Value and Crisis: Basic Questions (1998)

Norbert Trenkle

The ground that I want to cover today is expansive. It stretches from the most fundamental level of the theory of value (or more precisely, from the critique of value) — that is to say, from the level of the fundamental categories of commodity-producing society: labor, value, commodity, money — to the level where these fundamental categories appear reified and fetishized, as seemingly “natural” facts of life and as “objective necessities.” At this level — that of price, profit, wage, circulation, and so on — the internal contradictions of modern commodity society emerge: here such a society’s ultimate historical untenability makes itself evident — in the form of the crisis. It is clear that in the limited time available today I can only sketch things out, but I hope that I can succeed in providing a clear view of the essential framework.

As a point of departure, I would like to begin with a category commonly viewed as a fully self-evident condition of human existence: “labor.” Even in Marx’s Capital, this remains largely unproblematized, and is taken to be a universally valid anthropological trait that can be found in every society in the world: “Labor, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labor, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself.”1

It is true that for Marx, the category of “labor” is not as completely unproblematic as this quote seems to suggest. At other points, especially in the so-called early writings, he adopts far more critical tones. In a critique of German economist Friedrich List first published in the 1970s, he even goes so far as to speak of the abolition of labor as a precondition of emancipation. “‘Labor’ is in its very being an oppressive, inhumane, and antisocial activity that both is determined by and produces private property. The abolition of private property thus only becomes reality when it is understood as an abolition of ‘labor.’”2 Even in Capital, we find passages which recall this early approach. But my task here is not to trace the ambivalences around the concept of “labor” (for more on this, see Kurz); rather I would like to proceed directly to the question of the meaning of this category.3 Is “labor” an anthropological constant? Can we use it as such to make it unproblematically into a point of departure for an analysis of commodity society? My answer is an unambiguous “no.”

Marx distinguishes between abstract and concrete labor, and calls this the dual character of labor particular to commodity-producing society. He thus suggests — and also states explicitly — that it is not until the level of this doubling, or splitting, that a process of abstraction takes place. Abstract labor is abstract insofar as it moves away from the concrete material properties and particularities of the respective specific activities — for example, the work of a tailor, a carpenter, or a butcher — and is reduced to a common equivalent. But Marx overlooks here (and in any case, Marxism has yet to develop an awareness of the problem at this level) that labor as such is already such an abstraction. And not simply an abstraction in thought like a tree, animal, or plant; rather, it is a historically established, socially powerful, actually existing abstraction that violently brings people under its thumb.

Abstracting means withdrawing or withdrawing from something. In what way, then, is labor a withdrawal — that is, a withdrawal from something else? What is socially and historically specific about labor is not, of course, the fact that things are created in the first place and that social tasks are carried out. In fact, this must occur in all societies. What is specific is the form in which this takes place in capitalist society. What is essential to this form is in the first instance the fact that work is a separate sphere, cut off from the rest of its social setting. Whoever works is working and doing nothing else. Relaxing, amusing oneself, pursuing personal interests, loving, and so on — these things must take place outside labor or at least must not interfere with its thoroughly rationalized functional routines. Of course, this never fully succeeds, because despite centuries of training, it has not been possible to turn people completely into machines. But what I am talking about here is a structural principle which empirically never emerges in perfect purity — even though, at least in Central Europe, the empirical process of labor certainly seems to correspond to a great extent to this terrible model. For this reason — that is, as a result of the exclusion of all the moments of non-labor from the sphere of labor — the historical establishment of labor is accompanied by the formation of further separate spheres of society, into which all those dissociated (abgespaltenen) moments are banished, spheres which themselves take on an exclusive character: leisure, privacy, culture, politics, religion, and so on.

The essential structural condition for this division of social life is the modern relationship between the sexes with its dichotomous and hierarchical allocation of masculinity and femininity. The sphere of labor falls unambiguously into the realm of the “masculine,” which itself is already a demonstration of the subjective demands that this makes: abstract, instrumental rationality, objectivity, formal thinking, competitive orientation — requirements that women must of course also meet if they want to get anywhere in the world of work. However, this realm of the masculine is structurally able to exist only against the background of that which has been dissociated, a sphere which is then posited as inferior — a sphere in which, ideally, the working man can regenerate, because in the ideal case the dedicated housewife takes care of his physical and emotional well being. This structural relationship, which bourgeois society has idealized and romanticized from time immemorial in countless bombastic eulogies in praise of the loving and self-sacrificial wife and mother, has over the last thirty years been analyzed more than adequately in feminist scholarship. To this extent it is possible to advance without further comment the thesis that labor and the modern system of hierarchical gender relations are inseparably linked to one another. Both are fundamental structural principles of the bourgeois social order of the commodity form.

I am unable further to pursue this relationship here in its own right, as the topic of my lecture is in fact the specific mediations and the internal contradictions within the historically and structurally male spheres of labor, commodity, and value. I should thus like to return to this matter. I remarked earlier that labor, as a specific form of activity in commodity society, is per se already abstract because it constitutes a separated sphere, withdrawn from the rest of social life. And as such, it exists only where commodity production has already become the determining form of socialization — in capitalism, that is to say, where human activity in the form of labor serves no other purpose than the valorization of value.

Human beings do not enter into the sphere of labor willingly. They do it because they were separated from the most basic means of production and existence in a long and bloody historical process, and now can survive only by selling themselves temporarily — or, more precisely, by selling their vital energy, as labor power, for an external purpose, the content of which is irrelevant. For them, labor thus primarily means a fundamental extraction of vital energy, and in this respect is thus an extremely real, actually existing abstraction. Indeed, it is precisely for this reason that the identification of labor with suffering makes sense, as the original meaning of the word laborare suggests.

In the end, however, abstraction in the realm of labor also reigns in the form of a highly specific rule of time that is both abstract-linear and homogeneous. What counts is objectively measurable time — in other words, the time that has been separated from the subjective sensations, feelings, and experiences of working individuals. Capital has rented them for a precisely defined time-period, in which they have to produce a maximal output of commodities or services. Each minute that they do not expend for this purpose is, from the standpoint of the purchaser of the commodity labor power, a waste. Each and every minute is valuable, insofar as it, in the literal sense, presents potential value.

Historically, the establishment of the abstract-linear and homogeneous rule of time certainly represents one of the sharpest breaks with all precapitalist social orders. It is well known that several centuries of evident compulsion and open use of violence were required before the mass of humanity had internalized this form of relationship to time, and no longer thought anything of arriving at the factory or office door punctually at a given time, giving up their lives at the factory door, and subjecting themselves for a precisely measured length of time to the metronomic rhythm of the prescribed productive and functional procedures. This well-known fact alone shows how little the form of social activity known as “labor” can be taken for granted. If labor as such, then, is not an anthropological constant, but rather is itself already an abstraction (albeit one that exerts a huge social force), how does it relate to the dual character of the labor represented in the commodity that Marx analyzes and that forms the basis of his theory of value? It is well known that Marx established that commodity-producing labor has two sides, one concrete and the other abstract. As concrete labor it creates use values — in other words, particular useful things. As abstract labor, on the other hand, it is the expenditure of labor as such, regardless of any qualitative determination. As such, it creates the value presented in commodities. But what remains beyond any qualitative determination? It is perfectly clear that the only thing that all these different sorts of labor have in common, abstracted from their material-concrete elements, is that they are different types of expenditures of abstract labor time. Abstract labor is thus the reduction of all the different forms of commodity-producing labor to a common denominator. It makes them comparable and as a result capable of being exchanged for one another, by reducing them to the pure abstract, reified quantity of elapsed time. As such, it forms the substance of value.

Virtually all Marxist theorists have adopted this not-at-all self-explanatory or obvious conception as the basic definition of an anthropological fact and quasi-natural law, and regurgitated it as such without reflection. They have never understood why Marx went to such lengths when writing the first chapter of Capital (which, indeed, was rewritten numerous times) and why he supposedly unnecessarily obscured what is apparently such an obvious state of affairs with recourse to a Hegelian language. Just as labor was obvious to Marxism, so too did it seem obvious to Marxism that labor quite literally creates value, in the same way that the baker bakes bread, and that in value, past labor time is preserved as dead labor time. Even in Marx it never becomes clear that abstract labor itself, both logically and historically, presupposes labor as a specific form of social activity — that it is thus the abstraction of an abstraction — or put differently, that the reduction of an activity to homogeneous units of time presupposes the existence of an abstract measure of time, which as such dominates the sphere of labor. It would never have occurred to a medieval peasant, for example, to measure the time spent harvesting his fields in hours and minutes. This is not because he did not have a watch; rather, because this activity merged with his life, and its temporal abstraction would have made no sense.

But although Marx does not adequately clarify the relationship between labor as such and abstract labor, he nonetheless leaves no doubt as to the complete insanity of a society in which human activity (that is to say, a living process) coagulates into a reified form and as such establishes itself as the dominant social power. Marx ironically questions the common belief that this was a natural fact when he remarks in response to the positivist theory of value of classical political economy, “So far, no chemist has ever discovered exchange value either in a pearl or a diamond.”4 So when Marx shows that abstract labor constitutes the substance of value, and thus also determines the mass of value by means of the labor time expended on average, he is in no way lapsing into the physiological or naturalist views of classical economics, as Michael Heinrich claims in his book The Science of Value. Like the better share of bourgeois thinkers since the Enlightenment, classical economics grasps bourgeois social relations to a certain degree, but only in order to declare them unceremoniously a part of the natural order. Marx criticizes this ideologization of dominant social relations by deciphering them as the fetishistic reflex of a fetishized reality. He shows that value and abstract labor are not mere figments of the imagination that people need to jettison from their heads. Rather, under the conditions of a system of labor and modern commodity production that is always presupposed and that determines their thoughts and behavior, people actually encounter their products as expressions of reified, abstract labor time, as if these products were a force of nature. For the bourgeoisie, their own social relations have become “second nature,” as Marx puts it pointedly. This constitutes the fetish-character of value, commodity, and labor.

Alfred Sohn-Rethel coined the term “actually existing abstraction” for this irrational form of abstraction. By this he means a process of abstraction that is not completed in human consciousness as an act of thought, but which, as the a priori structure of social synthesis, is the presupposition of and determines human thought and action. However, for Sohn-Rethel, this actually existing abstraction is identical with the act of exchange — it governs wherever commodities confront one another in the context of the market. Only here, according to his argument, are different things made the same, are qualitatively different things reduced to a common equivalent: value, or exchange value. But in what does this common equivalent consist? If value, or exchange value, is where the different commodities are reduced to a common denominator as expressions of abstract quantities of different magnitude, one must also be able to name both the content of this ominous value and the scale by which it is measured. The answer to this is not found in Sohn-Rethel, something which we can attribute in part to his limited, almost mechanical conception of the context of commodity society.

For shortly afterwards, the sphere of labor appears as a presocial space in which private producers create their products, still untouched in any way by any determinate social form. Only afterwards do they throw these products as commodities into the sphere of circulation, where, in the act of exchange, they are abstracted from their material particularities (and thus indirectly from the concrete labor expended in their production) and thus morph into bearers of value. This perception, however, which tears the sphere of production and the sphere of circulation apart from one another and places them in superficial opposition, completely misses the inner context of the modern commodity-producing system. Sohn-Rethel systematically confuses two levels of observation: first, the necessary temporal succession between the production and sale of a single commodity; and second, the logical and real social unity of the processes of valorization and exchange, a unity which these processes always presuppose.

I would now like to explore this point of view more extensively, because it is not something that can be attributed only to Sohn-Rethel, but rather is widespread and can be found in many variations. This includes Michael Heinrich’s aforementioned book, for example, where it appears at every turn. Heinrich asserts (to select just one quote of many) that commodity bodies obtain “their objectivity of value only inside the process of exchange” and then continues as follows: “In isolation, considered for itself, the commodity-body is not a commodity but merely a product.”5 It is true that Heinrich does not draw from this and many other similar statements the same theoretical conclusions as Sohn-Rethel, but they certainly lie within the logic of his own argumentation. It is only with the help of a not-particularly-convincing set of theoretical aids (by tearing the value form and the substance of value apart from one another) that he can avoid them (see Heinrich and Backhaus’s and Reichelt’s critique).6

It goes without saying that in the capitalist mode of production, it is not the case that products are innocently created and only arrive on the market a posteriori; rather, every process of production is from the outset oriented toward the valorization of capital and organized accordingly. That is to say, production occurs already in the context of a fetishized form of value, and products must fulfill a single purpose: to represent in the form of value the amount of labor time necessary for their production. It is thus the case that the sphere of circulation, the market, does not serve the exchange of commodities; it is rather the place where the value represented in the products is realized — or at least, where it is supposed to be realized. For this to succeed at all (a necessary but not sufficient condition), commodities must, as is well known, also be useful things, albeit only for the potential buyer. The concrete, material aspect of the commodity, its use value, is not the aim and purpose of production but only a more or less inevitable side effect. From the perspective of valorization, this could certainly (and gladly) be dispensed with (and in a certain respect this does in fact take place in the mass production of completely useless things or those that fall apart after a very short time), but value cannot go without a material bearer. For no one buys dead labor time as such, but rather only when it is represented in an object to which the buyer attributes a usefulness of some kind.

The concrete aspect of labor thus remains in no way untouched by the presupposed form of socialization. If abstract labor is the abstraction of an abstraction, concrete labor only represents the paradox of the concrete aspect of an abstraction — namely of the form-abstraction “labor.” It is only “concrete” in the very narrow and restricted sense that the different commodities require materially different production processes: a car is made differently from, say, an aspirin tablet or a pencil sharpener. But even the behavior of these processes of production is in no way indifferent, technically or organizationally, to the presupposed goal of valorization. I hardly need elaborate at great length on how the capitalist process of production is configured in this respect: it is organized solely according to the maxim of producing the greatest possible number of products in the shortest possible time. This is then called the economic efficiency of a business. The concrete, material side of labor is thus nothing other than the tangible form in which abstract labor’s diktat of time confronts the workers and forces them under its rhythm.

To this extent it is also totally correct to assert that commodities produced in the system of abstract labor also already embody value, even if they have not entered into the sphere of circulation. That the realization of value can fail — commodities can be unsellable or can only be disposed of for well below their value — is in line with the logic of the matter, but pertains to a totally different level of the problem. For in order to gain entry into the sphere of circulation, a product must already be in the fetishized form of an object of value — and since this object is as such nothing other than the representation of past abstract labor (and this always also means the representation of past abstract labor time), it necessarily always already also possesses a certain magnitude of value. For as pure form without substance (that is, without abstract labor), value cannot exist without going into a state of crisis in which it will eventually crumble.

But, as is well known, the magnitude of a commodity’s value is determined not by the labor time immediately expended in its production, but rather by the average socially necessary labor time. This average, in turn, is not a fixed magnitude, but changes in accordance with the current level of productivity (that is to say, there is a secular trend for necessary labor time per commodity, and thus the quantity of value that it represents, to fall). But as the measure of value, this average is always already presupposed by every individual process of production, and it assumes power in this process as a merciless sovereign. A product thus represents a particular quantity of abstract labor time only insofar as it can stand before the judgment of the social mass of productivity. If the labor of a business is unproductive, its products do not of course represent more value than those that were made under socially average conditions. The business must therefore improve its productivity in the long term or disappear from the market altogether.

In this context it is somewhat confusing that the objectivity and magnitude of value do not appear in the individual commodity but only in the exchange of commodities — that is to say, only when they step into direct relation with other products of abstract labor. The value of one commodity then becomes visible in the other commodity. Thus, for example, the value of a dozen eggs may be expressed in four pounds of flour. In developed commodity production (and this is what is always at stake in this discussion), the place of this other commodity is assumed by a general equivalent: money, in which the value of all commodities is expressed, and which functions as a social measure of value. To claim, then, that value, in the form of exchange value, only appears at the level of circulation, already presupposes the insight that it does not come into being in the way that Sohn-Rethel and other theorists of exchange (not to mention all those representatives of the subjective theory of value) claim — the insight, in other words, that there is a difference between the essence of value and its forms of appearance.

The subjective theory of value, which in its flat empiricism is taken in by the appearance of circulation, has always lampooned the labor theory of value as metaphysics — an accusation which is once again booming, this time in postmodernist garb. Unintentionally, though, it divulges something about the fetishistic nature of commodity-producing society. If reified social relations elevate themselves to blind power over human beings, what is this if not metaphysics incarnate? The point at which both the subjective theory of value and Marxist positivism stumble is that value can in no way be nailed down empirically. For it is neither possible to filter out the substance of labor from commodities, nor consistently to derive the values of commodities from the level of empirical appearance (that is, from the level of price). “So where is this ominous value?” ask our positivist friends, only to dismiss this entire line of questioning straight away. For what is not empirically tangible and measurable does not exist in their worldview.

But this critique applies only to a crude and itself positivist variant of the labor theory of value — which is, however, typical of the greater part of Marxism. For Marxism always related positively to the category of value in two senses. Firstly, as already mentioned, value was actually understood as natural or anthropological fact. It appeared, that is, as completely self-evident that past labor or labor time could literally be preserved in the products as an object. At the very least, however, it was necessary to provide a mathematical proof of how the price of a commodity results from its value, from which it deviates. And secondly, it was then only logical to attempt to steer social production with the help of this positively construed category. A key accusation leveled against capitalism was thus that in the market, the “real values” of products are veiled and thus do not come to fruition. In socialism, by contrast, so the argument goes in Engels’s famous formulation, it is easy to calculate how many labor hours are “hiding” in a ton of wheat or iron.

This was the central program of the entire project — doomed to failure — of actually existing socialism, and in diluted form also of social democracy, a program which was planned and seen through more or less critically and constructively by legions of so-called political economists. Doomed to failure because value is a non-empirical category that by its nature cannot be nailed down, but rather gains acceptance among people as a fetishistic category behind their backs, and imposes its blind laws on them. But the desire consciously to steer an unconscious relation is a contradiction. The historical punishment for such an attempt was thus inevitable.

But if I have said that value is a non-empirical category, does that also mean that it has no relevance at all for actual economic development? Of course not. It means only that value cannot be nailed down as such and must go through different levels of mediation before it appears at the economic surface in a mutated form. Marx’s contribution in Capital is to demonstrate the logical and structural interrelation of these levels of mediation. He shows how economic surface categories such as price, profit, wage, and interest can be derived from the category of value and its internal dynamics, hence allowing them to be analyzed as such. In no way was he taken in by the illusion that these mediations could in any way be empirically calculated individually, as both economic theory and disarmed, positivist Marxism demand (without, however, being able to solve this dilemma themselves). But this is not in any way a defect of the theory of value, but merely highlights the unconscious nature of these mediations. Marx, however, never attempted to propose a positive theory that could be in any way used as an instrument of economic policy. His concern, rather, was to demonstrate the irrationality, the inner contradictions, and hence the ultimate untenability of a society based on value. At its core, his theory of value is a critique of value — it is no accident then that his magnum opus is subtitled Critique of Political Economy — and, at the same time, essentially a theory of crisis.

The empirical foundation of the critique of value in general and the theory of crisis in particular cannot in any way, therefore, be carried out in a quasi-scientific, mathematized form. Wherever this methodological criterion is applied a priori — as in the well-known (or infamous) value-price transformation debate of academic Marxism — the concept of value and the entire framework constructed around it is already fundamentally flawed. While it is true that the critique of value and the theory of crisis can certainly be underpinned with empirical support, the method must only comprehend the internal mediations and contradictions. What this means in concrete terms, I can at this point only suggest. Let us take, for example, the basic finding of crisis theory that since the 1970s, as a result of the worldwide, absolute displacement of living labor power from the process of valorization, capital has reached the historical limits of its power to expand, and thus also of its capacity to exist. In other words, modern commodity production has entered a fundamental process of crisis, which can only result in its downfall.

This finding is of course not based on purely logical-conceptual derivation, but is rather a result of the theoretical and empirical comprehension of the structural breakdowns in the global commodity-producing system since the end of Fordism. These include, for example, as a basic fact, the melting away of the substance of labor (that is, the diminution of the expended abstract labor time at the peak of the predominant level of production) in the productive central sectors of production for the global market as well as the continued retreat of capital from huge regions of the world that are largely cut off from the flow of commodities and investment and left to fend for themselves. Ultimately, however, the violent inflation and unleashing of the system of credit and speculation also belong to this context. That fictitious capital is being amassed to a historically unprecedented extent on one hand explains why the onset of the crisis has up until now appeared relatively mild in core regions of the world market, but on the other hints at the intense violence of the imminent wave of devaluation.

Clearly, a theory of crisis founded on the critique of value can misdiagnose individual elements, and can also fail to anticipate every way in which the crisis unfolds, even though it proves itself entirely capable in the analysis of details. But it can provide theoretical and empirical proof that there will be no more new waves of secular accumulation, and capitalism has irrevocably entered a barbaric stage of decline and disintegration. This proof necessarily coincides with the unrelenting critique of labor, commodity, value, and money, and pursues no other goal than the abolition of these fetishistic actually existing abstractions; and thus, also, its own sphere of relevance having been abolished, of the self-abolition of the theory of value.

  1. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1973) 133, and Karl Marx, “Über Friedrich Lists Buch ‘Das nationale System der politischen Ökonomie,’” Beiträge zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung 3 (1972) 425-446.
  2. Marx, “Über Friedrich Lists Buch” 436.
  3. Robert Kurz, “Postmarxismus und Arbeitsfetisch,” Krisis 15 (1995).
  4. Marx, Capital I 177.
  5. Michael Heinrich, The Science of Value (Hamburg: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 1991) 173.
  6. Heinrich, Science, 187; Hans Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt, “Wie ist der Wertbegriff in der Ökonomie zu konzipieren?” Engels’ Druckfassung versus Marx’ Manuskript zum III. Buch des “Kapital” (Beiträge zur Marx-Engels-Forschung Neue Folge) (Hamburg: Argument, 1995) 60-94.