Towards a Problematic of Value

Below I think about ‘value’ as an event. I move towards asking the question, is it possible to imagine valorisation as the actualisation of value in social relations that are not determined by economic exchange? In short, I am searching for a paradoxical anti-capitalist problematic of value.

As part of my fieldwork chapter I have a section where I dicuss becoming part of the scene. Part of this process was buying a car. Buying a car is not a very exceptional activity, and is common in industrial or post-industrial automobilised societies. However, buying a car — specifically a second-hand car — raises some massive problems for traditional Marxist conceptions of value based around the distinction between labor-value and exchange-value. Exchange-value is the objective value of a commodity realised in social relations of exchange. Labor-value is the value of the labor required to produce the commodity. Surplus-value is the value realised in exchange of the excess labour the capitalist exploits from workers.

Besides the traditional concerns with the notion of value or the focus by bourgeois economists on the psychology of exchange, the first problem for the Marxist conception of value is the emergence of post-industrial relations of exchange and complex post-industrial commodities. I talk about the existance of different markets, such as primary car markets (new cars), secondary car markets (second hand cars), and tertiary car markets (parts of cars — new or second hand). Alongside Fordism, which herald the final stage of the logic of industrial capitalism, was Sloanism (over at GM). To combat the insurmountable lead that Ford had in the automobile market through a maxismisation of labor-value in exchange-value, Sloanism saw the introduction of planned obselescence on a mass-scale through the complex assemblage of the sign-based commodity. The signifier of first newness (annual model) and then complex horizontal and vertical gradations of make and model became part of the commodity, so what was consumed was not just an automobile but what the automobile meant. The difference between Fordism and Sloanism is instructive, but the signifier reified through Sloanism does not yet attain the status of what Debord called the Spectacle. For that it becomes the properly post-Fordist movement away from commodities to the provision of services.

Commodities of a post-Fordist service economy do not have the same commodity-form as the the commodities of the pre-service Fordist economy even though they may actually be the same commodities. For example, Ford sold cars that had a certain utility of automobility. Under Sloanism, GM sold cars that signified a certain meaning (progress, upward class mobility, etc). However, the Spectacle is not merely a revamped Sloanism as a textualised Fordism (or car = text), it is the difference between be sold a car and being sold a reality of which the car is part. The ‘muscle car’ is the clearest example of this of where the capacity of the commodity to herald a certain automobilised masculine reality exceeds both the tool-based utitlity and text-based meaning. The commodity becomes a fragment of reality, and thus reality is fragmented into such event-commodities. Unlike the material reality of labor-value or the exchange reality of commodity fetishism, the reality of the Spectacle is somewhat autonomous from exchange, in the paradoxical sense of the dead labour of event-commodities being lived as consumption. Isn’t this a massive step towards not the Marxist realisation of labour-value in exchange, but the actualisation of new values through non-exchange-based relations of consumption?

One theoretical response has been to displace the centrality of production for consumption. This imagines the political economy in consumerist terms. Cultural Studies has been at the forefront of this creating such enduring nonsense like resistant consumption. This is a backwards step that simply reproduces the materialist dialectic as a willed myopic malfunction. It is born of capitalist eros and plain and simple laziness parading as resistance that is actually a paradoxical undercover yet naked refusal to let go of the cheap expensive comforts of embourgeoisment.

Negri has been playing with the crisis of the labour theory of value since the early 1970s until present. His early works are marked by a much harder (marxist?) line than the later works. So I shall divide them into hard and soft post-labour theories of value. The use of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ is of course an allusion to his ‘affect-value’ turn in later works. The use of affect is slightly misleading as he is using it firstly in the Spinozian sense of a capacity and not affection. Here is a paper from 1989 on Negri’s early works. You can get a sense of how much of a firebrand he was. Here he is a later paper. (Negri explicates part of this argument more fully in the second ‘book’ in Time for Revolution, Kairos, Alma Venus, Multitudo.) I can imagine hard-core little neo-post-Marxists in 20 years writing hysterical odes to the ‘hard’ Negri while trying to repress the ‘soft’ Negri to the back of their… minds.

My problem with Negri’s approach is that he goes down the wrong path of the labour-value-exchange relation. Besides a bunch of possible empirical reasons (labour is too complex etc), he argues the total subsumption of labour and life to capital (or ‘command’) means that thinking about value in terms of labour-value is nonsense because there is no ‘outside’ against which to produce a dialectic. One response to this was already forwarded by Deleuze and Guattari in their notion of “holey space” between striated and smooth space. Holes literally emerge in the social fabric of subsumption, ie the Spectacle in the above terms. Negri’s slightly disingenuous response in Kairos, Alma Venus, Multitudo is to argue that Deleuze and Guattari provide and elaborate way to account for the materialist teleology as it has already played out (and is essentially ‘closed’) rather than the playing out as such. It is slightly disingenuous because although D&G may have never presented a conception of temporality that can account for the spiral action of command’s (or the Spectacle’s) continual re-subsumption of the self-valorising ‘poor’, Deleuze certainly did in Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense. I want to try to imagine ‘value’ precisely as an event and born of a problematic of value or valorisation. (Spivak comes sort of close, but instead writes some comical bullshit about ‘bodies without organs’ in her famous paper on value; whatever.)

By the way, before I get to the good stuff, all this has come to a head because I started thinking about the problem of how to account for the fact that most car enthusiasts modify what are commonly called “shit boxes”. Why bother modifying a shit box (or, for that matter, any car) when the actual exchange value of the car will decrease because of the modifications? Clearly, enthusiasts are operating within their own collective sense of value. This is one of those “getting it” moments. You either “get it” or you don’t, and I am not talking about theory (although I may be), rather I am talking about car enthusiasts. They don’t necessarily try to convince people that what they value is in fact valuable at all; rather they perform the value, it is enacted (all their practices, etc). As a multiplier of energy or power, the enacting or actualisation of value is much more powerful producer of value than any realization of possible value in an advertisement or industrial machine. It is like love, a perfectly singular self-valorisation that may nevertheless be shared; you don’t realise the possibility of love in an advertisement or a machine (“looking for love in all the wrong places”!), love only exists in the wonder of its material enacting.

5 replies on “Towards a Problematic of Value”

  1. g,

    the obvious link between negri and deleuze is known but equally there is the not to hidden presence of Karl Wittfogel in there as well… value and the state surfacing in the later books from here. But tttthen it’s equally true that if negri was actually arguing what you suggest then he would also have to be proposing that science would be impossible… and he doesn’t does he…


  2. steve, this is an unfinished post. I never did get to the good stuff. One element of the problematic of value is the transformation of the commodity from object to image to event and now I argue to the contingency of the event. I was going to begin talking about commodity-events from a Deleuzian POV and what happens to commodity value when a proper materialist temporality is assumed.

  3. Hi Glen (not a real-time reader here 😉 Perhaps interesting is Michael Benedikt’s A GENERAL THEORY OF VALUE (Synopsis)
    1: Information, Complexity, and Life
    2: Value in the Largest View: More Life
    3: Some Evidence for [OMEGA]
    4: The Economy of Tokens
    5: Signs, Self and Force
    6: Need, Value, and Time
    7: The Logic of Exchange
    8: The Nature of Markets
    9: The Meanings of Money
    10: Progress: Towards a Value Ethics
    CODA: The Value of Architecture

    A bit God-bothered for me but seemingly close to Deleuzian vitalism is Benedikt’s GOD, CREATIVITY, AND EVOLUTION: THE ARGUMENT FROM DESIGNERS (2005) at

Comments are closed.