further draft of subject-objectOctober 24, 2011
Perhaps it borders on narcissism to think that the world is interested in following the successive redrafting of the scripts to my videos. But I suppose there are worse things to clutter the internet with. I do always find feedback quite useful. This is the 2nd half of my Law of Value 8: Subject Object script, totally reworked. I posted the entire script last week but I decided that the second half, which deals with marx’s concept of subject/object inversion needed to be rewritten entirely.
My goals in this revision were:
1. Address the effect of demand on market prices and explain why we don’t need a subjective theory of value to explain this or why this is not a problem for marx’s theory of value.
2. Tie the point about “real abstraction” to the concept of subject/object inversion and fetishism.
3. re-order the flow of concepts to make things as succinct as possible and less academic sounding. This point still needs work.
Here it is:
Subject-Object, draft 4, second half:
In the Real World….
In the real world, outside of the fantasies of bourgeois economics, subjects and objects have no meaning apart from their relations to each other. There is no such thing as a subjective individual floating in a vacuum. We develop our subjectivity through our relation to the objective world we inhabit. And while the objective world can surely exist without subjects, it has no meaning for a social theory like economics except the meaning that people give it. Subjects and objects always exist in a relation, deriving their meaning from this relation.
This relation is not just one of coexistence. It is an active process of by which subjects engage with the objective world, transforming it. People work on nature. We chop trees and make houses. We build cars and dig up oil to power them. In so doing we transform the objective world and also transform ourselves. The manner in which groups of people work on and transform the world around us has changed through history. These different modes of relating to and transforming the world Marx calls “modes of production”. (brief mode of production chart with Feudalism, Slaveocracy, Capitalism, Communism, etc. and some picture depicting S/O relation?) (footnote on materialism)
This productive activity doesn’t just transform and create the objective world around us. it also creates our subjectivity. It determines what sort of things we value, how we go about getting the things we desire and how we relate to other people. Different modes of production produce drastically different types of societies with different value systems, different ways of relating to our desires, and different social relations between people.
Every mode of production is limited in terms of the social results it can achieve. The capitalist mode of production, for instance, though quite good at producing lots of stuff, is unable to solve basic social problems like poverty, exploitation, war, and economic crisis within the parameters of the capitalist mode of production. This is because capitalism has a very interesting quality as a mode of production, a quality Marx calls “subject/object inversion”. We will return to this quality in a moment.
Subjects, Objects and their Prices (image of commodity and person, both with price tags)
Objections to Marx’s theory of value often have to do with the way his theory of value relates to market prices. If value comes from the amount of labor that goes into producing things, then how do we explain the fact that a rise or fall in demand changes market prices? The fact that demand influences price makes it seem like subjective decisions influence value as much as labor time.
The value-price relation is not an easy one to enclose in neat, tidy definitions. The more we look at it the more complex the network of social relations that go into the formation of prices. I will deal with the value-price topic in more detail in a future video (Law of Value 11: Price), but a few remarks are in order here. We’ve actually covered this ground briefly before in Law of Value 3 where we talked about the way private labor becomes social labor. (footnote on price)
Private labor is the amount of labor an individual worker devotes to the production of a commodity. The goal of the worker is for her private labor to become social labor, that is, that her commodity be sold in the market and thus be equated with all the other commodities in the market, making her labor part of the total social labor of society. But this isn’t so easy. Because production is only coordinated through the fluctuation of market signals, it is always uncertain whether commodities will be sold, and whether private labor will become social labor.
As we’ve seen in previous videos, in order for private labor to become social it must produce at the socially necessary labor time. SNLT is a way in which the social level of productivity acts back upon the private labor of the individual, disciplining the individual to work at the social average. Individuals or firms that can’t work at the SNLT go out of business, like when American auto-workers lose their jobs due to competition with plants in other countries. Their labor is then reallocated to other areas where they can be more profitable, or they don’t work at all. As many of us know, losing a job and having to find new work is a long, hard, painful process. But these discomforts don’t matter to the market. The market treats all labor like digits in a calculator, anonymous units to be moved around in the search of profit.
(long footnote on self-employment)
In addition to producing at the average level of productivity, there also must be a demand for the products of labor if private labor is to become social. If too much private labor goes into the production of elevator music than there is demand for elevator music then some of this music will remain unsold and some of this private labor will not become social. Producers will be forced to move their labor elsewhere. But rather than this being an example of demand creating value, it is an example of how changes in demand effect the distribution of social labor. This is part of the phenomenon Marx is explaining in his theory of value: the labor of society is coordinated through the fluctuations of prices, a phenomenon only possible because there is a relation between prices and labor time.
Furthermore, demand itself can only be understood if we abandon the concept of the isolated individual and see demand as part of a huge social process whereby capitalist production reproduces itself. The only type of demand that counts in the market is “effective demand”, that is demand backed up by money. Consumer demand comes from wages paid to workers. The products which consumers buy with this money are not just the random result of psychological preferences. In fact, most of our money goes to the purchase of very basic things we need in order to keep us alive as workers so that we can produce more value for capitalism each day: rent, food, clothes. (footnote on consumption) These are needs and desires dictated to us by capitalism, for the purpose of perpetuating capitalism, not the abstract psychological preferences of isolated individuals.
The bulk of the demand in society comes not from consumers but from capitalists. You and I buy toothbrushes and pay rent. Capitalists buy factories, assembly lines, natural resources, and private armies. This demand has nothing to do with the personal preferences of capitalists. (corporate greed footnote) It has to do with the technical requirements of production, the amount of inputs it takes to make a widget at the SNLT. Some people think that capitalists enter production only in order to meet the demands of consumers. This is a myth. The advertising industry is the best refutation of this myth. Capitalists produce in order to make a profit. Then they go looking for markets. Most of the time they have to create the market by convincing people there is a need for their product. But capitalist firms also sell to each other, totally bypassing the need to find consumer markets. (footnote on undercon)
This all gives us a very different picture of the subject-object relation than we get in bourgeois economics. Rather than a free society of empowered individuals who are free to act upon their abstract desires and take full-responsibility for their lot in life, Marx’s critique of the capitalist mode of production reveals a world in which individuals are at the mercy of the coercive laws of the market. The sorts of superficial freedoms they have to choose between coke and pepsi pale in comparison disciplining of our lives to SNLT and the pursuit of profit. (images of clocks)
[Mitt Romney quote about corporations being people]
There is a lot of talk in the Occupy Wall Street movement about ending “corporate personhood”. The problem with this demand is that the legal status of corporate personhood is just the icing on the cake. In a capitalist society corporations are much more like people than people are. Capital is the active subject and people its object. This is what Marx means by “subject/object inversion.” Rather than people being the active agents of the social order it is the “objective” logic of the market that dominates the subjects. Blind economic laws rule and people obey. Money becomes more powerful than people. Corporations become people and exert more power in society than individuals or even social movements. While people run around in the street with signs begging the system to take notice of them, the cold-logic of capital becomes the active agent in society, using the body of the worker like a passive expendable commodity, subordinating societies, governments and even nature itself to the impersonal motives of profit.
The crazy thing is that this “objective” world is still just the product of our own creation. We actively reproduce it everyday. This is the core of what makes Marx’s critique of capitalism so powerful: The world we live in, despite the incredibly disempowering structure of our current situation, is always only the result of our own actions and we do have the ability to collectively change it. But in order to exercise such collective power we must break with the capitalist mode of production.
Now…. do you get any of that heavy stuff with marginalism?
In case you were wondering Subjectivist Island and Barter Island don’t exist. They are abstractions. Now every theory needs abstractions- we must sift through a world of data and identify the broad contours and important categories that define reality. Subjectivist and Barter Islands are “ideal abstractions”, that is, abstractions that exist only in the minds of philosophers. [footnote on praxeology] Marx makes a different kind of abstraction, a “real abstraction”. A real abstraction is not made by philosophers arbitrarily leaving out parts of social reality. A real abstractions is made by reality itself.
In a capitalist society human labor becomes abstract. In the caste system of feudalism where people were born into certain types of work and there were strict divisions between castes there was no such thing as labor in general, or a worker in general. But in a capitalist society labor loses all of these specific features. Capital treats us like anonymous digits in a profit-calculator, moving us from place to place in the search for profit. Our labor becomes abstract labor. We become, not peasants, knights, or artisans, but workers in general. Marx’s theory of value is based on this real abstraction that is made by the mode of production itself, not the minds of philosophers.
This doesn’t mean that the perspective of marginalism comes from nowhere. Marginalism comes from a real existing standpoint within capitalism, the standpoint of the atomized individual contemplating commodities. This standpoint is real. We experience it everyday at the grocery store. But it is an incomplete perspective because it leaves out the entire world of social production that puts commodities on the shelves and money in our pockets. This perspective is the perspective of commodity fetishism, in which the social power of our own labor takes the form of inherent properties of objects.
But in times of economic crisis we see cracks in the walls of this reality. Old ways of thinking lose their relevance. Crises are a time when the economic laws of capitalism are exposed not as eternal, universal laws as the bourgeois economists would want us to think, but as the particular laws of this time, laws that we might be able to overthrow. As the law of value breaks down, as people start to question the order of things, the capitalist state must enter the picture, replacing the failing law of value with the brutal law of the state. The charming, freedom-loving world of the market apologists (ron paul picture) is revealed for what it really is, an exploitative order based on violence.
Like a schoolyard bully, a system is always the most violent when its weakness is exposed. When the law of value breaks down the politics begin. Subjects must become active. This can be the politics of the ruling class as it scrambles to reassert the status quo or it can be the politics of radical movements that posit the possibility for new social orders.
Posted in The Law of Value | Tagged abstraction, capitalism, crisis, demand, economics, fetishism, labor theory of value, marginalism, marx, materialism, object, price, socialism, subject, subjectivism, value |