On the Uselessness of the Commodity

clown shoesGiven that the accepted definition of the commodity is an artefact that is at the same time an exchange value and a use value, the notion that the commodity is in some manner defined by its uselessness seems, at first sight, a contradiction. This apparent contradiction is an effect of a mistaken perspective that perceives use value as being a property of an object - the commodity. In fact, both use value and exchange value are relational concepts and their coincidence in a given artefact does not imply that they appear equally to all parties that they enter into a relation with. What is a use value to one person may be entirely useless to another. The aspect of the commodity we are exploring here is that of a use value that is useless to its possessor.

Let us descend from the abstract to the concrete via a discussion of shoes, specifically one from Joseph Déjacque's seminal text, "l' Echange"

For example, lets take a tailor or a shoemaker. He has produced many clothes or many pairs of shoes. He can not consume them all at once. Perhaps, indeed, they are neither his size nor according to his taste. Obviously he has only made them because it's his job to do so, and with a view to exchanging them for other products that he feels a need for, and so, similarly, for all workers. These clothes or shoes these are thus not his possession because they are no personal use to him; but it is a property, a value that he monopolises and that he has at his pleasure, at the extreme he can destroy it if he pleases, and he can at least use and misuse at his discretion; it is in every case, a weapon to attack the property of others in this struggle of divided and conflicting interests where each is at the mercy of all the chances and all the hazards of war.

From "l'Echange", article in Le Libertaire no 6, 21 September 1858, New York. (see http://joseph.dejacque.free.fr/libertaire/n06/lib01.htm)

This text is a follow on from Déjacque's famous letter to Proudhon of 1857, where he coins the neologism "libertarian" and attacks Proudhon's sexism and economic liberalism (the neologism is in fact coinedd as an antonym to the latter's economic liberalism, so from a historical point of view the later conjunction of libertarian communism is technically a redundancy). Here Déjacque is using Proudhon's distinction between possession and property against him. How can the shoemaker claim possession of shoes that do not fit him or her? Here we are dealing with a use value that is useless to its producer, taken by default, in Proudhon's schema, to be its rightful possessor.


Here we also have the distinction that Marx makes between the surplus of the direct producer and the product of the petty commodity producer. The direct producer, such as the peasant or nomadic pastoralist, who produces use values directly for their own consumption and reproduction, may bring surplus produce to the market, but this does not make them commodity producers. By contrast, the petty commodity producer, even where they possess their own means of production, is producing values that are of no use to them directly for the reproduction of their own labour power (and life) but must be exchanged in the market for the means of subsistence. The legal possession of the peasant of their land does not make them, by that property relation alone, a petty bourgeois producer. The contentions of Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood that the historical genesis of capitalist production lies in the transformation of agricultural direct producers to agricultural commodity producers, even prior to the development of proletarianisation and the wage relation, can be understood by this aspect of the commodity. What Meiksins Wood terms "market dependance" is the other side of the coin of the uselessness of the commodity to its producer.

But the most important commodity in the capitalist system to a worker centred analysis, is the commodity of labour power. What is the relationship between the proletarian and the labour power of which he or she is the possessor?

M - L is taken as the characteristic feature or hallmark of the so-called money economy because labour appears here as the commodity of its possessor, and hence money as its buyer - in other words, because of the money relation (sale and purchase of human activity). But money appears very early on as a buyer of so-called services, without its being transformed into money capital, and without any revolution in the general character of the economy.

It is quite immaterial, as far as the money is concerned, what sort of commodities it is transformed into. Money is the universal equivalent form of all commodities, which already show in their prices that they ideally represent a specific sum of money, expect to be transformed into money, and only receive the form in which they can be converted into use-values for their possessor by changing places with money. Thus once labour-power is found on the market as a commodity, its sale taking place in the form of a payment for labour, in the wage form, then its sale and purchase is no more striking than the sale and pruchase of any other commodity. What is characteristic is not that the commodity labour-power can be bought, but the fact that labour-power appears as a commodity."

...and is therefore useless to its possessor, Marx may well have added, had he not already made the point in the passage emphasised above (Marx, Captal v. 2, 1).

The proletarian condition is, at its most fundamental, to be deprived of the use of our own labour power by being separated from the means of production necessary to make use of it. Labour-power is to its unemployed proletarian possessor, a use value that is useless - a commodity.

As mentioned at the outset, this is not an essential property of the commodity, but an aspect. The other aspect is that, with one exception, nobody buys commodities. People, whether worker as consumer or capitalist as producer, buy use-values. To the extent that they consume it, whether "unproductively" (from the perspective of capital) by consumption for our own reproduction, or in the process of some further production cycle, makes no difference. We exchange money to possess that which is useful to us (or we think is useful to us), not for that which will be useless to its new possessor, i.e. us. The one exception to this is the merchant capitalist. The merchant capitalist buys commodities as commodities. That is things that are of no use to him or her, save that they will later be able to be exchanged for more money than the purchase price. In this way, the merchant is the first to exhibit "commodity consciousness", that is to be aware of the items of his or her purchase not as objects of his or her desire, but as commodities proper. Hence one of the reasons why merchants are historically the source of capitalistic modes of thinking about commodities, but in the immature, incomplete categories of mercantilist thought.

This aspect of the commodity - a use value that is useless to its possessor - is a form of existence of the social contradictions of capital, sometimes referred to rather mystifyingly as the contradiction between the use value and exchange value. But distinguishing between the uselessness of the use value to its producer and to its possessor is crucial. If we mistake the social contradictions of capitalism as existing within the relation between producer and use value, then we are locating the contradictions of capitalist society directly within any society based on division of labour, specialisation and circulation of products. This is the error of the primitivist and anti-civilisation perspective. If this were true then the only way to escape the alienations and contradictions of capitalist social relations would be to regress to an existence prior to division of labour and cooperation. The correct apprehension of the aspect of the commodity as use value useless to its possessor, reveals the root of the contradictions in the property relations specific to capitalism. In an alterrnative society based on the collective possession of all products, the use values produced by social, cooperative production are no longer useless to their possessors. The contradiction of the commodity does not arise with the communal possession of the social product, regardless whether the individual producers of a particular good have a personal use for it or not. Further, being guraranteed the means of subsistence and reproduction and access to the means of production necessary to make use of their own productive capacities, the labour-power of the individual no longer confronts him or her as commodity.



"Proudhon's . . . economic

"Proudhon's . . . economic liberalism"

Not sure that "economic liberalism" is a fair description of Proudhon's arguments. If desiring that workers receive the full product of their labour is "liberalism" than a lot of socialists are, in fact, liberals -- including Bakunin. Is the Marx of the Critique of the Gotha Programme a liberal, then?

Ultimately, communism must be free or it will fail. As such, we recognise that the worker is entitled to control the full product of their labour. We simply wish that others see the benefits of (libertarian) communism.

It is Déjacque's description,

It is Déjacque's description, and the reason for his invention of "libertarian" to distingish his economics from those of Proudhon. I considered including the text immediately prior to the Déjacque quote above, but omitted it for the sake of brevity. Here it is with a hastily kludged google translated after...

<<L’échange-direct, la possession par le travailleur des produits de son travail, changerait certainement la face des choses et accélérerait dans des proportions considérables le mouvement de production et de consommation, et augmenterait ainsi la somme de bien-être individuel et social. Mais des froissements sans nombre auraient encore lieu, la circulation ne serait toujours pas libre, et sans la liberté de circulation il n’y a pas de liberté de production, pas de liberté de consommation.

Encore une fois ce serait un progrès, ce n’est pas la justice. Une évolution n’est pas une révolution.

D’abord, en principe, le travailleur a-t-il droit au produit de son travail ?

Je n’hésite pas à répondre : non ! bien que je sache que multitude d’ouvriers vont se récrier.

Voyons, prolétaires, criez, criez tant que vous voudrez, mais après écoutez-moi :

Non, ce n’est pas au produit de son travail que le travailleur a droit : c’est à la satisfaction de ses besoins, que[l]que soit la nature de ses besoins.

Avoir la possession du produit de son travail ce n’est pas avoir la possession de ce qui nous est propre, c’est avoir la propriété d’un produit fait par nos mains, et qui peut n’être propre qu’aux autres et nullement à nous. Toute propriété n’est-elle pas un vol ?

Par exemple, celui-ci est tailleur, je suppose, ou cordonnier...

[hack trans...]

Direct-exchange, the possession by the worker of the product of his labour, would certainly change the face of things, and accelerate to a considerable extent the movement of production and consumption, and thus increase the sum of individual and social welfare. But innumerable frictions would still occur, circulation is still not free, and without freedom of circulation there is no freedom of production, no freedom of consumption.

Again this would be an improvement, this is not justice. An evolution not a revolution.

First, in principle, the worker is he entitled to the proceeds of his work?

I do not hesitate to answer: no! although I know that many workers will exclaim.

Come, proletarians, shout, shaout all you want, but then after listen to me:

No, it is not the product of his work to which the worker is entitled: it is the satisfaction of [his/her] needs, whatever the nature of [his/her] needs.

To have possession of the product of ones work is not to have possession of what is proper to us, it is to have ownership of a product made by our hands, and that can only be [fit/proper] to others and not us. All property is it not theft?

For example, lets take a tailor or a shoemaker...>>

So, in Déjacque's mind the "right to the whole produce of labour" is a conservative demand which counterposes direct exchange to what he calls free circulation, which, according to him, then leads to forms of production and consumption that are not free. Hence why he accuses Proudhon of being "Libéral et non Libertaire".

Déjacque is a long neglected figure, perhaps in part because of what Nettlau took to be a lack of influence on the later "classical period" libertarian communists. Nettlau bases this on the failure of later anarchists to mention him or reprint his articles in their periodicals (and we all appreciate the need for content in periodicals). However, he does also imply that Déjacque's ultimate end was "unfortunate" in some way. Combined with the textual evidence that seems, to me at least, to indicate that Déjacque's formulations actually did have a strong influence on Elisée Reclus (who's own formula "distribution according to the principle of solidarity", owing much to Déjacque IMO, was orginally adopted by the 1876 Florence-Tosi conference, but was later rejected by Cafiero at the 1880 Chaux de Fonds conference in favour of Louis Blanc's more famous phrase - Reclus rejected this as giving too much ground to bourgois individualism, but lost the argument), I posit that this silence may have been more to some stigma of shame associated with Déjacques end (or perhaps his advocation for direct democracy as an interim, "transitional phase" in later life), but I couldn't say. Pure speculation to some degree, but comparing Reclus formulation with those given by Déjacque in the second part of "l'Organisation du Travail" (The Organisation of work) in Libertaire #24 is instructive. But to a degree resolution of these matters (in anglophone debate) awaits the translation of Déjacques work into English. Of course the entireity (particularly his Humanisphere) is far too much, but the five core pieces - the letter to Proudhon, Exchange and the 3-part Organisation of Work, would advance the understanding of the genesis of libertarian communist politics immesurably. Another project for my copious spare time, i guess :(




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