination appears in Marx’s work, as with the object satisfying “needs of whatever [irgendeiner] kind.” (125.)

Second, when the coat is the equivalent to the linen, the labor in the coat is indistinguishable from the labor in the linen. This is not the same as saying the two are identical. Identity could be said to be an ontological matter (“A really is A”), whereas (in)distinguishability is an epistemological or standpoint matter. (“We treat A as if…” See notes on the ‘as if‘ in Kant and on indifference. Additional references to standpoint, indifference, and counting-as on p125, 154, 155, 159, 160.) Abstract labor is labor viewed from a perspective which is indifferent to some determinations of that labor, it is not labor which really lacks all determinations. (Note in German, “indistinguishable” is “nicht unterscheidet” – not different or differentiated from.)

In this case, coat as equivalent for linen, “this concrete labour, tailoring, counts exclusively as the expression of undifferentiated labour.” In German this is “diese konkrete Arbeit, die Schneiderei, als bloßer Ausdruck unterschiedsloser menschlicher Arbeit gilt.” I like the pairing of bloß and counting-as (gilt), which suggests a possible line to follow connecting bare life and abstract labor, and a similar tension in Agamben and Marx (or instead of tension, a tendency or temptation where they sometimes seem to ontologize something and at others to historicize it).

I find Marx ambiguous on abstract labor. He cites Aristotle, book five of the Nicomachean Ethics. Marx quotes Aristotle as saying that while exchange does equate things and therefore render them commensurable, “It is, however, in reality impossible that such unlike things can be commensurable”, commensurable meaning as Marx adds “qualitatively equal.” Marx continues, “[t]his form of equation can only be something foreign to the true nature of things” for Aristotle, for whom commensurability is (Marx quotes Aristotle again) “a makeshift for practical purposes.” (151.)

I looked very briefly through book five in the Ross and the Rackham translations of the Nicomachean Ethics and I didn’t find the ‘makeshift’ line. I may have just missed it, as I didn’t look very slowly or carefully. The closest I found is:

“in truth it is impossible that things differing so much should become commensurate, but with reference to demand they may become so sufficiently. There must, then, be a unit, and that fixed by agreement (for which reason it is called money)” (Ross.)

“Though therefore it is impossible for things so different to become commensurable in the strict sense,our demand furnishes a sufficiently accurate common measure for practical purposes. There must therefore be some one standard, and this accepted by agreement (which is why it is called nomisma, customary currency).” (Rackham. The Penguin edition of Capital [p151] cites the 1926 Loeb edition of the Nicomachean Ethics, which is I believe an edition of the Rackham translation. See commentaries on Marx and Aristotle at the Archive, Roughtheory, and Unemployed Negativity.)

Even if I’ve just missed the ‘makeshift for practical purposes’ line, I think the same point is made in these quotes. Marx quotes Aristotle as distinguishing between a real or true level at which commensurability is not (to which commensurability does not belong or to which it does violence) and another practical, customary, conventional level at which commensurability exists in acts of commensurating, of equating.

Marx then asks “What is the homogeneous element, i.e, the common substance” in commensuration which Aristotle says “in truth, cannot exist”? He answers, “human labour.” (151.) It’s not clear to me if Marx is saying there really is a something called human labor in general, in the sense of stepping outside of some perspective and indicating humanity which is a-perspectically there, perhaps as a sort of philosophical anthropology. I’m open to that when it serves a deflationary function – indicating a power of flight, a possibility for (worlds formed by) encounters to come to an end – but I get more hesitant when it’s posed positively, some qualities of humanness as such which all labor contains (like in some of Virno’s recent work). Marx does write that this common quality, abstract general human labor, is the result of “the reduction of all kinds of human labour to their common character (…) of being the expenditure of human labour-power.” (159-160.)

It’s not clear to me if Marx takes this as a counting-as or as a quality of labor. Of course, for some X to be able to be counted-as-Y that X must have the quality of being countable-as-Y, but that’s trivially true. And to dwell on the countable-as-Y quality of X (the abstract human labor aspects of concrete labor) is to prejudge whether (and to obscure when and how) the count-as-Y does or does not occur. Put differently, I don’t like the language of ‘substance’ in Marx’s rhetorical question to Aristotle. Abstract labor shouldn’t be thought of as substance but as process or perspective upon concrete labors.