Surplus Humanity


Most of the cynical left that I am friends with and/or follow through social networks are pointing out that the ‘name’ celebrity academic/activists, such as Slajov Zizek, Antonio Negri or Alain Badiou, will proclaim that the London riots signal the death of capitalism. Capitalism is an event, repeated in different ways throughout history. There is a history of development that describes the conditions by which actually existing capitalism emerged, but even in the unlikely event of a ‘communist utopia’, the event of capitalism will be repeated in different ways. Rather than the death of ‘capitalism’, the London riots, as well as many other events around the world, signal the death of myths around ‘value’. At a macro level, ‘value’ has little meaning.

I’ve been thinking about this as a peripheral issue of a paper I am writing regarding the changes to the industrial manufacturing landscape in Australia in the 1980s. Various conceptions of ‘value’ are no longer useful. The marxist conception of value is not really relevant anymore when there is a massive disjunction between the ‘value’ extracted from the labour that has gone into producing most consumer goods versus that which has been exchanged to buy such consumer goods (with ‘profit’ realised in the exchange, the normative ‘capitalist’ definition of value). Both of these ‘values’ have been utterly annihlated in relation to the ‘value’ of financial markets. That is, it doesn’t really matter how or where surplus value is extracted from workers when the entire ‘value’ of countries is exchanged through speculative markets. But even this is currently troubled, particularly in the exchange of debt. Restricted access to consumer debt means it can’t be used as a method of social control. As Terry Wassall has suggested:

If the main means of social control are fear and debt how do you control people with no fear, no credit, no future and nothing to lose?

On the more nebulus end of the spectrum, there is little ‘value’ in ‘respectability’ (working class) or ‘carrying on’ (middle class) when the situation in a given social context won’t get better. In the context of disenfranchised youth, the ‘value’ of education has been diminished by the lack of opportunities versus the cost relative to the those who have not pursued further education. More often than not, the concept of ‘dignity’ is used as a weapon, if it exists, or it has been destroyed by the existential scorched earth of consumerism. Zygmunt Bauman has descibed the riots as a social minefield made up of defective consumers:

For defective consumers, those contemporary have-nots, non-shopping is the jarring and festering stigma of a life un-fulfilled – and of own nonentity and good-for-nothingness. Not just the absence of pleasure: absence of human dignity. Of life meaning. Ultimately, of humanity and any other ground for self-respect and respect of the others around.

That is too easy. Besides a variation of the anomic reactionary values of belonging that in Australia we would call ‘mateship’, consumerism is the only possibility of ‘value’ allowed to most disenfranchised youth. It is not the value in itself they need, but a system of value that is available to them when all others have been ruthlessly destroyed and access denied. This has been a very long process. Decades. All possible social supports are eroded across a range of mechanisms from the architectural design of public housing that is designed for efficiency over community to more topical issues of support such as direct welfare payments. With recent ‘austerity’ packages in various national contexts, the structural conditions of possibility are even further diminished. Surely everyone can understand the rioters are not stupid, but frustrated; they not only understand this, but feel it and live it?

The soft machinery of capitalism will have to produce new ‘values’ and that will be the eventual response in the UK. A group will be isolated as the ‘problem’, become targets and not simply removed but used as a resource for political capital. It is a common pattern for neo-liberal governments who refuse to actually solve problems. The best result will involve the production of ‘value’ at a community-level or maybe even subcultural-level. (This is what needs to be taken from the majestic BCCCS studies of youth; they produced ‘value’ for themselves when they were otherwise also mostly inscribed as surplus humanity.)

7 replies on “Surplus Humanity”

  1. 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 con- tinuity 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

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