A Companion to Marx's Capital
- David Harvey
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One of the most important things to glean from a careful study of Volume I is how Marx’s method works. I personally think this is just as important as the propositions he derives about how capitalism works, because once you have learned the method and become both practiced in its execution and confident in its power, then you can use it to understand almost anything.
Notice how quickly he abstracts from the incredible diversity of human wants, needs and desires, as well as from the immense variety of commodities and their weights and measures, in order to focus on the unitary concept of a use-value. This is illustrative of an argument he makes in one of the prefaces, where he says that the problem for social science is that we cannot isolate and conduct controlled experiments in a laboratory, so we have to use the power of abstraction instead in order to arrive at similar scientific forms of understanding
This idea of “metabolism,” with labor as the mediator between human existence and nature, is central to Marx’s historical-materialist argument. He will come back to it at various points in Capital even as he leaves the idea rather undeveloped. This, too, is often typical of his approach. He says, in effect, “Look, there is something important here you should think about [in this case, the relation to nature]. I am not going to work with it in any detail, but I want to put it on the table as significant before going on to matters of more immediate concern.” “Use-values,” he writes, “are combinations of two elements,
Notably, Marx never specifies what “experience” he has in mind, making this passage highly controversial. In the literature it is known as the “reduction problem,” because it is not clear how skilled labor can be and is reduced to simple labor independently of the value of the commodity produced.