A Question for the Wertkritik School: Does the commodity even still exist?

by Jehu

Here are some thoughts on “The metaphysical subtleties of the commodity” by Anselm Jappe. Part of the dead end wertkritik has encountered in its critique seems to be contained in several of the formulations Jappe employs in this talk.

In his talk, given in 2011 or so, Jappe argued:

“The commodity possesses a peculiar structure, and if we thoroughly analyze the most diverse phenomena, contemporary wars or the   collapse of financial markets, the hydro-geological disasters of our time or the crisis of the nation-state, world hunger or  changing gender relations, we will always find the structure of the commodity at the bottom of it all.”

I find Jappe’s argument hard to accept, since the commodity has likely not existed at least since 1971, and perhaps as long as 1929, when advanced countries moved away from the gold standard and the use of commodity money as the standard of prices. I make this apparently outrageous statement in order to raise a fundamental question about the wertkritik approach. That approach, as I understand it, rests on the definition of the commodity as given by Karl Marx in Capital, Volume 1.

Marx defines the commodity as combination of two characteristics: use value and value and he makes three important points:

  1. “A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another.”
  2. “In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange value.”
  3. “The progress of our investigation will show that exchange value is the only form in which the value of commodities  can manifest itself or be expressed.”

Marx seem pretty clear in the argument that in the capitalist mode of production the socially necessary labor time of a commodity can  only be expressed in the form of exchange value, i.e., in the form of the material of another commodity. This, of course, does not imply that just because the value of the object is not expressed this way it has no socially necessary labor time. Nor does it imply that because the value of the object is not expressed this way it has no useful qualities. However, in the capitalist mode of production, to be a commodity it must have both value and use value. And in the capitalist mode of production the value of the commodity must be expressed or manifested as an exchange value.

I raise this question because, at least, since 1971 and, perhaps, as far back as 1929-1930, the products of labor have been unable to express or manifest their values as exchange values. This fact does not represent a defect in the products of labor themselves, but in the object that serves as money in the exchange. The objects produced may be useful and may contain socially necessary labor time, however they do not meet Marx’s strict definition for a commodity.

Jappe states, a commodity “only attains use value by means of the transformation of the product itself into exchange value, into money.” But I am not sure this statement is well formulated. Rather, I would state it this way: a product of labor only becomes a commodity by means of the transformation of the product itself into exchange value, into money. The product of labor may have social usefulness without its transformation into exchange value, but it is not a commodity; it is only a commodity when this socially useful quality is manifested in exchange value.

To give an example of where a socially useful object is not a commodity: In a community of directly social producers, the various products of labor have social use value, but never become commodities. The conversion of the value of the commodity into exchange value has nothing to do with its social usefulness, except it must be useful. So long as the product of labor is useful to someone other than the producer, it is socially useful, but it can only become a commodity through its transformation into exchange value.

This point is critical, because if the value of the product of labor cannot be expressed in exchange value, it cannot become a commodity. However, as I argued above, since 1971, the values of the products of labor have not been expressed in this necessary form. Effectively, therefore, no products of labor have been able to become commodities since that time. Jappe is clear in his statement that this is necessary to the definition of the commodity:

“A commodity qua commodity cannot be defined, therefore, by the concrete labor which has produced it, since it is a mere quantity  of indistinct, abstract labor; that is, the quantity of labor time which it took to produce it.”

However here too his definition of the labor is imprecise and must be corrected: It is not just “the quantity of labor time which it took to produce it.”, but the socially necessary labor time required to produce it. Marx is quite clear on this point:

“We see then that that which determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour time socially necessary for its production.”

Jappe, therefore, subtly revises Marx both on the definition of the commodity and the nature of value of the commodity.

It seems to me that, at least theoretically, we are in a gray, undefined, area, since clearly wage slavery has not ended. Yet, labor power — which is just a commodity — no longer exists as Marx defined the commodity. Jappe tries to finesse this with his redefinition of the commodity, but this is not going to fly.


So here is the interesting  and completely bizarre point of this discussion: The Frankfurt school, the Situationists, 1968 and the discussion of fetishization all occur at the point in time where the commodity has disappeared for all intents and purposes — at least this is true so far as a strict interpretation of Marx is concerned.

How the fuck are we to explain this?

This suggests to me that wertkritik isn’t really concerned with the commodity at all — it is about the fascist state. Wertkritik critiques the commodity, but, it seems to me, this is only a means to encompass both capitalist societies of the West and the now defunct socialist societies of the East. What wertkritik is really trying to get a handle on are all the variants of state managed societies. In order to critique the state as manager of the capitalist production process, wertkritik tries relax Marx’s definition of the commodity and value:

First, the commodity is no longer a depository of socially necessary labor time, but of “indistinct, abstract labor” Second, the commodity, rather than being an object of use in its own right, becomes useful by means of its transformation in money. These two arguments by the wertkritik school suggest an inversion has taken place between the commodity and its price: If, previously, the commodity is produced for its exchange value, the price it could fetch in the market; in the present circumstances, the exchange value of the commodity does not count at all.

With the collapse of the gold standard, the state now has a monopoly on the thing serving as “money” in the economy — its own fiat currency. Clearly, because of this, the price of an object is of no concern to the state, since, unlike all other buyers in the market, it is not limited by the need to sell before it buys. Thus as manager of the process of capitalist production, the prices of the commodities employed in the production process is of no concern to state — whatever this cost it has the means at its disposal to “pay”. Since the state has as its monopoly disposal the thing serving as money in exchange, its aim cannot simply be, as it is with the capitalist, more money.

So what is the aim of the state? I would suggest that in the form of the state, capital itself appears in its ideal form as capital, which seeks, not more money, but only its self-expansion. Now compare this idea with Jappe’s quote from the Situationists:

“The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life”

If we substitute the term “state” for the term “commodity”, the argument of wertkritik is obvious.

“The spectacle is the moment when the STATE has attained the total occupation of social life”