Karl Marx’s concept of the commodity is simple: it’s anything that is produced to exchange for another thing. This exchange isn’t merely the trading of objects; it is a social relation in which all the labor which went into creating the two commodities is ultimately embodied as the value of both of these items. Marx also made it clear that both goods and services are commodities in Grundrisse with the example of the wandering tailor. The important aspects are that it took labor to produce and its primary purpose is exchange.
Marx’s critique of capitalism is built upon this and some other key criticisms. Capitalism’s primary contradiction is the socialization of production and the private allocation of the product and profit, for instance.
There has recently been a discourse about a cup of Starbucks coffee and the barista who makes it. I am not interested in the idea that the barista is a parasite, nor do I want to talk in-depth about whether their labor is “productive” or not. To me, productive and unproductive labor only matters in strategic calculation once a functioning revolutionary movement is built and it must be decided where to leverage power. In building such a movement, we shouldn't discriminate in that way; the more broad support we have the more chance we have of bringing in more labor that's potentially damaging to the bourgeoisie.
Further, to assert that the labor of creating physical commodities is the only way a worker can be “productive” ignores that many are operating necessary infrastructure that could easily be leveraged against the bourgeoisie if controlled – transportation workers come to mind. Just as well, some physical commodities do not matter at all in the maintaining of bourgeois rule. Novelty fart sound machines come to mind – if the workers who make those were to strike, the capitalist ruling class would not care.
To flag physical commodities as the sole result of truly “productive” labor can help creates the idea that one is simply buying a cup of coffee at Starbucks – and creates an argument about whether or not the labor to produce it is “productive,” a more or less meaningless distinction at this juncture. It creates the perception that the coffee itself necessitates the human labor going into it and that this transaction is simple. It is not; we exist in advanced imperial capitalism, a system that is built on decay; one that will repeatedly cycle through crises as it redraws boundaries to preserve itself.
It has complex ideologies that justify it, and they are at play when you go to Starbucks.
Yes, the physical cup of coffee is part of the commodity one is buying. But one can get coffee without having a person make it for you. One can get good coffee out of a machine at a gas station (not all of them, mind you) for a fraction of what one pays at a Starbucks. The social necessity of the labor the barista performs to create the coffee, then, is what we should consider.
It’s important to note that socially necessary labor is not “labor that is necessary for society to function,” as one might infer colloquially. It is the amount of labor (measured in time) necessary to create a commodity. While I do not want to imply that there is no such thing as artisan coffee a machine can not create, I want to say that most coffee made from refined ingredients could be put together by a machine (that is to say, the socially necessary labor to produce coffee is in the production of its ingredients). That machine (or several) could replace Starbucks for most customers. There could easily be a drive-thru machine that distributes coffee to people in cars. There could easily be several machines on a corner where a Starbucks used to be.
However, the product itself would be less profitable. Why? Well, put simply, one can’t arbitrarily set price. Price is derived from the exchange value of a commodity, and that value (as we noted at the beginning of this article) is derived from the commodity’s embodied labor.
Put simply, if Starbucks moved over to this machine model, they could not maintain their current prices – and therefore would have to accept reduced profits. If they did not, they would risk being undercut by someone else utilizing the same business model at a reduced price which actually reflects the labor going into the coffee. That competitor would also be at an advantage as it would have no productive forces to dismantle or offload. Remember, if it were suddenly not useful to have a coffee shop, everything in a coffee shop becomes outmoded.
What we are discussing is an example of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. As technology and technique advance, the amount of labor socially necessary to create a commodity decreases. Thus, the value of a commodity decreases.
As Rajani Palme Dutt wrote in 1934’s Fascism and Social Revolution, this creates a capitalist revolt against technology – what he called “the artificial limitation of production.”
“Today the tables are turned. It is no longer the bourgeoisie who are teaching the ignorant workers, displaced and starving in millions through the advance of machinery under capitalist conditions, the blessings and advantages of machinery in the abstract. On the contrary, the bourgeoisie, now that they no longer see rising profits through the advance of machinery, but instead see their whole position and rule more and more visibly menaced by its development, change their tune; they deplore the evils of the too rapid advance of machinery; their tone becomes increasingly one of hostility, fear and hatred to the machine. It is the working class who, despite their still heavy sufferings through the advance of the machine under capitalism, now become the conscious champions of the machine, recognising in it the powerful ally of their fight for a new order, and seeing with clear understanding its gigantic future beneficent role once it becomes liberated for social use under the leadership of the working class and in communist society”
Put simply, the artificial restriction of that (entirely technically possible) hypothetical “coffee machines instead of stores” business model is the artificial inflation of the value of a coffee through the injection of labor. The embodied labor is why Starbucks coffee has a high exchange value.
But the value isn’t in the manufacturing of the final product. Most people see Starbucks as overpriced and pretentious, yet they manage to swindle people out of their hard-earned cash for bean water. This is how we find that the cup of coffee itself is actually the secondary aspect of the commodity one is purchasing. The service is the primary one.
The service, however, isn’t simply the making of the coffee. In an advanced era of imperial capitalism justified by neoliberalism, we live extremely atomized, mediated, curated lives where people are funneled down various paths by various ideologies.
The service is actually an image-commodity, an aspect of Guy Debord’s critique in Society of The Spectacle. We are not buying the service of a worker making us something, we are buying the ideology – the perception – that a person is necessary for both the coffee itself and that our interactions with them are normal and human.
In reality, as my friend Fox Green of Space Commune put it in his article Deindustrialization and Fake Economy, the Starbucks barista is an actor in a play that the customer doesn’t realize they are watching – and to point this out is to break immersion.
This acting is not one of an artist, however; we might consider unalienated acting a “creative labor” (as we might consider all self-directed or collaborative labor). That said, the Starbucks barista is performing entirely alien labor.
Starbucks baristas are alienated from the product of their labor firstly in that they don’t even know what the product is. Most of them think their primary job is the making of coffee and that “The Experience” is just behavioral guidelines, but this couldn’t be further from the truth (as noted when we talked about the fact that their labor isn’t socially necessary to create the coffee). Now, even if they knew this, they couldn’t make choices about it; baristas are extensively trained and must adhere to these standards. The experience must be given; I have known people who have gone to work at Starbucks depressed and were sent home because of concern for The Experience. This product is created to spec and deviations are not allowed.
Starbucks baristas are alienated from the act of production in that they, again, don’t really know what they are doing. They are simply performing a repeating sequence of actions and have little idea of what the final product they are producing even is. In the same way a factory worker might press a button to drill a hole in a cylinder that is part of something bigger, the barista performs a strict set of behaviors thinking they are simply selling coffee.
The Experience is human interaction and the perception of the necessity of human labor, commodified. The image of communication, interaction, even closeness:
This man’s libidinal connection to his barista makes me recall older men waiting for Britney Spears to turn 18 back in the day. It’s creepy. It’s creepy for a different reason, though: the connection he has with this person is mediated through layers of pretense and falseness. He doesn’t actually have a connection with this person, he has a connection with a role this person is fulfilling.
That isn’t a criticism of the worker (nor is it an assertion these workers are not workers), it is a criticism of the job. A job that demeans and restricts a human being from exercising the creativity that separates us from “animals.” This person isn’t a parasite, they’re a servant of and a subject to the capitalist ruling class, as are all of us.
To artificially inflate the value of coffee, labor is artificially injected into it. Let’s hypothetically say it costs around 70¢ (including ingredients and labor) to make a $3.65 grande latte. That labor ideologically justifies Starbucks keeping $2.95. Now, let’s hypothetically say an equivalent machine coffee removes the labor and costs 30¢ to make and sells for $1. That is a 70¢ margin, significantly less (keeping in mind these are estimates).
It becomes obvious why they must find a way to include the labor in the commodity; it staves off the falling rate of profit. However, this is (as Dutt says) artificial.
The point should not be to point out what workers are good and which ones are bad. Instead, it should be to spread class consciousness and unite the workers. Everyone deserves more. We deserve an economy that is built on benefiting us, the people. We deserve to resolve the contradiction of socialized production with the private allocation of product and profit. We deserve abundance.
When someone wants to make artisanal coffee for people, it shouldn’t be a detriment for them to do so. It shouldn’t be a demeaning job that takes away their choice and dictates their expression of humanity. It should be unalienated, creative labor that we are free to engage in.
Reducing the amount of embodied labor for things like coffee? It’s actually a step towards that rather than away. The capitalists want to artificially limit the productive forces, because they want to remain in control. We must unite and build against this.
A new, socially owned and operated mode of production would unleash the productive forces, create immense wealth for everyone and free the human mind to live to its full potential.
I promise that will result in better coffee.
Peter Coffin is a video essayist (Very Important Documentaries), podcaster (PACD), and author. Relatable humor and a commitment to everyday people keeps their perspective fresh, fun, and most importantly sharp.