Sunday, February 16, 2014

Surplus Value in Coffee and the University

Having read further in Capital I now see how much of Joshua Clover’s lecture was a simple recapitulation of Marx’s theory of surplus value. M-C-M’ as explained by Clover was chapters 5 & 6. Here, Marx explains the contradictions inherent in presumptions of the origin of surplus value. It cannot come simply from exchange, which only changes the distribution of wealth (see 265). My thought experiment for this encompasses products that are historically worth voyaging to get. Value being socially and materially flexible and money as a universal commodity allowing for the exploitation of this flexibility would allow for products of one area to be produced cheaply and sold dearly in another area. For instance, I could grow corn or soybeans in the little tree lawn here in Nebraska—but no one is going to buy them because those giant capital-intensive combines depress the socially necessary labor time for such local products. But no matter how much I labor here I won’t be growing coffee, tea, black pepper or cinnamon. Those commodities sell for a bit more per pound than the Nebraska staples. It appears that motion across space has conjured value out of thin air: “something must take place in the background which is not visible in circulation itself.” But it must be in fact the labor of the person who works to transport those exotic products here to Nebraska that valorizes them. Is this the essence of “merchant’s capital”? I suppose that Marx’s analysis would answer yes. 

So then how does this surplus value theory apply to the labor that I am currently doing? Is the socially necessary labor time required to teach college writing really so much lower in value than…oh I don’t know…drafting interstate designs or fracking natural gas out of NoDak? I suppose that I am selling my labor power to the university—which then maintains me by paying me enough for my means of subsistence. My labor power is consumed in the classroom and office when I grade papers (which activity definitely draws down my physical resources). I don’t really know how I am mediating the metabolism between myself and nature (283)—maybe by increasing the value of my students to capital (they will be able to write better ad copy or more effective bank memos). I do particularly like the idea of my unrest becoming being through the activities of my teaching and writing but that’s probably the overactive ontologist in me getting excited about words. But isn’t my labor “of a higher, or more complicated character than average labor” given all the labor that has been invested in the ability? Shouldn’t my labor be of a “more costly kind” (305)? Anyone else want to elaborate on the exploitation of our workplace, and the ways and degrees in which “capitalists” (Harvey) are exploiting our labor? Is it even fair to ask that; am I in the position of a proletarian worker in this analysis?


  1. I feel like teaching (and gratuities for wait staff in Robert's post) are beyond the scope of commodity production, so it's like apples and oranges. What these posts are dealing with are closer to Hardt and Negri's "immaterial labor," specifically "affective labor." As H&N point out--and I think we would agree given the examples that are given in Capital-- Marx encountered "concrete processes of various laboring activities [that] were radically heterogeneous: tailoring and weaving involved incommensurable concrete actions" (Empire 292). Though a member of a wait staff or a teacher is being payed for their labor, they aren't producing anything tangible...or at least anything comparable to taking cotton and creating yarn through the production process. As a result, I don't think we can apply Marx's tools of analysis to labor that hinges on affect.
    For Marx, surplus value (and wages on pg. 685) is directly linked to labour-power, which has a use-value that is consumed by the capitalist and so produces value that is added to the finished product (Capital 50-51). If we take this as our definition for labour-power and to try to apply it today, to what product would I add value by selling my labour-power if I teach a class? There is no commodity production taking place, only alterations to the relationship between teacher and students.
    For H&N, we have to view a teacher within a biopolitical context, and rewrite Marx's surplus value as "the expression...of exploitation...on not only the labor-power of the worker but also the common powers of production that constitute social labor-power" (Commonwealth 288). In other words, in addition to wages, how does the university exploit the ways society interacts and relates with one another? We would have to focus our attention-- equally and at the same time-- on both the worker and something akin to social capital.
    So, we are still part of the proletariat within the framework of capitalism (and still being exploited!), but the proletariat has changed in accordance with labor processes. Or so suggests H&N...

    1. Granted, I haven’t worked this out to a full and eloquent response, but on first pass, I feel like approaching commodity as only the purely tangible greatly oversimplifies the notion.

      Education—particularly higher education—does not hinge on affect or even knowledge gained by a student. Instead, enmeshed within neo-liberal discourse education has become a commodity.

      By way of simple example, consider how many jobs require a higher degree, regardless of the skill set required to perform them, the way students are told that school is their job, how universities and departments attempt to attract students (revenue), the rise of and scandals surrounding for profit universities, and the advent of MOOCs. This list is, of course, incomplete and offered with little explanation save to say that education is talked about and treated as a commodity.

      It is not knowledge, so much as certification that has value. So when asked: “To what product would I add value by selling my labour-power if I teach a class?” I would suggest “the commoditized student.” Ideally, we’re developing relationships, expanding minds, and teaching for the sake of knowledge. Reality is something different. In his response to Robert, Jon suggests that “the rhetoric used to justify tips, quality of service, customer satisfaction, ect, is a prime example of the ways that the interests of capitalism are often hidden under other value orientations.” It doesn’t take much effort to stretch these same notions to education.

      It was also suggested that no surplus value is created in the classroom. Again, I offer a crude, but (in my opinion), useful example. I roughly figured that at current rates, each class meeting (MWF--50 min) costs a student approximately $75. The (graduate student) teacher for this class makes approximately $10 per student for the same 50 minutes. While this leaves out tuition reimbursement and health care subsidies, it also ignores prep time, grading, etc. I’m a rhetorician, so we’ll call the numbers a wash—however, I’m confident that regardless of specifics, the two numbers will not balance.

      I’m not familiar with Hardt and Negri and so won’t venture to argue that their explanation is perhaps more nuanced, updated, or encompassing. I do, however, wish to suggest that the tools Marx has offered do allow us to unpack these situations both Daniel and Robert have suggested. Attending to this nuance allows deeper appreciation and understanding of the boundaries of Marx’s own arguments and the ability to evaluate more carefully the arguments of those who would expand, adapt, and contradict these same notions. Simply put—I am always hesitant of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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  3. I think too it is worth noting that the commoditized and liberalized University system is one that has evolved but not an inherent characteristic of our current system. Jamie does a good job of laying out the arguments for how our current GTA-ing ( my own neologism) may in fact produce surplus labor. In addition to this, I feel it worth noting that, at least in my humble reading, not all work according to Marx is laborious. If we can conceive, or perhaps remember, a University system that relied on a funding (perhaps governmental) that exists independently of market relations, are we not also imagining a system that is not concerned with the exchange value of education? Without the assumption that we should treat our students as customers, and with relative job stability and permanence might we be allowed to explore the use-value of educational endeavors? In the end, my thought experiment I suppose asks if there can be pockets of non-liberalized resistance? Say in a totally state funded University? I ask these questions in full acknowledgement of course that such a place does not exist especially in the US (see Jamie's analysis above).


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