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Three provisional theses on Marx’s concept of value

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“Could commodities themselves speak, they would say: Our use-value may be a thing that interests men. It’s no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it. In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange-values.”

–Marx, Capital, Volume I

I

Value is not transcendental. It is born only when it discovers itself in and through the historical accident of exchange. But the birth of value, which follows its discovery of itself, amounts to it being instituted as that which is a presupposition of exchange so that exchange is its realisation as value. Consequently, exchange ceases to be an accident of history to be transformed into an expression of its systemic principle, which is value. This is precisely the dialectic of history of logic and logic of history that Marx demonstrates while mapping the unfolding of value from its elementary or accidental form to its general form and money-form through the intermediate moment of its total or expanded form.

However, it is precisely the failure to closely attend to this rigorous dialectic of history of logic and logic of history that has often led scholars – mostly post-Marxists, but also a good number of Marxists of various kinds – to erroneously claim (and affirm) that for Marx value begins with exchange. Such an error renders value trans-historical and/or has disastrously reformist political consequences.

Essence, of course, becomes accessible only when it appears. But that does not mean appearance precedes essence or that the latter is an effect of the former. All those who insist that value – or the dialectic qua the principle of mediation – begins with exchange are falling precisely into such an error: it’s only in exchange that value is accessed so exchange precedes value. As a result, they mistake Marx’s demonstration of the historical precedence of exchange over value as the former’s logical priority over the latter.

Qualitative equalisation of (qualitative) difference — valorisation — is not the effect of exchange. Rather, it’s an integral dimension of the mode of organising of production (in its hidden abode) that must be logically prior to exchange in order for it to be realised in exchange. Had that not been the case, there is no way “mental”, “ideal’ or “imaginary” money-form as the measure of value would precede, and be distinct from, the tangible money-commodity as standard of price that really changes hands as definite quantities of metal money in the actuality of exchange. Marx in demonstrating this draws our attention to the logical priority of measure of value (and thus value) over standard of price (and price qua exchange-value). In other words, Marx is emphasising, implicitly or otherwise, how value precedes exchange-value with the latter realising the former.

Besides, if in Marx’s conception value did begin with exchange why would he then need to dwell at length (in Capital, Volume I) on Aristotle’s historical incapacity to come up with a conception of value when the latter is faced with the historical fact of exchange?

Therefore, the assertion that value begins with exchange is a complete and correct statement of things only if one is thinking of value merely in terms of its accidental creation. However, if one is dealing with value in terms of it being the logic of organising production — which is the mode of mobilising labour through quantification of respectively different socially necessary labour times for various qualitatively different concrete labours through a process of reducing them to human labour in the abstract — then this statement is incomplete and perhaps even wrong. In such circumstances, one will do well, instead, to state the following: exchange realises value-relationality (or the dialectic) precisely because the latter presupposes the former. So, instead of saying dialectic begins with exchange one should say the dialectic (value qua value-relationality) appears (or is realised) in exchange (exchange-value qua exchange-relation) precisely because the former is presupposed by the latter as its principle.

To not grasp the dialectic qua the law of mediation, and exchange in those precise terms is likely to lead one into the serious error of conflating and confounding the function of price (and its standard) with that of value (and its measure). Both being distinct functions of the one and the same money-form or money-commodity. That would compel one to erroneously insist, one way or another, that the market is the be all and end all of capital.

II

Marx’s exposition on value in Capital reveals two things at once. One, value is not transcendental. Two, value in being instituted, however, conceives of itself as being transcendental. This thinking of value by itself, which renders it transcendental (value qua value), is precisely the systemic operation of capital. Marx’s articulation of critique of value is intimately bound up with demonstrating what commodities say about themselves – or what value thinks of itself. In fact, what is important for the Marx of Capital is, first and foremost, the demonstration of what value says about itself. (See the citation with which this post begins.) Hence, Marx demonstrates how value is, in its own thinking, transcendental. He needs to do this because his critique of value is a deconstruction of precisely the transcendentality of value – or value as transcendental.

Marx’s critique of value begins by showing how value is, in its instituting, the abstraction of use-value, which is the irreplaceable, uncountable one (the singular). In other words, value, in thinking itself as being transcendental, is negation of this singularity of use-value. When Marx tells us that exchange-value – which is expression of value – has not an atom of use-value, even as use-value is the “material depository” of value/exchange-value, he is underscoring precisely that. He is drawing our attention to how value conceives of itself, or operationalises itself, as transcendental through a process of abstraction of use-value that is, therefore, the latter’s negation or disavowal.

Therefore, in terms of value conceiving of itself as transcendental – something that Marx demonstrates in the process of developing its critique — use-value is an absence or lack in value/exchange-value. But to the extent, that this negation, which renders that which is negated a lack, is made possible precisely by that which goes lacking the lack in question is constitutive of that which renders it a lack. In other words, Marx demonstrates how use-value is, in terms of value conceiving of itself as transcendental, a constitutive lack.

Value conceives itself as being transcendental (value qua value) that is expressed as and in the empirical (of exchange). This means value as such – that is, as the final instant of determination in its loneliness – conceals itself as the character of its (empirical) expressions. This also means that value as this concealed character of its expressions in and as the empirical (of things)  is also a concealment of the process of abstraction of the concrete (“historical character” of “meanings” as Marx says in Capital) by which it comes to be the (hidden) essence — the transcendental — of its (empirical) expressions, and the concrete as such (use-value as the singularity it is). In such circumstances, when value as the concealed character of its (empirical) expressions is revealed in its hiddenness, its (empirical) expressions come across as the mystifications or fetishisms/fetishes they are.

Therefore, value as this hidden character of its expressions in and as the empirical — which is value conceived by itself as being transcendental – in being revealed thus is not itself a fetish, a mystification or an ideology. It is, instead, the character of fetishism, mystification and/or ideology. Following Adorno’s explication of the dialectic in Negative Dialectics, we could characterise value as the truth of the untrue. Hence, value qua value, which is value conceived by itself as being transcendental, is not in itself an ideology but is the character, or truth, of ideology.

Besides, value in being revealed as this hidden character of its (empirical) expressions — which are themselves, concomitantly, demonstrated to be fetishes or ideologies — is also a revelation of both the process of abstraction of the concrete and its concomitant repression as that process of abstraction.

This clearly implies that revelation of value as the hidden character of its (empirical) expressions – i.e. its revelation as the character or truth of fetishism or ideology – is also a positing of the concrete qua the reversal of the process of abstraction of the concrete. Which means value in its revelation as the character of fetishism or ideology – or the truth of the untrue – must be grasped and envisaged as the division of this truth of the untrue into itself and truth as such.

III

It is this Alain Badiou points towards in Theory of the Subject, when he writes: “There are two dialectical matrices in Hegel. This is what turns the famous story of the shell and the kernel into such a dubious enigma. It is the kernel itself that is cracked, as is those peaches that are furthermore so irritating to eat whose hard internal object quickly cracks between one’s teeth into two pivoting halves.”

So, it is not simply about extracting the rational kernel of value (dialectic) from its mystical shell – which is ideology qua exchange-value as the (empirical) expression of the rational. Rather, this extraction of the rational kernel from the mystical shell is also the former’s division between itself as the rationality of the irrational and rationality as such. More precisely, it is the transformation of the rational kernel in its extraction. Althusser is quite clear on that score while explaining in an anti-Hegelian register “how”, in Marx, “can an extraction be an inversion?”.  He writes in ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’: “…the mystical shell is nothing but the mystified form of the dialectic itself: that is, not a relatively external element of the dialectic (e.g. the ‘system’) but an internal element, consubstantial with the Hegelian dialectic. It is not enough, therefore, to disengage it from its first wrapping (the system) to free it. It must also be freed from a second, almost inseparable skin, which is itself Hegelian in principle (Grundlage). We must admit that this extraction cannot be painless; in appearance an unpeeling, it is really a demystification, an operation which transforms what it extracts.”

But what would this demystification – this extraction as transformation of that which is extracted – amount to? On this count Badiou’s Hegelianism against itself in his Theory of the Subject is brilliantly lucid. At any rate, it is more rigorous than what Althusser’s anti-Hegelianism is in ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’. Badiou writes:

“In the peach there is still a kernel of the kernel, the bitter almond-shaped nut of its reproduction as a tree. But out of Hegel’s division, we will draw no secondary unity, not even one stamped with bitterness.” He then goes on to contend: “…at the heart of the Hegelian dialectic we must disentangle two processes, two concepts of movement, and not just one proper view of becoming that would have been corrupted by a subjective system of knowing. Thus:

“a) A dialectical matrix covered by the term of alienation; the idea of a simple term which unfolds itself in its becoming-other, in order to come back to itself as an achieved concept.

“b) A dialectical matrix whose operator is scission, and whose theme is that there is no unity that is not split. There is not the least bit of return into itself, nor any connection between the final and the inaugural….”

Therefore, unless value in its revelation as the hidden character of its (empirical) appearances – that is, in its revelation as the character of ideology or the truth of the untrue – is also the manoeuvre that divides it between itself and truth as such, which is the concrete as the process of abstraction of the concrete in reverse, it would amount to what “unfree mysticism” – Marx’s characterisation of the Stoics in his doctoral thesis on Epicurus and Democritus.

But what of the Marx of Capital – the one who is supposedly an incorrigible and an incurable Hegelian? In the section on fetishism of commodities, he provides us with his own version of Hegelianism against Hegel — one that indicates in its own way how the revelation of the truth of the untrue must also be a division between itself and truth as such. He writes: “The determination of the magnitude of value by labour-time is therefore a secret, hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative values of commodities. Its discovery, while removing all appearance of mere accidentality, from the determination of the magnitude of the values of products, yet in no way alters the mode in which that determination takes place.”

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Why rights-centric politics is not a politics of freedom

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Exchange-value (and exchange-relations) is not in and by itself value (and value-relations). Rather, exchange-value (and exchange-relations) is appearance or representation of the essence of capital that is value (and value-relations). Hence, juridical rationality — or rights — is the appearance or representation of the arbitrary and irrational operation of social power but is not in itself that mode or structure of arbitrary and irrational (and hence entirely political) operation. Conversely, even as value-relations as the arbitrary operation of social power necessarily inform exchange-relations and the juridical rationality of rights in their constitution, the former is irreducible to the latter.

In other words, even as the essence (value or arbitrary operation of social power) must and does appear (as exchange-value or juridical rationality of rights), appearance (exchange-value or rights) is not the essence (value, or social power in its arbitrary operation). That is demonstrated with a fair bit of clarity by Marx in the first volume of Capital. The problem with a political subject that envisions freedom as right is that it misses this dialectic between essence and appearance, and thus hypostatises the essence into its appearance – or, conflates essence with appearance. The politics of rights then is no more than exertions to correct (reform) the asymmetries of exchange, which presupposes the legitimacy and continuance of the rationality of exchange-value, and thus the legitimacy and continuance of the irrationality of value-relations that is the former’s constitutive mode.

Such politics of rights, needless to say, serves to reproduce and reinforce exchange-relations and its constitutive value-relational mode by merely displacing rights deprivation to yet another historically concrete moment or location of the capitalist social being. In other words, the subject that envisages politics in terms of demanding rights is one that is interpellated and articulated by the logic and structure of value-relations. Its politics of making a concrete moment of exchange less asymmetrical succeeds, if at all, by way of increasing the asymmetry in yet another (qualitatively old or new) concrete moment of exchange. This is precisely what technical recomposition of social labour by capital, through its re-segmentation, amounts to. In such circumstances, a politics driven by demand for various rights – including workers’ rights – cannot be affirmed and embraced as the politics of the working class. In its basic impulses, such politics is petty bourgeois, reformist and restorative, not proletarian and revolutionary. The ‘understanding’ of political economy that animates such political impulses is deeply Ricardian, and not at all Marxist.

That is, however, not to claim that the question of rights-deprivation stands rejected from the standpoint of revolutionary working-class politics and Marxism. But, for a Marxist, there is surely the need to distinguish between rights-deprivation — as an objective systemic fact and a concomitant subjective experience — being an inescapable question for working-class politics, and the politics driven by demand for rights. Only a liberal dimwit or nincompoop would think they are one and the same thing. And that the abandonment of one is tantamount to the jettisoning of the other. Rights-deprivation is a revolutionary question not because a politics ought to be made out of demanding the absent rights – the rights one is deprived of. Rather, it’s a revolutionary question because it enables one to cognitively access and concretely target value-relations (or the arbitrary, and thus entirely political, operation of social power) in and through their determinate appearance as (or mediation by) a particular exchange-relation whose particular asymmetry is what the absence or deprivation of a particular right amounts to.

This, among other things, demonstrates how a group of rights-deprived individual subjects could grasp and seeks to actualise the social subject sedimented in its individual selfhood or subjecthood precisely through the concrete experience of right-deprivation that is constitutive of that particular subjecthood in its individualised salience. What this, in other words, means is that the individual right-deprived subject is egged on by his/her experience of being thus right-deprived to struggle, not for the winning over of the absent right for that individual subjecthood, but for the destruction of the value-relation that is represented by the concrete exchange- relation constitutive of that particular individual subjecthood and its objective factuality and subjective experience of being deprived of the particular right in question. Clearly, such destruction would also mean the disavowal of the particular individual selfhood/subjecthood that experiences the particular right-deprivation in the first place because that individual selfhood/subjecthood is constitutive of value-relations that are sought to be destroyed by accessing those relations through their mediation by the particular exchange-relation in question that determinately instantiates the value-relations.

What this operation of the social subject actualising itself evidently means is that such individualised subjecthood, precisely on account of its constitutive experience of rights-deprivation, risks its existence as that individualised subject to emerge as the social subject that tends towards abolishing the structure of value-relations in and through its determinate representation by a concrete instance of right-deprivation (or asymmetry of exchange). Clearly, the operation constitutive of such risking of existence of individualised subjecthood – the agentic subjecthood of rights – is a politics not of ending various particularities of rights-deprivation. Rather, it’s a politics of abolishing the general condition of such particular and particularised rights-deprivations – and the juridical realm of exchange they are integral parts of — through and in its constantly shifting determinate instantiations. Hence, one must think freedom as risk, not as a right.

The difference between politics of freedom as right and politics of freedom as risk is then the radical modal difference between two kinds of intervention on the same concretely apparent terrain of exchange-relations. The former driven towards ending particular rights-deprivation by demanding the absent rights, the latter geared towards unravelling value-relations, and its concomitant force-field, which constitute the condition of possibility of juridical rationality of rights – and thus rights-deprivation – in their determinate instantiation in and as a particular case of rights-deprivation. It’s in this latter sense, and not in the former, that one ought to understand, among other things, Benjamin’s insistence about every moment in history being a strait-gate through which the messiah can come in.

It must also be mentioned here that legal equality has as its necessary condition of possibility substantive/social inequality. Besides, the former in its existence also acts back upon the latter to reproduce and further reinforce it. If one attends to Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right — to say nothing of his brilliant demonstration in Capital of how concrete labours (qualitative singularities) are rendered differential quantities of “human labour in the abstract” through qualitative equalisation — even half carefully, one would see that.

Immediate forms of oppression in the capitalist social formation get registered as rights-deprivation and legal inequality. But such registration is, for subjects of struggle against those forms of oppression, precisely part of the problem and not its overcoming. Struggles against oppressions must be struggles against the structure of exploitation, which is the necessary condition of possibility of various concrete forms of oppression, and not struggles for rights and legal equality. Subjects struggling against various forms of oppression must recognise those oppressions for what they are — that is, oppressions — and call them by their name, and not register them in their subjectivity as legal inequalities to be remedied.

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