Unalienated Value

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= "relations of open reciprocity, communal sharing, gift-giving and voluntary collaboration allowed value to circulate in its unalienated forms, including labor power, political expression and interspecies ecological exchanges". [1]


Ron Eglash:

"Marx proposed that capitalism’s destructive force is caused, at root, by the alienation of labor value from its generators. Environmentalists have added the concept of unalienated ecological value, and rights activists added the unalienated expressive value of free speech, sexuality, spirituality, etc. Marx’s vision for restoring an unalienated world by top-down economic governance was never fulfilled. But in the last 30 years, new forms of social justice have emerged that operate as “bottom-up”. Peer-to-peer production such as open source software or wikipedia has challenged the corporate grip on IP in a “gift exchange” of labor value; community based agroecology establishes a kind of gift exchange with our nonhuman allies in nature. DIY citizenship from feminist makerspaces to queer biohacking has profound implications for a new materialism of the “knowledge commons”; and restorative approaches to civil rights can challenge the prison-industrial complex. In contrast to top-down “distributive justice,” all of the above are cases of bottom-up or “generative justice”." (http://revistas.ucm.es/index.php/TEKN/article/view/52847/49997)


Ron Eglash:

1) Unalienated labor value -- as Marx notes, when labor is alienated from its products, the work becomes meaningless. That is why Barrington-Leigh's examples of open source, where coders often work on passion projects, is so important.

2) Unalienated ecological value -- extracting value from soil, and returning chemicals, is like extracting labor value from workers and returning money. Chemical "amendments" destroy soil ecosystems like consumerism destroys communities.

3) Unalienated expressive value -- free speech, authentic identity around sexuality, spirituality etc., has to feed from the same well springs, and vice-versa.


Generating unalienated value

Ron Eglash:

"In Marx’s original formulation of “alienated labor value”, he contrasted the meaningful work of traditional skilled artisans, taking pleasure in their craft and earning respect from their community, with the dull repetition, low pay and enervating conditions of factory labor under capitalism. There are at least four challenges to making the alienation concept useful today. First, corporate marketing schemes are increasingly appropriating the artisanal allure: my Starbucks coffee is served by an underpaid “barista”; my cookies claim they were hand-made by Keebler elves. I can buy Domino’s Artisan Pizzas, Tostitos’ Artisan Recipes Tortilla Chips, Burger King’s Artisan bun, and Dunkin’ Donuts’ Artisan Bagels. If artisanal labor is so easily simulated, what chance do we have for making it a basis of social critique? Second, evoking older, pre-capitalist forms could be read to imply that artisanal labor is better because it is more natural. But as I will outline below, some of the best examples of unalienated craft labor today are in highly “unnatural” realms of open source hardware and software. And romantic organicist notions of what constitutes “natural” labor are notoriously tied to stereotype gender roles; homophobic claims that only heterosexuality is natural; nationalist claims that “nature did not intend the races to mix” and so on. Third, older production forms may be a poor fit to contemporary population densities and needs. And finally, the stress on artisanal production often overlooks the gender, race and ecological dimensions of economies of care and histories of colonialism. To address these problems, we need a deeper look at what the concept of “generating unalienated value” could mean if liberated from some of this unwelcomed baggage.

The phrase “generating value” is implicitly referring to the power of “self-generation.” In his 1944 book What is Life? physicist Erwin Schrödinger noted the mysterious way organisms seemed to defy the second law of thermodynamics: “It is by avoiding the rapid decay into the inert state of 'equilibrium' that an organism appears so enigmatic; so much so, that from the earliest times of human thought some special non-physical or supernatural force... was claimed to be operative” (p. 70). He characterized this self-generative property of life as “negative entropy” (later shortened to “negentropy”). Terms for this phenomenon can now be found at every scale: “autocatalysis” for cycles in which biomolecules produced themselves; “autopoiesis” for an organism’s self-reproduction; “sympoiesis” for ecosystem self-assembly, and so on. When we grow living organisms for food, we tap into this self-generating power; that is to say, some of the value that is normally circulated can be diverted for our own use. It is here that we must choose between either becoming part of the circulation, or extracting— i.e. alienating—that value. Soils for example can be easily depleted of nutrients. Yet traditional farmers and horticulturalists have avoided this problem for thousands of years simply by returning our waste to the soil, and thus becoming part of the circulation of value through a broader array of sustainable practices called agroecology.

Marx made an analogy between unalienated labor and agroecology in Capital volume 1, where he stated that capitalist farming “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). Recalling Schrödinger’s comment that the negentropic character of life is often attributed to a supernatural force, it is no surprise that Marx’s inspiration for this insight, German chemist Justus von Liebig, originally justified recycling sewage back to farm lands because of a “vital force” that gave living soils their generative power. Marx was dedicated to eliminating “mystification”, but when he invokes the “living labor” of unalienated production, it sounds suspiciously like the vitalist “living soil” of von Liebig. This is not necessarily a flaw. Granted, it does pose the dangers of any organicist or naturalizing discourse, as noted above. But one can also interpret vitalism as humility; as a way of saying “there is something complex and wonderful in the generative force that we do not fully understand”. Indeed that was Schrödinger’s final conclusion. Today we know that the “living soil” concept was not far off: ordinary dirt is a complex ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, nematodes, decaying matter, water percolation, minerals and other features that form a dynamic, evolving network which still challenges our understanding. Analogous complex, selfsustaining networks in the social domain—not the simulation of artisanal labor in the Starbucks barista or Keebler elf—are necessary for real unalienated labor. We will now turn to one exemplar for such a network. " (http://revistas.ucm.es/index.php/TEKN/article/view/52847/49997)

History of the Concept: Smith and Marx

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)

More Information

  • Ron Eglash: "This is explained in depth in our publications: www.generativejustice.wikispaces.com/home. Practical implementations are discussed here: www.generativejustice.wikispaces.com/Projects."