Value and Things

Theories, critique and new perspectives

Rationale of the POE3 seminar, Pisa, 28-29 November 2019


Maura Benegiamo, Laura Centemeri, Emanuele Leonardi, Dario Minervini and Luigi Pellizzoni

The problem of value, and in particular of economic value, is a central issue in current explanations of the ecological crisis.

For market supporters, the environment can be exploited and degraded because it is not given economic value. If read in terms of externality, market failures lead, paradoxically, to the creation of new markets, on the basis of a more or less explicit normative position assuming that the market is a tool capable of optimizing the relationship between efficiency and freedom. “Does the market fail? Long live the market!”

On the contrary, in a neo-Marxist lens, the ecological crisis finds its root in the peculiar capitalist “law of value”, that is “the effective historical functioning” of a “theory of value” based on the crystallization of human and extra-human nature in the form of abstract social work (what Jason Moore calls “cheap nature”). These processes are characterized by dynamics of “value extraction”, as classically understood by critical theory, so that following a valorisation of the ecological sphere, through certain production processes, one proceeds to the maximization of profit through strategies of concentration of ownership (e.g. monopoly concentration in the agri-food sector) and/or financialization. Within these processes, however, the increasingly central role played by knowledge and the forms of emotional involvement open up new possibilities for the direct exploitation of bodies and reproductive capacities (human and non-human), which raise new questions about the “nature” of accumulation, leading to rethinking the Marxian categories of value and work, hence of exploitation and alienation.

A third position is that of the conventionalist approaches that seek to portray the concrete processes that lead to giving an economic value, among other things, also to nature. Here the descriptive intent seems to prevail over the normative and the relationship between these approaches and critical thinking is not clear. If there is a criticism, the latter is mainly aimed at totalizing approaches, which tend to over-determine situations, without paying attention to how concretely situated actors construct common judgment measures, monetize and capitalize. Attentive to diversity and contingencies, these sociological approaches are often perceived as politically “questionable” in that they do not advance any alternative theorizing in terms of what value is and what laws govern it, thus finding it difficult to give a representation of capitalism and of its dynamics.

In this seminar we aim to open a space for discussion on the limits (but also the potentialities) of the two main theories of economic value (classic Marxist and marginalist) for thinking value in a broader sense, that is, as a political dispositif, and in particular a politically progressive one, reflecting on their relevance in the context of the ecological crisis and comparing them with different perspectives, such as the conventionalist approaches but also the way in which the problem is elaborated in non-western or “non-modern” cultures and, in the contemporary west, in the informal economy and more generally the economy of reciprocity as a form of exchange. In other words, we aim to propose an exercise in reflexivity on the use of value theory in defining contemporary forms of oppression and emancipation, in particular the interweaving of social injustices and ecological injustices. We also aim to propose a reflection on the difficulties in explaining satisfactorily the link between values ​​as a dimension of experience and action and value in an economic sense.

The ecological crisis, in fact, brings to the foreground the Polanyian theme of the “disembedding” of the market economy, that is a disconnection between what is necessary to allow human life to reproduce in a certain form and what comes to count as an economic value. In this regard, the question of economic value is investigated by anthropology and sociology in its relation to action and culture (values).

This reflection on the link between value in an axiological sense, experience and action, and value as an economic datum opens up an exploration that can be articulated (at least) in the following way:

1. What possible routes to go beyond the value analysis inherited from the nineteenth century? In this exploration we are interested in bringing attention to the debt that these theories have with respect to a certain epistemological framework, based on the Euclidean speculative model that identifies, isolates, makes the entities of the world “in common” (John Law) discrete and comparable. It is the model shared by nineteenth-century physics (thus prior to the quantum turn and the uncertainty principle) that prefigured a mechanistic/automatic model of the living.

2. If we problematize value theories, how can we account for the functioning of capitalism as an internally differentiated yet systemically coherent phenomenon?

3. Is it possible to imagine alternative modeling that could help us understand how it works? Can the concepts of plasticity and morphogenesis help us? How can these modeling help in developing a critique of the current system and developing a socio-technical imaginary of ecological society?

4. Anthropology participates in the reflection on the question of value (see David Graeber) bringing it back to the centre of its disciplinary debate. In particular, the link between action and value creation becomes the focus of some anthropological analyses that track and reconstruct the ways in which value is produced in action (value in action).

5. The question of value, from an ontological point of view, arises at the crossroads of some polar oppositions, in particular those of form/substance and subject/object. The tension between these polarities can be grasped both within and in the contrast between the main modern “contenders” (neoclassical theory, based on the idea of ​​utility, and Marxian theory, based on the notion of work), as well as in different perspectives as that of conventions. The pragmatic perspective only partially circumvents the problem, which remains at the centre of capitalist accumulation and more generally of the modern ontology of limitlessness or of the conventionality of limits.

In the light of a rethinking of value, of the way to theorize and empirically study it, and especially in relation to the ecological question, it is important to ask ourselves what the resulting visions may be in terms of approaches to the study of the functioning of contemporary capitalism. Hence the title given to the POE3 seminar, Value and Things; title that deliberately recalls Les Mots et les Choses, one of the most important texts by Michel Foucault, as it formulates a question very similar to the one that motivates this text – what are the conditions of truth that, at a given historical moment, define the statute of reality – but it expresses it emphasizing how value is placed at the centre, as a sort of junction, of the connection between materiality, human relations and definitions of the world and its ordering.