I was selling books today and one of the buyers said “of course books or any physical objects have no inherent value – a thing is only worth what someone will pay”. One of the other buyers chimes in with “that’s right” (it’s slightly to the right of Strom Thurmond, to be sure), and that was that. There wasn’t even any mention that there was any other legitimately thought out system of valuation, not even the barest nod of deference to the longest running value theory that certainly dwarfs their meager platitudes. That’s the sure sign of bigotry, not of thought. And of course, they’re parroting something they’ve heard said as though it were wise. I’ve heard it said, too. I heard it growing up, and it almost had me fooled for a while.
By contrast, Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations, articulated the labor theory of value. Any given object or commodity has as its value the blood, sweat, and tears that go into it. As Ayn Rand would put it, the quantity of human life that goes into it. Rand acknowledged that every moment spent conceiving of, creating, crafting, designing, and building is a moment that you will never again retrieve – a moment of your existence, which is finite and irreplaceable. What, after all, is the value of Mom’s lemon pie? Is it merely the buck or two some passing hobo will offer? Or is it the care, concern, tenderness, and quantities of preparation that she invested – the hours neither you nor she will ever get back? Again, I don’t object to the little pipsqueak repeating any particular theory, but rather to doing so in complete ignorance of the other theories of value and what constitutes them.
It was ironic. They seemed to think this was somehow a liberal manner of thinking. A third buyer, when I mentioned Smith, said “Well capitalism, you know…” She couldn’t, of course, finish the sentence. Such sentiments about entire realms of thought dismissed as a block are expressed in elipses that terminate in knowing nods of the head by bewildered yet self-assured minds. They think they know what’s wrong with “capitalism”, but the fact that they can’t speak intelligently about it, or tell you anything substantive about what it really is, demonstrates that they don’t care about right and wrong at all. Knowledge of right and wrong require knowledge of the thing judged. Instead, they judge with elipses.
They might be appalled to discover that the value system they’ve expressed is the core of conservatism whereas the value system I’ve cited Smith and Rand expressing is the core of capitalism. In rejecting capitalism, they join the conservatives in commoditizing human labor and thereby upholding an intrinsic class system. Whereas capitalism attributes intrinsic value to labor, thereby equalizing opportunity and attacking any intrinsic class system. In short, where neoconservatives claim a monopoly on capitalism but never actually practice it, and constantly undermine rather than defend it, these nose ring sporting pseudo-liberals are neoconservative by proxy, because they’ve bought into that mythology. They’ve surrendered the liberalism of Jefferson (and Smith) to a quack equation at the same time the rest of the world is rediscovering Smith as a source of liberty from Western tyranny.
It’s again ironic that their view is decidedly third world unfriendly. Chinese factory laborers and migrant fruit pickers are referring back to Smith’s value system. The conservative, drawing on the premise that a thing has no inherent value cannot find an authentic rational ethos for paying a Chinese laborer more than 10 cents an hour. But the Chinese line laborer says the value of a circuit board is measured not merely in what someone will pay but in moments, hours, days, and years of his life, of his family’s lives, and therefore he agitates for a living wage. The fruit picker thinks that it doesn’t matter that some fat suburban mistress won’t pay more than 50 cents a pound for mass-produced (cr)apples – his life is worth more than what she’s “willing to pay”, and it’s his life, his health, his wellbeing, the future of his kids, all of those things that go into bringing that food to market. That apple represents either the possibility of a decent life or a decided bondage to someone else’s decent life.
In short, Smith’s labor theory of value dignifies labor, or rather takes accurate stock of its dignity, where the pseudo-wisdom of “a thing is only worth what someone will pay” is parrot wisdom, one of the Dixie cup platitudes of people who wear nose rings to express their liberalism, but make the patriots who founded their country look like communist subversives by comparison.
This is aside from the confused religious implications in such babble. First, by stating anything about value – even its absence – one is proposing a value system. A system of valuation. And the dismissal of physical objects as having no intrinsic value or “worth” (one can easily say “meaning”) is as clear an expression of atheism as one needs. One may hear it out of the mouths of bible toting fundamentalists who think nose rings deserve a swift beating, but it’s no less a denial of sacramentalism and the sanctity of physical space, of matter, and of the qualities that go into design (intelligence, diligence, attention, concentration, concern). In effect, denying any inherent value or valuation of physical things is a denial of *all* values of any kind. It is atheism par excellence. It also pisses off Steve Jobs, whose incorporeal design values are probably connected to the earphones that sit alongside those nose rings.
And like that atheistic system of devaluation, it is circular reasoning, for the moment it tries to articulate any value, it denies the ground of its own assertions. It cannot tell us “yes but I have a *different* means of valuing labor” – no you don’t – you have removed the logical ground of valuation. Ironically, while claiming to believe only in what it can see, hold in its hands, etc – to believe only in the material reality – it immediately denies the intrinsic value and meaning in that reality (‘only worth what someone will pay’), thereby – again – denying (by its own standards) *all* value and valuation. The anti-material neo-neoplatonism that has devolved into atheism (and ultimately devolves into solipsism) ultimately says nothing that is not senseless cacophony. It is inherently contradictory, groundless, valueless, and an endless loop of narcissistic glossolalia disguised as thought.
One may say that aside from spiritual value, there is no value or, in short, that aside from value there is no valuation or, in extenso, that unless one attributes intrinsic value to the physical space, material, objects, that have to do with man, one can attribute no value to man or to any immaterial thing either. It is intriguing that the nose-ring crowd asserts their commitment to a holistic, more ecologically sound way of conceiving of the world, when in fact they deny this and create in themselves the cause of exploitation, waste, and abuse by denying the coinherent worth of tangible and intangible things, of man and matter, of man and nature, of matter and ‘spirit’. It is the authentic capitalist that is holistic. The nose rings and the neoconservatives are joined in a fragmenting of reality into ‘that which has inherent value’ and that which doesn’t.
By drawing a harsh, causeless, baseless dichotomy between value and object, which is really a rejection of the agreement of intangible and tangible, that is immaterial and material – by referring all value to that which is relative rather than objective, they deny that man himself has any inherent worth, any identifiable transcendent meaning, and so they become apologists for the exploitation they so vocally decry when lounging around tea shops casting copies of Wealth of Nations into the rhetorical flames.
So, good people, the next time someone pops off with “material things have no value but what someone will exchange for them”, offering up the value only by equivalency and commodity theory (which is born of factory dehumanization through mass production and the loss of dignity associated with craftsmanship), remember that what you are hearing also is the slave shackle clanging beneath the deck, the stamp of jack boots marching the providers of hair, skin, and teeth toward the ovens, and the next bombing campaign to ensure that those third world little brown people remain in a production state that keeps the oil or parts or bananas or coca or opium or spice or mined materials or textiles or rubber flowing. After all, those things only carry the value that we who *can* pay for it, we minority few, attribute to them at the checkout counter. And the hands that produce them, that can never afford to pay, cannot attribute to them anything of value, any meaning, indeed their lives can have no intrinsic meaning because they have been invested in things that have meaning only to us.
You see, I listen to you. You armchair philosophers who pad the decision making power of the jackbooted thugs. I take your words seriously, even if you don’t. I’m listening, and I know what you are, and what you’re saying, and what you mean, even if you don’t mean to mean it. But I think you do. Every time you buy another ipod and treat ethics as merely academic, I think you do. And I think I am just as guilty. So no, it doesn’t matter that I’m watching. But somewhere, someone else is watching too. And that will, ultimately matter. The words Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin on their surface mean that a thing is worth what someone will pay. But the subtext is *you* have been weighed and measured, and by that measure with which you measured, so shall you be measured.
Take it how you like. As the automatic payment of reaping for sowing, or as the divine equation of value by a very personal watcher and judge; the effect is the same. As we devalue things that require human life to create, paid out in however small quantities at a time, we devalue ourselves, and we will ultimately experience the outcome of that in the culture and life we are pleased to lead. This is the moral, ethical, and philosophical judgment of any decent thinker that wasn’t a charlatan – be it Martin Niemoller or Martin Luther King.
Lastly, when I hear men drive around and say “I put marble in that building, and that one too. And on that one, I cut stone for the foundation…” I hear a different song than I hear at the checkout counter where nose-ringed punks (the nose ring is just a Blockbuster uniform in a modified corporate work culture) dismiss the lives of better men, of men who work for a living in a way that these little jerks think is equivalent but isn’t. And the guy that’s saying “the stuff that person made has no value that derives from the making” is actually telling you his own future – who he will be – what his work will be for him – the insignificance he will experience and attribute to the principle itself – the personal loss of meaning he will generalize to all and better men. Mene, Mene, as the line goes. Mene, Mene indeed. There’s a value judgment with some bite.
Addendum: someone perceptive may have noticed that I merely alluded to and didn’t state outright what “class system” the conservatism we’ve all become familiar with holds inviolable. I will here make it explicit. It is the class system of the affluent (fat) white or whitish American Protestant over the small (lean), brown or non-Protestant producer peoples of the world who live in commodity colonies (banana republics and energy commodity fiefdoms) that are either complying with demand at the lowest possible wages or are on the target list of potential next campaigns of suppression and control. You don’t have to agree. Conservatism seeks a class system out as a necessary component to its ideology. It commoditizes on contact, human beings and all else. If it weren’t divided as I say, it would be divided another way. Feel free to modify according to what you’re willing to believe. But that is nonetheless my answer. And the demonstration of Smith’s ideas, and the rest of authentic liberalism (not neoliberalism) setting men free from this exploitation, dignifying labour, and re-spiritualizing the world with holistic thought is happening in places like India where, while we are there exploiting away, are nonetheless generating (as fast as they can) a new entrepreneurial impetus that the founders of the American colony (another ‘producer’ people for a previous Western empire) would be proud of. That’s my take, and I’m sticking to it. Take it how you like. But I’m not with the “American craftsman” who really sits around on his fat sofa calling for government intervention to protect him from men with more ingenuity, acumen, (and taste). He’s asking for regulatory tinkering with prices so things swing in his favor (we sometimes call this price fixing, corruption, and organized crime – but when the fat, white, Protestant guy wants it, it’s policy). I’m not suggesting price fixing either on a neoconservative or neoliberal basis. That assumes regulation is how value is preserved. I’m not proposing any ‘policy’ solution. I’m saying that the value of a thing can neither be dismissed as relative nor ‘fixed’ as relative without doing violence to all value, and without preserving a class system of exploiters and exploited. Hilary and Obama won’t save you, and Romney and GW will just bomb you. Instead of looking for solutions, it may be more constructive to think first, to think in a less kneejerk manner, to really think, and not to act until we’ve thought, and maybe not even then. One thing’s for certain, the rhetoric that’s being bandied about not only isn’t thought, it’s as destructive in its effects as a nightstick on a Malaysian sidewalk. Finally, I should probably call someone a petit philosophe, rather than a pipsqueak or punk, but the ideas people often express, even on ordinary matters, can have such awful implications that sometimes I find it hard not to attribute to them the outcomes of their rhetoric – I don’t want to just let them off like the Heidelberg professors who were just blathering about theory and refused any responsibility for the black era they ushered in. Still, I’m sure a few of my attitudes would have me in a tank somewhere invading Poland right along with the next guy, so I’ll try to give them a break, especially since I’m so fond of Wagner. And besides, every ideologue becomes one by presuming the right to punish; I presume no such thing, and have no respect for those who do.