Social Scientist. v 19, no. 219-20 (Aug-Sept 1991) p. 72.

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On the Social Specifications of Use Value in Marx's Capital

Having stated that the commodity is the basic unit of the wealth of capitalist society (Capital, Volume I, chapter 1), Marx establishes that every commodity ha's both a use-value and an exchange-value. He begins the discussion of Capital by defining use-value as a substance which satisfies human needs. But rather than being merely a natural substance, use-value acquires a series of social specifications as the analysis of Volume I proceeds. What are these specifications; and what role do they play in the analysis of (a) the commodity, money and their circulation; (b) capital; (c) capitalist production? It is with these issues that this note is concerned.

The use-value of a commodity is its utility or usefulness in satisfying human needs. A commodity, such as corn, brandy or a coat, is therefore, so far as it is a material thing, a use-value, something useful. Introducing the notion of Value, Marx says that a use-value, or useful article, has value because human labour in the abstract has been embodied in it. "Moreover, a thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates index, use-values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use-values, but use-values for others, social use-values.11 However, Marx makes clear that producing use-values for some one else is not enough. For that matter, even the medieval peasant used to produce for others. But that did not make the corn he produced a commodity. To become a commodity, a product must be transferred to another, for whom it will have use-value, by means of exchange* (i,48). In capitalist society, use-values serve as the material depositories of exchange value. Thus use-values enter into the act of exchange; a use-value has exchange when it can be exchanged for definite quantities of use-value. Use values constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth.

* School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi.

Social Scientist, Vol.19/ Nos. 8-9, August-September 1991

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