The study group I worked through the introduction to the GrundrisseContribution to the Critique of Political Economy. This week we’re going to talk about money: money is an interesting topic. It’s the object of so much desire — it is, in fact, the very object of desire, in virtue of its structural function in the economy. Sort of like the gasoline in a combustion engine. Or the oil in it. Or petroleum products in general. All of the explanation of why this is in the Contribution is incredibly opaque, which is a result, I think, of some ambiguity in Marx’s description of the use-value of the money commodity as the exchange-value of the commodities exchanged through it. This isn’t really what’s going on.
with has moved onto the
Looking to a particularly dense passage, this begins to become clear:
The contradiction of use-value and exchange-value is thus polarised at the two extreme points of C — M, so that with regard to gold the commodity represents use-value whose nominal exchange-value, the price, still has to be realised in gold; with regard to the commodity, on the other hand, gold represents exchange-value whose formal use-value still has to acquire a material form in the commodity. The contradictions inherent in the exchange of commodities are resolved only by reason of this duplication of the commodity so that it appears as commodity and gold, and again by way of the dual and opposite relation in which each extreme is nominal where its opposite is real, and real where its opposite is nominal, in other words they are resolved only by means of presenting commodities as bilateral polar opposites.
The thing to remember reading this is that it doesn’t matter that the money commodity is gold; the money commodity could have been anything; Marx uses gold here as a nod to convention, as mental training wheels as we teeter towards understanding. What is important for the money commodity isn’t the use-value or what socially evaluated qualities it might have independent of serving as the measure of value and the means of exchange, but that in virtue of its use as money it becomes comes to serve as these latter. And its status as both will never become inherent in it: it will always exist as money because of its use as money, an accident of the motion of the society that uses it in the way it does. Back before the magic of modern financial systems, the actual physical fact of possessed gold — in worn pounds of guineas, perhaps — may have led us to believe that the realized sale ‘captured’ the value of the commodity in gold. But before that even can become sensible, there has to be some logic of comparison between qualitatively distinct things: the logic of money, which is distinct from its actual existence as bills, coins, or plastic.
Money does not work because it is shiny, metal, and heavy. It works because of the structural logic of exchange-relations requires it to resolve its own basic problems. Even presuming the primordial fantasy of bourgeois economists, direct barter, does not save exchange, since in order for you to swap your widget for my sprocket, there has to be some way of mediating their relative values. Rudimentary appeals to relative dearness does not work, because dearness itself must be determined. If all that determined the exchange-price of commodities were subjective whim, the economy would not work (or at least, it would not work in the manner it does today; gift and other economies are a different story).
Enter money: money allows commodities to be evaluated at once as qualitatively desirous things and as something that will fetch a certain price. They command, in Marx’s language, ‘nominal’ amounts of the money commodity (but this amount is not a use-value of gold qua gold!), which can become ‘realized’ in exchange. Money is the facilitator — enabler, really — of bourgeois exchange. It makes it possible widgets to be swapped for sprockets; it does so by adding a layer of mediation. There is no direct-exchange, or at least not one that is rational in money terms.
But in order to get at why money is rational, we have to look more closely at the structure of capitalist society as a whole.