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The Problem

Michael Taussig, The Magic of the State:

Money, says Karl Marx, serves in capitalism as the universal equivalent of value, and value is congealed labor power.

What is this value, this congealed labor power?

At times you can read Marx and the other great economists of his era (when philosophers of that changing world worried about such things as "value") as if they were searching for the lodestone, the "Fort Knox" of value, and, determined that this quintessence resides in "labor."

But the value of labor?

Well, that resides in . . . the value of the commodities required to reproduce labor!

Once more the circle, the Great Wheel rumbling, and again the figure of the prince intervenes to remind us that "labor" is not only a power like horse-power or a natural substance to be bought and sold like gasoline but also and always a matter of command and submission, a matter of control over the bodily and creative power of another human being — albeit effected not through politics per se, not through slavery or serfdom or family, but through "freedom of the market," the freedom that was fought for in the founding violence against the mercantilism of the colonial power so as to open up trade worldwide and establish the civil rights of citizenry in place of castes and slavery. It was one of the intellectual triumphs of Marxism to have investigated how the person was translated into the worker and how the worker was translated by market culture into a reified object of labor and how therefore command over persons is effected through the anonymity of market mechanisms, how cruetly and exploitation and all manner of degradations and glory were effected through the language of numbers, efficiency, and substances. But what seem to have often been lost from sight in tracing this move from the literality of personhood to the abstraction of number and thinghood are both the original impulse to investigate the conditions for human freedom and the recognition that the reified notion of "labor" was precisely a mechanism for control over persons and bodies.

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Value, therefore, even and especially in the state of freedom created by the self-regulating market, is ultimately command over labor by means of command over people as things.