23 May 2013

Value and Politics

What is "value?" People are aware and argue about "values," in the plural, all the time. Not as many are aware of the fact that value, as such, exists, and that it is actually the deep motivating dynamic of the form of society we call capitalism.

For those interested in the question of value and how it relates to concrete politics, we post the link below. It is a transcript of a panel discussion on that topic that was recently held at the 2013 Platypus International Convention in Chicago, and in which one of the writers from Permanent Crisis participated. It provides a schematic take on some of the underlying theoretical premises of this blog, and of the politics that it is trying, however fitfully, to articulate. If that sounds edifying to you, read on!



  1. I like the philosophical bent of this discussion where Postone's contribution is central. The important thing is to give it a cutting edge, and not get lost in a kind of metaphysics. I totally agree with Jamie's idea that only by analyzing the technoeconomic evolution of the current form of capitalism can we understand and work with the subjectivities it produces, including one's own by the way. In my view that would include - to take just one example - the whole network of dependencies between diverse forms of labor and leisure, with their supporting technologies, organizational forms, modes of distribution, financing and all the rest. There's a chance to make concrete connections in that way, between each person's private utopia (the ambiguous use-value that Postone talks about) and the massive determinisms of the production system. Yet still it looks like the only time when the critique of capitalism gets serious, and extends beyond the perpetual tiny minority of revolutionaries, is times like now when the violence of the system shows itself and affects people directly as individuals reduced to classes. The you get an intuition of the social totality on a massive scale.

    Theory has to become praxis in these times. I like it when Jamie says: "We would have to think in terms of reforms *for* revolution: How can we reform the financial system in a way that makes investment possible for public projects, that gets more people back to work, that reduces the level of structural unemployment? We need to accomplish that, as it will allow people to glimpse past the horizon of capitalism, which was once possible, but is now exceedingly rare on a mass scale." I'd just go a little further and say the question is how to get as many people as possible, not back to work, but forward into a kind of production-distribution-communication that actually opens a pathway across the theoretical horizon of capitalism. That's what impresses me in the way people - at lest a few people - are thinking in Spain right now. Use the necessary political negotiations of the crisis to expand and deepen the spaces of self-organization built up over the last twenty years. Make those "alternative" or "exceptional" spaces, like squatted social centers, hacklabs, self-produced cultural circuits and so forth, into the sites of a much more complex and difficult transformation of basic social norms. That means opening up, shedding some theoretical purity without forgetting where you're going.

  2. Thanks for the comments! I of course agree completely that getting lost in high-falutin' metaphysical discussions isn't going to help anyone. I also share your observation that it's times like these, when the brutality and destructiveness of the system is seemingly laid bare, that tend to radicalize or politicize large numbers of people. I think part of the motivation of the piece comes from observing the continually simmering yet uncertain situation in the U.S. On the one hand, there's some truly unprecedented and exciting stuff happening, like a serious drive to organize the fast-food industry in the major cities, a certain revival of "the strike" as a tactic in a variety of venues (Fight for 15, the Chicago Teachers' Union strike from last summer), and an ongoing national campaign to render WalMart a little less barbaric in their attitude towards their workers. But on the other hand, efforts like these have remained rather scattershot in terms of consciousness. The struggles that have kicked off since the end of #Occupy have been fairly sectional in their outlook, without much of the "totality" coming into view. So the question I'm trying to think through is, basically, what would it take to unify these disparate actions, groups, and mobilizations within a common trajectory of struggle?

    In the embattled parts of the Eurozone it seems to be a bit different, as the scope of social devastation is so deep and hostility towards the financial system so palpable that some view of the totality or system appears to be central to many of the struggles against austerity there, at least in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and maybe France, though it's true that sometimes the anger and frustration can also center on Germany as the primary antagonist, rather than the Eurozone and the global system of which it's a part.

    Lastly, there's a major obstacle that we face in the states during protracted periods of stagnation, such as this, which is the demoralization and self-stigmatization that can come with long-term unemployment. In the piece I emphasized the need to combat unemployment because this stigmatization and its negative psychological effects are a perverse result of mass unemployment in the U.S. in the age of neoliberalism, instead of anger and indignation towards the failing system. On some level the message just needs to get out there to the dozens of millions who are un- or underemployed that this condition is not their fault, that it is capitalism that is failing, that it needs to be changed/abolished, and so on. But I don't think solving this kind of problem can be done through an ideological campaign alone, and if we want to politicize a political subject with the size and force to abolish capital, we may have to fundamentally alter the so-called "material conditions" first.

  3. Hmm. It's not sure a new cycle of accumulation would produce the conditions for an antagonism toward capital. What's more, I reckon we're in the middle of a long downturn, comparable to theThirties which dragged on in confusion and ideological rivalry for a full five years *after* the decisive steps taken by the Roosevelt administration in its first 100 days. In the case of the Thirties, the outcome was ultimately disastrous from a left perspective. What went wrong? What kind of strategy could avoid disastrous consequences today?

    I think the word ideology should be understood as describing material, operational forms which articulate society in times of systemic coherency, but which people must invent anew in times of crisis. This "invention" can never just be arbitrary. Instead, it’s a productive and relational logic that has to function in the present while promising and actually *showing the path* toward a much wider deployment in the future. That's the meaning of the brilliant Gramsci text that you quoted at the Platypus event (I guess it's only on the recording). That quote, also recently used by Gopal Balakrishnan, was from the early Thirties. I would give it at greater length, to preserve its forward-looking content:

    "A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves (reached maturity), and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts (since no social formation will ever admit that it has been superseded) form the terrain of the ‘conjunctural’, and it is upon this terrain that the forces of opposition organize. These forces seek to demonstrate that the necessary and sufficient conditions already exist to make possible, and hence imperative, the accomplishment of certain historical tasks (imperative, because any falling short before a historical duty increases the necessary disorder, and prepares more serious catastrophes). (The demonstration in the last analysis only succeeds and is ‘true’ if it becomes a new reality, if the forces of opposition triumph; in the immediate, it is developed in a series of ideological, religious, philosophical, political and juridical polemics, whose concreteness can be estimated by the extent to which they are convincing, and shift the previously existing disposition of social forces.)"


    Gramsci distinguishes between the organic and the conjuctural. Today, like the Thirties, we are in an organic crisis. Finance capitalism can no longer successfully articulate the Euro-American social order in its relations to the global social process, and what's happening as a result is a major shift in the class structure. Notably, a collapse of the former middle classes. What I think - and we could really debate this point - is that the shift of the focus of economic growth to Asia also means the fulfilment and curtailment of the productive potentials that were developed by the American middle classes. That development unfolded gradually since the late 19th century, and it transformed bourgeois Europe after WWII. This fulfillment and curtailment of a historical potential is what Gramsci is getting at when he quotes Marx from the famous preface to the Critique of Political Economy: "No social formation is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society."

    (continues below...)

  4. However, I think Gramsci's view is less millenarian than Marx's. Gramsci saw that the suggle of the Thirties - between Fascism, Communism and Liberalism - was a struggle over the operational ideology that would articulate Taylorist mass production. Gramsci saw the Thirties as what we would now call a regulation crisis, which is about creating the steering mechanisms for a given set of productive forces. So what is the struggle over today? What are the productive forces? What kinds of steering mechanisms are being proposed? It is not at all clear. By and large, we are lost in the conjunctural.

    I think the strategic thing that left intellectuals could do today - *could* do, because it is hardly being done - is bring to awareness the implicit struggle and build up the better side of it, both ideologically and operationally, as a praxis. The struggle as I see it (another great subject for debate) is between a competitive, authoritarian, accumulationist management of the new productive toolkit of code-driven technologies (networked communications, automation, bio- and nanotech, etc) and an egalitarian, democratic, ecological steering of those same productive forces, which in part are still emergent. This struggle is happening, now. Many people already sense somewhat intuitively that the US and Chinese security states represent a bid to orchestrate and impose a global, hi-tech corporate order piloted by the new class of the super-rich. They are beginning to realize that there are few entry tickets to this new order and that everything that has to do with welfare, territorial development, local culture and ways of coping with climate change is just off the books. That vague sense needs a name, it needs to be encapsulated in a clear analysis of present trends, and against it there needs to be another ideology, a promise that builds on existing realities and opens a path to a different development of the new productive forces.

    Social cooperation facilitiated by networks, bottom-up management of common goods and potentials according to subsidiarity principles (government by the smallest appropriate scale), a return to public educational provision and research geared to the production of green technologies that can be used internationally for co-development processes: there are all ideas with some immediate foundations in US social realities (and you could add a few more levels of common goods and public services in Europe). If left intellectuals want to shape the next redployment of capitalism, we have several years to work on such ideas and make them into a new common sense. And we can do that - or we could, anyway - because of the tremendous suspicion and distrust that now exists toward neoliberal capitalism, whose devastating effects on people's life chances are now clear.

    The point of all this is that the incipient program sketched out above is both realizable and tendentially anti-capitalist, in that it points toward a socialization of productive processes that turns them away from the current norms of competition, overaccumulation and so-called creative destruction. I would offer that perspective as a follow-up to the last lines in your edited text, which I really appreciated by the way:

    "Negativity will exist as long as capitalist society, in all its internal and manifest contradictions, exists; it is immanent to it. But it is up to leftists and progressives to channel that negativity in a direction that would implicate capital and bring it into perspective as an impersonal system of domination whose abolition would benefit everyone, and the Left must do so before such negativity is turned toward darker, right-wing trajectories."

  5. First, let me say that that Gramsci quotation you cited has basically been the point of departure for much of my thinking since the crisis kicked off in 2008. It presents a riddle that needs to be unpacked for our current moment, and I think your exposition of it is spot on.

    That said, I have a few comments about what you said, much of which I agree with.

    "It's not sure that a new cycle of accumulation would produce the conditions for an antagonism toward capital."

    Now that's true, but I'm not arguing that a reconstitution of accumulation would of necessity lead to a massive and decisive confrontation with capital. Ultimately, any such confrontation would be the outcome of exactly the dynamics you're describing: a cogent ideological alternative to the currently obtaining dysfunctional organization of the apparatus of production that is made possible by that very apparatus, by the productive potentials it contains within it and the immanent possibility it represents of abolishing alienated labor for all people once and for all. But, provided one accepts the argument that alienated labor needs to be overcome as a necessary condition to overcoming capitalism, what would it really mean to abolish that form of labor?

    The rationale for thinking transitionally, which (understandably) often meets with resistance, lies ultimately in the problem of value, which is inextricable from the problem of alienated labor. For Marx, every aspect of "work" as we know it - its material and physical characteristics, its often fragmented, stultifying nature, the way it is mediated by technology, its dispersion into a social division of labor with all manner of jobs that would be useless or undesirable in a non-capitalist society - all of these aspects are molded by the value-form, that is, by the ongoing drive of capital to extract surplus value from human labor even as it renders that form of labor increasingly superfluous through its exponential leaps in productive capacity. This contradiction between the imperative to produce value and productivity, or between living labor and dead labor, is the motivational core of capitalism as a dynamic and crisis-ridden historical formation.

    Here's the rub: if all proletarian labor in the current moment is a historical product of capital and thus indelibly shaped by the value form, if the labor process is inextricably tied to and formed by the valorization process of capital, then it follows that we cannot just "take over" the technical-productive apparatus in its currently existing form to harness its power for human ends. This is what I think Gramsci missed, in spite of his brilliance: unless we abolish value-producing labor, and hence alienated labor, then we have not abolished the historical dynamic of capital, and accumulation will necessarily go on as before. Production itself has to be reimagined and reconstructed, not just reorganized. Not understanding this played a major role in the fate of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, whose architects presumed that we could just do away with private property and we'd have socialism. Unfortunately, it's not that simple (not that eliminating private property didn't take some serious doing, of course). But this is the depth of the problem.

    If all this is true, and if we really can't afford to do away with Marx's notion of value – which, given the history of the twentieth century, I don't know how we could – then it follows that the abolition of capital would be the abolition of value on a global scale. Surveying the political landscape at the moment, it's very hard to imagine how this could be done from within neoliberalism, predicated as it is upon the exclusion of massive portions of the world population from the circulation of capital. Hence the appeal of the transitional argument and of Global Neo-Fordism as a concept.

  6. The promise of international cooperation in the research and development of something like green technologies remains only an empty promise as long as capital is doubling down on ecologically destructive new types of fossil fuels, which, at least partly, is still strongly motivated by geopolitical competition over energy resources. Global neo-Fordism could provide a stage to mitigate the competition over energy resources insofar as, if it were achieved, it would entail a major new phase of capital investment in parts of the world that are currently starving for it (literally), and would produce a much more even global balance of power. Anyway this is sheer speculation at this point, but this is one sense in which the transition to a different form of society might be an answer to a perpetual problem the left faces in the present: we can see the amazing immanent potential, for the whole world, of the currently existing productive forces, but how do we come to be in a position to influence how capital directs them?

    So I think the alternative you envision between competing “steering models” for the newly emerging productive forces of automation, networks, and code-driven technologies is important, and these technologies do represent emergent possibilities for social organization and cooperative forms of production that we need to think through and also thematize from a left perspective. But if we exclude value from the equation, we risk losing sight of the deep interdependency of the various parts of the global economy with one another, and if we operationalize a political strategy on the basis of that oversight, then we put ourselves at risk of major, and perhaps disastrous, unforeseen consequences. Anti-capitalism, in the last analysis, has to be internationally articulated and must target production itself to have any chance at really abolishing capital.

    Really though, in the end the only thing that I completely agree with and that I'm certain of is that we need to think about articulating a “new common sense” that channels the negativity that is immanent to capital toward radical and progressive trajectories. In that sense Gramsci's forward-looking insight is as relevant as ever, and it's up to us to figure out how to operationalize it. So we are definitely on the same page there.

  7. "Here's the rub: if all proletarian labor in the current moment is a historical product of capital and thus indelibly shaped by the value form, if the labor process is inextricably tied to and formed by the valorization process of capital, then it follows that we cannot just "take over" the technical-productive apparatus in its currently existing form to harness its power for human ends."

    Totally agree. And for me, the point of working toward the kind of transition that I was briefly sketching out, is exactly to move in that direction, beyond the accumulation of exchange value and beyond the very concept and form of labor that is predicated on it. I think that has to be done as praxis.

    What I still don't get - despite having read quite a bit of this blog - is the definition of neo-Fordism, or the vision of it, or whatever. Is it covered in detail somewhere? Seems pretty essential to a further conversation!

  8. This is a new idea that we've only just begun working out, so it's really underdeveloped. It's more like a research program than a fully worked out concept at this point. The rationale for something like "Neo Fordism," as I understand it, is grounded more in what appear to be the limitations for praxis within the present formation of capital, rather than in any putative virtues of the idea in its own right, which remain almost entirely speculative at this point. Some of the other guys on this blog probably have a clearer conception of it than I can offer, so hopefully we'll get some more participants in this discussion, or a post that deals with it, to take it further.

  9. "The struggle as I see it (another great subject for debate) is between a competitive, authoritarian, accumulationist management of the new productive toolkit of code-driven technologies (networked communications, automation, bio- and nanotech, etc) and an egalitarian, democratic, ecological steering of those same productive forces, which in part are still emergent."

    I think this is a very interesting idea, I'd like to hear more along these lines. One of the gaps in what we've developed on the blog is any serious analysis of the shape of production in the near future. It raises some questions for me though. First, I'm not sure the first alternative is capable of generating accumulation, because I don't see how it solves the problem of realizing value,which is currently crippling aggregate demand. Second, is the latter possibility post-capitalist or not? If not, then it would, of course, also have to be "accumulationist".

    This is one way to start talking about neo-Fordism. The crisis of a declining economy is the worst possible opportunity to move toward socialism because it's under these conditions that scarcity and competition rise to their most extreme, and the idea that labor could be abolished isn't even remotely plausible to the vast majority. The closest we've ever come to something like a mass awareness of the anachronistic character of labor was under conditions of full employment. That was also the closest we've ever come organizationally to really subordinating the economy to democratic control (there wasn't really any democracy, but people did perceive the economy as under conscious human agency - which was a misapprehension, but a politically pregnant one). Competition and scarcity were (subjectively) at their lowest level in late Fordism, which is another way of saying material equality was at its highest.

    So the conditions we need are full employment, strong economic growth, and declining material inequality. The reason Fordism was able to accomplish these was that persistent high rates of productivity growth permitted rising wages alongside healthy profits. "Innovation" as a source of productivity growth is a red herring; simply integrating the ~4 billion people outside the productive economy into factory production and related sectors would unleash massive, long-term productive potential.

    So very schematically, we can see that neo-Fordism would have to be global in scope; it would require productive investment in those huge parts of the global population that have essentially been excluded from investment for the last four decades (or forever), which would probably also involve an all-out offensive against those large parts of the economy that are devoted primarily to speculation (if they don't destroy themselves first); it would involve rising wages to address the realization problem; it would depend on new global regulatory institutions or massively strengthening the existing ones like the ILO; and it would need an egalitarian culture tending toward the integration of the entire global population.

    These criteria are all from the standpoint of capital, i.e. what would be required for a new regime of accumulation. It would, however, give a huge impetus to a wide range of progressive causes (controlling global warming, reducing global inequality, building up internationalism) that are basically impossible under neoliberalism. Just as important, it would allow us to avoid a truly catastrophic collapse of the global economy that is the likely result of both rising economic volatility and growing populist rebellion.

  10. "One of the gaps in what we've developed on the blog is any serious analysis of the shape of production in the near future."

    It seems to me that combining exactly that kind of analysis with the philosophical challenges of value critique would make a very strong and potentially effective left position within US society. The thing is that alienation becomes concrete in the relation with the actuality of the productive process. And I believe that's just as true for myself operating this computer network as it is for someone fabricating a chip in Shenzhen, or someone throwing around a box of iPads out in the Joliet warehouse district where commodities arrive in Chicagoland. Postone talks about the treadmill aspect of the capitalist dynamic: it changes continally, and those changes are of the essence because ourselves, our subjectivities, emerge from the present context. Yet there are structural forces in capitalism that continually reappear within the historically singular character of each epoch: such as the drive to automate people out of the productive process, which is returning so powerfully right now. Although capitalist society presents moments of positivity, of hope, which basically involve access to the potentials of use-value -- those sunny periods of full employment, or of easy credit for that matter -- still the structure of the productive process and the character of its alienation always end up revealing themselves to be one and the same. Particularly in the moments of crisis, like right now.

    By combining an analysis of production with a critique of alienation by labor and by the commodity form, one comes closer to the lived experiences of capitalist society. Therefore it's worthwhile, though not exactly easy, to examine technology, organizational form, social relations and consumption as they are right now, in all their complexity. Basically to even begin grasping what you might call "the contemporary division of labor and leisure" requires going back at the very least to the 70s, when Keynesian Fordism fell apart and the new transnational system began to take shape, including the key features of just-in-time production, global distribution and financial governance. The deepening and maturing of that system is basically the story of our lives, although each of us has only lived a sliver of the story. Still, by opening eyes and ears, and of course, reading a lot too, one can piece it together and bring it to the crux of today, where its grotesque and unbearable nature is revealed at the very moment when the whole system stands on the edge of an uncertain change. The summation of lived realities -- and of their contradictions, their unbearabilities, their breaking points -- is what can reveal the possible bifurcations of "the shape of production in the near future."

    So, neo-Fordism? Perhaps. A new sociopolitical compact for the regulation of informational production? More likely, in my view. But whatever the form of productive relations will be, it must necessarily arise out a present context that itself is not very well known. It would be great to analyze the present structure more, just to establish common ground. And we all seem to agree that as a bunch of left intellectuals debating on a blog, that the only reason for doing this analysis is to make some kind of emancipatory contribution to the near future!