Value in Marx: The Persistence of Value in a More-Than-Capitalist World, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2013; 208 pp: 9780816680955, 50.50 [pounds sterling] (hbk)
George Henderson's monograph is the latest addition to a steady stream of books designed to demonstrate the enduring relevance of Marx's thinking. Many of these publications are for aficionados--Fredric Jameson's Representing Capital (2011), for example--though not a few are targeted at general reader, a signal example being Terry Eagleton's Was Marx Right? (2011a). They appear at a time in which far more people are receptive to the name 'Marx' than might have been the case 25 years ago, a moment when actually-existing communism collapsed overnight, and free-market capitalism seemed to be the only game in town. Writing ten years later, in the wake of the fin-de-millennium anti-globalisation protests, Randy Martin asserted that 'capitalism's problems augur Marx's perpetual return' (2002: xix). Had these problems disappeared during the 1990s, arguably the first decade since Marx's death in which his ideas no longer seemed serviceable to a large number of erstwhile radicals? Certainly not. Ever present, they manifested spectacularly in 2008-9, leaving a myriad of major economies in recession, and saddled with huge debts as well as large unemployment rolls. Unsurprisingly, the financial crisis and its aftermath have reopened the age-old question of whose ideas get to count. The political economic instability and fragility defining the present moment has given Marx's writings, already rescued from a decade of relative obscurity by authors like Martin, an extended opportunity to return from exile so that a younger generation of analysts and activists might benefit from them.
In this case, only those already familiar with texts like Capital are the addressees. Readers new to Marxist ideas will find Henderson's book thoroughly opaque. The clue is in the subtitle 'The persistence of value in a more-than-capitalist world'. This might strike the newcomer as thoroughly banal: of course 'value' in its diverse forms persists in our currently more-than-capitalist conjuncture, and will persist in any future post-capitalist world. After all, humans are hermeneutic animals. We create, assign, exchange, debate and fight over meanings, over what things, relationships and people matter to us (and how). But this not the 'value' that Henderson is talking about, as seasoned readers of Marx will know. The reason his subtitle will pique their interest is that it has become an article of faith among Marxists going back a century or more that capitalism and value are like conjoined twins with shared vital organs. There's just no means of separating them without killing off both. For Henderson's subtitle to imply that value may have a life beyond and outside capitalism invites a reconsideration of what contemporary lessons we have (still) to learn from one of the 19th century's greatest thinkers. It challenges Terry Eagleton's view of Marxism, almost a shibboleth among devotees, that 'only by superannuating its opponent can it superannuate itself' (2011b: 6)-for the 'opponent' may live on even after capitalism is dead and buried.
Henderson is a geographer residing at the University of Minnesota and educated at Berkeley, where he encountered DickWalker (among others). A generation younger than the likes of David Harvey, he and his disciplinary peer group (including Don Mitchell and Andy Merrifield) have already done much to show geographers and other Marxists why space, nature, urbanism and landscape are key components of capitalism's hardware, not optional software nor mere 'inputs' to and 'outputs' of the accumulation process. (1) Yet no Anglophone geographer has yet, to my knowledge, proposed a new theory of value-either in Marx's sense of value or in the other senses highlighted by anthropologists, economists, sociologists, political philosophers or ethicists over the last hundred years or more. (2) Ironically, in the present case, Henderson's geographical training counts for little. His analysis neither mentions, not depends substantively upon, the sorts of geographical concepts that helped the pioneering Marxist geographers Harvey, Neil Smith or Erik Swyngedouw become critical theorists of note within and beyond their chosen subject.
Value in Marx is short, consisting of five chapters amounting to 147 pages of text, plus notes and a bibliography, but also very dense and written with considerable authority. (3) Henderson hardly references secondary literature. His grasp of Marx's texts is so secure that he favours summary, paraphrase and thumbnails over stock quotations from key publications like Grundrisse. He reads for difference, and credibly so. He challenges previous habits of interpretation in which Marxists have searched for the 'right' understanding of Marx on value. In Marx's writings, Henderson argues, 'value fails to coalesce in a single way' (p. xiii). For him, this failure is a sign of Marx's success, despite himself. He fixates on the different, sometimes contradictory, ways that Marx discusses value as a 'problem' (something to be overcome) and a 'solution' (something with which we can happily live, if only we could replace capitalist value with a less volatile and unjust system of value creation, circulation and distribution). So what exactly is 'value' here?
In what he calls 'mainline' interpretations of Capital and other late works by Marx, it looks something like this: in a society in which (i) most adults must sell their capacity to work to others in order to live; where (ii) most goods and services are produced in order to realise a profit; and where (iii) private firms must compete and innovate in order to survive and prosper, the value of a commodity is not exhausted by its practical utility to consumers (what it can do), the price they are willing to pay for it (what it costs), what it 'says' to others (its sign-value), or the amount of time and skill invested by those who made it. That is because an individual commodity is the physical form taken by the ensemble of social relations between all employers and employees. For that ensemble to exist in time and space, and for profits, losses and wages to be distributed dynamically in changing proportions, the internal differences must be abstracted from. 'Value' is the name Marx gives this abstraction, the 'ghostly' substance made real by the fact that it is measurable according to a single yardstick: the moving average Marx called 'socially necessary labour time'. This yardstick has a metric (clock time), but is much, much more than a measure. Value is quantitative: it is 'attached' to different commodities in definite proportions, not determined during the...