This chapter discusses the peculiar nature of the ‘commodity’. I start by chopping the word down to its etymological roots and then reanimate it as the ‘commodity form’. In order to explain a single word, I have to introduce others: labor-power, abstract labor, socially necessary labor time and value. I then discuss the commodity of education, students as consumers and as producers. Finally, I conclude that the university (or college, or school) is a fetish that conceals the pervasive social power of the commodity-form.Winn, Joss (2021). Commodity. In: Themelis, Spyros (Ed.), Critical Reflections on the Language of Neoliberalism in Education: Dangerous Words and Discourses of Possibility. London: Routledge.
I’m approaching co-operative higher education in terms of ‘labour, property, and pedagogy‘ (a revised, refereed journal paper should be published early next year). With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about a recent Call for Papers for a conference on ‘Co-operatives and the world of work‘ (2015) and recalled the World Declaration on Worker Co-operatives (2005), which references the International Co-operative Alliance’s (ICA) Statement on the Co-operative Identity (1995) and the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) 2002 recommendation on the Promotion of Co-operatives (see also the ILO’s recently published guide).
The ILO recommendation begins by recalling one of its basic principles: “Labour is not a commodity”.
This is an interesting statement, completely contrary to Marx’s theory of labour power (the capacity or potential to labour) being the essential, value-creating commodity in capitalist society. So where does the statement come from? Is it theoretically grounded or an aspiration?
The ILO recommendation on the Promotion of Co-operatives refers to the Declaration of Philadelphia (1944), which reveals that “Labour is not a commodity” is not just any old principle, but the first principle of the ILO. Wikipedia tells us that the 1944 Declaration reconstituted the ILO to become the first specialised agency of the UN, so the first agency of the UN was founded on the first principle that “labour is not a commodity”. The history of the ILO and the background to the demands of the 1944 Declaration lie, unsurprisingly, in the growth of the international labour movement itself, starting with the International Working Men’s Association in 1864.
The specific origins of the phrase “labour is not a commodity” has been explored by Paul O’Higgins (1997). He traces the phrase back to the political economist, John Kells Ingram, who gave a speech at the TUC Congress in Dublin (1880). Here’s the relevant section:
“Our views of the office of the workman must also be transformed and elevated. The way in which his position is habitually contemplated by the economists, and indeed by the public, is a very narrow, and therefore a false, one. Labour is spoken of as if it were an independent entity, separable from the personality of a workman. It is treated as a commodity, like corn or cotton-the human agent, his human needs, human nature, and human feelings, being kept almost completely out of view. Now there are, no doubt, if we carry our abstractions far enough certain resemblances between the contract of employer and employed and the sale of a commodity. But by fixing exclusive, or even predominant, attention on these, we miss the deepest and truly characteristic features of the relation of master and workman-a relation with which moral conditions are inseparably associated… By viewing labour as a commodity, we at once get rid of the moral basis on which the relation of employer and employed should stand, and make the so-called law of the market the sole regulator of that relation.”
Influenced by Ingram’s address in 1880, the American Trade Union leader, Samuel Gompers, later included the assertion in the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 (‘The labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce.’) and again when Gompers worked on the drafting of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles (article 427, ‘labour should not be regarded merely as a commodity or article of commerce.’), which first established the ILO. O’Higgins documents (see pp. 229-230) how Gompers worked with Edward J. Phelan on the Treaty of Versailles. Phelan worked at the newly formed ILO from 1919 and between 1941-48 was its Director General, during which time he helped draft the Declaration of Philadelphia in 1944, ensuring that the first principle of the ILO’s new foundational document was that “labour is not a commodity”.
O’Higgins concludes his article with a neat summary which indicates the continuing power and purpose of the statement:
“I think it must be recognised that the principle that ‘Labour is not a Commodity’ represents one of the most fundamental principles of international labour law. It was first formulated by the Irishman, John Kells Ingram; first given judicial content by another Irishman, Henry Bournes Higgins, and it was preserved as part of the Constitution of the reconstituted International Labour Organisation as the result of the efforts of another Irishman, Edward J. Phelan, at Philadelphia in 1944. It can, therefore, be claimed with some justification as a major Irish contribution to international labour law. Its significance is not merely historical but remains today of vital importance. Today, the International Labour Organisation is under considerable pressure to accept the doctrine that market forces are the prime means of improving the economic lot of working people, despite all the historical evidence to the contrary. As long as the ILO does not amend the Declaration of Philadelphia, it is constitutionally committed to an opposite and contradictory doctrine. The principle that ‘Labour is not a Commodity’ is readily available for progressive use by both English courts and by the European Court of Justice.”
So, it seems clear that the principle of “labour is not a commodity” is based on Ingram’s moral assertion which was itself a reaction to the prevailing theories of political economy that placed an emphasis on the role of the market in determining the value of labour. This was during a period of increasing growth and influence of the international labour movement and the formal recognition of trade unions as labour’s legal representation and counterpart to the incorporation of capital. It was an attempt to humanise an understanding of labour which had been abstracted in theory and in law. It seems that Ingram wasn’t offering an alternative theory of labour, but appealing to a moral vision of the capital-relation that was not solely regulated by the ‘market’ (i.e. the production of value).
It is, as Postone would say, an assertion from the standpoint of labour, rather than a critical theory of labour.
What I find interesting though, is that despite these origins which focus on the conditions of labour rather than fundamentally question the form labour takes in capitalism, worker co-operatives do offer a self-conscious form of association that tackles both wage work and private property head on. Worker co-ops (this is not an argument for consumer co-operatives) in the UK can do this through the creation of a social or collective form of property that is neither public nor privately owned, and by drawing from the (variable) surplus they make rather than being paid a fixed wage. Although similar to wage labour or collective self-employment, worker co-ops are progressive in that their constitution attempts to dissolve the capital-labour relation within the confines of the collectively owned and democratically managed firm itself, while remaining subject to the capital-labour relation in the market.
From a Marxist perspective, worker co-ops do not overcome the dual form that capitalist labour takes (concrete and abstract labour), because they operate within the social world of capital in which individual, divided labour is reduced to a qualitatively homogenous social form. But in dialectical terms, they do represent a form and means of association between people (i.e. the working class) that is against the capital-labour relation. Not surprisingly, worker co-ops struggle to sustain themselves as safe spaces from the subsumption of capital, the wage-relation and private property, but as Egan has argued, “The potential for degeneration [of worker co-ops into capitalist firms] must be seen to lie not within the cooperative form of organisation itself, but in the contradiction between it and its capitalist environment. Degeneration is not, however, determined by this contradiction.” (82) That is, the historical specificity of capitalism might constrain worker co-ops but does not determine them. (75) The dialectic is not simply a methodological position but the movement of history itself, “being in a fluid state, in motion”. (Capital, Vol. 1, 103) Worker co-ops are a form of the negation of capital and “its inevitable destruction”. (ibid)
Worker co-operatives that operate without wage labour and private property offer an organisational form which establishes in practice that “labour is not a commodity” in a way that is more grounded than the moral basis of Ingram’s views. Of course, they do not entirely transcend capitalism but, as Marx recognised, have arisen dialectically out of the contradictions of capitalism, demonstrating that “hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form”. (Marx, 1864)
Although the World Declaration on Worker Co-operatives refers to the ILO’s recommendation which has as its first principle that “labour is not a commodity”, the Declaration asserts something much more radical: a statement on a form of labour that seeks to undermine the capital-labour relation rather than establish an improved moral understanding between capitalist and worker.
In my notes on Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, I tried to get to grips with what Marx referred to as indirect and direct labour. Although I didn’t articulate it very well, I did make the point that the difference between indirect (capitalist) labour and direct (post-capitalist) labour was that direct labour was not mediated by exchange value (‘value’). Since writing those notes, I’ve started to read Peter Hudis’ (2012) book, Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism 1 which has so far offered two very useful insights.
A definition of value
First, he highlights a definition of value by Marx:
“value is a commodity’s quantitatively determined exchangeability.”
From this brief definition, we are reminded that value is:
(a) found in the commodity, which is a form of use value and exchange value, which are expressions of concrete and undifferentiated abstract labour; abstract labour being the source or social substance of the commodity’s value.
(b) not measured by the commodity’s qualitative nature, but rather as a quantity of something (see below). e.g. the qualitative features of ‘gold’ has no intrinsic value. Only a given quantity of gold has value. The value of gold is in its scarcity. i.e. the quantity of gold produced is low compared to the quantity of labour required to discover and extract it.
(c) validated by the commodity’s exchangeability with a universal equivalent: a quantity of money.
Marx determined that the quantitative measure of value is ‘socially necessary labour time’.
“Some people might think that if the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labour spent on it, the more idle and unskilful the labourer, the more valuable would his commodity be, because more time would be required in its production. The labour, however, that forms the substance of value, is homogeneous human labour, expenditure of one uniform labour power. The total labour power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour power of society, and takes effect as such; that is, so far as it requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on an average, no more than is socially necessary. The labour time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time. The introduction of power-looms into England probably reduced by one-half the labour required to weave a given quantity of yarn into cloth. The hand-loom weavers, as a matter of fact, continued to require the same time as before; but for all that, the product of one hour of their labour represented after the change only half an hour’s social labour, and consequently fell to one-half its former value.
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.”
Here, I am reminded of Bonefeld, quoting Marx:
When talking about value, we are talking about the expenditure of ‘definite masses of crystallised labour time’ (1983: 184). That is to say, ‘labour time is the living state of existence of labour … it is the living quantitative aspect of labour as well as its inherent measure’ (Marx, 1987a: 272).
When money is exchanged for a commodity, it is a validation of the socially necessary labour time given to the production of the commodity. The minimum amount of socially necessary labour time that is required to produce a commodity determines the magnitude of the commodity’s value. This is a socially dynamic calculation, based on the level of technological input (‘dead labour’), the productivity of labour and efficiencies gained through the division and control of labour, the level of competition from other commodity producers, and so on.
What is important to recognise here, is that the more productive labour becomes, the less value a single commodity contains. Marx explains in this way:
“If we presuppose that the labour time contained in the commodities is, under the given conditions, necessary labour time, socially necessary labour time— and this is always the presupposition we start from once the value of a commodity is reduced to the labour time contained in it — what takes place is rather the following: The value of the product of labour is in an inverse ratio to the productivity of labour. This is in fact an identical proposition. It means nothing more than this: If labour becomes more productive, it can represent a greater quantity of the same use values in the same period, it can embody itself in a greater amount of use values of the same kind. Accordingly, an aliquot part of these use values, e.g. a yard of linen, contains less labour time than previously, has therefore less exchange value and indeed the exchange value of the yard of linen has fallen in the same proportion as the productivity of the labour of weaving has grown. Inversely, if more labour time than previously were required to produce a yard of linen (let us say, because more labour time was required to produce a pound of flax), the yard of linen would now contain more labour time, hence would have a higher exchange value. Its exchange value would have increased in the same proportion as the labour required to produce it had become less productive. 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.”
As such, greater value can only be realised through the production of greater quantities of the commodity, eventually resulting in over-production relative to social consumption, leading to economic crisis.
What is ‘direct labour’?
The second point by Hudis I have found useful is his remark on indirect and direct labour.
We have determined that capitalism is a mode of production which turns on the production of value. This is variously described as the ‘valorisation of value’, or ‘self-expanding value’ and elsewhere I have summarised it as follows:
“In his critique of political economy, Marx developed the “general formula of capital”, M-C-M’. This refers to the way money (M) is advanced to purchase a commodity (C) in order to produce new commodities that are sold for a profit, creating more money. With the commodities purchased, ‘the capitalist’ buys the means of production (MP) and labour-power (L), transforming money capital into productive capital (P). As a generalised method of creating wealth, this process is historically unique to capitalism. The circuit of capitalist valorisation can be illustrated as:”
As others have observed, it follows that a post-capitalist society is one defined by the abolition of value and in order to achieve this, the capitalist form of (concrete and abstract) labour must be overcome. Freedom then, is freedom from abstract labour measured by socially necessary labour time (i.e. freedom from value).
When discussing the transition from capitalism to communism, Marx refers to indirect and direct labour. Hudis (2012), quoting Marx, notes that in the transition to post-capitalism “social relations become ‘transparent in their simplicity’ once the labourers put an end to alienated labour and the dictatorship of abstract time.”
“Marx is not suggesting that all facets of life become transparent in the lower phase of socialism or communism; indeed, he never suggests this about conditions in a higher phase either. He is addressing something much more specific: namely, the transparent nature of the exchange between labor time and products of labor. This relation can never be transparent so long as there is value production; it becomes transparent only once indirectly social labour is replaced by directly social labour.” (209-10)
Interestingly, in Hudis’ earlier PhD thesis, this last sentence is expressed differently:
“it becomes transparent only once value production is annulled by freely associated labor.”
This also reiterates for us that the replacement of indirect labour with direct labour leads to the abolition of value. Direct, freely associated labour is not value-creating labour.
Direct labour then, is a transparent process instead of the opaque process of indirect, value-creating, alienated capitalist labour (Marx referred to it as the “hidden abode of production”). I wonder whether this transparency can be conceived in terms of ‘openness’, which I have written about in the context of ‘open education’. If we try to conceive the academic labour process of open education as transparent, direct and freely associated, what are its characteristics? Hudis can help us again, here:
“Marx does not, of course, limit his horizon to the initial phase of socialism or communism. He discusses it as part of understanding what is needed in order to bring to realization the more expansive social relations of a higher phase. Marx conceives of this phase as the passing beyond of natural necessity—not in the sense that labor as such would come to an end, but rather that society would no longer be governed by the necessity for material production and reproduction. This higher phase, however, can only come into being as a result of a whole series of complex and involved historical developments, which include the abolition of the “the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and thereby also the antithesis between mental and physical labor.” It is impossible to achieve this, he reminds us, in the absence of highly developed productive forces. Marx never conceived it as possible for a society to pass to ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ while remaining imprisoned in conditions of social and technological backwardness. And yet it is not the productive forces that create the new society: it is, instead, live men and women.” (210)
He quotes Raya Dunayevskaya:
“For it is not the means of production that create the new type of man, but the new man that will create the means of production, and the new mode of activity will create the new type of human being, socialist man.” (210)
This seems to suggest that as capitalism comes to a gradual end, labour will be directed more towards immaterial production (i.e. production that it not necessary for human self-reproduction). Labour will freely associate with labour, not divided into hierarchies of production, nor characterised by the false separation of manual and intellectual labour. Such labour relies on a condition of abundance, which is visible to us all now, though not available to all. The material conditions for this abundance have, as Dunayevskaya notes, already been met through the productive capacity of labour and are the basis upon which a new mode of activity 2 will produce a new type of human being. Post-capitalist woman and man are not determined by the ‘logic’ of capitalist valorisation, and thus are free to to develop new forms of ‘democracy’, new conceptions of ‘equality’ and ‘individuality’.
In the same way, the production of knowledge (i.e. ‘education’) will be through free association, enabled by the technological capacity developed during the capitalist mode of production, now expressed by a form of abundance which Marx referred to as the ‘general intellect’.
“Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.” (Marx, Grundrisse)
Drawing on Dyer-Witheford (1999), I have written about the ‘general intellect’ in the context of ‘Student as Producer’ with my colleague, Mike Neary. In that book chapter, we conclude with a section that discusses the general intellect and ‘mass intellectuality’:
“This is the social body of knowledge, modes of communication and co-operation and even ethical preoccupations which both supports and transgresses the operation of a high-tech economy. It is not knowledge created by and contained within the university, but is the ‘general social knowledge’ embodied by and increasingly available to all of us.”
We go on to identify the free culture movement as the development of an alternative organising principle; one not fully realised but with emancipatory potential. In this context, I have also critiqued the open education movement and its focus on the freedom of things rather than the freedom of people, akin to what Marx analysed as ‘commodity fetishism‘, where the social relations between people are inverted and take on the form of value. I argued that this is occurring in universities to such an extent that whole institutions become the personification of value and the purpose of academic labour is to “serve the social character of the institution, which is constantly being monitored and evaluated through a system of league tables” and other performance indicators. As Neocleus observes:
“the process of personification of capital … is the flip side of a process in which human persons come to be treated as commodities – the worker, as human subject, sells labour as an object. As relations of production are reified so things are personified – human subjects become objects and objects become subjects – an irrational, ‘bewitched, distorted and upside- down world’ in which ‘Monsieur le Capital’ takes the form of a social character – a dramatis personae on the economic stage, no less.” (Neocleous 2003: 159)
This remains the challenge for open education, which can only truly exist under conditions where labour can freely associate directly with labour and not through the mediation of commodities (i.e. ‘Open Educational Resources’) produced under the contract of performative academic wage labour and circulated on a network of privately held networks. The social relations of open education would be “transparent in their simplicity”, rather than occurring as it does now, in the hidden abode of capitalist production.
Finally, the full quote from Marx which I have referred to above is most revealing in the context of open education in that Marx regards transparency (openness?) to be necessary in both the social relations of production and distribution.
“Let us finally imagine, for a change, an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self awareness as one single social labour force…
The social relations of the individual producers, both toward their labour and the products of their labour, are here transparent in their simplicity, in production as well as in distribution.” (Marx, Capital, Vol.1, p.171-2)
Arguably, open education so far has focused almost exclusively on the ‘free culture’ of exchange (distribution) and has yet to address the role of academic labour (production). One way to critically examine it would be through the critical pedagogy of ‘Student as Producer‘, based on the productive capacity of human beings and aimed at developing direct social relations between teachers and students (‘scholars’), whose needs and capacities are reflected in the acknowledgement that they have much to learn from each other.