Archive for Hegel

Vicissitudes of Value

Posted in Speculation with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 2013/09/20 by las Pétroleuses

One of the more controversial constellations of concepts dropped in our lap by the Leftist tradition is Marx’s labor theory of value. On the one hand, in his own context, his views were entirely uncontroversial: when Marx was writing, the idea that value was a product of human labor was simply assumed across the political spectrum, and this had been the case for at least a century. On the other hand, we are looking back on this time from one after the “marginalist revolution” (among other things), and so there is a weird coloring which Marx’s analysis takes on: for those on the right, that enlightened condescension we all know so well, and on the left, that odd combination of nostalgic reverence (“if only we still lived in a time where value was such a simple conundrum…”) and embarrassed occlusion (not to mention those who obstinately defend Marx against all). Here, I’m going to focus on how Marx’s conception of value is stricto sensu idealist; in later posts I’ll address how this problem does not weaken, but in some cases actually strengthens other arguments of his (including, but not limited to, the infamous “law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall”). This post is the first in a series which shall try to illustrate how, far from being outdated, the analyses Marx puts forth in Vol. I of Capital provide the tools for a robust understanding of our contemporary economic situation–how, as Ernest Mandel put it in his introduction to Vol. I, “Marx is much more an economist of the twentieth [or twenty-first] century than of the nineteenth.” (p. 12)

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How We Got To Here

Posted in GPOY with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 2013/02/04 by las Pétroleuses

Let this be some context. The blog is the new journal or better diary, no? In “my” fantasy (I imagine it’s the fantasy of anyone who creates a blog and is minimally honest with themself) this blog will one day be well-read or well-liked or whatever. So lets get the personal-historical shit out of the way first. Politically, I started out in the nebulous no-zone of teenage political apathy, basically a liberal in that suburban classist way where the only reason I didn’t like Republicans is because I thought they were all fucking idiots (read: poor dumb white people); the ideological differences didn’t matter. My parents vote, but they ain’t patriots, and so neither was or am I. Enter college. Around this time, I was involved with a silly browser-based ‘game’ called CyberNations (holy shit it’s actually still around good god kill me); “game” in scare-quotes since CN is barely more of a game than the more well-known NationStates (the latter is based on weekly ‘policy decisions’ that improve some stats; CN is based on a daily intake of resources which are then spent in certain ways). You quickly learn that CN is more about the meta-game than the game itself, which serves as the formal-real actualization of the socio-symbolic meta-game. The world of CyberNations is one with literally tens of thousands of nation-states (if you don’t remember, our world has about 200), and so it was the Alliances of nation-states that really mattered. The alliance I happened to join was a minor one, called the Fifth Column Confederation.

The FCC was interesting (and lord knows part of me finds CN interesting enough to consider analyzing its little microcosm more in depth, help me) in that it was fairly ideologically cohesive. To give a simple, but likely not simplistic picture, imagine a two-axis political spectrum (you’re probably familiar with it): Libertarian-Authoritarian and Individualist-Collectivist. FCC fit pretty snug in that corner of Libertarian-Individualist, the members running the gamut from what we in the US know as libertarians (who can be categorized by their position on Ron Paul: they would range from “he’s the least worst of the bunch” to “He Is God Incarnate”) through (so-called) anarcho-capitalists to agorists (basically anarcho-capitalists who don’t pretend to be anarchists; they really like black markets). Being an impressionable youth, and also I’m sure in order to fit in, I went along with the tides of the alliance, and was waving my own tiny little black-and-gold flag… But over time, it stopped making sense.

My ivory tower background is in philosophy, and two conceptual structures come to mind for, firstly, the shift from being an ancap to being a commie, and, secondly, the entire three-stage process of pseudo-liberal/ancap/commie. The first structure is that of Alain Badiou’s “Truth-Event,” which is to say how events occur, how (pre)existing structures are changed through significant occurrences; in dialectical terms an event is the shift from quantitative change to qualitative change, from ongoing change that remains at the level of “inherent transgression,” easily recuperated by the system in question, to wide-ranging, radical change that restructures the system itself. Badiou’s event always strikes twice (recalling Hegel’s comment on historical change, that any real event happens twice in order to become part of history). This gap between the first and second occurrence of an event is simply the gap between when it ‘really really’ happened and when it was symbolically registered, when it became incorporated into symbolic reality (some conceptual oppositions that run along these lines: Hegel’s In-Itself/For-Itself, Lacan’s Real/Symbolic, and Deleuze’s Virtual/Actual respectively). The two moments of my shift from ancap to communist were, in short, reading and analyzing John Locke’s second Treatise on Government, and reading Slavoj Žižek’s First As Tragedy, Then As Farce.

My encounter with Locke’s political work (I believe I had by this point already gone through his epistemology/metaphysics in a different class) fits the bill of the first occurrence of my “communist event” insofar as I only recognized it as such in hindsight. The two papers I wrote on the second Treatise were basically secondary analyses (i.e. unoriginal commentaries) on a journal article I had found, which made the argument that Locke’s political logic rests on the prohibition of suicide. In our postmodern ivory tower, you don’t run into thinkers like Locke much anymore (even among the analytics), who truly endeavors to construct a fully self-consistent and cohesive theoretical edifice, a beautiful crystalline house of thought-cards. The one card it all rested on was his argument for why suicide is to be prohibited by any rational government, which, tellingly, is also the only place that religion directly enters into his politics: citizens of a liberal government cannot justifiably commit suicide insofar as they are not their own property, but rather are the property of God (it appears then that the stereotypical notion of Lockean self-ownership is more a loan we take out from Yahweh in exchange for not paying back the debt of existence too early, before God says we can…). You might rightly wonder how this is the lynchpin of his political system. The answer is that the prohibition of suicide is the flipside of the right to self-preservation; insofar as the prohibition of suicide flies in the face of self-ownership, we could say that “self-ownership” is the form that self-preservation takes in an economic realm defined by property. Thus we have moved through the famous three rights of Locke’s politics: life, liberty, and property.

But lets leave aside Locke. What’s more interesting is the question that Locke pushed me to pose, as well as how I framed it. What is “the purpose of the human political project: the creation of a polity for the success of the persons who make up the community, or for the well-being of the people that is defined through this polity?” By this point the ancap or individualist part of me was beginning to come to a head with the developing commie/collectivist part. By this point, as a full-blown believer in dialectics as a theoretical framework, I see this political opposition as false or unsatisfactory (a truly “communist” community would be neither or both individualist and/or collectivist), but at the time it was perfectly relevant to the stage my political development was in. It was less than a year later that I ran into Žižek’s First as Tragedy. The slim book was not the first of his that I had read (that would either be Enjoy Your Symptom! in a film theory class or Mapping Ideology in a fun independent study), but it was the first that was explicitly political, as opposed to the other two which had the clothing of pure theory. It was the first thing I had read to really force the word “capitalism” to become a category in my thought, and moreover to critically approach it, to ask: is the wage a just form of labor? Is profit a sensible motor of production? Is the ‘invisible hand’ any more than a collective illusion of endless growth and prosperity covering over a vicious “war of all against all”?

I think you can guess my answers.