Sometimes people take the distinction between use value and exchange value as a moral distinction: use value is natural and good, and then capitalism came along and ruined things by inventing exchange value. This is wrong – use value and exchange value are a dialectical pair, and they both only came into existence with the development of capitalism.
Obviously, people used things before capitalism, but the idea of use value, that is, of usefulness in general, rather than some specific usefulness, was, before capitalism, an entirely mental abstraction. It’s only when usefulness in general comes to underpin generalised exchangeability (i.e., exchange value) that it acquires a practical reality.
In 1852, Marx wrote that Napoleon III had managed to become Emperor of France because he knew the power of “cigars and champagne, cold poultry and garlic sausage.” Many attempts have been made to interpret the significance of these sausages (including Andrew Parker’s suggestion that they are a phallic symbol), but few have drawn attention to the fact that Marx specifies garlic sausage — that is, particularly tasty sausages that are especially well suited to whet the appetite. Marx’s interest in garlic sausage has not been taken up by the Marxist tradition, where categories of necessity or utility are more likely to be studied than categories of appetite. I think this is a mistake, and that paying attention to appetite — to the insatiability of our sensory desires — is an important materialist principle. Thinking about appetite can help us understand the social relations that are formed in the everyday practices through which we live and desire. Read more↴
After my post last week about radicalising capitalist mediocrity, I was thinking about how another feature of capitalism might be transformed in communism: capitalism’s alienated but compulsory sociality. Capitalist production requires “sociality” in as much as capitalism forces workers to cooperate in collective work; but, capital also attempts to limit that cooperation so that it only includes the cooperation necessary for production and no more. So the assembly line, at least as idealised in capitalist imagination, would involve no direct human-to-human cooperation, but would instead embody all cooperation in machines.
One common Marxist response to this alienated compulsory sociality is to focus on the alienation part: in communism, the argument goes, alienated cooperation would be replaced with genuine human cooperation. This sounds horrible. Read more↴
The store known as La Chaussee d’Antin had recently announced its new inventory of yard goods. Over two million meters of barege, over five million of grenadine and poplin, and over three million of other fabrics-altogether about eleven million meters of textiles. Le Tintamarre now remarked, after recommending La Chaussee d’Antin to its female readers as the ‘foremost house of fashion in the world; and also the ‘most dependable’: ‘The entire French railway system comprises barely ten thousand kilometers of tracks – that is, only ten million meters. This one store, therefore, with its stock of textiles, could virtually stretch a tent over all the railroad tracks of France, which, especially in the heat of summer, would be very pleasant.’ Three or four other establishments of this kind publish similar figures, so that, with all these materials combined, one could place not only Paris … but the whole departement of the Seine under a massive canopy, ‘which likewise would be welcome in rainy weather.’ But we cannot help asking: How are stores supposed to find room to stock this gigantic quantity of goods? The answer is very simple and, what is more, very logical: each firm is always larger than the others.
You hear it said: “La Ville de Paris, the largest store in the capital,” “Les Villes de France, the largest store in the Empire,” “La Chaussee d’Antin, the largest store in Europe,” “Le Coin de Rue, the largest store in the world” – “In the world”: that is to say, on the entire earth there is none larger; you’d think that would be the limit. But no: Les Magasins du Louvre have not been named, and they bear the title “The largest stores in the universe.” The universe! Including Sirius apparently, and maybe even the “disappearing twin stars” of which Alexander von Humboldt speaks in his Kosmos. (Ebende, Lebende Bilder aus dem modernen Paris, quoted in Benjamin, The Arcades Project)
One of accelerationism’s central claims is that, although contemporary capitalism continuously uses the language of innovation, what it actually produces is mediocrity or stagnation, endless small changes that don’t really change anything (new phones with marginally different specs, that kind of thing). The accelerationist response to this is to challenge capitalism by taking seriously its claims to innovation, and to show that only an anti-capitalist politics can produce in reality the innovation that capitalism proposes as ideology. This is a misunderstanding of the dialectic. Read more↴
Marx is disturbed by the strong resemblance between the activity of the performing artist and the servile duties, which, thankless and frustrating as they are, do not produce surplus value, and thus return to the realm of non-productive labour (54).
In A Grammar of the Multitude, Virno attempts to ground his own theory of virtuosity in work in Marx, and notices Marx’s apparent discomfort that his theory analyses artistic work and “servile” work in the same way. What is it that makes “servile” work servile? The distinguishing feature seems to be that it is work that is never finished, but rather work that has to be continually done again. That is to say, servile work is reproductive work, or what Arendt calls the work of animal laborans, the never-finished work of maintaining the human animal. Arendt hates this sort of work because it doesn’t produce anything that outlasts the animal: it does not create something new, or, in Greek, it is not poiesis.
What Virno misses, though, in his attempt to show the new importance of virtuosity in the post-Fordist economy, is that, while it’s true that neither reproductive nor virtuosic work are poiesis, neither is productive work in capitalism. Read more↴
I’ve always thought “lumpenproletariat” was a bit of a zombie term. Marx invented the term but never really theorized it, instead presenting it – on those few occasions when he used the term more than in passing – through images of heterogeneity:
Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaus, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organgrinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la bohème (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).
Indeed, this untheorizable diversity, which “endlessly proliferates categories to encompass the spectacle of the metropolis,” may be the point of the term, as Peter Stallybrass argues in a dazzling essay on Marx and heterogeneity. But “lumpenproletariat” was taken up by Marxists as if it had a secure place within Marxist theory, as if the lumpenproletariat was a definite class with a particular role or characteristics; usually, this Marxist deployment of the term has served only to give a theoretical cover for moralism. Read more↴