(OPE-L) Re: the intellectual origins of 'simple commodity production' ?

From: Gerald A. Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Wed Sep 08 2004 - 11:03:37 EDT

----- Original Message -----
From: "Jurriaan Bendien" <andromeda246@hetnet.nl>
Sent: Wednesday, September 08, 2004 9:49 AM
Subject: Re: (OPE-L) RE: the intellectual origins of 'simple commodity
production' ?

Hi Andrew,

You wrote:

In relation to your last paragraph, I thought the key assumption is that
there are no social classes under simple commodity production. So we have
individuals who are both producers and consumers, and hence no divorce
between sale and purchase. This would mean that there [are] no profits, only
income that is paid in proportion to labour.


 Thanks for the comment but this doesn't make sense to me, other than as a
bit of poetry. Every producer is also a consumer. A simple commodity
producer could also produce on credit. Simple commodity production of itself
implies nothing about class relations, and already existed historically
prior to forms of society divided and stratified into social classes (i.e.
also in tribal and early communal societies).

Thus, simple commodity production is compatible with various class
structuration principles. Only in capitalist society are commercial
relations the dominant principle of class structuration, because only in
this type of society are the production, supply, access, distribution and
consumption of resources mainly mediated by market relations.

Beyond incidental (casual) exchange, at least four gradations of simple
commodity production should be distinguished (there are more):

(1) where the producer creates a product for  direct barter with his own
work (or with his family or tribe), to obtain other goods and services.
(2) where the producer creates a product for market-sale with his own work
(or with his family or tribe), to obtain money income from that, using
inputs not supplied through the market,
(3) where the producer creates a product for market-sale with his own work
(or with his family or tribe), to obtain money income from that, using some
inputs not supplied through the market, and some inputs which are supplied
through the market
(4) where the producer creates a product for market-sale with his own work
(or with his family or tribe), to obtain money income from that, using only
inputs supplied through the market.

You might object as regards to (1) that production for barter isn't
commodity production at all, but bartered goods can have a use-value and an
exchange-value like any other commodity, and if that wasn't the case, modern
"counter-trade" could not take place at all (for more information on the
real scope of counter-trade, also known as offset-trade, see my PEN-L post
called "World money, countertrade and exchange relations", 22 February

These modalities of  simple commodity production are all necessary to
understand the growth of trade, the formation of markets and the development
of the commodity form; as a corollary, they are also necessary to understand
the withering away of market economy. Obviously people who cannot understand
how capitalism emerges (beyond "separation from means of production" and
slogans of that type), also cannot understand how capitalism can disappear.

Simple commodity production could be production for profit, why not ? Such
production might, or might not assume co-existing capitalist relations,
since all it assumes is a cash economy. This insight is all just ABC and the
basis of the formation of what is called a "commercial attitude" which
refers to the ability and willingness to trade, to which the desire to
appropriate and enrich oneself is essential..

There is considerable Marxist nonsense about "the commodity being a category
specific to capitalism", but that is just ignorance about the historical
origin of trade and the formation of markets, and the principles of class
structuration operating in different types of societies.

Marx's own argument is quite different; contra many Marxists, he
distinguishes quite clearly between a capitalistically produced commodity,
and a non-capitalistically produced commodity, noting the successive
developmental forms that exchange may take. He argues (in the Grundrisse and
in Capital) that trade originally develops at the boundaries of separate
economic communities, who seek to exchange surpluses for goods which they do
not produce themselves, or not in sufficient quantity. A regular market
then develops over time in which more and more people are integrated, and
that means more and more of the inputs, as well as the outputs, take the
form of commodities. Capitalism is then merely the furthest extension of the
whole process, which means that exchange-value can dominate use-value, and
that abstract labour-time can fully regulate value-relations through money.
All that the concept of "globalisation" really refers to is the expansion of
the capitalist world market, taking advantage of currency exchange-rate
differentials and productivity differentials.

Additionally however Marx argues that (1) the transformation of
labour-products into commodities (commodification),  does not occur
automatically, but has definite social, political and technical
prerequisites, and (2) that the market is not necessarily benign in create
free choices, insofar as people are forced to buy, and forced to sell, or
prevented from buying and selling. Commodification is not simply
marketisation; it means that products must be bought in a specific form and
sold in a specific form, i.e. a specific form of access, acquisition and

Clearing away obstacles to the market, the favourite theme of neo-liberals,
may thus take such idyllic forms as dispossession and protectionism, which
forces producers into a specific market regime (we've already had debates on
OPE-L and PEN-L about primitive accumulation, I don't want to go return to
that now). That means the establishment and expansion of markets involves
social and political conflicts between parties and classes who have
different things to gain or lose from trade, sometimes negotiated, sometimes
settled by force.

If you think all of this is just obscure, consider that self-employment in
OECD countries is increasing significantly.
See for yourself the report conveniently provided by the OECD at
Of course, this self-employment occurs specifically in an economy where the
dominant mode of production is capitalist, and often takes place through
sub-contracting and franchising. In that case, the self-employment is often
just a disguised form of wage-labour, or at any rate implies
semi-proletarianisation, and the boundary lines between employee, employer
and self-employed may be blurred, something that Professor Mark Lause has
problems with.

This modern trend in self-employment is best understood by reference to the
concept of piece-wages. Marx himself once opined that he thought that
piece-wages were the most ideal remuneration form, from the point of view of
the logic of capitalism, "the most fruitful source of reductions of wages
and capitalist cheating" - "They furnish to the capitalist an exact measure
for the intensity of labour... Since the quality and intensity of work are
here controlled by the form of wage itself, superintendence of labour
becomes in great part superfluous... piece wages facilitate the
interposition of parasites between the capitalist and the wage-labourer, the
"sub-letting of labour"... given piece-wage, it is in the personal interest
of the labourer to strain his labour-power as intensely as possible; this
enables the capitalist to raise more easily the normal degree of intensity
of labour. It is moreover now the personal interest of the labourer to
lengthen the working-day." (Cap 1, vol. 21).

However, Marx also argues (ibid.)  that "the wider scope which piece-wages
gives to individuality, tends to develop on the one hand that individuality,
and with it the sense of liberty, independence and self-control of the
workers, on the other, their competition with each other."

There is a contradiction here, because more freedom for the producer's
activity, means a reduction of direct control over what he does (as
reflected in the modern concept of "knowledge management").

Marx then concludes that piece-wages have a tendency to raise individual
wages above the average, but lower this average itself, and are "the form of
wages most in harmony with the capitalist mode of production." What Marx
obviously could not discuss, is all the different gradations of the
piece-wage concept, i.e. bonuses, contract selling, sub-contracting,
franchising etc., variations in the autonomy of work, and the extent to
which new technologies might make possible new forms of piece-wages hitherto

So, on close inspection, as economic anthropologists and historians already
knew for a long time, "simple commodity production" is not so simple after
all, and in the modern epoch might indeed involve commodities which are very
complex and very costly.

All of this is, however, lost on Hegelian-Marxist doctrinaires who only
philologically split a concept into four square parts and never investigate
anything empirically or historically; in which case, Marx really becomes
irrelevant, except for the sentimental or nostalgic satisfaction offered by
conceptual ruminations.


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