‘Marxism and the Critique of Value’ reviewed by Alex Cistelecan

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Marxism and the Critique of Value

MCM’ Books, Chicago, IL, 2014. 454pp., $29.95 pb
ISBN 9780989549707

Reviewed by Alex Cistelecan

About the reviewer

Alex Cistelecan is a lecturer at Petru Maior University, Romania, and post-doctoral researcher at …


This is the first book length appearance in English of the German Marxist group Wertkritik. The group assembles a number of theoreticians gathered around the magazine Krisis, which split in 2004 into the two groups (and corresponding magazines) Krisis and Exit!. Since the reasons for this divorce are just as much personal as they are theoretical (the latter having to do with the ‘value-dissociation theory’, adopted as personal coat of arms by the Exit! gang), the editors of the volume have preferred to emphasize the common ground of the two factions, instead of what separates them. The programmatic return to an ‘esoteric Marx’ centered on the critique of value which is preached by the Wertkritik’s personnel has its intellectual predecessors in the works of Rubin, Pashukanis, late Adorno, Backhaus and, more recently, Postone, and is articulated in a constant opposition to ‘traditional’ and ‘academic Marxism’ (which comprise basically the whole Marxist tradition, except the authors named above, the members of the Wertkritik and, perhaps, some parts – not that many – of Marx himself). Also excluded from this true Marxism is a rival German current, the Neue Marx Lecture, which – even though it shares with the Wertkritik the emphasis on the importance of the form of value and of fundamental, categorical critique – is nevertheless guilty of placing too much weight on money and exchange, as essential participants in the laboratory of value.

The first part of the book lays out the fundamentals of the Wertkritik. Its almost obsessive starting point of reference is the first chapter of Marx’s Capital, and more exactly the analysis of the form of value. The emphasis on the form of value is meant to rescue from oblivion what separates Marx’s approach from the classical political economy of value. While the focus on the content of value, as relevant as it is, will always confine itself to an economic matter, and usually ends up in a deadlock in Marxism in the issue of ‘transformation’, the focus on the form of value is able to revive the multidimensional critique of capitalism articulated by Marx, in which value is not only an economic category, expressing the amount of social labor contained in a commodity, but also, and more importantly, a social form, expressing the abstract and impersonal socialization of society – the blind mechanism by means of which private labor becomes social labor. Value is thus a ‘total category’, encompassing all aspects of social life in capitalism – hence, the diverse and far reaching application of this theoretical core in the texts of the Wertkritik.

From this reading of Marx’s ‘esoteric’ critique of value there grows an original account of the nature of labor in capitalism: labor should no longer be seen, as in traditional, ‘workerist’ Marxism, as the natural opposite of capital, as an ahistorical fountain of social wealth, whose real potential is merely corrupted and fettered in capitalism, but as thoroughly articulated by the social dynamic of value and, thus, at most, as a mere internal dissenter to capitalism. Hence, anti-capitalism should not point towards the traditional utopia of the socialism of ‘real value’, but towards the overcoming of all the basic capitalist categories: value, labor, and money.

The historical relevance of this otherwise merely conceptual development becomes visible once it is coupled with an updated theory of the falling rate of profit due to the change in the organic composition of capital, in which Marx’s thesis is seen as already confirmed by the microelectronic revolution. Once this step is taken, the abstract critique of value becomes a historical theory of crisis. In the sharp summary made by Trenkle, ‘since the 1970s, as a result of a worldwide, absolute displacement of living labor power from the process of valorization, capital has reached the historical limits of its power to expand” (13). This ‘absolute logical and historical limit of capital’ (19) is further spelled out by Robert Kurz’s classic 1986 article, ‘The Crisis of Exchange Value’. The ‘scientification of production’ – a variation on Marx’s General Intellect – has brought to an extreme the original contradiction between use value and exchange value, which appears today as the radical divergence between an ever diminishing pool of productive labor (in terms of value production), which is social only as a-socially mediated in exchange, and an ever growing pool of directly social labor, which is the material basis of the former but is nevertheless excluded from the production of value. Value thus becomes ‘an empty shell that no longer measures up to the material content’ and whose reproduction is more and more in opposition to society’s own reproduction and development. This ‘crisis of the creation of value itself’, ‘final crisis of capitalism’, cannot be dealt with in the manner of traditional Marxist crisis theories, which allegedly have not moved beyond an horizon immanent to value, but requires a radical critique of the fundamental capitalist categories – even if the article still puts some faith in the subjective element of ‘social labor’ as alternative to capitalism, faith that would be dropped in later texts by Kurz and his Wertkritik fellows.

The second part of the volume revolves around the so called ‘value-dissociation theory’, articulated, after 2004, by Roswitha Scholz, Robert Kurz and the Exit! group. This theory aims at adding a ‘feminist twist’ to the fundamental assertions of value-critique, by postulating – as a necessary precondition of the value constellation – a dissociation between a masculine sphere of value-production, and a feminine sphere of social reproduction. In the words of Roswitha Scholz, ‘value dissociation means that capitalism contains a core of female-determined reproductive activities and the affects, characteristics and attitudes… that are dissociated from value and abstract labor… Such relations constitute a facet of capitalist societies that cannot be captured by Marx’s conceptual apparatus… [yet] is a necessary aspect of value, [which] exists outside of it and is its precondition’ (127-8). Thus, the relation between value and dissociation is at least double. On the one hand, dissociation seems to be the symmetrical positive of value, that the latter must somehow include as excluded in its own mechanism in order to reproduce itself. On the other hand, dissociation seems to stand in for a whole new and deeper level of grounding abstraction, ‘as the macrotheoretical framework within which the categories of the value form function micro-theoretically’. From this shifting and highly sophisticated perspective, the author nevertheless manages to throw in some direct punches, in such flat diagnostics as ‘the very basis of the modern state and politics, along with the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, rests since the eighteenth century upon the foundation of male alliances” (131). Similar pattern for Trenkle’s piece included in the same section, which, after initially identifying, via a most traditional move, masculinity with abstraction and a relation to the world mediated by instrumental objects, and femininity with sensuality and a relation to the world based on spontaneous communion, obviously discovers that the capitalist production of value corresponds to the masculine side, and is based on a repressed feminine side.

It is a bit curious that this intellectual platform, which usually claims to explain everything from the origin of capitalism to its ultimate crisis solely on the basis of chapter 1 of Capital I and chapter 15 of Capital III, feels nevertheless the need to accommodate one, and only one, theoretical graft – the theory of value-dissociation. And not in order to bring more historical mediation and concreteness to its account of modern society, but, on the contrary, in order to project another, deeper, level of founding abstraction – the precondition of capitalism which is the dissociation between masculine and feminine. It is, perhaps, a sign of chivalrous gallantry on the part of the Marxist hardcore of the Wertkritik to welcome this ‘feminist twist’ that manages to carve out for itself quite a fundamental and structuring position in the whole theoretical architectonic, as nothing less than a precondition and founding theory for all the critique of value. However, no good deed goes unpunished and the unstable theoretical mixture resulting from this is the price to pay. Why, after all, the need to bring in a whole new different theory, if this theory simply projects a symmetrical background (a ‘dark underbelly of value’), strongly moralizes the entire argument, and fixes the whole conceptual apparatus in the good old essentialist sexual opposition (with value, reason, instrumentality on the wrong, masculine side of history, and affects, intimacy and gratuity on the good, feminine side of it). Rather than a historical reading of the ‘ahistorical’ categories of male and female, the value-dissociation theory makes the opposite move, in which the historical dynamic of capitalism is projected onto the ahistorical background of the reified and essentialist opposition between the two sexes. This probably would not be that problematic if the feminine would not thus turn to occupy exactly the role and function from which the good old traditional concept of labor was evacuated as a false antagonist by the very same Wertkritik: namely, the genuine, natural and original opposition to capitalism, which is somehow brutally exploited by capital even if it survives as pure as ever, and which has only to be liberated by removing the masculine fetters of value.

The third part of the book focuses on some of the contemporary political consequences of the critique of value. Lohoff points to the necessary role of the state in the overarching apparatus of value, and, from this basis, explains the contemporary crisis of politics as an expression of the crisis of value production, while at the same time he rejects all appeals to the state as a possible remedy or cushion to capital’s rule. What we need, instead, is an emancipatory politics that should go beyond the state, imagine forms of socialization based on free access, and aim for ‘the gradual decommodification and demonetarization of social relationships’. (181) Kurz’s essay in this section follows instead a value-critique reading of our recent monetary history, from the Bretton Woods agreements to today’s hegemony of the ‘arms dollar’, and also calls for an emancipatory politics that consists in a ‘redefinition of socialism beyond the fetish forms of commodity, money, nation and their associated gender relations’. Finally, Trenkle’s piece revisits the issue of class struggle, which is to be abandoned as salvation front not only because workers’ struggle is, in truth, immanent to the value constellation, but also because of the wide-scale phenomenon of ‘declassing’ and class decomposition. The political solution is instead identified in struggles such as those of the Zapatistas, the Piqueteros and other contemporary grass-roots movements.

What is striking in this section is how, on the one hand, almost all existing alternatives for emancipatory politics are dismissed as not radical and far reaching enough, while at the same time various local, subjective and voluntaristic endeavors are granted the much praised emancipatory politics award. Apparently, subjective voluntarism is out of place only in the workers movement, while it is enjoying a comeback in all postmodern forms of resistance.

The fourth part of the book represents the lowest point in Wertkritik’s display, the critique of modernity and Enlightenment. It is hard to imagine that such an esoteric, sophisticated Marxism can arrive at such one-dimensional and obscurantist conclusions. Why all the effort of rediscovering the hidden Marx, if in his place one simply finds Burke or De Maistre? Lohoff: ‘the unpleasant, sickly-sweet smell rising from these principles [Liberty, Fraternity, Equality] turns out to be an effluvium of intermingled death and murder” (226). “Destruction, murder, and chaos are themselves constitutive of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” (228). Kurz, follows closely with: “Modern bourgeois freedom… is identical to a higher, abstract, and anonymous form of servitude” (288); and “in modernity, equality itself is a relation of domination” (289). And closing the section, Lewed, who identifies in the discourse of Osama bin Laden – obviously – the same deadly germ of Enlightenment called ‘the abstract universality of the public interest’ (314).

As surprising as this conservative critique of modernity is, one has to admit that its possibility was always already present in the theoretical starting positions of the Wertkritik. There is a very quick slippery slope from the valid main argument of the Wertkritik – not simply the old conservative refrain that the general suffocates the particular, but the more specific idea that abstraction as such exists alongside material things in capitalism and blindly governs the social relations – back to a one-dimensional and ahistorical reading, very similar to the reactionary conservatism of Heidegger, of blaming modernity and abstraction as such. The sheer scope of value-critique, reaching into all domains of social life on the basis of a rather slim conceptual apparatus, makes it vulnerable to being turned into a rather vague feeling about the decadence of the world from its enchanted old ways: if value defines not only the economic mode of production, but everything related to modernity, than prehistory must be the much longed for horizon beyond value.

The Heideggerian tone of these articles will prepare the reader for the final section of the book, in which the passage beyond capitalism will turn out to require nothing less than an ‘ontological break’ with everything that exists. Here, again, we encounter the same oscillation between a radical critique that can hope only in a world beyond – beyond money, value, labor – and an unexpectedly moderate and pragmatic opening to praxis, which can cling only to partial, subjective, voluntaristic efforts at emancipation.

Perhaps, this problematic oscillation when it comes to emancipatory praxis is an effect of the initial conceptual strategy of the Wertkritik, the coupling of the theory of the value-form with the theory of the ultimate capitalist crisis brought about by the growing organic composition of capital. There is, perhaps, too much and too little precision in the diagnosis that capitalism has reached its limit with the advent of the informatics revolution. There is a lack of historical accuracy in situating the end-point of capitalism somewhere around 50 years ago, for a phenomenon that barely covers two full centuries. There is a strong need for mediating theories between this transhistorical history – the ascension and demise of value – and real, actual history. But there is also the problem of how to articulate the conceptual apparatus of value-critique theory with these mediating theories. The value-dissociation solution does not offer a great example. Thus, because of its own sweeping ambitions, Wertkritik seems to be trapped in the drama of the proverbial elephant in the jewel store: when pointing to solutions, it can only resurrect the same voluntarist alternatives that it logically had to reject; when left on its own, it can only express itself in highly abstract and, as it were, historical but not yet real accounts of modern society, pure prophetism, eventually bursting out in obscurantist denunciations of modern decadence. When coupled with another theory, it is the all-encompassing and sweeping range of the Wertkritik that makes the assemblage look like an improvised patchwork. 

6 April 2015

One comment

  1. Sadly, this review seems to have an axe to grind. It begins and proceeds in an almost unrelentingly hostile and dismissive tone. There is a moment after the introduction in the discussion of value where it seems like a measure analysis might take place, but it completely breaks down by the second paragraph on value-dissociation.

    The reviewer not only mashes together Krisis and Exit! on this (the specific concept of value-dissociation was one of the breaking points that lead to the split between the groups), but seemingly willfully misrepresents Roswitha Scholz’s argument.

    For example, Scholz is explicit in pointing out that value-dissociation, the relating of unwaged, reproductive labor to waged, value-producing labor in the total social reproduction of capital, which forms the original ground of the gender relation historically particular to capitalist society, does not claim to be the “one, and only one, theoretical graft” (terms like “graft” are redolent throughout; petty digs meant to undermine the credibility of the writers.) She is explicit that treatments of race, anti-Semitism, etc. would have their own dynamic and that these would have to be developed on their own terms and that value-dissociation has to reckon with its own inherent limitations and falsity, as does any concept. Further, her move effectively takes the constitution of gender beyond the dualisms of older Marxist-Feminisms and grounds it in the logic of capital itself. No doubt, for those who believe that class is the only “real” opposition to capital, this will be angering, but for the rest of us, this opens up a completely different way to conceptualize gendering as an essential aspect of capital. This is in no way essentialist because the point is that the gender opposition is a product of capitalist society, not transhistorical or natural, and capable of change even within capitalist society itself in real ways. Lastly, Scholz nowhere treats the feminine as good and the masculine as bad. The very cutting up of human beings into these dualities is exactly what needs to be overcome.

    This unfortunate hostile misrepresentation and/or sloppiness is evident in the entire rest of the review, turning it into a very mixed bag in which the valid points that are made themselves become hard to separate out. I have to recommend that anyone reading this review take the time to read the articles themselves, as the review does a very poor job after the opening couple of paragraphs of representing the material.

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