The Poverty of Philosophy
M. Proudhon opposes the free buyer to the free producer. To the one and to the other he attributes purely metaphysical qualities. It is this that makes him say:
"It is proved that it is man's free will that gives rise to the opposition between use value and exchange value."
The producer, the moment he produces in a society founded on the division of labor and on exchange (and that is M. Proudhon's hypothesis), is forced to sell. M. Proudhon makes the producer master of the means of production; but he will agree with us that his means of production do not depend on free will. Moreover, many of these means of production are products which he gets from the outside, and in modern production he is not even free to produce the amount he wants. The actual degree of development of the productive forces compels him to produce on such or such a scale.
The consumer is no freer than the producer. His judgment depends on his means and his needs. Both of these are determined by his social position, which itself depends on the whole social organization. True, the worker who buys potatoes and the kept woman who buys lace both follow their respective judgments. But the difference in their judgements is explained by the difference in the positions which they occupy in the world, and which themselves are the product of social organization.
Is the entire system of needs on estimation or on the whole organization of production? Most often, needs arise directly from production or from a state of affairs based on production. Thus, to choose another example, does not the need for lawyers suppose a given civil law which is but the expression of a certain development of property, that is to say, of production?
It is not enough for M. Proudhon to have eliminated the elements just mentioned from the relation of supply and demand. He carries abstraction to the furthest limits when he fuses all producers into one single producer, all consumers into one single consumer, and sets up a struggle between these two chimerical personages. But in the real world, things happen otherwise. The competition among the suppliers and the competition among the demanders form a necessary part of the struggle between buyers and sellers, of which marketable value is the result.
The very moment civilization begins, production begins to be founded on the antagonism of orders, estates, classes, and finally on the antagonism of accumulated labor and actual labor. No antagonism, no progress. This is the law that civilization has followed up to our days. Till now the productive forces have been developed by virtue of this system of class antagonisms. To say now that, because all the needs of all the workers were satisfied, men could devote themselves to the creation of products of a higher order — to more complicated industries — would be to leave class antagonism out of account and turn all historical development upside down. It is like saying that because, under the Roman emperors, muraena were fattened in artificial fishponds, therefore there was enough to feed abundantly the whole Roman population. Actually, on the contrary, the Roman people had not enough to buy bread with, while the Roman aristocrats had slaves enough to throw as fodder to the muraena.
The price of food has almost continuously risen, while the price of manufactured and luxury goods has almost continuously fallen. Take the agricultural industry itself; the most indispensable objects, like corn, meat, etc., rise in price, while cotton, sugar, coffee, etc., fall in a surprising proportion. And even among comestibles proper, the luxury articles, like artichokes, asparagus, etc., are today relatively cheaper than foodstuffs of prime necessity. In our age, the superfluous is easier to produce than the necessary. Finally, at different historical epochs, the reciprocal price relations are not only different, but opposed to one another. In the whole of the Middle Ages, agricultural products were relatively cheaper than manufactured products; in modern times they are in inverse ratio. Does this mean that the utility of agricultural products has diminished since the Middle Ages?
The use of products is determined by the social conditions in which the consumers find themselves placed, and these conditions themselves are based on class antagonism.
Cotton, potatoes and spirits are objects of the most common use. Potatoes have engendered scrofula; cotton has to a great extent driven out flax and wool, although wool and flax are, in many cases, of greater utility, if only from the point of view of hygiene; finally, spirits have got the upper hand of beer and wine, although spirits used as an alimentary substance are everywhere recognized to be poison. For a whole century, governments struggled in vain against the European opium; economics prevailed, and dictated its orders to consumption.
Why are cotton, potatoes and spirits the pivots of bourgeois society? Because the least amount of labor is needed to produce them, and, consequently, they have the lowest price. Why does the minimum price determine the maximum consumption? Is it by any chance because of the absolute utility of these objects, their intrinsic utility, their utility insomuch as they correspond, in the most useful manner, in the needs of the worker as a man, and not to the man as a worker? No, it is because in a society founded on poverty the poorest products have the fatal prerogative of being used by the greatest number.
To say now that because the least costly things are in greater use, they must be of greater utility, is saying that the wide use of spirits, because of their low cost of production, is the most conclusive proof of their utility; it is telling the proletarian that potatoes are more wholesome for him than meat; it is accepting the present state of affairs; it is, in short, making an apology, with M. Proudhon, for a society without understanding it.
In a future society, in which class antagonism will have ceased, in which there will no longer be any classes, use will no longer be determined by the minimum time of production; but the time of production devoted to different articles will be determined by the degree of their social utility.
Abstracts from Chapter Two