Being Utopic – anti-value in motion: labour, real abstraction and the revolution of everyday life

In this brief paper I  describe my contribution to the Against Value Seminar, University of Sheffield, 20-21st March 2014. This seminar is continuing work on Against Value in the Arts and Humanities that began in 2012.

I want to revisit  work I did with Ana Dinerstein in 2002:  The Labour Debate: an investigation into the theory and reality of capitalist work. The theme of the book was that labour has ceased to be a critical concept for social theory, becoming ‘an intellectually pretentious way of saying work’  ( Nichols 1992 10). The concept of labour has been replaced by various forms of identity and  postmodern subjectivities, shamed by its apparent aversion to gender and disadvantaged minorities, refocused as problems of  equality, and abandoned in the search of more democratic versions of civil society (p.25).


The purpose of the book was to recover the notion of labour within a framework of critical political economy. This meant dealing with labour not  as labour: reified as a thing in itself, but labour as a form of value.  For Marx, value, or abstract labour, is the substance of Capital. This requires framing the issue of the significance of labour around  Marx’s labour theory of value, or value theory of labour (Elson 1979), as the fundamental way of understanding and transforming capitalist social relations.

Chapters in the book were written by  John Holloway, Simon Clarke, Harry Cleaver, Glen Rikowski, Werner Bonefeld, Graham Taylor, Massimo de Angelis and myself and Ana Dinerstein. Each author contributed to this debate  through their own subversive Marxist traditions: Open Marxism, Autonomous Marxism, and other critical reinterpretations of  Marx’s mature social theory, by dealing with concept of labour, real abstraction and the revolution of everyday life.

Ana and I developed a notion of ‘anti-value in motion’ from the way in which Marx described the dynamic  movement of abstract labour, or the way in which Capital moves, as ‘value in motion’ ( Marx Capital Vol 2).  Anti-value in motion is contra Capital’s  determinate abstractions: real forms of value expressed  most violently as Money and the State,  unleashed against  civilian populations. Anti-value in motion means  constructing new forms of post-capitalist sociability where human life and nature are the project rather than the resource, or Utopia as a theory of abundance: the ability to satisfy needs through capacities which are already in existence ( Kay and Mott 1982)  aka communism (Dean 2012).

The Labour Debate is part of a renewed interest in the concept of labour as the crisis of Capital intensifies. Significant  contributions include work by  John Holloway, e.g. Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today, written in 2003, and   Crack Capitalism published in 2010, as well as  writing engaged with  Moishe Postone’s Time, Labour and Social Domination: A Reinterpretaton of Marx’s Critical Theory, published in 1993.  Hardt and Negri’s refusal of the law of value in Labour of Dionysus ( 1994)  and Empire (2000) have provoked a multitude of commentaries on the significance of labour as the subject of revolution. Other important recent work includes Kathi Weeks(2011) The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries. The significance of Weeks’ writing is that she deals with the negative consequences that are inherent in the nature of capitalist work, rather than focus on particular types of crisis-work: unemployment, immaterial labour or precarity. She  offers alternative possibilities to capitalist work: reductions in work-time and a social wage. These alternatives are not offered as the solution to the catastrophe of capitalist work, but a movement towards a real alternative, not in the future, but now, in the present.

For my contribution to the Against Value project I would like to bring this literature review on ‘the problem of work’ up to date. But, more than that, I will ground this scholarly work in an account of a new social institution which is attempting to bring some of these ideas against labour and real abstraction to life through the transformation of academic work.  This institution is The Social Science Centre, Lincoln –  a free, public and co-operative form of higher education. The Social Science Centre, Lincoln is part of  ‘a silent revolution in higher education’ (Enlivened Learning Teamey and Mandel 2012-2014).


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