Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Note on "Use-Value" and "Useful" in Capital

Jehu has been having an extended argument with the Value-Form reading of Marx at his blog, which is of mixed interest. However, in this post he takes up whether or not military goods are use-values and useful, and thus whether or not they are potential values and sources of surplus-value or if they are "fictitious capital", as the kids say these days.

They key to Jehu's notion of useful is clear in his last paragraph:

"While the value-form school denies labor is the source of value, their approach to value paradoxically ends up saying all labor expended in our society which is realized in prices, no matter how unnecessary and even toxic to life [italics mine - CDW], produces value. In the value-form school argument, all labor produces value when the product of that labor is sold for money[italics mine - CDW]."

The first problem to note is that this is a moral evaluation of useful and use-value. I don't mean this in a strictly negative way, but to point out that the idea of "useful" is already treated in a specific way.

So the first question is, is Marx using a moral evaluation of use-value and usefulness? Not primarily. Rather, Marx's notion of useful and use-value operates largely on other levels.

Firstly, I would suggest that the concept of use-value in Marx is, from the beginning, not a strictly universal concept, that is, there technically are no "use-values" in non-capitalist societies because there is no value. There certainly are "useful" things in all societies, things that exist and have meaning in that society because they are used purposefully. Food, generically speaking, is transhistorically useful in this sense and Marx certainly conceptualizes use-value as the capitalist social form of transhistorical usefulness, as one moment of the social form of wealth. However, use-value only arises as a term in relation to value, in the split of value into use-value and exchange-value. In the absence of Marx working through the rationalist division of the commodity as a value into use-value and exchange-value, the notion of use-value would have no meaning. Use-value is a value-theoretic concept, the particular social form of a universal, that is, of some things being useful to some people. Just as Marx makes the point that "eating" is universal, but what is eaten and how is always particular and those aspects tell us something about who is eating. The universal only has existence in and through the particular, that is, there is no universal as such except as a bare abstraction, and at the same time the particular would be merely contingent if it was not also universal.

I would suggest this argument depends on us being wholly immersed in capitalist society from the first sentence of Capital. Marx is not arguing about use in a transcendental, trans-historical sense as such.

Secondly, use-values are use-values in relation to capital not only as a prerequisite for something to be exchanged (something without use-value cannot be sold because it has no use for anyone, and in the world of political economy no one would exchange something for nothing), but because they serve valorization as the other aspect to exchange-value. If a commodity can only be an exchange-value if it is a use-value for someone else, in turn, a commodity is only a use-value for capital if it can be used in the production of commodities, that is, for exchange.

As a side note, one distinctly Hegelian dimension to Marx's writing is his understanding that all relations cut both ways; in this case that 1) use-value is and is not transhistorical, 2) use-value is determinate of the validity of the exchangeability of a commodity and is simultaneously determined as useful to its seller only as exchangeable. I'm making this point because of all of the anti-Hegelian nonsense, which largely gets its Hegel from traditional Marxism, and which fails to grasp that one of the key aspects of Hegel's way of conceptualizing that Marx carries into his own work ("dialectical" conceptuality) is not simply contradiction or opposition (which are not the same in Hegel), but the self-contradiction of each pole of an opposition, that is, Hegelian doubling. Marx is intimately aware of this doubling and the inadequacy of the binary oppositions in the kind of thinking Hegel relegates to the Understanding and whenever one sees some kind of antinomy or binary in Marx, one should be aware that generally it indicates a conceptual inadequacy Marx is presenting in order to surpass.

Thirdly, while Marx never abandons use-value, exchange-value, concrete labor, abstract labor, etc., he will point out their limitations as inadequately developed and justified by political economy, without abandoning them, much as Hegel critiques the underdetermined, abstract quality of sense-certainty, perception, and the Understanding, even as he will return to them again and again later in the Phenomenology of Spirit as more and more richly determined.

Fourthly, it is a mistake to assume that Marx has had his final say on these concepts at the beginning of his work. In fact, the beginning of the work is necessarily where the concepts appear in their most underdetermined fashion. The separation of the producers from the means of production here appears only as an assumption which will eventually have to be validated in the results of Capital, so it is only fully fleshed out in the last chapters of Capital on originary accumulation and, as Werner Bonefeld has argued in his essays on it, that originary accumulation is not merely historical - which would be a historicist explanation, something Marx is actually never guilty of - but becomes the structural precondition of all accumulation. In other words, all accumulation is the reproduction of the separation of the producers from the means of production, the reproduction of the determinate social relation (Capital) and its constitutive social form (Labor).

To this end, the concept of use-value comes up again and again. Use-value is thus embedded within value and valorization (chapter 1), later within production (starting in chapter 7), and then within reproduction and circulation (Vol. 2 vis-a-vis the departments.) It is not merely about what is useful to individuals, but about whether or not a commodity is sufficiently useful for buyers to exchange money for them, whether it is useful for capital (for production undertaken for the generation of surplus-value), and then whether it is useful for the reproduction of either capital or labor.

In its first moment, therefore, the use-value of a commodity comes closest to the moralistic view of a useful thing for a person because some person with money has to want the thing, and here it is only considered as a thing of use in consumption. After chapter 7 Marx develops the idea that labor is what is useful for capital because it is the determinate social form of the production of abstract wealth, of value and, most importantly from the point of view of capital as self-expanding, surplus-value. Labor is only useful for capital if it contributes to valorization.

What kind of labor contributes to valorization? Is it the kind of labor that produces a commodity as a material thing, as is seemingly implied in the first chapters of Capital? This is, after all, what many critics of Marx argue, that he has a self-contradictory notion of value and labor in this section. However, before Marx completed Volume 1, we know that in his notebooks published as Theories of Surplus-Value, Marx has a famous and under-appreciated discussion of what makes labor valorizing in his discussion of the labor of a clown. Marx's humor and fine sense of irony, much like Hegel's, is rarely appreciated, so the joke is generally missed (as are all the jokes in Capital, especially in footnotes, as Nichole Pepperell has brilliantly written on in her dissertation and her excellent Uncomfortable Science blog.) Marx distinguishes between two ways in which the clown might labor. In the first, the clown sells his labor to a family and then goes about his clowning for them. This is explicitly not capitalist labor or value-producing, this is just a service. However, if the clown is employed by a capital(ist), is payed a wage because he/she sells his/her labor as a commodity, and has his/her clown services (the product of his/her labor) sold as a commodity to customers, we have entered the realm of the value-form, of value-producing labor, The product of labor need not be a material thing, but can be a service, a material relation if you will, because what determines the validity of the labor is its usefulness for the capital as a commodity it can sell and its usefulness for the consumer, in this case, enjoyment or entertainment.

However, Marx's thinking on usefulness and use-value goes further. In Volume 2 of Capital, Marx discusses circulation and reproduction and the two departments. Department 1 involves reproducing capital qua means of production and Department 2 involves reproducing labor as expanded labor power. At this point, Marx notes that a commodity and the labor that produces it is only a use-value if it contributes to the reproduction of the means of production or of labor power. Our fine friend the clown, a wage-laborer to Clown Temps, Inc., has his services sold to people who are entertained by his services, which may certainly refresh them in order to then go back to work and might in fact entertain their children as future labor, thus contributing to the reproduction of labor. Further, the sale of the clown's services results in a surplus to the employing entity, which can then reinvest the value in the existing means of clowning (costumes, clown cars, balloons, etc.) and in the labor of the clown qua wage, but the surplus may also be used to engage in expanded clowning, whether more clowns or the selling of clowning videos or live clown streaming.

I would argue that this means that state ownership of the means of production does not in-itself mean that the production is not adding to the accumulation of value. The issue is never who owns the means of production, but whether the activity conforms to the capitalist social form. If the state owns a concrete factory, pays its workers a wage, sells the concrete to construction companies, and the factory makes surplus which it plows back into expanded reproduction, it is doing nothing differently from any other owner of capital.

Finally, we should note that, for Marx, artistic works that are not reproducible don't count as values. If the commodity cannot be reproduced, then it isn't a commodity. All that monetization indicates in this instance, is that someone is willing to part with income they would otherwise spend on something else, not that it contributes to the production of value. In fact, it might detract from the accumulation of capital in some small way.

This certainly means that many forms of labor that crass Marxism looks down its nose at, such as computer programming and flipping hamburgers, are in fact socially valid useful labors, producing use-values as long as the programmer and line cook are employed as wage-labor by a capital who sells their service as a commodity, and the programs and hamburgers go to the reproduction of capital and/or labor. The materiality of the commodity is not at issue. The harmful or helpful nature of the commodity is not at issue. Even the social form of the labor, taken in isolation, is not adequate.

Does this lead to a conflation of use-value with the problem of productive vs. unproductive labor? After all, lots of labor and a variety of products of nature have a use-value for capital without necessarily contributing to the production of value.

For example, in Historical Materialism Vol. 4, Murray Smith, taking a view similar to Fred Moseley, proposes that two types of labor are essentially unproductive: labor expended in the circulation of commodities and labor expended in supervision. Moseley notes the unproductive aspect of both as essentially 1) labor involved in the changing of titles to a commodity and 2) enforcement of labor discipline.

The first is useful, but unproductive, labor because...

"Circulation labour is labour related to the exchange of commodities and money, including such functions as buying and selling, accounting, check processing, money exchange, advertising, debt-credit relations, insurance, legal counsel, securities exchange, etc. Marx argued that circulation labour does not produce value and surplus-value because exchange is essentially the exchange of equivalent values. Circulation labour only transforms a given amount of value from commodities to money, or vice versa."

As for supervisory labor, as Marx notes in the beginning of Chapter 7 of Capital, supervision of the worker because...

"He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be."
Does this mean that use-value isn't necessarily connected to exchange-value? Was the entire point that use-value is always-already the social form in which usefulness is made actual in capitalist society therefore false?

That would be an incorrect conclusion.

Firstly, these unproductive labors are certainly use-values for capital within the total circuit of capital, activities that are necessary for the completion of the circuit and the maximization of efficiency in labor-time. Secondly, like everything that counts as a use-value to capital, they can be monetized. In a peculiar reversal of the typical conception of the relation of use-value to exchange-value, in which something can have exchange-value because it is a use-value, being expressed as an exchange-value, that is, being expressed in money, gives something a use-value. Arguably, the hypertrophy of this aspect of the doubled relationship of exchange-value to use-value within society as a whole is a central proposition of Guy Debord's notion of spectacle.

Murray Smith proposes an interesting way of thinking about where this unproductive labor falls within the circuit of capital, since most Marxists who accept the notion of unproductive labor treat it as part of Constant Capital (but not Fixed Capital), but that is beyond the scope of this note. He and Moseley both see the extensive expansion of non-productive labor since WWII as the second greatest source of the declining rate of profit, alongside the increasing organic composition of capital.

Neither Smith nor Moseley are really considering whether or not the production of military goods purchased by the state would count as value-producing. In fact, based on their conception, there is no reason that the production of military goods or luxury items for non-workers would not be values, that is, part of surplus-value production. For example, it seems that even if military goods are not productively consumed, their production and purchase, even if it is being paid out of taxes, is going towards expanded reproduction of new capital and labor, and, maybe because it is coming out of tax money, is essentially a redistribution of wealth from workers' incomes to capital.

On the other hand, if we think of it from the perspective of use-value in the sense in which Anselm Jappe uses it, then the scope of unproductive labor in the economy is much, much larger than Smith or Moseley account for, putting even greater pressure on the rate of profit. Military production, among other kinds of production that do not reproduce either department or, to put it another way, which cannot be productively consumed, would essentially be what is called "fictitious capital". However, it may be worth asking if "productively consumed" here is not just sneaking a moral category back into the discussion. If tanks are produced and purchased by the state, could they be productively consumed? If the tanks are used to overthrow a hostile regime and secure access to resources at a lower cost, were they unproductively consumed? Or to put it differently, what constitutes "productively" in our "productively consumed"? I would suggest that once again, we can only work through by paying attention to the doubling in productively consumed.  After all, the productivity of the tank for the producer is not in question, as they sold it for a profit.  However, since the tank cannot be consumed by another capital as capital (as means of production, raw materials or labor power) and cannot be consumed by workers as part of the reproduction of labor power, that is, since tanks cannot be productive in the sense I believe appropriate to Vol. 2 of Capital, then overall they are not bearers of value and do not add to valorization, but constitute a loss from the total social value, as the money going to unproductive production could have gone to value-producing capital.

More importantly, however, is whether or not the non-identical conceptualizations of value-producing labor here can work together or are they mutually exclusive. We have two very different conceptions of what would allow us to conceive of a distinction between productive and unproductive labor. The Smith/Moseley conception distinguishes between labor that adds value and labor that does not, but it's use-value is not in question, as it is most certainly useful, insofar as capitalist reproduction cannot take place without exchanges, changes of title, etc.. Instead, what is at issue is whether or not the labor contributes to the production of the commodity directly, but what if the commodity is the activity? Isn't the service the commodity? In which case, if the labor is the commodity itself, a particular activity, wouldn't that drive us back to the distinction between useful and not useful in the sense used by Anselm Jappe, which I have suggested is certainly present in Marx's work?

One thing I can say for sure is that I have not seen anything in the conceptualization by Smith/Moseley that would necessarily be rejected by Value-Form theorists. In fact, Smith considers himself a value-form theorist. As such, there is no basis for saying that value-form theory necessarily precludes distinguishing between productive and unproductive labor, though as I point out, if labor services can be commodities then there might be a problem with the way Smith/Moseley draw their distinction. It is possible that Arthur, Tony Smith, and the various Neue-Marx Lekture reject the the distinction between productive and unproductive. Jappe's conception is not necessarily at odds with Moseley and Smith. His point that "it has to be “productive labor” in the capitalist sense (that means that it does not only consume capital but helps to reproduce it)", is not far from their conception, since circulation and supervisory labor "consume capital" but do not help to reproduce it insofar as they aren't the labor actually producing the commodity, but a policing labor and therefore a faux frais of the requirement of capital to impose "close attention".

Further, if the distinction is primarily normative, as it is in that statement by Jehu, then there is no basis for it in Marx. Whether Marx's conception of use-value as it develops over the course of Capital in the way I have indicated, or that used by Anselm Jappe, or the conception used by Smith and Moseley, it is never a primarily normative concept. It is immanent to capital as a totality. That it comes into conflict with the ethical is not something to deny, but that problem is internal to the conflict over what is useful to actual individuals and what is useful to capital as a form of domination.

I believe there is still a conceptual difficulty with Jappe and Smith/Moseley, however, and this is around the idea that particular labors can, in and of themselves, be useful products as services, whereas both their conceptions lend themselves towards only conceiving of commodities as things.  I am going to call this "the clown problem" because clearly in Marx's conception in Theories of  Surplus Value, it is the social form of labor that determines it as value-producing, not the physicality of the product of the labor.  If I am right about the 3-fold (at least) determination of use-value and therefore the distinction between productive and unproductive labor in Marx's work, then there also is no contradiction in Marx's conception of value but a contradiction in the conceptions of those who mistakenly believe Marx fully worked out his concept in the first three chapters of Volume 1 of Capital,


  1. Jehu replied to me here:

    His suggested change to my formulation at the end of his piece seems perfectly fine to me.

  2. I didn't know where to post this, correct me if I'm mistaken. I have a genuine interest in Marx, but how would you interpret him saying, "It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way". He said this after writing an article for the New York Daily Tribune, on the Indian mutiny in 1857, in a letter to Engels.

  3. I don't know what to tell you about a bit of a cynical personal letter between two men trying to get Marx an income at the expense of the Daily Tribune. I am quite sure he wrote all manner of things he wasn't really sure of, but had to write something to get a check without wanting to utterly compromise himself. Are you suggesting this offers some deep doubt on Marx's part that dialectic was anything other than chicanery?

  4. I'm not trying to suggest anything. I'm sort of a neophyte when it comes to Marx...but I found this letter by chance. I don't know what to make of it. Do you think this quote calls into question Marx's theories or Marx and Engels's ideas on dialectics?

    Then again, I haven't read Marx or Engels in depth. Thank you for the reply, really appreciate it!

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