13 May 2023

Thingified value begets individualized freedom

We in Western liberal democracies value above all our individual freedom, in contrast to what are today called authoritarian regimes that suppress it. We are the goodies; they are the baddies.

Individual freedom is the essential hallmark of liberalism, protected by the rule of law, at whose core are the rights of private property and their form of commerce in all the many kinds of contract.

Individual freedom is also enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right to own private property, including property in one's own body.

Thingified value is not listed among our Western values, nor is it mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And yet it is the flip-side of individual freedom and our hidden highest value. They are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, thingified value begets individualized freedom. It spawns countless dissociated, free individuals. Divide et impera.

How so? Because the very individualization of the individual entails our dissociation from each other. Dissociated from each other, we are first set free from each other as private individuals who deprive each other access to our private property. We sociate with each other in our economic lives only via the medium of thingified value, a Protean medium with many forms or guises; a universal medium that gathers us dissociated individuals together, whether we will it or not. These guises comprise the forms of commodity, money, wages, money-capital, productive capital, interest, ground-rent, among others, including hybrids. Every individual, rich or poor, needs income in order to live, and it is the economy that directly or indirectly (e.g. through the redistributive welfare state) provides such income-form of thingified value. No one will deny the central importance of the economy for modern living, and all who are able, strive to earn income in what is called blandly a market economy, or even a free market economy. This amounts to a coup that thingified value accomplishes against humankind by bamboozling it with a fallacious idea of freedom whose realization can be, and often has been, immeasurably brutal.

The basic forms of income derived directly from this market economy are wages for employees of all kinds and gross profit. The latter splits further into interest for the owner of loan-capital (finance-capital), ground-rent for the landowner, leaving a residue of profit of enterprise (or net profit) for the functioning, productive, capitalist enterprise.

The capitalist enterprise advances money-capital to set up some kind of production process for goods or services that have to be sold on the market to consumers, who comprise other enterprises and individualized end-consumers. The latter, especially, have an essential value-formal role to play in realizing the enterprise's advanced capital in sales revenues (the top line), from which all the costs (wages, means of production, interest, ground-rent) must be deducted to leave a residue of net profit (the bottom line). Only when the advanced capital is more than recouped, leaving a positive net profit, has the circuit succeeded. The formal principle for capital is M' - M > 0, i.e. the return on advanced capital must be greater than zero.

The profit-generating process of capital is thus a purely formal, circular process of transformations of value-form that, in itself, is indifferent to the content of what or how it produces. It makes no difference whether the product is chocolate bars or disposable towels or high-quality timepieces; they just have to be sold to consumers at a profit. The advertising industry is likewise indifferent to the product it is selling; its aim is to gain market share and increase sales revenues. This value-formal indifference renders capitalism nihilistic at its core. 

The net profit will be all the greater, the more the functioning enterprise is able to cut costs by getting the most out of its employees and leased land. Both humans and nature are cost factors for capitalist enterprises that detract from the maximum potential return on advanced capital. Humans become human resources and nature becomes natural resources for functioning capital. Both are exploited to generate profit, while at the same time figuring as negative cost factors in the calculation. Hence continual struggle between labour and capital over wages and working conditions; hence environmental degradation of the Earth that has been carved up into parcels of private landed property. Only the value-formal movement of profit-generation (aka valorization of thingified value) counts for the principle of capital, a principle that we could only possibly bridle and resist if, first of all, we were aware of it as such — and not in one of its deceptive, innocuous guises. This would make Adam Smith's famous "invisible hand" at last visible, from whose nihilistic malignity and malevolence we would shrink back, instead of regarding it as benign or even benevolent, as the apologists of free-market capitalism preach.

The net profit generated by capitalist enterprises is largely (apart from the portion of net profit consumed by their owners and shareholders) ploughed back into a renewed circuit of capital. The pressure of competition with other enterprises enforces a continual accumulation of thingified value destined to endlessly repeat its accumulative circuits as quickly as possible, the acceleration of turnover enhancing the profit-generation in a given time-period. The acceleration of turnover of total global capital, in turn, continually accelerates the pace of life, but this remains hidden to us modern individuals. Ever-accelerating, endless, nihilistic recurrence of the same that appears covered up as the price of 'progress'.

What does all this economic detail have to do with our individual freedom? As individualized, that is, as dissociated from each other, we sociate economically only via the medium of thingified value that, in turn, takes on a life of its own as the 'economy', whose hidden principle is the endless accumulation of thingified value. As individual players in the gainful game to gain our respective kinds of income, we inadvertently thingify ourselves under the value-forms (especially the wage-form) and their augmentative transformation for an aim that none of us has willed. We get caught up in a topsy-turvy world of value-things in process. Not even the capitalist enterprise knows that it is the vehicle for the accumulation of thingified value; it is interested only in the difference between the top line and the bottom line (net profit), and is itself valued on the surface only for its prowess in generating profits in the competition. But the underlying truth of capitalist economy is that thingified value must keep moving through its transformations of value-form to accumulate more and more. This is the law of movement of capitalist economy to which we individuals are unknowingly subjugated.

We free individuals all experience that we cannot live well without the economy doing well. For most this amounts to having a good, secure job. This is common sense to which there seems to be no imaginable alternative. This superficial 'truth' of capitalist economy is seen and necessarily heeded by the politics of the liberal democratic state. The economy looms large in all areas of democratic politics that perforce are deeply engaged and entangled with countless economic issues. But we do not know what this capitalist economy is. We do not know — due to the obscuration provided by the social science of economics — that its principle is the senseless, endless accumulation of total social and total global thingified value in a world globalized precisely by the thingified medium. The perpetuum mobile of the accumulative movement of thingified value is the globally determining movement that dictates or constrains also the life movements of us humans. We are the human resources either put to work or left aside by thingified value's accumulative movement. This movement dictates the terms of our sociation with each other via value-things.

Thingified value in all its guises of individualized private property reigns today as the medium of sociation. It sets us free from each other as dissociated, private individuals and, in so doing, subjugates us, behind our backs, by sociating us only for the sake of a movement of relentlessly accumulating thingified value. Individualized freedom is turned upside down into subjugation in a topsy-turvy world in which it is thingified value that unfolds its own freedom of movement.

Furthermore: we do not sociate for the sake of what we can do for each other's benefit, even though this may be the mutually willed intention of our interplay, because this possibility is subverted by the thingified medium itself that is inverted from a means enabling sociation for mutual benefit into the medium of capital augmentation. We solace ourselves in the role of consumers with having more — more, namely, of various forms of thingified value from washing machines to mansions, from orange juice to jets, from freshwater yabbies to yachts, from adventure holidays to meals in exclusive restaurants, from cruises to Antarctica to a holiday house in the countryside.

Could we possibly sociate with each other in another kind of freedom, without such subjugation via the universal medium of thingified value? What could this other kind of freedom look like? Or is individualized freedom the best we can do? These questions presuppose at least that we go beyond what can be asked by Western liberal democracy, owing to its deficient inventory of 'our values' that omits thingified value and its own peculiar freedom of movement. There are kinds and instances of interplay — such as friendship, love and acts of kindness — that are not mediated by thingified value and which have their own respective negations in enmity, hatred and acts of cruelty. How are friendship, love and acts of kindness to be understood as manifestations of freedom that do not tally with the phenomenon of individualized freedom, whose exercise is fundamentally transactional? 

Conversely, we could learn to see how the sociating medium of thingified value is toxic in countless ways manifesting themselves both blatantly and subtly — from the political and economic to the private and intimate. The intoxication engendered by the gainful game manifesting in greed is only one form of appearance of this toxicity. We pay for our individualized freedom through our subjugation, on the underbelly of the gainful game, to the freedom of movement of endlessly valorizing thingified value, that gathers us, prior to any formation of a collective subject collected together from individualized subjects through an act of collective will (e.g. agreement, elections). Deciphering these phenomena can make us aware of the social and existential corrosiveness of thingified value as the overwhelmingly dominant medium of sociation in our globalized world. Such awareness of the deeper truth of the medium and its inexorable, accumulative movement would allow us to beware of it and resist its blatant, self-serving misrepresentation as medium of freedom, as well as its pernicious and often devastating effects. Become aware to beware.

 Further reading: Social Ontology of Whoness 

On Human Temporality (forthcoming)

'An Invisible Global Social Value' (forthcoming)

CBC Radio | Can the Great Reset really create a gentler, more equitable capitalism?  

1 comment:

  1. “Individualized freedom is turned upside down into subjugation in a topsy-turvy world in which it is thingified value that unfolds its freedom of movement.”

    Yes, it is fact what you describe. It takes a close understanding of what by good reasons is called 'desire'. It is no topic in traditional economy. But libidinous economy exists and from there also a link to the unconscious, the repressed. Furthermore, unbearable tensions lead humans to externalize desire (as in the initial concept by Sigmund Freud it is pointed out from the topic of sexuality).
    The libidinous economy, the entrenched desire which is directed to goods, seems to have a reason. Its logic might target to limit the unfolding of non-reified forms of creativity (creatio), not subjugated to collective control.
    Even such vital desire has similar implications as the subjugating capitalist realm.
    Not only as conspicuous consumption (consumer society), but at least potentially also in shaping relationships and connecting ties between humans. Even this basic productive force – not only the means of production – is potentially 'poisoned'. It seems to depend on specific, complex individual constellations whether aggression and destruction arise to terrorize others.
    What is expressed in the concept of 'Herrschaft und Knechtschaft' (lord and bondsman) describes the implications and results from the view of the unfolded rule of spirit (Geist). Embezzled there is the difference of genders, a basic element in the realm of desire.
    And, all humans are the results of the desire of others. Embodied in the wrap of the individual self.
    Furthermore, even a desire in the direction of being exist. All such is not just simply a given self-evidence. Ownership of land following a feudal logic is still the core of dividing humanity. Property, ownership is nothing without law and executive forces.
    Laws can be changed ... Conservative fear has its hidden ideas of aggressors, taking away what was theirs and create disorder. Such phantasies are projections of an occupying unconscious.
    Exactly what you mention: friendship, generosity, love are the basics to consider a different form of economy – the big, economic macro economy and the economy of desire as well. One could add: common activities. Activities to look for ways of fulfilling needs and wishes as well without anonymous master signifiers in the form you described and justly criticized.
    Passion for thinking is the way to walk in such imaginary freedom ... walk and step out to reality where possible. It requires a willing community to join that path.
    Young girls are coming to the canyon ... and in the morning I can see them walking ... while on the clock outside in NY it's always twelve thirty.