It was a little laughing lady around 50 who answered me good humoredly:
“Like many militants of your generation, you confuse two things: The natural market, on the one hand, a social institution going back to the beginnings of human culture, and on the other, this dangerous animal that invades society with capitalism, this monster hybrid half-thing and half- abstraction, this fetish of capitalism, merchandise!
“Historically”, she explained, “markets were friendly places where people got together to trade produce and handicrafts while at the same time chatting, exchanging news and ideas, weaving relationships clan to clan, village to country, people to people . . .
“I understand. I’ve just been told that an herbs market had its origin around the year 1000 in the city of Montpellier in the present south of France. Arab and Jewish doctors coming here from Spain found Italians and Bulgarians who brought herbs from India. From the herbs market was born the city, its Faculty of Medicine, and the pharmacy industry has always been very strong in the region. On reflection, you’d have to say the market is the source of civilization. . .”
“One of the sources,” my gracious interlocutor answered indulgently.
” . . . and they sold here as merchandise !” I said maliciously.
“Indeed,” smiled the scholar. “You could call merchandise anything natural or manufactured as long as it is traded. The peasant from Mali who happens to feed her family and take her surplus of yams to the village market expects to go back home with things that she doesn’t know how to make herself: a copper pot, a comb. . .”
“I think I understand: those yams of the Malienne are only the, so to speak, occasional merchandise, therefore innocent. But whence come your merchandise-fetishes that are so mysterious and dangerous?”
“They come, curiously enough, not from the market but from the global production system. In order that ALL useful or desirable objects become systematically merchandise, it’s necessary that all over the world, businesses produce large quantities of uniform objects with the goal of selling them for profit on an indetermined market. You can call that the abstract market—in opposition to the natural market of society—for sellers and buyers never meet. Also because the value of the merchandise there depends on the cost of their production, rather than their beauty, their utility or the desire they provoke.
“And just so, in the contact of this abstract world market, all human products become abstract objects embodying a certain amount of market value, this being independent of their utility and desirability. More curious still, contrary to the natural market where humans weave their social relationships, these are goods that maintain “social” relationships as soon as they enter the abstract world market!”
“But what exactly would they have to say to each other, these sacred abstract monsters?”
“Indeed, if the goods could speak, they would establish their mutual relationships by comparing their prices. ‘I am worth 56 Euros!’ a chic pullover would say with a proud look. ‘And me, 112 Euros!’ a men’s suit would answer drily. ‘You’d need two of you to buy me, so shit on you.’
“There are the only conversations that you would hear in the abstract market, but they are so numerous that they’d end up silencing the voice of humans, for example that of Lo, the young worker of Shanghai who to feed her child works twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for the subcontractor of a big international brand. Indeed, Lo has no human relationship with Laure, the Parisian secretary who wants the pullover that the young Chinese woman knitted and for which she received 13 cents Euro. Unfortunately, at 56 pounds, the labor of Lo is too expensive for the little Parisienne.
“On the other hand, those conversations stupidly breaking out between merchandise—”I’m worth/You’re worth”—are so intrusive that we have become as well informed about their “social” relationships as about those of our friends and our favorite celebrities. To such an extent that on TV there were consumer games where you won prizes for correctly estimating the price of different goods.”
“I know,” I said embarrassedly. “And even when merchandise keeps quiet behind a window we hear it very clearly. For example, our friend the men’s suit that murmurs, “You know very well that I’m worth two times this vain pullover.” I admit that those animals are vastly intelligent, but what is the origin of their market value? I’d say myself that it’s the amount of human labor that each product has cost. For example, it would have required twice as much time for tailors to sew the men’s suit than it would for Lo to knit the pullover, right?”
“Not completely,” answered the historian, mischievously. “Imagine that the knitter, out of laziness or lack of experience, works two times more slowly than normal. She would put in twice as much labor, but would her pullover be twice expensive?”
“Obviously not,” I admitted, perplexed.
“And if you gave her a machine that permitted her to knit ten pullovers in the time it takes to do one by hand, would she be ten times richer?”
“No, again. So if it isn’t the human labor expended to make the pullover that gives it its value, what is it? The desire of the buyer?
“Of course not, since Laure the secretary found it too expensive!” laughed my charming researcher.
“I give up, explain it to me,” I begged, really distressed now.
“But you knew it already!” smiled the philosopher, indulgently. “It’s only that useful human labor is not, as we’ve seen, quantifiable. The activity of a knitter gives us, after all, only a sweater that’s more or less warm and more or less beautiful. You need abstract labor to create the abstract (quantifiable) value of merchandise. And in order to establish its potential price you have to place it in relationship to other merchandise in the same category that could have been manufactured by machine, and that will embody more or less necessary social labor.
All the same, you wouldn’t be wrong in proposing that the quality of human labor that a product has cost were the origin of its value. But, as we’ve seen, it’s not the quality of concrete labor (an example being the slow knitter) that determines the value of product, but the average quantity necessary to make such a product in competition with others of the same variety on the world market. Obviously, in order to establish the integral value of merchandise, for example the men’s suit, you’d have to add the necessary labor of the peasants who grew the cotton, the labor of the weavers who transformed it into cloth, the labor of the tailors and transporters.
“Let me sum up, Dear Professor: On this abstract market that includes all the unknown producers and buyers of the world where the hand knitters compete with the machine knitters, it’s the time required for the minimum necessary labor that determines the market value of the sweater. . . ”
“Yes, and it’s not the quantity of real concrete human labor that determines the abstract value of merchandise. . .”
”. . . It’s the abstract labor!”
“I knew you knew!”
“On the other hand, I’ve never seen an abstract laborer.”
“Rascal! You know very well that this paradox is at the heart of the problem. If a human manufactures something, for example the Malienne her yams, it’s by a concrete labor of the cultivator that it reaches a useful value, as it happens here, edible. But Lo the Chinese girl doesn’t sell the surplus of her harvest, she sells an abstraction, her labor power calculated at X yen per hour for Y hours. And as her time is no longer her own, the product of her concrete labor of knitter is therefore not hers. Fruit of alienated labor, the sweaters of Lo are alienated from her by her boss, Li, Communist Party member, who makes her work as fast as possible in order to have sweaters to sell and maximize his profit by lowering the production costs below the global average. However free, Lo lives her productive life as the slave of Li, except that owners of slaves—just like owners of horses—look after the health and nourishment of their property. On the other hand when Lo, malnourished and weakened by her long work hours, can’t knit fast enough, her boss replaces her with a younger and fresher girl from the country. There you have the circumstances of alienated labor (abstract labor) embodied in properly so-called capitalist merchandise. . .”
“Good. I agree. It’s therefore not the market, but the alienated labor that gives birth to that capitalist merchandise become universal fetish. But let’s admit that this dialectic was not very well understood in the period of globalization. Each time they talk to us about markets, we know they’re going to have a rough time of it, that they’re going to lose the slim fringe benefits that they have, that life becomes less human, that they’re going to take from us even the air and the water to make merchandise out of them.”