NPC: Value-form theory describes capitalism

The problem that much communization theory points out is that, if your revolutionary praxis is simply to emphasize (materially and ideologically) labourers as a class (by building up industry, focusing the entire society toward developing productive forces rather than re-organizing the "insides" of the means of production to be more amenable to those using the means and the product, etc) then you are simply affirming the value-form as such, which IS very much the class relation...

...In short, Value-form theory tries to describe capitalism. It is a negative critique of capitalism. Whenever the article above says "Value-form theory" or "VFT," you can almost always replace it with "capitalism," since value-form theory is NOT claiming that these things are facts of nature, but facts of capitalism which can (and ought to be) abolished--i.e., it is not an overdetermining totality.

The following is a response from NPC to Nat Winn's article entitled Getting to communism: negating the value form in practice.

by NPC

Nat writes:

"Again, revolution is about more than abolishing the value-form. The method here is one that ignores the realm of politics, the confrontation with the state, armies, and the whole repressive apparatus. It ignores geo-politics. It doesn't deal with any classes outside of workers and capitalist in analyzing the end of capital. What you have here is not a look at a totality but a rigid binary. The complexity of revolution is just not dealt with at this point."

I would first point out that this argument could, verbatim, be applied to basically all the works of Marx himself -- particularly Capital. It basically says that we should NOT engage in economic argument because economic argument does not include all these other things. But that means you are just critiquing something based on what you want it to be, rather than what it actually is (it has a scope which is a priori limited).

Only among communization's critics have I heard of communization as a be-all-and-end-all plan for revolution. Among communization's supporters, I've heard of communization as, alternately, a fresh economic/structural analysis (in the structural wing), or a swath of incendiary outreach materials calling people to action (in the voluntarist wing).

It's certainly true that communization doesn't provide immediate tactical advice. It doesn't provide much revolutionary strategy. Most of the structural works of TC, Endnotes, etc. hardly talk about "the superstructure" at all. But I'd also point out that communization never pretends to be both a necessary and sufficient theory for making revolution.

Honestly, it just seems silly that anyone would consider it as such -- and, again, I literally know of no one (other than its critics) who see it like this.

For those of us who use communization theory we use it for what it is good for -- economic analysis, outreach, reminders of the deeper economic reasons that previous socialist projects were unable to fundamentally challenge the value-form (their failure was absolutely not just superstructural). It also helps to remind us that we ought to talk about the abolition of the working class a little bit more than the affirmation of the working class.

It's also not like anyone is actually thinking that abolition of the value-form happens overnight or that revolution would be evenly distributed -- and its convenient that the above article excludes such quotes as this:

"So there will a "transition" in the sense that communism will not be achieved overnight. But there will not be a "transition period" in what has become the traditional Marxist sense: a period that is no longer capitalist but not yet communist, a period in which the working class would still work, but not for profit or for the boss any more, only for themselves: they would go on developing the "productive forces" (factories, consumer goods, etc.) before being able to enjoy the then fully-matured fruit of industrialization. This is not the programme of a communist revolution. It was not in the past and it is not now. There is no need to go on developing industry, especially industry as it is now. And we are not stating this because of the ecology movement and the anti-industry trend in the radical milieu. As someone said forty years ago, half of the factories will have to be closed.

Some areas will lag behind and others may plunge into temporary chaos[...] Nobody knows how we will evolve from false capitalist abundance to new ways of life, but let us not expect the move to be smooth and peaceful everywhere and all the time."

[[That is from Dauve's intro text on communisation (here: http://www.troploin.fr/textes/60-communisation-uk). Dauve, alongside Aufheben, is in the more "voluntarist" camp (though they engage with the structuralists much more) which is brushed over fairly quickly in this overview.]]

There is no eliding the real problems of reorganizing production -- the point is simply that there is NOT a period in which we have an industrial build-up emulating capitalist styles of factory organizaton, managed with moneyed-wages or labor vouchers and justified in the terms of the people working now and enjoying the fruits of that industry later, once the production base is properly "built up." Clearly, models more similar to that may be necessary if revolution occurs (again) exclusively in areas that have few means of production -- but the neoliberal redistribution of these means of production TO the "third world" makes that less and less likely.

But these natural presumptions based on the economic theory in most of communization are more or less ignored in the above critique -- even though they are precisely the presumptions that DO begin to make tactical and strategic suggestions for revolution.

Instead, the critique just misses the point by attacking communization for not being something that it never claims to be -- i.e., a roadmap for revolution.

Communization theory NEVER claims that we should "look at revolution strictly through the capital-labour relation." It simply claims that the capital-labour relation is kind of really important to judging whether or not your "communist revolution" is very communist (or even very anti-capitalist) -- and I would definitely affirm that point.

----

On the second topic: Communization does claim to be a real critique of the value-form. This article sort of vacillates between acknowledging that the abolition of the value-form is necessary (in which case the differences between communizaton's affirmations and the article's become less clear) and the opposing argument that communization misportrays abstract value (and therefore one would presume that it's a non-issue).

I think that it's obvious that we have to abolish the capitalist value-form, the question is simply again one of whether or not one tries to "use" that value form for a period of time (the "socialist transition period") for the benefit of the working-class -- and the point from communization is that this only reinforces the proletariat class category rather than beginning to take it apart (it, like the state, did not tend historically to "wither away"). And this affirmation basically ignores the class struggle -- which, despite the above article's claims to the contrary, is all about the abolition of the proletariat as a class (since its nature as a class is relationally determined by the existence of the bourgeoisie exploiting it).

But there is also a significant problem with the article's portrayal of the value-form:

First: communization theory doesn't deny the labor-theory of value. It simply points out that if you affirm labor as a category defined by capital you are also affirming capital by affirming its interdependent category -- i.e., they are arguing precisely against "economism" as traditionally defined and as often practiced by political tendencies which see unions or wage struggles, for example, as the primary grounds of revolutionary activity.

Second: The above critique ignores the nuance in Marx's theory of exchange-value and its relation to abstract labor, and misportrays communization's approach to exchange-value (which is NOT equal to "the value-form").

The article quotes from Endnotes: "Rather, in a fundamental sense value — as the primary social mediation — pre-exists and thus has a priority over labour."

Based on this, the article then claims: "It is also the case here that labor is not seen as the primary producer of value. Capital or value "has a priority over labor. This leads to a political call within Communization to abandon the class struggle."

Unfortunately, this is a misquotation. Endnotes in the quote is actually talking about how CAPITALISM (i.e., the capitalist value-form) posits itself as originary. This is clearer if you also quote the paragraph sitting a little BELOW the one quoted by the above critique:

"While it seems true and politically effective to say that we produce capital by our labour, it is actually more accurate to say (in a world that really is topsy turvy) that we, as subjects of labour, are produced by capital. Socially necessary labour time is the measure of value only because the value-form posits labour as its content. In a society no longer dominated by alienated social forms — no longer orientated around the self-expansion of abstract wealth — the compulsion to labour which characterises the capitalist mode of production will disappear. With value, abstract labour disappears as a category. The reproduction of individuals and their needs becomes an end in itself. Without the categories of value, abstract labour and the wage, "labour" would cease to have its systematic role as determined by the primary social mediation: value."

This "world that really is topsy turvy" is the world of capitalism, in which capital makes itself into the primary source of productivity, centering the M-C-M' cycle around the M more than the C (or the use-value in it, for that matter). The critique conflates Endnotes' descriptions of how Capital PORTRAYS ITSELF, with the obvious acknowledgement that how Capital actually operates (as exploitative of labour) is evident in Marxist theory.

But the bottom of that quote also gets to another interesting point: "with value, abstract labour disappears as a category." This is interesting in particular because it ties abstract value back to its roots (in Marx) with exchange-value. Here Endnotes is NOT talking about simple "abstract" human labour (or "general human force" as Marx says). Though Marx at times uses this definition, he also acknowledges how problematic it is, since the definition (borrowed from Smith and Ricardo) pretends that "labour" or "work" in capitalism is the same, transhistorical practice of human physical exertion, when really labour as a category is created BY the social relations of capitalism itself. Marx, therefore, translates this transhistorical abstract labor into a more relevant category: exchange value (in an oppositional unity with use-value to create value as such).

The above critique then argues that Value-form theory poses a "monetary theory of value," simply because it acknowledges that exchange value does, in fact, exist and operates much as Marx describes it -- as capitalism's own particular form of "abstract labour" which will be abolished alongside value itself. The abolition of value as such clearly does not mean the abolition of use-value, but the severing of use value from exchange value (and thus the destruction of the wage and money as the form of quantified, generalized exchangeability). Again, Endnotes says it clearly: "Without the categories of value, abstract labour and the wage, "labour" would cease to have its systematic role as determined by the primary social mediation: value."

The "labour" quoted here means SPECIFICALLY CAPITALIST labor--not general human work (which is OF COURSE productive in the simple sense and of course abstractable in that it all requires physical exertion--this is not Marx's point). The problem that much communization theory points out is that, if your revolutionary praxis is simply to emphasize (materially and ideologically) labourers as a class (by building up industry, focusing the entire society toward developing productive forces rather than re-organizing the "insides" of the means of production to be more amenable to those using the means and the product, etc) then you are simply affirming the value-form as such, which IS very much the class relation. It is the very exchangeability (NOT exchange but the POTENTIAL for exchange or its future possibility--exchange does not PRECEDE production) which makes labour itself productive of value (again, value is, in capitalism, not just use-value but also monetary "exchange" value). Obviously physical human work can also produce things that are useful -- but that is NOT "labor" in capitalism or "value" in capitalism.

This doesn't mean that labor does not create value or that money (or capital) is primary in the circuit. I.e. it does NOT (as the above article claims) argue that exchange has to come first. NO, it simply argues that the potential of exchangeability exists--without the ACT of exchange itself yet occuring. This is, again, the SOCIAL part of the relation -- the presumption (and perceived necessity) of the M-C-M' cycle perpetuating itself and the wage being generally exchangeable for goods. In fact, the ACTUAL exchangeability does not have to exist in every instance for labor to be extracted -- all kinds of things (rampant inflation, product shortages, rationing, collapse of a certain currency, etc.) could disrupt that actual exchangeability in a given instance--but in general "abstract labor" would remain abstracted. Marx is fairly clear on this.

There is no basis in the actual works of communization theory for claims such as this:

"Production is concrete labor. Period. Abstract labor is only expressed through the process of exchange. This abstract process subsumes concrete labor and negates its objectivity, thus also negating its role as creator of value. The value-form as validated through exchange in it's totality is the primary creator of value and the contradiction between capital and labor is a relation internal to the value-form process which must be abolished as a process."

For communization theorists, abstract labor exists not through the process of exchange but through the potential of future exchange -- the wage is paid AFTER the work is done and BEFORE it is exchanged for other goods. Value AS SUCH is the production of use-values ("concrete labor" in the above quote) in the interests of exchange (rather than use). Exchange is therefore embedded (as the incentive) in the production itself. That's the topsy-turvy aspect of capitalist relations to productivity, which Endnotes references. Capitalism itself poses (quantified--monetary) exchange as originary, even though exchange HAS NOT HAPPENED yet. The communist point is that things can be made as ends in themselves rather than ends-to-more-money (capitalism) or ends-to-more-things ("productivist" socialism).

In short, Value-form theory tries to describe capitalism. It is a negative critique of capitalism. Whenever the article above says "Value-form theory" or "VFT," you can almost always replace it with "capitalism," since value-form theory is NOT claiming that these things are facts of nature, but facts of capitalism which can (and ought to be) abolished--i.e., it is not an overdetermining totality. The article constantly confuses this, acting like Value-form theory IS saying that the capitalist forms it describes are totalizing or overdetermining--that they are, in short, facts of nature--and thus provides a very poor perspective on what Value-form theory is actually saying or how capitalism works.

People in this conversation

  • Guest - Maju

    I welcome this analysis because my own main criticism of Marxist economic theory is that it is too specifically "capitalist", in the sense that what he says does applies to Capitalism but lacks of a clear analysis of economy outside Capitalism, either before (some attempts but quite blurry and occasionally not really correct) or, critically, after Capitalism itself. In other words: Das Kapital is pretty much useless for the design and implementation of a Communist (or otherwise non-capitalist) economy.

    In this sense, in this age of what I understand is the late stages of the Capitalist mode of production, so dramatically exhausted internal and externally, and in obvious decline, we need a wider economic theory beyond Marx that we can use to eventyally develop communism, eco-socialism or however you imagine and want to call it.

  • I want to clarify some things just really quick, since this was written as a comment and not as a stand-alone article:

    The article this was in reference to is actually talking about communization as such, NOT just value-form theory -- it's talking explicitly about the wing of communization (endnotes particularly) that engages with (but doesn't endorse wholesale) older Value-form theory from people like Chris Arthur. But VFT is NOT equal to communization, and the communization use of it is different than Arthur's or others (who do actually sometimes tend toward a monetary theory of value of some sort). So the title of this post is actually a little deceiving, although it is lifted from the text: In the context of the response, I took it as given that I was referring to the "value-form theory" school explicitly associated with communization (since the original article conflated the two, acting like they were equal) -- so it's NOT a reference to the other value-form theory separate from the communization engagement with it (such as Chris Arthur or the early German appraisals of the Grundrisse), even if there are still connections.

    Also, an illuminating perspective that's cut out of the original article is the fact that another communization group, Aufheben, has actually written a critique of the absence of class struggle from the Marxist economics of Postone (who was/is a major touchstone for later 20th century Marxists), which echoes some of what the original Kasama post is saying but directs it more accurately at someone who is really making those arguments:

    http://libcom.org/library/review-moishe-postone-capital-beyond-class-struggle

    Second, I think that even amongst communization theory there are still real problems with the economic arguments, especially issue around TC's theory of cycles of struggle, the "glass floor" and whether that glass floor also extends to manufacturing bases like China or SE Asia rather than just 1st world tertiary-disposed economies like that of Greece. I certainly think that the approach taken by Endnotes, even, is a more appealing angle for those in regions dominated by tertiary industry, though it's equally arguable that similar phenomena occur in China, for example. But overall I think that China remains a pretty serious factor in the global economy that is not discussed at much length by many in the communization trend -- but I do say that while also being involved in a communization study group that also includes many people who study China to some extent and who all have explicit interest in tackling precisely this question.

  • In reply to: NPC

    Thank you engaging my article NPC. And also it seems that you reread it and made some clarifying points.

    Let me point out a few things, in response to your criticisms.

    First, in the introduction to my article I point out what I am trying to address when I state:

    There are theoretical problems with value-form theory including its reading of Marx's critique of political economy through a systematic dialectic and its interpretation of the relation between concrete and abstract labor. While this article may briefly touch on these topics, its main purpose is to look at communization and value-form theory through its political claims.

    Perhaps instead of claims I should have said instead said implications, though are concrete political proclamations, specifically out of TC and it’s analysis of programmatism that are for me a central point I sought to dig into.
    I would maintain that the political claims and proclamations derive from out of the value form theory I am talking about evolving from Chris Arthur to Endnotes.

    When I talk about a “monetary theory of value” obviously you know I do not pose this but that it comes straight from the writings of Arthur and from what I have read it is upheld by Endnotes. I will quote at length to give the reader some background.

    Endnotes posits that:

    for the value-form theorists Marx’s theory of value, as a monetary theory of value (my italics), is “not a theory about the distribution of social wealth, but rather a theory of the constitution of the social totality under the conditions of capitalist commodity production.” The issue was thus shifted from one of distribution to an overcoming of the form of labour, of wealth and the mode of production itself… http://endnotes.org.uk/articles/4#34


    And repeating a quote from the original article:

    The critical import of value-form theory is that it calls into question any political conception based on the affirmation of the proletariat as producer of value. It recognizes Marx’s work as an essentially negative critique of capitalist society. In reconstructing the Marxian dialectic of the value-form, it demonstrates how the social life process is subsumed under — or “form-determined” by — the value-form. What characterises such “form-determination” is a perverse priority of the form over its content. Labour does not simply pre-exist its objectification in the capitalist commodity as a positive ground to be liberated in socialism or communism through the alteration of its formal expression. Rather, in a fundamental sense value — as the primary social mediation — pre-exists and thus has a priority over labour. http://endnotes.org.uk/articles/4#34


    There are strategic implications that stem from that analysis, and those implications are what I want to bring out.

    The notion that value “as the primary social mediation… has a priority over labor” can lead exactly into the type of notions that Sic puts forward regarding a “historical production of the revolution” where workers deprived of their ability for reproduction will be forced into rebellion against capitalism.

    In other words because the form takes priority over the content social agency is theoretically rejected. The form is what force people to act.

    Obviously I’m not the only critic who brings out the determinism in such a notion, nor I am the most elegant. But the point stands.

    In this sense the theory is not necessarily “good for” economic analysis, if economic analysis is to play any role in broader development of a revolutionary strategy.

    There also things that the economic analysis ignores when it talks about traditional Marxism.

    NPC says:

    I think that it's obvious that we have to abolish the capitalist value-form, the question is simply again one of whether or not one tries to "use" that value form for a period of time (the "socialist transition period") for the benefit of the working-class -- and the point from communization is that this only reinforces the proletariat class category rather than beginning to take it apart (it, like the state, did not tend historically to "wither away"). And this affirmation basically ignores the class struggle -- which, despite the above article's claims to the contrary, is all about the abolition of the proletariat as a class (since its nature as a class is relationally determined by the existence of the bourgeoisie exploiting it).


    First, yes, the value-form needs to be abolished. However it seems that the notion of programmatism as articulated by Theorie Communiste is stuck in an argument with the political economy of A. Leontiv and the USSR which posited that value-form existed in under socialism but no longer existed in a way that oppressed the working class. This was tied to theoretical notion that classes had been abolished in the Soviet Union.

    There were however, as I try to bring out in my article, important developments made by the political economists in China who, didn’t seek to “use” the value-form as NPC speaks of but actively sought to restrict it and abolish it leap by leap.
    One can read Economic Calculation and Forms of Property by Charles Bettleheim or the Shanghai Textbook to look at how some of this was understood.

    If one looks at the attempts to restrict the law of value in revolutionary China, one will see how the political economists and other theorists developed an understanding of how struggle within the political sphere and the transformation of consciousness ultimately would determine the degree to which the law of value could be restricted. Public ownership and state planning were necessary instruments for transitioning to socialism and setting out on the communist road but it was politics that would have to be in command of economics.

    In revolutionary China’s attempt to abolish the value-form, the agency of the people was placed front and center.
    With an analysis that posits value as primary over labor we have political suggestions to the effect that form is determinate over people’s actions.

    It is my feeling that a new political economy must discuss the role of politics and the superstructure and that’s why I always end up mentioning it. My readings of the value-form theory of the Sic trend finds that lacking and thus I have questions regarding its usefulness for developing strategy.

    No doubt these are rough sketches based on the articles by communization theorists on value-form theory that I have read. These are my impressions and they are not meant to be an exhaustive critique.

    I appreciate that NPC went at what I wrote (that’s the whole point) and hopefully I stated (a little) more clearly what I wanted to say and others will jump in.

  • In reply to: Nat Winn

    To me it seems like a clear misreading to see communization as such as the most recent in a linear geneology of value-form theory, even if it uses value-form critiques pretty explicitly.

    First, this is because VFT is not as politically unitary a phenomenon as it seems (see, for example, Proyect's description here: http://archives.econ.utah.edu/archives/marxism/2010w25/msg00043.html).

    Second, it's because even if one does not hold to a monetary theory of value as such--i.e., money or capital as the originator of value--the other major point (and the one that communization is actually drawing OUT of value-form theory) is that capital A) posits ITSELF as such, and, B) VFT pretty accurately describes the exchange side of the economic circle, which is, again, particularly useful for communist organizing in economies that are disproportionately based on exchange and service. It is therefore no coincidence that communization has been adjacent to the new insurrectionary theory, the "precariat" arguments, etc. etc. all of which make similar arguments about these changes in the basic economic formation of the first world -- economic changes which very much affect political intervention.

    The major thing that I see endnotes doing is looking at communization's roots in the European ultra-left, explaining the internal divisions within that tradition (Dauve v. TC) -- this is the content of their first issue -- and then looking at a related trend in VFT in their 2nd issue, which, when both are engaged with, creates a particular trend within communization (that associated with endnotes). This is something that they explicitly say in the first paragraph of their article: "Communisation and Value-form Theory."

    [blockquote]In Endnotes 1 we described the emergence of the theory of communisation in France in the years following May 68. The following text and others in this issue operate within this perspective of communisation, but they also draw heavily upon theoretical developments in the area of Marxian value-form theory and, in particular, upon the tendency of “systematic dialectic” which has emerged in recent years.[/blockquote]

    I'd also point out that Endnotes does seem to more explicitly disavow the programmatism/cycles of struggle argumentation of TC -- i.e., TC's often-cited determinism -- so I do not see where you're getting that as a natural presumption of the theory. And, again, the argumentation in the original article very much ignores where communization has argued explicitly against proponents of VFT such as Moishe Potone, for very similar reasons as the ones you lay out in the original article--the Aufheben critique I cite above.

    As for the China thing -- in one sense you are right, and, again, I think that communization tends to be a little blind to the double question of china. First, the question of what happened during the Mao years. Second, the question of what is happening right now. But the most interesting conversations I have had about that first question have actually all been with others who study communization theory--conversations both public and private, but some of which can be seen in the debate about the Loren Goldner piece which spanned Red Spark and the China Study Group, and where many of these questions were addressed directly. I'd also point out that, using communization theory, I make (somewhat) similar arguments to the ones you do above, re: China (though mostly for the countryside).

    You seem to be saying that communization, while maybe useful on these issues, is ultimately too narrow of a focus. I admit that it's a very specific economic argument--a negative critique of capital. But I think that critique is necessary, and point out that communization never pretends to be a a full roadmap for revolution. It's our job to begin translating new critiques of capitalism into real practice. And I've described elsewhere approaches that I've used in some specific organizing projects which explicitly incorporate a lot of elements from communization.

    The bigger irony, to me, is that in the focus on form, fetish and the exchange cycle, communization actually makes what seems like your precise argument: that the political/superstructural (the "formal" level) is key to actual transformations. Per the USSR, the point is that there was NO political/superstructural change of how factories functioned. In China, this was also true, to my knowledge, of most of the urban experience, except a few attempts (crushed) during the Cultural Rev. In the countryside, however, there were massive experiments in how to reorganize everyday life, and how to order production in a way that was true to a communist politics -- all of course done in the most difficult of material circumstances, and often exhibiting a pattern of quick progress w/ attendant disaster followed by conservative capitulation and return to previous forms of organization.

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