I was recently asked this question and here is my reply based on Marx’s critique of the commodity. Implicit in the question is whether something that does not cost anything (zero price) to consume can still be a commodity.
Marx referred to the ‘commodity’ as “the elementary form of wealth. Our investigation begins accordingly with the analysis of the commodity.” That is, we start with the commodity, but have to unravel how it appears in order to understand the totality of capitalist social relations through which it was produced.
To cut to the chase, a commodity is the product of labour which is the source of value. The commodity is not the source of value. The commodity is a ‘bearer’ for value to meet its equivalent value in the market.
“It is the utility of a thing for human life that turns it into a use-value… Use-value realizes itself only in use or in consumption; use-values form the substantial content of wealth, whatever its social form may be. In the form of society which we are going to examine, they form the substantial bearers at the very same time of exchange-value.”
If a product or service deriving from physical and/or mental labour has utility and is consumed by someone other than its producer, it is a commodity. That is not to say that the owner of the commodity will certainly profit from it, but that it simply has the form of a commodity. Marx says nothing about payment here. It’s about two forms of value expressed by the commodity form. If an open access article is a commodity, according to Marx’s analysis, it must have use value and exchange value.
“Hence, commodities are first of all simply to be considered as values, independent of their exchange-relationship or from the form, in which they appear as exchange-values.”
Note that we can identify something as a commodity before knowing its exchange relationship with something else such as money (money is a universal equivalent in the exchange relationship). The price of something, even if zero, does not tell us whether it is a commodity or not. We must not confuse “price” with “value”. It’s about whether its utility is exchangeable and is destined for exchange. It’s about whether the thing is conceived abstractly as an equivalence of something else. What might that be?
If something can be deemed a commodity prior to knowing its eventual equivalence in exchange, then the commodity-ness of it must be the result of something prior to the act of exchange; that is, what is the source of value? Labour.
“The common social substance which merely manifests itself differently in different use-values, is labour. Commodities as values are nothing but crystallized labour.”
I don’t think it’s easy at first to understand the distinction between use value, exchange value and value, but basically, things can have a use value without an exchange value and therefore only possess use value and not value. Value is the form that the use value and the exchange value take in the commodity. You can’t have value without the thing having an exchange value, but the thing can have use value without an exchange value (i.e. I can bake a cake for myself. It’s use is nourishment and pleasure, but it was not produced for the purpose of exchange, unless I become a baker).
Anyway, a commodity = value. What is the source of that value? It’s labour. Therefore, the substance of a commodity = labour.
“A use-value or good only has a value because labour is objectified or materialized in it.”
What is labour? Well, remember that we’re talking about labour in capitalist societies. We’re not concerned with any trans-historical sense of ‘labour’ as effort of some kind, but rather the nature of labour predominant today.
Marx shows that labour can also be analysed as having two forms: concrete and abstract labour. Concrete labour is the physiological effort that has a use. For example, I can employ intellectual and physical effort to write an article or to teach – that’s a concrete, useful expression of my labour power. Abstract labour is the form of equivalence in which capitalist labour is expressed and measured by time. Together, concrete and abstract labour = capitalist labour.
How are these forms of labour expressed in the life of an academic or anyone else? As use value and exchange value. Marx referred to this discovery of the “twofold character of labour” as “one of the two best points in my book (Capital)”. If labour is expressed as both use value and exchange value, then that, of course, makes it a commodity, too. Marx called it a “peculiar” commodity, because it is the only commodity which is capable of producing more value. How does it produce value? Either by lengthening the amount of time one labours (which has natural limits) or by introducing efficiencies in the labour process (e.g. greater division of labour, metrics, KPIs, new technologies and various innovations which replace the useful function of labour, etc.) Either way, the commodity of labour is able to produce a greater amount of commodities than before and therefore more value than before.
Finally and briefly, how is value created? Well, the capitalist pays the worker less than their labour is worth. That is, the employer does not pay the worker an equivalence of their labour power in money. Everywhere commodities are exchanged for their equivalence in the market except the commodity of labour power. That is exploitation. In this usage, ‘exploitation’ does not refer to the working conditions of the worker (the conditions might be wonderful), but rather the worker/labourer/employee/academic (different labels, same person) is not paid what they are worth to their employer. For the worker, there is a bare minimum that they need to sell their labour power for in order to survive, which differs across time and locale. Anything above that is to the benefit of the worker but to the detriment of their employer who is compelled by competitive markets to create surplus value (i.e. profit).
Competitive forces, driven by improved forms of efficiency and innovation, constantly push the price of the commodity down and therefore require the capitalist to ensure that the commodity of labour power is as low as possible, too, so that they continue to produce surplus value. If they don’t produce surplus value, they can’t invest and improve their product and another capitalist will beat them in the market because they did keep wages down, invest part of the surplus in innovation and lower their price.
In a university, we therefore have to first ask ourselves: what is the source of the institution’s value? The answer, according to Marx, has to be labour. Then we ask, how is that value expressed? Again, according to Marx, it is expressed in the form of commodities. What are those commodities? I think we can say they are the product of teaching and learning (e.g. the student, whose labour power we help improve, the courses we develop, validate and sell to the student), and research (e.g. patents, papers, books, etc.) which are, at some point, paid for in money as the equivalence of the specific commodity. (We often use the word ‘attract’ rather than ‘paid for’ – our work ‘attracts’ research income).
There may not be a direct relationship between the OA paper and money like there is for non-OA articles, but if the OA paper is used by someone to improve their labour, which is being paid for by a wage, then there is an equivalence between the wage which pays the worker to improve their labour power which makes them a better teacher, researcher, etc. which results in them writing more/better papers, reproducing better students, improving the reputation of the institution, attracting more external revenue of one kind or another. The point is, that capital is a social relation and the creation of value is a dynamic social process that can be distilled down to the time it takes for labour to produce a commodity: “socially necessary labour time”.
Up until recently, UK universities haven’t had to worry so much about the exchange value (value) of their commodities, because of significant public subsidy. A university which exists in a non-subsidised, competitive market, will be forced to analyse itself in this way, and we see this in the various techniques of metrics, costing of courses, emphasis on ‘staff development’, and so on. If OA research outputs do not appear as commodities, it’s because the forces of competition and the measure of productivity haven’t fully caught up with their producers yet. These things take time. Look at what’s happened to the Internet over the last two decades.
As we know, the writing of a journal paper is a huge undertaking in terms of labour time. Most academics write them partially outside of their contracted employment time. This is an example of how labour in the university is paid less than its value (‘exploited’). Innovations in publishing (e.g. word processing, ePrints, OJS) also help reduce the labour time of producing an article. In the case of Open Access, the price of the journal article to the reader is zero, but the value of the paper to the academic’s employer is something else. In the UK, the REF is now the main measure of value of journal articles, regardless of their price to the reader. What happens in preparation for the REF? There’s a huge amount of activity in the academic labour market as employers seek to purchase better sources of value prior to the periodic measure of value being undertaken. The REF determines the exchange value (value) of the journal article, not the purchase price. As such, the REF is also one measure of the value of academic labour, the primary source of all value in higher education.
All quotes from: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/commodity.htm
These chapters are directly relevant, too: