[OPE-L] the virology and political economy of two self-reproducing non-basic products

From: Jerry Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Sat Oct 08 2005 - 09:14:44 EDT

[Ian W wrote:]
> Remember that there can be arbitrary hierarchies of
> self-reproducing non-basic systems. "Beans" are just a
> special case, the mote in Sraffa' eye, which he first itched
> in his appendix.

Ian and everyone else:

The beans example is not a very good one for self-reproducing
non-basics (S-RNBs). Note that Sraffa says that "it may be
imagined" re some species of beans or corn.    In other words,
we were talking about an imaginary (and improbable) species of

I don't think anyone has really come up with good examples of
S-RNBs yet.

In what follows I will offer two examples of 'pure' (?) S-RNBs.

I.  Computer Viruses

A computer virus can not be described as a commodity (since
it  has no exchange-value) but it is a product of labor which is
produced using 'means of  production' and (unpaid) labor time.
Once produced, it is self-reproducing.  It reproduces
itself using the hardware and software of the infected computers
-- no additional expenditure of human labor is required.  The
only limit to the spread of the virus is given by the quantity of
computers which are susceptible to infection.

The 'usefulness' of the computer virus is its ability to diminish
or destroy the use-value (and hence also the value and
exchange-value) of computers.   There is thus, following
an infection, a reduction in the UV, V, and EV of both means
of production and means of consumption (since computers are --
in different circumstances -- both).  It also results in the destruction
of, using Sraffian terms,  non-basic _and_ basic commodities --
even though the original product (the virus) was a non-basic (product,
not commodity). In  Marx's terminology, part of the value of  both
Dept. I and Dept. II commodities are destroyed.

Hence, we have a situation in this special case where a
self-reproducing non-basic product can destroy at an
expanded rate the value of  already produced commodities
(in this case, the value of the stock of computers).
Additionally,  because of the integration and inter-
dependency of physical production systems, the value
of all those commodities that  directly or indirectly require
functioning non-infected computers is diminished. (E.g. if
product X requires a healthy computer Y  to function
and computer virus Z infests Y then X can not function).

II.  Viruses as Biological Weapons

A deadly virus can be genetically engineered by scientists in a
laboratory.  It can be produced by scientists who work for
and are paid by the state or it could be produced in other
ways, e.g. by voluntary labour performed by members of a
terrorist organization.

(Important note:  the following is NOT to be interpreted as
a suggestion or an encouragement.)

The virus is then released into the population.

The easiest way would be to infect a 'suicide bomber'.  I.e.
the virus could be administered to a volunteer (perhaps even the
scientist who developed the virus) who would either be in or could
be readily transported to a major population center.

Assuming that the virus is air-borne and easily transferred to other
human hosts, then the virus would reproduce itself at an
expanded rate.

Consider how quickly an infection could spread!

This is a vulnerability that is exacerbated by the globalization of
the international transportation system.  Potentially, such a
pan-epidemic could destroy the entire human population (along
with _all_ use-value, value and exchange-value) if it was lethal
enough and spread rapidly enough. More likely, there would be
isolated pockets of humanity left.    While I don't want to spell
out all possible futuristic variations on this possibility, I think
it highly likely that in some of those scenarios capitalism would
be ended -- and the 'gravedigger' would be a virus, not the
working class.

One might object to this proposition by claiming that no
rational agent (in the government, an organization, or just
an individual) would create an agent which would destroy
all human life.  How naive! History proves that it is possible.
History also proves that the agent developing a product
is not always aware of its long-term and aggregate
consequences.  (Even if the party responsible for the
spread of the virus had a cure which was administered to
the chosen,  there would be no way of knowing beforehand
the aggregate long-run consequences.)

In any event, since governments and individuals have already
-- decades ago! -- developed, cultured, and stored such
deadly viruses, this is much more than an improbable
science fiction plot.

In both of these cases, the S-RNBs do not produce commodities
by means of commodities.  In the case of computer viruses,
_commodities are destroyed by means of products_. In the
case of viruses, _commodities and people are destroyed by
products_.  Either way, value has been destroyed: both
'basic' and 'non-basic' systems are affected by these S-RNBs.
This is not so much of a theoretical problem as it is a practical

In solidarity, Jerry

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