What The Fcuk Is Value (And Its Politics)? Part I

An old question has recently been put on the agenda of academic and public thought again: the question of value that had occupied great minds from Aristotle to Smith and Marx long ago, before it got lost. Those who want to debate it again are heterodox economists who believe that answers to such questions make a difference in real-world politics. But what was that debate about and what is political about it? By Daniel Plenge

In the 28th month of life someone asked “What is this, life?”. Although that someone lives in a tribe of atheists, the next day the little human wanted to know “Who is God?”. In this spirit of puzzlement, curiosity, honest concern and experimentation the What-the-Fcuk series asks classic and current questions at the intersection of the real world and public as well as academic thought.

The Covid-crisis elicited three instant reactions within the intellectual and political realms and their overlaps since March and April. The first was that now would be the time to systematically rethink what really matters.

It was the time when it suddenly had to be, and was, decided what and who would have to be counted as “essential” or “system-relevant” – and who and what not. Disconcerting was the realization that self-declared elites were socially irrelevant, at least in relation to what mattered now, supposedly what really matters generally.

The long decade from 2007 to 2020 seems already to have been one in which the question of value(s) became pressing again.

When in 2015 the so-called “migration crisis” predictably entered Europe, the quick further rise of right-wing politics (called “populism”) indicated that a universal value-consensus was and is at least doubtful or even chimerical. The same became manifest when Fridays for Future gained followers and broad recognition in 2019, demanding to take seriously the 2015 Paris Agreement on mitigating climate change. It appeared that they could have some influence for a while, but with the new economic crisis the wind of change subsided instead of becoming a hurricane.

While commentators in “the West” kept on celebrating progress in aggregate indicators (GDP) shortly before the new crisis, academic commentators had for a decade proposed that individuals might be correct in diagnosing regress (see Agathonia Media). Whereas 2008 banks and bankers had been system-relevant, in 2020 those relevant were suddenly mainly women, the caring professions, and low-paid workers.

For short, ecological, social, political and economic problems are now bundled in what started as a public health-crisis.

As always, disagreements about the facts and values come together in the interpretation of the overall state of a society or the social world system (see Agathonia Media). In normal political times it is usually assumed that there is an overall agreement about both, that “we” and “our” society are good, the best, or at least on the right track. Therefore, there is nothing fundamental to be discussed. Intuitively, we would expect that this changes in times of trouble. However, what seems to happen frequently is that different groups paint either totally black or totally white sketches. A possible trouble is that such a sketch does not depict anything or, if it does, it is not recognizable to the other side.

The issue of value is tricky, in theory and practice, however.

Often it is not only unclear what values are in general but which those are that someone or some group shares. There are three types of potential value conflicts.

  1. A person might be unclear how to rank his or her ideas,
  2. two persons may have clashing value orders,
  3. or whole social groups or even countries might differ in these respects.

Our times are interesting or frightening because change is either about to come on any of these planes or it is necessary.

I think the multiple crises and the way it is dealt with in journalism, activism and academia brings up problems that were and are debated in two isolated traditions of thought, but usually not in public. Why? Because they are broad philosophical issues which are usually believed to be irrelevant to the real world.

One comes from old-fashioned economics and concerns (economic) value. The other comes from common sense and ethics and deals with (individual and social) values.

What the fcuk is value (and are values)?

The overall context is the human condition of the interconnection of individual aspirations (to achieve what one values) and social enablement and restrictions (what is socially valuable, disvaluable, and in fact historically possible).

It should be rather obvious that this is one of the most important battlefields in contemporary times. If the planet and humankind shall be rescued from climate change, then social values not only need to be agreed upon, but they will, either in the short-term or also in the long-run, also conflict with the values of individuals. A test case is the conflict between public health and individual interests within the corona-lockdown and other measures to deal with the pandemic.

To achieve the aim, first of all many people will need to adopt it, that is, adjust their value ranking or system. Put in a nutshell, it will “cost” them something. One way of framing differences in debates about (economic) growth and degrowth is to suggest that when the latter is realized, some most probably would have to live with less economic value. We can also read now and then that a social problem could be solved if value is transferred.

But what is (economic) value?

In a sense surprisingly, some heterodox economists are ahead of time or right on the spot in posing similar questions. The economist Mariana Mazzucato wants to bring the question of value back into economics, not for academic reasons, but because the answers would make a political difference.

For instance, Mazzucato wants to debate whether investment bankers are right

  • when they claim to be the most productive value creators in the world and, consequently, receive a much higher income than others;
  • when neoliberals claim that government does not create anything of value and, as a consequence, vote for austerity;
  • when the profits global internet firms make via marketing are included in GDP, which suggests that this creates, and doesn’t just extract, value, although the services they offer for free to people are not included in GDP; whether it is normal or a sign of something being wrong about financialized economies
  • when in the 2000s “the US arm of Ford made more money by selling loans for cars than for selling cars themselves;” or, finally,
  • when house owners take on a mortgage in times of a bubble and finance consumption with it, where does the value come from, if there is any?

Questions concerning inequality are another field where issues around value(s) are relevant.

Given that the annual real minimum wage in the US fell from $19,237 in 1975 to $13,000 in 2005 and 14,892 in 2016 (in 2015 US dollars), does this indicate that this income group did produce less value?

When the share of income of the highest 1 per cent in the US expanded from 9.4 % in 1980 to 22.6 % in 2007, does this show that this group contributes more value to society, that they are the “most valuable players” or what in German is called the “Leistungsträger”?

What about the 62 richest persons who possessed the same wealth as half of the word’s human population, 3.5 billion? Or the 4 individuals who have been claimed to possess more wealth than 50 % of the US-population in 2020? At times one reads that these are just 3.

At least to some, all of this suggests that something is wrong with the economy and its value production and distribution.

Within the economic realm, the question of value is combined with the question of productiveness. The latter is already an unclear word, because it can either mean that

  1. anything (of value) is produced at all, that it is
  2. produced with some degree of efficiency, or that
  3. an investment yields a monetary profit.

What is productive in the first sense (e.g. educating children) may not be so in the second sense, and what is productive in the third sense may not be so in the first two senses.

You will already smell that this is politically relevant and that any question of interest can be framed in the vocabulary of value.

In relation to economic growth Mazzucato writes:

The way we define and measure growth is of course affected by our theory of value.”

For example, until the 1970s what is now called “financial industries” were not included in the estimate of production and progress, namely GDP. If you reduce GDP in some countries in this respect, they may be almost 10 % “smaller,” having produced 10 % less “value.” If you enjoyed the last episode, you already know that we could go on here.

If you presuppose that ideas shape the world, then philosophical ideas about value in the long run shape society and nature.

The definition of value is always as much about politics, and about particular views on how society ought to be constructed, as it is about narrowly defined economics.”

Mazzucato does not trust the silence around the issue of value in public discourses and smells entrenched myths within socio-economic practice and economic analysis. But:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What the fcuk is value?

Of course, whole libraries have been written about this issue – before the question got lost finally somewhere in the 80’s. A very brief and crude, but not totally misleading, version of the story runs as follows.

When you think of value, some images that might come to mind to modern people is Dagobert Duck’s treasury filled with coins, a luxurious mansion owned by some billionaire or his huge yacht, or, more modestly, a car. Others might imagine a heap of gold.

Probably these are taken to be examples of value because it is presupposed that these different items could be converted into amounts of money and then exchanged for different types of stuff of the same value. Some might therefore be willing to say that there is nothing more valuable than cash.

The most common belief certainly is that such stuff is an example of value because the things themselves, houses and yachts (perhaps also money), simply are valuable. This makes it, in modern thinking and practice, in principle possible to exchange a mansion against a certain number of eggs of, allegedly, the same value.

Here value plays a role in exchanges that presuppose the existence of a market. In classical economics the question has been since the 18th century where value comes from or what “the sources” of value are.

The economist Steve Keen writes:

“A generic definition of value – one which encompasses the several schools of thought in economics which have used the term – is that value is the innate worth of a commodity, which determines the normal […] ratio at which two commodities exchange. One essential corollary of this concept is that value is unrelated to the subjective valuation which purchasers put upon a product.”

This means that how many eggs of mine you get for your luxurious mansion if we exchange them at their value does depend neither on my thinking about what is good about your house nor your thinking about how tasty the eggs are (and vice versa).

This also means that value does not originate in exchanges or trading them. It originates in the production of the thing. Value determines price, in this tradition.

However, Keen’s above is only a first tacit circumscription of what value is. It says that it is in the thing itself, not in the relation of the thing to other things, e.g. humans and their thoughts. But it is left open what that exactly is.

Karl Marx famously wrote in Capital that no chemical analysis of a commodity will reveal a substance called “value.” This can already be strange or even not understandable to common sense. Its stuff that has value, stupid!

Steve Keen

Use-value and exchange-value

One common distinction here is between the exchange-value (or value in exchange) of a thing and its use-value (or value in use).

Exchange-value” is another word for that “innate worth/value” above. It can either be represented by the amount of stuff of a different type you can get for it (the amount of eggs you get for your mansion) or, notoriously, an amount of money.

The use-value is what you can do with the thing. It is its objective function. What you can do with a commodity depends on its design and is objective. It does not depend on what you think about it.

Whether you use your oven to cook or not, you and anybody else could do it as long as it is not broken. Your smartphone has as many use-values as its hardware in combination with its software yields. However, this use-value has nothing to do with your estimations or feelings about those commodities while using them. But:

What is the “source” of exchange-value?

There are many answers. The 18th century Physiocrats believed that the source of value was the land used for farming in combination with the energy provided for free by the sun. Whatever happened in manufacturing was believed to be only a transformation of the form the value provided by agriculture took. The former did not add any value.

The workers in manufacturing consume the value incorporated in agricultural produce, but “no increase of wealth occurs in the production of industrial goods, since the value of these goods increases only by the cost of the subsistence which the workers consume,” wrote Francois Quesnay (1694-1774).

Francois Quesnay

In the end, the measure of the value of any commodity was supposed to be the amount of land needed to produce it, or the grain you need to feed all those who contribute to its production. Thus, the free gifts nature contributes as inputs to production were believed to be the sources of value and wealth, not even the people who work on farms.

Mariana Mazzucato writes about Francois Quesnay:

He pointed out that, unlike humans, Nature actually produces new things: grain out of small seeds for food, trees out of saplings and mineral ores from the earth from which houses and ships and machinery were built. By contrast, humans could not produce value. They could only transform it: bread from seeds, timber from wood, steel from iron.”

This seems to be old-fashioned stuff of a bygone age

But we now know more than ever that any production whatsoever has its energetic roots in the sun, and it might still be argued that a product embodies the more value the more energy is used to produce it (but not merely wasted).

Whereas one side of this philosophical coin says that the agricultural sector and mining create value, the rest of the economy does not and may be called “unproductive.” At that time of low productivity, it was for sure a plausible philosophy to believe that the amount of value in society could be increased as long as land-use could be increased.

1776 was the year in which the first steam engine was installed and in which Adam Smith (1723-1790) proposed a labour theory of value. The source of value is not the amount of land owned in production, but the amount of labour commanded in production.

Since at the time usually men were working within industries, it is by implication also said who does not produce value, for instance, as feminists point out, the women in Smiths household who served him meals and made his writing of The Wealth of Nations possible.

Adam Smith

More generally, in Smiths view all the services, that is, every action or work that does not result in a material product, do not create value.

This is not implausible for that time. The idea is that a service worker needs to be fed and clothed by the work others do. In this sense, (s)he does not produce value, but merely consumes the surplus produced by others who produce more than they themselves consume. Smith also called the king and the army “unproductive labourers.”

David Ricardo (1772-1823) stepped into Smith’s boots half a century later:

“The value of a commodity, or the quantity of any other commodity for which it will exchange, depends on the relative quantity of labour which is necessary for its production.”

He added that the value of a commodity needed to be determined not only by the labour actively used, but also that labour which is incorporated within the tools necessary in production. He especially focused on the unproductivity of governments, which extract value via taxation but supposedly produce none.

David Ricardo

An interesting consequence of this overall philosophy is the following:

If you believe that the world is better the more value is to be found in it, then your policy will be to maximize labour. Why? Because this is the only possibility to achieve that, given that there are no other sources of value than hours of work, and only work that ends up in a material product.

Surplus Value and the Critique of Capitalism I

Finally, the most prominent proponent of a labour theory of value was, allegedly, Karl Marx (1818-1883).

Meanwhile, it had become obvious in the 19th century that those who provide the labour that produces value according to the philosophies of the day get relatively little out of the whole process in the form of wages in comparison with the owners of the means of production, the capitalists.

Marx’ puzzle was not merely the source of value. That he took from Smith and Ricardo. His puzzle was what the source of surplus value was.

If workers are paid at their value, and their value was determined either by their subsistence wage or the minimum wage, that is, the aggregate value of all the commodities that nourish, clothe and house them (and which they are said to “embody”), where do profits come from that go into the pockets of the bourgeoisie?

The surplus value is nothing but the difference between the value embodied in a labourer and what the labourer adds in production, his process of work. The solution to the puzzle was that the labourer gets paid for his labour power, his capacity to work. But this is not what he actually does. What he actually does is working, creatively transforming his caloric energy via putting to use “nerve, muscle and brain” (Marx), and his overall skills, for a certain number of hours to create new commodities for the capitalist that have value, more value than was fed into the production process.

In slightly different Marxian terms: The capitalist pays the exchange-value of the labourer’s capacity to labour, but receives the use-value of the labourer, his actual work.

For short, (s)he may work 5 hours per day to reproduce the value of his or her labour power. But if (s)he works for 10 hours, then (s)he puts 5 hours of value into the pockets of the capitalists or, as we call them today, the entrepreneurs, as long as the latter manages to sell the product on the market and to “realize” its value.

This is one side of the coin. The other side states what does not produce value. In this case, these are first of all remarkably all the smoking machines in the production process.

Marx claimed that machines would, in contrast to workers, transfer only their exchange-value, their cost, onto what is produced, whereas the worker adds new value via his use-value. However, the “production boundary,” which separates productive from unproductive parts of society, was drawn in more complex terms in Marx’ economics. Service jobs can also be productive if they happen within the overall capitalist production process.

However, Marx wanted to understand capitalism as it is first. But then he wanted to criticize it.

Karl Marx

One way to criticize it with Marx’ theory was to state that workers don’t get the value they deserve. They are exploited. The radical treatment of this issues is social revolution, getting control of the means of production and the whole value produced. The conservative (or social democratic, or union) way is to demand a bigger share of the cake.

In the conservative views, the world is the better the more labour can be absorbed by capitalist production to create value. That’s why social democrats etc. are never against growth and never strictly oppose interests of capitalists.

However, in Marx’ reconstruction of capitalist reality, it is not any labour-time that creates value in a fully capitalist economy, but labour brought to use at the historical level of productivity. Put differently, wasting time, or not using technology in a competitive market economy, does not increase value, although it may put workers at work.

As we have now seen, the classical theories are by and large objective philosophies of value. In current thinking they are marginal or irrelevant. A different philosophy reigns.

What is “neo” within the neoclassics in relation to the classics?

Mariana Mazzucato summarises the novelty that also already germinated in the late 19th century in the following way:

First, it is based on the notions of utility and scarcity and is subjective: the value of things is measured by their usefulness to the consumer. There is, therefore, no ‘objective’ standard of value, since utility may vary between individuals and at different times. Second, this utility decreases as the amount of a thing that is held or consumed increases.”

The last point also means that the value decreases. Because value is equated with utility, the thing is called “utility theory of value.” Here value is relative to subjective experiences of consumers at a given time, not “innate.” It is not the commodity in itself that has a value.

If you eat the first piece of chocolate cake, your subjective utility is supposed to be greater than when you eat a second and a third one etc. Those who like beer may wonder whether this is true.  But at least at some point utility will according to these assumptions decrease, and so does the value.

Because you supposedly subjectively estimate it more, also scarce things provide you with more “utility” and make the thing you want to consume more valuable. “One Mars Bar on desert island can give you more happiness than any number of bars bought from your corner shop,” writes Mazzucato This also shows that utility here is not the same as use-value above.

Ask yourself what, if anything, this has to do with capitalist economies.

Why is water cheap and diamonds expensive? The utility theory could state that diamonds are scarce and subjectively more util (to those who can afford them). Why do some people get more than others for what they do? Because their skills are scarcer than those of others, not, for instance, because employers expropriate the surplus employees produce according to a labour theory of value or CEOs use their position to fill their own pockets. If CEOs earn 400 times as much as “normal” workers, then this reflects their value, according to this philosophy. And when financial services gain profits, this is because they provide utility (= value) to their customers, which can be inferred from the prices they are willing to pay. The higher the price, the higher the value. Price is the measure of value, not the amount of effort (or work) needed to produce something.

Follow the link to the source.

Within the framework of this philosophy, you will have the more value in the world the more items are subjectively valued and, in the end, traded on markets. Accordingly, if you wish the world to host more value, you will have to expand market relations. If you read the last episode on GDP (see Agathonia Media), you will recognize that this philosophy, if any, lies behind our society’s measure of value and wealth.

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Value-Fictionism and the Critique of Capitalism II

This neoclassical view is subjective. However, also in the Marxian tradition we find a social version of something similar. And this is arguably the authentic view of Marx, although it is often not recognized.

His point was not at all to state that labour really is the source of the real value of things and that workers should just get their fair share. It was to state that value is a social fiction that should not guide overall societal production, similar to the belief that the eucharist bread is the body of Christ.

That commodities have a value is a belief shared without notice by those who have been raised and interact in systems of capitalist production. It is an “objective form of thought” (“objektive Gedankenform”), that is, one that is socially shared in an historical epoch such that things appear as if the thought would represent something real.

If value is a fiction, the same holds for the idea that work is a value-creator or even the only one.

Remember Marx’ thesis that no chemical analysis will ever show a grain of value in a commodity such as a smartphone. Marx’ point was that as soon as people regularly exchange commodities on the market, they believe that they exchange them at their value, and that “abstract labour” becomes its measure.

This is strange at first sight because luxurious mansions and eggs are qualitatively totally different things. What is it that they have in common, which can also be expressed in numbers or amounts of money?

To compare them or even to weigh their “value,” they need to be made identical in one respect. Otherwise you compare oranges and apples. But you can really compare oranges and apples as soon as they have become commodities produced to be traded on markets.

Marx thought that the identical thing cannot even be work, because “work” is just a name for innumerable qualitatively totally different activities, for instance, constructing a building and raising hens, planting trees or harvesting oranges. What do these different activities, then, have in common?

What is needed to compare two commodities is to abstract from their specific use-value and thereby also from all the differences in the process of actual (or “concrete”) work that create them.

Therefore, Marx claimed that not “concrete labour,” but “abstract labour” is the source of (supposed) value in capitalism. “Abstract labour” is nothing else than what all human productive activities have in common (across cultures and historical epochs), to make use of “nerv, muscle and brain.”

However, such work does not exist as a socially relevant activity in other cultures according to Marx. To make a long story short, it is the social relations of isolated producers of privately owned commodities for exchange which appear as if they were properties of things, namely their “value.” Marx called this the “fetishism” of the commodity.

It is well known among Marxist, but not anywhere else, that almost trivially commodities are in capitalism not produced because of their use-value for consumers (or the “utility” consumers may enjoy), but because they are bearers of (fictive) value that needs to be realized on the market so that its (fictive) value is converted into cash.

The colloquial way of expressing this, without engaging in philosophies of value, is to say that stuff needs to yield profits.

What happens in capitalism when useful stuff cannot be sold? It is destroyed. Recently in Germany people were again convicted for “stealing” foodstuff that a supermarket had deposited in a dumpster. And in fact, hardly anybody sees something strange in the practice of destroying, for instance, tons of useful stuff coming from China to Europe that was produced by breaching patents.

Noteworthy, if value is not “innate” at all, somehow “transferred” to the commodity in a process of work, but a social fiction, then there may be many reasons to make people engage in something called “work” or not called “work,” but it is not that they create value. There is nothing like that. A practice that engages in something like that is, judged from this philosophical perspective, irrational, although nobody notices.

In this critical perspective, capitalism has to be overthrown by an economic system that only and solely produces stuff to satisfy the needs of the people. Capitalist productions is one of the most absurd things that ever happened in human history from within this philosophy. It is done in order to produce and amass something called “value” without any reference to the needs of people and, in the end, with the destruction of the planet as a collateral consequence.

The earth is sacrificed for “value”-creation. One side of this is also that people are socially forced to work permanently and to create the social fiction of “value” in order to survive, because they don’t get access to things (supposedly) having value without producing something themselves. Remember, they have to make good the value they are believed to embody by having consumed something.

This all sounds strange, of course, in the ears of many because within normality (see Agathonia Media) “value” is an altogether positive term.

Now we are ready to move from economics to ethics, but only one of a thousand views, namely emergentist materialism by the physicist-philosopher Mario Bunge (see for some context Agathonia Media). The ethic is called Agathonism.

Mario Bunge (1919-2020)

What the fcuk are values?

Here the problem is not what the source of the value of a commodity is. The overall problem is what is good and right or a moral action.

The huge difference to the views above is that in this philosophy values are grounded in the objective as well as the subjective needs of living organisms, especially humans-in-society. Needs of concrete humans are “the sources” of values of things, not the effort needed to produce them or their purely subjective evaluation as being of “utility.”

“[W]hatever is valuable is so for some organism in certain states.”

In this regard, it is either a mistake to talk of “innate worth” of a commodity or it is one-sided. But this philosophy combines a view of use-value with actual needs as the double-root of value.

A thing (or commodity, or anything whatsoever) is valuable if its features are objectively such that it would satisfy some need of a human being that is in a specific state. To make things a little more complicated:

a is valuable in respect b for organism c in circumstance d.”

If you are in the state of hunger, a cake is valuable relative to this objective need. But if you are not in the state of hunger but of thirst, then water is valuable to you at this instant. Mother’s milk is valuable and good for a baby, but not a hamburger. If you are lactose-intolerant, you will eschew milk because it is not good for you. To recover from illness is valuable because health is, and everything that is helpful to regain health is valuable in this respect at the time of illness.

Values in Agathonism (Follow the link to the source.)

Put more generally, values are here partitioned into biological values and social values.

What is necessary to stay alive and to be or to stay in good health is a basic human need and of basic value in these respects. What satisfied a legitimate want of a person in a given society, that is one that does not hinder some other person in satisfying his basic needs, is of tertiary value in comparison with life and health.

You can also value your mansion or your pool that had been built by slaves, but these are pseudo-values in the sense that they neither satisfy basic needs nor legitimate wants if they hinder someone else in satisfying their basic needs, what is clearly true in the case of the slaves but also often in that of the exploited precariat.

Some basic human needs. (Follow the link to the source.)

A person is said to be in a state of well-being when all of his or her basic needs are satisfied.

And this is not believed to be so according to idiosyncratic whim, but objectively true. The sciences can tell is to some degree what is valuable, because it is conducive to the satisfaction of some need.

A person is said to be reasonable happy if (s)he moves beyond basic needs and can realize his/her legitimate wants as well or feels that (s)he has the prospect of doing so.

Furthermore, social systems (corporations, cities, nations, federations, the world-system) are of value as long and to the degree to which they help to satisfy needs of their members. If they don’t do so or they are even disvaluable because they negatively influence the satisfaction of needs, it is time to dismantle them.

However, as we already noted, one source of value-conflict is “that what is valuable to a society as a whole may not be valuable to all of its members.”

For example, an intact ecosystem at present or in the future is valuable to today’s activists but not the current business lobby, although the former are right in claiming that any future human will most probably be affected if we keep on as we do. There can also be cross-national or cross-cultural value-conflicts because we know that different value-systems exist. There are different opinions about what counts as a legitimate want in different societies, and there may even be disagreements about what is necessary for health and survival.

Needs and their relation to values in Agathonism. (Follow the link to the source.)

What can we learn from this, if anything? Is there an integrative story?

Arguably, although such investigations shall result in clarity, at times we end up with more confusion or the question what exactly all this has to do with reality. I admit not to have a quick story to disentangle the threads here. For one thing, we would need to also consult anthropologists about values in different cultures and psychologists and sociologists about ours. Or we would need to investigate the value hierarchies of political parties or actors.

However, if we want to talk about values, it would often be nice to know more exactly what we are talking about and what its political consequences are. Often some narrow view of economic value is simply mistaken for a moral view. And when politicians invoke values the reason is often nothing else than to close the ranks by faking consensus and clarity.

If we take some of Mazzucato’s questions, we can quickly see some political implications of philosophies of value. When bankers claim that they are value creators, this is false in any labour theory of economic value and anything similar to the Physiocratic land theory of value, which is still relevant as soon as we consider that our food is produced there. If we take an ethical theory of value and ours above, we can state that they at best produce tertiary psychological values for their customers.

When neoliberals claim that governments don’t produce value, this is correct according to a labour theory of value (if we restrict them to the production of material things), but in an ethical or broader sense they provide millions of people with what is valuable in satisfying basic, secondary and tertiary needs, from basic food to education and health care, public transport, libraries, parks, and what have you.

Internet platforms that make profits through marketing are of value to those who place adds there in order to sell their products although they themselves produce no material product, and they are of value to their customers in making communication easy. Such companies are valuable on the stock markets because of the subjective beliefs of share-holders, their expectations of the future, which fits the neoclassical philosophy.

Pharmaceutics are valuable as far as they cure diseases, not because companies with a monopoly via patents charge excessive prices for them while the production costs are minimal and the research has been funded mostly by governments.

As we might have seen here, one common mistake is, I take it, to talk about value as such and not about values for something or someone. Nothing is valuable in itself. In this regard the neoclassicals are correct.

If we admit this, we can also take into account that not only humans have needs which make something valuable in relation to it, but also animals. And not only what is produced by humans is valuable for humans, but also, trivially, the “free gifts of nature,” as Marx called them. The other side of the value-coin is what harms (or is disvaluable) or what destructs valuable things, for instance that ecological breakdown is bad for all living beings.

A shift from some version of purely economic views of value to more complex views can be spotted among heterodox economists. Kate Raworth’s “Doughnut” is a complex structure of values that need to be satisfied in a good future social order. We already encountered it in the last episode (see Agathonia Media).

While the other value philosophies emerged in times in which they had some historical legitimacy and also political or ideological primacy, now is the time for something more complex. The “Doughnut” encompasses basic needs of humans but also values of other inhabitants of the biosphere. It doesn’t illustrate them as a hierarchy but as of equal importance within the ring of its “social foundations”, i.e. water, food, income, health, education, income and work, peace and justice, political voice, social equity, gender equality, housing and social networks, and the “ecological ceiling.”

The Doughnut from Kate Raworth’s „Doughnut Economics.“ Follow the link above to the source.

Mazzucato writes:

The concept of value must once again find its rightful place at the centre of economic thinking. More fulfilling jobs, less pollution, better care, more equal pay – what sort of economy do we want?

Mazzucato herself does not state a philosophy of value in her great book The Value of Everything. However, if we buy this, the consequence probably should be that there is nothing like economic value as such in the absence of other moral or social values.

This admission might constitute the politics of value for the future.

The radical Marx was right in this respect that (economic) value is a fiction. Another consequence is simply that the times in which the maximization of “value” via “work” was a value in itself are over.

However, another option is that we simply talk here about two different and incompatible concepts of value that we should not compare or bring in contact with each other at all. This is probably what some economists would claim.

We now know, or should know, that the project of making use of as much human labour as possible and to run as many machines as possible inside and outside of production processes to produce value (and economic “growth”) did destruct the planet within a timeframe of minimally 50 years or maximally 200.

However, Smith, Ricardo and Marx were, of course, also basically correct in seeing that the amount of effort needed to produce useful stuff is of importance as long has humans produce anything at all. If these are only machines, as within the eutopia of Fully Automated Luxury Communism (see Agathonia Media), then still machines need energy to do anything. Most obviously, contrary to labour theories of value, machines produce “value” as long as they produce things which are useful in human actions and, as was dreamed of across the centuries until we came along, take the burden of work from us humans so that we can do something else.

However, the labour theory of value is insignificant, whereas the real-world utility theory is disastrous, in those areas where, as David Graeber stressed, not things are produced but people, as in all sorts of caring activities or services. This would be the point to focus on the truism that the real paradigm shift would lie in the recognition that not things but people are especially valuable to fellow humans, or what really or “essentially” matters. That this is usually not so on a societal or political level the lockdowns might have shown by exhibiting who and what is “system-relevant.” As I realized again recently also within the lockdown, in Germany newly born citizens are greeted by the sovereign state about a week after their birth – by sending them their tax identification number.

In a reasonable society, things with use-values would be produced to satisfy the needs of concrete persons in accord with a hierarchy of values democratically established and permanently reviewed. This would be the whole simple story.

The abysmal state of much of our common sense might be inferred from the fact that many or most people would find it more appalling if somebody would intentionally burn a huge suitcase of cash rather than a container of food or a hectare of a forest, because with the former you could buy the latter many times.

Daniel Plenge

Next episodes:

Work, Inequality, Planning, The Financial System

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