I Don’t Value Value: Capitalism, Value, The Value Form, and Commodity Production

I Don’t Value Value: Capitalism, Value, The Value Form, and Commodity Production

Solving the question of "value" from an Anarcho-syndicalist point of view.

You have probably spent at least a little bit of time wondering why everything in our society seems to be for sale; why people have to pay for food, shelter, and clothing, why advertisements clutter your TV screens, why every politician is seemingly bought out. You might also wonder, if you pay particular attention to political issues why the United States spends more on healthcare than any other country, yet gets less actual positive health results for their buck than any other country, why the US military fought two wars that killed millions of people simply for oil and other natural resources and why there was a huge anti-terrorism propaganda campaign to hide this fact, why the prison system in the United States is almost completely run by and for for profit private companies. If you live in a “developing” country you might ask why the nation you live in and so many others is so stricken with poverty. If you pay attention to statistics you might have at one point wondered why millions of children die of hunger every day, or why wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few very rich people globally. If you find yourself thinking deeply about the why things are you might wonder why you and everyone around you has to go to work everyday just to survive. The reason for all of these things is actually rather simple. It’s what Karl Marx and classical economists called “value”.

WHAT IS VALUE?

The concept of value can be explained in a few different ways. Some more complicated and some less, some more accurate and still some less. Marx in the first volume of capital lays out a general formula for value, or what he calls “the value form”. The “value form” Marx expounds is as fallows: use-value + exchange value. Use value is the amount of utility and item possess, specifically social utility. Use value in other words describes what use people generally have for an item. Exchange value is a type of use value, but a very specific type. Specifically exchange value is the social utility an item has in exchange. In other words exchange value is the rate at which something can be sold and thus exchanged for something else, specifically money. The kicker with the value form is that Marx distinguishes form from content. Form is how something appears, it’s outward expression, while content is what form expresses, what that thing really is. In terms of actually explaining value effectively we have to look at the content of value rather than just it’s form.

The content of value as such is the fact that things are produced to be sold, i.e. production of things is carried out in the words of Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin “with a view” to be sold on the market. As such to explain value Marx starts in the first volume of Capital with the “commodity”, or the item that possesses exchange value. Thus value can be described as “commodity production”, or “production of commodities”.

HOW DOES VALUE RELATE TO CAPITALISM?

Value is the nucleus of capitalism. It is the one factor from which capitalism springs. It is the social relation that holds together all webs of capitalist relations and is the over-arching social relation that strings all those individual webs together under the broader capitalist mode of production. Capitalism can be defined as “generalized commodity production”, or all of society and social labor being geared toward the production of commodities. Value, as detailed above, can loosely be defined by “commodity production”. As such capitalism is a society where value dominates everything. Capitalist society is dedicated to the production of commodities, or “value”. Without value and value production capitalist society simply does not exist. As such “capital”, the basic law of motion of capitalist societies, is often referred to as “value valorizing itself”, or “value which produces more value”. This is because capital is categorized by investment for return in which value is input so that more value can be created.

VALUE AS OPPRESSION AND EXPLOITATION

The classical economists such as Adam Smith and David Richardo saw “value” as inherent to human interaction. They all assumed that production for exchange inherently took place when humans interacted and took part in exchanges of goods and services. Marx argued against this view by pointing out that it “reduced [value] to it’s mere use-value”. As Marx repeatedly pointed out value is only created by relations between people rather than being a “gift of nature” as he described the classical economists’ conception of surplus value. Value does not only, or primarily reflect the physical property of things, but also and primarily reflects how production is organized. If production is not organized to produce things to then be directly exchanged rather than directly used value does not exist. Value above all else is a social relation.

Since value is a social relation we can examine it and determine whether we should keep organizing society so as to allow it to exist. So what does value do to people in society as a social relation? Value subordinates production to a specific time and amount of social labor. Producers must adhere to this average amount of time and labor in order to be successful since in order to participate in exchange one must have something to exchange. This means that producers must produce a specific quantity of things at a specific time to meet the demands of exchange. Producers comply with this average amount of labor and labor time so that when they enter the market they can exchange commodities. They must exchange because value production requires that to acquire items of use they need they must exchange another item of use. Marxist economist Richard D. Wolf compares this to a family dinner in which when you ask for the salt in order to receive the salt you must pay the other person to pass it. As such value produces and sustains a class system of exploitation and oppression where people take advantage of other people’s needs out of necessity and those who have hoarded the most exchange value possess social and economic power.

In capitalist society value enables the oppression and exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class. In capitalist society people’s labor power (their ability to work) becomes a commodity in itself. The vast majority of people do not control production, or it’s product and thus can not make use of them to meet their needs directly. Instead they must enter the market and sell their very ability to perform productive labor to the very select few who do control production and it’s product as their property. In exchange for their labor power they get just enough of what they produce back in a wage to sustain themselves, while most of what they produce takes on the role of “surplus value”, or a stock commodities that is sold by capitalists on the market for profit. As such without production for exchange, the market, and value there would be no exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class.

HOW TO VANQUISH THE VALUE MONSTER!

Since value is a relationship of class oppression and exploitation it must be done away with. We must organize society in such a way that value no longer exists and it is replaced with free arrangements people make between one another to meet each others’ needs. How can we do this? The answer is simple yet complicated.

For most of human history value did not exist. Humans produced things to directly satisfy a need, or a use they had for them rather than to be exchanged. For example, chairs weren’t produced to then be sold for a certain amount of money. Instead they were produced because people needed chairs to sit in. The development of class society where some control production and others do not through “primitive accumulation”, or the theft of what producers create from them, created value production and spaces where commodities are exchanged (markets). As such what needs to be done to get rid of value is to create a society where things are produced to meet people’s needs rather than to sell. There remains the question of how this is to be carried out and what it will look like.

In terms of how we have to ask who will be able to make this social change. Capitalists who gain profits by selling the commodities workers produce are not candidates for making this social change because their power comes from value. They will employ everything at their disposal to keep this social change from happening and the historical record proves this. When workers in Paris rose up against capitalism in 1871, took social and economic power, and organized communally to meet each others’ needs providing utilities such as healthcare and education for free in what became known as the Paris Commune the government at the behest of the capitalist class brutally squashed this effort. Thousands of Paris workers were sent to prison camps outside of Paris, arrested, and slaughtered with the dead being piled up in mass graves that exist to this day. On a related note no government/state power will ever make these changes either. Governments need healthy capitalist economies in order to sustain themselves, meaning that they can only keep existing by participating in value production and circulation themselves through taxes and nationalized industries. Thus the state will always act as the coercive “executive committee of the bourgeoisie” as Karl Marx puts it in The Communist Manifesto.

So if the ruling class and governments will not put an end to value, who will? To answer this question we have to look at who benefits from the abolition of value. As mentioned above the working class is the class which is held down, made destitute, and oppressed by the value relation. Without value the exploitation of the working class would cease to exist. The working class, as such, is the only class with the capability to abolish value. With this in mind we have to ask “how can workers abolish value?”.

Since value runs on the exploitation of workers’ labor abolishing value is a matter of workers withdrawing their labor. Historically revolutionaries such as the IWW (Industrial Workers Of The World, a revolutionary syndicalist union in the United States) and it’s leading militant Big Bill Heywood have taken this concept very literally. IWW militants used to say that to resist all workers needed to do was keep their hands in their pockets. As such Big Bill expounded the syndicalist concept of the expropriating general strike. The idea is that workers across the capitalist economy all strike with the demand that production and it’s products be handed over to them by the capitalists. On paper this idea sounds both simple and powerful, but if this actually happened it would lack the direct action to be effective. Instead of directly taking control of production workers would have to wait for the capitalist class to hand over production willingly and concede to their strike demand. This is one concessions the capitalist class will never make and workers will be waiting with their hands in their pockets while the capitalist class sicks police and maybe even militaries on them. While general strikes can be a powerful tool in the hands of workers we need more than that if we are really going to abolish value.

Workers need institutions which they form freely in order to fight for their interests and ultimately the abolition of value. Historically workers have formed “unions” to this end. Often these unions become co-opted by a managerial bureaucracy which manages the union to reduce the militant action workers take, for the capitalist class. They do this because their careers as bureaucrats are held up by bosses if they carry out the boss’s biting. As a result these unions often become reformist which means that they only fight for concessions for workers rather than the abolition of capitalism and thus the abolition of value. Anarcho-syndicalism is a solution to this problem which seeks to create militant unions organized collectively by and for workers themselves rather than a bureaucracy, which fight for workers’ daily interest AND for the abolition of capitalism in general. These unions become schools of struggle for workers where workers learn through experience how to struggle for freedom and organize their own lives for themselves. Anarcho-syndicalist unions have existed throughout history and participated in revolutionary movements such as the Russian and German revolutions, and the Spanish Revolution of 1936. Workers have also historically organized themselves into councils which they control themselves for the take over and running of production. In the Russian Revolution these councils were known as “soviets” and “factory committees”. These councils in practice didn’t operate very differently from Anarcho-syndicalist revolutionary unions and the Anarcho-syndicalist revolutionary union the FAUD and the revolutionary syndicalist union USI heavily participated respectively in the workers’ council movements in Germany and Italy. As such an Anarcho-syndicalist strategy seems to be particularly conducive to the project of abolishing capitalism and value.

So we have established that workers are the ones who need to abolish value and that they can do this through an Anarcho-syndicalist revolutionary strategy, but what exactly is the endgame of this strategy? We have established that a general strike across the whole capitalist economy lacks the direct action needed to divest capitalists of their control over production. For this reason workers need to organize themselves to take over production directly. This will require that a mass movement of workers is organized so that the working class can use it’s combined collective force to defeat the state which will try to defend the property of the capitalist class and physically take over the means of production and the consumption goods they produce.

Once production as a whole has been taken into the hands of the working class and the state and capitalist class it protects are liquidated each person will become a producer being an equal owner of production which is now the property of all of humanity. It is not enough to simply overthrow the capitalist class, however. With capitalism destroyed wee need a new system in it’s place. Once capitalist property and class relations have been destroyed and production is the common property of all that production can then be administrated through the collective self-organization of the freely associating producers. Through this collective organization of production things can be produced which meet the needs of the producers. When these things are produced they can be distributed through the same method of self-organization to the people that require them directly.

This type of society is what has historically been called “socialism”, or “communism”. Anarchists and Anarcho-syndicalists refer to it as “libertarian communism”. Since things are produced to be directly consumed by freely associated laborers they are not produced to be sold and thus have no exchange value. Value itself ceases to exist. Given that this production for use takes place through the free collaboration between producers who all have meaningful control over production and it’s product we have also created an alternative to value production that is non-oppressive, non-exploitative, non-alienating, and non-class. HUZZAH! THE VALUE MONSTER IS DEAD!!

Bibliography:

Capital Volume 1, Karl Marx

Theories Of Surplus Value, Karl Marx, p.g. 52

How Socialism Can Organize Production Without Money, Adam Buick and Pieter Lawrence

Economics Of Freedom, Solidarity Federation

The Conquest Of Bread, Peter Kropotkin

Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice, Rudolf Rocker

Anarcho-Syndicalism in the 20th Century, Vadim Damier

The importance of Russia, Workers’ Solidarity Movement

Posted By

Ivysyn
Apr 20 2018 04:20

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  • Value is the nucleus of capitalism. It is the one factor from which capitalism springs.

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Comments

AnythingForProximity
Apr 22 2018 03:22

Sorry to be blunt, but this intro is just not very good. In particular, nearly everything in the "What is value" section is wrong. The value-form does not consist of "use-value + exchange value"; use-values are not amounts of utility (they are in fact incommensurable); use-value is not an intrinsically social quality; exchange-value is not a specific type of use-value but a different thing entirely; and the phrase "sold and thus exchanged" does not make sense, since exchange is logically prior to selling and buying.

akai
Apr 22 2018 06:27

I don't find the comment to be a useful explanation.

In any case, I think for the purposes of promoting anarchosyndicalism to working people, it is better to keep language concrete and avoid the types of secondary debates on terminology and interpretation that are so common.

However, being that large segments of self-identified "revolutionary syndicalists" exhibit strong bourgeois tendencies and are infected by the logic of capitalism and have their own measures of value which have nothing to do with revolutionary egalitarian and communist ideas, I am glad to see an article which goes against that current. At least that's how I see it. Personally I think there are some weak points to this text, as well as to the last one, and they are not necessarily the types of texts I'd use. However for Libcom, I personally think it's nice to see something that's radical at heart. IMO this place has had too much soft junk and it would be nice to see more orginal radical texts to counter the recent tendencies.

AnythingForProximity
Apr 22 2018 07:20

I too think that Libcom has become infected with what is essentially bourgeois identity politics, but sub-SparkNotes quality misreadings of Capital are not much better, even if they sound radical.

akai
Apr 22 2018 08:32

Personally I think that a way forward is to basically bring fresh things to the table instead of referring too much to "canonical" texts.

As for the comment above, I would be careful with saying "bourgeois identity politics" as opposed to "bourgeois politics". I don't know too much about tendencies in other places, but where I live, sometimes that type of language is a cover for social conservatism rather than a deeper critique of certain tendencies which seek to create cross-class fronts on specific issues by seeking the lowest common denominator of identity.

I don't think that what might be more commonly categorized as identity politics dominates here, but one could consider there to be an identity connected with, for example, "organizing". That's another question for another time.

darren p
Apr 22 2018 08:57

Fair play to the author for giving it a go but yes this article is somewhat confused.

A better introduction can be found in the scripts to Brendan Cooney’s “Kapitalism 101” videos, which someone has posted here:
http://libcom.org/library/use-value-exchange-value-value

Spikymike
Apr 22 2018 10:34

The author of the opening text attempts a simplified explanation of Marx's concept of 'value' that is not so easy and ends up getting many of the detailed definitions wrong with a less accurate and somewhat confused result, but we shouldn't be too harsh on what in more general terms is an honest explanation of what they perceive as the fundamental basis of capitalism (compared with other societies) in generalised commodity production and the irrational and harmful results of that for humanity.