The Metaphysics of Value (was The Geography of Class Struggle)

LeoCasey at LeoCasey at
Fri Jul 14 14:06:17 MDT 1995

Now Scott declares himself the master of polemic and sarcasm, before whom my
feeble attempts at discourse are just so many pesky flying insects. He is
welcome to the title. Polemic and sarcasm are the intellectual equivalent of
street brawling, and while one needs to know the rudiments of self-defense
when one is jumped, there is no pride to be taken in mastery of this form of
rhetoric. It is at best a necessary evil. I am not prepared to play the
willing victim when Scott, punch drunk champion of Gus Hall, wades into the
fray, but I take no pleasure in this form of belligerent conversation.
Flaming is an appropriate metaphor for a consuming, rather than producing,
mode of exchange in which the heat makes it rather difficult to approach the

The point of my original posting which set off Scott's conflagration was to
try to begin a conversation on what has been one of the more interesting and
productive areas of research within Marxist and post-Marxist discourse,
geography, and what that research might tell us about the increasingly
important geographical dimensions of contemporary class struggle (the urban
v. the suburban, the inner city, etc.). That is still a worthwhile
discussion, and I hope we could attend to it. Insofar as Doug is correct that
a great deal of our exchange is self-critical, some balance could be restored
precisely by shifting discussion from the weaknesses of the Marxist tradition
to productive areas of contemporary Marxist and radical research.

Unfortunately, however, a discussion of the increasingly important
geographical dimensions of contemporary class struggle, and the historical
changes which have highlighted those dimensions, carries with it an implicit
renunciation of time honoured and long worshipped articles of faith in some
geriatric quarters (the primacy of the industrial working class, the
centrality of the point of production, etc.). This is too much for Scott to
bear, and he has to rush in to defend the besmirched virtue of diamat.

When he isn't whaling (and wailing) away at straw arguments of his own making
(as when he imputes to me, against my own words, the position that
"industrial workers have disappeared and that "only" sevice sector jobs are
left"), Scott's argument takes the form of "the more things change, the more
they remain the same." Yes, the ranks and power of every major industrial
union has been decimated, but these unions are still the center of the
working class universe; yes the industrial workforce in steel is half of what
it was less than two decades ago, but steel is still the center of the US
political economy; yes, the only unions in the AFL-CIO which have grown in
this period are the public sector unions and yes the leaders of the current
revolt in the AFL-CIO are from public sector unions, but this is completely
irrelevant to the grand sweep of history -- it is like saying that Sweeny is
wearing a "green shirt" so it is his "green shirt" which is the source of the
revolt. (I'll leave it to the students of logic to decipher the trajectory of
that red herring; at least it leaves me waving a "green shirt" instead of a
"bloody shirt.")

Let's cut to the chase here, and to the one central contention, straight out
of diamat, which makes it possible to ignore historical development in the
political economy. It came in the first of Scott's missles:
>Where is the majority of profit and wealth created now if not in the >basic
manufactoring industry? What is the *main* source of surplus >value? Is there
some other source of homes, factories, cars, >electronics, computers, food
preperation, energy, transportation, >tools, clothing, shoes, bridges,
highways, aircraft, furniture, paper, >video and audio tape, fishing rods &
boats, books, beer, microfilm >readers etc etc etc. Or are these things now
immortal and not >consumed in their use. As far as I can tell these things
are still >produced by workers.
Value is that category in which one finds the unchanging essence of class
formation and class struggle under capitalism, the key to all the mysteries
of commodity production. The industrial working class produces value unlike
other sectors of the workforce; this production of value gives it special
insight into the nature of capitalism, leading to advanced class
consciousness, and gives it the power to bring the entire political economy
to a grinding halt. Ergo, the industrial working class (of whatever size and
influence, regardless of changes in the structure of the political economy)
is at the center of all class struggle.

At this point in the argument over the primacy of the industrial working
class it serves little purpose to go over the same ground of historical
development without addressing directly this central contention, this
metaphysics of value. At the outset, let me say that I do believe that the
theory of surplus value has a certain heuristic value, that is, it is an
useful device for placing in reveal the structures of economic exploitation.
But as the foundation for a theory of social class and class struggle, it
leads into a 'dead end'. Let me forego the arguments concerning the
philosophical underpinnings of Marx's category of value, and thus, the
ultimate source of its difficulty, and instead focus on the complete
inadequacy of the class theory which is built on its foundations.

An example from Marx which arose in Chris B's contribution to the debate is
especially illustrative of the problems here.
>I read Scott to argue that surplus value is raised from the
>manufacturing sector. Most of the examples in Marx are from
>manufacturing but a) he says that a commodity may meet a need of
>the imagination b) he gives the example of a teacher creating >surplus value
provided, he says, the teacher is employed by a
>capitalist. I wonder who employs the teachers in Leo's union?
The state, Chris. And this points out precisely the weaknesses of class
theory rooted in the category of value. If we follow through the logic here,
a teacher working for the state (as most teachers do) do _not_ produce value,
and fall into that category of unproductive workers, while a teacher working
for a private employer (in a church sponsored or ruling class academy) do
produce value. So if a student taught by a teacher in a public school and a
student taught by a teacher in a private school both obtain the same job
(let's say a skilled machinist in a manufacturing industry) where they both
use the same skills taught to them in their respective schools, what, pray
tell, makes the public school teacher unproductive while the private school
teacher is productive? And if anyone can work their way out of that
notoriously difficult logical mess (there have been various attempts, most of
which have tried to jettison Marx's analysis of 'productivity'), need I point
out that the experience in education runs completely counter to the
implications Marx wants to draw out of this distinction -- it has always been
the public school teacher which has been in the forefront of labor and
education struggles, and the most militant and the most politically aware.
And try to explain Marx's continuing image of the state as a 'parasite' upon
productive labor, from the Eighteenth Brumaire to the Civil War in France,
while you are at it.

It is possible to endlessly multiply similar examples -- how the janitorial
staff in a car factory is productive, but workers doing essentially the same
task in an insurance office building are not; the difficulty and so on -- but
I think the basic point is clear. By further illustration, I would refer to
the character of the different efforts over the last twenty-five years to
develop class theory using a basic Marxist category of value -- such as
Poulantzas' Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, Carchedi's On the Economic
Identification of Social Classes and Erik Olin Wright's theory of
contradictory class locations. Each of these works have been incredibly
complex systems of taxonomy, as endless twists and turns are required to
maintain the Marxist category of value in the face of actual class struggle
and relations, and each has, as a result, been of little practical value and
of virtually no consequence. As works of theory, they have been still-born
and barren (to mix my own metaphors of production), yielding no further
fruit. Thus, when Poulantzas later wants to address the issue of the
power-knowledge link in class relations in State, Power, Socialism, he does
not return to his own elaborate taxonomy, but engages Foucault. By contrast,
let us look at the analysis of the 'de-skilling' of labor, the labor process
and scientific management undertaken by Braverman, Marglin, Edwards and
other. This strain proved to be a very interesting and productive analysis of
 class relations, precisely because it moved away from the category of value
into a study of actual historical developments, and understood production as
a discursive process rather than the emanation of a natural law of the
political economy. Consequently, the question of the relationship between
power and knowledge in the production process was opened up for analysis and
political action. (Could it be that Lenin's embrace of Taylorism was a little
more than a personal theoretical blindness? That it had its origins in the
category of value itself?)

I think it may be time to draw this debate to a close, at least with respect
to Scott and I. I would be greatly surprised if any of my argumentation would
cause him to rethink diamat articles of faith. My point here has been that
class struggle is not fixed by natural laws of the economy, but a continually
changing historical process, and we ignore the changes in its nature at our
own peril.

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