Subject/Object- thoughts

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.


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13 Responses to Subject/Object- thoughts

  1. Hi Brendan,

    I basically agree with you on the subjective/objective stuff. But on a certain level, I think that those for whom it’s self-evident that the magnitudes of commodities’ values depend on how much they are subjectively valued are just overlooking the fact that the same word frequently means different things.

    One definition of “value” is the magnitude of a mathematical variable. If one wants to conclude that subjective value is the basis of the mathematical value, e.g., that my dislike of 13 and 666 explains why these numbers are between 12 and 14, and 665 and 667, some argument is necessary. It doesn’t follow self-evidently from the fact that both things are called “value.”

    The distinction between value in use and value in exchange was commonplace long before Marx. So if one wants to conclude that the former is the basis of the latter, some argument is necessary. It doesn’t follow self-evidently from the fact that both things are called “value.”

    In his Notes on Wagner, Marx has some stuff suggesting that linguistic confusion lies at the root of the notion that use-value is the basis of value.

    On another matter: the distinction between objective and subjective theories of value is not in Marx. It comes from the Austrian school, specifically von Wieser if I remember. Marx said that the concept of value has always been basically the same (letter to Kugelmann), and he refers somewhere to someone’s (Bailey?) denial of the concept. That’s a rather different thing from calling a particular denial of the concept a subjective theory of value. But to criticize Marx, and maybe others, the Austrians said: they have one theory of value, an objective one; we have a different theory of value, a subjective one. Unfortunately, Hilferding, who had been a student of von Wieser (if I remember) took this on board when he responded to Boehm-Bawerk, and the rest is history. Of course, the rather comic ultra-materialism of many Marxists, and that of the USSR and its followers, also helped make the subjective vs. objective value thing part of “Marxism.” Dialectically speaking, its a travesty, since it pulls apart the inner relationship between the social relation and the concept thereof. When Marx referred to the concept of value always being the same, he was dealing with a social relationship and its conceptual “reproduction,” which must be judged in terms of how adequately it reproduces the relationship. It’s not a matter of liking one theory vs. another or even of how adequately each accounts for certain events (though that’s also important).

    Maybe a propos of this, Marx had no trouble acknowledging that value is subjective in the sense that ““[T]he basis of value is the fact that human beings relate to each other’s labour as equal . . . . This is an abstraction, like all human thought.” (I give more of the passage, and the reference, on p. 154 of _Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital”_.) But this subjectivity is the basis of a social relationship, not the subjectivity of particular individuals. subjectivity an individual’s particular preferences.

    • Andrew,
      Thanks for the comment. This a delayed response (long, busy summer).
      I agree that somewhere early on the Marxist responses to the Austrian challenge too naively adopted the terms of the debate along this subject/object line. It’s trick then to unpack this debate and figure out the correct stance on the issue. After all there are many things that Hilferding says that I agree with, and then there are these awkward moments when I feel that the argument is sliding into the “comic ultra-materialism” you mention. My goal in thinking about this subject/object video I want to make is to ground the debate in the context of Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism and of the subject-object inversion he talks about. I feel pulled in two directions though: the first is to discuss the issue of what determines exchange value; the second to discuss marx’s method, his concept of mode of production, and the particular subject/object relation of the capitalist mode of production. I need to work out how to do these two things cleanly and succinctly….

  2. Hi Brendan,

    As always I enjoy your interventions. I just want to make a couple points.

    First, in your comment regarding the panel with Kliman and Wolff, you mention that “classes are merely the personification of economic categories and that these categories are what must be overthrown.” I think you fall into precisely Marx’s critique of bourgeois economics in the sense that categories in Marxism are seen as social relationships. So the issue is to overthrow the social relation, not the category (Bertell Ollman’s “Dance of the Dialectic” is in my opinion the best in dealing with this analysis.

    Second, on the issue of use-value, as Andrew says, Hilferding, and then Sweezy are part of those to blame for the supposed lack of interest of Marxism with use-value. Check out Roman Rosdolsky’s book “The Making of Marx’s Capital” where he quotes and analyzes Marx’s reactions to this perception at length.

    Finally, with regards to the object/subject dichotomy in its most general manifestation, many rivers of ink have been wasted by those that see “two Marxs”, one the subjective of the Communist Manifesto that the engine if history is class struggle and the objective Marx of Capital that see the clash between relations and forces of production as determining social change and revolution. In my opinion this opposition is completely fictitious. The subjective is pregnant with the objective and vice-versa. Marx’s claim that men make their own history but under specific circumstances makes this dialectical relationship very clear.

  3. douglain says:

    You’ve got to be careful here I think, because this is beginning to sound like that age old argument for atheism that goes like this: There is no God, and anyhow He’s stupid.

    From my understanding the kind of value that libertarians say drives the system is use value, and that is subjective or, if not subjective, then cultural. Chicken feet are apparently considered delicious and highly useful in China wheras here those same chicken feet are considered mud pies. But that utility doesn’t determine the price of the chicken feet, it just brings the production of chicken feet into the realm of the market. The objective value of chicken feet is determined by the fixed and variable capital investment plus the value of the labor time, or the rate of exploitation.

    Or am I way off?

  4. Everpresent says:

    The object / subject dichotomy, like the dichotomy between individual / society, is a product of historical development. This is important to emphasize. Marx is a dialectical thinker so it would be unwise to state that he regards object and subject as two different concepts unrelated to each other.

  5. Alexander O'Neilll says:

    Is this not just a matter of what determines exchange value?

    Those who believe subjective determination of exchange value are really saying that “use value determines exchange value.”

    For Marx all with exchange value has the necessary condition of requiring use values which tend to determine quantity produced but the amount of labour time in question is the only decider of exchange value.

    So the former instance is one in which one mistakes the commodity’s property (use value) with a cause of the commodity’s value.

    Another way one may make this mistake is to suppose that value is determined by pricing only, but variations in pricing (in legal bourgeois conditions) can only occur as a result of labour time. In this way the price is always caused by labour time and necessarily proportional to a specific amount in value.

    In terms of “classes are the personification of economic categories,” I would make this clearer by stating they are the status of ownership to two properties (which are social relationships determined purely by the productive forces and not other social relationships i.e. development thesis). Classes are defined by one’s ownership status in relation to (A) Labour Power and (B) The Means of Production Used. With an independent producer, i.e. Bourgeoisie, he owns both all of his labour power and all of the means of production used, whereas the proletariat owns all of his labour power, and none of the means of production used. On the other hand there is a situation where we have proletariats who may own all of their labour power and only some of the means of production (i.e. take your own scissors to work).

    As such, we must ask ourselves whether we can consider a shift in social relationships i.e. ownership, is all that we need to have socially direct labour. I believe not. Primacy of the productive forces must be considered and only then can we start to consider how that will influence a shift in social relations (as you call it “economic categories”).

    In other words, does a situation where all people both own labour power and means of production in use cause a situation of socially direct labour? No, if this were so (and Andrew Kliman points this out in an essay on the MHI) then we could legislate or force our way into communism and the Soviet Union would not have failed.

  6. Julia says:

    Hey Brendan, love your videos.

    Take it from me: debating with these right-wing libertarian types is a waste of time. They can’t really debunk the majority of what Marx said in “Capital”; all they do is change the meaning of words (i.e. “capitalism” is synonymous with “free market”, “socialism” is synonymous with “state control”, “value” is how much people personally value commodities, all of that) or they insist that because there has never been “true capitalism” in history or reality you can’t blame “capitalism” for the problems it causes. In other words, they pin the cause of crisis on government intervention in the market and not the structure of capitalism itself. It’s quite irritating, but I would suggest not dealing with these people unless they’re spreading information so misleading that you feel compelled to set them straight.

    Anyway, good luck on your future videos.

    • Julia,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with you about the futility of devoting time to debating libertarians. I’ve learned from this blog project that that just becomes a waste of time. That’s not really the point of my next proposed video. I wanted to take the approach I took with my video “Das MudPie” where I used the “mudpie argument” as a jumping-off point for talking about social labor. I think that many of these libertarian objections to Marx’s concepts come from the fetishized nature of these concepts- the fact that money, commodities, labor and capital become abstract, their role in the inner relations of a capitalist society hidden from view. By critiquing these abstractions we can move to a fuller understanding of the actual inner relations of capitalism.

      The subjective/objective debate is particularly interesting to me for several reasons. As Andrew Kliman pointed out in his comment, it is a duality that many Marxists, including Hilferding, have adopted. I’ve often found it a problematic way of looking at Marx’s theory of value and I’d like to devote this video to trying to untangle the mess that happens when we talk about value in terms of this “subjective-objective” distinction. The ultimate argument will be something along the lines of this: the real argument for Marx is an argument about the subject-object relation in a society organized through value production. In such a society there is an alienated relation between subjects and the objected world they create. There is a “subject-object inversion” where things have social power and people are powerless.

      The other matter to clear up is the relation of subjective market preferences to to value formation. Consumer preferences cause exchange values to deviate from values. This is not a problem at all for Marx’s theory of value, yet one often confronts this attitude that such deviations, especially if a result of subjective preferences, are some sort of problem for Marx’s theory of value. This notion needs to be cleared up.

  7. Trevor Reznik says:

    Maybe I am missing something. Maybe my comment is completely off the mark here. But arent many libertarians (Austrians) completely mistaken when claiming the STV apply to modern capitalist mode of production (corporations)?

    The corporation is not individual property. Subjectivism must be rooted in individualism. To the extent the modern form of capital – the corporation – becomes the relevant subject in the system, individualism and hence subjectivism (STV) looses its relevance. The power no longer resides in the individual, methodological individualism becomes the wrong methodology. Some argue, individuals still make the decisions. Right, but these humans are not individuals, social sovereign humans. They are not free — or antisocial–but agents for the corporation — character masks–. They dont make decisions in their own name, but for the company, power is delegated. If you want to understand the actions of a errand boy, you get wrong information by examining HIS wishes and plans: you go to the power..corporations and its administrators. But there is a difference, the overpersonal corporation has quite naturally no wishes or plans. what it has is an overpersonal law, profit maximization.

    The OBJECTIVE law governing capitalism has found its equivalent in the corporation, the OBJECTIVE subject. The point in methodological individualism is not only people act and create their social relation; which every anti-collectivist agrees on. The point of the individual methodology is the human subject, the pre-social human, with whom the relations to others is external and a optional attribute of choice – unlike socialism — in which others are essential part like the head or heart or lower body. The human of the methodological individualism is sovereign with regards to other humans. The administrators of the company are humans, but not sovereign individuals. The administrators of the company are humans but not individuals. They think they create social relations, but they are already embedded, the social context has been created by the corporation.

    I have just begun to investigate it. Any help appreciated.

  8. Dean says:

    The objective concept of value is a way of deriving the motions of value from the material and energy of which it is comprised – labor and raw material. In biology, material and energy are accounted for the same way. Why shouldn’t economics follow the same model?

    Indeed, the subjective theories of value serve their own function. In Austrian models, they attempt to derive the expansion of value from trade alone to justify market economics. Where it seeks to determine real economic changes, it can prove useful, but its application is always limited and subject to confidence.

    You’ve put together a really good narrative here. I wrote a brief piece covering the same topic a while ago over at RevLeft:

    I need to rework my whole framework there; thanks for putting together this piece, it will certainly help.

  9. theinvisiblehand says:

    I have only a cursory understanding of the subject/object argument, and so I won’t bore you with my two-cents. But, I just wanted to say that I really appreciate all of the work you’ve done here, Brendan. I had no understanding of Marx but wanted to, though I had a very difficult time with my first encounter of Vol. 1. So, in searching for some remedial studies on Marx, I happened on your site. Your videos helped me to get through not only the remedial stuff, but much of the nuance I would have lost in reading Marx without your help.

    I am very grateful for your work and only want to say that I hope you will continue to focus your efforts on those who (whether they agree with it or not in the end) have a genuine interest in learning about Marxism, and not just screaming about how flat the world is and how flat it ought to be.

    Thanks so much!

  10. Oliver C says:

    HI Brendan,
    I just started reading your blog a week ago or so looking for info on the ‘transformation problem’ (good piece!) and I thought I’d offer my comments.

    I think your take on the deeper structures of the subject/object inversion is spot-on; recently I’ve been re-reading the Manuscripts of 1844 and Marx’s few brief takes on the future nature of ‘communism’ in that work agree entirely with notion that the transcendence (abolition-negation) of capitalism involves the transcendence of the economic categories themselves which derive from the fundamental alienation under the capitalist (and other) mode of production.

    Particularly, Marx seems to imagine that the economic categories – labour as opposed to private property and thus capitalists – and their contradiction are what must be overcome. Which is why he speaks to the domination of private property itself – where “the category of labourer is not done away with, but extended to all men.” The classes themselves are particular historical expressions of relations of private property, which has its historical and real basis in estranged labour. Both classes are dominated and compelled by these relations, and a post-capitalist society depends not on the abolition of one class by another but abolition of relations of private property by all of humanity. “The positive transcendence of private property as the appropriation of human life is, therefore, the positive transcendence of all estrangement–that is to say, the return of man …to his human, i.e. social mode of existence.”

    This would seem to be completely in line with what you are arguing, as against Wolff et al. At least, in my interpretation.

    [The quotes are from the manuscript on Private Property and Communism as translated by Martin Milligan]
    [also, if you buy the dubious argument that there is a fundamental break in the work of Early and Late Marx, this argument does not hold water. As against such a position I suggest reading Gary Teeple (1984) for a compelling argument for continuity]


  11. V. Richter says:

    For an insightful and nuanced dialectical take on the Subject/Object issue, take a look at Theodor Adorno’s “On Subject and Object” – a short essay directly addressing the relationship between the two. It comes from Adorno’s perspective of the “primacy of the Object”, without devolving into vulgar materialism. I think this could be quite useful for the value problem, and would be interested to see what you make of it. Most of it can be read here:, but for the full thing I would be glad to send a PDF.

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