The commodity is the basic form of capitalist social production: objects or services produced by work in order to be exchanged on the market and in this way to increase value.
A commodity embodies two distinct aspects: a use-value and an exchange-value. Use value simply means that an object or service is useful. The use-value of a chair is that one can sit on it. The use value of a painting is the aesthetic pleasure that one finds in it. The use-value of iron is that one can use it to create many other use-values (a table, a building, the wheels of a train etc.) The use-value of a haircut is that someone cuts our hair for us. The use-value of prostitution is the sexual pleasure that the client finds in it. Indeed, use-values are as numerous as the needs of human beings in their historical context (that is to say, many needs, such as money, for example, are specifically capitalist or feudal, etc.). Every society realises the desires, or at least, the vital needs of individuals, through social praxis (the way in which human beings transform the world through their activities), and, in so doing, creates use-values.
Capitalist society is different from all other societies because for it use-values are not the goal of social production. They are the by-products of the production of exchange-values (and therefore of objects and services that can be exchanged). Exchange-value means that the value of an object or a service comes from the amount of work that it contains, not its usefulness (more exactly, the value of a commodity is the average quantity of work needed to produce it, also known as ‘socially necessary labour time’. The market decides its price but this tends to correspond to its value). Capitalist social production essentially consists of producing exchange-values, not because exchange produces value, but because it is the necessary condition for the valorisation of work. It is work that produces value, and it is the employment of work that creates capitalist profits. But in order to gain the benefits of this employment, in order to realise ‘surplus-value’, the commodities produced by work must be exchanged for money. What matters is not the quality of the work but the generic capacity of ‘labour-power’ to be a commodity that creates value, this is why the ‘circuit of valorisation’, reduces productive activities to non differentiated (‘abstract’) work where every, qualitatively different, concrete action is treated as being the same work, because what matters is no the quality of what is produced but the fact of producing commodities that can be exchanged in order to realise ‘surplus-value’, capitalist profit. (This is why, from the point of view of capitalist society, the work of a solider, a farmer, a prostitute, a professional are all the same – they are all reimbursed through the money commodity – despite the fact that they are concretely different). It is only in this context, where work is reduced to its common denominator (more exactly, the reduction of different productive activities to their existence as work in the framework of commodity exchange), that one can produce an exchange-value (and therefore exchange one use-value for another) because the different objects and services have nothing qualitatively in common (in their specific utility) apart from the fact that they are all the products of the same (‘abstract’) work.
The commodity is therefore a social form that is specific to capitalism; it only exists in the framework of the other capitalist categories such as work, value, exchange, the state, the market etc. Thus, a critique of the commodity, and also of exchange, must be linked to a critique of the entirety of capitalist social reproduction and not only the sphere of circulation (the circulation stage is a necessary condition for the realisation of capitalist value but it is in production, by the employment of work, that value is created. Commodity exchange is what allows the capitalist to find himself with a larger quantity of money than the quantity with which he bought the ‘labour-power’ of the producers (workers) of the commodities that he will exchange. Capitalist valorisation implies all of the different following stages: some money that buys ‘labour-power’ – the production of commodities with this ‘labour-power’ – the exchange of these commodities for money, more money than at the beginning of the circuit).
The production and exchange of commodities forms the foundation of capitalist society. It is in this context that all of the other categories developed, right up to their current forms. The state, the family, religion, advertising, charity, all of the activity of this society takes place in a way that adapts to the needs of commodity production, rather than to the needs of human beings who are the simple agents of this automatic and fetishistic process. In contrast to a consciously run society, where people would create use-values and the conditions of their production according to their needs and desires, commodity society forces them to create products destined for a market, according to the social conditions of production established by competition, and under the iron grip of a state that will preserve this state of affairs at all costs.
All of the suffering of capitalist society is produced by this fundamentally fetishistic, and therefore alienating, nature of the commodity form. Commodity production follows its own laws, not those established consciously by human beings. In capitalist society, if the needs of human beings are in opposition to this process, the needs of the commodity form will be imposed and maintain the conditions necessary for the reproduction of commodity society. The very existence of the commodity form forbids all possibility of a consciously run, free society, where we could realise, through praxis, our own desires. It is the logic of the fetishistic commodity form that organises capitalist society, not human beings as such.
The commodity form developed historically at the same time as work, money, the modern state, capital and value. Towards the end of the Middle Ages the production of new military technologies, firearms, forced the more powerful European sates to mobilise a more centralised and impersonal production and distribution of military force. Centralised production and a professional army were necessary. Soldiers (a word which means ‘those who are paid’, from the French ‘solde’ meaning pay) were the first ‘professionals’ who did their work in exchange for money and not for reason of personal ties, as was previously the case.
The size of armies grew massively; states could no longer rely on traditional agricultural production to maintain them. More and more, they had to use money and markets to supply their troupes. This new militarism created a part of society that was truly autonomous from the rest of society, and economic value was detached from all qualitative considerations. War fuelled the incessant need for money and markets, creating the conditions for the rapid rise of the bourgeoisie, a new class of bankers and financial merchants who furnished the money needed by the military state.
The increasingly large sums of money needed by states led to the creation of a military and police apparatus capable of confronting recalcitrant populations and of collecting the enormous taxes necessary for war. Thus, increasingly, the life of European societies was mediated (was realised) through money, the state, the market, the police, the army, work, capital etc. The production of use-values was replaced by the necessity of producing exchange-values. Any attempt to consciously produce life threatened the production of money and the state and thus found itself under the pressure of the law and other forms of power. The commodity therefore arrived in an absolute rupture with the old world of personal ties, of explicitly sacred sacrifice and the entire feudal way of life. From now on, impersonal relationships, mediated by specifically capitalist categories, would colonise life. It is in this way that commodity fetishism entered into the world, by way of a dynamic and terrible violence, by the competition between warring states.
For centuries the commodity form of life has developed in order to mediate ever-more spheres of existence and has reorganised the categories that are indirectly mediated by it (such as the family and patriarchy) in order to overcome its contradictions (see crisis and competition). It has overturned the values of human beings. What counts from the point of view of capitalist society is not our humanity, our desires, our needs, but how we serve this reproduction of the commodity form. The alienation that we feel and that we suffer from in our everyday lives comes from the fact that the world is organised according to the fetishistic laws of the commodity and not according to our own wishes. The abolition of the commodity – along with work, the state, value, the market, the police etc. – is an absolute necessity and the only way to rediscover the joy of being alive.
This definition of the commodity was first developed by Karl Marx in Capital. Later the critique of value rediscovered this important aspect of Marxian theory. Robert Kurz was the principal theoretician of this rereading of Marx and it is to him also that we owe this theory that the origins of capitalism lie in the production of firearms.