My ignorance of the debate over the value-form is catching up with me -- not an easy task since I am totally rushing around frantically busy and over-extended these days; really, I feel like I don't have time to think, read, or reflect. Even flights are times for class-prep, grading, and reviewing articles rather than reading on my own (this is not entirely true -- I have been reading about crowds in preparation for a talk in November, but I am afraid that I will not have had time to read what I need to write something new for this and if I think about it too much my anxiety escalates unmanageably). I tried to squeeze in a little reading of some of the value-form debate. Below is an excerpt of a piece that appeared in Endnotes with my initial thoughts about it.
The (Anti-)Politics of Value Theory
The critical import of value-form theory is that it calls into question any political conception based on the affirmation of the proletariat as producer of value. It recognises Marx’s work as an essentially negative critique of capitalist society. In reconstructing the Marxian dialectic of the value-form, it demonstrates how the social life process is subsumed under — or “form-determined” by — the value-form. What characterises such “form-determination” is a perverse priority of the form over its content. Labour does not simply pre-exist its objectification in the capitalist commodity as a positive ground to be liberated in socialism or communism through the alteration of its formal expression. Rather, in a fundamental sense value — as the primary social mediation — pre-exists and thus has a priority over labour. As Chris Arthur argues:
At the deepest level, the failure of the tradition that uses the model of “simple commodity production”, is that it focuses on the human individual as the originator of value relationships, rather than viewing human activities as objectively inscribed within the value form… In truth, however, the law of value is imposed on people through the effectivity of a system with capital at its heart, capital that subordinates commodity production is the aim of valorisation and it is the real subject (identified as such by Marx) confronting us.53
While it seems true and politically effective54 to say that we produce capital by our labour, it is actually more accurate to say (in a world that really is topsy turvy) that we, as subjects of labour, are produced by capital. Socially necessary labour time is the measure of value only because the value-form posits labour as its content. In a society no longer dominated by alienated social forms — no longer orientated around the self-expansion of abstract wealth — the compulsion to labour which characterises the capitalist mode of production will disappear.55 With value, abstract labour disappears as a category. The reproduction of individuals and their needs becomes an end in itself. Without the categories of value, abstract labour and the wage, “labour” would cease to have its systematic role as determined by the primary social mediation: value.
This is why value-form theory points, in terms of the notion of revolution that follows from it, in the same direction as communisation. The overcoming of capitalist social relations cannot involve a simple “liberation of labour”; rather, the only “way out” is the suppression of value itself — of the value-form which posits abstract labour as the measure of wealth.
JD: There is something appealing in an emphasis that suggests an alternative approach to wealth. It would allow natural resources, inefficient talent, cultivated craft, and reproductive and caring labor to appear as valuable. None would be reinserted into a labor theory of value. Further, we can talk about the value of communicative acts without having to insert them into an account of labor into which they don't fit particularly well.
At the same time, there is something here that feels elite and surgical, like an extraction or excision of workers and their productive labor. It's like the people who matter, in their material work and lives, somehow don't matter anymore. It's as if the real movement of people as the actuality of communism is jettisoned. My discomfort here is part and parcel with my dislike of emphases on alienation and reification. Those seem designed to show how capitalists are also trapped and oppressed, how everyone is caught in a bad system. I don't buy it. I think that there are elites who benefit from the system, who like the system, and who even if they are somewhat alienated would gladly pay for their privilege with a little alienation. In fact, I think complete disalientation is an illusion.
In the note corresponding to the sentence with the phrase 'compulsion to labor,' the gloss associates labor done out of necessity (to eat) is not compulsion but free labor. This strikes me as the precisely the opposite of free labor. Labor done out of compulsion is the labor we have to do to survive and to survive at a certain societal level.
The most crucial theoretical claim appears to be "Labour does not simply pre-exist its objectification in the capitalist commodity as a positive ground to be liberated in socialism or communism through the alteration of its formal expression." The sentence that follows asserts that value--as the primary social mediation-- has a priority over labor. I take 'primary social mediation' to be another way of referring to the social substance crystalized in value, that is, the historically sedimented relations that underlie the abstract labor congealed in the value form. I'm not sure what priority means, though, unless the point is just that under capitalism there isn't first an individual who works and then the exploitation of that person, but that seems so obvious as to be unnecessary to assert (I must be missing the point). In part, I don't get how the point quoted from Chris Arthur affirms the claim preceding it. Arthur implies an individualism underlying Marxian discussions of labor. I don't see that. The entire point is to emphasize that one appears individualistically in bourgeois thought is already and essentially social and collective. There is nothing individual about individual labor.
I also wonder about abstraction. Maybe there is a real advance in abstraction (I think Alberto Toscano and Slavoj Zizek have arguments in this direction). So the good thing about the value form is that it equates different kinds of labor in the form of abstract labor power. The problem with capitalism is that it doesn't go far enough in this direction. Instead, hedge fund managers are somehow more valuable than school teachers or factory laborers. Uneven equalization is thus equalization as the proletarianization of the rest of us while the very, very few at the top are unique, singular, and super-rich. It's like the long-tail (power-law, 80/20 rule) version of employment. I don't think, then, that the equalization I support would count as abolishing the value form. I think it would be better describing as realizing it (in keeping with the already ongoing liberation of labor from the commodity form via unpaid labor).