Article

Reclaiming the concepts of value and capital

The situation faced by radical philosophy today is the mismatch of trying to base radical critique and action on bourgeois concepts. Fundamental concepts disclose — or fail to disclose — the world; they establish horizons of discourse. Poor fundamental concepts keep important features of the world out of sight and out of our talk about the world. The two central concepts of Marx’s critique of political economy are value and capital. Since capital is value that increases its value, to understand capital we must begin by understanding value. Loose talk about “adding value” and misidentifying every imaginable sort of capital: human capital, social capital, natural capital, intellectual capital, etc., abounds today. We identify and criticize five misconceptions of value and capital that circulate widely and obstruct the progress of radical philosophy. These misconceptions divert thinking from the concepts of value and capital worked out by Marx in his mature critique of political economy. (1) Value is utility. We follow Marx in identifying utility as bogus, a pseudo-concept. (2) Value is use-value. (3) Value is exchangevalue. There is nothing wrong with either the concept of use-value or that of exchange-value per se. But one of the first lessons of Capital is that understanding capitalist society requires a third category, value, which is what Marx calls the “third thing” that commodities have in common and makes them quantitatively comparable. (4) Capital is any sort of resource. Like usevalue, resource is an unobjectionable concept, but to equate capital with resources is to eliminate everything proper to the capitalist mode of production. (5) Capitalist society is governed by instrumental reason, which we identify as another pseudo-concept. Neither concept, utility or instrumental reason, plays a role in Marx’s Capital. We reject George Ritzer’s Weberian conception of “McDonaldization” as governing the world by instrumental action.

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