Historical Perspective on Generative Justice

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* Article: Of Marx and Makers: an Historical Perspective on Generative Justice. By Ron Eglash. Revista Teknokultura Vol. 13(1), 245-269, June 2016 

URL = https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304670572_Of_Marx_and_Makers_an_Historical_Perspective_on_Generative_Justice


"In Marxist frameworks “distributive justice” depends on extracting value through a centralized state. Many new social movements—peer to peer economy, maker activism, community agriculture, queer ecology, etc.—take the opposite approach, keeping value in its unalienated form and allowing it to freely circulate from the bottom up. Unlike Marxism, there is no general theory for bottom-up, unalienated value circulation. This paper examines the concept of “generative justice” through an historical contrast between Marx’s writings and the indigenous cultures that he drew upon. Marx erroneously concluded that while indigenous cultures had unalienated forms of production, only centralized value extraction could allow the productivity needed for a high quality of life. To the contrary, indigenous cultures now provide a robust model for the “gift economy” that underpins open source technological production, agroecology, and restorative approaches to civil rights. Expanding Marx’s concept of unalienated labor value to include unalienated ecological (nonhuman) value, as well as the domain of freedom in speech, sexual orientation, spirituality and other forms of “expressive” value, we arrive at an historically informed perspective for generative justice."


Unalienated Value and self-generation

Ron Eglash:

"In contrast to Smith’s claim that industrial capital offered a self-generating source of value, Marx focused on labor and nature as the only components that are truly self-generating1. Some of his best examples are the indigenous societies described in his Ethnological Note-books. Drawing on Lewis Morgan’s work with the Iroquois and other early anthropologists, Marx noted that in these indigenous societies the labor that goes into growing a bushel of corn or crafting a knife is visible rather than hidden, and relations of reciprocity, communal sharing, and gift-giving, rather than cold blooded calculation, allowed that labor value to circulate in an unalienated form (Graeber, 2012). While not all indigenous societies were egalitarian, examples such as the Iroquois, who had a rich structure for democratic decision-making--establishing women’s voting rights 500 years before any European nation did so—were ample evidence that without the wealth inequality created by capitalism, deep political equality would be possible.From the viewpoint of Adam Smith, the economic value of a commodity is the revenue you get by selling it, so it is only common sense that the owner of a factory owns all its profits. For Marx the owner of the factory is extracting value from the labor that generated it, and unethically hoarding that value in the form of profits. Workers are complacent in part because the monetary system of banks and bills makes the hording invisible: I don’t see my boss putting a thousand ears of corn in his wallet, while only 10 ears go into mine. But they are also complacent because replacing the experience of artisanal production—pride in crafting, contributing and communing with tools, users and resources—with the mind numbing alienation of mass production drastically changes one’s perspective: consumption becomes the only form of identity, and social, cultural and political structures begin to re-flect the consumer mentality.

In addition to unalienated labor value, Marx eventually noted the importance of unalien-ated ecological value. In earlier writing (letter of January 7, 1851) he scoffed at the need for environmental protection because of “the progress of science and industry.” But by the 1860s, inspired by the new soil chemistry studies of Justus von Liebig (Foster and Magdoff, 2011), he critiqued capitalist agriculture for the way it “disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing...All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil...” (Marx 1976, pp. 637-638).Although not emphasized as much as labor and nature, Marx also mapped out a third form which I will refer to as “expressive” value. In the Grundrisse, he predicted that tech-nological improvements under communism would create so much wealth that workers would have abundant free time in the form of unalienated intellectual pursuits, arts, recre-ation, and other creative and emotional expressions. As a practicing journalist for most of his career (publishing 362 articles in The New York Tribune alone), Marx also highlighted expressive value in media: “The free press is the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people's soul, the embodiment of a people's faith in itself” (Marx, 1842)


With these three pillars of unalienated labor, ecological, and expressive value, one can un-derstand the optimism of the 1917 revolution in what would become the USSR. It’s hard to imagine a more horrifyingly failed vision. Rather than return people to the egalitarian rela-tions of indigenous societies, the USSR was marked by widespread poverty, income inequality, environmental degradation, rampant militarism and a human rights record so bad that new terms like “Orwellian” had to be created for it. Davies (1998) for example notes that the death toll due to Stalin-era economic policies has been estimated at 10 million. Even with “cost savings” measures such as forced labor camps, about 30 million (one of every 8 citizens) were still living in poverty by the dissolution in 1990 (Slay, 2009). Where did Marxist analysis go wrong?In all three domains Marx demonstrated the advantages of unalienated forms. But his model of communism could not accommodate the very phenomena he used to justify it. Figure 2 shows the flow of value under communism: as in the case of Adam Smith’s capit-alist system, it communism required that value must be extracted. In part that was required by centralization, which Marx saw as the only means to redistribute value. His 1848 Mani-festo of the Communist Party calls for strict centralization of “all instruments of production” (factories, machines, agricultural estates, mines, etc.) as well as finances, communication, transportation, and even the workforce--an “industrial army”--in the hands of the state (1974, pp. 86-87). But equally important was Marx’s conviction that the unalienated labor of traditional cultures was simply too inefficient. Providing barely enough for subsistence; it could not rise beyond “nature’s paltriness” (Natur-bedurftigkeit). Capitalism was a neces-sary stage before communism because it could condense the labor value of past generations into increasingly efficient technologies.It was this requirement of extraction, and its corollary of centralized redistribution, that created the ideology and methods at the heart of the USSR disasters. Labor value extraction turned out to be as alienating under communism as it was under capitalism. Nature’s contri-bution to the generation of value was similarly betrayed: plants came out of farms, but organic waste was not brought back to the soil. Artificial phosphorus additives in the USSR became so high that following its dissolution in 1990, world phosphorus consumption dropped for a decade (MIT, 2011)." (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304670572_Of_Marx_and_Makers_an_Historical_Perspective_on_Generative_Justice)