On Value




Kiki Makandal

(November 2014)

“… the emergence of a completed socialist society, with the withering away of classes, commodities, money and the state.” (Page 92)

What we mean by value and how is value determined by the social context

Value is determined by the context of appropriation.

When appropriation is collective, value refers to collective social priorities and is resolved through collective prerogatives to influence social decisions (by the collective) dealing with integrated social activities that combine activities necessary for the production of necessary goods and services (necessary for social reproduction and welfare) with activities that engender cultural flourishing at its highest potential (“épanouissement”). Values refer to the process of collectively determining social production and distribution of goods and services according to need and ability to reflect the most harmonious, equitable and socially nurturing intents. As such, there are no commodities that have to be individually possessed or acquired or produced, but rather there are social needs that have to be addressed and collective social resources allocated to meet those needs in activities that no longer alienate labor from other social practices but that integrate the production of socially necessary goods and services within socially nurturing cultural practices. There is no longer a distinction between work and leisure; there is no longer a distinction between labor and culture, people can fish leisurely, people can farm leisurely… The concept of value refers not to “worth” but to relative social importance. It is completely different from “value” in the context of individual appropriation. There is no need to compare the relative “worth” of objects or services. There is only a need to collectively determine their production and allocation in the interest of the common good.

When appropriation is individual, values (trade-values) refers to the comparative worth of commodities and services that are somehow appropriated, claimed, stolen, obtained through conquest, produced, acquired in trade, possessed, hoarded and consumed. In the context of commodity production, value (trade-values) refers to the socially necessary labor commodities and services represent and contain. There can be no trade-value, unless something has been individually appropriated. Individual appropriation refers to the relative individual exclusive right to use and dispose of (within certain socially imposed limits, including the right to transfer ownership or to eliminate or destroy) objects, products and services. This is always subject to a particular and specific social context, because individual appropriation presupposes a corresponding ideological and political framework. The claim of ownership means that the exclusive individual right of use is somehow socially recognized and enshrined by customs, mores, moral codes of conduct (… all the ideological factors) and in its finality, in class-based societies, by the ability to use state authority (coercive force) to protect and defend that exclusivity (… the political component of private property). Even in societies that are not class-based, private property is still dependent in its finality on coercive force, and coercive force trumps ideology. That exclusivity is strictly a social construct and only exists within that particular specific social context. In effecting the exclusivity of private ownership, ideology plays a dominant role, but politics (the ultimate recourse to coercive force in the framework of jurisdiction) plays a determinant role, without which ideology would have no appeal and no foundation.

Private appropriation deals with objects, existing or produced, and services. That is why value is a characteristic of almost all aspects of life in capitalist societies that commodify almost everything in life. Socially necessary productive labor becomes the common measuring stick of this valuation process, even though it ascribes values even to objects and practices that do not contain any, such as natural resources, expressions of art, ideas, the supervision of labor, teaching…

Things that are used collectively tend to have no “trade value” attached to them: air, water, land, bridges, roads, and communal spaces… until they become privately appropriated. Air has the most use value of almost anything in life. Without air, we would all die within minutes, but unless air becomes privately appropriated, it cannot have any trade-value. That is what capitalism is now doing with water resources all over the world.

Ownership of products of labor is predicated by ownership of raw materials: the clay pot maker, the weaver, the ironsmith, (…), and ownership of the rest of the means of production (tools, machinery, land, production space, energy sources…). Even before one can lay claim to the ownership of something that one produces, one must first appropriate the raw materials and tools (means of production) used in its production. Even hunter-gatherers, herders and fishing communities must capture and claim their catch, what they gather, what they hunt…

People own their own labor: rightful ownership… It would make sense that the only “legitimate” claim of ownership on can make is that of one’s own exerted labor and by inference, what it produces. But even so, what of the ownership of what went into the production (the means of production, raw materials, tools…)? So, if one makes a table, one can lay claim to the labor that went into making that table, but what of the wood? How can one really own a tree? What does that mean, “to own a tree”? And where does the skill to make a table come from? Is one not “indebted” to one’s community for the social process that enabled that skill and to the reproduction of that social process, without which the community cannot reproduce itself? Is that not part of the reason why in most societies, apprentices were indebted to their teachers?

Trade-value and ownership are purely artificial social constructs founded on nonsensical predicates: how can one really “own” land, animals, plants, anything? Is not one socially accountable for one’s labor skill? Ownership and trade-value are only rooted in one’s ability to use force to defend that claim, and on the ability to use force to lay claim to the ownership of the product of labor. Ownership of land and animals, ownership of anything, ownership of people, slave labor, indentured labor, wage labor… are only rooted in coercive force.

The same pair of jeans produced locally in the US would have the identical value to the jeans produced in Bangladesh and then transported to the US. The labor necessary to transport the jeans does not add value to the jeans, it only adds cost to their eventual retail; it only makes possible the final sale of those jeans in their final market place. That socially necessary labor, a part of the distribution and circulation process, is incorporated in the process of surplus-value extraction derived from the relative strength of the entities competing in the distribution and circulation process, from transporters, to wholesalers, to retailers, and the entities who underwrite and finance them. Whether it takes 20 man-hours per ton of jeans, or 100 man-hours per ton of jeans, the price of the jeans in the US will be determined by market conditions in the US, and that is essentially what it would cost, in terms of socially necessary labor to produce those same jeans in the US. The outsourcers will make more or less profit depending on distribution and circulation costs.

Black market goods in China are sold for far less money than the same goods in the US. Black market jeans in China cost far less than their counterparts in the US, even though they are the same jeans. They represent different amounts of socially necessary labor. The labor necessary to make equivalent jeans in the US is the measuring stick of the worth of those jeans in the US, whether they originate in China, Bangladesh or were “Made in USA”.

But, what is the value of those jeans? Are they undervalued in Bangladesh or China, or are they over-valued in the US? Or is it simply that they have different values based on the relative cost of their labor content in different countries? Since labor costs less in Bangladesh and China, they cost less in China and Bangladesh. They are worth less in those countries. Wal-Mart has no incentive in producing jeans for sale in Bangladesh. Wal-Mart jeans only gain additional value when transported and distributed in the US or countries where labor costs (the cost of labor power) are higher. That is the underlying motive of outsourcing. But outsourcing itself is only profitable if it can undersell the competing locally produced goods. Therefore, outsourcing necessitates a constant race to the bottom, to reduce the cost of labor and the cost of distribution and circulation. Outsourcing is based on the super-exploitation of low wage labor to produce goods for sale in higher wage labor markets.

Socialist relations can only prevail when abundance prevails… That myth was debunked by uncovering the determinant role of the relations of production with respect to the productive forces (in the economic structure). At any stage of the development of the productive forces, one can practice egalitarian relations of production, and most so-called primitive societies bear witness to that. Greed only exists in private appropriation and is only engendered by private appropriation. Abundance can certainly simplify egalitarian distribution, but it does not predetermine or precondition it. But abundance can also complicate egalitarian distribution: what is to be made of excesses? Rather than strive for abundance, egalitarian societies in all times have strived for “just enough”.

Socialism means the abolition, dissolution, and disappearance of private property and of commodities (trade-values).