Monday, May 30, 2016

Jason Rhodes - In Service to Scarcity: The Pursuit of Value as the Production of Poverty

Jason Rhodes - In Service to Scarcity: The Pursuit of Value as the Production of Poverty
from Insurgent Notes: Journal of Communist Theory and Practice

Preface: While the left has had little success in developing a critique of capitalist value capable of informing either radical organizing strategies or an anti-capitalist narrative which reaches a popular audience, the conventional assumption that manifestations of economic value are reflections of social utility has escaped critical examination.This essay argues that exploring the roots and subsequent development of capitalist value theory over the course of the nineteenth century reveals a Janus-faced project:on the one hand, the development of a popular narrative which insists upon the “natural” inevitability of the scarcity which both backs value and precludes socialism, and on the other, an esoteric discussion of the need to channel the labor-power of society in directions that maintain the scarcity of the goods for which the majority exchange their time.Both the popular and the esoteric discussion had as their common enemy the nineteenth century socialists who argued that both the folly of capitalism and the potential of socialism could be readily seen, and explained, by way of a critical examination of the uses to which the collective labor-power of society were being put.What follows is intended to suggest the contemporary relevance of such an approach as radicals seek to develop narratives about imagined possibilities—which the discourses of value, both popular and esoteric, are deliberately designed to foreclose.

Introduction: The anti-capitalist left is in need of a coherent, popularly accessible critique of capitalist value.We live in a time in which well-researched exposés of capitalist crimes are common—think Monsanto, or the numerous studies that trace everyday objects to the labor and environmental horror stories at the production end of their supply chains—but do little, if anything, to explain the systemic logic that produces the conditions under discussion, much less spark subversive dialogue about possible alternatives to capitalism.Indeed, both elites and the public seem to be held in thrall by a “market populism” that suggests that freedom is found in the marketplace, and “radical” critiques of the systems that produce our food, clothing or electronics frequently conclude by urging us to “revolutionize” the market via a redirection of our purchasing power.

What’s missing, of course, is any critique of the institution of capitalist value, an understanding of which is obviously necessary for any attempt to analyze and explain what drives the allocation of time and resources in our society, or to provide a clear and comprehensible answer to the question, what are we chasing, or being compelled to chase, in this rat race?Being able to answer this question seems crucial to any effort to make a convincing case that the race be scrapped, or to projects animated by a desire to scrap it, or at leastprovide exits and resting points from it along the way.

Value theory is implicit in any attempt to explain the rat race.We’re familiar with the conventional wisdom.Money is the measure of value, and we express our own desires when we part with it, while fulfillingor attempting to fulfill, those of others as we chase it.In aggregate, this is the market, a map of our collective desires, and everyone knows, or is supposed to know, that it would be impossible to imagine a more efficient mechanism for channeling resources in what amounts to a non-stop process of voting on the market to inform the collectivity of our individual wants and needs.Calling it a rat race betrays a bad attitude, though if the characterization happens to be on target, it’s only because, at the end of the day, we are, by our very nature, all rats.

Marxist value theory, of course, is supposed to make short work of this nonsense.Marx tells us that value is the necessary labor-time embodied in the products and services that produce profit for capitalists, and thus serves capital in its inexorable drive for expansion.Workers are exploited in the capitalist production process because the time they spend producing the value equivalent of their subsistence, which they receive in wages, is exceeded by the time they spend working for the capitalist.This is the source of capitalist profit, which is the same thing as the exploitation of labor, and Marx’s value theory makes it possible to read capitalism as the insanity of a society that devotes its time to the pursuit of representations of that very time.

It’s all very heady, seemingly quite powerful stuff.Why, then, is there an apparent disconnect between Marxist value theory and a popular critique of the rat race capable of not just doing battle with, but destroying the banalities of someone like Thomas Friedman?Why is it so hard to draw direct connections between Marx’s account of capitalist value and political projects that inspire us with their potential for transformative change?

Perhaps it’s because by the time we get finished explaining (or attempting to explain) the discrepancy between the value embodied in an iPhone, measured in units of necessary labor time, and its price, the audience has left the room, and they’ve done so not simply because of the obscurity of the discussion, but because it has seemingly taken them so far afield from the concerns that brought them to the discussion in the first place.There is, undoubtedly, a solution to this problem, to be had if only we arrive at the correct reading and presentation of Capital, but I’d like to suggest an alternative route to a subversive critique of capitalist value, one that just might be capable of reaching and engaging a broad popular audience, and serve as a complement to, rather than replacement for, what we’ve learned about capitalism from Marx.

If we can think about political economy as a discourse of governance, not as a contest to see who can come up with the manual which most accurately describes “how the economy works,” it should be obvious enough that as radicals we should take a vital interest in the conception, or conceptions, of value which inform the projects of governance which are inscribed in our landscapes and do so much to structure our lives.In Capital, Marx did just that by taking the economic categories of David Ricardo, the then-reigning champion of bourgeois economics, and demonstrating that they exploded on their own assumptions.The principles of Ricardian economics have long since been decisively rejected by elites, however, specifically on the grounds of their uselessness for the development of tools of governance, with Keynes declaring that the teaching of Ricardo and his followers “is misleading and disastrous if we try to apply it to the facts of experience” (Keynes 1936).In what follows I’ll explore the history and implications of the value theory which triumphed over Ricardo’s precisely for its perceived superiority as a tool of governance, and argue that a plain-spoken indictment of capitalism as a colossal misapplication of time and resources, which has as its intention and effect the exchange of lifetimes of obedience for goods which require comparatively infinitesimal quantities of human labor for their production, can be derived directly from bourgeois value theory itself... read more:

see also
A Historical View of Economic Categories