Substitutes and Free Kicks

I have been preoccupied recently with a remark made in a footnote of an article on unpaid labour by poor women in India. In her essay ‘Revisiting the Domestic-Labour Debate: An Indian Perspective’, published in Historical Materialism (19.3, 2011), Rohini Hensman writes, ‘if it is possible to substitute one person for another in some activity, it is a process of production, while if that is not possible, it is a process of individual consumption’. (p.6) The idea of substitutability and non-substitutability is very interesting in the context of the distinction between production and consumption, but it does not align in the way that Hensman suggests.

‘Individual consumption’ might not just be contrasted with production, it might also be linked to ‘individual production’. That is, if certain productive practices are engaged with for their own good, their intrinsic value, and so on, then it is not possible to substitute one individual for another in the production process. Artistic production serves as an example of a kind of production in which producers cannot be substituted and in which the process of production is a lived experience, not merely a means to an end. I don’t want to make art out to be a special case, here. Rather, art can show us that production is not as open to substitution as Hensman assumes.

The distinction between the substitutable and the unsubstitutable corresponds, roughly, to the distinction made by Marx between the concrete and the abstract. Abstract labour is exchangeable, while concrete labour is not. Every purchase of wage-labour regards labour as abstract, even though the actual process of the labourer’s work must contain concrete qualities that are not reducible to the abstract value of labour, namely its cost on the labour market. Hensman appears to assume that all production is abstract and all consumption is concrete. This is wrong, but if we fold Marx’s distinction between abstract labour and concrete labour into the distinction between substitutability and nonsubstitutability, then we can derive some interesting results.

Concrete labour is unsubstitutable insofar as each individual producer had his or her own way of doing something. Standardization, automation, mechanization and Taylorism are some of the ways that industrial capitalism has attempted to eliminate concrete labour from commodity production. Abstract labour, therefore, is not only abstract insofar as it can be costed, measured and exchanged, but also insofar as it can be regimented, managed, made routine and repetitive. Following Marx, we might say that there is aformal abstraction of labour (its exchangeability), and a real abstraction of labour (its physical reduction to simple predetermined procedures). But, despite this enormous historical effort, concrete labour persists. Teachers, for instance, might be exchangeable (and therefore economically substitutable) but everyone know that the bureaucratization of education has failed to eliminate individual differences between teachers from impacting on the quality of their work. Like in art, we talk about teachers having their own individual style, methods, philosophies, strengths and weaknesses. The best way of understanding what this list of attributes is getting at, from a Marxist point of view, is the presence of particularity and individual qualities in concrete labour. And, to fold this back into Hensman’s distinction, concrete labour is unsubstitutable.

What Hensman’s distinction also points to is the possibility of separating ‘abstract consumption’ from ‘concrete consumption’. Rather than assuming, as she does, that all consumption is individual and unsubstitutable, we can identify two kinds of consumption. Purchasing a commodity and owning it, we might say, is a form of consumption that is utterly abstract and perfectly substitutable. In fact, from the point of view of the sellers of commodities, all consumption is substitutable. This is because the conversion of commodity-capital into money-capital is completed by the sale to any consumer, and to any possible act of consumption. The vendor does not care about the qualities of the act of consumption. If somebody buys boxes of fruit to be used for a juggling workshop rather than to be eaten, the greengrocer is indifferent. And this indifference is a sign of abstract, substitutable consumption. But from the point of view of the jugglers, or hungry schoolchildren who eat the fruit at break time, the consumption of the fruit is not substitutable and not abstract.

But this is not the case for all consumption. Some consumption is substitutable from the point of view of consumers themselves. Someone who collects retro cars, but keeps them in storage, consumes in the abstract, as does someone who owns a second home that they never occupy. Their consumption of these products is formal, not real in the fullest sense, and is therefore quite substitutable. We can use another of Marx’s oppositions to shed further light on the character of the difference. Marx distinguishes between living labour and dead labour. Since all value derives from labour, including raw materials and machinery which are the products of previous efforts of labour, Marx speaks of how living labour is combined with dead labour to produce new value. It seems to me we can distinguish between living consumption and dead consumption, too. Living consumption is the active experience of consumption, while dead consumption, such as ownership, is the kind of consumption that asks nothing of the consumer but an act of exchange.

Hensman’s distinction between substitutable production and unsubstitutable consumption can also benefit from being folded in with Marx’s distinction between exchange-value and use-value. For Weber neither a unity of value nor a hierarchy of value spheres is possible. Value, for Weber, consists of six ‘value spheres’, namely, religion, economics, politics, aesthetics, the erotic, and intellectualism. “Weber’s conception of value spheres does not admit the possibility of a fundamental value from which all value positions can be derived or a single value sphere to which all others can be subordinated.” (Guy Oakes, ‘Max Weber on Value Rationality and Value Spheres’, Journal Of Classical Sociology Vol 3(1), p.29.) There is something extremely important in Weber’s insistence on tying the content of value to actual practices, institutions and discourses, but his ‘spheres of value’ are a relativistic response to the variety of values and value-systems. Marx divides value differently. His is a distinction internal to value itself – he divides value itself into two, rather than dividing up the world of things we value or the social worlds in which value is ascribed. Exchange-value refers to prices, while use-values refer to every other kind of value. This is why there is no third kind of value: whatever value you can think of, if it is not exchange-value, it is use-value. Exchange-value is the value that derives from the marketplace, and reduces all differences to the same, substitutable, homogeneous measure, money. Use-value, on the contrary, refers to the heterogeneous values that we individually and collectively put onto things and processes.

So, we can see the distinction between exchange-value and use-value as drawn along the division between the exchangeable and the particular, the abstract and the concrete, the homogeneous and the heterogeneous, and the substitutable and the unsubstitutable. When Marx discusses exchange-value and use-value he refers both to the value placed on a product by consumers and the value placed on it by its producer. What he points out, though, is that capitalist commodity producers have no use-value for the products they produce. Their relationship to the commodity is entirely determined by exchange-value. Their purchase of raw materials, machinery and labour is also determined entirely by exchange-value. But consumers generally (is the majority who do not trade for profits but buy commodities that we want, need or enjoy), might sell our labour for wages (determined by exchange-value) but make purchases for their use-value. Producing for exchange-value is production in the abstract and is substitutable, while consuming the means of production by capitalists is likewise consumption in the abstract. However, the concrete consumption of use-values by the majority is matched with the production of use-values (making things and doing things for their own good), and the use-value of production (making things and doing things for the good of the act of making and the process of doing).

The distinction between the substitutable and the unsubstitutable is vital, but it does not correspond to the distinction between production and consumption.