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

From: Ian Hunt (ian.hunt@FLINDERS.EDU.AU)
Date: Sun Oct 09 2005 - 20:37:28 EDT

Dear Jerry,
Very droll. Of course, tongue in cheek aside, your examples clearly
fail as examples of commodities in Sraffa's system, since they are
not use-values and have no price - but still, I expect you were
having a dig at pretensions to determine prices independently of

>[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

Associate Professor Ian Hunt,
Dept  of Philosophy, School of Humanities,
Director, Centre for Applied Philosophy,
Flinders University of SA,
Humanities Building,
Bedford Park, SA, 5042,
Ph: (08) 8201 2054 Fax: (08) 8201 2784

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