Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Ghost in the Machine

I had been trying to wait until I was over this cold to respond to the fantastic post over at Lumpenprofessoriat on Digital Fetishism. The cold refuses to go, and I don’t want to keep waiting for that apocryphal moment when the conditions are ripe for healthy posting – so up with the post, minus some points on potentials for transformation that I had the best intentions of including, but which will now need to wait for another time… [Updated to add: I’ve just realised that I made this post “live” before I intended… cold, household distractions… apologies to anyone who might have been watching on while I was inadvertently making live edits… *sigh*]

Lumpenprof’s current post picks up on some of the threads from the conversation on our shared confusion over how some critics of Marx argue that recent technological progress has rendered Marx’s labour theory of value out of date. For those interested in backtracking the conversation, the posts to date are:

Devaluing Labour (here)
mmmm… Marx! (there)
Turning the Tables (here)
Digital Fetishism (there)

As Adam gently pointed out, my last post in this exchange didn’t manage to make much sense (under Adam’s prompting, I tried to do a bit better in the comments). Lumpenprof has gracefully overlooked the somewhat unclear way I tried to formulate my questions, and has now revisited the discussion of the labour theory of value in an exceptionally clear form. I’d like to quote the better of portion of this post below – excising a few sentences from the first paragraph, to which I want to return in a bit. Lumpenprof argues:

Under capitalism, value takes the form of a single, homogenous, social substance: labor. It is quite literally the only thing that capital can value. […] However, it is only within capitalism that value takes on such a limited form.

We can imagine a splendid array of things to value: beauty, social justice, clean air, happy children, dance music, baseball, rowdy sex, tasty food, great literature, good booze. For capital, these are only every use-values that become interesting only in so far as they may also be bearers of value. Baseball and booze have been successfully shaped into commodities that have value for capital — clean air and social justice … not so much. For Marx, the end of capital would also mean the end of labor as the sole value that trumps all other values.

Marx is certainly a fan of technology as something which sets the stage for capital’s end through creating the ability to meet our material needs with ever less necessary labor. This could certainly include digital technologies which currently produce such an embarrassing abundance of music and videos that capital has to try to recreate scarcity through legal and electronic counter-measures. However, this is where our current difficulty lies. Simply because we find many things to value online other than the efficiency of labor, this doesn’t mean that capital shares our enthusiasms.

I love these passages, and I think that they are directly on point to what Marx is trying to argue, when he talks about the “labour theory of value”: Marx is precisely not making an argument about labour’s role in the production of material wealth. He is well aware of the increasing role of machinery and technology in the material reproduction of society. For Marx, however, this sets up a central problem for social analysis – why something like the labour theory of value (originating, of course, with the political economists, rather than with Marx) should still seem to capture something central to capitalist society. But Lumpenprof has already expressed this point in a much more elegant way, and so I won’t… er… belabour it here.

I do, though, want to draw attention to the couple of sentences I excised from the passage above – sentences that don’t quite express what I take Marx to have been trying to do. In the process of defining value and discussing its centrality to capitalism, Lumpenprof argues:

Capital lives on a monotonous diet of dead labor unlevened by any other supplemental concerns or desires. And for capital more is always better, so the more dead labor capital can accumulate in the form of either commodities or money the better for capital.

Here I want to make a very quick qualification. Marx does indeed define capital in terms of “dead labour” in various passages – and I take it that this is what Lumpenprof has in mind in the passage above. However, interestingly, Marx does not define value in relation to dead labour alone. Instead, Marx positions dead labour – as bound up into capital – as parasitic on living labour, which alone in Marx’s account preserves and generates value. For Marx, it is this constant investment of living labour that capital needs, and he argues that, no matter how much dead labour capital acquires (in the form of material wealth, means of production, accumulated knowledge of techniques for meeting material needs, etc.), material accumulation will never satiate capital, because what actually drives the system on a deep structural level is the ongoing extraction of living labour – an endless, boundless, instrumental “goal” that operates without regard to any particular substantive endpoint of material wealth.

In such a context, dead labour is constantly accumulated – obsessively accumulated – because structurally, and in spite of appearances that both express and veil this structure, the accumulation of dead labour is not the goal, but instead a means for extracting and absorbing new expenditures of living labour. In this topsy-turvey social structure, the accumulation of dead labour – material wealth and the forces of production – is actually a side effect of the structural drive toward the displacement and reconstitution of living labour. Marx’s initial determinations of the labour-process (in which the labourer is defined as someone who “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 in which the labour-process is defined as “human action with a view to the production of use-values” [Capital, vol. 1 1867 ch. 7]) thus come to be completely inverted under capitalism – raw materials, physical plant, products of previous rounds of production, become important to capitalist accumulation “merely as an absorbent of a definite quantity of labour” (Capital, vol. 1 1867 ch. 7) – with capital structurally indifferent to (although also, in complex ways, dependent on) the concrete form in which this labour is expended, and yet requiring that the expenditure of living labour take place in some form.

This vision of dead labour as an “absorbent” of living labour leads Marx to make heavy use of metaphors of the undead – of vampires, were-wolves, and other animated monsters that originated in living beings, but that now live on only through the extraction of the life force of the living. Thus Marx argues that:

By turning his money into commodities that serve as the material elements of a new product, and as factors in the labour-process, by incorporating living labour with their dead substance, the capitalist at the same time converts value, i.e., past, materialised, and dead labour into capital, into value big with value, a live monster that is fruitful and multiplies. (Capital, vol. 1 1867 ch. 7, bold text mine)

And capital, within its ever-growing material carapace of dead labour, never breaks free of its parasitic relationship to living labour:

Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. (Capital, vol. 1 1867 ch. 10)

For Marx, then, capital accumulates dead labour – but dead labour constantly reanimated by the expenditure of living labour power. Capitalism is a system centred on the production of value, which requires the perpetual reconstitution of living labour, regardless of the level of material wealth. This is a very slight amendment to Lumpenprof’s framing of the issue above, but one which might have some interesting potentials for how we conceptualise what capitalism is – and also how we might conceptualise transformation.

[Public domain images modified from originals at Wikipedia here and here]

4 responses to “The Ghost in the Machine

  1. The Constructivist August 29, 2007 at 3:58 pm

    Nice to see more confirmation that Tom Keenan (in Fables of Responsibility) and Subcomandante Marcos are on to something about Marx.

  2. N Pepperell August 30, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    lol – thanks for the links (I had forgotten about Keenan)…

  3. Pingback: » Fragment on the Working Day

  4. lisa November 26, 2008 at 10:03 am

    I think Mike Wayne is arguing something similar in his Chapter: ‘Commodity Fetishism and Reification: The World Made Spectral’, in his Marxism and Media Studies. Although he is focussed on the commodity specifically. Do you think the process is similar, ideologically? Afterall, labour power is a commodity.

    Wayne describes, amongst other things, how the product of one’s labour – comes back at you to appear alien-like – yet the ghostly presence of the labour that went into it is still there, exactly like, a ghostly presence. I love Wayne’s critique of the movie, Dark City as an allegory of alienation and reification – the imagery of labour power which is not our own. Here are some snippets.

    The Strangers then can be seen as the collective embodiment of human alienation and their power to tune, to alter physical reality at will, is nothing less than an allegory of value and its idealistic materialism, the fantasy of capital to endlessly possess material life as if that materiality had no substance, no ‘resistance’.

    That is, as if its objectification could ever be complete. Further…

    The emphasis which the film places on time…and on the grinding down of time as midnight approaches, recalls Marx’s startling metaphor of deadening, hollowing posession when he writes of man as time’s carcass.

    … and on the other hand, a reflection of capital’s constant drive to control labour, to make it more efficient, convert into machine, in the endless drive to save time. But instead freezing time (freezing the temporary saving of production time by turning it into a fixed ojbect, a machine), because machines cannot work faster and faster, they only be worked upon faster, by labour.

    OK, clock’s ticking, back to work.

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