On Value and Exploitation: London as ‘Comprador Theater’

Danny has raised a point from Spivak’s argument regarding the character of ‘value’ in reply to my previous post and I agree that he makes a good point.

While I agree with the overall thrust of the post, I don’t think that positioning surplus-value as being overwhelmed by the value of financial capital is really tenable in transnational labour of the type that produces the ‘racial’ trope in the London riots. The consumer goods being ‘looted’ should not be dismissed here. As Marx gestures toward in his writings on primitive accumulation, in a certain way the subject is always super-adequate to itself, and this is the origin of surplus value, rather than it being simply the easiest path to any exchange value. The question is who has the monopoly on appropriation of this value. For me a useful investigation of this is Spivak’s “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value” from Diacritics, still holding up pretty well a quarter of a century on:

“even as circulation time attains the apparent instantaneity of thought (and more), the continuity of production ensured by that attainment of apparent coincidence must be broken up by capital: its means of doing so is to keep the labor reserves in the comprador countries outside of this instantaneity, thus to make sure that multinational investment does not realize itself fully there through assimilation of the working class into consumerist-humanism. It is one of the truisms oí Capital I that technological inventions open the door to the production of relative rather than absolute surplus-value. [Capital I 643-54. “Absolute surplus-value” is a methodologically irreducible theoretical fiction.] Since the production and realization oí relative surplus-value, usually attendant upon technological progress and the socialized growth of consumerism, increase capital expenditure in an indefinite spiral, there is the contradictory drive within capitalism to produce more absolute and less relative surplus-value as part of its crisis management. In terms of this drive, it is in the “interest” of capital to preserve the comprador theater in a state of relatively primitive labor legislation and environmental regulation… To state the problem in the philosophical idiom of this essay: as the subject as super-adequation in labor-power seems to negate itself within telecommunication, a negation of the negation is continually produced by the shifting lines of the international division of labor. This is why any critique of the labor theory of value, pointing at the unfeasibility of the theory under post-industrialism, or as a calculus of economic indicators, ignores the dark presence of the Third World.” p84

I recall we’ve had previous discussions about related topics and I have been trying to figure out what ‘value’ is for a while now, see this post. This previous thinking about ‘value’ was in a general sense as it seemed that any essentialist definition, that located it ‘in’ something or ‘standing in’ for something else (worker’s labour, capitalist exchange), was deficient, and I was thinking about it more in terms of a kind of event of normative equivalence that produced the normative as much as the value. Very similar to what Spvak suggests, but in Deleuzian rather than Derridean terms.

To return to Danny’s comment, if I am reading Spivak adequately, the non-correspondence between the use value of the worker’s labour for the capitalist and its exchange value would normally be determined by a materialist excess of the worker (and not, as Spivak warns, an idealist ‘lack’ or individualist psychologisation, i.e. subject of consciousness). I agree with this point, and I also agree with most of what Spivak argues to the extent that I want to suggest that now it is only a partial account. She assumes an “increase [of] capital expenditure in an indefinite spiral”. This is no longer the case (if it ever was), due to the failure of the debt markets to provide the conditions of possibility for indefinite capital expenditure. I am drawing a bridge across the principle terms of her argument (from the agents of multinational capitalism and their puppets in the comprador theater (developing countries and their manufacturing capabilities)) in a different direction to the one she is. She is following a line of exploitation that she rightly argues was being ignored by most academics who were suggesting at the time that the labour theory of value was inadequate for post-industrial capitalism. I want to suggest that with the relative failure of the debt markets there is not a continuation of the relation she indicates in her essay. My understanding of all this is largely congruent with the argument of this essay in metamute. I want to suggest that the relation of exclusion that Spivak isolates is far more porous now than it was when she was writing. That is my first point.

Secondly, the deconstruction of the representation/transformation chain from labour-power to capital that she carries out in the first two fifths of her essay does not include the specific functioning of debit and consumer credit. The ‘mortgage’ as a way of colonising time means that the future state of a given population of workers is transformed. Brett Neilson has written about this. Although the people rioting could be reconfigured along ‘super-adequate worker’ lines, I simply don’t think this is _currently_ the case. The mechanisms of exploitation Spivak is concerned with don’t seem to exist for the rioters; there is not a separation of worker labour and the means of production because there is no means of production in London at the moment! I may be totally wrong about this, some kind of sociological research needs to be carried and probably already has. From everything I’ve read it seems the case. That was my original point above.

Perhaps a better way to think about it from my perspective, following the logic of Spivak’s essay, is that the developing world is being reproduced in small pockets in the over-developed world. (She indicates a relation between British racism and the international division of labour in a footnote, fn 10, p 83, in the context of British Marxist cultural studies, just before the section Danny quotes above.) I need to make several qualifications here.

I am making a temporal not a spatial argument. Debt produces worker-puppets to play out in a ‘comprador theater’ that exists in the future, not a geographical or spatial differentiation of the over-developed versus the developing worlds, but a historical or temporal differentiation of the present production of a surplus of workers (what I called a surplus of humanity) to be possibly ‘realised’ in the future (or not, and used as a political weapon to extract political capital, as I suggest in the revious post, and which I believe is far more likely). I can frame the rationale for this in the terms of Spivak’s argument.

Spivak assumes an ‘instantaneity of exchange’ in the over-developed countries, correlating with the relation of ‘transformation’ between money and capital, and this excludes the relation of ‘representation’ which defines the relation between labour use-value and money, which characterizes the division of labour in the developing world. For the rioting youth of London there is no instantaneity; they are excluded from these circuits of exchange and only have access to the representational logics of consumerism: the riots are a surplus of affective labour without the ‘labour’ (labour value as use-value for the capitalists).

Or to return to Spivak’s essay:

[As] the subject of super-adequation in labour-power seems to negate itself within telecommunication, a negation of the negation is continually produced by the shifting lines of the international division of labour. This is why any critique of labour theory of value, pointing at the unfeasibility of the theory under post-industrialism, or as a calculus of economic indicators, ignores the dark presence of the Third World. (84)

I am definitely including Third World. I am arguing that the international circuit of debt and consumer credit, the disappearance of access to any mode of production for the ‘super-adequate’ subject and the forthcoming draconian realization (by conservatives and capitalists) of labour-power from this surplus of humanity (the rioters) characterizes the horizon of intelligibility for the rioters and their material conditions of possibility. They are promised a consumerist world on the one hand and excluded by racialised and neo-liberal (Thatcherite dismantling of welfare state and annihilation of worker solidarity) divisions of labour from participating on the other. This is a partial reproduction of what Spivak calls the “pre-modern” (86). It is only partial to the extent that primitive accumulation does not happen, only the conditions that would enable it to occur are produced, with the possibility of it occurring in the future. At the current juncture there is a failure of what Spivak calls the ‘economic text’ to produce value.

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