A reply to Chris Wright on use value

by Jehu

I tried to comment on Chris Wright’s critique of my concept of use-value, but fucking Blogger comment box is terribly difficult to figure out. Twice I posted the damn thing, but it failed. In any case, I meant to tell Wright that he makes a very good point regarding to implication of my formulation of a sentence.

I wrote:

“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, produces value.”

Wright argues this formulation leads to the conclusion I am changing Marx definition of use value

“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.”

This is a good call out.

The phrase, “no matter how unnecessary and even toxic to life”, should not have been used. As Wright explains, it leaves the impression I define productive employment of labor by some normative or moral standard. This wasn’t my intention. In fact, I have long criticized academics who try to define superfluous labor by cherry-picking job classifications. This is an error made by Moseley, Shaikh and Tonak, Harman, etc.

It is impossible to look at actual labor and determine whether this labor produces either value or surplus value. The reason why the critique of superfluous labor has failed to advance is that cherry-picking is the approach taken by academics. Whether a commodity has value can only be determined by its exchange value or price. However, even an object with exchange value or price can be without value.

The point I was trying to make is that an object sold in the market may not have value even if it has a price. Price is an indicator, but no guarantee the things sold has value. To make that point, I inserted the offending phrase and thus left myself open to a charge I was making a normative argument.

My approach to the problem is consistent with Kurz and Postone in that I think superfluous labor is a fundamental labor theory category. It is impossible to understand the trajectory of capital without understanding the concept of superfluous labor time. This is because, as Marx argued, capital makes superfluous labor the condition for necessary labor.

Superfluous labor time is not an exception or special case of capitalist production, but the precondition for socially necessary labor time, i.e., value. The typical academic treats superfluous labor time as an accidental result of capitalist production. In fact, superfluous labor time is the motive of all capitalist production.

Already from the moment it is expended, superfluous labor is superfluous because it is superfluous to the real subsistence of its producers. For this labor time to become capital is not a given; it must become real capital by expanding accumulation. This can only occur if it reenters production by buying still more labor power. Only if this is accomplished does the superfluous become itself socially necessary.

But even here it can be seen that superfluous labor only becomes socially necessary labor by making the further expenditure of superfluous labor time its premise. Thus, what we eventually call surplus value or profit begins as labor time that is superfluous to the needs of its social producers, but not the needs of the exploiter of the producer. It has, in theory, already in part lost its usefulness and is no longer a social use value — a means to satisfy the needs of the community of commodity producers. It serves only the needs of capital and only so long as it does not serve as means of subsistence for its producers.

It follows from this that superfluous labor can become socially necessary only by serving as use value for capital. Right before our eyes, the category, use value, has undergone a qualitative transformation. What is useful is now no longer determined by the needs of the social producers but by the needs of a process standing over against them. The needs of the producers have now been subsumed under the needs of a process for which their real needs are only an expression of the needs of the process. Use value now only refers to the objects that satisfy the needs of capital, a category under which the producers themselves are now subsumed.

I think it can be shown that use value, often thought of as simple and straightforward, has its own history and is nowhere near as simple and straightforward as some would have us believe.

Thus, while I agree with Chris that use value is not a transhistorical category, I disagree with his assertion that, a use value “is only a use-value for capital if it can be used in the production of commodities, that is, for exchange.”

I would substitute the word, “surplus value” for his word, “commodity”; and the term, “self-expansion” for the word, “exchange”. Thus, “a use value is only a use value for capital if it can be used in the production of surplus value for self-expansion.”

I don’t know if he would accept this editing.

A final comment: Value critics go off the rails by assuming Marx is speaking of capitalist production in the first chapter of capital. Capital is not about the buying and selling of commodities in general, but specifically the buying and selling of labor power. The only commodity specific to the capitalistic mode of production itself is labor power. The historical specificity of capital is determined by the historical specificity of labor power as a commodity. Capital does not invent the commodity, it commodifies labor power, which previously was not a commodity. Labor power always produced value; it only produces surplus value by first becoming a commodity with its own value.