Marx – Commodity Fetishism & Surplus Value

Marx is famous for his analysis of “surplus value.” If you’re familiar with business jargon, this is just another way of translating the previously existing term that Marx used, mehrwert, which can also be translated to the more familiar term “value added.” If M is the cost of the wood, and M’ is the amount earned by selling the wood made into a table, you can measure the cost of your labor, the value added, the surplus value from the first exchange value and the second exchange value.The wood is just a boring piece of wood. Making it into a table doesn’t really change that fact. Exchanging it at a value based on the assumptions necessary for a social structure that makes possible market exchanges is significant. This becomes more evident when we consider the purchaser that buys forested land when it is cheap, invests labor into the forest management to grow health trees, and harvests and sells the timber to the mill when the price of timber is up. There are many factors the effect the cost of wood that may or may not have anything to do with utility. Marx compares this calculation of value to religion. It is ideology.

Prior to capitalism humans exchanged things, but it wasn’t until the material conditions were right that the individual labored in isolation, not coming into contact with another until the moment of exchange. The isolation allowed them to believe the value assigned to the object was natural and inherent to the object. They did not recognize that their behavior had reversed the traditional way of viewing commodities. In all human history, with few exceptions, humans acquired commodities in order to consume them. Under capitalism the bourgeois acquired commodities in order to sell them at a profit, into infinity. Economists (famously Benjamin Franklin) eventually looked backwards and realized what humans had done, which did not stop anyone from continuing this behavior.

By becoming self-conscious, recognizing that humans did not always value labor in this way, humans have the choice to assign value socially. Some commodities would be consumed for subsistence, and some for the social good. Different levels of historical development and natural resources will vary, so the details of the production will vary. A social plan could determine how much labor is required, and how the goods could be distributed.

A plan makes sense. Although capitalism feels natural, when you analyze it, the absurdity of it is revealed. Capitalism requires a great abstraction, an ideology, and faith that the chaos of the market will all work out in the end. It makes sense to exchange a commodity, an object, for money, in order to exchange the money for another commodity, but capitalism comes about when people exchange money for a commodity in order to exchange it for more money (M’, surplus value). The infinite pursuit of money for its own sake is absurd. The pursuit of money for the power it brings is oppression grounded on ideology.

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