Nia Frome

So you’ve decided you want to abolish the value-form. Now what?

There’s an ongoing debate within Marx studies over what’s called “Marx’s labor theory of value.” According to some, it’s an empirical and predictive law about prices that can be verified using quantitative methods — let’s call this tendency empirical Marxism. According to others, Marx did not share such a Ricardian theory of value, but instead overcame it, or even exploded it. On their view, abstract labor, the substance of value, is “a real abstraction”; what’s most interesting about Marx’s theory is not that it predicts prices (it doesn’t) or that it can be empirically verified (it can’t) but that it addresses “the question [of] why this content [labor] has assumed that particular form [value].” [1] This tendency is known as value-form theory (or value-criticism, or the new reading of Marx, to give three somewhat non-identical designations). In contrast to the empirical Marxists, who tend to be more Keynesian and pragmatic, value-form theory (VFT) tends to be more utopian and philosophical. It reproaches the empirical Marxists for worrying only about surplus value, i.e. exploitation, and not about the fact of generalized commodity production, which VFTers view as inherently at odds with human flourishing. On their account, the contradiction between use value and value is the fundamental contradiction at work in Capital, and communism requires we overcome it.

Let’s allow that there is something problematic about commodity production beyond just surplus value extraction, i.e. communism is not simply worker co-ops operating in a market economy. This point at least must be conceded to the VFTers. Even if we accept it, though, it’s not obvious what we’re supposed to do with it. Abolish commodity production? Okay, if you say so — what does that look like? To the key figures of VFT, one thing is clear: it does not look like really existing socialism, which remains lamentably Ricardian in its outlook. But how do they know? What makes them so sure?

Michael Heinrich, one of the school’s leading lights, writes that “Abstract labor is a relation of social validation (Geltungsverhältnis) that is constituted in exchange.” [2] This emphasis on exchange as the exact moment of validation or realization is the key point that distinguishes Heinrich’s view from that of the empirical Marxists, for whom value is created in production, full stop. According to Heinrich, generalized commodity exchange is a particular regime of social validation. Yet there is obviously something deficient or perverse about the way this regime works. It’s not like we criticize capitalism because it’s doing such a great job getting everybody the recognition they need or deserve. I therefore propose to call its constrained and imperfect form of validation “(mis)recognition.” The parentheses are meaningful: “misrecognition” typically refers to something that is simply bad, whereas I want to emphasize two-sidedness. The term is meant to capture the way that value really does work as a kind of mirror of our own productive activity (we give and receive social validation, of a kind; we come to understand ourselves through it) but one that at the same time is distorting, insufficient, and misleading.

“Value = (mis)recognition” works as an extremely concise summary of Marx’s argument in Capital. Needless to say, Marx believes this (mis)recognition has catastrophic consequences. One of his primary goals is to show that capitalism is only a particular regime of social validation rather than the necessary form any successful regime of social validation must take (as the political economists would have it). Under previous modes of production, non-capitalist regimes of social validation, I produced use values. I was able to recognize my intention objectified in the products of my labor. If I didn’t consume them myself, they might be used by my family or my tribe, or go as tribute to some ruler, all of which yield social validation. Even a child’s ingratitude drives home the meaning and singularity of my work (as precisely that which the child fails to recognize).

The transition to capitalist production can be understood as a process of alienation (I cease to recognize myself in my product), or as the onset of specifically capitalist exploitation (My labor is put to a purpose that is alien to it: the accumulation of surplus value). In either case, my access to social validation now comes to be mediated by commodity exchange, a capricious ferryman.

Under capitalism, my social validation arrives as a paycheck. If I’m lucky, I can look at it and say to myself “Yes, that does correspond to the number of hours I spent on the clock, but…” There’s been a huge loss of information. The market’s mediation throttles the bandwidth of social validation. I see my labor reflected in a clouded mirror, darkly. Value, like its substance, abstract labor, is one-dimensional. This makes it ideal for optimizing. My boss ignores everything that makes me unique and counts me only as a productive asset netting him x dollars’ worth per month. This is what makes my existence so precarious — unless I represent a good investment, something that only the market can decide, I’m out on my ass. For his part, my boss can exert himself in any number of ways to make a better product or do right by his employees, but his individuality earns social validation only insofar as he empties himself out and becomes a vessel, an avatar, of capital. Generalized commodity production — that is, the coordination of independent producers via prices — implies constant (mis)recognition for both workers and capitalists.

Such conditions select for some loathsome creatures: firms (Gollum!).

Each firm in a capitalist society jealously hoards information (Gollum!). It seeks its own benefit to the exclusion of all others’ — grasping, paranoid, and obsessed (Gollum!). As a worker, I have no choice but to enlist in some firm’s vile war effort if I want social validation. This means taking up its profit-obsession as my own, viewing myself through its green lamp-like eyes (Gollum!), along the single axis of abstract labor. My efforts disappear into those of the collective, the only unifying principle of which is (Gollum!) the compulsion to accumulate. And of course my boss (Gollum!) mistakes those efforts as his own (“It was a birthday present”).

But what does the death (or the withering away) of commodity exchange, and thus value, look like? Hans-Georg Backhaus, another VFTer, emphasizes Marx’s explanation, in the Grundrisse, of commodity exchange by “the fact that [the producers] stand as independent private persons simultaneously in social connection.” [3] Our labors are only socialized after the fact, in the marketplace, because they aren’t socialized any earlier. This is what gives rise to the whole problem of (mis)recognition. Assuming communism doesn’t herald the end of social connection, the end of commodity exchange must mean the end of producers standing as independent private persons. Independence and privacy are the sine qua non of Gollumhood. You develop an antisocial fixation like profit-obsession in the cold dark of the Misty Mountains, hidden away from the light of day. Sméagol had to kill Déagol before he could become Gollum.

What replaces independence and privacy? It’s tempting to answer, glibly: interdependence and transparency. Here the problem of transition rears its head. Regardless of how well I can describe the end goal (a completely decommodified economy, a perfectly tame Sméagol) what can be said about the process of becoming-interdependent, or becoming-transparent? How does (mis)recognition pass over into recognition?

To find myself socially validated by others means that I am embedded in some kind of network. If this network is decommodified, then it is direct, interpersonal. The status quo of petty fiefdoms and thingly relations between producers cannot be overcome unless these new direct ties cut across the divisions between firms. Ideally these should introduce an adulterant into the firm’s decision-making: some notion of the common good. But how can this be assured? What kind of information flows along these direct connections, and what is their nature?

It is customary in modern times to assume that the common good cannot be deduced by some philosopher-king, but must be arrived at democratically, through a deliberation in which all stakeholders are at least nominally represented. This allows us to distinguish between two types of connections: those that are subordinated to democracy, and those that aren’t. If we’re trying to promote the spread of the former, we must rely on the individual links themselves to carry out this mission. They must, in other words, be channels of democratic authority. If we call that part of society where democracy is most concentrated “the Party,” then it wouldn’t be a stretch to call these “party cells” or “branches.” As representatives of the public interest it is their job to see to it that the firm’s will bends towards the common good.

But perhaps this puts too much responsibility on our double agents. Undoing the law of value means inducing firms to do things that are unprofitable but serve the general interest. How much easier it would be to de-privatize firms’ decision-making if we had some control over prices! As long as the market continues to play a role in social validation (and it won’t disappear overnight), any new validation scheme trying to impose itself will have to find some accommodation with the ferryman. Ideally it will bully him, but wherever it can’t, it may resort to bribery. The surest way to undermine the independence of firms is to obtain such a commanding position in the economy that every firm depends on you. This renders them dependent, and transparency follows directly: just demand ever-stricter audits of anyone who wants to do business with you. The independence and privacy of the firm is eroded from within (by our double agents) and from without (as firms are leashed by elven rope). Abolishing commodity exchange means replacing commodity-mediated (mis)recognition with a regime of direct social validation that dissolves the integrity of firms, just as a fungal growth spreads from one tree to another.

This is a lovely picture, but isn’t it all rather gradualist? It would be, but for one fact: none of the above can be achieved as long as the state is capitalist. Force is decisive in maintaining the privileged position of the market as supreme mediator of social validation. The most important aspect of this force is its prophylactic effect, its threatening aura, but it is also used sporadically and spectacularly to restore the conditions of capitalist reproduction. Abolishing value, then, is contingent on building an overwhelming social force that is capable of setting the terms of social reproduction. There’s no other way for the independence and privacy of firms, the material basis of value — that is, generalized (mis)recognition — to be called into question and ultimately replaced. The contest for political power must be decided in socialism’s favor. Finding ourselves equal to this task is therefore the first step on the road to genuine social recognition, i.e. communism.

tl;dr: Even VFT premises, if taken seriously, imply Dengist conclusions.

  1. Karl Marx, 1867. Capital, Vol. 1. Part 1, Ch. 1, Section 4: The Fetishism of the Commodities and the Secret Thereof. [web] 

  2. Michael Heinrich, 2004. An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital. p. 50. [web] 

  3. Hans-Georg Backhaus, 1980-01. On the Dialectics of the Value-Form. p. 113. DOI: 10.1177/072551368000100108.