subject/object- preliminary thoughts.
While I often post early drafts of scripts on the blog it is not often that I actually post something of this sort- a pre-draft exploration of a topic. I am doing so because I find the input, criticism and insights of my readers useful in these matters. I also could use this exercise in self-clarification on the topic at hand before worrying about the actual presentation of the idea.
Law of Value 8 will be called “subject/object”. It will begin by discussing the troublesome dualism in which this debate over whether value is objective or subjective is often cast. Why do I say this is troublesome? The trouble is apparent in the deluge of libertarian/zombie commenters on my videos all repeating the mantra “Everyone knows that value is subjective!” Setting aside the obvious clue (“Everyone knows that”) that we are dealing with ideology, there is something bothersome about this appeal to facts, to basic empirically-verifiable personal experience… I know that I form value judgments and that these inform my economic decisions, therefore value must be subjective. The Marxist response to this argument cannot be to deny the subjective experience of forming economic judgments. It instead must take the form of arguing two things: 1. that this subjective experience of value is not what Marx is talking about when he discusses value; and 2. that these subjective experiences of value are completely out of our control… that, rather than reflecting the positive, liberatory aspects of the market that our capitalist apologists want us to believe in, they are actually the reflection of alienation, the opposite of liberation.
This two-fold critique does better than to fall into the simplistic duality in which the subjective-objective debate seems to fall at times. It is not that the subjective experience of value formation doesn’t exist. It is quite real. But it is not the whole picture. The subjective experience of value requires certain objective conditions for it to exist. The organization of social labor through commodity exchange is an objective fact. Wage labor is an objective institution.
Furthermore, the subjective decisions actors make in the market do not happen in a vacuum. The decisions we make in the market depend on a pre-existing world of value around us. We do not, as individuals, set market values. This is an anarchic process that takes place through the aggregation of decisions. Of course, this much is assumed by the subjective argument: the subjective decisions of individuals coalesce to form the best possible distribution of values, in an obvious parallel with bourgeois democracy. We vote with our money.
The marxist critique of this argument must again involve two dimensions. Firstly it must be argued that these subjective market choices in the end are only the mechanism by which the objective structure of production expresses itself. In other words, there is an existing, objective productivity of labor, and an existing, objective distribution of labor. The haggling of actors in the market can do little more than to eventually arrive at an arrangement of market prices that reflects this distribution and productivity. Yet, if we were to paint the picture in this entirely one-sided fashion we would be remiss (and un-dialectical). In fact, consumer demand can push prices above or below values and this is the mechanism by which labor is reapportioned. In fact, this movement of prices around values is an essential part of the process of value itself, the mechanism by which value does what it is supposed to do, coordinate social labor. (This brings us to another important question- the relation of exchange value to value, and the ultimate question “what the hell is value anyway”? I’ll bracket this question and return to it later). So though the objective structure of production determines values, the subjective actions of market actors can change the distribution of social labor by causing deviations of exchange value from value. This means that Marx cannot mean that the objective structure of production completely determines the specific character of the distribution of labor within that structure. Marx is not arguing some theory of predestination. If more people like Coke than Pepsi there will be a redistribution of labor to Coke. This redistribution is very real and it is the result of subjective preference. Yet this redistribution is not possible unless the price signals are tied to labor time. If price does not reflect social labor than price variations would not be able to reapportion labor time. The labor time it takes to make something is an objective quantity existing at a time history, at a certain level of social productivity. Yet, as Marx is first to point out, this level of productivity too changes constantly as the result of class struggle and it is this class struggle that is an objective movement- a necessary relation with its own objective tendencies.
Secondly, the market actor is not a creature in a vacuum. It is a product of an objective state of affairs. In fact, it is the degradation of the individual subject that is the focus of Marx’s efforts. He is not interested in annihilating the freedom of the individual and subjecting him/her to the objective force of some meta-logic. This is not the liberation that Marx desires. Rather, Marx’s concept of emancipation is one in which the individual’s desires are liberated, in which we are capable of authoring our own future in a way that is impossible under capital. After all, there is something insulting about the libertarian claim that our subjective consumer decisions in the market over Oreos and Cheerios are the culmination of the quest for human freedom.
If my market valuations of Oreos and Cheerios are not an abstract, timeless expression of human freedom, but are instead bound to a definite period in history, to a specific type of individual formed through certain objective conditions, than what type of individual am I? Yes, as the economic sociologist will tell us, we are creatures of cold calculation- utility maximizing machines. And in other societies, past and future, humans are not, by nature, utility maximizing. (I just read a great essay by Mashall Sahlins in his book “Stone Age Economics” in which he makes this very point through a study of hunter-gatherer societies.) Therefore the economic man that bourgeois theory wants to project backwards and forwards in history is the same as every other bourgeois category that our capitalist apologist wants to declare a universal: pure ideology.
But the plot is thicker than this. It’s not just that the utility-maximizing individual is a created individual, a social product of a certain organization of production. The reason we have this impasse in the debate over subjective-objective value, the reason we can’t just appeal to our immediate sensual experience to solve the problem, the reason libertarians can say “everyone knows value is subjective” at the same time that the economy is doing terrible things to everyone that nobody wants it to do, is that there is a contradictory subject-object relationship at the heart of the organization of a capitalist society.
The relationship of value theory to subjectivity is part of the fetishism argument. Our subjective experience of the market is real but it is not complete. The fetishism of commodities is not an illusion. Objects really do have social power, people really are the personification of objective categories. Yet the realness of this fetishism is incomplete. There is a deeper reality running through it, behind it. This deeper reality isn’t just the structure of production. It is the actual mode in which we view/interface with reality itself. This interface, this mode of production, is the real totality which we must seek to understand through theory since it obscures itself from our immediate subjective experience.
This is why I am calling this video “Subject-Object” and not “subjective-objective”. While a clarification of the relation of the structure of production to demand and supply and price formation is a crucial step, there is a more profound observation about capitalism at work in Marx’s value theory. This is the relation between the individual and his/her object.
Let’s cut to the chase. The reason that the subjective-objective debate misses the point somewhat is that Marx’s aim is not the subject or the object but instead the means by which subjects appropriate objects and the ways in which this act of appropriation creates the individual. This mode by which we as subjects interface with our objective world Marx calls a “mode of production”. It is this mode of production, and not the subject or the object, that is the focus of Marx’s scrutiny. The goal is not to analyze the structure of production or the banal bourgeois individual. (After all what is more boring that counting factories or observing the stupidity of the commercial-conditioned consumer?) The goal is to understand the mode of production.
And what is the capitalist mode of production, fundamentally? It is an inversion of subject and object. Rather than subjects exercising a creative control over their destiny through their work they find themselves pressed-down upon, thwarted and controlled on all sides by the alienation of the market. The products of our creation stand opposed to us, dominating us, controlling our actions and causing untold suffering and violence.
[If folks have not watched the exchange between panelists at the end of the 1st panel of the Marxist Humanist Initiative’s crisis conference in November I highly recommend it. At the end of the panel there are distinct positions taken over this key issue of what needs to be changed to overthrow capital. For Rick Wolff all we need to do is get rid of the capitalist class. Wolff actually argues that exploitation can be defined simply as the relation between capitalists and workers. Myself and Andrew Kliman respond by arguing that classes are merely the personification of economic categories and that these categories are what must be overthrown. These categories are the inversion of subject and object, the alienation of the individual in the capitalist mode of production. It becomes a debate between market socialism and some communist mode of production/distribution.]
Now, if overcoming this subject/object inversion requires more than just eliminating its personifications as class actors, what must be done? The answer, and I am influenced very much by Kliman on this issue, is to address the problem of creating a society with “directly social labor”. In short, such a society would not be ruled by the market because labor would not be disciplined by socially necessary labor time. I believe I have actually addressed this issue fairly well in the SNLT video (law of value 5 video).
Anyway, these are my sprawling thoughts on the topic and I invite any commenters, critiques, suggestions. Again, this is not even the outline of an actual script, just a self-clarification before embarking on the actual writing.