The incidental dominance of exchange-value

A journey from reading the Grundrisse at 6am to a shopping centre and then EC1 at night. I spent a lot of time in a department store just watching the high definition televisions on display.

It is as if the world is now a background which can be enhanced with film editing software, made brighter, more action packed; it looks more exciting when digitised, the world fed back to us on monitors and screens. The circulation of images is accelerating, the speed of the Spectacle is not constant over time, it is becoming faster.

The television set is the supplier of the drug of television. Erich Fromm asked the question in the 1950s as to what would happen to society if television ceased to function? Imagine now if the internet was to stop working? Watching endless images is an addiction which is so ubiquitous that few consider it as an addiction at all.

Tower cranes are instruments of production, expensive ones. One is moving a steel bucket of containers high above the streets. It is a precision movement. I have seen an automated tower crane, but not one of any significant size. With sensors, monitors, cameras, ultra fast network connections, processing power, and ever more powerful microchips it will become increasingly possible to scale up from the small tower crane to the very tallest one.

At some point the balance will tip; the labour will no longer be cheaper than the machine and all its outputs. The immediate labour, the crane driver, will be replaced by a less skilled worker who will monitor a screen. This will also provide the owners of this instrument of production more control. It will become possible to monitor the exact number of movements per hour, per day. At the same time the extent of the division of labour will increase.

I should have taken a notebook with me to the shopping centre. Within just one department store I lost count of the number of commodities for sale. Televisions, cameras, washing machines, curtains, Christmas decorations, shirts, trousers, skirts, dresses, shoes, socks, scarfs, gloves, pots, pans, kitchen utensils, pencils, suitcases, prams and many more. Individual types of commodity – shoes, for example – came in many different sizes, styles, colours and made with a range of materials.

The range of materials involved in producing all these commodities would be worth describing too; steel, copper, linen, wool, cotton, leather, wood, plastic, paint, resin, varnish, glass, gold, silver, paper, cardboard, ink. This is all visible.

Hidden from view in the department store – the point of exchange and consumption – are all the labour processes and specialist machines that make this possible. Lifting, digging, the application of precision tools, the feeding of raw materials into hoppers and blast furnaces, paint spraying, quality control, packing. This applies for just about all these commodities. How a suitcase or computer is assembled few know other than those directly involved in the processes themselves.

Rates of pay, conditions in factories and mines, levels of exploitation and oppression are less well measured and whole state and company apparatus are in place to keep such things hidden.

If I had more time I would walk around the whole department store and explore what I could buy for £20. Here universal equivalence would be revealed. Right here, on the third floor.

The department store itself could be described as a three-dimensional installation to explain the Grundrisse with real examples.

I walk out into the daylight. The social life of the world is at great variance with the universal character of production.

Later I’m in a small part of EC1 trying to work out the route of a Radical Walk. The direction at the moment is from the Barbican to Farringdon station. There are some streets which stand out more than others; the reasons are not clear. Newbury Street keeps pulling me back, Farringdon Road is too busy with traffic, Clerkenwell Road feels out of the immediate area. Charterhouse Square and West Smithfield should both be included but it’s not clear how to link them up. That will come. The route has to be walked with several variations before a clear map emerges.

There are people working late in the offices. Small groups stand silhouetted at the neon-lit windows. Are they engaged in the hidden transcripts? Of how the rank and file consider the situation based on their personal experiences in their workplace. It is imagined that the rank and file is confined to factories. But this social phenomena can be found in shops, offices, warehouses and all points of production, distribution and consumption (or exchange).

Some capitalists now speak a language of love and brightness and caring and sharing. It is an ideology and the language is transmitted through slogans and sound-bites.

Inside each and every capitalist organisation are hierarchies. Bullying which can be near impossible to ‘prove’ even though everyone knows it happens. Low tricks and pointless cunning, favouritism, nepotism, abuses of power, sarcasm, cold-shouldering, secret deals and unrecorded negotiations. Some capitalists have yet to learn the new songs. They still cut and scratch and bite the workers.

The hidden transcripts can be the start of organisation, but there needs to be something more consciously organisational. Grievances, of which there are plenty, are not in themselves enough.

I return again to Newbury Street and Middle Street. There are three men in orange jackets and orange trousers and hard hats and big boots securing a construction site. They stop and look at me while I take photographs. I don’t want them to go home feeling that something suspicious is going on. They have been told to secure the site, that’s what they have to do.

‘It’s ok’, I say, ‘I’m doing some research, that’s why I’m taking photographs’. They stop and look at me.

‘I’m organising a walk around this area in about a month. We’ll be looking at the history and the buildings and why there so many new buildings and yet it’s getting harder and harder to find somewhere to live’.

‘Everything is about money’, I add.

The barrier is broken, we start talking.

Two of the three talk and the other stands in the middle of them, slightly back. He takes out a cigarette and starts to smoke. He doesn’t say anything but when I put forward the case that the problem is capitalism, he nods his head slowly and deliberately and for the first time he looks at me.

They lock the site and take a photograph to prove they have done so. We all wish each other well.

How effective is this three minute propaganda? I have no idea. It’s like making a punk rock single. It has to be direct and say things in a certain way. If the words capitalism, working class and socialism can be included in a way that generally fit the tone and voice of the conversation then all the better.

If nothing else it is good practice for me. There might come a day when we need all our street corner speaking skills. And if that day comes we had better be crystal clear what we’re about, what we think, what we’re demanding and how we say it. Everything is about practising for something, we’re not sure what, but we must practice all the same.

Newbury Street intrigues me further. As I’m walking up to Kings Cross I realise that it’s the shape of capitalism at the time of Marx. It’s the buildings from the middle of the 19th century that need to be explored. The banks, offices, factories, workshops, railway stations, underground stations. There is still a significant amount of this building in the area. This is the shape and colour of capitalism that Marx saw. And from this, and his studies of commodities he sets out to describe the social reality of capitalism as well as the key determinants and its dynamics as a system.

In any urban area the social reality is a construction of objects which are all the products of human labour – every single one (well apart from a few trees and flower pots and birds). Every brick, every cobble stone, every iron window frame, every computer and its monitor. The social reality is a human creation. And we are socially created, ‘the human eye’, as Marx describes it.

But it is a reality that hides as much as it express. Within capitalism it is a social reality dominated by the drive to create exchange-values and to speed up the accumulation of capital.

I walk up to Kings Cross, red light tail lights in the traffic, crowds of people walking in each and every direction, somehow managing to avoid all but the occasional accidental contact. How is it possible? The whole world is here, people from every continent, every social type is represented except the very rich.

The colours, the movements, the sounds. It can appear that exchange value is incidental; but it is, of course, dominant.

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