Value and Affect

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005

In the polemics that since 200 years have accompanied the development of the theory of value in political economy, I think that we still have not managed to decouple value from labour.

Even the marginalist current and the neo-liberal schools (that as a vocation are used to operate this decoupling) are forced to reconsider that relation (and its basis: mass living labour) everytime they are confronted with political economy in concrete. In the neo-classical elaboration, the analysis of market relations, enterpreneurial, financial or monetary, rejects in principle any referral to labour: in fact, it silences it. It is not a case that when the neo-classicists are faced with political decisions, the theory of value-labour comes back, exactly in the place where the founders of the discipline had located it: the place of conflict (and eventual mediation) of the economic relation as a social relation, the ontology of economic theory.

However, what has irreversibly changed, since the times of the dominance of classical theory of value, relates to the possibility of developing a theory of value in terms of economic order, i.e. to consider value as measure of concrete labour, both singularly and collectively. The economic consequences of this difficulty are as important as are the its anthropological and social assumptions. It is on the latter that our analysis will dwell- on this novelty, that transforms the theory of value 'from below' of life.

Throughout the centuries of capitalist modernisation (in the passage, to say it with Marx, from manufacturing to large-scale industry), the possibility of measuring labour (that had more or less functioned during the period of accumulation) increasingly disappears.

1) firstly because labour - becoming more qualified and more complex, both at the individual and at the collective level - could no longer be reduced to simple quantities;

2) secondly because capital, becoming more 'finance' and 'state' [1], made the mediation between different sectors of the economic cycle (production, social reproduction, circulation and division of wages) more and more artificial and manipulable, hence, more and more abstract.

But all this is pre-history. In the global market, in the postmodern, the problem itself of the measure of value cannot be found.[2]

It is true that in the period of passage to postmodernity, in the phase of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles, the theory of value-labour seemed to re-emerge in macro-economic terms, as a theory of an international division of labour, of 'unequal exchange', of post-colonial exploitation. But this reemergence appeared to be illusiory as soon as it become evident that the complexity of productive processes, as well as being immersed in the multi-nationalisation of industrial activity and in the globalisation of finance, was also intensified by technological processes of computers and communication, and by the employment of immaterial and scientific labour. This does not mean that the international division of labour and post-colonial exploitation have ended. On the contrary, they have extraordinarily increased[3]. But at the same time they have lost their specificity (and hence the possibility of reactivating in a concrete case the theory of value), because that type of exploitation has itself become global, it has submerged metropolitan territories, and the measure of exploitation is definitely dispersed.

In the economy of the postmodern and in the territories of globalisation the production of commodities occurrs through command; the division of labour is given through command; the articulation of measures of labour is defeated in global command. [4]

Having said this, our theme, value and affect, has not been touched upon yet if not through the suggestion of re-considering the problem of value 'from below'.

In fact, then one looks at things from the standpoint of political economy, i.e. from 'above', the theme of value-affect is so integrated in the macro-economic process that it appears as invisible. Economic science ignores the problem without any scruple.[5] When the problem presents itself to it, it does not grant it any importance. Two cases, amongst others, are exemplar in this respect.

1) The first concerns domestic labour of women and/or wives/mothers. In the tradition of political economy, in no way this theme can be posed outside of considerations of the wages, whether direct or indirect, of the worker (male, father); or, in more recent cases, outside of the disciplinary techniques of demographic control of the populations (and the interest of the State - capitalist collective - in the economic regulation of demographic development). Value here is assumed by being taken away (torn away) from labour (of women, wives or mothers), i.e. from affect.

2) A second example, at the opposite extreme, i.e. no longer around the traditional paradigms of classical economy, but considering a theme not at all postmodern: the so-called 'attention economy'.[6] By this I mean the interest/ will to include in economic calculations the interactivity of the user of communication services. In this case too, despite the evident effort to absorb the production of subjectivity, economic science ignores its importance. It rather dwells on the calculation of 'audiences', it levels down, controls and commands the production of subjectivity on a disembodied plane. Labour (of attention) is here subsumed by being taken away from value (of the subject), i.e. from affect.

We need to start off from this ignorance of political economy in order to define the theme of value-affect. And we need to define it starting from an apparent paradox that I would like to define in this way: the more the measure of vlaue becomes ineffectual, the more the value of labour-power becomes determining in production; the more political economy silences the value of the labour force, the more the value of the labour force is extended and affects the global and biopolitical plane. On this paradoxical rhythm labour becomes affect, or rather, labour finds its value in affect, in so far as the latter is defined as 'power to act' (Spinoza).[7] The paradox can then be expressed also in these terms: the more the theory of value loses its reference to the subject (measure was this reference, as the basis of mediation and command), the more the value of labour resides in affect, i.e. in the living labour that becomes autonomous[8] from the capital relation, and expresses -through all the pores of the body, singular and collective - its self-valorising power.[9]


The first thesis, historical and deconstructive, is that it is impossible to measure labour - hence to order it and refer it back to a theory of value - when the labour force is no longer either outside or inside the command (and the capacity of structuring command) of capital. This is the situation today. In order to clarify it, we assume two cases:

First case. Labour power (force), i.e. the use-value of labour power (force), is outside of capital.

This is the situation in which the theory of value was constructed, the classical epoch when, being outside, the labour power had to be brought inside of capital. The process of primitive accumulation consists in bringing inside of capitalist development (and control) that labour power that lived outside of it. The 'exchange value' of labour power is hence rooted in the 'use-value' that is constructed, largely, outside of the capitalist organisation of production. In what does this outside contist? Marx has written a lot on this. When he talks about labour power as 'variable capital', he alludes to a mixture of independence and of subjectivities that organised themselves:

a) through the independence of 'small criculation' (the link with soil, family economy, the traditions of 'gifts, etc);

b) on the values typical of 'proletarian cooperation' as such, i.e. on the fact that cooperation constitutes a surplus of value that preceeds, or is irreducible to, capitalist organisation of labour, even though it is recuperated by it;

c) on the ensemble of 'historical and moral' values (says Marx) that are constantly renewed, as needs and desires, by the collective movement of the proletariat, as well as produced by its struggles. The struggle for 'relative wages' (strongly insested upon by Rosa Luxemburg, according to the particular interpretation she provided of Marxism in the perspective of a production of subjectivity) represents an extremely strong dispositif on the part of the outside. The 'use-value' is rooted then, fundamentally, even though relatively, outside of capital.

A large historiography (from E. P. Thompson to the italian and european operaisti of the 70's, amongst whom we also find the work of indian 'subaltern historiography') describes this situation and translates it into militant language.

For a long historical period, then, capitalist development has experienced a determination independent from the use value of the labour force, a determination that was posed -relatively- outside of capitalist command. The price of 'necessary labour' ( necessary to reproduce the proletariat) is presented then, in this period, as a natural quantity (and/or historical) -in any case as external- that mediates between the effective productivity of the working class and its own social and monetary inclusion.

The Marxian specificity, in the translation of the classical theory of value for revolutionary purposes, is also founded on a consideration of (relative) extraneity of the quantity of the use-value of labour power with respect to the unity of capitalist command on the development of accumulation. One can add that, for Marx, measuring value was using a unit of measure that was formed outside (or in any case laterally) of the capitalist process of production and reproduction of society. [10]

Second case. Labour power, or rather its use value is inside the society of capital.

In its development, capital has always reduced/relead labour power within its command, it has progressively eliminated the conditions of reproduction external to the society of capital, hence, it has always managed to define the use value of labour power in terms of exchange value - no longer only relatively as in the phase of accumulation, but now absolutely.

'Arbeit macht frei'. One doesn't need to be a pstmodernist to realise how this reduction (subsumption) of use value to a costrictive and totalitarian regime of exchange value occurred, beginning in the 30's in the US, in the 50's in Europe and in the 70's in the Thirld World.

Certainly there are still, in the Third World as in the First, situations where important forms of independence persist in the formation of proletarian use value. But the tendency to reabsorb them is irresistible. The postmodern describes a continuous, impetuous and rapid tendency. Correctly. One can affirm that, differently from what was happening at the time of marxian analysis, today it is impossible to think of a definition of use value that, even partially, can be given independently from exchange value.

Hence, economic calculation, whether of classical or marxian origin, that entails an independent unit of measure (an outside) at the basis of capital's dialectic, has no reason to exist anymore. This lack is real, the theory of a measure of value has then become circular and tautological: there is nothing outside that can give it a foundation. In fact - and here again one doesn't need to be a postmodernist to realise it - since the 60's (as far as we are concerned) every use value is determined by the regime of capitalist productin. And also every value that according to the theory of accumulation was not posed inside an immediately capitalist regime (such as the social power of reproduction, the productive surplus of cooperation, the 'small circulation', the new needs and desires produced by struggles) is now immediately recuperated and moved within the regime of capitalist (global) control.

Hence, if (in order to exist in the classical sense) the theory of value has to determine a criterion of measure, it can only find it today inside the global constitution of exchange value. Now, this measure is money. But money, in fact, is not a measure nor a relation of use value, but rather -at this stage of development- its substitution pure and simple.

In conclusion, the rationalising (as well as foundational) function of the theory of value for political economy has come to an end. It exits capitalist development at the threshold of postmodernity, is transfigured in monetary theory - constructed on the horizon of globalisation, organised by imperial command. 'One dollar is one dollar'. Money is no longer the product of a regime of exchange (between capital and a labour force more or less subjectified) but the production of a regime of exchange. The theory of value is trivialised as utensil of monetary theory, of the order of money.

But the value of production is extint. When it is no longer retraceable to measure, it becomes dis-measured[11]. I want to underline here the paradox of a labour force that is no longer either inside or outside of capital. In the first case, the criterion that allowed, through measure, control, was its relative independence (that today no longer exists: the labour force is 'really subsumed'); in the second case, the criterion that allowed, despite the fall of measure, command on the labour force consisted in its absorbtion into the monetary regime (keynesianism, to mention the most sophisticated technique of control). But this criterion too has ended in so far as monetary control has become completely abstract. We have to conclude then that the labour force that one finds in the postmodern (in teh global and/or imperial system of capitalist economy) is situated in a non-place with respect to capital.

How do we define this non-place?

In order to introduce the debate, firstly we need to identify the theoretical deplacement[12] that globalisation of capitalist exploitation determines. Now, when one mentions globalisation, one refers to it in a two fold way: extensively, as the world-enlargement of the productive fibre/texture through markets; intensively, as the absorption of the whole of social life in capitalist production. In the first sense the labour force is presented in aggregates (or subjectivities) that are mobile and interchangeable, material and immaterial, and whose productive power is organised according to dispositifs of mobilisation (and/or segregation, segmentation etc.): productive force is here declined from circulation. In the second case the labour force is presented as social texture, as population, traditions and innovation, etc/ -in other words, its productive force is exploited within processes of social reproduction. Production then becomes coextensive with reproduction, in a biopolitical context. (When we talk about 'biopolitics', we define a context of social reproduction, that in tegrates production and circulation, and the political dispositif that organises them. It is not here the place to dwell on this problematic: let us just here introduce the term).

The non place of the labour force is therefore negatively defined by the dissolution of the separation between forms of realisation of capital -such as the classics and/or Marx had transmitted them. It is positively defined, at the same time, by tyhe intensity of the mobilitation and the consistency of the biopolitical nexus of the labour force.