Marx writes that a “thing can be a use-value without being a value. This is the case whenever its utility (…) is not mediated through labour.” (Capital 1, p130) Marx writes later in the same chapter that “the use-value of a thing is realized without exchange, i.e., in the direct relation between the thing and man,” where ‘exchange’ means specifically the monetary exchange involved in purchase and sale (as in the series C-M-C and M-C-M’, where the dashes are exchanges). ‘Direct’ here seems to mean simply ‘not exchanged’ in the given sense of exchange.

Marx writes that labor is “a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.” In this process “man” uses the “forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the material of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he (…) develops the potentialities slumbering within nature, and subjects the play of its forces to his own sovereign power.” (283.) On the same page, the “use-value of labour-power is labour itself. The purchaser of labour-power consumes it by setting the seller of it to work. By working, the latter become in actuality what he only was potentially, namely labour-power in action, a worker.”

Marx writes that “alienation” – in the sense of sale – “of labour-power and its real manifestation, i.e., the period of its existence as a use-value, do not coincide in time.” (277.) The Moore and Aveling translation differs: “The alienation of labour-power and its actual appropriation by the buyer, its employment as a use-value, are separated by an interval of time.” [Note to self, check the German.]

Appropriation here is the action of making use value into use, of moving a potential to meet a need into the actual meeting of that need. When I fix dinner by combining pasta and cheeses and spices and vegetables and heat, using a pot and pan and knife and water, I move the potential meal into an actual meal. When the capitalist forces the worker to produce some object for sale, the capitalist moves the potential surplus value of the worker’s labor power into actual surplus value. There is an important difference here. First, the food has no agency and doesn’t participate in its actualization or appropriation in the way that the worker does. The worker plays a more active role in the transition from labor power to labor than does the food in the transition from raw food to cooked meal. There is a second difference which I’m not sure about. The transition from labor power to surplus value relies on an act after the production of the commodity, which is the sale of the object on the market in which the capitalist realizes value advanced plus a surplus. If this fails to happen – not in individual cases, necessarily, but systemically – then the worker has not produced surplus value. This does not appear to be the case with the meal. And yet, there are certain actions required. Namely, the food has to be eaten. I’m not interested in the “labor” of eating a cooked meal, but what I am interested in is that appropriation of use value – after its purchase or in some way taken up without purchase – takes time and labor and involves mediation. Marx recognizes the mediatedness to some extent, writing in the Grundrisse that “Hunger is hunger, but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail and tooth. Production thus produces not only the object but also the manner of consumption, not only objectively but also subjectively.”

Thus, “utility (…) not mediated through labour” does not refer to use values which are immediately their uses (a coincidence of potential and actual, where the latter exhausts the former entirely) but rather refers to use values which do not result from labor. For instance, the use of the air for our lungs. Air is an object “of nature spontaneously provided by nature, such as fish caught and separated from their natural element, namely water, and ores extracted from their veins.” These are distinct from raw materials, which are objects which “have been filtered through previous labor” such as “ore already extracted and ready for washing.” A fish in a stream and iron in the ground are spontaneous objects of labor. Their use values do not derive from human labor, no labor has been ‘mixed’ with them, so to speak. Of course, one could argue that the act of discovering them is a form of labor, such that their use values are always-already ‘mixed’ with human labor. Fish caught become raw material for, say eating (if you wanted to eat something as gross as sea food, blech!), often with intermediate steps between catch and consumption. Extracted ore is raw material for the process of washing, and washed ore is raw material for subsequent processes.

What I’m actually interested in is the labor involved in the use of means of subsistence, the C which is the final point in the series called simple circulation C-M-C (which I talked about at length here in relation to Negri), or more specifically C(lp)-M(w)-C(ms), the sale of labor power in return for wages which are used to purchase means of subsistence. Means of subsistence are consumed and drop of out of circulation (though they stay part of capitalism in that or in so far as they reproduce the labor power of the worker, in that sense their consumption is productive consumption). This ‘dropping out’ does not occur as an end to mediation, but the end to monetary mediation. The vegetables and cheese and pasta and sauce I bought and the gas I pay for and the pot and pan and knife do not constitute a meal unless I use them to cook. And the cooked meal does not constitute the cessation of hunger unless it is eaten. Mediation continues, appropriation continues, after purchase. Put another way, the C(ms) often forms raw material for the production of other use values which are not exchanged in the restricted sense of sale but which are often exchanged in all sorts of ways and with vary degrees of explicit and implicit coercion analogous to the coercions operating in the ‘free’ sale of labor power.

This is related to the point made by Jeanne Boydston in regard to male workers’ demand for a wage which provides the totality of their family’s subsistence. The demand implies – and Boydston argues, helped produce or spread the idea – that family subsistence is the product solely of the male waged worker, an idea bound up with all sorts of negative consequences for working class women. Even when the male worker’s wage is the only source of money and of commodities, there are still important unwaged labors performed by the housewife. These labors reduce the time which the male worker has to spend on subsistence and reproduce labor power (both current labor power and the production of new labor power, ie having and raising children – Leopoldina Fortunati’s Arcane of Reproduction argues at length that all of this is productive for and appropriated by capital, notes on Fortunati forthcoming).

I tried to make a somewhat similar point here, when I said that the proletariat is not actually literally a proletariat, at least not always, in the sense of having only its own body. At least some members of the proletariat regular own wages, legally speaking, and all members of the proletariat regularly possess (even if they don’t legally own) use values which they appropriate in the production of other use values – as in the case of cooking – and in consumption. That there is a labor involved in the production and appropriation of use values also implies that the proletariat is not literally divested completely from the means of production of all use values. The proletariat must have at least some access to the means of turning purchased C(ms) into the finished products which are consumed (food into meals, medicine into treatment, soap into washing, etc) in the productive consumption involved in reproducing labor power. These means are at least temporarily possessed and appropriated, and often owned. The differences in this possession and ownership – rights of men to own property and at some points in history to appropriate the products and the labor and wages of their wives and children, for instance – form an important factor in conflict within the proletariat.

[Note to self, return to this quote re: bare life, precarity, etc — “Since actual labour is the appropriation of nature for the satisfaction of human needs,[26] the activity through which the metabolism between man and nature is mediated, to denude labour capacity of the means of labour, the objective conditions for the appropriation of nature through labour, is to denude it, also, of the means of life, for as we saw earlier, the use value of commodities can quite generally be characterised as the means of life. Labour capacity denuded of the means of labour and the means of life is therefore absolute poverty as such, and the worker, as the mere personification of the labour capacity, has his needs in actuality, whereas the activity of satisfying them is only possessed by him as a non-objective capacity (a possibility) confined within his own subjectivity. As such, conceptually speaking, he is a pauper, he is the personification and repository of this capacity which exists for itself, in isolation from its objectivity.” In the 1861 economic manuscripts, here.]