Ward Churchill & Marxism: Anti-Critique (Part 2)

Here is Part 2 of my response to Ward Churchill’s essay on Marxism. Part 1 is here.

Historical materialism

Churchill asserts that historical materialism is a way of looking at society not as a unified whole, but as a mass of contradictions. All of history is simply the course of contradictions in society reconciling themselves to production (i.e., the transformation of nature from one of its aspects into another). Churchill tells us that “‘Productive relations,’ in [the Marxist] schema, determine all and everything.” The “orthodox” Marxists, according to Albert and Hahnel, assert that Marxism downgrades the “importance of the creative aspect of the human consciousness” and that consciousness rests primarily on objective production relations.

There is some truth in some of these assertions, but Churchill does not provide a coherent account of historical (or, indeed, dialectical materialism) before he proceeds to criticize it — relying on quotations taken wildly out of context from Althusser and Baudrillard. For this reason I cannot proceed by addressing Churchill’s assertions in turn, but will provide a sketch of what historical materialism means. In doing this, I hope, we will take up Churchill’s criticisms and address them.

The main idea of historical materialism is that history — the course of development of human societies, including ideas and consciousness — is based on material realities. It is not the ideas in our heads that determine the conditions of our existence; so much as it is the conditions of our existence that largely contribute to the determination of the ideas in our heads. This is not to say that ideas do not have an effect on reality, but they do so when put into material action in whatever way. History is a chronology of changes: institutions, cultures, values and so on change over time. None of these are immutable, all of these are eminently historical — they exist, as they do, in particular times and spaces — and they are in constant flux.

The Marxian method puts a theoretical emphasis on the role of economics in analysing history and consciousness. What is meant by economics? The term “mode of production” is often-heard, e.g., capitalism is a mode of production. Humans need to eat, drink, sleep, etc. To do this they have to produce things, in one way or another. The “mode” organizes how production is carried out, and this organization is necessarily social, and also has its tremendous impacts on other aspects of society, or, ideology: culture, politics, state, law, etc. That is to say, our social relations of production (and exchange and consumption) play a significant role in organizing our social relations in general.

However, it’s not like a mode of production drops out of the sky, and then on top of this someone sets about to build things like culture and ideas. These things develop together, and develop because of the course of human actions and interactions. [1] However — and very importantly — the behaviours and courses of action taken by people are determined by the possibilities, limits, and imperatives of real-historical conditions.

Additionally, the economic is not the only determining factor in the course of human society (i.e., in determining history) — other factors can, and do play important roles. The point is that they cannot be analyzed separately from each other, and certainly, one cannot ignore the foundational aspect of the material social realities, i.e., of the economic: the relationship is dialectical. Moreover, modes of production can and do exist at the same time, over the same spaces, but some — often, one — is clearly more dominant and determining than the others.

Let us consider the example of capitalism, the dominant mode of production today throughout the world. Here, the very first thing that should strike us is that we actually buy the things necessary for our livelihoods with money. Moreover, we rarely know under what conditions the things we buy are produced. On the flip side, we work (for someone else) to acquire the money necessary to buy the things we need or want for our livelihoods. This is just a basic enumeration of capitalist relations of productions, of course, they are far more complicated. The point is that these things are determined by the mode of production: capitalism. We can also see how historically contingent aspects of ideology, such as the theory of free trade and the free market or the legal right of private property, are conjured or developed concurrently with the development of capitalism as a dominant mode of production.

Indeed, if we were serfs living in a fief, under the authority of some lord, in some medieval European place, no doubt the relations of production would be vastly different. How we came up with the means of our subsistence — indeed, exactly what would constitute “subsistence” — would vary tremendously. And, how we related to these things culturally and what kinds of legal systems were there to legitimate the existing power relations would also be rather different. To quote my medievalist friend and interlocutor Nathaniel Thomas for the second time: “a huge difference in social relations would be the sense of obligation. They could be really greedy, but medieval European lords simply do not run their estates to maximize production and profit in a systematic way and don’t think in those terms.” Not that they do anymore, because there aren’t any left, because the capitalist mode of production replaced the peasants with the workers, and changed entirely the social function of the lords, and so on and so forth.

Going back to Churchill’s critiques, a few things should become apparent: Yes, the mass of human society is a set of contradictions, but these contradictions form parts of the whole and are determined by the logic of the whole — which really isn’t “unified” as such (what does that even mean?). Contradictions don’t have to reconcile themselves to production: production itself is undergirded by a whole set of contradictions (for instance, the contradiction between the actual producer of a product, and the person who appropriates the profit off of that product). Productive relations are not what determines “all and everything,” but they are fundamental. And yes, the consciousness of human beings is determined by their existence, a great part of which has to do with their productive relations, which are there independent of their wills: existence precedes essence, and not vice-versa. However, that the productive relations people enter into are independent of their wills doesn’t mean it has to remain that way. That’s the whole point of revolution.

1 Ernst Fischer, How to Read Karl Marx. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1996. P. 97.

Labour theory of value

Let’s now focus on Churchill’s critique of Marx’s labour theory of value (LTV), which, as Churchill correctly notes, forms the bedrock of Marxist theory — but, I should add, the bedrock of the Marxian economic theory of capitalism as a mode of production. Churchill describes the labour theory of value as meaning:

that value can be assigned to anything by virtue of the quantity and quality of human labor — i.e.: productive, transformative effort — put into it. This idea carries with it several interesting sub properties, most strikingly that the natural world holds no intrinsic value of its own.

Yes, and no. To really understand the LTV we have to pull back a bit and see what Marx is doing. Essentially, Marx is trying to get at “the laws of motion” of the capitalist mode of production — thus, his analysis is very specific to capitalism as an economic system. This has to be kept in mind. None of Marx’s categories or concepts are transhistorical and universal as such; they are specific to capitalism, and this includes the LTV.

When Marx talks about value he is referring to the value of commodities. A commodity is a thing that has some kind of use, it doesn’t matter how you define that use. The “utility of a thing makes it a use value.” That is to say, things can and do have intrinsic value of their own — when looked at from the perspective of humans, it is to the extent that they can be “used” by humans. Now, let’s be clear about what is meant by “use”: if you derive aesthetic, spiritual, or some kind of non-physical use from a thing (whatever it may be), it is still a use; a different kind of use-value, certainly, but still a use-value. That is to say, use-value is subjective. But this is not what Marx means when he’s talking about “value”.

A commodity, in order for it to be a commodity, has to have an exchange-value. That is to say, how do two disparate use-values find themselves being equated for exchange? There is a medium (money) which facilitates this exchange, but what determines the particular exchange-value of a thing? For Marx, this is the socially necessary labour time required to produce the thing. (I could go into more detail about this, but that’s not the crux of Churchill’s argument. If you’re interested, read Ch. 1 of Capital, Vol. 1.) The point here is that the exchange-value of a thing is determined by the socially necessary labour time required for its production in a capitalist economy. This is what Marx is talking about when he talks about “the labour theory of value.” In a capitalist economy, value is expressed as and through exchange-value. Exchange-value has nothing to do with a thing’s use-value.

Additionally, we can see that a thing can have use-value without having exchange-value — in which case it is no longer a commodity. Or, as Marx puts it:

A thing can be a use value, without having value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not due to labour. Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, &c. A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity.

And in that vein, we can then understand what he means when he says, “nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.”

When he is talking about value here, he is quite specifically talking about “social use value” — that is, exchange-value. If it isn’t useful to someone else, it won’t be exchanged, and hence has no value — in a capitalist exchange-based mode of economy — regardless of how much labour is put into it.

What Churchill goes on to say, on the basis of the LTV, is dead on in terms of how a capitalist economy and society views value; not only theoretically, but we see it in practice every day. Marx and many Marxists such as myself, would share Churchill’s critique — it’s not a critique of Marx or Marxism as such:

A mountain is worth nothing as a mountain; it only accrues value by being “developed” into its raw productive materials such as ores, or even gravel. It can hold a certain speculative value, and thus be bought and sold, but only with such developmental ends in view. Similarly, a forest holds value only in the sense that it can be converted into a product known as lumber; otherwise, it is mere an obstacle to valuable, productive use of land through agriculture or stock-raising, etc. (an interesting commentary on the Marxian view of the land itself). Again, other species hold value only in terms their utility to productive processes (e.g.: meat, fur, leather, various body oils, eggs, milk, transportation in some instances, even fertilizer); otherwise they may, indeed must be preempted and supplanted by the more productive use of the habitat by humans.

As for the “Marxian view of the land itself”, please see the quotations I pulled from Marx and Engels earlier. I should also point out that Marx is very clear that nature is as much a source of wealth as labour, and was quite vociferous in his criticism of those who thought that labour alone was a source of wealth:

Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power.

It seems Churchill’s comment on the labour theory of value had little, if any, detailed analysis behind it.

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2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    basit said,

    December 25, 2007 @ 1:42 am

    had been putting off reading them till i had time. i learnt something. thankyou.

  2. 2

    Ward Churchill & Marxism: Anti-Critique « The Speed of Dreams said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

    […] things develop together, and develop because of the course of human actions and interactions. [1] However and very importantly the behaviours and courses of action taken by people are determined […]

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