Value and Use Value (a note)

story © Michael Betancourt, September 22, 2014 all rights reserved.


A transformation in the nature of currency reflects underlying shifts in the nature of value production: the dominance of semiotic production has produced a shift in the function of currency from its historical foundation in preserving past labor (value) to being a lien against future production (a debt that acts to set labor in motion). This change in the nature of production—the rise of semiosis that is the primary technique of digital capitalism—has come to dominate value and the organization of labor, with the concomitant effect on the nature of currency. The shift this change entails is a rupture with both classically conceived value and Karl Marx’s own set of basic assumptions about the organization of labor. In these historical views value resides with labor already performed—preserved in the commodities thus generated, and whose value is linked to the use value that the commodity has. This construction brings human wants, needs and desires into the framework of valorization both directly (through the functional role of the commodity) and indirectly (through the consumer’s desire for the commodity, quite apart from its uses).

If then we leave out of consideration the use-value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labor. But even the product of labor itself has undergone a change in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use-value, we make abstraction at the same time from the material elements and shapes that make the product a use-value; we see in it no longer a table, a house, yarn, or any other useful thing. Its existence as a material thing is put out of sight. Neither can it any longer be regarded as the product of the labor of the joiner, the mason, the spinner, or of any other definite kind of productive labor. Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labor embodied in them, and the concrete forms of that labor; there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of labor, human labor in the abstract.

Let us now consider the residue of each of these products; it consists of the same unsubstantial reality in each, a mere congelation of homogeneous human labor, of labor-power expended without regard to the mode of its expenditure. All that these things now tell us is, that human labor-power has been expended in their production, that human labor is embodied in them. When looked at as crystals of this social substance, common to them all, they are — Values.

We have seen that when commodities are exchanged, their exchange-value manifests itself as something totally independent of their use-value. But if we abstract from their use-value, there remains their Value as defined above. Therefore, the common substance that manifests itself in the exchange-value of commodities, whenever they are exchanged, is their value. [Capital vol 1, sect 1 pp 8-9]

As Marx’s description of use value makes clear, what a commodity is for is separate from his conception of the value that commodity has as a reservoir of production—however, there is an implicit assumption that lies in the ability to exchange one commodity for another: that there is a market for that product. No market necessarily means no ability to access the value produced by labor, thus no profit—this formulation links the commodity to use value in an implicit, but direct way. It also links the nature of the commodity as a reservoir of past labor to value, creating a direct progression: (human) labor creates the commodity, the commodity enables exchange, exchange accesses the value reified as the commodity itself through the proportional, mutual transfer of different commodities, as Marx notes:

Use-values must therefore never be looked upon as the real aim of the capitalist; neither must the profit on any single transaction. The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at. This boundless greed after riches, this passionate chase after exchange-value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser. [p 92]

By eliding the usefulness of the commodity and the nature of the labor used to generate it, Marx’s analysis is focused on the abstract concept of value that emerges from this process; his elision severs the links in the abstract, yet those connections remain implicit to the exchange process he describes, connections that when he wrote his theory could be taken as “givens.” This abstraction of labor into value relies on exchange to realize those values: the use for a particular commodity (whether in the direct application—what it is for—or in the metaphysical sense of meeting the consumer’s psychological and emotional demands) is part of what supports a particular valuation of a commodity. These relations are implicit in the concept of exchange value, even if they play no role in the abstracted description of the process. Human desire, not simply the financial concern of profit (although, again, the human desire for ever greater profit, or “greed,” is instantly recognizable in this logic), mediates exchange, a fact that inherently brings use into the consideration of value.

This connection of use value to both value and exchange is incompatible with semiotic production’s unintelligent mode of value generation: the creation of values without use, coupled with a currency form based in futurity—currency as a setting-in-motion of labor, rather than preserving of past labor—separates value from the proximate concerns of social reproduction and the maintenance of living labor (the human population). The antagonistic relationship between digital capitalism and the Social is an emergent result of this structural logic; it is a necessary result of their incompatibility. Social concerns are proximate and the conception of value in digital capitalism is futurity, eliding both historical production and proximate concerns.

Shifting value from preservation of past labor to setting-in-motion of future labor means the current demands of human labor—the Social requirements that human labor is able to purchase commodities (always already primarily connected with use—food, clothing, housing, health care, etc.—particular to the maintenance of the Social) are eliminated from consideration precisely because they do not figure in the structural logic of digital capitalism. The replacement of human labor in the generation of commodities via autonomous systems is not simply a change in production, it is also a fundamental shift in the nature of value. Shifts in the conceptualization of exchange also follow the basic change to production. Use value is entirely absent from this construction, reflecting the aura of the digital: use imposes constraints through reference to a physical realm of human desire and demand that production have an application. This limitation is of an entirely different order than those limits on semiotic production created by the scarcity of capital; instead of limits emerging from the allocation of labor (the setting-in-motion of labor depends on there being surplus labor that is idle), use value constrains exchange and the capacity to generate profit independently of production.

The limits imposed by the necessity for use value in production reveal the nature of the setting-in-motion basis of currency in digital capitalism. The shift to debt-basis that defines this currency is a logical extension of capitalism’s foundations in reified agency—the externalization of labor’s productive capacity that circulates as a commodity is a disembodiment of agency, its separation from the labor that embodies it. This separation is the enabler for the law of automation and the shift from human to automated systems; at the same time, it also being a trajectory towards currency as a setting-in-motion of labor: this debt-based currency is at the same time founded upon the abstracted agency it represents. The agency-as-commodity that labor exchanges finds form in the currency of digital capitalism, a transfer of function that is still dependent on the social relationship inherent to all currencies, debt-based and otherwise.

Futurity is the essential condition of this political economics: it is not oriented towards established production, but instead focuses on the capacity to call into existence (futurity) that agency embodies. This transfer is a natural outcome of the initial shift to externalize agency in service to commands that are independent of that labor. The centralization of authority as well as the hierarchies of management within corporate structures develop this disembodied agency specifically as a requirement of the capitalist system itself. The shift from a human-based hierarchy to one that is instrumental (the digital) insures the maintenance of that order independent of human control. The elimination of use value from the constraints on this productive system (semiotic, physical, autonomous) serves to elide the human element from consideration.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  September 22, 2014  all rights reserved.

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