Sections of this piece are drawn from conversations with Niki Haringsma, whose forthcoming Black Archive on ‘Love & Monsters’ is really good. Don’t blame her for this though, for god’s sake.
The style/substance dichotomy is, of course, false. Most dichotomies are, when you dig deeply enough. The thing is: dichotomies are also real. Even false dichotomies are real. Our world – bourgeois society, the capitalist epoch – is made of ‘real false dichotomies’. The most fundamental dichotomies in our society – capitalist and worker; use value and exchange value – are both real, in the sense of having real material effects, and also unreal, insane, hallucinatory. Capitalism is the rule of abstraction. It is concrete human existence tyrannised by the slippery, the spectral, the notional.
For Marx, when things are produced as commodities they are no longer just ‘use values’ but now have the divided nature of also being ‘exchange values’. Use values are useful, sensual, material, human. Exchange value is abstract, useless outside the profit system, and has no use beyond the self-expansion of value. That’s capitalism. That’s the root of ‘profit for profit’s sake’. Marx sees labour, and thus production, as fundamental to human life and society (our conscious, constructive, creative, social activity is what marks us out among animals). So production that is geared towards exchange value is inhuman. Self-expansion of value (capitalism) thus perverts human creative and social powers into perpetuating an alien system, which expands by feeding on those powers. This is alienation.
This is actually at the root of Marx’s critique of capitalism: that it subjects real and sensuous human life to the domination of phantasmic things like exchange value, the force that renders all actual human effort nothing more than abstract and homogeneous labour. Exchange value – loosely, price – is determined by ‘socially necessary labour time’, i.e. the average amount of time it takes to make things, or perform services, etc, given the average level of productivity in society. This is because capitalism organises production for profit, and labour that falls outside ‘socially necessary labour time’ is unprofitable – because it costs money but does not make money. This is because the worker whose low productivity meant that their work fell outside the ‘socially necessary labour time’ would – by definition – be being paid for time above the average amount of time necessary, and hence the price of her labour is raised, and hence the profits when her work is sold are reduced. This is why no ordinary worker is allowed to get away with such things. This is why the supervisor times your bathroom breaks. In capitalism, labour that is ‘particular’ or ‘specific’ has no value in itself, because it produces only use-values (i.e. useful things), and they are not profitable in themselves – not to capitalism anyway. A table is useless to capitalism unless it is a profitable table. (This is why capitalism doesn’t make things that are not directly profitable except when forced to, or when it realises that it is in its longer term interest so to do – in which case it generally gets the state, i.e.…