Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Towards a Critique of the Labour Theory of Value

“What a strange machine man is! You fill him with bread, wine, fish, and radishes, and out comes sighs, laughter, and dreams.” (Zorba the Greek)

I suppose it's an oversimplification, but for me Marx stands for the idea that value is rooted in labour and worth is rooted in capital. History, on this view, becomes a struggle for control of the means of production. I was once a "Marxist" in this sense, but I will never forget the strange lightness that came over me many years ago when I was reading Ezra Pound: "Nature habitually overproduces. Chestnuts go to waste on the mountainside, and it has never yet caused a world crisis."

The other side of this insight is that almost everything that is worth having is free, almost everything that has to get done "just happens". The sun, the rain, even the long process of fossilisation, owes us nothing. The creativity of the seed far exceeds our own inventiveness. Even our own bodies, as Zorba points out, are mainly self-operating, self-cleaning natural processes. We put some fuel in them and out comes human behaviour. Without granting too much ground to Freud, we even have to agree that most of our mental activity goes on without our knowledge or guidance.

There's the old joke that 90% of life is just showing up. We can expand this: 99% [virtually] everything just sort of happens [think the burning suns, the spinning galaxies]. Life mainly continues—"goes on", as they say. It is as important to get out of the way as it is to make an effort. Even when we do work, it's not so much a matter of putting your shoulder to the wheel as pushing in the right direction. Most of the process is already underway.

This is important to keep in mind when working on your intellectual projects. Not only should you not try to lift them and move them somewhere all at once, not only should do a measured amount of work on them each day ... You should remember that an intellectual project, both as it exists within you and as it goes on around you, both as it belongs to you and as it belongs to others, is always already making progress, always already going somewhere.

It doesn't need you to do all the work. Certainly not all the time. Most of it happens all by itself. And many of the chestnuts really do go to waste. It happens all the time. It's not a crisis in the history of ideas when it does. [Update: with so many of us thinking so hard about so many things these days, I think I can rest assured that an idea I don't happen to make the most of will be "independently discovered" by someone else soon enough.]


Presskorn said...

Sure, 90% of life is just showing up. But that understates the immense difficulty of showing up. We can expand this: 99% of life doesn't just happen. Almost nothing happens by itself. The great inventiveness of nature shows us how much it takes to overproduce, and if nature habitually overproduces, this shows us the measure of how much we have to change our habits.

Isn't this closer to the spirit of RSL?

Thomas said...

I'm not sure I understand what you mean. I think the sprit of RSL has always been to "work smart not hard".

Presskorn said...

Ok, work smart not hard is a good point. However, perhaps one could also say: working smart is hard. In any case, I am slightly suspicious about advice suggesting to lean back and let stuff happen. But I don't know; perhaps I'm too Protestant about it (as if I want it to be hard).

Thomas said...

Yes, we definitely have to check our protestant bias. To steal a phrase from contemporary feminists: maybe I'm saying you should lean in and let stuff happen. The question is how far to lean in what direction. The only "hard" part about working smart is choosing the easiest, or "most possible", thing to do tomorrow. Pound talks about trying to wring lilies from acorns, instead of just letting the oaks grow.

Andrew Gelman said...


That "wring lilies from acorns" line is great; I'd never heard it before. Here's a question, based on my complete ignorance of the topic. Pound was notoriously a fascist and a traitor. Could part of this have come from his "letting the oaks grow" philosophy: that is, maybe he knew (at some level) that his ideas were harmful, but he felt it was more true to himself to follow these ideas? To put it another way, it sounds like you (and Pound) are recommending a path-of-least-resistance approach, the idea being to always go downhill. So, for Pound, perhaps extreme fascism was the way downhill in that it seemed more consistent with his attitude toward life?

And maybe, to move from the criminal to the pathetic, a similar attitude was had by Karl Weick? Sure, you and I might have wanted him to acknowledge his sources, but that would've been "hard work"---not the acknowledgment, of course, but the difficulty of building up and maintaining a reputation and a $300,000 salary without doing actual research. Weick maybe felt truer to himself by doing the "smart work" of cheating.

The point of my speculations here is not to say that I think you (or Pound) are wrong; just that there can be disadvantages to choosing the easiest, or most possible approach.

Thomas said...

I'm not sure it's fair to say that Pound was going with the flow. As his arrest & treason charges show, there was an easier path for an American living in Europe to follow at the time than moving to Italy and broadcasting anti-FDR screeds. Sure, maybe he thought history was on his side, but it was not the path of least resistance.

I think it's true to say, however, that his fascism reflected a belief in something like what I'm saying. He believed in nature's abundance (and that liberal democracy is based on scarcity economics). I think he preferred a limited but violent state to an pervasively-meddling-but-mild one. He didn't think we should all go out and work hard to fix every little social ill.

Mailer says somewhere that we shouldn't have a politics that goes counter to basic human nature, and he does actually say somewhere else that fascism is a more natural condition for humanity than democracy. (Historically an argument could be made.)

I'm not defending any of these ideas, certainly not fascism. I'm saying that there is something about our "liberal", "democratic" mindset that is too eager to "work", not willing enough to let things happen. Which is why we get things like the War on Drugs, and even the War on Terror. (Mailer, like others, suggested that a little bit of terror is just going to have to be acceptable. Statistically, terrorism isn't dangerous.)