Value, Decadence, and Technology: Twelve Theses

1. In his project for a critique of political economy, first adumbrated in the Grundrisse, the preparatory notes of 1857-1858, Karl Marx laid bare the fundamental categories -- value, abstract labor, the commodity, and capital -- which "express the forms of being, the characteristics of existence"(1) of the capitalist mode of production. It is these categories which Marx was convinced shaped the economic, social, political, and cultural dimensions of human life in, and the historic trajectory of, capitalist society. And it was the inherent, and insoluble, contradictions of a mode of production based on these selfsame categories which Marx believed indicated both the historicity of these categories, their supersession through the abolition of value production, and the prospect of a human community (Gemeinwesen). The law of value, value production, is not eternal, is not inherent in the life of the human species. Value is coeval with capitalism, and with the commodity form; it is the form of wealth mediated by the market, by exchange, where wealth is constituted by human labor-power. Moreover, there can be no abolition of capitalism which is not at the same time the abolition of value production.

2. Marx never completed the systematic development of his seminal insights into the categorial structure of the capitalist mode of production, and its historic trajectory, during his own lifetime, and his intellectual heirs, beginning with Engels, have not only failed to complete this theoretical task, but have consistently subverted it through the articulation of a "productivist Marxism." This productivist Marxism, common to Social Democracy, Leninism, the projects of both Stalin and Trotsky, and even the economic perspective of much of the Communist Left (despite the mutual hostility of these different currents on the political plane) affirms the trans-historical nature of value production, the permanence of industrial labor once it has made its appearance with the genesis of capitalism, and celebrates unlimited industrial growth and technological development, together with the proletarian labor which is its condition, as the very basis of socialism or communism. Lenin's formula that socialism is the soviets + electrification is the very quintessence of this productivist Marxism.

3. For productivist Marxism, the inherent contradictions of the capitalist mode of production take one of two forms.

First, a contradiction between an industrial mode of production and a bourgeois mode of distribution; between the forces of production, the development of which capitalism has brought about, and which can assure prosperity for all, and the relations of "production," in fact understood as a mode of distribution ("private" appropriation of the wealth socially produced by proletarian labor), which condemns the mass of humanity to an existence in which its needs remain unsatisfied. On the basis of this interpretation, the contradictions of capitalism can be resolved through a socialized mode of distribution (abolition of "private property," nationalization, and central planning), which will be consonant with the existing mode of industrial production, and proletarian labor.

Second, the contradiction between the expansion of the productive forces and the capitalist relations of production which fetter, block and/or prevent, their development. In one form or another, this vision of the contradictions of capitalism entails a concept of decadence the hallmark of which is the halt or slackening in the growth of the productive forces, fettered by capitalist relations of production. On the basis of this vision, the contradictions of capitalism can be resolved through the removal of the barriers to the unfettered development of the forces of production, to the unlimited development of the industrial mode of production and of technology initiated by capitalism in its ascendant or progressive phase, through the abolition of the market and private property.

4. Whereas productivist Marxism, and any concept of the decadence of capitalism articulated on its bases, reifies and celebrates the industrial mode of production and the proletarian labor which is its basis, Marx's own insights into the fundamental categories which shape the capitalist mode of production, e.g. the commodity, value, abstract labor, indicate not just the historicity of these categories and of the mode of production to which they give rise, but the necessity for the abolition of the law of value, and of the industrial production and proletarian labor which it enshrines. As long as proletarian labor and industrial production remain the foundations of social life, the law of value and capitalism remain its irreducible bases. And this is the case however many changes in the mere forms of proletarian labor and industrial production are introduced. In this sense, productivist Marxism is revealed to be an ideology of capitalism, which in its several different forms has perpetuated the capitalist mode of production throughout much of the twentieth century.

5. For Marx, the basic characteristic or determination of existence [Existenzbestimmung] under capitalism is value. Value, as the historically specific form of wealth characteristic of capitalism, is created by the direct expenditure of abstract human labor in the process of production; it is the form of social wealth measured and produced by the direct expenditure of labor time in the production process, and both its very existence as a form of social wealth, and its mass, remains integrally bound to the expenditure of labor time and to the quantity or amount of living labor employed in production. No matter how many changes occur in the forms and techniques of production, the structure of the market, or the forms of private property, capitalism remains a mode of production whose "presuposition is -- and remains -- the mass of direct labour time, the quantity of labour employed, as the determinant factor in the production of wealth." (2) A society in which wealth is determined by the quantity of living labor employed in the production process, where living labor is a commodity which is exchanged against a wage, is a capitalist society, whatever the juridical forms of property may be.

6. The historical trajectory of capitalism produces a contradiction between its unsurpassable basis in value production, and the expenditure of living labor, on the one hand, and the actual results of its own developmental logic on the other:

The introduction of the category "real wealth," and the contrast between value and real wealth, the former dependent on the direct expenditure of living labor, and the latter increasingly on the application of science and technology to the production process, has its basis in the twofold nature of the commodity form which Marx has explicated: exchange-value and use-value. The very development of the productive forces by capitalism results in a growing, and fatal, disjunction between value and real wealth: living labor remains the only source of value, while real wealth is no longer dependent on "the direct human labour [the proletarian] himself performs, nor the time during which he works,"(4) but rather on the productive power of the "social individual," the collective laborer [Gesamtarbeiter], and the technology which he sets in motion.

7. The decadence of capitalism marks the point in the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital (the penetration of value and the commodity form to all segments of human existence), when the production of value has ceased to be the condition for the production of material wealth; indeed, when the perpetuation of value production, with its insurmountable basis in living labor, has become an obstacle to the continued production of material wealth. "As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth ...."(5) At that point in its historical trajectory, capitalism will have passed from being a necessary condition for the development of the powers of the human species, and of its material wealth, to being an obstacle to that development. Indeed, at that historical conjuncture, capitalism will have become a destructive factor in the life of the human species, constricting its potential, and condemning ever larger masses of humanity to insecurity, misery, and death. Despite -- indeed, even because of -- the unprecedented development of technology and the productive forces in the twentieth century, humankind has lived amidst a growing insecurity, widespread and increasing misery, and the risk of violent death through war and genocide, which have become the hallmarks of the decadence of capitalism.

8. The existence of capitalism in its decadent phase, bound as it is to the production of surplus value extracted from living labor, and yet confronted by the fact that the mass of surplus value tends to fall as the level of surplus labor rises, compels it to accelerate the development of the productive forces at an ever more frenzied rate and tempo:

However, this very contradiction increases the pressure on every capital entity to expand the forces of production, develop new technologies, increase its productivity, in a desperate attempt to escape the downward course of the average rate of profit, and obtain a surplus-profit by producing commodities below their socially average value. Therefore, the faster the rate of profit falls, as a result of the rising organic composition of capital, i.e., the growth of the productive forces, the greater the pressure on each capital entity to further develop those self-same productive forces in the endless quest for a surplus-profit. Thus, capital's compulsion to increase productivity, and thereby develop the forces of production, does not diminish in its decadent phase; quite the contrary, even though the frenetic expansion of material wealth that occurs does not result in a commensurate expansion of wealth in the form of value. Despite its increasingly meagre results, in decadent capitalism the constant and boundless expansion of material wealth remains the very condition for the perpetuation of value production. It is this imperative which underlies the vast changes in the production of material wealth ushered in by the computer, the micro-chip, biotechnology, visual imaging, robotics, and artificial intelligence, for example.

9, Decadent capitalism, notwithstanding the frenzied pace of its scientific and technological developments, is plagued by catastrophic economic crises which have their bases in the expanding social contradiction which is inherent in value production, and which tends to become permanent in its phase of decadence. According to Marx:

The contradiction between the imperative to reduce direct labor time to a minimum, even while this same abstract human labor remains the only measure and source of value, constitutes the veritable basis for the catastrophic economic crises of capitalism, both in terms of the decline in the rate of profit, and the inability to realize the surplus-value produced. (The modalities, trajectory, and history, of these economic crises are worked out in the text of comrade Sander.)

10. It would be a grave error, however, to conclude that once set free from the constraints of value production, with its indissoluble link to the expenditure of direct labor time, the production of material wealth through the application of science and technology would have severed its link to capital. Industrial production itself bears the stigmata of capital, on the bases of which it first emerged. Indeed, Marx designates industrial production as a "specifically capitalist form of production ... (at the technological level too)." (8) The science, technology, and the organization or structures which underpin them, and permit their development, are all shaped and indelibly stamped by capital and value. As Ernst Bloch has insisted: "... the technological relationship to nature repeats in a different way the bourgeois-social one to the misunderstood tendencies and contents in its own operation: in both cases the activity never gets beyond the mere exploitation of opportunities; in both cases there is no communication with the matter of occurrence." (9)

The rationalization, and instrumentalization, of all aspects of human existence, which are the constitutive achievements of modern science and technology, are inseparable from the abstraction, homogeneity, and quantification, which are integral to value, and the social relations which it generates. In short, on the historic bases of the capitalist mode of production, material wealth as the product of modern science and technology is itself impregnated by the form of value, even when it is no longer measured by the quantity of living labor incorporated in it. So long as what Bloch designates as the "technological relationship to nature" continues to characterize the interaction between humans and their natural environment, so long as humans relate to nature simply as its master and possessor, that relationship will be increasingly one which threatens not just the destruction of nature, but of the filiation between humans and nature on which the very existence of our species depends.

11. The decadence of capitalism is not incompatible with the development of the productive forces, the expansion of technological control over nature, and the prodigious increase in material wealth. Indeed, the very contradictions of value production impel each capital entity to the frenzy of "production for production's sake," in a desperate attempt to obtain a surplus-profit through the development of new technologies which permit it to sell their commodities below their socially average value:

It then becomes clear, as Ernst Bloch has pointed out, that "very great retrogression of society can correspond to progress in the `control of nature.'" (11) Retrogression or decadence can occur even while science and technology continue their prodigious development. The link between the concept of the decadence of capitalism and the halt or slackening in the growth of the productive forces, itself the legacy of productivist Marxism, must be shattered. As Walter Benjamin pointed out, that vulgar-Marxist conception "recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society; it already displays the technocratic features later encountered in Fascism." (12)

In the place of that vulgar or productivist Marxism, that ideology of capitalism, and on the bases of Marx's own insights, we must elaborate a concept of capitalist decadence as a form of social retrogression which is accompanied by technological "progress," which -- in the absence of social revolution and the abolition of value production -- contains the objective-real possibility of massive ecological destruction, as well as industrialized genocide and thermonuclear war, all of which threaten the very existence of the human species.

12. The historic alternative to the social retrogression of capitalist decadence is the abolition of value production, its forms of being [Daseinsformen], including the science and technology on which it has stamped its character as abstract and unmediated. This entails not just the abolition of a mode of production based on the direct expenditure of living labor as the source of surplus value, but of the very industrial mode of production, set in motion by proletarian labor, which is no less integral to capitalism.

It is the historic trajectory of the capitalist mode of production itself which has made the abolition of value and industrial production an objective-real possibility on the Front of history. In their place can arise a Gemeinwesen constituted by the social individual entering into a qualitative, and socially mediated relationship to nature. In contrast to capitalist technology, for which nature is merely an object for exploitation and subjugation, a technology adequate to the Gemeinwesen, and the social individual -- in Ernst Bloch's words -- will "have surmounted its catastrophic side and its abstractness. An unparalleled hook-up is intended here, a real installation of human beings (as soon as they have been socially mediated with themselves) into nature (as soon as technology has been mediated with nature)." (13) What would such a technology mediated with nature look like? How can technology be divested of its abstractness and its catastrophic side? It is much easier to point to the dangers of a science and technology which treats nature simply as an object for exploitation and control, as the ecological destruction which results is now patently obvious even to many who do not see the link between this relationship and capital. The dim outlines of such a technology can perhaps already be glimpsed, though it is only the experimental praxis of a humanity which liberates itself from the capitalist interregnum that can fill in the contours of a technology adequate to the human Gemeinwesen which is the alternative to the barbarism of capitalism.



1. Karl Marx. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Tr. Martin Nicholas. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973. p. 106.

2. ibid. p 704. My emphasis.

3. ibib. p. 704-705.

4. ibid. p.705.

5. ibid.

6. ibid. p. 340.

7. ibid. p. 705.

8. Karl Marx. "Results of the Immediate Process of Production."
Tr. Rodney Livingstone in Capital volume I. Tr. Ben Fowkes. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976. p. 1024.

9. Ernst Bloc. The Principle of Hope volume II." Tr. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986. p. 696.

10. Marx. "Results of the Immediate Process of Production," p. 1037.

11. Bloch, op. cit

12. Walter Benjamin. "Theses on the Philosophy of History." in Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World inc., 1968. p. 261.

13. Bloch, op. citp. 698.

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