Question details: Yanis Varoufakis said in his article “How I became an erratic Marxist"
"If workers and employers ever succeed in commodifying labour fully, capitalism will perish."
What does he mean by that?
Thanks for the A2A. First off, that’s a great article that I hope more people will read. Second, I think Justin Schwartz hit on some key considerations. Third, I’ll offer some additional thoughts….
We might assume that Varoufakis is referring to the vast historical arc of Marx’s historical materialism, as outlined in Das Kapital, that ultimately results in the collapse of capitalism. But there are some specific themes in Marx’s thought that Varoufakis touches upon, and which in and of themselves might account for Varoufakis’s statement.
For example, one theme Marx offers is that capitalism tends to convert all that is, in reality, about human relationships and interactions into some sort of monetary exchange value, and that this is an inherently bad thing, especially when it ignores (or devalues) the inherent, qualitative importance of those relationships and interactions in more human terms. If I say “I love you” to my wife, and in her mind that equates an expectation of material demonstration in the form of payment, goods, services, etc., then such expectation tends to undermine the intrinsic value of love and its importance in our non-material bond. In the same way, a trusting friendship can be replaced with money, in that I will only have expectations of you if I pay you, and you will only feel obligations to me if your are paid. So these are examples of commodification that are inherently destructive to human social relations (a conclusion which is obvious to anyone with emotional intelligence, but less so to someone who lacks it).
So what Varoufakis may be alluding to is that one of the most important “non-material” contributions of labor is what we might call creativity: the ability to add value (be it aesthetically or in terms of utility) to some raw material, which is a pretty amazing quality of human behavior. And in the same sense that we can’t quantify or commodify love or trust, we really can’t quantify or commodify that natural, unpredictable, inspirational creativity either. This isn’t entirely ignored in capitalism, where someone might pay millions for a Vermeer; there is an element of what Marx called “fetishism” involved here, to be sure, but there is also a very reasonable awe invoked by Vermeer’s profound and rare talent, and a consequent attempt to quantify what simply cannot be captured. Thus there is really no upper limit to such capture efforts, which is why such creations are effectively “priceless.” Sometimes this valuation is tied mainly to scarcity…but that’s simply not the whole picture (or painting in this case).
So if all labor (that is, all potential qualitative contributions that labor enables) were completely commodified by employers and employees in the sense described, then the very qualities that add value to goods and services will be completely excised. Take love out of a marriage, and what do you have? Take trust out of a friendship, and what do you have? Take creativity out of the means of production, and what do you have? This could be what Varoufakis means when he says “capitalism will perish.” That special human ingredient that fuels the capitalist enterprise and generates value (and ultimately profit) will be extinguished through the commoditization of all labor…so how could capitalism continue?
But this is just one take. Varoufakis could also just be alluding to the complete alienation of labor through its treatment as mechanized, tedious, robotically monotonous production by capitalists…another important theme in Marx. Or he could be referring to Marx’s predictions about the consequences of monopolies and an increasingly centralized means of production (and concentration of capital), which in turn prod the steadily impoverished masses into open revolt. Or he could be referring to all of these things….
My 2 cents.
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