Jameson's Spiritual Reawakening: Labor Theory in the Time of Wal-Mart

Robert Faivre



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Fredric Jameson's reading of Wal-Mart as a figure not only of global capitalism's metabolism but of a post-capitalism-to-come is a cultural marker of the market theory that today value is produced outside production in distribution and consumption. That is, in proposing that Wal-Mart represents "an opportunity to exercise the utopian imagination more fully, rather than an occasion for moralizing judgments or regressive nostalgia" (Valences of the Dialectic 423), he advances as a method of analysis an affective dialectics, whereby Wal-Mart appears both as a marker of the present social totality in which value is produced by the consumer and as a utopian symptom of a consumer communism waiting to be born. For Jameson, dialectics is a both/and operation for appreciating and potentially flipping the "valences" of the present-day appearance of history in order to apprehend and summon forth a future (utopia) out of present circumstances. Wal-Mart, according to this logic, is the formal appearance of both the dominance of capitalism throughout the globe and its transformation into post-capitalist relations. As I argue, this reading of Wal-Mart and of the social relations in contemporary capitalism is indicative of the general reading of global capitalism on the "radical" left today, which spiritualizes Marx's materialist dialectic by emphasizing form over content and produces an analysis which empties the social relations of their class content by making social transformation into an affective and spontaneous action.

Jameson's affective logic, which Mark Fisher ("Reading the Imperceptible") and others celebrate in their reviews of Jameson's "dialectical" appreciation of Wal-Mart (Brown 2009; Carp 2014; Cole 2014; Tally 2014), has its basis in Antonio Negri's theory of immaterial labor and its parallels in the work-valorization theory of the Krisis group. What Negri proposes is that the law of value no longer applies in "new historical conditions" (Marx Beyond Marx 171) because value-production that was once thought to occur only in the factory is now dispersed throughout the social network like a "virus" (9). This, Negri and Hardt argue, means we must recognize all social practices including those that fall outside of the production of commodities as "value-producing" for capital, including "immaterial" values such as affect and emotion that cannot be measured by Marx's labor theory of value, and thus the "notion of base and superstructure must be overturned" (Labor of Dionysus 9). In a slightly different register, but to the same ends, Norbert Trenkle of the increasingly influential Krisis group argues that the "problem" with the labor theory of value is that labor is already abstraction and that Marx just makes an abstraction more abstract, whereas what is needed is the de-abstraction of labor, or the reintegration of work into life itself. Trenkle writes, "'Labor' is in its very being an oppressive, inhumane, and antisocial activity that both is determined by and produces private property" ("Value and Crisis" 2). The outcome of these theories is to make the confrontation of labor and capital into a matter of intersubjective agency (choice) and to rework "value" (production and/as consumption) into opportunities for self-valorization.

While Jameson in Valences of the Dialectic goes along to get along with this subjectivization of value and production on the North Atlantic Left, claiming to "reform" and "update" the key concepts of the labor theory of value without necessarily "endorsing" Autonomist or Krisis theory (433), his approach and its tropo-poetics produce an affective theory, making labor and the value it produces a subjective matter. Though Jameson claims to hold a more "traditional" reading of Marx than Negri or Trenkle, what makes his arguments not only similar to theirs but also "easily recuperable within academic discourses" that are not even ostensibly hostile to capitalism ("Whither Anglo-Saxon Marxism?" 93) is his dematerialized dialectic that turns objective contradictions into spiritual oppositions. There is a deep connection, in other words, between Jameson's utopian reading of the dialectic as "an operation calculated to disclose the limits of our own imagination of the future" (Valences 413), on the one hand, and his reading of Wal-Mart as requiring a new theory of capitalism which recognizes "the reversal of dominance from production to distribution" (422) and "lift[s] production into a new and more complex concept" (423), on the other. Jameson's proposal for a utopian genealogy which would "lay in place the various logical preconditions for the appearance of a given phenomenon, without in any way implying that they constituted the latter's causes" (434) is a theory of a dematerialized and dehistoricized present without determination. If, as Marx writes, to critique capitalism is "to grasp the root of the matter" ("Contribution to Critique" 182) by showing the relation of determination between the economic base and the cultural superstructure, then Jameson continues in his most recent work his project of collapsing Marx's model by suggesting that consumption and distribution play a more significant role in shaping the everyday than production—if any relationship between these forces can even be determined at all (much less in Althusser's infamous "last instance"). Operating within the same logic as his now foundational claim that contemporary capitalism differs from past forms in that "economic value … can be said to have become 'cultural' in some original and yet untheorized sense" (Postmodernism 48), Jameson continues to seek out alternatives to production in consumption and distribution as offering spiritual resolutions to material conflicts. As such, Jameson's interest in what he describes as Virno's "original retheorization" of cynicism as "abandon[ing] the universalism of equivalency (read: exchange value) for that new kind of multiplicity that traditionalists call relativism" (Valences 431) is part and parcel of an argument that proposes that the transformative power of the working class rests in cultural "reawakenings" (434), rather than in the collective productivity of labor. By embracing the argument for difference within as a potential solution to the "universalism" of exchange value, Jameson is merely repeating the market logic that celebrates the democracy of consumption embodied in Wal-Mart. It is not a sign of transformation, but of desiring escape into the imaginary.

In a time of deepening social contradiction (e.g., socialized poverty and privatized wealth), however, what is needed is not cynical escapist theory but explanatory theory that enables intervention into the haze of consumption and reengages the conceptual for social praxis. This is found in historical materialism based on Marx's insight that value is an objective, not merely subjective, aspect of capitalism. What makes Marx's theory of social transformation revolutionary is precisely that it locates the class-consciousness that Jameson seeks to "reawaken" not in the spaces of imagination, but in the material conditions of production. In other words, in contrast to Jameson's, Virno's, Negri's and Trenkle's claims that the central contradiction of capitalism today rests between "universalism" and "difference" at the level of culture, Marx's theory that the fundamental difference between developments in the forces of production and the class relations which limit these advances to the accumulation of private profits explains why transformation is objectively possible rather than just being an immaterial object of wish fulfillment. In this essay, I argue that Jameson's theory and what Fisher calls its "theory-poetical brilliance" ("Reading the Imperceptible") is symptomatic of a movement in critical and cultural theory today that turns contradiction into ambivalence in order to aid and abet global capitalist crisis management and limit change to reform. We need revolutionary theory for transformation, not cynical theory-poetry for adaptation.

At the core of Jameson's "prospective hermeneutic" for making sense of contemporary global reality in its structural relations and appearances is the subjective attempt to "change the values on phenomena" in order to "reawaken" historicity and thus enable the appearance of the future (Valences 434). For decades, Jameson has been calling for new ways of interpreting and analyzing the changing world, and in Valences of the Dialectic, he reiterates his case for a dialectical criticism with which to intervene in the incessant "ideological replication" by which the capitalist present is repeated and out of which the future emerges. Ostensibly in order to make sense of what he casts as the binary forces of ideology and utopia, Jameson proposes a reading that is neither "predictive" nor "symptomological" (434), but which enables an inversion of valences, such that the future—an alternative future, which is ultimately in his logic an inaccessible, parallel future (612)—can be made to appear in ruptures and thus potential reversals. Thus by moving in-between the competing valences of judgment, between "aesthetic appreciation" and "absolute condemnation," Jameson claims to open a nonsubjective field of vision within which to encompass the "dialectical ambivalence" (423) of all things that, if apprehended with the critical subjectivities required of us, contain not only historical sediments of the past out of which they emerged and but more importantly are potentialities of futures to come.

In his cynical criticism, Jameson proposes that through the framework of his dematerialized hermeneutic Wal-Mart may be read as a sign of a possibly emergent communist future. Asserting that "every new approach to collectivity is on my view worth welcoming in an atomized and individualistic society" (Valences 425), Jameson identifies in Wal-Mart's global reach a "democracy" and "efficiency" (421) which represents "the shape of a Utopian future looming through the mist" (423). To "dialectically" appreciate the historical phenomenon of Wal-Mart as a potential indicator of a future different from the global capitalist present of which Wal-Mart is a part is to proceed from the insight that "[W]hat is currently negative can also be imagined as positive in that immense changing of the valences which is the Utopian future" (423). What this means for Jameson is that while it is easy to make moral judgments about Wal-Mart's labor practices, near-monopoly relation to competition, etc., it is important—in order to see the potential Utopia emergent in Wal-Mart, and thus to apprehend Wal-Mart as a symptom of a different future—to recognize that "the most noxious phenomena can serve as the repository and hiding place for all kinds of unsuspected wish-fulfillments and Utopian gratifications" (415-416).

Wal-Mart for Jameson carries not only ideological replication of market logic but points to a new and better future through its novel solutions to problems of distribution at the informational and material levels (Valences 422). Wal-Mart's efficiency—already celebrated by neoliberal managers like Thomas Friedman as an indicator of the changing world of globalization (The World is Flat 151-167)—is evidenced by the coordinated supply chain whereby consumer demand drives the distribution and production of desired goods. This focus on consumer demand as the driver of distribution which sets production in motion is also Jameson's evidence of global democracy-to-come emergent in the present. That is, Wal-Mart is utopian, in Jameson's sense of Utopia as the wish for resolution of conflict, in the meeting and creation of needs. Jameson identifies in Wal-Mart a model for meeting people's needs and making global democracy possible after capitalism using something like Wal-Mart's global network of distribution. For instance, according to Jameson, through the use of the barcode in its distribution network, Wal-Mart enacts a "reversal of dominance from production to distribution" and through "containerization" resolves mediations of time in getting the goods to consumers (Valences 422). The form and not the content—this is what Jameson finds dialectical in Wal-Mart. Indeed, this is what dialectics becomes for Jameson, an affective dialectics of identifying and appreciating the binary opposition of positive and negative in all things in the totality of capitalism, such that to think dialectically is to understand both sides of the contradiction as static repetitions of what-is in anticipation of what-else-can-be, spiritual potentialities to be activated in the imaginary first as valences to invert. The emphasis is placed, then, on subjectivity as the key to change, without necessarily changing the material conditions. Wal-Mart thus becomes in this model a form of the present anticipating a future with different content—a formal shift that constitutes the possibility of change from within.

In focusing on the redistribution of products under capitalism, rather than the exploitation of labor during production, Jameson's argument for redressing the "valences" of capitalism through a utopian impulse is similar to the proposals advanced today by Richard Wolff (Democracy at Work) and the British Labor Party for the development of "Worker Self-Directed Enterprises" as offering a resolution to capitalism's increasingly rapid cycle of crises while keeping more fundamental social change off of the agenda. This politics of redistribution and workplace re-organization within the overall existing division of labor in society between owners and workers presupposes that the law of value remains in place and that therefore the dominance of surplus-labor to produce exchange-value continues to rule the lives of the workers. In short, the alienation of labor from its own products cannot be changed via local reorganization of the workplace or redistribution of goods. This is because products must already be produced for exchange before there can be an electronic plebiscite on their mode of distribution under the image of Wal-Mart which Jameson imagines as a radical alternative to capitalism. As the alienation of the worker takes place in production, a movement of redistribution and "self-management" cannot serve as a basis for the realization of communism, which is, of course, why Wal-Mart's organization represents a "utopian" image. The "value" of overcoming alienation that Jameson attaches to this image can never actually result from simply a more equitable distribution of social wealth or more "rational" workplace that leaves the capitalist division of labor intact because it only addresses the symptoms of capitalism in inequality, rather than the causes of inequality in exploitation.

Through the labor theory of value, Marx demonstrates why "production is the dominant moment, both with regard to itself in the contradictory determination of production and with regard to the other moments" (Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58 36). This is because, although "exchange appears to exist independently alongside production, to be indifferent to it, only in the last stage, when the product is exchanged directly for consumption," it nonetheless requires three fundamental conditions to exist (36). Marx writes,

But (1) [there is] no exchange without division of labour, whether this is naturally evolved or is itself already the result of an historical process; (2) private exchange presupposes private production; (3) the intensity of exchange, its extent and nature, are determined by the development and structure of production. (Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58 36).

In other words, in order to consider issues of exchange (distribution) or consumption, one must first take into account what Marx calls the "totality of production" (Economic Manuscripts 24) or the entire social structure under which production of those items has first taken place before their distribution and consumption. In the case of Wal-Mart, then, we cannot read it in itself, but must situate it as an instance in the totality that is the capitalist mode of production.

Under capitalism, "the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence" (Marx, Capital Vol.1 290) is structured as a process for producing "not just value, but also surplus-value" (293). Because the capitalist owns and controls the means of production, the worker has no ability to survive without the sale of her labor-power. The capitalist thus purchases the labor-power of the worker with the wage and through the mechanism of wage-labor puts the worker to work producing new values. As Marx explains in Capital Vol. 1, labor, "as the creator of use-values, as useful labor, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature and therefore human life itself" (133). However, as Marx emphasizes, the organization of production under capitalism's conditions of private ownership of the means of production—as a result of which the majority are therefore forced to sell their labor-power to the capitalist for a wage—means that the expenditure of labor-power within capitalism is not limited to being socially necessary labor for the production of use-values, but is objectively compelled to become surplus-labor for the production of exchange-values which are the default gain of the capitalist. Marx focuses on production as the determining instance because it is in the production of the conditions of life that society exists and, under the capitalist mode of production, because it is the exploitation of wage-labor at the point of production that is the source of capitalist profits. He writes that the transformation of labor into wage-labor is the basis of the capitalist's profit because labor-power "differs from the ordinary crowd of commodities in that its use creates value, and a greater than its cost" (Capital Vol. 1 342). In purchasing the labor-power of workers, capitalists take control of the source of new value that comes from the productivity of labor. In contrast to Jameson's utopian impulses, in other words, Marx's value theory defetishizes value by demonstrating how "value" is not a product of concrete labor that produces use-values, but a product of "abstract social labor" that produces exchange-value.

What the labor theory of value shows, in other words, is that in producing more value during what Marx calls the "working day" than is returned in the wage (Capital Vol. 1 340-416), workers are exploited before distribution takes place. Of course, the capitalist wants to realize as profit as much of the surplus-value contained in the commodity as possible and this is why giant distribution centers such as Wal-Mart have emerged. Wal-Mart acts a means for reducing the costs of distribution within the circuit of production and thus opening the potential for increased realization of surplus-value as profit. This is why no amount of redistribution can address the underlying conditions of exploitation which cause inequality. When someone buys a shirt at Wal-Mart, for example, what is realized in the exchange is the surplus-value produced by labor as profit. Owing to the vagaries of the market, sometimes more and sometimes less of this surplus-value is realized by the capitalist in the form of profit, but the ability of the capitalist to exploit workers is not changed by the price at which the shirt might be sold. Furthermore, as the labor theory of value also explains, increasing productivity means more commodities produced and thus the subsequent need by the capitalist to sell even more commodities to realize as profit the surplus-value that is now spread out across them. In other words, it is the expanding productivity of labor, not simply Wal-Mart's efficiency, that is driving down the costs of production and which, in turn, is reflected in Wal-Mart's ballyhooed "falling prices."

To explain the appearance of a concrete such as Wal-Mart is not to accept Wal-Mart on its own terms—i.e., as a global supermarket, good living at a low price, etc.—but rather to see through Wal-Mart as a hub of distribution and to trace back through the supply chain to the sites of production all over the world, and indeed to what Marx theorizes as the "the distribution of the conditions of production themselves" ("Critique of the Gotha Programme" 87) whereby "the capitalist mode of production … rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of the non-workers in the form of capital and land-ownership, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power" (88). The point here is that any understanding of Wal-Mart as a site of distribution of what people want and need is incomplete without passing through the appearance of the big box store and following its global supply chain back to the basis of all this distribution of goods and value, in the distribution of the means of production, in which the bourgeoisie owns and controls the massive means of production for global distribution and the proletariat possesses but has no control over their labor power, "the personal condition of production" ("Critique of the Gotha Programme" 88). The means of production are distributed by class—the owning class versus the laboring class—and thus to understand distribution (Wal-Mart) requires not fixating on the mediating moments of exchange/distribution/consumption of goods, but comprehending the underlying and determinative moment of production.

While "nothing is simpler for a Hegelian than to posit production and consumption as identical" ("Critique of the Gotha Programme" 31), to do so, as Jameson's affective dialectic does in equating production and consumption, is to flatten out the determinative relations and to assert a static and co-equal interaction in which development and change become affective "choices," rather than objective compulsions of the structural relations. Wal-Mart is a moment of distribution of commodities and of value returned to production. In this sense, Wal-Mart cannot appear as a site of transformation because the scene of distribution and exchange is only changeable in relation to and as an expression of the character of the mode of production. Wal-Mart is the concrete manifestation of a world market that is made possible, indeed necessary, as a levelling, flattening, all-encompassing moment of exchange brought about by the globalizing of the production process and the development of truly global capital and the truly global proletariat that is subject to its conditions of labor. In focusing attention on the surfaces of capital, in the distribution of commodities, Jameson obscures the fact that Wal-Mart exists precisely because of the relations of production that are still based upon the exploitation of labor at the point of production. The fundamental question is not how quickly or widely goods are distributed. This is the concern of global supply chains that have as their determination the level of production at a given historical moment. It is in the interest of the realization of profit that a company like Wal-Mart develops global supply chains. What is at stake is the relations under which they are produced. A shirt that can be produced in one part of the world and sold in another almost instantaneously is not a sign of democracy. It is a sign of the globalization of production.

In these late capitalist times, Jameson writes, there has occurred a "dedifferentiation of these levels" of economic and cultural (Valences 449), such that everything determines everything else. Although this is a form of the overdetermination argument and part of the view that the superstructural forms are no longer determined by the relations and developments in the economic base, Jameson remains concerned not only with tracing out the inexhaustible replication of ideology whereby the current socio-cultural structures and relations are justified and maintained in the imaginary, but also with the equally (not greater or lesser, apparently) utopian impulse which "disclose[s] the limits of our own imagination of the future" (413) by breaking in against ideology to affirm collectivity, the meeting of all needs, the end of private profit, etc. Utopia for Jameson however is a form and not a content in that as with Wal-Mart what is Utopian are the creative solutions of problems within the present context, solutions that mark that things could be different but are not. Jameson's book is on "Utopia as replication," but as a counter replication to ideology it remains bound up with it and reactive.

To make Wal-Mart into an imaginative figure for transformation, as Jameson does, is to presuppose that the production of value is determined by consumption's mediation of distribution and exchange. But, the terms of exchange and distribution are outside the command and control of individuated consumers; the conditions of exchange (price and wage) and distribution (transport, inventory, etc.) are the purview of the various capitalist entities investing capital in the production process and the ancillary moments of distribution and exchange. Inverting Wal-Mart in order to invest it spiritually with positive vibes for democracy-to-come is little more than ideology and marketing logic on behalf of the ruling class; it is crisis management for adaptation rather than critique for transformation. The spiritual "reawakening" Jameson calls for essentially naturalizes the "big boxification" of social life under capitalism as utopian while distracting attention from the transformation of private property relations that is the necessary condition of the collective building of a society that meets the needs of all.


First published in the minnesota review, issue 87, 2016.


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