Friday, July 6, 2012

Marxism Rising?

Marxism is on the rise again, says the Guardian. It is ironic, of course. Far from the communist proletariat overthrowing capitalism, they have mostly been propping it up.


The proletariat, far from burying capitalism, are keeping it on life support. Overworked, underpaid workers ostensibly liberated by the largest socialist revolution in history (China's) are driven to the brink of suicide to keep those in the west playing with their iPads. Chinese money bankrolls an otherwise bankrupt America.

Marxism is growing more attractive partly because younger people are forgetting its horrors:


This, surely is the key to understanding Marxism's renaissance in the west: for younger people, it is untainted by association with Stalinist gulags.

There is a youhful buzz around people like Zizek.

In his formidable new tome Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, Slavoj Žižek tries to apply Marxist thought on economic crises to what we're enduring right now. Žižek considers the fundamental class antagonism to be between "use value" and "exchange value".

What's the difference between the two? Each commodity has a use value, he explains, measured by its usefulness in satisfying needs and wants. The exchange value of a commodity, by contrast, is traditionally measured by the amount of labour that goes into making it. Under current capitalism, Žižek argues, exchange value becomes autonomous. "It is transformed into a spectre of self-propelling capital which uses the productive capacities and needs of actual people only as its temporary disposable embodiment. Marx derived his notion of economic crisis from this very gap: a crisis occurs when reality catches up with the illusory self-generating mirage of money begetting more money – this speculative madness cannot go on indefinitely, it has to explode in even more serious crises. The ultimate root of the crisis for Marx is the gap between use and exchange value: the logic of exchange-value follows its own path, its own made dance, irrespective of the real needs of real people."


I have always been deeply suspicious of the labor theory of value. At some point I suppose I will have to read more of the current leftist stuff, including Zizek, before I can really grapple with it . But i suspect the more general point is a confusion about needs and values. The market price of a good or a service does not measure all aspects of its value, of course. That goes beyond the usual Econ 101 problems of missing markets etc., towards deeper problems with revealed preference.

For me, the crucial problem is there are different kinds of needs at different times, rather than one systemic gap between different measures of value. And economic institutions need to adapt to those changing needs.

There may be something here, but "use value" in particular seems to have an old-fashioned, musty air about it. Beyond basic survival needs, there isn't really use value: there's value defined relative to particular purposes. It becomes purpose value. Without a purpose, you have no way to identify or measure use value.


1 comment:

  1. Read "Empire" by Antonio Negri! The autonomist movement which are the most influential marxist movement at the moment is always left out because it does not do parliamentary party politics.