From the August 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard
Wealth under capitalist society takes the form of commodities. Although commodities must be articles of use, their distinguishing characteristic is that first and foremost they are produced for sale with a view to making a profit. Buying and selling is the exchange of commodities with money acting as a medium of circulation. Commodities are exchangeable because they are the material depositories of exchange value.
Value has nothing to do with the physical properties of a commodity. However much we may examine its physical structure, we will not discover therein one scrap of value. This is because value is purely a social product, not a natural one. Definite historical conditions are necessary for the full development of exchange value, those conditions are capitalist production. Insofar as commodities have value, they are the embodiments of one identical social substance, viz. human labour. When we speak of value we are not referring to the useful qualities a commodity may have. We are referring to how much it is worth, its exchange value.
The labour which creates value is abstract homogeneous human labour, the average labour of society. This average labour may vary, depending on the stage reached in society’s powers of production, on its technology, but not any particular time it is given. A particular commodity can be exchanged for any other however diverse their uses may be provided they be equal in value. If we take two different commodities in the proportions in which they are exchangeable, whatever those proportions are, a given quantity of one can be equated to some quantity of the other. This equation tells us there exists something common to both in equal quantities. Yet this third thing is neither the one nor the other, it is that both are products of labour.
We have been dealing with what constitutes value, and its social nature, but the magnitude of value contained in a commodity is determined by the amount of socially necessary labour time it takes to produce it. Only necessary labour time counts because that is all society requires in the production of exchange values. Any commodity which owing to inefficiency took longer for its production than the time socially necessary would not represent more value, and would have to sell on the market for the same as those produced in the time socially needed.
Again a particular commodity may at one time contain more value than at another. This would be when owing to greater difficulty in the technical or natural conditions of production the socially necessary Labour time would increase, and therefore also the value of the commodity. The reverse would obtain when owing to greater productivity of labour, due to improved machinery, or more favourable natural conditions, it would then take less socially necessary labour time to produce, therefore a decrease in its value.
Do the products of labour always have to take the form of commodities, where man loses control of his own product? Only in competitive capitalist society where production is determined by the profit motive and the market, and the great productive technology necessitated by capitalism is only allowed to function in the interests of accumulating capital.
People in Socialist society in contrast will be able to produce and plan in relation to human requirements. There will be no commodities, therefore, no value and no surplus-value. The means of production will not be owned by a privileged class. Socialism will bring into line production with satisfying human needs.
Let us look a little closer at what production for the satisfaction of human needs means. Two aspects of production would apply under Socialism which do not under capitalism. First the quantitative requirements of society would be satisfied owing to the tremendous impetus Socialism would give to production in the release of a huge number of men and materials, now engaged in the requirements of capitalism. Those men and materials would be contributing to the satisfaction of human needs.
To give some idea of the scale of the release of men and materials which Socialism would give, just consider some of the things, necessary to capitalism which would have no place in Socialism. Such things as the production of weapons of war, the vast quantities of materials and paper used in commerce including packaging, advertising, banks and offices. The machinery, paper and metal used for money is no small item. Then add to this the energy required, human and otherwise. Yet, we have merely scratched the surface, the list is endless. Men have filled books about it; Vance Packard in his book The Waste Makers describes in detail the mountains of rubbish produced. The continuous change of superficial style and the built-in obsolescence, all in an effort to sell more, so that the owners of the means of production may increase their profit. All is accepted as normal practice by capitalism’s standards.
The people of Socialism then, would produce for use and not for profit thereby satisfying the quantitative aspect of production. Then there is the aspect of the function of man labouring, the satisfaction to be obtained from doing something useful and creative. How would Socialism effect this very vital part of human life? Work would certainly not be looked up as a necessary evil. It was William Morris who wrote: “If pleasure in labour be generally possible, what a strange folly it must be for men to consent to labour without pleasure”.
This is not the attitude of trying to reduce working time to a minimum by more use of machinery in order to allow more leisure time for more fulfilling activities. The fullest use of machinery would be made where it could alleviate unpleasant work, or to cope with vast quantities when required. This is not to say that there would be no unpleasant work under Socialism. But what constitutes unpleasant work? What may be unpleasant to one, may to another mean the height of pleasure. Again, to have to perform the same task for the best part of one’s life presents a thoroughly depressing prospect. But to take part in an activity for a period of time, then to do something else depending on one’s interests and abilities would make tasks interesting which would otherwise be tedious. Socialism would allow a new awakening of interests and abilities that lie slumbering to develop, thus enlarging the scope and fulfillment of human life.
The Socialist answer to the question, “Must the products of the labour of men always take the form of commodities?” is no. Let us be done with commodities and their value. Let there be only useful production, which means let us have Socialism.