Lately I’ve been trying to sort out readings for my exams. One category of literature I have right now is “value-form theory,” which I try to summarize below. Maybe this is useful for some, I don’t know. I’ve been working on a bibliography for what it’s worth – if anyone wants a copy. Keep in mind that I’m using value-form theory to group a bunch of different literatures, some of which are not exactly in conversation. More important than coherency for me is what such a theory means for social research. Or something like that.
“Value-form theory” (VFT) refers to a particular reading of Marx that emerged in the 1970s, largely in Germany and the UK. VFT seeks to remedy what its proponents see as a lack of attention, within orthodox or traditional Marxism, to the concepts of value-form and fetishism within Capital. These concerns gained currency with the rediscovery of Isaak Illich Rubin’s work, and were also influenced in come circles by Adorno. One of the central premises of VFT is that “official” Marxism errs when it presents itself as a political economy, all-encompassing philosophy (“dialectical materialism”), or mechanistic view of history (“historical materialism”). Instead, VFT focuses on Marx’s method as a negative critique of capitalist society, of the economic concepts that emerge out of this historical context (like “class,” for instance). Because of this, VFT challenges any politics rooted in the affirmation of labor or of the proletariat as producer of value. Labor does not escape the subsumption of social life under the value-form, and is thus something to be overcome through negative critique and a communizing struggle that works to destroy the primary social mediation: value.
VFT provides a tool for accessing “invisible” social relations. The “form-determined” world of capitalism is, according to VFT, an inverted one—where society is transmuted into an abstracted economy of things, and vice versa. In understanding how value functions, critique becomes a practice of demystification, of retracing the “ghostly” socio-spatial origins of our concepts, sensibilities, our ways of being in the world. What the value-form implies, then, is that all identitarian thinking is bound to reproduce its own structural conditions, since such thinking reaffirms the mediations of an inverted world. Instead, what’s called for is, in Adorno’s terminology, a recognition of non-identity – a kind of negative dialectics. Research that takes the value-form seriously is able to negatively deconstruct its own concepts so as to uncover the social antagonisms that give rise to these concepts.