Critique of the Given and its Other: Surplus Value and Underground Economies

[In the process of forming my reading lists for the qualifying exam, I’ve been led to multiple reflections and, as is to be expected, multiple drafts. I have since moved away from geopolitical economy, becoming more conscious of and interested in, for lack of a better word, the overwhelming power of the established order, what with what takes place on a daily basis and the broken promises of time. Below is a piece of writing I produced last spring trying to articulate the issue. The second half is really an attempt to work out more the analysis of surplus value I worked on as an MA student. This serves as a starting point, by no means the final statement, as I try, once again, to come up with fields of study and a project.]

The goal of the project is to configure an Other to the given, with both terms being subjected to critique. The given is known by many names: the State, hegemony, capitalism, empire (colonialism/imperialism), patriarchy, society, Power. All of these terms have as their abstract referent the state of things, each emphasizing different axes of power designed to establish, legitimate, and maintain the way things are. The first step, then, to configuring an Other is to figure out the given. The names explain to some extent, but, more importantly, they need to be explained, to be complicated and problematized from their existing articulations. It is no longer enough to point to one of the names and say that it is the problem; such determinism fails to capture the complexity of given conditions as they historically exist. The task, rather, is to look at the interplay of the axes and ask: What given results, and how does it work? What form is taken by the given, and with what corresponding economy of power (political), desire (libidinal), subjectivation (psychic), and creativity (cultural)? What are its potencies/effects, its symptoms/expressions, its hidden presuppositions?

The Other is a response, not necessarily an answer, to historical conditions. As such, it is necessarily double, simultaneously breaking free from and belonging to the established order, in a word, organic. Just as other ways of “being/living/ordering” provide insights about the given, the Other being what is made impossible, and thus always on the horizon, or actualized, either subversively or complicitly, unwittingly or deceitfully, in the margins of or attempted to be repressed, oppressed, or appropriated by the order, so is the Other ambivalent, i.e. possessed of a double valence: it is both within yet relegated to the outside, repressed/denied yet foundational, different yet (secretly) aspiring to be the same, radical in its outlook yet complicit in other ways, blunted in its subversiveness, yet, whether it intends to or not, by the simple nature of its existence, is subversive nonetheless. In contrast to revolution, which connotes something idealized/envisioned (by dislocation) outside of or (by purist exclusion) completely Other than what is, if not appropriated as the self-revolutionizing capacities of the dominant, the Other is a complication of or contradiction in the given, simultaneously referring to something Other (“If it were otherwise …”) and signaling a short circuit (“You have to do this. Otherwise …”).

In contrast to fomenting revolution, in what does “doing things Otherwise” consist? Rather than downright and uncompromising rejection of the given and the placement of oneself in a detached critical position (with positions assumed to be pure, absolute, and mutually exclusive), doing things Otherwise calls for an embedding into the given, not only because one is already there, but in order, as one is drained by it, to penetrate the system, to take part in what it has to offer, the better to understand how it works. This insertion into what subjects does not necessarily mean that one subscribes to or complies with it completely (even though there may be things about it that may be enjoyed), although of course there is always the danger that as you penetrate it, it inhabits you. The point is not to valorize, but rather to study the negotiations called for by this arguably equally critical stance that calls for chameleon-like, versatile, and split subjects.

Rather than direct confrontation, this Other stance necessarily involves denial. More precisely, “doing things Otherwise” involves a denial of certain things for the moment, a partial, temporary denial, as it were, of the external about which there is nothing one can do right now, which may imply a denial about one’s internal abilities, desires, complicities … In being denied, this external that overpowers and makes impotent, disappoints and disillusions, is displaced on the horizon, but without forgetting, with another part of the mind aware, that such a horizon looms, unjust and dangerous. Denial, perhaps even co-optation, in the present is nonetheless chosen in order, against despair and paralysis, to continue to function, not so much to contribute to the operations of the given as to empower oneself against it, if by using the its own tools, if by educating oneself in it. In a way, denial is the deferral of the struggle or the resorting to indirect, ironic subversions due to the incommensurability of forces. Denial, however, is also a coping mechanism, something that enables going on, a survival tactic. Denial is inevitably bound by its own limits. The moment inevitably comes when denial breaks down, when manic activities become inadequate to distract from impossibility and lack. At this point, the subject may be unable to regress at the same time that there is (still) no moving on. It is also possible that what was previously not given is (potentially) given. This, however, may only lead to further crises, given the loss of certainty, if only about one’s position regarding what was/is not given, its desirability in the first place.


Marx’s argument that surplus value—capital accumulating more and more (of labor) into itself—rather than mutual exchange between equal partners, is the underlying motivation or presupposition driving the economy (the picture of equality and freedom rather than exploitation and domination made possible by the assumption of the capitalist’s point of view) would imply that the workings and origins of things considered, reified as, “economic” can be gleaned by examining values that supposedly exceed, but which are intimately intricated with, the economy. What are these values? If economic value emerging as surplus (profit; according to Marx, labor appropriated as capital) is the foundation of the economy supposedly characterized by (equal) exchange, could it be that there are values based on or effected by the political economy that are not limited to calculation (of self-interest), (practical) reason, or the work relation, i.e. values that are not only the surplus of (resultant excess) but are surplus to (something that exceeds/precedes) the economic?

What, for that matter, is value? How is value constituted? Are values based on the political economy, or has the economy appropriated, in a political way, values originally not economic and made them the basis of economic value, which then becomes the standard of measure, thought of as the basis of other or “surplus” values from which it, in fact, derived? In any case, it would seem that there is (an abstract form of) value that precedes concrete values (e.g. economic value, other/surplus values). If value is defined as an expression of relations (something that arises from a particular context, from the dynamic between elements in a system), how do subjects come to value relations, inevitably investing them differently, some more significantly than others? Is value constituted only from economic relations, or is the economy itself created by values constituted in other types of relations, perhaps “cultural” ones? What values does the economy create (both economic and, more broadly, “cultural”) and what (cultural?) values create the economy (as such)? Could it be that values are not so much economically determined as they are culturally/ideologically constructed, separate from the material economy before they are imposed as economic?

This extension of Marx’s analysis, the generalization of the notion of surplus from economic excess invested repeatedly to keep the system going to the process of value creation itself that exceeds and founds the economy in a moment of dislocation, would seem to imply that the political foundation of the economy is, in fact, not economic narrowly speaking at the same time that cultural/ideological construction itself works like an economy (by which is meant the ways in which material scarcity, real and imagined, leads to some kind of system or regime, a certain way of working with desired materials that claims to be efficient [minimum cost] and effective [maximum effect] or to have some acceptable purpose). This necessarily shakes the supposedly determinant and one-way relation between the (economic) base and the (cultural/ideological) superstructure, turning the depth metaphor into a flat ontology in which the “economic” and the “ideological/cultural” mutually and, amidst conflicts, construct each other, in that process constituting value. The tentative thesis is that value is constituted over and above—i.e. as a surplus to (e.g. by means of some primal exploitation, primitive accumulation, i.e. a political struggle)—the economy, this surplus (like the seemingly self-augmenting abilities of capital) then, via cultural/ideological investment in this value, bestowing this economy its legitimacy, in a process that is then forgotten and covered over, a foundational process that itself works like an economy (but which precedes the economy narrowly speaking), more precisely, an underground economy.

This makes apparent that underground economies commonly conceived (e.g. illegal, criminal, or informal economies), economies not officially recorded, acknowledged, or endorsed, and often much maligned, economies working under the radar because their modes of behavior are unrecognizable in the given regime, this non-recognition often benefitting them (tax evasion, ability to establish their own laws), are not deviants or foreign, but may just be, as perverse illegitimate offsprings, dramatic magnifications of how the state economy works, especially at its root. This likewise ties the economy to relations that are not economic narrowly speaking, but which, as Freud describes of the psyche, work according to some “economic” logic (they are sometimes even referred to as “economies,” e.g. psychic/libidinal economy, symbolic economy), if in slanted, hidden, or unconscious, in their own way, underground, fashion.

Two particular relations or (conceptual, material) actualizations of value that do not correspond to or abide by the notion of free, mutual, and equal exchange—the equal sign of the cash nexus—are of special interest because of their ambivalence, i.e. their contradictory subversive and legitimating effects on the given, and their seemingly foundational role in social formation:

(1) Risk: capitalist counterpart of labor (labor works, capital takes risk) that supposedly justifies reaping/appropriation of profit as well as the focal point of capital’s newer strategies to maximize profit, yet the notion also implies an act/leap beyond calculation/compensation/reason, beyond political economy?

(2). Debt: labor’s counterpart of investment, i.e. where capital provides funds, labor is in debt, this indebtedness itself providing the space for new capital investment?; obligatory foundation that keeps subjects in the relation (indebted, so have no choice but to work in the system), yet could also be non-quantitative (e.g. notion of gratitude) and unveils/unravels supposedly foundational role of exchange, begging the question: Is the economy really founded on exchange or is it held together by the political imposition of debt? If politically imposed, is debt justified, i.e. should subjects in fact accept and take it on? If not, will the system still be held together, and according to what principles?

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