As Featured in Belonging Again (Part II)

The Situation of Capital (Part 3)

O.G. Rose
35 min readFeb 10, 2024

Considering Value-Form in Labor and as Situation

Photo by Imani Bahati


At this point of our investigation, we should review some of the key passages in the start of Capital, to help us better understand the relationship and stakes between “Labor Theory” and “Value-Form Theory,” and why ultimately I personally hope to defend “Value-Form,” not because I so much disagree with “Labor Theory” as “practically the case” within certain historic forms of Capitalism, but because I think “Value-Form” helps see how Capitalism can shift through history, why Marx is sociological valuable, and why Marx can be brought into conversation with psychoanalysis and questions of desire and drive more broadly. Furthermore, if we lose sight of Value-Form, it becomes easy to make the mistake through a “Labor Theory” of believing that value comes from labor noncontingently, which means we can never abolish labor without abolishing value, which I think can make it difficult for proletariat to end up abolishing itself. An emphasis on “labor” helps us think a negation of Capital, but not so much “a negation of the negation”; for that second step, we need to understand the “Value-Form,” by which I mean the ever-present reality of “value” and “valuation,” which follows from the human need to make decisions, to define for themselves what they believe is “good,” to manifest desire and “libido,” and so on. Yes, this would mean “value” doesn’t exist only in Capitalism, which some might resist (understandably), but I think it is important to defend something at least “like value” that Capitalism works precisely because it can “channel” and “capture.” If this is not realized, we might focus on “escaping ‘value’ in Capital” without at the same time developing the skills and abilities to handle “choosing values” for ourselves, which is existentially difficult, and we find possible in a Child (Nietzsche). In my view, if we erase “value as found in Capital,” but don’t develop our capacities “for” (alternative) values, then it is only a matter of time before we create something again “like value found in Capital,” precisely to avoid the anxiety of lacking meditation for our encounters with others. That, or when faced with a loss of “social intelligibility” or “grounds for social relation,” we might retreat into isolation (the risk and pain of “The Real” is just too great).

Personally, I think “value” more generally is a human reality, and that it will always “formulate (back)” where humans are left to their own devices (similar to “hierarchy” following Louis Dumont and “class division” following Tocqueville). Under Capitalism, the human reality of “value” is naturally “captured” (Deleuze) by “the logic of Capital,” both in that libido comes to enjoy the “understanding” which prices and “a sense of value” can provide, training us into habits of “compression” and then “flatting” (see “Section V.7B (‘The Problem of Scale (Part 1)’),” and in that labor becomes the main way we quantify value under Capitalism, which means we come to treat value as “practically” a result of labor, and so we don’t have to confront “value” as a naked, metaphysical abstraction that we are capable of creating and yet struggle to understand (“apophatic lack,” “Love(craft),” etc.). Facing “Pure Value” or “Abstract Value” can be anxiety-producing (as is facing “Abstract Freedom” from a place of Determination, as discussed at the start of Elements of the Philosophy of Right by Hegel), and Capital, through “labor as quantification” and “compression-to-flattening,” can help us avoid that anxiety (as needed so that we might become Children and incubate Rhetoric). This is both the glory of Capital, and the grounds of its great danger (and please note that, following the work of Mary Douglas in How Institutions Thinks, something like “Capital-value” seems necessary for society to be intelligible and authoritative to us).

The question of the relation between Vale-Form Theory and Labor Theory might have a lot to do with the question on if “value” is everywhere throughout human history, or if “value” is a sociopolitical and economic reality unique to Capitalism. Certainly, “value as Capital” is unique, as is also unique the effectiveness of “labor” as a means to quantify labor, but does that mean the value-form itself is only found in Capitalism? I think it has a lot to do with what we mean by the word “value,” which classically has a relation with “virtue,” say in Aristotle and Plato (as I understand it). As discussed in “The Value Isn’t the Utility” by O.G. Rose, there is a history of “Value Ethics” which is discussed with “Virtue Ethics,” and I think Marx might be playing on the word “value” when he uses it in Capital to discuss the unique way the economy generates ethics and morality around commerce, exchange, and labor. Aristotle understood that decision-making required “a claim of the good,” and so to speak of decision-making without ethics and values was impossible. Ethics as law lessened decision-making, yes, but not everything could be a matter of law, and so there was much which citizens would have to decide for themselves relative to their own values and “senses of the good.” This suggests “the value-form” is always present in human civilization, but under Capitalism that value-form comes to be primarily quantified according to labor. We then no longer have to worry so much about making our decisions according to our own values, which can cause “existential anxiety” without any guarantee of increasing “social intelligibility.”

On this point we might glimpse why it is that Capital seems very similar to religion, for religion as also able to provide “givens” that provide “values” and direction for our choices without being the same as “State law” (even if the categories could overlap). Even if we all disagreed on what Jesus meant in a certain parable, the fact we all “orbit” that parable with our interpretations and disagreements allow us to have an in-common value of that very parable, even if we do not equally value the different interpretations. In this way, it was possible for there to be more “social intelligibility” across diversity — “value-under-Capital” does something similar. We might not all agrees that a given pair of shoes is worth $50 or that the pair is valuable, but we can all agree it is worth something in some category of value (use-value, exchange-value, labor-value…). In this way, though there is disagreement and variety, there is also at the same time a kind of unity (a “many becomes one,” as all nations must figure out to some degree to accomplish). And since Jesus was God, there was authority and motivation to care about the Bible; likewise, since Capitalism determines social and economic standing and wellbeing, there is authority and motivation to care about Capital. There is force and organization, but not force and organization in the same way as exhibited by force, law, and the State.

Labor as “value-quantifier” (as I’ll discuss in contrast with “value-form”) becomes a way to tell us “right and wrong” that is like law without being law (such is the quality of “givens”). It helps me decide what I should value that others will also find valuable, and in that way I can both have the comfort that I won’t readily be negatively judged for my values (as defined by Capital, for they are socially validated, supported, and facilitated), and I can have comfort in knowing that I might possible engage in “exchange” and relation with others on terms we both mutually share. There is a comfort in knowing the world and others can be intelligible to me, as there is a comfort in knowing there are “values” available to me that I don’t have to think too hard about. Yes, there is also an oppression in this comfort (such is “the tradeoff of givens”), but this oppression is only that the majority of people will learn to live with (while those more creative and Liberal might oppose them). In this way, value-as-Capital comes to function religiously and metaphysically even without religion, hence why Capital is unique in our consideration. Again, while other religious “givens” quickly and greatly lose their power with Pluralism and Globalism, Capital is much more resilient (as we discussed with Žižek and “Capital as fetish”), both for good and for bad, but perhaps more probabilistically for bad because now it is much more likely that “the compression” of Capital will become a (permanent) “flattening.” And so is our challenge and need to “spread Childhood”…

Anyway, there is argument that “value” (as in “value-as-form” or “value-form”) is everywhere and always, and that Capitalism simply has us (get into the habit to) “deposit” this value-form in labor, to the point where we can hardly think of value as anything beyond the ways in which it is manifest and quantified by labor. I do think it’s critical to note that Marx is often discussing value as something “put in” labor, and labor as something that “holds” or “quantifies” value; Marx writes it in different ways (with my emphasis added to all):

1. ‘Use-values become a reality only by use or consumption; they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth. In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange value.’²⁸

2. ‘All that these things now tell us is that human labour power has been expended in their production, that human labour is embodied in them. When looked at as crystals of this social substance, common to them all, they are — values.’²⁹

3. ‘Commodities, therefore, in which equal quantities of labour are embodied, or which can be produced in the same time, have the same value.’³⁰

“Depositories,” “expressions,” “crystals,” “embodiments” — this is not readily the language of a direct “labor is value,” but something complex and dynamic. Yes, labor is what deposits value in products, why products can express value, and so on, but none of this dynamic process is necessarily portrayed in simply saying “value is labor,” for this seems to primarily mean “labor is what makes value quantifiable and there to be expressed,” but is that the same as saying “labor creates value,” which is to say only in “labor” (which please note is only definable from “work” in the social situation of Capitalism) can “value” exist? Indeed, that seems to be the question.

It seems to me that, following Marx, value-form is “deposited” into “labor” (by “labor” — a double move), and then “labor” becomes the basis for “an abstract idea (of labor)” (which contributes to an ‘unsubstantial reality’ shared by all products).³¹ But this would suggest the value-form is “always already”; otherwise, it would not be “there” for labor to “take and deposit it” into products (of labor). Yes, because labor is “practically” value under Capital, it is then the case that generally “value practically becomes utility” (as warned against in “The Value Isn’t the Utility” by O.G. Rose), and likewise “value practically becomes labor” — but, again, must it? On this question, perhaps the entire debate upon “Value-Form Theory” and “Labor Theory” hinges, and I think we can fairly say:

A. If value only exists in Capitalism, then “The Labor Theory of Value” is correct.

B. If value always exists, in and outside of Capitalism, wherever there are humans, then “The Value-Form Theory” can be thought with “The Labor Theory of Value.”

Different people will come down on different sides with different emphasizes (though I don’t think the disagreements need be harsh). In my view, if the value-form didn’t exist outside of Capitalism, there wouldn’t be an innate human reality which Capitalism could “capture” and convince us to “deposit” into labor (to then “due our valuation for us,” unlike a Child). We can quantify values thanks to labor, and this is a quantification which the society and others will easily understand and accept: we don’t so much have to explain ourselves and our values, an act which can make us doubt ourselves and our choices. We must make choices, which means we must express our freedom, and that is terribly difficult to do in the presence of Others — hence why we seek a “Big Other” like Capital (to “help us escape freedom” via measurement, quantification…that which makes “the infinite” more like a “totality,” to allude to Levinas). Labor is not essential to the value-form, just “practically essential” to value under Capitalism (as it must be for us to experience it as authoritative and “socially valid”). Ultimately, I would argue that the value-form is why we are in danger of “capture” but also our means for escape if we could treat the value-form like a Child. We must play with fire to blaze a path to freedom which could burn us alive.

Admittedly, I might be assuming that Marx believed there was a difference between value-form and value-quantity (as we’ll elaborate on), based simply on the conviction that Marx knew humans valued things just in being humans: humans didn’t only value things within Capitalism. Still, it could be argued that the word “value” is not the best way to describe “the innate human capacity and tendency” which Capitalism “captures” (as “valuation”), and that instead a different term like “care,” “love,” “desire,” etc. is needed. Is “valuation” innate, or is something else like “valuation” a better term? This I’m honestly not sure about, because I see advantages to keeping the word “value” (despite how much it is colored by markets), mainly because it is easier for most people outside of philosophy to recognize the term, as I see advantages to using an entirely new term in order to avoid previous connotations and associations (as Mikey Downes has noted could be needed). I might focus on this question later on, but it might come down to “a phenomenology of value” and asking, “What is it like to find something valuable?” Is it notably different from “finding something beautiful” or “falling in love?” These are different in intensity, yes, but are these different in essence? Perhaps, and again I’m not sure, but these might be the kinds of questions we have to pursue; for now, I will continue to use the term “value” (though if this is a mistake I ask for forgiveness).

Yes, under Capitalism, the main way humans quantify value is with labor, and because we can “enjoy” the feeling of understanding this quantification provides us, we can naturally come to treat “the quantification of value” as if “the value-form itself” (again as discussed in “Section V.7B (‘The Problem of Scale (Part 1)’),” which is a mistake Capitalism seems like it also wants to train us into doing, precisely to grow the economy, stimulate demand, etc. But Capitalism doesn’t create the (essential) value-form through labor; rather, the value-form exists wherever humans exist, and Capitalism just comes to “anchor” or “deposit” value in labor (perhaps “exclusively” in Marx’s day, before new forms of Capitalism like what we have today, where “value is attention, content, status, etc.”). For humans to consider “the value-form” abstractly and without a reference (or way to “embody it in a socially-validated way”) is anxiety-producing and something very difficult to do, and so in Capitalism providing a way to more easily quantify value-form in and through labor, Capitalism provides an “existential escape” from considering value directly (as “form”) in a manner for which we are responsible.

This all said, we will have to soon discuss “value-as-form” (which is “the idea of value as such”) and “value-formed-in-labor,” and say that “the value is formulated as labor” in Capitalism, in labor being what quantifies it, while “the value-as-form” is not reducible to labor but is rather an essential reality of human beings (in humans having desire, libido, having to make choices as finite, etc.). This is admittedly all very strange, but what might help us approach the issue is to ask, “Is the number 2 a quantity or a form?” It’s obviously a quantity, right? It seems that way, as “value” seems like it obviously must be a quantity, but “the number 2” itself is just a form; it is not a quantity until it is applied to something (like “2 apples”). The difference between “the number 2” (form) and “2 apples” (quantity) is a difference that can help us understand the difference between “value-form” and “value-quantity,” which is centralize if we are to grasp how “Value-Form Theory” and “Labor Theory of Value” might come to be thought together.³² But perhaps we might argue “2-as-form” doesn’t really exit, only “2-as-formualted in and by two apples?” Ah, yes, that’s true in one way and yet not in another: all “forms” are always actually “form-ulations,” and yet the distinction is valid and “real” all the same (as the category of “thing” is valid in situation, even though ultimately “(autonomous) things” don’t exist, only “(geometrical) situations”).


To return to the very start of Capital, we are told right out the gate that Marx is interested in ‘[t]he wealth of those societies in which capitalist mode of production prevails,’ which is to say Marx’s analysis is ultimately “always already” situated.³³ Now, I personally think Marx provides us with a way to think of how Capital becomes “intelligible” to us, which is to say he explains the emergence of “the equal sign” (as we discussed with Leibniz), which is to say Marx can help us understand how the idea of Capital becomes a “horizon” according to which we can live and operate, but we still should not overlook that Marx is mostly “always already” thinking and working within Capitalist production. In Capitalism, it is very clear that Marx believes the main way value is quantified and measured is through and with labor, which I think we can deduce when he says ‘that which determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour time socially necessary for its production’ (emphasis added).³⁴ Please note here the phrase “determining magnitude,” which I take to mean “determining the quantity or amount of value,” for I think that is critical. Yes, it seems completely reasonable to say that “determining the amount of value” is “creating value,” and in one way this is true and in another it is not. This is the strange character of “sociological realities” and “pure abstractions”: what makes something quantifiable is not the same as what creates it in terms of horizon or possibility (it might already be “always already preexisting,” or in need of creation as a “form” because it can be “deposited” or “associated with” that which could give it quantity).

To quote him at length (with bracketed commentary), Marx tells us:

‘The value of a commodity would […] remain constant, if the labour time required for its production also remained constant [which means that the amount of value depends on labor time]. But the latter changes with every variation in the productiveness of labour [which means productivity and the amount of value are correlated, as socially necessary].’ This productiveness is determined by various circumstances, amongst others, by the average amount of skill of the workmen, the state of science, and the degree of its practical application, the social organization of production, the extent and capabilities of the means of production, and by physical conditions. [Thus, the magnitude and quantity of value is determined by the entire condition in which labor is situated.] […] Diamonds are of very rare occurrence on the earth’s surface, and hence their discovery costs, on an average, a great deal of labour time. Consequently, much labour is represented in a small compass […] If we could succeed at a small expenditure of labour in converting carbon into diamonds, their value might fall below that of bricks.’³⁵

With the example of diamonds, Marx is harking back to a famous paradox found in Adam Smith, where Smith wonders why something so useless like diamonds can be so much more expensive and “valuable” than water, which is necessary for human life. Smith never resolved this paradox, but Marx tells us: it’s because diamonds take a lot of labor to produce, while water does not, and “value” is a (situational) combination of use-value and exchange-value, according to which the (perhaps subjective) “valuation” of goods is anchored, based, justified, and/or rationalized (for people to psychoanalytically avoid “anxiety” regarding their own judgments, which suggests how we might see in Marx a way to bring together “Subjective Value Theory” and “Labor Theory”).³⁶

Marx writes:

‘[i]n general, the greater the productiveness of labour, the less is the labour time required for the productiveness of an article, the less is the amount of labour crystallized in that article, and the less is its value; and vice versa, the less the productiveness of labour, the greater is the labour time required for the production of an article, and the greater is its value. The value of a commodity, therefore, varies directly as the quantity, and inversely as the productiveness, of the labour incorporated into it.’³⁷

What else needs to be argued to justify the premise “labor is value?” Indeed, there is no doubt that value under Capitalism is profoundly and uniquely tied to labor, but on this point, we must ask: “Does labor create ‘value’ or does it increase/determine the quantity of value?” Isn’t that the same thing? Yes and no, hence the debate, but we should not overlook Marx’s contribution in helping us deal with “The Value Paradox” that Adam Smith never adequately addressed. However, it’s also important to realize that Marx defines “labor” from “work” as a “socially situated phenomenon,” and that mustn’t be overlooked if we are to understand what exactly it means to say “labor is value” while not overlooking “Value-Form Theory” entirely.

My hope is to draw attention to terms like “incorporated,” “crystallized,” “socially necessary,” and “magnitude,” which are scattered around in Marx when he discusses the relationship between “labor” and “value.” Yes, after establishing this relationship, Marx might begin using more shorthand language in his work (I would do the same), and he will speak as if “labor is value” and that’s that, not so much discuss every time the situational character of labor-as-value, or to revisit the precise quality of how “labor” and “value” might relate. This is my suggestion — that “labor is value” is basically shorthand for “labor quantifies value” — and I believe if it is so we can redeem the sociological relevance of Marx while also maintaining a Value-Form interpretation that can help us understand why we ultimately require Childhood to negate/sublate Capital into Absolute History (otherwise, we will not prove able to handle the resulting anxiety we will necessarily have to face).

As we’ll elaborate on, labor “adds” value insomuch as it “increases value,” but it doesn’t add “the value-form” itself (transhistorically or noncontingently)— that is another matter. As we have discussed “the value-form” is a sociological reality (which is essentially human) that is more of an abstraction that can be quantified and qualified but doesn’t have to be (though must be if it is to be causally relevant to us, which is to say it must form-ulate), which (to harken back to Leibniz) is to say value is a value-similarity which requires a “social situation” that makes this “abstraction/judgment of similarity” plausible to the society and ourselves. In Marx’s example, a diamond found on the surface of the earth has value even though this particular diamond didn’t take much labor to produce, for “on average” diamonds take a lot of labor to dig up. Please note this means that a particular diamond must be “referenced to and with” the overall social effort of digging up diamonds, which means “labor itself,” directly (as if a magical process), isn’t what “adds value” to something. It is labor as an abstract value, which means as something “in the abstract” to which we can refer and quantify. Hence, it cannot be the case that labor adds value to things, but that labor makes value quantifiable in reference to things, which in one way seems to “create value” (for how can we speak of something as “existing” which isn’t “quantifiable?”), and yet a distinction is still necessary if we are to understand how “abstractions” can have “concrete” impacts on the world (like “fetishes,” following Žižek). “Real fictions” and/or “concrete abstractions” suggest the paradoxical realities with which sociology often wrestles, and Marx is interested to understand such realities at a time when Sociology is a new and growing field.

Marx says something at the beginning of Capital that is true for Capitalism in terms of its productivity (but is not true for humans in terms of their well-being, hence why earlier in Belonging Again (Part II) we consider different kinds of “demands”); Marx writes:

‘A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort of another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from the fancy, makes no difference.’³⁸

There is valuation “always already” regarding humans being in terms of wants, needs, desires, etc., and because that is so, “commodities” can exist. Valuation and values exists wherever humans exist, which means that Capitalism doesn’t have to create value, only provide a means for its quantification in and through (the abstract idea of) labor. Humans create value in being humans, but “value” as understood in Capitalism comes to mean “that which we can quantify through labor.” Ah, but must “value” be quantified through labor or only tend to be such? In Marx’s day, perhaps it basically was exclusively so quantified, but what about us today? I’m not so sure, for today value seems to be quantified in terms of attention, status, and other things. But this kind of shift cannot be readily thought where we are not careful when we say, “Labor is value,” which is a reason why I can hesitate to endorse “The Labor Theory of Value” as often discussed, even if there is truth to it. I would much rather discuss a “Labor Theory of Quantifying Value,” or even a “Situational Theory of Value,” but at the same time I also understand that no language is perfect.

If by “create” we mean “increase the quantity” of value, then to say, “Labor creates value,” is fine, but I think we risk losing sight of Marx’s “sociological contributions,” as we risk restricting Marx to a limited historic period (around the Industrial Revolution), if we come to think that “labor creates the value-form.” The value-form is human derived and is not dependent on the existence of Capitalism, and here we can suggest a distinction between “value-quantity” (which tends to be based on “labor”) and “value-form” (which is an innate human existence). The value-form exists outside of Capitalism, while in Capital the value-form becomes a value-quantity thanks to labor. The value-form doesn’t necessarily have to be “labor,” but in Capitalism that is how it is quantified, and indeed “labor” seems historically to be a uniquely powerful value-quantifier, which in one way is a virtue, but in another way is a vice in that Capital as value-quantifier uniquely provides a way for us to avoid “existential anxiety,” which makes us vulnerable to (permanent) “flattening.”

Value-form that cannot be quantified cannot be socially relevant, and so it cannot be exchanged, only individually ascribed to and followed. Thus, we require a means of quantification in order for value to be exchangeable, and yet at the same time I think there is a mistake to say labor is the value-form versus the value-quantifier. Why? Because then we can make the mistake of thinking labor creates value, which means we cannot move beyond labor as situated in Capitalism without losing value. Also, we might prove unprepared for having to “create values for ourselves” after “labor” (as “situated” by Capitalism), and if we are so unprepared, then when we are given “(free) time” beyond Capital, it might prove to be time we can’t do much with except suffer boredom, anxiety, or worse. To not stress the need for us to “master the art of value-form” (as a Child does) which can be overlooked if we over-emphasize “labor as value,” is to perhaps set up humans to retreat back to Capital from any “leisure” so achieved (like Tocqueville describes people under democracy fleeing to hierarchy and social standings in terms of commerce). In my view, we cannot seemingly escape the value-form in general, only work to keep ourselves from letting it be “captured” by Capital and other manifestations or “depositories” (that might save us from its anxiety).³⁹

Again, the confusing issue we find ourselves dealing with is that there seems to be a difference between “quantity” and “form.” Labor determines the quantity of value, but value-as-form does not seem to be created by labor: it exists independent of labor, as a human reality, which arises from naturally existing tendencies of humanity to valuate (as necessary for them to make decisions and exchange with one another). Again, is the number 2 a quantity or a form? It is both, and yet 2-as-form without 2-as-quantity seems meaningless, and yet the distinction is valid (suggesting the tricky relationship between algebra and geometry, “things” and “situations”). We might say that “The Value-Form Theory” emphasizes the possibility of value in Capitalism (which is to say the “situation” in and by which “the essential human reality” of value and valuation come to be present), while “The Labor Theory of Value” emphasizes more the way by which the value-form is referenced, measured, and signified, which is to say how the value-form becomes a value-quantity. Labor Theory stresses that everything with value is a product of labor, and I don’t disagree with that, but it’s also true that all (geometrical) “situations” require “things” to exist, and yet it can also be a mistake to say, “Situations are things.” No, not if by that we mean “situations are composed of things” or even “situations are manifest/quantified through things,” but slowly and gradually the phrase, “Situations are things,” can come to mean “situations are fundamentally things” and/or “situations are reducible to things.” This is where the trouble can start, as I think there is risk in forgetting “value is labor” means “the value-form is quantifiable (and socially intelligible) thanks to labor as value-quantifier.” Indeed, without some degree of labor, things wouldn’t exist and the value-form would lack quantification, sure, but labor as a means of quantification begins to wane and fail when we discuss Instagram content, art, and other goods which are “socially use-values” and “exchangeable” but don’t seem easily quantifiable in terms of an amount of labor. For me, keeping Marx relevant today is greatly aided in establishing a division between value-form and value-quantity, but again I also understand why there is a debate.


Marx is full of phrases like ‘socially necessary’ to describe labor, suggesting that “labor” as a notion is situated in a network of variables, and here we could say that Capitalism creates the conditions in which value-form can come to be a value-quantity thanks to “labor” (the source of “the abstract idea” of “the equal sign”), as defined by Capitalistic society.⁴⁰ A key phrase that I think helps us think “Value-Form Theory” with “The Labor Theory of Value” is ‘social use-value[s],’ which is essentially a term that brings together “exchange” and “labor” (for what else is “social” but “that which can be exchanged?”).⁴¹ In my view, a paragraph which particularly helps establish something akin to a “Situational Theory of Value” can be found here:

‘Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the product of his own labour creates, indeed, use-values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use-values, but use-values for others, social use-values. [And not only just “for others.” The medieval peasant produced grain for feudal dues and for the tithe. But this grain did not become a commodity merely because it was produced for others. In order to become a commodity, the product must be transferred by exchange to the person whom it will serve as use-value.] Lastly, nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.’ (emphasis added).⁴²

As we have already discussed, the very possibility of “some labor not being labor” means we are discussing “a situation” which makes the distinction discernable and intelligible, which furthermore means we cannot discuss (unqualified) or (undefined) “labor” as “creating value”: there are social terms that a given act of work and toil must meet in order to be considered “labor.” Also, Fredrich Engels in the 4th Edition added the bracketed statement, writing in a footnote that ‘I have inserted this passage in brackets because, in its absence, the misunderstanding has frequently arisen that Marx holds any product consumed by a person other than the producer to be a commodity.’⁴³ As Engels wrote, a scholar in the entire corpus of Marx’s work, ‘[i]n order to become a commodity, [a] product must be transferred by exchange to the person whom it will serve as use-value.’⁴⁴ What is “used” or has “use-value” without any exchange is not a commodity, and hence not that with a “value” which exists thanks to “labor,” which is also what makes that “value” quantifiable. Exchange is a necessary part of the process, and that means we are speaking of something like a “Situational Theory of Value” in which value-form is situated with a value-quantifier (perhaps the majority of our problem can be addressed if we speak of “valuable situations” versus “valuable things,” but hard to say).

The value-form doesn’t have formulation until it moves into quantification, so it needs a “depository” or “referent” like labor if the value-form is to have causal impacts on society, as possible thanks to a value-quantifier (which makes “social intelligibility” possible). Labor is a perhaps uniquely effective value-quantifier of the value-form (in the “always already” occurring “geometrical process of value-formulation”), and in being so effective it seems “reasonable” to think of value as labor and “to let labor do our valuation for us” (as we, to avoid anxiety, can naturally desire). But the value-form doesn’t necessarily equal the value-quantification, and yet at the same time value is never “just a form,” for that would be algebraic versus geometrical. In Plato, “forms” are always “formulations,” but that doesn’t mean we can’t treat ideas “as if” they are forms, in the same way that “situations” are composed of “things,” which makes it possible for us to meaningfully talk of “things,” and yet there is no such thing as “things” independent of “situations.” Likewise, we can talk of “forms” (like “value-form”), and yet there is no such thing as a “form” which isn’t “always already” being moved into “formulation.” This in mind, we can discuss a value-form, but this value-form is “always already” moving into “value-formulation,” which under Capitalism is in and through labor-quantification. This being the case, there is validity to saying, “Labor is value,” but only if we can avoid essentializing “labor” as a valuable thing in of itself, in the same way we must speak of “things” without isolating “things” as existing in themselves outside “situation.” If we make this mistake, in my view, we limit to what we can apply Marx’s analysis to forms of Capital which are labor-intensive. Yes, labor is a way we refer and quantify value, but we must be careful to suggest labor must be our means for quantifying value (versus simply what “tends to be used as a metric” under Capital), for this risks us not seeing “value” as a human reality we must always learn to “manage” and live with. (It is the capacity to “freely choose our freedom,” which makes us vulnerable to “The Real” though, hence why we might seek to disown it.)

In my view, we tend to think something is valuable first before we then try to explain or rationalize “why” we found that thing valuable, and this is critical to understand to grasp why the value-form is not reducible to labor even if labor is how the value-form is quantified. When we say, “That is valuable,” we can find ourselves “naked” with a judgment that others might see us as having made, and to then “clothe ourselves” from that nakedness and anxiety, we naturally look for a justification for our assessment. Under Capitalism, “labor” is a socially-validated reference “at hand” which we can reference to justify our valuation, helping us avoid “the existential anxiety” of making a decision that others can see and judge us by. “Labor” becomes like the fig-leaf in Eden, hiding us from being seen as “naked with our value judgment” (which is naturally overwhelming, unless we perhaps learn to be Children). But here we see that “labor” is accidental in its relation to the value-form versus essential, which is to say that it could theoretically be “something else” under Capitalism (such as status, attention, speculation, risk, etc.). There are many possible “fig leaves” or “means to quantify” value, and Capitalism has proven able to adapt and provide many such means for quantification. Yes, perhaps all of them have something to do with labor or productivity (to some degree), but the character and nature of that labor is indivisible from what is considered “social use-value” at the time, which means there’s a profound amount of variety possible in what is meant by the term “labor.” It takes labor to post something on Instagram, yes, but that labor seems very different from the labor of a truck driver; also, to find a diamond that we know usually takes a lot of a labor to dig up, and to derive its value from that idea of labor versus because of labor, also seems like a different way to think of labor than in terms of “labor putting value in things.” Also, some people seem to have talent or better social capital than others, and because of this both people can work the same amount of labor and yet create different amounts of value in the same social order. Yes, labor was involved, but also was an entire context and situation which cannot be overlooked.

To stress, I don’t think we apprehend something as “valuable” at the same time we apprehend “the labor behind and in it”; rather, more phenomenologically, I think we “just find ourselves finding something valuable” and then seeking rationalization and justification for why (perhaps so that we can “disown” our values and “hide ourselves from” our values, so that we aren’t judged by others for them). A justification and rationalization though must be “plausible” to work on ourselves and others, and this requires social “plausibility structures” (as described by Peter Berger and others); otherwise, we cannot escape our “nakedness,” both to ourselves and to others. Under Capitalism (for perhaps the first time in history), “labor” comes to offer a uniquely effective and widely-applicable way for humans to avoid “nakedness” (in their valuations and values), precisely because it seems uniquely easy to convince people (under Capital) to ascribe to “labor as an abstract source of value” (in “the equal sign”). This also hints at why Capitalism seems uniquely able to help people interact across cultures, differences, and diversity (which at the same time permits people to choose to be and become more diverse, which increases creativity, but at the cost and risk of “social intelligibility”).

Before Capitalism, it seems the world was far less Globalized and Pluralistic, and this suggests that Capitalism provides a way for us to become more “intelligible” to one another through “labor” and “the equal sign.” If you are a Muslim from Africa and I’m an American from North Carolina, we can at least make sense of one another by referring to our jobs, how much we make, what we do…It would be very difficult for us to explain our cultures, histories, etc. to one another (and would require us to have the “conversational skills” to do so), but thanks to Capitalism we can arrive at “a common ground of intelligibility” with relative ease. This is arguably a great gift, but all “compression” comes at the risk of “staying compressed” and so becoming a “flattening” (a “natural” mistake when we become comfortable with avoiding anxiety through the (reductionist) “understanding” Capital can provide). Capitalism and diversity can prove connected, and yet Capitalism also threatens diversity. This is odd, but it starts to make more sense when we understand that humans cannot handle “too much diversity” all at once. This overwhelms us, and so we look for ways to make “diversity” intelligible, which is what Capital and “labor as value-quantifier” can provide.

“The idea of value” or “value-form” can enable a diverse people to find equality between one another, which is precisely what risks “flattening” them in the temptation for the people to then treat one another as that “equal sign” to the point of (self-effacing) “sameness.” This in mind, we might see another angle by which we could think Vale-Form Theory and Labor Theory together, for we could say that the value-form in Capitalism is translated into “the equal sign” (“=”), which is to say value is quantified and measured according to =, which is fundamentally a mark of exchange. If I say “2 + 2 = 4,” I am saying that “2 + 2” can be exchange for “4” (even if they are not identical only similar, and in fact it only works because they aren’t identical); likewise, if I am saying that an expert plumber’s hour of labor is worth $20, I am saying it is worth (or “exchangeable for”) two hours of a less-skilled plumber’s time, whose hour of labor is worth $10. We could write, “1 hour of the expert plumber” = “2 hours of the novice plumber,” which is fundamentally a sentence that is intelligible thanks to a mark which suggests exchangeability. “Labor as value-quantifier” works because of a notion of exchange (“=”), and if there was absolutely no exchange, the existence of “=” would not be possible. Hence, labor is indivisible from exchange, for labor “makes the value-form quantifiable” precisely by “depositing” (the possibility of) a “=” into things. In many ways, labor exchanges (“makes exchangeable”).

Labor makes possible the conditions of exchange, and labor is “labor” and not work precisely because it creates the conditions of possibility for exchange in making possible the “equal sign.” Labor is why exchangeability is possible: the question is if it does this by “creating the value-form” ex nihilo and entirely, or if it does so by “depositing” the “always already” existing value-form into phenomena. This can be debated, and even if Marx himself did not believe in a value-form as “always already” existing outside of Capitalism (I’m not entirely sure), I personally believe that this is the case, and I see how Marx can help us articulate that case. For that, I might be guilty of using Marx in ways that are opposed to his original intentions, and if so I apologize. All the same, I think there are significant benefits to treating the value-form as a constant dimension of human life, for it means that, regardless what constitutes our socioeconomic situation, we must learn to live with the value-form (and ultimately become Children if we to have hope of addressing Nick Land).

If those who support “The Value-Form Theory” believe that “exchange” is the unique characteristic of Capitalism which creates the value-form, I disagree: my view is that (something like) the value-form is a constant presence and reality of human life. Neither exchange nor labor create the value-form: if anything creates it, it is biological pregnancy and birth. Rather, exchange and labor together in a situation make it possible to “deposit” the value-form through labor into phenomena which can then be exchanged thanks to the “abstract idea of labor” (the “equal sign”), as made possible by the labor act. Without labor, exchange would be impossible, but without a social condition which made exchange physically possible and intellectually “plausible,” labor could not “deposit” value (or “the equal sign”). Marx is helping birth sociology before sociology and “situational analysis” is readily understood, and I believe something like a “Situational Theory of Value” might help express how and why this is the case.

Secularization, Industrialization, Pluralism, Globalization, Capitalism — all of these are arguably being “birthed” around the 1800s, and though of course not entirely new, they begin taking on a new quality around “The Great Enrichment” that seems unique in human history. Wealth spreads and accelerates, as does secularization, global trade, and the like. As more religions and diverse people are brought into and under Globalization, the more the “equal sign” is needed and (over)applied to make relations through diversity possible. Capital becomes a new “given” precisely as it destroys the conditions for “givens,” and gradually all “givens” have been lost except in a way the “given” of Capital, which works even if we don’t believe in it (as Žižek noted). This seems to be a unique character of Capital as “practically given,” and perhaps only Capital is so capable of this unique combination, in being uniquely capable of generating a “situation” in which exchange and labor so uniquely relate, as possible thanks to “the abstract idea of the equal sign.”

Labor is necessary but not sufficient for Capitalism, but so also exchange is necessary but not sufficient.⁴⁵ Labor makes value quantifiable in light of exchange — we might say that labor gives exchange value “forward” while exchange (as Nance noted at Theory Underground) gives labor value “retrospectively (“situations” entails such “multiple ways of causality”). Without quantification, the value-form would be there but perhaps “causally irrelevant,” meaning it would be “practically nothing” (which is why it seems right to say “labor creates value,” and in a way is), or the value-form would be more-so isolated and “stuck” in each individual (making “tribe” perhaps the highest form of social cohesion possible, following Dunbar Numbers, and perhaps we might think of Dunbar as a study of the extents and limits of social formation without something “abstract” like “the equal sign” derived from labor). Causality is needed from both directions in time, we might say, or otherwise the capacity of Capital to “collapse phenomena” into a value we could all readily understand and exchange would be impossible. Sam Willman wrote in an essay, “Inhuman Beneficence”:

The vegetable world collapses energy to matter.
The animal world collapses space to motion.
And the human world collapses time to narrative.⁴⁶

Excellent, and perhaps we might say “the Capitalist world” collapses “phenomena” to “equivalence” (and “value”), precisely so that the world might be intelligible and one occupiable by diverse groups of people (without having to learn “The Arts of Love(craft)” (too quickly or soon, at least), which we now find ourselves needing to master). ‘[E]xchange-value, generally, is only the mode of expression [‘which expresses something equal’], the phenomenal form, of something contained in it, yet distinguishable from it,’ which is to say that in exchange we find a “version” or “rendering” of things that is only a “take” on then, but this “take” is only possible thanks to an abstract notion we come to believe is “in them,” mainly “value,” as possible because of that ‘social substance’ that is “human labor.”⁴⁷ ⁴⁸ “Value” is translated into a (notion of) “exchangeability,” which is possible and quantifiable thanks to labor, but with time “labor” can naturally habituate us into habits of only relating to others and the world in terms of “exchangeability,” which must equalize and reduce diversity, translating particularities into generalities which exist only as low-resolutions of themselves.

If “labor” exists distinct from “work,” then there is a real sense that phenomena are given “value” before they enter the realm of exchange, which in one way suggests that labor creates value without and regardless of exchange, and so again “The Labor Theory of Value” is completely understandable within Capitalism. However, what’s critical to note is that “labor” as distinct from “work” is already socially situated (thus making the distinction possible), and that means it is “always already” in a sociological condition in which exchange is present (mainly Capitalism, which is what gives labor distinction as “labor”). Thus, though labor “deposits” value before the exchange-act, labor is able to do this within a sociological condition in which exchange exists. Labor can “deposit” value before the exchange-act because of the exchange-situation. Furthermore, under Capitalism, value can be realized in exchange because it was “deposited” into (then exchangeable) phenomena through “labor,” and the presence of this value is there and “vivid” because of “the division of labor” (which can “disable” everyone) that is unique to Capitalism. This is why “value” and “means of exchange” are unique in Capitalism (though both have existed in economies for centuries), both because “disablement” makes us require exchange more than ever, and because Capitalism makes “vivid” a distinction between “work” and “labor” that is possible because of the overall social situation. Though there have always been acts of work and exchange, the unique way Capitalism brings them together is what concerns Marx, for it becomes increasingly unimaginable that a given person proves able to fish, hunt, and philosophize all in the same day: we’re too “disabled” and specialized to be such human beings.

Let us know consider the work of Kojin Karatani…





²⁸Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Capital. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago (Great Books Series, Vol 50), 1952: 13.

²⁹Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Capital. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago (Great Books Series, Vol 50), 1952: 14.

³⁰Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Capital. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago (Great Books Series, Vol 50), 1952: 15.

³¹Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Capital. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago (Great Books Series, Vol 50), 1952: 14.

³²For those who oppose “Value-Form Theory,” they might see too much parallel with “Subjective Value Theory,” which is what we tend to find in thinkers like Mises, Hayek, and other more Pro-Capitalist thinkers. However, I think the Value-Form can help us put them together, which for me is a key to “the problem of scale” without only having Capital as the means to “globally scale” anything

³³Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Capital. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago (Great Books Series, Vol 50), 1952: 13.

³⁴Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Capital. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago (Great Books Series, Vol 50), 1952: 15.

³⁵Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Capital. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago (Great Books Series, Vol 50), 1952: 15.

³⁶We can also consider “Marginal Utility Theory” alongside the diamond example, and the fact a diamond can have value that we find, without much labor, suggests value isn’t just “labor” (“un-situated”), and yet a diamond still has value because it is found in a society where getting diamonds requires a lot of labor. But then we must ask: “Why do people want diamonds?” Ah, well there must be a sociological condition in which diamonds are valued as precious (versus seen as cursed or something). And so we see the emergence of an entire “situation” to make possible “a notion of value,” which brings to mind the question, “What is demand?” that we considered in light of Keynes. The question of “value” and “demand” seem to overlap.

³⁷Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Capital. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago (Great Books Series, Vol 50), 1952: 15–16.

³⁸Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Capital. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago (Great Books Series, Vol 50), 1952: 13.

³⁹Value is a human reality that finds references and “capture” in labor as a means to quantify it so that we can avoid it “naked” or “abstractly,” which might make us have to take responsibility for it. This gets at why I struggle to say that “we should get rid of value” in the same way I struggle to say “we should get rid of hierarchy” — there’s truth to this notion, but also something problematic. Louis Dumont makes it clear that hierarchy aligns with “human nature,” and something similar seems to apply to “value,” for it is our standard of decision-making, as something like “hierarchy” is necessary for social organization. That doesn’t mean all manifestation of “value-form” and “hierarchy-form” are valid or acceptable, but it does mean we could end up in error and trouble if we try to remove “value” and “hierarchy” entirely, even as forms. Perhaps when Plato speaks of “forms,” we sometimes think more of “permanent and essential human realities,” according to which thought must seek and formulate or risk self-effacement?

⁴⁰Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Capital. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago (Great Books Series, Vol 50), 1952: 15.

⁴¹Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Capital. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago (Great Books Series, Vol 50), 1952: 16.

⁴²Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Capital. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago (Great Books Series, Vol 50), 1952: 16.

⁴³Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Capital. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago (Great Books Series, Vol 50), 1952: 16.

⁴⁴Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Capital. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago (Great Books Series, Vol 50), 1952: 16.

⁴⁵Unless that is by “labor” we mean something distinct from “work,” which is only so definable from within the entire sociological condition of Capitalism, which is a rhetorical move of Marx that has lead to confusion).

⁴⁶For the full article, “Inhuman Beneficence,” by Sam Willman please visit:

⁴⁷Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Capital. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago (Great Books Series, Vol 50), 1952: 14.

⁴⁸Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Capital. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago (Great Books Series, Vol 50), 1952: 19.




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