Academic journal article Capital & Class

The Labor Theory of Value and the Strategic Role of Alienation

Academic journal article Capital & Class

The Labor Theory of Value and the Strategic Role of Alienation

Article excerpt

In order to avoid reifying Marx's social theory, it is important to focus on the social relations that Marx's analytical categories denote. By focusing on value formation as the process of reproducing social control, the imposition of alienation takes on a richer meaning. Not only is alienation a process of human degradation, it is also a strategic instrument in the valorization process.


Marx's analysis of capitalism has been subject to a plethora of interpretations as well as employed in a number of distinct, often diametrically opposed, projects. Some interpreters of Marx propose a 'scientific' reading, in which Marx's categories are given 'objective' meanings and are assigned immutable roles in the structural 'laws of capitalism.' John Holloway (1995) recently denounced this tradition for objectifying and reifying Marx's categories and for transforming the analysis into vulgar determinism. In order to go beyond such Marxist fetishism and to re-establish Marx's analysis as a useful radical critique of capitalism, it is necessary to examine the social relations denoted by Marx's analytical categories. For example, in reference to the labor theory of value, what is the social content of value? What is the social meaning of abstract labor? What is the social rationale for imposing alienating work? How is conflict represented in these categories? The realization that Marx's theoretical categori es frame important moments of the contentious accumulation process, opens the possibility for reading Marx politically and for restoring Marxian analysis as a 'theory against society.' (1)

In the present moment of resistance and protest against the dynamics and trajectory of western political, cultural, and economic institutions, the focus is primarily on macrosocietal categories such as globalization, global injustice, marketization, and structural adjustments. These categories are politically important and useful, but focusing too extensively on relations and conflicts far removed from people's immediate experience is at the same time problematic. While the discourse that surrounds this movement must be carried out on numerous planes, it is important that the discourse remains grounded in categories that reflect the reality and agency of most people. In this context, it is therefore particularly timely that Harry Cleaver's Reading Capital Politically was recently reissued. (2) In this seminal contribution to the autonomous Marxist tradition, Cleaver provides a political analysis of the micro-politics of work. In particular, he focuses on the imposition of work as the primary means of social c ontrol in capitalism.

Focusing on alienation as a particularly important moment of the accumulation process, this paper develops the synthetic and symbiotic relationship between alienation, social control, and value. I argue that value can be defined as the continuity of social control, that social control is established through the process of alienation, and that alienation takes on a strategic role within the dynamics of class relations. This analysis shows the centrality of alienation in Marx's labor theory of value, and thus refutes the Althusserian claim of a radical rupture between an early and a mature Marx. It also highlights the relations of struggle that permeate Marx's categories and draws attention to the importance Marx assigned to the transcendence of alienation for meaningful social change to occur.

The social constitution of value

As Marxists have long insisted, capital's virtual monopolization of the means of production forces the bulk of the population to sell their labor power in order to ensure their sustenance. But in capitalism, the labor market--however unpleasant--is only the gateway to hell: the sphere of production, the sphere of work. Given that this work is managed, supervised, and controlled by capital and that work dominates and shapes people's entire lives, it constitutes the activity through which virtually all of human life is shaped and organized. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.