• fdrake
    The two earlier forms (A,B) either express the value of each commodity in terms of a single commodity of a different kind ( A ), or in a series of many such commodities (B) . In both cases, it is, so to say, the special business of each single commodity to find an expression for its value, and this it does without the help of the others. These others, with respect to the former, play the passive parts of equivalents.

    The passivity ascribed to commodities in forms A and B is a reference to their status as networks of 'accidental' exchange, commodities are traded for each other when they are worth each other, but this worth does not have a universal standard; the value forms A and B are 'deficient in unity' because...

    The general form of value, C, results from the joint action of the whole world of commodities, and from that alone. A commodity can acquire a general expression of its value only by all other commodities, simultaneously with it, expressing their values in the same equivalent; and every new commodity must follow suit. It thus becomes evident that since the existence of commodities as values is purely social, this social existence can be expressed by the totality of their social relations alone, and consequently that the form of their value must be a socially recognised form.

    the valuations they consist of do not form an integrated system of exchange or of a notion of value ascription which applies over all such trades. Moreover, they generally will have the form of barter - any good for any good in A, or any good for an important good in B - as contrasted to C. In C, all commodities express their value in a single commodity; and the logic works for any commodity. Which is to say that the notion of value in C forces every commodity to express the value of every other commodity relative to it; any can be elected as a universal equivalent. The ascription of a universal equivalent (linen in Marx's example, a in my mathematical note) is the distinguishing characteristic of the general form C, but it is not solely a conceptual ascription, the way value works economically must be consistent with C and reproduce it. Which is to say, all commodities must have value in a univocal sense and this sense must be expressed as the value of any commodity, and that understanding of value should be carried forth by the social circumstances embodying it.

    All commodities being equated to linen now appear not only as qualitatively equal as values generally, but also as values whose magnitudes are capable of comparison. By expressing the magnitudes of their values in one and the same material, the linen, those magnitudes are also compared with each other. For instance, 10 lbs of tea = 20 yards of linen, and 40 lbs of coffee = 20 yards of linen. Therefore, 10 lbs of tea = 40 lbs of coffee. In other words, there is contained in 1 lb of coffee only one-fourth as much substance of value – labour – as is contained in 1 lb of tea.

    This section diagnoses the transitivity of 'is worth' as an essential constituent of the value form, roughly why this is required is because it allows the formation of a universal equivalent and the equivalence classes of value that equivalent represents in a definite quantity. It is at this point that the social relationships between the commodities which affix their exchange ratios are given summary through and embodied fully in each and every commodity. If this is reminiscent of commodity fetishism - in which the social relations between people appear as material relations of things -, it should.

    The general form of relative value, embracing the whole world of commodities, converts the single commodity that is excluded from the rest, and made to play the part of equivalent – here the linen – into the universal equivalent. The bodily form of the linen is now the form assumed in common by the values of all commodities; it therefore becomes directly exchangeable with all and every of them. The substance linen becomes the visible incarnation, the social chrysalis state of every kind of human labour. Weaving, which is the labour of certain private individuals producing a particular article, linen, acquires in consequence a social character, the character of equality with all other kinds of labour. The innumerable equations of which the general form of value is composed, equate in turn the labour embodied in the linen to that embodied in every other commodity, and they thus convert weaving into the general form of manifestation of undifferentiated human labour. In this manner the labour realised in the values of commodities is presented not only under its negative aspect, under which abstraction is made from every concrete form and useful property of actual work, but its own positive nature is made to reveal itself expressly. The general value form is the reduction of all kinds of actual labour to their common character of being human labour generally, of being the expenditure of human labour power.

    Another argument from structural symmetry (see here for summary diagram), since every commodity manifests in a universal equivalent, the concrete labours in each only matter in terms of the abstract labour they embody. Marx sees forms A, B and C as developments of intensity of the dominance of abstract over concrete labour (of value over utility as determinants of economic worth), and C is the first structure which exhibits the total dominance of value over utility.

    This perspective dominates the social function and perception of labour when form C is operative.

    'Do you like your job?'
    'Why do you keep doing it?'
    'It pays the bills'

    As Marx puts it:

    The general value form, which represents all products of labour as mere congelations of undifferentiated human labour, shows by its very structure that it is the social resumé of the world of commodities. That form consequently makes it indisputably evident that in the world of commodities the character possessed by all labour of being human labour constitutes its specific social character.

    The social function of labour becomes equated with its value creative component.
  • fdrake
    The next subsection 'The Interdependent Development of the Relative Form of Value and the Equivalent Form of Value' sets out the conceptual character of the progression from elementary to expanded to general forms of value. It is not, strictly speaking, a historical account, its emphasis is more on stating how the elementary form can expand to the expanded form, then how the expanded form can condense itself into an equivalence relation of commodities.

    The degree of development of the relative form of value corresponds to that of the equivalent form. But we must bear in mind that the development of the latter is only the expression and result of the development of the former.

    I think this is a bit of conceptual book keeping, the idea of one thing expressing its value in another is conceptually (and historically) prior to both being seen as equivalent expressions of value magnitudes. This means that the elementary relative form of value is as old as exchange, and the others occur as historical developments suggested by possible social developments of exchange networks prima facie compatible with the elementary form; though that compatibility still allows room for social and metaphysical tensions inherent in the more developed value forms with the elementary form which is their basis.

    The primary or isolated relative form of value of one commodity converts some other commodity into an isolated equivalent. The expanded form of relative value, which is the expression of the value of one commodity in terms of all other commodities, endows those other commodities with the character of particular equivalents differing in kind. And lastly, a particular kind of commodity acquires the character of universal equivalent, because all other commodities make it the material in which they uniformly express their value.

    As said many times before, the primary or isolated form of relative value is obtained by dealing with specific pairs of commodities which are exchanged within a social system of exchange. The individual pairs of Xs and Ys such that (X is worth Y) and (Y is worth X) together are considered as separate relations of trade; these are incidental in character, and the relation which binds X to Y alone does not have to share the same character as that relation which holds between A and B when they too are traded. The aggregation of these trade relations together with no additional structure; when a social system of exchange becomes the means by which most needs, wants and utilities are satisfied and apportioned; is the character of the expanded form (without restriction to one commodity).

    The antagonism between the relative form of value and the equivalent form, the two poles of the value form, is developed concurrently with that form itself.

    The first form, 20 yds of linen = one coat, already contains this antagonism, without as yet fixing it. According as we read this equation forwards or backwards, the parts played by the linen and the coat are different. In the one case the relative value of the linen is expressed in the coat, in the other case the relative value of the coat is expressed in the linen. In this first form of value, therefore, it is difficult to grasp the polar contrast.

    Form B shows that only one single commodity at a time can completely expand its relative value, and that it acquires this expanded form only because, and in so far as, all other commodities are, with respect to it, equivalents. Here we cannot reverse the equation, as we can the equation 20 yds of linen = 1 coat, without altering its general character, and converting it from the expanded form of value into the general form of value.

    Finally, the form C gives to the world of commodities a general social relative form of value, because, and in so far as, thereby all commodities, with the exception of one, are excluded from the equivalent form. A single commodity, the linen, appears therefore to have acquired the character of direct exchangeability with every other commodity because, and in so far as, this character is denied to every other commodity.[26]

    Marx's reference to the inability to 'reverse the expanded form' without changing its' general character' refers to the duality referenced before between choosing a representative from an equivalence class and presenting those things which are equivalent to it. The first takes an equivalent network of commodities and maps it to a particular equivalent, the second takes a particular equivalent and maps it to its network of commodities which allow that equivalent's relative value to be expressed.

    Formally speaking, the previous characterisation in terms of choosing a representative is a function which maps an equivalence class of commodities to a single one of its members, and presenting those things which have their relative value expressed in the representative choice is taking that function's pre-image from the representative element.


    Fixing a specific type of commodity whose amounts uniquely represent every value equivalence class renders that commodity as a universal equivalent.

    The commodity that figures as universal equivalent, is, on the other hand, excluded from the relative value form. If the linen, or any other commodity serving as universal equivalent, were, at the same time, to share in the relative form of value, it would have to serve as its own equivalent. We should then have 20 yds of linen = 20 yds of linen; this tautology expresses neither value, nor magnitude of value. In order to express the relative value of the universal equivalent, we must rather reverse the form C. This equivalent has no relative form of value in common with other commodities, but its value is relatively expressed by a never ending series of other commodities. Thus, the expanded form of relative value, or form B, now shows itself as the specific form of relative value for the equivalent commodity.

    With reference to the previous discussion about whether X is worth X, Marx agrees that it alone does not assure the expression of the value of X, and also agrees that it is a tautology. Even when X is worth X however, the value expressive part of the relation for the universal equivalent; the set of commodities which serve as the above pre-image; is the total expression of relative value for the universal equivalent.

    This means that the expanded form is contained within the general form (with its universal equivalent and transitive closure properties) precisely as the relative form of value for the universal equivalent.
  • unenlightened
    I might be stating the obvious or wildly off base... It seems to me that commodities arise iff the labour value of 'his daily bread' is less than a day's labour; otherwise we starve. This allows the commodification of the labourer as the difference between his production and consumption. Apart from the obvious application to the slave trade and the asset-stripping labour camp, this roots value in surplus production and explains the source of the value in commodities in a non-arbitrary way.
  • fdrake

    Yep! That comes later. The account so far tries to give a meaning to value pertaining to commodities, how they can come to have prices, how one magnitude of a commodity can be worth a different magnitude of another and so on. The creation of profit for Marx, as you diagnosed, comes from selling the product of someone's labour for more than its cost of production; this is termed the extraction of surplus value by exploitation. The worker's lack of ownership and inability to determine what happens to what they produce is called alienation. Alienation and exploitation make sense upon the background of a societal division of labour in the production of commodities, and a system where needs are met through purchase of goods and services. All together that gives whoever owns the product of the worker's labour more value than they started with and sets up a feedback loop that by and large keeps people as workers if at any point that don't have much money.
  • unenlightened
    The creation of profit for Marx, as you diagnosed, comes from selling the product of someone's labour for more than its cost of production; this is termed the extraction of surplus value by exploitation.fdrake

    That's not quite what I meant. On an individual level, my hunting and gathering sufficient to sustain myself for a day takes less than all day, and leaves me time to knapp a flint into a spearhead. That in turn makes me more productive as I can hunt more efficiently. That you can also gather sufficient to sustain yourself in less than a day means that you can gather some extra and exchange with me so that I can knapp another flint and you can have a spearhead too. So from the beginning, it is the spare time, spared from basic sustenance, that allows the extra production that creates commodities to exchange, and makes room for professionalisation. The exploitation comes later, but is also only possible because production is greater than consumption on the individual level. That this allows exploitation is secondary.
  • fdrake

    This makes sense.
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