I've been working steadily on the manuscript on digital commodities. It was far from obvious to me that travel would really be compatible with writing, but so far I've been pleasantly surprised. In spite of, or maybe because of, the vagaries of meals, laundry, shopping, taxis, water, heat, humidity, bugs and all the other unexpected tedium and adventure that travel brings, I have been writing steadily.
I've run afoul of one passage in Marx, though, that is troubling me. So I'm going to post the passage here along with some thoughts in the hopes that some kind readers may donate a comment or two to help nudge me along in the right direction.
The passage is from the end of the first section of Chapter One of Capital, Volume I where Marx writes:
A thing can be useful, and a product of human labour, without being a commodity. He who satisfies his own need with the product of his own labour admittedly creates use-values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use-values, but use-values for others, social use-values (And not merely for others. The medieval peasant produced a corn-rent for the feudal lord and a corn-tithe for the priest; but neither the corn-rent nor the corn-tithe became commodities simply by being produced for others. In order to become a commodity, the product must be transferred to the other person, for whom it serves as a use-value, through the medium of exchange). (131)My aim is to write about the ways digital commodities (like an mp3 song for example) fail to fit easily within the boundaries of commodity production as they are usually drawn and then use this as a way to approach some of the recent haggling over things like digital copyright and online piracy. This passage seems directly relevant. Yet it also seems to run the danger of derailing the whole project by defining digital commodities as outside of the bounds of commodity production from the very outset. I would like a graceful way to discuss this bind.
What I think I need to say here, only in clear and persuasive language, is that: Digital commodities always run the risk of no longer being commodities because they always carry with them the possibility of changing hands in ways other than by exchange on the market. Digital commodities get spread by peer-to-peer networks, or emailed, downloaded, or given away freely online in any number of other ways. In each of these cases the digital commodity remains a useful product of human labor, but when spread outside of market exchange it no longer functions as a commodity. It no longer serves to accumulate surplus-value for capital.
The place where I balk is where I find myself writing that "digital commodities" cease to be "commodities." This seems unnecessarily ugly to me. Perhaps I'm just being too squeamish though. Marxian theory can surely accommodate yet one more awkward bit of prose. Or perhaps there's some other mistake I'm making here that I'm not seeing.
Part of the trouble I'm having may simply lie in the parenthetical. It was inserted by Engels later on and sometimes I find his helpful comments less than helpful. However, his addition is certainly right, so I really ought to be able to accommodate his feudalism example too.
Enough for now. Comments welcome.