Kickstopper, Part 2: Or, On The Something Theory of Something

These thoughts came to mind as I composed the last post. Not sure why. But I figured it might be interesting to throw them up here, particularly because they circle the question of the labor theory of value, which is a topic that I sense I will be wresting with over the coming days.


Some years ago, Michael Denning suggested that cultural studies scholars had not fully absorbed the lessons of Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital. Denning argued that the spiritual daughters and sons of Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall had especially failed to take seriously Braverman’s emphasis on the relationship between labor and the creation of value.

Often (correctly) remembered as the book that launched a thousand point-of-production studies in the early 1970s and 1980s, Labor and Monopoly Capital was much more than that. In particular, Braverman resurrected the “labor theory of value”—a staple of Enlightenment economic analysis and a major theme in large-r and small-r republican politics in the US in the 19th century––and redeployed it for radical purposes.

Most importantly, Braverman’s re-framing of the “labor theory of value” illuminated the fundamental injustice of the employment relation in capitalism. Connecting that intervention with his rehabilitation of the earlier “humanist” Marx, Braverman provided a new way for labor scholars and leftists to think critically about the political meanings of work and commodities.

It is this side of Braverman that Denning urges us to take seriously and apply to the study of cultural production and mass-produced cultural products. A “labor theory of culture” helps us to remember that mass culture is also a collection of work sites and labor regimes. It reminds us that “reification” is a problem not just for sensitive souls who long for “authentic” object relations, but is also a generic name for the often troubling fact that—as the cover of Timothy Bewes’s book on reification demonstrates––even those things that are most sacred and removed from the market are deeply embedded in capitalist labor processes. As the nun supervising the host assembly line seems to prove, there is no outside to the market.

The “labor theory of value”––developed over centuries among the improving landlords of England in the early modern era, refined and amplified in the writings of Locke, the Physiocrats, Smith, and Ricardo, and shaped into the key that unlocked the mystery of class/property relations in the work of Marx––always presents capitalist apologists with a moral problem. If labor really is the source of all value, then laborers ought to receive compensation commensurate with their contribution to the production process.

But capitalism pegs workers’ compensation not to a calculus of labor and value, but rather to a caloric index of life and death. “Fair” compensation in capitalism is relative to the baseline of what workers need to avoid dying; even “generous” wages are so defined in their excess over and above the requirements for basic reproduction, and never relative to the amount of value inputted by the bodies of workers into the finished commodities that go up for sale on the market.

In most sectors of the capitalist economy, these relationships are totally mystified. Culture is an exception. That’s why even seemingly trivial cases of conflict over culture, value, and fair remuneration, like the Amanda Palmer debacle, seem significant.


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