On natural-social commodities. The form and value of things


(Corresponding author email: mhale@essex.ac.uk)


This article re-reads Marx's account of the commodity as a socio–natural entity. In doing so, it re-evaluates the status of the political (as opposed to questions of political economy) in Marx's analysis and also reads his argument in light of Actor-Network-Theory's call for the thingness of things to be taken seriously. The paper argues that there is a complex duality to the commodity as it is always comprised of both use-value and exchange-value and hence as both ‘natural’ and ‘social’. It is pointed out that the usual translation of words with the root ‘gesellschaft-’ as ‘social’ is unhelpful and that a better term would be ‘societal’, as this enables Marx, and us, to re-approach the very distinction between the natural, the societal and the social. Marx's notion of ‘value as equivalence’ is then outlined and it is argued that this crucial stage in his account is often passed over. Value as equivalence is not a mere social production but relies upon the expression of the use-value of one thing in another. This leads to the third move which is an outline of the importance of value-form and social form. It is argued that it is this formation of a commodity (comprising both the natural and the social) which is the key both to understanding it as a specific historical entity as well as offering a powerful, non-reductive, account of the natural, social, material and historical character of things. Overall, the article attempts to develop a novel conception of natural-social commodities which does not premise either side of this dyad and so might help social theorists to talk of real things whilst avoiding charges of essentialism and reductionism as well as possible Latourian critiques of over-generalization.