That’s a portentous and a pretentious title if I ever wrote one. Today, I want to talk a little about Marx, one last argument that I read as I finished Spectres of Marx last week.
From the time I first thought of the Utopias project a few years back, I knew I'd have to deal with Marx in some fashion. And I knew it would be a world of pain.
|This is what I see when I close my eyes and think|
about studying the sum total of Marx and Marxism.
Not just the depth and breadth of Marx scholarship and successor theory out there, but the maze of modern left-wing politics alongside the minefield of the last century of totalitarian inspiration and general chaos. I had to choose which Marxisms and Marxes were appropriate for the philosophical story I wanted to tell.
Derrida’s last few arguments illuminated why I needn’t lean on Marx to talk about political utopian politics. There's a fundamental sense in which how we each understand the world oppose each other. And it’s not even political. At least not directly.
This is going to get weird.
So Derrida gives an account of Marx’s concept of exchange value. One of the basic facts about Marxist economic theory that you learn in Marx 1000 is the difference between use value and exchange value.
They’re what they say on the tin. One is the material usefulness of a product. The other is whatever price you can talk someone into paying for a product. It’s based on a lie. Use value is the authentic value of a product, what material difference it can make to someone's life.
One facet of Marx's critique of 19th century international capitalism was that its trade and production regimes were based on inauthentic exchange value. There’s some value to this idea. One of the reasons behind Iceland's financial sector crash in 2007 was that traders exponentially inflated the value of a stock just on the force of a handshake.
His concept of exchange value is also part of his critique of the science of economics. This argument goes like so.
The global economy is dominated by relations of exchange value. Each exchange value relation is based on a specific and conscious human act: a lie that obscures the genuine worth of a product.
|The image comes from this story at|
Bloomberg news from 2013, about
the revelation of the lies at the heart of
hedge fund culture which unravelled
during the 2008 financial crisis. I
suspect that Marx's critique of
economic science as a whole, when
restricted to apply only to hedge funds
and similar business models that
manipulate the stock market, will
be pretty accurate.
But economics takes these relations as the real constituents of a system. And it takes those relations to exist beyond the actions of humans. Exchange value is the bedrock of the impersonal systematic forces that economic science considers the driving force of commerce and productivity.
A proper economics, says Marx,* would understand the falsity of these emergent relations, and understand that the only real economy was authentic human trades and negotiations based on the use value of objects.
* According to Derrida, at least in that chapter. This is one interpretation of Marx I’m rolling with here, one ghost among many. Even in just the one book about him, there are a ton. That’s Jacques for you.
And this is where I depart from this Marx. It’s a humanist Marx, who turns away from the material reality of properties, relations, and flows that emerge from aggregates. The economy is a realm where activities that humans generate grow beyond the powers of human intention and control.
Economic flows are dynamic systems, huge material flows of money and goods that – once they reach a particular size – behave systematically. They’re not intentional and directed anymore, but an autonomous movement from human activity, even though human actions constitute them at their cellular level.
This is my place in the theoretical tradition that comes out of Gilles Deleuze, Manuel Delanda, and chaos mathematics. Pure Marxist visions are trapped in a humanism that keeps them from facing their most profound difficulty.
Once they get big enough, the material forces and flows of the global economy overwhelm the perception, intentions, and purposes of the individual humans who make it up. What Marx thought was a fiction becomes more real than we are.