Benjamin on Simmel’s critique of the theory of value

Regarding your sceptical view of Simmel: isn’t it time he got some respect as one of the ancestors of “cultural Bolshevism”? …I recently had a look at his Philosophy of Money …if one disregards its basic idea, very interesting things are to be found in the book. I was particularly struck by the critique of Marx’s theory of value (Benjamin to Adorno, SW4 209)

Marx’s Theory of Value

The petty-bourgeois-idealist theory of labor is given an unsurpassed formulation
in Simmel, for whom it figures as the theory of labor per se. And with this, the
moralistic element – here in antimaterialist form – is registered very clearly (Benjamin, AP X6; X6a)

One may therefore assert in very general terms that, from the standpoint of the value to be compensated, the distinction between mental and manual labour is not one between mental and material nature; that rather the reward is ultimately required in the latter case only for the internal aspect of work, for the aversion to exertion, for the conscription of will power. Of course, this intellectuality, which is, as it were, the thing-in-itself behind the appearance of work and which forms its interior value, is not really intellectual but resides in emotion and the will. It follows from this that it is not co-ordinated with mental labour but rather is its basis. For at first the objective content of the intellectual process, the result separated off from the personality, the demand for reward is produced not in it but in the subjective function guided by the will that it embodies, the work effort, the expenditure of energy that it requires for the production of this intellectual content. In that an act of the soul is revealed to be the source of value not only from the standpoint of what is taken up but also of what is achieved, physical and ‘mental’ labour contain a common—one might say, morally—value grounding base through which the reduction of labour value as such to physical labour loses it philistine and brutal materialistic appearance. This is roughly the case with theoretical materialism which acquires a completely new and more seriously discussable basis if one emphasizes that matter itself is also a conception, not an essence which, outside us in the absolute sense, stands opposed to the soul but which in its cognizability is completely determined by the forms and presuppositions of our intellectual organization. (Simmel, PM 428)

Of course, with these reflections …Simmel is playing devil’s advocate, for he does not want to admit the reduction of labor to physical labor. Indeed there is also, according to him, a valueless labor that still requires an expenditure of energy. “This means, however, that the value of labor is measured not by its amount but by the utility of its result!” Simmel goes on to reproach Marx, as it appears, for confusing a statement of fact with a demand. He writes:

This demonstrates the fundamental connection between the labour theory of value and socialism, for socialism in fact strives for a constitution of society in which the utility value of objects, in relation to the labour time applied to them forms a constant. In the third volume of Capital, Marx argues that the precondition of all value, of the labour theory too, is use value. Yet this means that so many parts of the total social labour time are used in each product as come in relation to its importance in use. It thus presupposes a qualitative unified total societal need—accordingly, to the motto of the labour theory, that labour is indeed labour and as such is of equal value, is here added the further motto, that need is indeed need and as such of equal value—and the equivalence of utility for all labour is reached only in so far as only that amount of labour is performed in each sphere of production that exactly covers the part of each need that is circumscribed by it. On the basis of this presupposition of course no labour would be less useful than any other. For if one holds, for example, that today piano playing is a less useful task than locomotive construction, then the reason for this lies merely in the fact that more time has been applied to it than the real need subsequently required. If it were limited to the measure outlined here, then it would be just as valuable as locomotive construction —just as the latter would also be useless if one applied more time to it, that is built more locomotives than are subsequently needed. In other words, there is, in principle, no distinction in use value at all. For if a product momentarily possesses less use value than another (that is if the labour applied to the former is less valuable than that applied to the latter), then one can simply continue to reduce labour to its category, that is the quantity of its production, until the need for it is just as great as that of the other object, that is until the ‘industrial reserve army’ is completely wiped out. Only under these conditions can labour truly express the amount of value of a product.The essence of all money, however, is its unconditional interchangeability, the internal uniformity that makes each piece exchangeable for another, according to quantitative measures. For there to be labour money, labour must create this interchangeability, and this can occur only in the manner already described; that is, it creates exactly the same degree of utility and this, in turn, is attainable only by the reduction of labour for each production need to that amount by which the subsequent need is exactly as great as that of any other. Of course, in so doing the actual labour time could be valued still higher or lower. But now one would be certain that the higher value, derived from the greater utility of the product, indicated a proportionally more concentrated amount of labour per hour. Or conversely, it would be the case that as long as the hour partook of a higher value in the concentration of labour, it would also contain a higher amount of utility. However, this obviously presupposes a completely rationalized and providential economic order in which each labour activity regularly resulted from the absolute knowledge of needs and the labour requirements for each product—that is, an economic order such as socialism strives for. The approximation to this completely utopian state of affairs seems to be technically possible only if, as a whole, only the immediately essential, unquestionably basic life necessities are produced. For where this is exclusively the case, one work activity is of course precisely as necessary and as useful as the next. In contrast, however, as long as one moves into the higher spheres in which, on the one hand, need and estimation of utility are inevitably more individual and, on the other, the intensity of labour is more difficult to prove, no regulation of the amounts of production could bring about a situation in which the relationship between need and labour applied was everywhere the same. On these points, all the threads of the deliberations on socialism intertwine. At this point it is clear that the cultural danger with reference to labour money is in no way so direct as it is usually judged to be. Rather, it stems from technical difficulties in holding constant the utility of things, as its basis for evaluation in relation to labour and as its agent of value—a difficulty that increases in relation to the cultural level of the product and a difficulty whose avoidance, of course, must limit production to that of the most primitive, most essential and most average objects. (Simmel, PM 430-431)

With this critique, compare the counter-critique of this standpoint by Korsch, X9,1 (Benjamin, AP X6;X6a)

On the doctrine of value: …This in opposition to Simmel; compare X6a (Benjamin, AP X9,1)

The idea that there is an equality inherent in all kinds of labour, by which economists are entitled to regard qualitatively different kinds of labour such as the labour performed by the spinner, the weaver, the blacksmith, or the farm-hand, as quantitatively different portions of a total quantity of general “labour” is so little the discovery of a natural condition underlying the production and exchange of commodities, that this “equality” is, on the contrary, brought into existence by the social fact that under the conditions prevailing in present-day capitalist “commodity production” all labour products are produced as commodities for such exchange. In fact, this “equality” appears nowhere else than in the “value” of the commodities so produced and exchanged. The full development of the economic theory of labour value coincided with a stage of the historical development, when human labour had long ceased to be, as it were, “organically” connected with either the individual or with small productive communities and henceforth under the new bourgeois banner of Freedom of Trade, every particular kind of labour was treated as equivalent to every other particular kind of labour. It was just the advent of those particular historical conditions that was expressed by the classical economists when they traced back in an ever more consistent manner the “value” appearing in the exchange of commodities to the quantities of labour incorporated therein, though most of them actually believed that they had thus disclosed a truly “natural” law applying to every reasonable productive society formed by human beings when they have reached their age of maturity and enlightenment. There is, in spite of this vague idea of a “natural” equality lingering in the minds of some early bourgeois economists, no validity whatever in the naïve objection which now for almost a century has been raised against the objective theory of value by pointing to the real inequality of the various kinds of labour. Those well-meaning defenders of Marxism who, on the other hand, attempt to correct the apparent “flaw” in the Marxian doctrine of labour value by actually trying to represent the useful labour in every particular labour product as a strictly measurable quantity, merely present the sad picture of one who holds a sieve beneath the billy-goat while another keeps busy to milk him. According to Marx’s critical teaching, the natural difference of the various kinds of productive human labour is by no means wiped out by the fact (unquestionable in itself) that a major part of the differences in rank, presumably existing between many kinds of labour in present-day bourgeois society, rest on “mere illusions, or, to say the least, on differences, which have long ceased to be real and continue only by a social tradition.” The particular kinds of labour performed in the production of the various useful things are, according to Marx, by their very nature different, and just this difference is a necessary premise for the exchange of the labour products and the social division of labour brought about by it. Only on the basis of a qualitative division of labour arising spontaneously from the variety of social needs and the variety of kinds of useful labour performed to meet those needs, arises, by a further development, a possibility that this qualitative difference, for the purpose of an ever wider exchange, may gradually yield its place to the merely quantitative differences which the various kinds of labour possess as so many portions of the total quantity of the social labour expended in the production of all products consumed (or otherwise disposed of) at a given time within a given society. It is just this condition which has been first expressed theoretically by the “law of value” as formulated by the classical economists. Those minor followers in the wake of the great scientific founders of Political Economy, no longer accustomed to such audacity of scientific thought, who have later pathetically bewailed the “violent abstraction” by which the classical economists and Marxism, in tracing back the value relations of commodities to the amounts of labour incorporated therein, have “equated the unequal,” must be reminded of the fact that this “violent abstraction” does not result from the theoretical definitions of economic science, but from the real character of capitalist commodity production. The commodity is a born leveller. Over against this, it appears as a relatively unimportant fault in the construction of existing capitalist society that the theoretical principle of exchange of equal quantities of labour is no longer strictly realized in each single case but only, perhaps, on a rough average. (Korsch, Karl Marx, https://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1938/karl-marx/ch02.htm)

Notes: Benjamin is impressed by Simmel’s critique of value in the Philosophy of Money because Simmel’s critique is directed at (in an idealist, i.e. ethical and individualist, rather than materialist, i.e. economic and collectivist, form), and so reveals the limitations of, the bourgeois articulation of the theory of value evident in socialist formulations after 1848, including in the Gotha Program and aspects of the development of socialism in the Soviet Union. Simmel’s critique essentially concerns the limitations of the theory of value as it applies to what is now termed immaterial labour. To the extent the theory of value holds a conception of  value related to the magnitude of abstract labour, this is grounded in the equality of the use values of (primarily material) objects. The “technical difficulties in holding constant the utility of things,” however, is that this equality only applies to the production of “the immediately essential, unquestionably basic life necessities ..the most primitive, more essential and most average objects,” a difficulty that therefore increases “in relation to the cultural level of the product”. In relation to the notion of labour, Korsch’s materialist response to this view clarifies that Marx’s concept of abstract labour derives not from the violence of his theory but “the real character of capitalist commodity production”. In relation to the notion of use value, Marx was clear, in his critique of the Gotha Program, that use values derive both from human labour and from natural forces. Indeed, to the extent that labour is the manifestation of the natural force of human labour power (not a supernatural conception of human labour per se), all use values could be said to derive from nature). To disregard the relationship to nature and assign it a supernatural creative force permits an obscuring of how the ownership of the material conditions of labour (a relationship to natural forces) permits capitalism to “enslave” human labour to technology. Consequently, the Gotha Program regards those who do not work as living and acquiring culture only at the expense of the labour of others (i.e. of being idlers).  

The Bungled Reception of Technology

The conformism which has been part and parcel of Social Democracy from the beginning attaches not only to its political tactics but to its economic views as well. It is one reason for its later breakdown. Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current. It regarded technological developments as the fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving. From there it was but a step to the illusion that the factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted a political achievement. The old Protestant ethics of work was resurrected among German workers in secularized form. The Gotha Program already bears traces of this confusion, defining labor as “the source of all wealth and all culture.” Smelling a rat, Marx countered that:

Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. The above phrase is to be found in all children’s primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. But a socialist program cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to pass over in silence the conditions that lone give them meaning.  And insofar as man from the beginning behaves toward nature, the primary source of all instruments and subjects of labor, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labor becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth. The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission.

Let us now leave the sentence as it stands, or rather limps. What could one have expected in conclusion? Obviously this: “Since labor is the source of all wealth, no one in society can appropriate wealth except as the product of labor. Therefore, if he himself does not work, he lives by the labor of others and also acquires his culture at the expense of the labor of others.” Instead of this, by means of the verbal river “and since”, a proposition is added in order to draw a conclusion from this and not from the first one. (Marx, CGP https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/Marx_Critque_of_the_Gotha_Programme.pdf)

However, the confusion spread and soon thereafter Josef Dietzgen proclaimed: ”The savior of modern times is called work. The …improvement …of labor constitutes the wealth which is now able to accomplish what no redeemer has ever been able to do.” This vulgar-Marxist conception of the nature of labor bypasses the question of how its products might benefit the workers while still not being at their disposal. It recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society; it already displays the technocratic features later encountered in Fascism. Among these is a conception of nature which differs ominously from the one in the Socialist utopias before the 1848 revolution. The new conception of nature, which with naive complacency is contrasted with the exploitation of the proletariat. Compared with this positivistic conception, Fourier’s fantasies which have so often been ridiculed prove to be surprisingly sound. According to Fourier, as a result of efficient cooperative labour, four moons would illuminate the earthly night, the ice would recede from the poles, sea water would no longer taste salty, and beasts of prey would do man’s bidding. All this illustrates a kind of labor which, far from exploiting nature, is capable of delivering her of the creations which lies dormant in her womb as potentials. Nature, which, as Dietzgen puts it, “exists gratis,” is a complement to the corrupted conception of labor. (Benjamin, CH XI)

On the bungled reception of technology (Benjamin, AP X7a,1)

The tendency towards making final ends illusory appears less crass, but more dangerous and insidious, in the advances and evaluation of technology. If the relationship of technological achievements to the meaning of life is, at best, that of a means or an instrument or very often no relationship at all, then, from among the many causes of the failure to recognize technology’s role here, I only wish to mention the splendour that it has autonomously developed …this derives from the same old metaphysical mistake: to transfer the attributes that the elements of a whole possess in relation to each other to the whole …It will probably appear most strange to the enthusiasts of modern technology that their attitude is based on the same formal mistake as that of the speculative metaphysician. And yet such is the case: the relative height that the technical progress of our time has attained in comparison with earlier circumstances and on the basis of the recognition of certain goals is extended by them to an absolute significance of these goals and this progress. It is true that we now have acetylene and electrical light instead of oil lamps; but the enthusiasm for the progress achieved in lighting makes us sometimes forget that the essential thing is not the lighting itself but what becomes more fully visible. People’s ecstasy concerning the triumphs of the telegraph and telephone often makes them overlook the fact that what really matters is the value of what one has to say, and that, compared with this, the speed or slowness of the means of communication is often a concern that could attain its present status only by usurpation. The same is true in numerous other areas.This preponderance of means over ends finds its apotheosis in the fact that the peripheral in life, the things that lie outside its basic essence, have become masters of its centre and even of ourselves. Although it is true to say that we control nature to the extent that we serve it, this is correct in the traditional sense only for the outer forms of life. If we consider the totality of life, then the control of nature by technology is possible only at the price of being enslaved in it and by dispensing with spirituality as the central point of life. The illusions in this sphere are reflected quite clearly in the terminology that is used in it and in which a mode of thinking, proud of its objectivity and freedom from myth, discloses the direct opposite of these features. To state that we conquer or control nature is a very childish formulation since it presupposes some kind of resistance, a teleological element in nature itself, an animosity towards us. Yet nature is merely indifferent and its subjugation does not affect its own regularities. In contrast, all notions of domination and obedience, conquest and subjugation have a proper meaning only if an opposing will has been broken. This is merely the counterpart to the expression that the effectiveness of natural laws exerts an inescapable coercion upon things. In the first place, however, natural laws do not act at all since they are only formulae for the activity of specific materials and energies. The naivety of this misunderstanding of natural scientific methods—the assumption that natural laws direct reality as real forces just as a sovereign controls his empire —is on the same level as believing in God’s direct control over our earthly life. The alleged coercion, the necessity to which natural events are supposed to be subject, is no less misleading. But the human mind feels chained to laws under these categories only because stirrings that seek to lead us in another direction exist. Natural events as such are not subject to the alternatives of freedom and coercion, and the ‘must’ injects a dualism into the simple existence of things that only makes sense to the conscious mind. Although all this seems to be just a matter of terminology, it does lead astray those who think superficially in the direction of anthropomorphic misinterpretations and it does show that the mythological mode of thought is also at home within the natural scientific world view. This concept of human control over nature supports the self-flattering delusion of our relationship to nature which could be avoided, even on the basis of this comparison. Indeed, the objective picture certainly suggests a growing domination of nature by man; but this does not yet determine whether the subjective reflex, the psychic significance of this historical fact, cannot run in the opposite direction. One should not be misled by the tremendous amount of intelligence that created the theoretical foundations of modern technology and which, indeed, seems to put Plato’s dream of making science reign supreme over life into practice. Yet the thread by which technology weaves the energies and materials of nature into our life are just as easily to be seen as fetters that tie us down and make many things indispensable which could and even ought to be dispensed with as far as the essence of life is concerned. It has been asserted with reference to the sphere of production that the machine, which was supposed to relieve man from his slave labour in relation to nature, has itself forced him to become a slave to it. This is even more true of the more sophisticated and comprehensive internal relationships: the statement that we control nature by serving it implies the shocking obverse meaning that we serve it in so far as we dominate it. It is quite erroneous to believe that the significance and intellectual potential of modern life has been transferred from the form of the individual to that of the masses. Rather, it has been transferred to the form of the objects: it lives in the immense abundance, the marvellous expediency and the complicated precision of machines, products and the supra-individual organizations of contemporary culture. Correspondingly, the ‘revolt of the slaves’ that threatens to dethrone the autocracy and the normative independence of strong individuals is not the revolt of the masses, but the revolt of objects. Just as, on the one hand, we have become slaves of the production process, so, on the other, we have become the slaves of the products. That is, what nature offers us by means of technology is now a mastery over the self-reliance and the spiritual centre of life through endless habits, endless distractions and endless superficial needs. Thus, the domination of the means has taken possession not only of specific ends but of the very centre of ends, of the point at which all purposes converge and from which they originate as final purposes. Man has thereby become estranged from himself; an insuperable barrier of media, technical inventions, abilities and enjoyments has been erected between him and his most distinctive and essential being.There has never been an age in which such an emphasis on the intermediate aspects of life in contrast to its central and definite purposes was totally alien to that age. Rather, since man’s mind is completely focused upon the categories of ends and means, it is his lasting fate to oscillate between the contradictory demands of means and ends. The means always implies the internal difficulty of using a force and awareness that are not really meant for it but for something else. However, the meaning of life does not really lie in realizing the permanent reconciliation of conditions for which it strives. In fact, the vitality of our inner life may indeed depend upon the continuation of that contradiction, and the styles of life probably differ fundamentally in terms of the intensity of this contradiction, the preponderance of the one or the other side and the psychological form of either one. In the case of the present age, in which the preponderance of technology obviously signifies a predominance of clear intelligent consciousness, as a cause as well as an effect, I have emphasized that spirituality and contemplation, stunned by the clamorous splendour of the scientific-technological age, have to suffer for it by a faint sense of tension and vague longing. They feel as if the whole meaning of our existence were so remote that we are unable to locate it and are constantly in danger of moving away from rather than closer to it. (Simmel, PM 486-491)

It is the great distinction of Fourier that he wanted to open the way to a very different reception of technology. (Benjamin, AP X7a,1)

The subjects for these notations [of prehistoric magical practice] were humans and their environment, which were depicted according to the requirements of a society whose technology existed only in fusion with ritual. Compared to that of the machine age, of course, this technology was undeveloped. But from a dialectical standpoint, the disparity is unimportant. What matters is the way the orientation
and aims of that technology differ from those of ours. Whereas the former made the maximum possible use of human beings, the latter reduces their use to the minimum. The achievements of the first technology might be said to culminate in human sacrifice; those of the second, in the remote-controlled aircraft which needs no human crew. The of the first technology are valid once and for all (it deals with irreparable lapse or sacrificial death, which holds good for eternity). The results of the second are wholly provisional (it operates by means of experiments and endlessly varied test procedures), The origin the second technology lies at the point where, by an unconscious ruse, human beings first began to distance themselves from nature. It lies, in other words, in play. Seriousness and play, rigor and license, are mingled in every work of art, though in very different proportions. This implies that art is linked to both the second and the first technologies. It should be noted, however, that to describe the goal of the second technology as “mastery over nature” is highly questionable, since this implies viewing the second technology from the standpoint of the first. The first technology really sought to master nature, whereas the second aims rather at an interplay between nature and humanity. The primary social function of art today is to rehearse that interplay. This applies especially to film. The function of film is to train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily. Dealing with apparatus also teaches them that technology will release them from their enslavement to the powers of the apparatus only when humanity’s whole constitution has adapted itself to the new productive forces which the second technology has set free. The aim of revolutions is to accelerate this adaptation. Revolutions are innervations of the collective-or, more precisely, efforts at innervation on the part of the new, historically unique collective which has its organs in the new technology. This second technology is a system in which the mastering of elementary social forces is a precondition for playing [das Spiel] with natural forces. Just as a child who has learned to grasp stretches out its hand for the moon as it would for a ball, so humanity, in its efforts at innervation, sets its sights as much on currently utopian goals as on within reach. For in revolutions, it is not only the second technology which asserts its claims vis-a-vis society. Because this technology aims at liberating human beings from drudgery, the individual suddenly sees his scope for play, his field of action [Spielraum], immeasurably expanded. He does not yet know his way around this space. But already he registers his demands on it. For the more the collective makes the second technology its own, the more keenly individuals belonging to the collective feel how little they have received of what was due them under the dominion of the first technology. In other words, it is the individual liberated by the liquidation of the first technology who stakes his claim. No sooner has the second technology secured its initial revolutionary gains than vital questions affecting the individual-questions of love and death which had been buried by the first technology-once again press for solutions. Fourier’s work is the first historical evidence of this demand. (Benjamin, WA (2) 26)

The description of the labor process in its relation to nature will necessarily bear the imprint of its social structure as well. If the human being were not authentically exploited, we would be spared the inauthentic talk of an exploitation of nature. This talk reinforces the semblance of “value,” which accrues to raw materials only by virtue of an order of production founded on the exploitation of human labor. Were this exploitation to come to a halt, work, in turn, could no longer be characterized as the exploitation of nature by man. It would henceforth be conducted on the model of children’s play, which in Fourier forms the basis of the “impassioned work” of the Harmonians. To have instituted play as the canon of a labor no longer rooted in exploitation is one of the great merits of Fourier. Such work inspirited by play aims not at the propagation of values but at the amelioration of nature. For it, too, the Fourierist utopia furnishes a model, of a sort to be found realized in the games of children. It is the mage of an earth on which every place has become an inn. The double meaning of the word < Wirtschaft> blossoms here: all places are worked by human hands, made useful and beautiful thereby; all, however, stand, like a roadside inn, open to all. An earth that was cultivated according to such an mage would cease to be part of “a world where action is never the sister of dream.” [Baudelaire, “Le Reniement de Saint Pierre”, Complete Verse, 228] On that earth, the act would be kin to the dream. (Benjamin AP J75,2)

…the last war …was an attempt at new and unprecedented commingling with the cosmic powers. Human multitudes, gases, electrical forces were hurled into the open country, high-frequency currents coursed through the landscape, new constellations rose in the sky, aerial space and ocean depths thundered with propellers, and everywhere sacrificial shafts were dug in Mother Earth. This immense wooing of the cosmos was enacted for the first time on a planetary scale, that is, in the spirit of technology. But because the lust for profit of the ruling class sought satisfaction through it, technology betrayed man and turned the bridal bed into a bloodbath. The mastery of nature, so the imperialists teach, is the purpose of all technology. But who would trust a cane wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education? Is not education above all the indispensable ordering of the relationship between generations and therefore mastery, if we are to use this term, of that relationship and not of children? And likewise technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relation between nature and man. Men as a species completed their development thousands of years ago; but mankind as a species is just beginning his. In technology a physis is being organized through which mankind’s contact with the cosmos takes a new and different form from that which it had in nations and families. One need recall only the experience of velocities by virtue of which mankind is now preparing to embark on incalculable journeys into the interior of time, to encounter there rhythms from which the sick shall draw strength as they did earlier on high mountains or at Southern seas. The “Lunaparks” are a prefiguration of sanatoria. The paroxysm of genuine cosmic experience is not tied to that tiny fragment of nature that we are accustomed to call “Nature”. In the nights of annihilation of the last war the frame of mankind was shaken by a feeling that resembled the bliss of the epileptic. And the revolts that followed it were the first attempt of mankind to bring the new body under its control. The power of the proletariat is the measure of its convalescence. If it is not gripped to the very marrow by the discipline of this power, no pacifist polemics will save it. Living substance conquers the frenzy of destruction only in the ecstasy of procreation. (Benjamin, OWS 103-4)

Notes: It is unclear if Benjamin accepts or questions Marx’s insistence that “labour becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth” on the condition that humans behave as owners towards nature. He is, however, certainly critical of any technocratic reduction of progress to the “mastery of nature” rather than, say, the simultaneous redemption of both humanity and nature. He associates the former with a problematic conception of nature in the socialism of Josef Dietzgen and others after the revolutions of 1848, which, Benjamin implies, also informed the dialectical materialism of Leninism; he associates the latter with the utopian socialism of Charles Fourier and the early Marx, that holds a conception of “labour which, far from exploiting nature, is capable of delivering her of the creations which lies dormant in her womb as potentials”.  It is this problematic conception of nature that leads to a problematic conception of labour which is responsible for the “bungled reception of technology” in vulgar Marxism. Again, Benjamin turns to Simmel’s Philosophy of Money to articulate a critical conception of technology. The technocratic error lies, Simmel argues, in mistaking the progressive accomplishments of the technological means with those of the ends: “Although it is true to say that we control nature to the extent that we serve it, this is correct in the traditional sense only for the outer forms of life [i.e. objective processes]. If we consider the totality of life [i.e. the interweaving of objective and subjective processes], then the control of nature by technology is possible only at the price of being enslaved in it and by dispensing with spirituality as the central point of life.” A belief in the technological “mastery of nature” by humanity reveals how a “mythological mode of thought is also at home within the natural scientific world view,” to the extent that it anthropological conceives of nature as intentionally resisting our control, when it is entirely indifferent to our attempts at subjugation and so can be said to neither succumb nor resist. Nietzsche was therefore wrong to speak of a slave revolt of morality in terms of the revolt of the masses against the individual, Simmel suggests. Rather, modernity is characterized by a revolt of the object and an enslavement of human spirituality to machines and their products: the pursuit of the mediating function of means itself rather than the human ends pursued. “What nature offers us by means of technology is now a mastery over the self-reliance and the spiritual centre of life through endless habits, endless distractions and endless superficial needs …Man has therefore become estranged from himself”. The development of this false conception of nature-labour-technology leads to imperialism and fascism. In One-Way Street, Benjamin provides a pictorial expression of this slave revolt of technology: the First World War was an “immense wooing of the cosmos …enacted for the first time on a planetary scale …in the spirit of technology” in which “technology betrayed humanity and turned the bridal bed into a blood bath”. 

The conception of technology as “the mastery of nature,” Benjamin argues, belongs to the mythical practice of a “first technology” fused with ritual and concerned with the maximum possible use of human beings. In opposition to this an alternative conception of “second technology” as the indispensable ordering or interplay of the relationship between nature and humanity: “the aim of revolution is to accelerate” the adaptation of the new collective corporeality of the masses to the productive forces which technology has the potential to liberate. Second technology leads to a conception of labour no longer characterized in terms of the mastery of nature and founded instead on its amelioration. Such revolutionary innervations of the masses – a slave revolt of the masses in solidarity with objects – where first demonstrated in the general strikes in Germany in the 1920s: such revolutions (and specifically their refusal of exploited work not as a means to improve the conditions of exploitation but as the practice of non-exploited work itself) hinted as the transformation not merely of society but of nature, including human nature, itself. As Klossowski, the translator of the French version of Benjamin’s work of art essay recalls, Benjamin’s interest in Fourier’s utopian socialism was directed towards a “liberated industrial production, [which] instead of subjugating affectivity, would allows its forms to flourish and organise its exchange, in the sense that work would be made the ally of avid desires, and would cease to be the punitive recompense for having them” permitting the “reorganisation of society in terms of affective classes.” 

The latter returns us to Benjamin’s interest in Simmel’s critique of the limitations of the theory of value: a defense of immaterial, and specifically affective, labour; a defence of unproductive labour, to the extent productivity is restricted to a narrow conception of socially necessary use values; a reorganisation of social labour beyond a “workerist” ethic of production; a conception of a collective technological relationship to nature that emancipates rather than enslaves humanity, including the liberation of current physiological limitations pertaining to human bodily nature, including birth, love and death. 

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One thought on “Benjamin on Simmel’s critique of the theory of value

  1. Pingback: The Blue Flower in the Land of .edu: Automation, Education, Augmentation | Pedagogy & the Inhumanities

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