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I have participated off-and-on in the discussions on this list regarding
the equivalence of commodities. My last series of interventions, if I
remember, suggested that although Gil Skillman and Steve Cullenberg are
right that *exchange* doesn't make commodities equivalent values, they
are equivalent nonetheless. I do not think Gil or Steve ever responded
to this point.
At the suggestion of a referee for _Historical Materialism_, I have just
added something about this issue to a manuscript I have revised for that
journal. I thought it might be of interest to some members of this list,
so I've reproduced it below.
It seems to me that this conclusion [in the opening section of _Capital_,
that the exchange-values of a quarter of wheat "express something equal"]
follows necessarily once one grants Marx's initial premise. He states
not only that the quarter of wheat "is exchanged for other commodities,"
but that the wheat itself "has" an "exchange"-value (or is a "material
bearer" of exchange-value). Given this premise, he succeeds in showing
that the wheat in fact "has many exchange values instead of one," that
each of these exchange-values is an interchangeable expression of the
same thing, the wheat's "exchange"-value, and that they thus "express
something equal." Any challenge to this conclusion must therefore
challenge the initial premise. One must argue that, although the wheat
exchanges for other commodities, it does not (in any other sense) "have"
Such a situation is certainly possible. Indeed, I believe it obtains
whenever exchanges are merely contingent, emphemeral events. Yet Marx
was here considering capitalist society. In this society, it is a fact
that -- even apart from and prior to any exchange of our wheat -- we
think and say that it "has a value (or price) of," "is worth," so much
money. Moreover, we act on this basis. We compute "the value of" our
assets and our "net worth," we decide to buy items if they "are worth"
more than the sticker price, etc., and we do so before we exchange and
whether or not we exchange.
Yet one may object that, even though Marx's premise that commodities
"have" exchange-values is our own premise as well, it is "false"
nonetheless. In one sense, this is correct (and his theory of the
fetishism of the commodity makes precisely the same point). But Marx was
analyzing our social relations -- how we act, speak, and think under
capitalism. In this context, the premise is simply a fact, so the
The foregoing has argued that Marx could not successfully have derived
the equivalence of commodities to one another from the mere phenomenon of
exchange, and that he instead derived it from a particular fact about
capitalism -- commodities "have" exchange-value. If this argument is
correct, it lends additional support to the view that Chapter 1 of
Capital analyzed specifically capitalist relations, the "wealth of
societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails" (Marx
1977:125), and not (as many authors have traditionally contended) a pre-
or non-capitalist exchange society.
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