The Commodification of Social Rights as a Disaster of Capitalism: A Lesson from Das Kapital
By Cde. Yershen Pillay, YCLSA National Chairperson
This year we celebrate 150 years since Karl Marx delivered the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867. In celebration of this momentous occasion the Young Communist League of South Africa has taken the revolutionary task of popularizing Das Kapital as an economic masterpiece with the most extraordinary breadth of reference. Those who seek to demonize and critique Das Kapital as formless and incomprehensible should look again and they will find something new that governs our lives today. As Marshall Berman asks: How can Das Kapital end while capital still lives on? (Cited in Wheen, 2006) To illustrate the modern day importance and relevance of Das Kapital we consider the struggle for free higher education in South Africa and the commodification of higher education as a disaster of Capitalism. Fees will fall when Capitalism falls and free education will become a reality when society closes the doors on Capitalism and opens the doors to Socialism.
Marx never finished his envisaged six volume masterpiece. It was only the first volume of Das Kapital that Marx had completed before his death in 1883 while subsequent volumes were completed by others based on notes and drafts found in his study. According to Francis Wheen (2006), "Marx was concerned about the monstrosities of the capitalist economic system which estranged people from one another and from the world they inhabited - a world in which humans are enslaved by the monstrous power of inanimate capital and commodities." From a very young age, Marx experienced alienation as a result of being a Jew living a Catholic city, Trier within a Prussian State. This alienation formed the basis of his inspiration towards understanding the inner workings of capitalism.
Marx was concerned more with materialism than idealism, which is more with the actual then the abstract. Hegel assumed that the state was the subject and the society was the object. That is to say that the state acted upon and shaped society. Marx argued that history showed the opposite. That in fact, society acted upon and shaped the state and as Francis Wheen (2006) argues "that religion does not make man, but man makes religion; that the constitution does not create people, but people create the constitution."
Marx extended the logic of the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach from abstract Philosophy to the material world. In his Thesis on Feuerbach published in 1845, Marx wrote, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it." This was to become the essential thesis of Das Kapital. Despite what people may say about its triumphs, Capitalism remains a disaster because it turns everything into a commodity exchangeable for other commodities. The logic of Capitalism is to turn land, water, electricity, health-care, higher education and even people into commodities.
The very first sentence of Das Kapital draws attention to the concept of a commodity in exploring the unexplored world of industrial capitalism. Das Kapital: "The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an immense collection of commodities; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form." Commodities, according to Marx, have two properties: use - value and exchange value. The value of a commodity is determined by the amount of labor expended to produce it. The market may change the price but it does not determine the value of a commodity. It is labor that determines the value of a commodity. In Das Kapital, Marx points out that he means 'socially necessary labor - time' or the amount of time that it would take an average worker to complete the job. Labor - power, according to Marx, is a commodity and its value is determined in the same way as any other commodity, which is by the amount of labor - time necessary to produce and reproduce it. Here Marx draws from Adam Smith who wrote that, "the demand for men necessarily governs the production of men, as of every other commodity." (Cited in Wheen, 2006).
The difference between something that is a commodity and something that is not a commodity is that a commodity has both use - value and exchange value. A commodity is something that is produced for exchange. If you make a product for your own use it is not a commodity. However, if you make a product for sale or trade than it becomes a commodity. Anything can have a use - value, that is the usefulness of an object. A house provides shelter, bread feeds us, when you cut your own hair and enjoy it there is use - value in that. When you start selling bread on the market or you open your own hair salon and start cutting other people's hair for a price on the open market, then bread and your hair dressing services become commodities. The prices of commodities are determined by the profit maximizing capitalist market.
A Street light on any one of our highways is not a commodity. It has use - value in that it provides light to motorists but it has no exchange value because it cannot be traded on the open market at a market price. Street lights are a public good that is provided for by the state.
Our aim must be to roll back the capitalist market by decommodifying basic needs, that is by addressing the factors that provide for the exchange - value from basic needs and have the state provide for basic needs as opposed to being traded on the capitalist market at market prices. We must decommodify higher education because higher education is a fundamental social right. It is not a piece of meat that one can buy at the supermarket. Higher education must not be a commodity whose price and availability is determined by the profit maximizing capitalist market. In Cuba, higher education has been decommodified and is a fundamental social right that is not determined by market prices. In Socialist Cuba, higher education is free because it has been decommodified. We must decommodify higher education in South Africa so that is becomes free for all in need.
The same logic can be applied to the land question. Simply passing laws that would allow for the expropriation of land with or without compensation is a misdiagnosis of the land question and at best a superficial prognosis. What is required is the decommodification of land from private property into a common good. As a common good, it must be converted into the property of the state represented by communities engaged in production. It cannot be privatized. Mao's political strategy in China which began in the 1930s offers an example of the successful implementation of the principle that agricultural land is not a commodity. Agricultural land was not privatized but remained the property of the state represented by village communes and by rural families. Land was therefore transformed into a common good (land of the village communities) and not a commodity. To address the land question in South Africa requires a transformation of the system of property relations on the land and the systematic decommodification of land into a common good.
Ultimately it is the commodification of social rights that represent one of the major disasters of Capitalism. A lesson from Das Kapital as we celebrate 150 years of a seminal masterpiece produced by Karl Marx.