[OPE-L] Albritton on Marx's value theory and subjectivity

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Wed Apr 12 2006 - 15:06:04 EDT

Chris Arthur wrote:

the correct way to state the position is that the pure logic of CAPITAL
is indifferent to use value. But in order to actually sell things it
needs the capitalist who does know about use value to interpret the
demand for valorisation in a realisable way .


That correct way be true in the sphere of Marxist dogma, but I'm interested
in what Marx & Engels thought, and what that implies.

An object or entity is not spontaneously a use-value, an object of use or
utility, and more particularly a social use-value. It becomes an object with
a generally accepted use-value in society, in the course of the development
of human practices. It is characteristic of capitalist market expansion
however, that it transforms and develops objects into use-values according
to a specific pattern, namely, it seeks to expand the domain of use-values
which possess exchange-value, and shrink the domain of use-values which do
not possess exchange-value. This is the "specifically capitalist mode of
appropriation" guided by the search for surplus-value and self-enrichment.

In this sense, the capitalistically developed use-values are historically
and anthropologically specific, and use-value is increasingly looked upon
through the prism of exchange-value. Therefore, even in the "pure logic of
capital", whatever that means, capital is never "indifferent to use-value";
business precisely seeks out, and develops to the utmost, those use-values
which can possess a trading value - which has major implications for the
specific way that the movements of capital develop the productive forces,
the division of labour and the built environment (as ecologists no doubt
would point out; consider for example the trade in clean and polluted air,
in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol).

This whole issue was ignored by Marxist luminaries such as Kozo Uno and Paul
Sweezy, because they believed (like most Marxists do) that political economy
and its critique just concerned circulation, production and distribution,
and not final consumption (of course, Marx did not discuss the sphere of
consumption in detail, although he does include consumption with the aegis
of political economy, in his introduction to the Grundrisse, both productive
and final consumption). At most, there is some critique of "consumerism"
tacked on the end (it is of course very easy to criticise consumerism if you
can consume to your hearts content; but I doubt that the working classes are
emancipated by being made to feel guilty about their consumption).

But even if this first argument is not accepted, because it conflicts with
Marxist dogma and orthodoxy, it is still true that Marx's theory of the
reproduction of total social capital refers throughout to the necessary
transactions between at least three basic sectors of production, which are
differentiated according to the *use-values* they produce and consume. And
thus again, capital as a whole is not indifferent to use-value, despite
Marxist orthodoxy and dogma.

If this second argument is also rejected, again because it conflicts with
the Marxist dogma about "capital in general", there's still the fact that
Marx explicitly says in his first chapter on commodities (section 1) that
"lastly, nothing can have value, without being an object of utility"
("Endlich kann kein Ding Wert haben, ohne Gebrauchsgegenstand zu sein" -
literally, "ultimately, no thing can have value, without being an object of
use). Thus, even in the realm of the purest of pure value relations, this
utility or usefulness is according to Marx still logically *presupposed*,
even if the Marxist dogma says it isn't.

On those three grounds, I think the stale formalism of the Marxist dogma and
orthodoxy ought to be replaced with a fresh, truly *dialectical*
interpretation of the forms of value, which acknowledges the interaction of
use-value and exchange-value thoughout the whole economic process from
production to final consumption.

It's difficult for me to establish exactly who invented the false Marxist
doctrines about capital's general "indifference to use-value", but it seems
to be mainly a wrong inference from the fact that, as Marx describes,
capitalist production subordinates the production of use-values to the
valorisation of capital. This subordination is then summarily *equated* with
indifference to use-value - "all that capitalists care about is profit", the
lazy leftist caricaturists claim, AND THEREFORE they do not care about
anything else. But this inference - apart from being illogical - is neither
correct theoretically, nor in practical reality. No wonder then, that most
people are indifferent to this "Marxist critique" and treat Marx -
misrepresented in this way - with scorn as a shallow satirist.

Chris also wrote:

Marx is a little ambiguous on the result of this. Sometimes he assails
advertising for creating artificial needs; but sometimes the creation of new
needs is said to be 'capital's civilising mission' (I lost the reference).


I would indeed be interested to know the textual source of this idea. To my
knowledge Marx says no such thing specifically, although he does refer
occasionally to "civilising effects"  (for example, that proles are able to
buy and read newspapers etc.). The ambiguity is I think actually in a
different area than Chris suggests. Marx wants to say both that use-value is
a practical attribute of an object in virtue of its intrinsic (physical or
tangible) characteristics, but also that use-value refers to a
socially-mediated human valuation, involving a relation between the
(potentially) appropriating subject (i.e. the user) and the object. Thus, he
suggests both that use-value inheres in the object  by virtue of the
properties it has, but also that it exists as use-value only within a social
relation among subjects who appropriate this use-value. If however a
use-value is a *social* use-value, we are referring not simply to a material
or technical category, but to a social category. Again, I think we solve
this ambiguity not by the formalistic-dogmatic Marxist approach, but by a
genuinely *dialectical* treatment of the concept of use-value, which expands
value analysis into the area of consumption. Albritton, being influenced by
Uno, has no notion of this.

In real life, I think that it actually might be more true to say that
workers are subjectively *relatively* indifferent to the goods and services
they mass-produce in assembly-line fashion, and that capitalists, armed with
TQM and other management techniques, aim to reduce this indifference, so
that good quality products are produced, that will be sold. That is to say,
the "indifference problem" is in reality often more a management problem of
how to combat the effects of worker alienation and discipline work effort,
so that products are "made with care" ("all that the worker cares about is
his pay"). For more information about "quality control" of use-values, see
e.g. http://www.iso.org/iso/en/ISOOnline.frontpage (this is not a reference
to the International Socialists, but to the International Standards

Of course, this problem of worker indifference is itself not unique to
capitalism; e.g. in the Soviet Union there were often also frequent
complaints about shoddy goods made by poorly motivated workers, and stories
can also be found of slaves in slave societies who were punished or killed
for an attitude of indifference to their work. In this sense, too, Albritton
can be criticised, because he fails to define the historical specificity of
indifference in capitalism, and presents it in a one-sided, i.e.
*undialectical* way, as a problem of the nasty capitalists.

I haven't written all this up in a paper, but then I am not a paid academic;
I trust however that my points are sufficiently clear.


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