An escape from value is an escape from the economic

In some earlier notes, I argued that Jossa’s conception of a Labour Managed Firm (a form of worker co-operative where the workers democratically divide the surplus rather than receive a wage) did not take into account the central, determining role that value plays in controlling the labour process in any organisation. I said that “What Jossa seems to overlook is that ‘value’, not the wage, mediates labour in a capitalist society.” I wrote:

“In the absence of the wage-relation i.e. the LMF, workers sell the products that they created and own, rather than sell their labour for a wage. It seems that for Jossa, the key to the capitalist firm and therefore the ‘anti-capitalist’ LMF, turns on how property relations are organised. For Jossa, freedom from capitalism is equated with owning the means of production and from that “decisive” moment, a transition from the capitalist mode of production to the socialist mode of production occurs (Jossa, 2012b:405). For Jossa, once property relations are re-organised in favour of the worker, such that the wage can be abolished, labour is no longer a commodity and its value is no longer measured in abstract labour time because “work becomes abstract when it is done in exchange for wages.” (Jossa, 2012a: 836)”

I am currently re-reading John Holloway’s book, Crack Capitalism, and in thesis nine, section four, he makes a strong case for the determinate logic of value, which I think speaks directly against Jossa’s argument for LMF co-operatives and to any form of market socialist enterprise. 1 Below, I quote at length…

“Value is what holds society together under capitalism. It is a force that nobody controls. Capitalism is composed of a huge number of independent units which produce commodities that they sell on the market. The social interconnection between people’s activities is established through the sale and purchase of commodities or, in other words, through the value of the commodities, expressed through money. Value (manifested in money) constitutes the social synthesis in capitalist society, that which holds together the many different, uncoordinated activities. The state presents itself as being the focal point of social cohesion, but in fact the state is dependent on money and can do little to influence its movement.

… Behind money stands value, the all-conquering drive of the cheap commodity, the commodity produced in the least amount of time. This is hard to resist.

… We can occupy factories, set up our alternative systems of production, but we will not be able to match the prices of capitalist commodities, we will not be able to produce things as cheaply and as quickly, and, if we were, we would probably be producing them in just the same way as the capitalists.

Value is incompatible with self-determination, or indeed with any form of conscious determination. Value is the rule of necessary labour time, of the shortest time necessary to produce a commodity. Value is controlled by nobody. Capitalists are capitalists not because they control value, but because they serve it.

How can we resist the rule of the cheap commodity and all that it brings with it, especially when the struggle to survive shapes the lives of so many people in the world? The traditional answer is that the only way is a system of planned production that would be even more efficient than capitalism and would respond to people’s real needs. Traditional socialist analysis contrasts the anarchy of the market with the rationality of central planning, but in practice central planning has never been either rational or central, and it certainly has not been an example of self-determination.

… If there is no central planning, then how do we coordinate our different processes of creation or production, if not through the market? And if we produce for the market, what distinguishes us from any other capitalist enterprise?

Whatever the crack, whatever the form of the struggle to break with capitalism, value lays siege, not just as an external force, but through the corrosive, destructive force of money. Money embodies the rationality of capitalism that stands against the non-sense of rebellion. In capitalism, it is the movement of value that determines what should be done and how it should be done: no human, not even the capitalist class, makes those determinations.

Value attacks as a force operating behind our backs, as the silent power of money, introducing cheap commodities, luring people away in the hope of escaping from poverty (the Zapatistas that migrate to find employment in Cancun, for instance). As market, it also stands against us as a palpable limit to what we can do.

Occupied factories, like the hundreds occupied in Argentina in recent years, face immediately the question of their relation to the market. In general, the factories occupied (or ‘recovered’) were faced with closure before the occupation – closure motivated by the inability of their owners to sell their products on the market. When the workers seize the factory, they are faced with the dilemma of having to produce the same commodities for sale on the market: that is the only way that they can ensure their own physical survival. It may be possible to introduce different working relations within the factory or workplace, to do away with hierarchies or introduce the rotation of tasks; it may be possible to use the workplace after working hours for political meetings or cultural activities, but all such changes (significant though they undoubtedly are) take place within the context of the pressures generated by the need to sell the products as commodities on the market. It may perhaps be possible to change the nature of the commodities produced, to produce things that are more obviously socially beneficial, but this will depend on the skills of the workers and the equipment at their disposal, and any alternative products will, in any case, normally require to be sold as commodities on the market.

The action of value may be very subtle and gradual. Fighting it is much more difficult than throwing stones at the police. Many radical groups have seen producing cooperatively for the market as an alternative to working for a capitalist company, or accepting funds from the state. It is an alternative, but at what point does the market impose itself to create the same sort of pressures as exist in any capitalist enterprise? Is there any escape?

… The point is surely that there is no purity here. In order to create a different world, we need to survive physically and, unless we cultivate our own food from the land (a real possibility in the case of peasant revolutionary groups, but difficult in the cities), this requires some sort of access to money, and money, whether it comes from external funding or crime or some sort of employment, always brings limitations and contradictions with it. The challenge is always to see to what extent we can use money without being used by it, without allowing our activities and our relations to be determined by it.

Funding can perhaps be seen as a particular way of building structures of mutual support. A more direct way of doing this is to construct links of mutual assistance between the different cracks.

… This building of links of mutual support between the different cracks in capitalist domination is sometimes seen in terms of the construction of an alternative economy or an economy of solidarity (economia solidaria). This refers to the construction of an economy that is not dominated by value or the pursuit of profit. This is an important development, but there are problems. First, the notion of an alternative economy already seems to impose a definition on the organisation of activities. If I say ‘No, I will not follow the logic of capital, I shall do something else’, then I do not consider my other-doing to be economic, but rather an escape from the economic. In addition, the notion of an alternative economy or economy of solidarity can easily obscure the fact that our other-doing is an act of rebellion, an against-and-beyond. If this against-ness is overlooked, the alternative economy can become simply a complement to capitalist production. If this is the case, then far from constituting a break in capitalist social relations, it helps to underpin them. Certainly, at the end of the day what we want is a social connection based on trust, solidarity, generosity, gift, in place of the social synthesis of value, but for the moment this can only exist as an assault on value, not as a complement to value production.

Value is the enemy, but it is an invisible enemy, the invisible hand that holds capitalism together and tears the world apart. Value creates a powerful and complex field of tension around all our attempted breaks with capitalism, in which it is difficult to draw clear lines between what is ‘revolutionary’ and what is ‘reformist’. Beyond the state, beyond our personal contradictions, it is value, the power of the market, of the cheap commodity, of money, that threatens all the time to overwhelm our cracks.”

The key to overcoming the determinate logic of value is an understanding of the “twofold character of labour according to whether it is expressed in use-value or exchange-value”, which Marx regarded as one of the two “best points in my book (Capital)” (Marx, Letter to Engels 24th August 1867). Most of Holloway’s Crack Capitalism is about the two-fold character of labour (use value and exchange value of commodities, and the corresponding concrete labour and abstract labour). Further on in the book, he reflects on the thesis on value and proposes a way to counter value:

“Going to the root of things and understanding that root as our own activity is crucial. Think back to the previous discussion of the force of value and the way in which it imposes the social synthesis upon us (thesis 9, 4). That section was very depressing to write and should be depressing to read because we feel that there is no way out. It is when we open up value and ask what it is that produces value and see that it is our own activity, our abstract labour, then the skies begin to open, we begin to see a way forward, simply because it is not a thing (value), but our own activity that is at the centre. There is a world of difference, then, between an analysis that takes value as its pivot and one (such as this) that places the dual character of labour in its centre.”

Contrary to this approach, in dismissing abstract labour as something overcome in the wage-less Labour Managed Firm, Jossa remains trapped by an economistic understanding of social relations and therefore trapped by value. The same can be said for the worker co-operative form in general. It is a transitional organisational form that moves away from attributes of capitalist labour (towards ownership of the means of production, a democratic division of surplus), but does not in itself overcome the determination of value imposed by the competition of the market.

Freedom is not the emancipation of labour, as in Jossa’s argument, but rather the emancipation from the twofold character of labour, a point also made by Postone, Neary, the Krisis group and others.

  1. See also, McNally (1993) Against the Market. Political Economy, Market Socialism and the Marxist Critique.

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