Academic journal article Capital & Class

Value Form and Class Struggle: A Critique of the Autonomist Theory of Value

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Value Form and Class Struggle: A Critique of the Autonomist Theory of Value

Article excerpt


At the beginning of the 1970S, the reigning 'Ricardian' consensus within Marxist value theory started to fall apart. Upon its demise, new currents emerged that confronted the old orthodoxy, and attempted to unmask its Ricardian foundations through a reconsideration of the analysis of the commodity form contained in Capital. This reappraisal of Marx's value theory eventually led to an energetic rejection of the 'technological' paradigm that had dominated orthodox Marxism until the 1970s. (1) A renewed emphasis on the historical specificity of capitalist social forms (starting with the value form itself) progressively came to be shared by an increasing number of authors. However, beyond this common ground, reaction to the old Ricardian-Marxist orthodoxy has been very varied, and has resulted in the emergence of a great diversity of perspectives on the determinations of value as a social form.

At one end of the spectrum can be found what some critical commentators have labelled the 'circulationist approach' (Mavroudeas, 2004), for which abstract labour and value can only acquire reality through the exchange of products against money. (2) This approach to value theory appears at first sight to be the most extreme way of keeping the chances of 'Ricardian' retrogressions at bay. In effect, with the complete detachment of the social objectivity of value from the immediate objectification of productive activity, the possibilities of misunderstanding the latter simply as 'labour-embodied' seem to disappear. Safe within the sphere of circulation, value cannot be grasped in purely technological terms.

However, the limitations of the 'circulationist' approach did not remain unnoticed by other Marxists; and indeed, they have served as the basis for further recent developments in value theory. (3) The challenge with these alternative approaches was that of how to avoid both the technological reading of Marxist value theory and the antinomies that arose from seeing value as existing only within circulation. Thus a new variety of approaches emerged, each of which, in its own idiosyncratic way, tried to re-establish the connection between value and the immediate process of production while still seeing the former as a specific social form (Arthur, 2001; Postone, 1996; Mavroudeas, 2004; McGlone & Kliman, 2004; Saad-Filho, 1997, 2002). We would like to focus here on what we will term the 'class struggle theory of value', which emerged out of the autonomist-Marxist tradition. In particular, since it constitutes one of the few direct interventions by an economist from that tradition in the specialised debate on value theory, we will critically engage with De Angelis's contribution in the pages of this journal (De Angelis, 1995). (4)

The class-struggle approach stands out for two main reasons. First, it constitutes, as it were, the extreme opposite pole of circulationism. In effect, it could be seen as a particular version of approaches that put forward what Kliman and McGlone have called a 'production-centred value theory of labour' (Kliman & McGlone, 1988). Furthermore, it also distances itself from circulationism in seeing the abstraction of labour as deriving from its determination as wage labour as such. In other words, while for circulationism the determination of labour as abstract labour--hence as value-producing--springs from the market-mediated general organisation of social labour, for the class-struggle approach it stems from its existence as work exploited by capital. (5) In this way, the approach has the merit of explicitly bringing politics back into value theory. Second, and more importantly, the class-struggle approach constitutes the incursion, within the rather technical debates on value theory, of a general approach to Marxism--autonomism--which has enjoyed growing popularity in recent years both among Marxist scholars and within radical social movements. (6)

In a nutshell, this paper argues that the view of abstract labour as mode of existence of the class struggle in capitalism obscures the specific nature of value--and hence of capital-as the objectified form of existence of an essentially indirect social relation. …

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