LABOR AS THE ABSOLUTE

I’m sitting in a Whole Foods on Thanksgiving Day contemplating the materialist notion that the primary fact in the world is a massive collective effort at sustaining and refashioning human civilization.   According to this view, a mass misrecogition of this fact is necessary for sustaining it in its current capitalist mode.   People’s conscious aims, identities and political allegiances are typically symptomatic, disconnected from the true reality of their existence, which is a cooperative constant recreation of the conditions of life, which is inherently impossible to directly know or experience: The Great Labor.

 

Capitalism supposedly distorts true labor, converting it into abstract labor (which, though it is an illusion and an abstraction, has power over us if we believe in it).  Value is defined by labor time, the time it takes for completely unskilled labor to produce all the parts of a product.   This erasure of skill as such, skill, which, as Aristotle knew, is the essence of being human, is a fundamental alienation, a crime against human nature.

    In the Grundrisse Marx makes a few stammering efforts to speculate on how value would be defined in the post-capitalist era, as an alternative to tethering it to abstract labor time.    What would be valued, somehow, would be the development of an individual’s talents in such a way that she or he contributes to the enrichment of knowledge and culture.    The chief contradiction in capitalism is supposedly this:   Value is defined by labor time, but there is always a tendency towards mechanization, decreasing labor time and thus making everything less valuable.   The long term trajectory is that workers are payed less and less, and have more and more free time (and needs are taken care of more and more cheaply and efficiently).  The laborers’ alienation - consciousness that capitalism is undesirable, being forced to think about its conditions etc - is paired with a new-found sense of the right to work and enjoy for its own sake, which is only possible under capitalism.   Eventually they seize the means of production.   This was Marx’s prediction, but he did not foresee the rise of consumer culture which Adam Curtis describes so well in his documentaries.    

 

The new era of capitalism wards off the crisis of its fundamental contradiction in this way:   focus groups and data mining serve to create a psychometric profile for every consumer/laborer on the grid, so that new products can be tailored not just to their needs but to their unconscious fantasies,  exacerbating a fundamental sense of lack and providing goods tailor made to fill the lack in the same stroke.   A new market rooted in fantasy is created, allowing production to continue to expand (it must at all costs continue to expand, because, since exchange value is abstract and cannot be used directly, it only has value if it creates *more* value).  On the one hand this stalls the development of revolutionary class consciousness (which is ‘bad’) but on the other hand to a certain degree it really does provide an avenue for individuals to develop their unique talents.  The phenomenon of the ‘prosumer’ is easy to ridicule, but it is hard to deny that more and more tools are being developed that help to provide creative fulfillment and general education on a much wider scale than ever before.   (This is especially obvious in the case of music and video).   

 

The key is to define a way that activity along these lines can be authentically valuable rather than continuing to exacerbate a sense of lack that drives submission to the work juggernaut.   In my view this requires two tendencies:  toward genuinely interdisciplinary work and towards genuinely religious states of consciousness.   I see a lot of cloud rappers, art world sycophants and intellectual incels around me who are clearly enslaved by false consciousness despite to some degree developing their talents autonomously because they fail to understand one another and have failed to develop their talents in a well-rounded way,  because they are desperate to please the imaginary Other that rules their particular domain and might some day give them money (fans, collectors, tenure).   By the same token I see most people unable to make contact with the joy of God’s love and thus incapable of genuine charity, kindness and service, because they don’t believe they have the “time” to devote to a genuine spiritual practice.   This plays out as constant romantic drama, false beliefs that if they attained a certain achievement that it would give them some ultimate satisfaction which in reality it will not, or drug abuse.   In short, people do not generally grasp the intensity of their own power, they fail to truly value themselves and others.   The values that will govern the new civilization beyond capitalism will be variants of self-esteem and mutual respect:  SOVEREIGNTY, HIERARCHY, EMANCIPATION, INDIVIDUATION.